What happens when revolutionary rhetoric gets stripped of its radical intention? This is a core question for visual artist Diane Severin Nguyen’s solo exhibition IF REVOLUTION IS A SICKNESS, on view now at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. The exhibition is a collaborative effort by The Renaissance Society in Chicago and the SculptureCenter in New York, with CAMH as its third and final stop.
Nguyen, who works primarily with photography and image-based techniques, is clearly fascinated by the transformative power of the lens. The museum’s main gallery is bathed in an immersive red light and accentuated by a soft red sea of carpet. Placed at the top of the room is a nearly 20-foot projector screen nestled within a large, curtained stage that resembles the inside of a school auditorium.
The show orbits around an 18-minute video with a loose narrative about a fictional young Vietnamese orphan who washes ashore in Warsaw, Poland. She navigates the unfamiliar environment on her own but eventually finds community among a K-Pop-inspired group of teenage dancers. Together, they perform at various public sites in Poland, like the Jewish Cemetery and the Palace of Science and Culture, donned in Communist red and yellow. The video is a visually stirring coming-of-age story with a unique perspective on transnationalism and history.
Nguyen shot on-site in Poland during a two-month residency in 2021, where she worked to find a cast of talented teenagers, including the short film’s main character, a high schooler named Weronika Nguyen, who she found randomly via an Instagram search. The result is an intimate, cinematic portrait that’s expertly choreographed and edited. Because Poland has a massive Vietnamese population due to migration and the Vietnam War, and Texas is home to the second largest population of Vietnamese people in the U.S. after California, the exhibition's Houston debut has a solid local resonance.
Nguyen’s affinity for both light—she works primarily with photography and image-based processes—and architecture shine through in CAMH’s presentation of the show. In addition to the video installation, the exhibition includes a series of photographs and architectural experiments peppered throughout the museum’s main gallery. (In January 2023, keep your eyes peeled for a public art commission that will take the form of a billboard along the Southwest freeway in Midtown.)