Diacritics recently interviewed Tuan Andrew Nguyen as he traveled to Dakar, Senegal and Berlin, Germany to present his work. Our correspondence initially focused on his most recent exhibit at the James Cohan gallery in New York City: Unburied Sounds (April 12 – May 7, 2022), and then expanded to his other works.
Unburied Sounds pivots around a film about the Vietnamese reincarnation of Alexander Calder, navigating the ongoing psychological and physical trauma caused by the Vietnam War-era bombings in Quảng Trị. The film weaves historical tragedy with the imaginative powers of art and the possibilities of reincarnation to explore ways of transformative healing. It’s a story of resilience and compassion in the face of war’s violence and its profound and deleterious effects on present-day life. Nguyen infuses such issues and stories into a hanging mobile, based on Calder’s work, as well as three “Singing Bowl[s] from Brass Shells.” Nguyen worked with a sound healer to tune both the mobile and the bowls so that, once activated, will vibrate at a healing frequency.
In Unburied Sounds bombs and mines take on different significance and functionality. As with Nguyen’s previous works, objects take on new life, reanimating the past. For Nguyệt, the film’s protagonist, the bombs provide her livelihood. Living with her mother in a home that doubles as a scrapyard, she salvages and sells bombs, along with other used, everyday objects. This means of survival provides the material and media for her art sculptures. The film narrates how weapons of destruction can become aesthetic objects that make visceral the “unburied” of violence and history. The bombs become a way of life.
To live with the artillery and shells, both exploded and unexploded, is to persist and continue with forward thinking, exemplified by Hồ Văn Lai, who is from Quảng Trị and is featured in the film. It is to recreate or reincarnate war’s remnants into aesthetic objects, as seen with Nguyệt’s art. For Tuan Andrew Nguyen, it is about unburying that which we might not see—from sounds to trauma—yet reveals to us, in a more complete way, war’s story.
Born in Saigon and educated in the US, Nguyen’s work explores political resistance through storytelling, the reincarnation of objects, and counter-memory. In 2006, he co-founded The Propeller Group, which blurs the lines between art and advertising; he was also a founding member of San Art, an artist-initiated exhibition space and reading room. These collaborations take place in Ho Chi Minh City, where Nguyen currently lives and works.
– Ben Tran, Contributing Editor
Ben Tran (diaCRITICS): How are you doing as we continue to live through and hopefully emerge from the COVID pandemic? What’s it like for you to travel again and to present your work in different countries?
Tuan Andrew Nguyen: I was a bit anxious awaiting the lifting of the travel bans because I knew that all the engagements that were postponed during the pandemic would come back all at once. So I had to remember rather quickly how to travel internationally again. One of the highlights from the last couple of months, besides premiering The Unburied Sounds of a Troubled Horizon in New York in April, was to return to Dakar and present another film I made called, The Specter of Ancestors Becoming. I made this film in collaboration with the Senegalese-Vietnamese community there in Senegal. I almost forgot what it felt like to be with friends and family without a screen between us. It feels so good to finally get to travel again and be in the presence of friends and family.
Ben Tran: Can you give us some context for your recent work, Unburied Sounds? I see some fascinating continuities and development from your previous works. (The images of headless statues, for example, come to mind.) How does this work build on your previous work? How has it deviated from the previous work?
Tuan Andrew Nguyen: This new project continues my investigation into ideas of memory and the aftermath of war. The first part of the project is a film called The Unburied Sounds of a Troubled Horizon, that explores the effects of UXO [unexploded ordnance] in Quảng Trị, the most heavily bombed region in the history of human warfare. The film’s narrative follows a woman named Nguyệt who cares for her mother while managing the scrapyard that her father left behind. She buys and sells bomb metal; there is plenty where she lives. She also uses the bomb metal to make hanging kinetic sculptures. Her mother, who suffers from PTSD, believes Nguyệt is possessed or haunted because of the strange objects that she makes, not to mention that to make these strange objects, she uses the very same material that killed her father and brother. While buying a bomb and other scraps at an old woman’s house, a magazine falls to Nguyệt’s feet opened to a page filled with images of mobiles made by the famous modernist sculptor Alexander Calder. She falls completely into shock because they look exactly like the objects she makes with bomb metal in her scrapyard. This sends her on a journey of strange meetings with unlikely characters who guide her to ultimately realizing that she’s Calder’s reincarnation.
On her journey, she also discovers the healing properties of certain sound frequencies and tunes her metal sculptures to these frequencies – essentially turning material that was once used to destroy, into something that now heals. In the end of the film, she then uses those sound sculptures to help her mother overcome her PTSD.
The other part of the project includes the sculptures that appear in the film. Which essentially are the sculptures that I make and get a chance to experiment with emit sound and induce healing.
Not only does the main protagonist embody the idea of reincarnation but the materials do too. I continue to explore the idea of ‘reincarnation’ as a narrative device and as a way to think about healing and continuation.
Ben Tran: So why Calder, refigured as a defiant Vietnamese woman artist in Quảng Trị toiling in a scrapyard?
Tuan Andrew Nguyen: Calder’s work is fairly recognizable to most audiences, probably more so than many other modern artists. That gives some access into the story for audiences who might not have studied art or art history. In my research I also discovered that Calder was actually very strong in his anti-war stance during the war in Vietnam. And his death was just a year after the end of the war. For me, these uncanny details connect the narrative’s different spaces and times and give enough basis for a reincarnation story. Also the fact that his mobiles were made from various metals also lent itself well to a character working with bomb metal scraps.
If Calder could be reincarnated as a Vietnamese woman who makes art in her scrapyard, then Picasso could’ve been a Senegalese farmer in his previous life, and I could’ve been Frantz Fanon. I think that “reincarnation” as a narrative device can challenge our habit of holding onto the notion that identities are fixed, and the notion of the “other” completely crumbles with this notion. I think of the concept of “reincarnation” as a speculative space. I am quite obsessed with the power of stories to bring people to the space of empathy, but I am even more fascinated with how speculative thinking could undermine and flip the way that one understands things. The facts about Calder’s life and his artwork, when remade in a postwar context in Vietnam by a determined and resilient Vietnamese woman, gives everything another dimension of meaning and re-centers the larger story.