A public garden & cultural center

Tammy Nguyen

Call & Response | September 10–December 3, 2017

Pictured above: When the Saints Who March In, 2017, wood, metal, paper, paint, fabric, found sculptures, 18 x 14 x 7 inches (closed); 18 x 56 x 7 inches (open). Courtesy of the artist and Wave Hill. Photo: Stefan Hagen.

Tammy Nguyen’s story box illustrates the morphologies of plants that U.S. Customs has deemed may enter and exit our borders without inspection. The piece is inspired by two types of collecting boxes. Cabinets of curiosity originated in England and contained collections of small objects relating to natural history. Kavad boxes, which originated in India, are three-dimensional story boxes that depict narratives through painting and sculpture, and are activated by a storyteller. Nguyen draws from these two traditions to underscore the colonialism implicit in our understanding of natural history. She writes a script to be performed for storytelling, describing the plants as a tribe of nationless organisms free to travel and reside anywhere.

Hermes, the Epiphytes
Sunroom Project Space | September 6–October 12, 2014
Van Lier Visual Artist Fellow 

Bromelia Neoregelia, 2014, hand-bound artist book: cut paper, ink, colored pencil, monoprint, screen print on paper, 21 x 34 inches (closed), approx. 44 1/2  x 47 1/2 inches (open). Photos: Stefan Hagen.

Tammy Nguyen creates complex, sculptural artist books to tell stories about the contradictions embedded in our cultural beliefs. These narratives—often loosely related to the artist’s own background as an Asian American woman—morph as they are read, creating unexpected juxtapositions and paradoxes. Past work has focused on the adventures of birds as symbols of human folly. During her participation in Wave Hill’s 2014 Winter Workspace as a Van Lier Visual Artist Fellow, she has expanded her practice to encompass plant sciences.

In the three artist books she has installed in the Sun Porch using custom-made display tables, Nguyen creates a trickster narrative which merges Greek mythology and plant morphology. For this project, Hermes, the Epiphytes, the books take on the physical form of both plant and human bodies. Viewers can sit at the tables and peruse each book, unfolding its story and structure. All three tales feature the Greek god Hermes—the messenger of the gods, who travels between the mortal and divine worlds—in the guise of three epiphytes, or air plants: the bromeliad (Bromeliad – Neoregelia sp.), the ant fern (Lecanopteris mirabilis) and the red mistletoe cactus (Rhipsalis ramulosa). The artist playfully exploits the etymological roots of “hero” in the Greek word for spring, hora, to draw out parallels between distant disciplines. The artist’s original stories weave together varied references as a way to reflect on agonizing internal conflicts, heroic or not. Through the tragic tale of Achilles, Nguyen calls attention to the fleeting nature of youth and beauty. The myth of Philemon and Baucis alludes to inward friction over familial obligations. The story of Persephone addresses the many consequences of displacement. Ultimately, viewers are encouraged to cut across conventional categories to engage with notions about the hero as he identifies himself and relates to his home and the world beyond.

Lecanopteris Mirabilis, 2014, cut paper, ink, colored pencil, monoprint, intaglio, woodcut, screen print on paper,  25 x 26 inches closed; approx. 41 x 34 inches (open). Photo: Stefan Hagen.


Rhipsalis Ramulosa, 2014, cut paper, ink, colored pencil, monoprint, intaglio, woodcut, screen print on paper, 26 x 24 inches closed; approx. 33 x 52 inches (open). Photo: Stefan Hagen.

Hermes, the Epiphytes, installation view, 2014, cut paper, ink, colored pencil, monoprint, intaglio, woodcut, screen print on paper, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Stefan Hagen.

Artist website

The Arts at Wave Hill are supported by the Lily Auchincloss Foundation, Inc.; Michael J. Shannon; Milton and Sally Avery Arts Foundation; the National Endowment for the Arts; New York City Department of Cultural Affairs; New York Community Trust Edward and Sally Van Lier Fund; New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature; The Pollock-Krasner Foundation; The Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation; and by the Cathy and Stephen Weinroth Commissioning Fund for the Arts.