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Sung Tieu: Abstraction and the Mnemonic Image

Vietnamese-born artist Sung Tieu (b. 1987, Hai Duong, Vietnam) has developed and continues to make art contending with issues of national historiography and the transnational movements of people and objects, whether through the lens of diaspora or the commercial routes of production and distribution facilitated by global capitalism. Such themes, particularly those stemming from personal experiences of migration, exile, and return, have similarly characterized the works of a number of Vietnamese-born artists for whom the Second Indochina War, more widely referred to as the Vietnam War, has indelibly shaped both their subjectivity and their artistic praxis. Most of these artists, however, speak to the Vietnamese-American experience, as the United States hosts the largest population of diasporic Vietnamese. First-generation Vietnamese immigrants to the United States consisted primarily of refugees from south Vietnam whose exodus began in the 1970s, following Nixon’s policy of Vietnamization, the gradual withdrawal of US forces that was completed in 1973 and led to the communist overthrow of the southern Republic of Vietnam and the unification of the nation as a socialist state in 1975.

Often mistakenly described as a conflict between Vietnam and the United States of America, the popular David vs Goliath metaphor of the Vietnam War tends to overshadow other historical narratives that account for Vietnam’s role in the global history of the Cold War, such as its relationships with Eastern and Western Europe. While Sung Tieu’s work speaks to the broader themes of displacement, alienation, and historiography that recur in the work of high-profile Vietnamese-American artists like Dinh Q. Le, Tiffany Chung, and Tuan Andrew Nguyen, Tieu’s artistic interests stem significantly from the specificities of the lesser known Vietnamese diaspora in Germany. As a Vietnamese-German artist, aspects of her biography and this history continue to inform her research and formal realization of her concepts, both directly and obliquely. In 1980 the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and the now unified Socialist Republic of Vietnam signed an agreement for Vietnamese workers to be temporarily sent to the GDR, simultaneously filling a German labor shortage while rebuilding the postwar Vietnamese economy through remittances. In 1989, while West Germany continued to host and give permanent residence rights to refugees from south Vietnam, almost 60,000 Vietnamese contract workers were sent to the GDR. However, with German reunification in 1989, many Vietnamese in former East Germany lost their worker contracts, but improvised not quite illegal economies and channels of commodity production and trade as new routes of subsistence. In the 1990s, the financial viability of these informal enterprises, alongside Germany’s economic growth, attracted more Vietnamese migrants already in Eastern Europe. At the time they could apply for asylum and limited avenues for permanent residence because of the particularities of the Vietnam War and the situation of Vietnamese citizens abroad. These were some of the factors that compelled the journey of the artist, at the age of five, and her mother, across the Czech forest on foot to cross the German border to join her father.

This biographical exposition provides an important lens through which to better understand the formal and conceptual strategies undertaken by the artist across a range of her work. In Sung Tieu’s artist bio, her practice is described as existing through a series of geographic displacements (literally Vietnam, Germany, and now London as representative of a highly international present-day milieu). It is this notion of displacement, unfixing certainties of time and location, that finds form in her installations, photographs, and moving image works. Such displacement is achieved through a conjunction of sonic, visual, and textual elements; a modular approach to the artwork as assemblage can be found within the artwork itself (as in the two moving image works featured here) as well as within an exhibition installation as a complex space of sensorial experience. The constellation of these elements deliberately eludes narrative legibility or even more familiar means of describing popular leitmotifs of contemporary art, for example, art and ethnography, the archival impulse, the parafictional. Tieu sources from all these methods but in their configuration they resist any singular discursive rendering. While the analogy of her work as a series of geographic displacements provides one way of understanding the locational reach and narrative content of her art, what undergirds much of her practice are the ways in which she carefully manipulates the visual and sonic image as oneiric and mnemonic unit. Historical recall recurs as artistic intention in Tieu’s practice, and integral to this is the abstraction achieved through the juxtaposition of perceptual elements that plays with, but skirts, anachrony and montage.

