James Nguyen: Open Glossary

“. . . a multilingual conversation.”

Open Glossary is a new exhibition by artist James Nguyen and collaborators Tamsen Hopkinson, Budi Sudarto, Kate ten Buuren, and Chris Xu presented at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA), and the second edition of the Copyright Agency Partnerships Commission, which supports mid-career and established visual artists to produce a major new commission.

If a glossary is an alphabetised list of specialised terms and their associated definitions, then one can presume that an open glossary unlocks those definitions through collective input. An open glossary suggests the questioning of individual specialisation in favour of the communal or the collaborative.

Indeed, collaboration has long been a defining feature of Nguyen’s practice; his moving image artworks and performances often feature family members and friends as co-authors. Asked why he chooses to collaborate, Nguyen points out how, after exhibiting an artwork, it can be hard to get genuine feedback, “but when you have a collaborator, you have immediate feedback . . . you’re forced to do things in a way that you’re not used to.” Nguyen continues, “My practice has always been dependent on bouncing ideas off other people. And at the end of the day, I get to hang out with my friends and people I respect.”

James Nguyen and Budi Sudarto, White shirt installation, 2023, installation view, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne. Photograph: Andrew Curtis. Courtesy the artists and Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne

Drawing on the linguistic links between Southeast Asia, First Nations Australian and our Moana neighbours, Open Glossary is a multilingual conversation across and through materials. Each collaborator has a unique relationship to language, place, and collectivity. Xu, for instance, co-authored an open-source letter to Asian American immigrant parents about the significance of the Black Lives Matter campaign (Nguyen worked with his father to translate the letter into Vietnamese). Sudarto works in Naarm as a consultant and trainer in intersectionality and inclusion, specifically with queer migrants from the multi-faith and multi-cultural communities. With ten Buuren, Nguyen creates a space for young people to listen and care for Country on their own terms, an interest also shared by Hopkinson similarly creates alternative exhibition models informed by collaboration and respecting community structures. Nguyen remarks that Hopkinson, in her former role at West Space, made Naarm feel hospitable and welcoming to a newcomer.

James Nguyen, Open Glossary research drawings, 2023. Courtesy the artist and Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA), Melbourne

Open Glossary gave these organisers/consultants/activists/curators a chance to focus on their artistic practices for twelve months, as separate to their other roles. The resulting artworks by Nguyen, Hopkinson, Sudarto, ten Buuren, and Xu are informed by decolonial methods, yet they are also surprisingly tactile. The artworks are sensory and immersive, active, and engaging. This is a material exchange rather than simply a linguistic one, a practice that has been informed by long-term conversations between the collaborators. As Nguyen points out, this collectivity and exchange is thematically important, as the need for language developed out of community and solidarity. For Nguyen, Open Glossary is, at its most elemental, “about what it means to be a person with other people.”

Long-term relationships such as these take time to foster, and they are often at odds with the external deadlines and timescales of institutions. Open Glossary succeeds in doing things differently. Nguyen credits ACCA for their flexibility in allowing this collaborative commission to unfold organically. It stands as an example of artists firmly asking for what they want – time and trust. And this ask initiates a ripple effect, taking us closer towards shaping the kind of art institutions that truly support artists and their ideas.


Amelia Wallin is a writer and curator living on Djaara in Central Victoria.


Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA)
16 September to 19 November 2023

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