Ha Ninh Pham
HA NINH PHAM
About the Artist
I am from Hanoi, Vietnam and I came to the US three years ago for school. I graduated from the Vietnam University of the Fine Arts in 2014 and Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 2018. I do drawing and sometimes sculptures. My work relates to my experience of adapting myself to different environments around me.
with Joe Brommel, April 2019
In the pre-interview questions I sent along, you talked about your work as that “you create imaginary landscapes that you can inhabit.” So I first wanted to ask what in particular draws you to imaginary landscapes?
I was trained as a figurative painter in Vietnam, but I came to the United States for grad school. And in my two years in grad school I felt really isolated. I tried my best to adapt to the culture, but I was scared of being too far away on my own. So I decided to go back to Vietnam in the summer, but when I got there it was like a reverse cultural shock. I feel like no matter where I go, it's really hard for me to find a place that I feel really connected to, because everything is always changing so quickly.
So I thought that I could feel more calm in my mind, in my soul, if I could create a space that doesn’t change, that is stable. It’s a balance for my life — it's imaginary, but it's always there for me, you know?
What role, if any, does math play in your work? I keep thinking about this bracket-like structure I keep seeing in your imaginary landscapes and in your work in general.
I'm actually not good at math, but I like it because it is considered as a universal idea. Some people believe that mathematics is the only thing that is true no matter the culture, no matter what universe we are in.
It's one more it's another constant in a world where there's not very many constants.
Yes. I'm trying to bring people out of their personal experiences. Let's say you speak English — I don't use any English [in my work] so that I remove you from your personal experience. But I have to give you something for you to be able to accept the work. So I try to use scientific or mathematical systems because they’re tools to let people in the work.
Somewhat similarly, your upcoming solo show in New York is titled Cheat Codes — which obviously calls video games to mind. Do video games influence your conception of imaginative space as well?
I was 10 or 11 when I started art, but the art I studied [in Vietnam] was socialist realism, which was sort of boring to me. But my father was actually among the people who brought the internet to the country in 1997, so I had access to it at a quite early age, and I played video games for long hours. So video games and artificial space were part of my early visual exposure.
And then when I came to the United States, I remember my first year here I couldn't really understand the lectures, and I couldn’t call home often because there's a 12-hour time difference between Vietnam and here. So because I didn’t feel connected with the environment around me, I played video games as something that recalled my past.
I mean, I don't play video games like normal people do. A lot of people play video games for fun, but I play video games to feel powerful. In games that I'm not good at, I try to find a way to play them in cheat mode to feel like I'm good at it. That's the reason why I named the exhibition Cheat Codes, because that's something to do with my practice as well: I design the system and I play the system. It’s cheating, basically.
It’s a good way to see the way I think about power. I think about power as something that is personal, but I try to answer real questions as well. So there's a contradiction in my system, because I have questions, but at the same time I give myself the answers. I design everything, and I answer everything. And I feel good doing it that way.
I really like that. A lot of artwork or theory tries to talk about power in a wider context, which is often useful, but I think it's valuable to talk about how that plays out internally as well. In the case of your work, if they’re receptive to that imaginary space, then they can say, “alright, what would my imaginary space look like? What would a domain where I have power look like?”
Yes. I really like the way you articulate that. A lot of the thoughts about ethics and power in my work are really just based on me trying to address my own personality, rather than trying to address a larger context. By making an imagined world, I can guide myself through a lot of different ways of making an ethical decision that I have inherited from the environments I've been through.
It's very specific. I always have a very clear story about each structure that I make. I don’t expect the viewer to understand them, but it matters to me, because making a narrative to guide the project is as important as the visual presentation. A lot of the things that I think about are based on stories before I try to visualize them. Every work that you see from the project is about one single land, so the project is named My Land. It's a suspended land that has four horizons, and it exists outside of the perception of time.
Can you talk about that in the context of the piece you worked on in Wassaic, E4.2 [Institute of Volume]?
The piece I made in Wassaic is more of a detail. It works like Google Maps — the [mothermap] is level zero, and if you click zoom in you'll find him the Institute of Volume. I name each drawing after the location, so the Institute of Volume is at E4.
I want to ask about your practice as sculptor as well. Conceiving of or inhabiting an imaginary space is relatively easy on a 2D canvas, but can you talk about how you make that transition out into a sculptural space? What stays the same? What is different? I'm looking at your B5.1 T [theodolite] right now, for reference.
Yeah, working on a flat surface there’s some paradoxical quality that I can never create in the real world. You can create a triangle with three square corners, for example. But when you're working with sculpture it's really hard to do that. So I think about the paradoxical personality of my sculptures. The sculptures that I make are all functional, but they don’t function in this world.
For example, the theodolites are actually functional: you put a digital camera in the back of each theodolite, and inside they have some glass that projects the image on tracing paper. From three theodolites it creates a three-channel video, and based on that video I reconstruct the movement as a structure in the land. I used it in a previous residency when people played soccer — I tracked the movement of the ball and used that movement to draw a structure in the land.
Studio by Jeff Barnett-Winsby