Tammy Nguyen: How to Breathe in Selected Tropics


Tammy Nguyen: How to Breathe in Selected Tropics


November 15 – December 11, 2017


Tammy Nguyen (artist), Nhung Walsh (curator)


How to Breathe in Selected Tropics is a visual novella by Tammy Nguyen. The novella takes the form of books, pamphlets, and works on paper organized in four boxes. Each box is a chapter in the novella: Cyclops, Hog, Fan, and Banana. This project is Nguyen’s reflection on her experience in the tropical places of Vietnam, the Philippines, and Hawaii. Nguyen uses her memories as a starting point to explore the geopolitics of these locales, the history of US military involvement, and the transformation of these places into “paradise”. Through this fantasy fiction, Nguyen hopes to point at how today’s foreign policy in these regions is more contentious than ever.

This exhibition was a collaboration between the Indochina Arts Partnership (IAP) and the Joan Flasch Artists' Book Collection. Curated by Nhung Walsh. Sponsored by SAIC Office of Engagement.



In this box, Nguyen tells the story of the cyclops, giant beings who were master crafts people. But, as we peruse through this box of one-eyed tales, the cyclops becomes the eye of cyclones, tropical storms that have devastated countries in only the last few months. 


Centered around the practice of eating pork, this box connects the act of eating to politics. Here, Nguyen compares the domestication of pigs, to the “pigs” of the colonial governments, to pork recipes across Vietnam, the Philipines, and Hawaii. 


In the Fan box, a fan spins and turns into a helicopter. This transformation speaks to the need for a breeze in places of heavy heat. It then subverts that desire for relief into fantasies of American helicopters during the Vietnam War, landings in Subic Bay, and island tours of the Hawaiian volcanoes.  


Here, bananas are peeled and turned into guns. This box brings up the banana republics in which Western tropical economics’ sole product were dependent on a type of bananas created for export. Using this as inspiration, this chapter sees other parts of the banana tree as having overlooked powers for goods.  

Nguyen structures this visual novella in four boxes following her interest in telling narratives without a linear timeline. The strictest framework of her storytelling is the separation and naming of the boxes. Within each box, the viewer can experience the content however they wish. Material-wise, Nguyen applies sheets from 2016 Financial Times newspaper as a substrate and collage elements throughout to tie the chapters together. The newspapers of the previous year connects with her mythological and historical expressions.   Finally, the shapes in each narrative are constantly repeated and animated. In one box, a banana blossom opens up, yet in another box, the banana blossom spins and becomes a helicopter fan. The multiple meanings that redundant forms take on is Nguyen’s way to complicate her metaphors.


Tammy Nguyen (b. 1984, San Francisco, CA) is a multimedia artist working with geopolitics, science, and less known histories.  She received a BFA from the Cooper Union in 2007 and an MFA from the Yale School of Art in 2013. From 2007-08, Nguyen was a Fulbright Scholar in Vietnam where she studied traditional lacquer painting. She has exhibited at the Leroy Neiman Center, San-Art, The Fine Arts Museum of Ho Chi Minh City, the Bronx Museum, Wave Hill, Carriage Barns Art Center, Pyramid Atlantic Art Center, and the Inside-Out Museum. In 2014, Nguyen was awarded the Van Lier Fellowship at Wave Hill as well as inclusion in the Bronx AIM program. In 2015, she was selected for the Scholarship for Advanced Studies by The Center for Book Arts in New York City. Her work has been collected by Yale University, the Philadelphia Museum of Art,  and the Museum of Modern Art. Recently she was an artist-in-residence at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Process Space program and is an Asia Delegate for the Carnegie Council.  In Fall 2016, Nguyen founded Passenger Pigeon Press, an independent press that brings the work of scientists, journalists, creative writers, and visual arts together to create politically nuanced projects. 

Table Of Contents

All work in the display cases was created by Tammy Nguyen specifically for the exhibition. Nhung Walsh curated an additional satellite library related to the context of the exhibition: providing background on the Vietnam War, and exploring concepts of tourism and paradise in the context of colonialism, militarism, and political conflict. 

Unconditional Belief, Art Labor Collective, 72.19

Elegy: An Intuitive Chronicle of War, Pattie Belle Hasting, 116.10

The American War, Harrell Fletcher, 131.66

A Place in Time, Kevin Hamilton,  Zine 6.79

Inventory: Losing Finding Collecting, Inventory, 113.42

A Matter of Conscience: GI Resistance During the Vietnam War, William Short, 121.9

The Nam, Fiona Banner, z17.3

Tourist / Refugee, Clifton Meador, 2.34

Advertising the Contradictions, Violet Ray, 85.3

Where the Lions Are, Vo Danh, 109.61

There's Nothing Here, Kelly Lloyd, Z6.13

Paradise Obscura: A Visual Media Project, Xtine, Z27.23

Visibility Machines: Harun Farocki and Trevor Paglen, Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture, 8.1

Mali Photo, Francois Deschamps, 104.48

Guantánamo: Operational Security Review, Louie Palu, 4200.6

A Book of Wander: Tudo Bom, Robert Clarke-Davis, 107.41

Caribbean Cautionary Tales = Cuentas de advertencia Caribeños, Caribbean Backbone Research Institute, 6.27

No Way: Critical Tourism, Hardworking Goodlooking, 3.89

Hunt & Gather, Terraria, Wawi Navarroza, 14.45

Strange Paradise, Charles Rubin, 31.17

Neotropic, Bob Braine, 105.25

State Mosque Competition, William Wiebe, RA 3.174

The Happy Times, Wayne Wang-Jie Lim, Zine 8.70

Background Listening Post: A Field Guide/Map, Steven Rowell, 103.40

History Rising, Amir Berbić, 14.9

To the North, South, East and West, Nothing. The Curtain Falls. End of Act One., Lara Morais, 37.14

Nine Swimming Pools Behind a Broken Glass, Tanja Lažetić, 106.24

Danger in Paradise, Touch/General Strike, 120.1


View video documentation of an artist talk by Tammy Nguyen on occasion of the exhibition.





Tammy Nguyen (artist), Nhung Walsh (curator), “Tammy Nguyen: How to Breathe in Selected Tropics,” SAIC Flaxman Library & Special Collection Exhibitions, accessed August 17, 2019, https://flaxman.omeka.net/items/show/197.