Nhu Xuan Hua, Tropism, Consequences of a Displaced Memory

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2022 by Area Books (here). Hardcover (26.5 x 20.5 cm), 46 pages, with 42 color photographs. Includes an essay by the artist. In an edition of 500 copies. Design by Bureau Kayser. Cover title design by Colin Doerffler. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Nhu Xuan Hua is French-Vietnamese photographer and visual artist who has made her name working with magazines such as British Vogue, The Wall Street Journal, Dazed Beauty, and TIME and shooting for major fashion brands including Kenzo, Maison Margiela, Gucci, and Dior. Her work, both commercial and personal, is inspired by her own shared memories. 

When Hua moved from Paris to London, being away from her family motivated her to delve into her family history. Hua’s family left Vietnam in the aftermath of the war, and settled in France, where she was born. As a second-generation immigrant, she grew up between two cultures, and after she left her parental home, she felt a growing separation from her roots. In 2016, Hua visited Ho Chi Minh City for the first time, and that time she spent in Vietnam made her feel closer to her extended family. When she returned, she decided to use her family’s photo archive to explore her Vietnamese heritage. Hua’s first book titled Tropism, Consequences of a Displaced Memory, is the result of that research on cultural displacement, inherited memories, and altered reality.

Tropism is a medium-sized cardboard book with full bleed glossy images printed on thick chunky pages, like those found in a children’s book. The photograph on the cover shows a person in a gray pullover, with his or her face cut out and blurred. This is an altered photograph of the artist’s mother, originally taken in 1988, just a year before Hua’s birth. A list of captions, with simple descriptions and years appears at the very end of the book. As we turn the first page, a small envelope containing an epigraph written by Hua is affixed inside, almost like a secret message to the reader. It starts with “Dear fingers with crayon lines, / Have you ever experienced a strange body reaction initiated by scattered emotions? / I tried to capture nothing else than a feeling.”

Hua’s choice of title is also very intentional. In biology, the term “tropism” refers to “the innate ability of an organism to turn or move in response to a stimulus.” The term has also been used in literature by the French author Nathalie Sarraute, who published a book with the same title in 1939 and referred to tropisms as inner movements or bodily reactions in response to life events. In the same way, Hua’s images record her reactions to past family events, especially when they trigger unexpectedly powerful emotions.

Over the years, Hua collected numerous photographs from her family archives, using them to examine the displacement of memories, and her own interpretation of them. Most of these images were taken before she was even born, and don’t directly relate to her experience, so they transport her to a more open-ended emotional place. Hua has digitally manipulated these images, making people disappear and dissolve into abstract lines and shapes, yet their presence is still very visible. Through these alterations, she creates conversations between the past and the present. “In the archive photos I see patterns that recur, unconsciously, in my own life. They evoke strong emotions, even though I have never experienced them in person.”

One of the first spreads pairs a photograph of a person’s almost transparent silhouette posing on a motorcycle with an image of a family at the table as they celebrate; again, in the second image, the heads of people are digitally erased, yet certain elements are still present  or overlapping. These images indistinctly connect the past and present, with memories becoming blurry and fluid and elements in the photographs dissipating and losing context.

As we move through a series of these altered family photographs and memories, past and present are at once present and absent. Many photographs capture family celebrations, like weddings and birthdays. In one full page image, a group of people is posing next to a table with a multi-tiered wedding cake. Their faces are blocked and distorted, and fragments of the cake and their clothes are smeared and cloned. 

Another weirdly captivating photograph shows a group of people, or rather their ghost-like transparent silhouettes, floating in the water, almost blending in. The photo is titled “We Almost Drowned” and the original was taken in 1963. The picture paired with it shows a young couple in white standing outside holding flowers, after just getting married, and Hua has once again altered their bodies to make them blend with the environment. As fuzzy figures appear on page after page, their haunting presence, along with other clues like cakes, flowers, a bicycle, or a Christmas tree, evokes lost memories, a process Hua describes as “re-remembering”. Seen as one continuous flow, it feels like a way of grasping at the past to connect it with a fleeting present.

In the past few years, a number of notable photobooks have examined these kinds of family histories and archives. Tarrah Krajnak used archival recreations and unorthodox portraits to imaginatively investigate the circumstances of her own birth and adoption, in a photobook titled El Jardín de Senderos Que Se Bifurcan (reviewed here). And in A Parallel Road (reviewed here), Amani Willett used his family story as a starting point for exploring the broader history of American racial violence. Hua’s interventions also bring to mind the work of Iranian artist Fatemeh Baigmoradi who altered family photographs by burning certain parts, reenacting the actions of her father who burned photos not to incriminate his relatives and friends.

Tropism is Hua’s effort to build her own visual dialogue with her past, and it certainly feels like a family album full of elusively evocative memories. It is a considered and elegant photobook, beautifully designed and produced, and it presents an unconventional and creative approach to re-imagining personal histories and archival materials. As Hua worked on this project, connections to her family in Vietnam and her heritage were tentatively reestablished. She writes in her letter placed at the beginning of the book, “To remember is to accept that something has been forgotten, / that something has been lost, / and something that was once owned / needs to be found again.”

Collector’s POV: Nhu Xuan Hua does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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