We know the world by what gets left behind. Even before the pandemic set in, corporate consultant and trendcaster Venkatesh Rao started preaching the rise of the “domestic cosy.” Unlike prior generations who introjected social-media discourse into every aspect of daily life and found themselves permanently performing for an imaginary public, the GenZ avant-garde of coziness had simply given up on keeping up appearances. And who could blame them? Coming of age in a world where public space grows increasingly hostile (IRL and online) while the prospect of social mobility is rapidly receding, the domestic cozy seeks shelter in close-knit kinship group and familial bonds. Its aesthetic locus is the private rather than public. Indeed, in Rao’s own words, the “domestic cozy is something of a preemptive retreat from worldly aairs for a generation that, quite understandably, thinks the public sphere is falling apart.” But it wasn’t just a natavistic return to the rustic or the trad. Instead, it was the outcome of an ambivalent understanding that intimate relationships were a more effective forum for fashioning a world of one’s own making. Materially, it manifested in the lasting popularity of minecraft, a taste for raw-looking materials, leisurewear, approachable models, and an unrepentant love of the self made.
Admittedly, the domestic has long been the backbone of Phung-Tien Phan’s practice, and for entirely different reasons, though I can’t help but thinking the rise of the domestic cozy has something to do with the field she operates in. Her pre-pandemic works often parodied the artist’s own anxieties about being a good enough, i.e. successful enough, daughter- artist-mother as a tongue-in-cheek critique of the art industry as a whole. And, of course, that spirit remains. But recently, there’s been a shift towards a more Dada embrace of the weirdness of our contradictions. Many of the plastic-wrapped sculptures, like Fallen Angel (2023) for example, take their form from the pre-packaged offerings commonly left at Vietnamese temples during New Year’s celebrations. A whole economy of vendors springs up around the temples each year to supply such offerings to the faithful. And sometimes, they’ll even recollect the unopened offerings to resell them to the next crop of pilgrims. But instead of the traditional contents, Phan has filled the parcels with decidedly mundane materials: old shoes, styrofoam packaging, plywood and concrete straight from the hardware. In a characteristically autobiographical turn, some of them even feature the artist’s own image. Yet the self-consciously commercial form and lo-fi serial production quickly forecloses any question of “authenticity.” Hovering awkwardly between self-parody and self-commodification, what starts o as a lighthearted joke soon dovetails into an uncomfortable meditation on what it means to be an artist working with their own biography.
In a similar vein, the video TragicTriangleTrip_ (2022) is cut together from footage of family workcations to Bordeaux and New York. Already in the opening shots, an analogy between the artist’s camera and a gun—one that goes back to Étienne-Jules Marey’s chronophotographic rifle at the very latest—announces that reflexivity is the order of the day. At the very outset, Phan’s meandering inner monologue wonders whether the film might already be over as she tries to come up with a story fro herself. Then come shots of her daughter running errands in the city, her partner lounging in a restaurant. Suddenly, the narration shifts into something between a medical examination and a job interview, seemingly interpellating the viewer’s own voyeurism. “What’s your name? How do I spell it?” By the time this internalized interviewer gets around to asking what her financial situation is like, Phan finds herself swiping her ID like a bank card to unlock a car. Unlike earlier works where the artist openly worries about her place in the world, the recent years have been marked by a certain self-assurance. And not just because of her growing success—though that’s probably a big part of it too. Rather, Phan’s recent works seem to take solace in the fact that identities are always a matter of performance.