Annabel Brown
Today I am alive, and without nostalgia the night flows

On Melissa Nguyen: Water Street by Night

When we look at objects fixedly, they change if we think of them, and if we do not think of them, we fall into a lasting torpor, of whatever the same nature as a tranquil dream. — Paul Valéry

Nostalgia, the word sounds perfectly Greek, coming from two Greek roots: nostos, meaning 'return home', and algia, meaning 'pain' or 'longing'. Yet the term did not originate in ancient Greece. Nostalgia is pseudo-Greek, or rather nostalgically Greek. The word was the name of an illness coined by  the Swiss-German doctor Johannes Hofer in his medical dissertation in 1688. Among the first documented cases of the diagnosed disease were various displaced people of the 17th century, particularly Swiss mercenaries tired of serving abroad. Nostalgia was said to give rise to "erroneous representations", leading those affected to confuse past and present, real and imaginary events. The soldiers developed a "lifeless and haggard countenance", along with an "indifference towards everything", arousing an "uncommon and ever present idea of the recalled native land in the mind".1

Hofer’s classification of the new disease helped to shed light on the prevailing affliction while also enhancing its epidemic. Nostalgia became less and less curable, as eighteenth century doctors failed to identify the locus of nostalgia in their patients' bodies or minds and discovered that a return home did not always alleviate the symptoms. With the rise of modernity, the original definition of nostalgia faded, moving away from its peculiar medicalisation into an ambivalent sentiment vis-à-vis the present moment. Nostalgia, the so-called disease of an afflicted imagination, is a complicated sentiment. It is often difficult to determine exactly what we yearn for. According to Hofer’s definition, Nostalgia is a longing for a place, however, Nguyen’s work proposes nostalgia as yearning for a different experience of time. Nostalgia inevitably reappears as both a side effect and a defence mechanism against our living in the accelerated rhythms and general confusion of the twenty-first century.

Melissa Nguyen, 'Water Street by Night', 2024, detail, West Space Window, Collingwood Yards. Photography by Janelle Low.

Perhaps the idea that we really have no idea where we’re going anymore, lends itself to nostalgia. Nostalgia slows us down, hearkening back to the slower rhythms of our childhood, the dreams of a past not realised. Nostalgia undoes the very immediacy of the world, drawing us into the darkroom of memory. In Water Street by Night, currently presented in the West Space window, artist Melissa Nguyen revisits the childhood memory of watching Paris by Night. Inspired by former military USO shows, MTV, and other variety entertainment from Hong Kong and America, Paris by Night was a popular Vietnamese musical variety show featuring elaborate musical numbers, comedic skits, and fashion shows showcasing Vietnamese women in traditional dress. Conceived by Tô Văn Lai in 1983 in Paris, France, Paris by Night aimed to "fill the cultural void"2 felt by Vietnamese diasporic communities living in France. Shortly afterwards, the show's production company transferred to Orange County, California, which has a larger Vietnamese community.

Sold as commodities of cultural preservation, Paris by Night offered its overseas audience a connection to their community through the theatrical recreation of Vietnamese cultural forms and popular memories. For Nguyen, Paris by Night infers  much more than pleasure and entertainment, but was a unifying referent to Vietnamese culture and wider diasporic experiences. The circulation of the Paris by Night series was not only market exchange but a cultural one; intimately connecting the Vietnamese diasporic community to a collective sense of place through a coherent and inspiring tale of recovered identity.  For many, these mediated narratives provided a sense of ontological security, a pang of intimate recognition in the midst of habitual estrangement of everyday life abroad.

Melissa Nguyen, 'Water Street by Night', 2024, installation view, West Space Window, Collingwood Yards. Photography by Janelle Low.