Like her work on the lesser known history of Vietnamese communities in Germany, Tieu has also explored under-researched aspects of the Vietnam War, such as the ‘ghost tapes’ deployed by the United States army’s 6th PSYOP (Psychological Operations) Battalion, codenamed Operation Wandering Soul. While the PSYOP division of the US army had been carrying out a series of ground and air operations encouraging communist defection, such as through heliborne loudspeakers issuing propaganda and the dropping of pamphlets, the escalation of events in the late 1960s may have driven more extreme strategies using scare tactics based on the power of sound, spiritual belief and superstition. No Gods No Masters(2017) reproduces Ghost Tape No. 10, played as part of Operation Wandering Soul, which appealed to the Vietnamese belief that if correct burial rituals are not followed that the soul of the deceased is displaced and doomed to wander in limbo.

The ghost tape is part of an ambient soundtrack that sutures together a montage of edited and visually manipulated footage that at times distorts and blurs perceptual definition. The soundtrack features Ghost Tape No. 10, which segues from familiar funereal music, to the cries of a child for its father, to the father’s response from a grim afterlife and his pleas to others to return home. But those haunting and unearthly sounds are counterbalanced by moments of sonic respite, in the form of silence, Buddhist chanting, bird calls, or synthetic ambient noise. Shifts in location (Mo Cay and Black Virgin Mountain in the rural south, Hai Duong in the north), that include tropical landscape, riverine journey, private home and ritual performance, ground the artistic rendering of each filmic segment (e.g. high-contrast negative images, panning vertical panels, blurring and partial pixelization). These locales hold significance in personal and public geographies, whether as strategic sites for the deployment of Operation Wandering Soul during the Vietnam War, or as the artist’s hometown where domestic rituals are performed as a matter of course. As a whole, the film lends itself to perceptual distortion and cognitive uncertainty, a dream-like experience moving through the photographic, painterly, cinematic, and digital image. The artist here is a wanderer in terms of her research into military history and present-day ethnography, but the film itself performs both a processional and oneiric navigation of images and soundscapes. No Gods No Masters thus elicits subjective association, recall, and curiosity through its visual and sonic texturing of the abstract and the archival.

Tieu’s invocation and juxtaposition of the past through the images of the present can also be found in Memory Dispute, which reflects on the lingering and spectral residues of dioxin and the chemical defoliants used in the war. The primarily black-and-white images move across topographies of landscape, foliage, and epidermis, sensually exploring surfaces and beckoning hypothetical connections between frames and between temporalities. A similar play with references is enacted through the use of image and text transitions, with all block letters spelling out such phrases as






These phrases are not arbitrary but deliberate textual cues: Operation Rolling Thunder, Operation Trail Dust, the USS Coral Sea (CV-43), The “Rustic” Forward Air Controllers (FACs), James Carr’s Freedom Train (1968) and Operation Freedom Train. Poetic fragments are composed from historical references to the Vietnam War and its era, eliciting a traversal of contexts across past and present, from the mountainous landscapes and jungle foliage once sited as targets for airborne chemical defoliation to cripple communist guerilla arteries, to the meticulous peeling away of a young man’s uppermost dermal layer after receiving an acid peel skin whitening treatment. These close-up shots of dead skin being peeled away or left connected to the body, to flutter in the breeze like gossamer, are abjectly but aesthetically compelling. To what extent do they beckon or deter memories of chemically burnt and peeling layers of skin as a result of wartime napalm attacks, most infamously embodied by the photograph and film footage of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, The Girl in the Picture? Tieu’s juxtaposition of skin removal as cosmetic practice, as haptic choreography intercut with images of the sculpted hands of a multi-armed bodhisattva statue, would seem to assuage such associations, but the film’s assemblage of images, texts, and ambient humming, clanging, buzzing soundscapes invites contemplation rather than consumption. The figure of an ascetic monk is featured in moments of perfectly still meditation alongside the active pursuit of using a machete to cut away jungle overgrowth, the latter frames intercut with those of the skin peel as mimicking the futile gestures of ever clearing, cleansing, purifying surfaces. The extent to which these gestures treat not only the surfaces of the present and the here-and-now, but also address the past through perceptual excavations, is a question the artist poses through a synthesis of mnemonic and poetic prompts, pushing us to engage such abstract connections to query and remember.