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Text by Goschka Gawlik


Exhibition catalogue:
“DISPLA(Y)CED” curated by Lucie Freynhagen, Kunstverein Alte Feuerwache Loschwitz, Dresden

Repercussions of (Another) Reality

Typical for the work of German-Vietnamese artist Sung Tieu (*1987), who emigrated to Berlin as a child, is how it draws your attention first in one direction, then another; making you look somewhere else and making you look again. Tieu never sets out to make a statement, to comment on or to criticize something. Instead, she blocks any straightforward view onto the world of things in her work, as if she didn’t want to merely make objects visible but also to show their invisible life in real physical space. In this way she lets us get a bit closer to something we might call reality, hidden underlying structures, or intersubjective emotions – to something that is, for the artist, essentially constituted by circulatory systems capable of generating insight. Tieu is not concerned with verisimilitude, rather she slips again and again into the role of an inquisitive seeker, driven to follow chains of arguments or tropes that she can reveal to the viewer using her own form of iconoclastic visualization. Some of the images she invents veer into close conceptual proximity to inscriptions, a form that often has a moral or ethical function, and more generally reminds us of our relationship to memory and history. If Tieu’s “inscriptions” sometimes seem like painterly graffiti impulsively applied to walls, the fragmentary signs oscillating between figuration and abstraction in the work Wind (2015) are not covering a wall space but a mirrored surface that reflects its surroundings from the ground up. The shadowy black creatures that come into view with so much dynamism – which from a distance make one think of Hokusai, the Japanese master of woodcuts and manga, and his Great Wave off Kanagawa are revealed to be birds in a swarm formation, silk-screened onto the mirrored glass surface.

The small songbirds known as northern wheatears fly incredibly huge distances to overwinter, crossing Asia on their way from Alaska to Kenya. This migration and the associated circulatory systems, thanks to which the birds survive, are among the complex “transformations of movement and energy” that Friedrich Engels was already describing in the notes for his unfinished 1883 book Dialectics of Nature. While scientists still consider these mass migrations paradoxical and puzzling on account of the energy they require, for Tieu’s work they belong to the realm of poetry and mythology because they take place in an imaginary, borderless space made of nothing but air, created by the wind and the weather, and defined by continuous cyclical movement. But not wholly or exclusively: at the opposite extreme to the air Wind brings another of the four elements into play, one that marks its difference in a striking visual contrast, namely water, which is alluded to – not without irony – through the presence of two bright orange children’s water wings. While these inflatable objects bring a degree of instability to the weight of the mirror leaning against the wall, the reflections in it conjure up the effect of the “scopic regime” of visual media. The implied movement of the objects and figures in the mirror brings to mind the ephemerality of filmic images; they are barely present, physically or materially – or rather, they have been reduced to a minimum of matter. They belong to the imaginary, fictional or symbolic order of vision and thus seem like something in a dream or in the mind’s eye. The small water wings, on the other hand, exist primarily as something real; and in context they contribute to the dialectic of contradictions between collective ritual and individual agency. We can interpret them as alluding to learning to swim as well as, in a more contemporary key, relating to migration routes. With the mirror as the surface of water or the sea itself, Tieu thus metaphorically projects a mental image of migration as a result of climate change in the real space in front of us. If we think of the flows of refugees and migrants in recent years, the swimming aids also point to the possibility of a more humane response to this global crisis. The various modes of interpretation opened up by Wind – whether perspectival or perceptual – remain open enough for other meanings to be projected onto the work, sketching out a shared, unifying horizon where incommensurable elements can come together.