However, as Vietnamese-born American scholars, Mimi Thi Nguyen and Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu write, when Paris by Night moved production to the United States, what began to imbue the series was not only an urge to cure homesickness but also a "longing to become part of the American nation". In reconstructing Vietnamese cultural elements within the Reagan era of the American dream and its celebration of consumer capitalism, Paris by Night began to shift away from its socio-political themes and focus on the Vietnamese diasporic experience. Instead, Paris by Night traded on the charisma of the past and rhetoric of continuity to “create and sustain a fantasy of 'Vietnamese America,' reinterpreting history and moulding new cultural identities through the strategic marketing of commodity desire.”3 Over time, what started to become apparent from these projections was a selective and embellished reconstruction of diasporic life advancing under capitalism.

In counterpoint to the glamour and spectacle of Paris by Night, Nguyen employs what she terms 'bootleg aesthetics'. Nguyen’s painting simulates the worn-out aesthetics of duplication, alluding to the deterioration of an image through its counterfeit distribution. Positioned behind two white rails, akin to a bootlegged VHS copy in a DVD store, the unnatural colour, graininess and warbled imagery—all marks of a dupe—evoke, for Nguyen, the feeling and memory of watching Paris by Night from pirated discs while growing up in Adelaide. There is no ideal ensemble of the past buried beneath Nguyen’s painting, but an arbitrary jumble of subjective associations that extracts something from memory all while losing what made it distinct.  Nguyen’s painting testifies to the imperfect process of remembrance, highlighting the ways in which our memories of the past are coloured, distorted, and blurred by time and our emotions, as if inscribed onto videotape reproductions.

Melissa Nguyen, 'Water Street by Night', 2024, detail, West Space Window, Collingwood Yards. Photography by Janelle Low.

A recurring method in Nguyen’s practice involves using commercially bought perfumes as mediators, sprayed directly onto the colour digital print of an image, which releases ink that is then transferred by pressure onto cotton.  Nguyen adapted this technique to her print-based paintings from the TikTok trend of creating temporary tattoos using perfume.  In Water Street By Night, Nguyen utilises Zara Gardenia—an inexpensive dupe for Yves Saint Laurent's Black Opium perfume. As the pressure is released and the heavy aroma fades, it leaves behind a sense of transience—spectres of the performers untethered from context and completely de-particularized. Moving in a hurried blur, they are paradoxically homogenous yet distinct and disconnected. The alluring object of nostalgia here becomes both vague and vulnerable to dilapidation, shifting into an abstraction, with the past becoming less knowable.

In The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym writes that a "cinematic image of nostalgia is a double exposure, or a superimposition of two images—of home and abroad, of past and present, of dream and everyday life".4 These images, detached from the spectacles of song and dance, evoke an intimate association with the past—a yearning for community, a sense of connection enduring across long distances. We write ourselves into being this way, by connecting what happens to us, and what belongs to us alone. However, we attend to objects and images differently over time, and Nguyen's painting reveals nostalgia to be a double bind. Nostalgia is not a call to return to a particular past, but to open up the past for revision. It is a longing to revisit without return, an affectionate recollection founded in selective forgetting and a romance with one’s own fantasy.  The past is an imaginative construction within a larger decay of experience that turns things into refractions like mirages; memory is an attempt to cohabit with doubles and ghosts.

Viewing Melissa Nguyen, 'Water Street by Night', 2024, West Space West Space, Collingwood Yards. Photography by Janelle Low.

Commissioned by West Space in response to Melissa Nguyen: Water Street by Night in the West Space Window, 2 March → 27 April 2024.

Melissa Nguyen is a Vietnamese-Australian artist in Naarm/Melbourne. Melissa has a painting-based practice interested in ideas of translation as creative methodology. The idea of artifice constitutes both her subject matter and process, lending itself to notions of translation, wherein every act in the painting process is relational, influenced and mediated by one’s perception of the subject.

Annabel Brown is an emerging curator based in Naarm (Melbourne), Australia. She holds an Honours of Fine Art (Curating), and a Bachelor of Art History and Curating from Monash University. She is particularly interested in themes of time, subjectivity and precarity in techno-social life, as well as experiences in which ambiguity, simulacrum and elusiveness unfold and become increasingly dominant. Annabel has curated exhibitions across Blindside, Satellite Projects and is the 2024 recipient of the Gertrude Emerging Curators Program. Annabel joined West Space as a volunteer in 2023.