Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH) presents the first public art commission by Diane Severin Nguyen, Not in this life, on display on a commercial billboard off of U.S. Route 59, now through January 29, 2023. The billboard is visible from the overpass after the onramp entrance at San Jacinto and from street view at the intersection of Caroline Street and Barbee Street.
Presented in coordination with the current exhibition, Diane Severin Nguyen: IF REVOLUTION IS A SICKNESS, Not in this life (2023) is inspired by the artist’s exploration of the fraught history of shrimping in Galveston Bay in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Following the Vietnam War, Vietnamese immigrants arrived in Houston and its surrounding areas seeking refuge and sustained employment. The similar climate and the immigrants’ existing experience and knowledge of fishing made Texas’s Gulf Coast an appealing destination. However, Vietnamese shrimpers were met with intense racism and threats of violence from white fishermen who allied themselves with local militias and the Klu Klux Klan. Seeking to rid the bays of new immigrants, white fishermen burned Vietnamese-owned boats and engaged in various tactics of extreme intimidation. At the time, Galveston Bay’s shrimping industry was already in decline due to pollution, newly built petrochemical plants along the coast, and hurricanes. Fears of scarcity, combined with rampant racism and xenophobia following the United States’ failed war in Vietnam, served to stoke tensions between economically disenfranchised communities.
Nguyen’s billboard, commissioned by CAMH, draws upon this history and the polarized political climate in which we find ourselves. Employing a popular romantic Vietnamese phrase, “hẹn kiếp sau,” which loosely translates to “we will meet in the next fate,” Nguyen’s work is equally mournful, hopeful, and comical in its pairing of image and text, which suggest two shrimps as those fated for love on another astral plane. With Not in this life, as with the artist’s enigmatic images and videos more generally, Nguyen explores visual culture’s central role in the construction of both self-identity and historical knowledge in relation to transnational diasporic Asian identity.
The new commission accompanies Nguyens’ first solo museum exhibition, currently on view at CAMH through February 26, 2023. Diane Severin Nguyen: IF REVOLUTION IS A SICKNESS explores the contingency and elasticity of identity, memory, and meaning. The exhibition features a central video installation, series of photographs, and site-specific architectural interventions including the application of colored gels that bathe the space in red light and a set of vertical incisions in the gallery wall through which light streams.
Diane Severin Nguyen: IF REVOLUTION IS A SICKNESS is co-organized by Myriam Ben Salah, Executive Director and Chief Curator, the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, and Sohrab Mohebbi, Director, SculptureCenter, New York. The exhibition’s presentation at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston is organized by Rebecca Matalon, Senior Curator.
About the artist
Diane Severin Nguyen (b. 1990, Carson, California) is an artist who works with photography and time-based media. Nguyen earned an MFA from Bard College in 2020 and a BA from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2013. Recent solo and two-person exhibitions include Between Two Solitudes, Stereo, Warsaw; Tyrant Star (online exhibition), Carnegie Museum of Art (CMOA), Pittsburgh; Reoccurring Afterlife, Empty Gallery, Hong Kong; Minor twin worlds with Brandon Ndife, Bureau, New York; and Flesh Before Body, Bad Reputation, Los Angeles; all 2019. Recent group exhibitions include Is it morning for you yet?: 58th Carnegie International, CMOA, Pittsburgh, 2022; Greater New York, MoMA PS1, New York, 2021; Made in L.A. 2020: a version, Hammer Museum and The Huntington, Los Angeles, 2020–2021; and Bodies of Water: 13th Shanghai Biennale, Power Station of Art, Shanghai, 2021.