Thao Nguyen Phan review – Vietnamese artist has created a lyric poem in moving images that explores colonisation, consumption and the rhythms of nature

This article was first published in The Guardian

Thao Nguyen Phan’s Becoming Alluvium opens with sound: an outboard motor puttering in the dark. The tea-brown, silt-clouded water of the Mekong appears, gliding beneath the prow of a little boat. Lines from the great poet Rabindranath Tagore’s The Gardener lap the screen, concluding: “Why did the harp-string break? I tried to force a note that was beyond its power. That is why the harp-string is broken.”

Installation view of Becoming Alluvium by Thao Nguyen Phan. Photograph: Andy Keate

Installation view of Becoming Alluvium by Thao Nguyen Phan. Photograph: Andy Keate

Becoming Alluvium is a lyric poem in moving images that echoes the mythic passion of Tagore’s verse, its varying rhythms and its themes of love, care and oneness with the natural world. At the heart of Phan’s short film is the Mekong River, the waterway flowing from Tibet through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia before meeting the sea in southern Vietnam.

The Mekong is the broken harp string, the thread forced beyond its power. A mighty river that has sustained life for millennia, now polluted by pesticides, factory runoff and vehicle fumes; mined for sand and drained for irrigation; dammed and over-fished.

Becoming Alluvium travels through three episodes or parables, linked by the Mekong and by the theme of reincarnation. Our guides through these stories are two boys drowned in the flood from a dam. One is reincarnated as a water hyacinth, the other as an Irrawaddy dolphin.

Gliding downstream to an open expanse of water, with land barely visible on either side, the first “reincarnation” is the river seen through the eyes of a French woman of the colonial era. We hear Marguerite Duras in The Lover, on a ferry crossing in French Indochina, describing the climate, the boat, the surrounding voices with an exoticising European eye. We see the Mekong of today, providing electricity, transport, food and connection to the world beyond.

The second reincarnation comes in the cycle of consumption and ejection, between the alluring excess of the marketplaces in cities along the Mekong and the mountains of waste that lie on the river’s banks. Beautiful dragons and turtles sculpted in fruit gape from a shrine-like display, families sit eating picnics out of plastic bags, kids play on the water in a giant inflatable ball: this is the river as site of leisure and entertainment.

A passage from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities describes the novelty-obsessed city of Leonia, in which citizens sleep nightly in fresh sheets and leave the goods of yesterday out in bags for the venerated rubbish collectors who transport them out of town: “So you begin to wonder if Leonia’s true passion is really, as they say, the enjoyment of new and different things, and not, instead, the joy of expelling, discarding, cleansing itself of a recurrent impurity.” The river has washed up plastic shoes and bags, scattering the banks with debris. A figure picks through a mountain of rubbish, searching for anything he can salvage.

For the third reincarnation, Phan turns to animation: watercolour drawings over prints of 19th-century French explorers with mutton-chop whiskers and walrus moustaches. Phan’s painted characters have the grace of fairytale illustrations, but are headless. Between each episode in the story, the coloured drawings melt away to reveal a monochrome scene beneath. Engravings show European explorers and their aristocratic hosts reclining in splendour, attended by servants crawling on all fours: like the river itself, the people are the overlooked force powering everything along.

Just as the harp string breaks when pushed to play an unreachable note, this fable tells of an impossible request: a princess who demands jewels made from monsoon dew. Her father orders jewellers to satisfy the princess’s request, on threat of beheading. Eventually a monk reveals the folly of her demand, and the shamed princess becomes one with the water of the Mekong. Of no more status than silt carried in the fast-moving river, as we too will someday be, she is becoming alluvium, the rich deposits of mud from which new life will spring.

Phan’s film-making is elegant and unforced, drawing together strands from across cultures and times. Two painted works are installed in the gallery. In the first, a lacquered and silver-leafed frame standing on the floor carries six watercolour paintings on silk extending the environmental fables of the film – a boy caring for a beached Irrawaddy dolphin, young pioneers spraying insecticide. The other work, mounted on the wall, is a lacquered and gold-leafed tablet. What serves as the frame for one work becomes the picture in the other. There is no river separate from its banks.

Thao Nguyen Phan: Becoming Alluvium is at Chisenhale Gallery, London, until 6 December.