The title of Michelle Nguyen's solo exhibition refers to the mythological figure Proteus, a god capable of assuming many forms. From his shapeshifting abilities comes the adjective “Protean”, meaning "mutable" or "versatile", which has positive connotations of flexibility and adaptability. The concept of shapeshifting is central to Nguyen’s production. This new collection of works investigates how change pervades every sphere of our existence, with each artwork touching upon a specific area: from the ambivalent nature of grief, to the evolution of cultural beliefs, through the study of morphing creatures, both mystical and natural, to the constant transformation of our own identity.
Rejecting the notion of static, monolithic reality, Nguyen believes that all things, visible, palpable, and abstract, are connected to each other and as such mutation and metamorphosis are profoundly human experiences.Nguyen weaves the idea of personal transformation throughout her oeuvre, investigating how our individuality is not unchanging or grounded in a perpetual true self, but is instead invested in a state of flux. The lack of human faces throughout the series prompts the viewer to challenge the idea of pint-pointable identity as perceived by others. As an Asian woman, Nguyen in fact often feels bound by the preconceived notions that those around her bring, often in conjunction with prejudice and bias. In ‘Ode to Proteus’ Nguyen explores how, as humans, we constantly shed our metaphorical skin and leave behind older versions of ourselves.
In the words of the Buddhist author Breeshia Wade: “With each moment, the person who we are is dying to make room for the person we are becoming” (Grieving while Black). We constantly experience what Nguyen defines as ‘little deaths’, followed by new versions of ourselves.
The subsequent exploration of death and mourning are also central motifs in Nguyen’s oeuvre, and her works often act as a "modern memento mori," in an attempt to engage viewers more fully with the notion of grief. The artist’s aim is to encourage a dialogue around human mortality, in the belief that there is restorative value in holding space for mourning. If we are to understand that grief is not static, but a continuous and ever-changing process that accompanies our daily life, we can better appreciate Nguyen’s idea that humans encounter death in a variety of different contexts.
For instance, we can see in works such as ‘Altar for Hungry Ghosts’ how Nguyen explores personal experiences of death and mourning by the use of her own roots and family history. Yet, through works like ‘Smokescreen’ and 'Flooded Fountain', Nguyen also addresses the wider understanding of ecological grief. This state of mourning is specific to our contemporary human condition, characterised by the despair of the loss of our natural environment and way of life due to climate change.
Throughout this series, Nguyen creates a poignant dialogue between life and death, destruction and regeneration, which at times seem to morph into one another and are always in the act of change.
Nguyen's work also addresses themes of intergenerational trauma, historical erasure, and ecological grief. The artist's aim is to encourage a dialogue around human mortality in the belief that there is a restorative value in holding space for mourning; a rather relevant topic in modern times. The artist has recently exhibited in Vancouver, London, New York and Paris.