Critics’ Picks

View of "Phung-Tien Phan,” 2019–2020. From left: Volkswagen (Longevity), 2019; Volkswagen (Saigon), 2019.

View of "Phung-Tien Phan,” 2019–2020. From left: Volkswagen (Longevity), 2019; Volkswagen (Saigon), 2019.

Cologne

Phung-Tien Phan

DREI
Jülicher Strasse 4
November 9, 2019–January 18, 2020

The unspectacular drama of Phung-Tien Phan’s recent show unfolds around a European vision of Millennial respectability: spacious prewar apartments, retro kitchen appliances, and carefully curated pop references. Aimlessly quotidian, the video Actress & Actors (all works 2019) follows cultivated white men as they flaneur their way through posh neighborhoods and lush fields to the sounds of Carly Simon or the Strokes. Meanwhile, Phan herself makes phone calls, brews coffee, arranges an interior set. The cuts in Actress & Actors are abrupt, and the audio rarely syncs. At one point, the men suddenly seem to be miming a passage from Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes (2003)—but, as the work’s title reminds us, they’ve probably been performing all along. Though these might sound like the hallmarks of avant-garde montage, the effect is less Brechtian alienation than awkward self-deprecation: Phan’s film is the kind of funny where you want to laugh but are never quite sure if you’re supposed to.

The ambivalence underlying Phan’s role as bourgeois European grows deeper with the two sculptures titled Volkswagen (Longevity) and Volkswagen (Saigon). Decidedly shabby, these portable shelving units each contain one scale model of a cramped studio apartment—like those common in Vietnamese cities—and one reinterpretation of the kind of scaled down Buddhist altars popular among the country’s diaspora. Phan contrasts these homages to her ancestral home with relics from her actual one: vintage European espresso machines, humorously repurposed as floral vases resting on top of the sculptures. Much like the cuts in Actress & Actors, the assemblages suggest that biography can be shown not through a single location or scene, but rather through what happens in between.