Vietnamese-born German artist Sung Tieu explores the connection between constructed reality and deep-seated Vietnamese spirituality through her first solo exhibition “Remote Viewing” in Hanoi.
The film begins with a slide of negative images set in Mo Cay, a rural district in the southern part of Vietnam.
Layered with footage of the landscape is the sound of the jungle and the echoes of Vietnamese funeral music. As the film goes on, you can hear the shrieks of a baby, and later, the cries and moans of a man. The film transits to images of a group of people sitting in a circle as they perform some kind of a private ritual. One of the women holds three incense sticks, her entire face blurred and her back turned to the camera. The conversation is muted.
The women take turns to look at the camera, signaling, talking, and giving away the idea that they are intimate with the person behind the lens, as if it is the cameraperson who is actually the focus of attention, not those whom the camera is directed at. The film then slips into color, and the sound becomes more intelligible. You can hear the prayers of a man as the film switches back and forth between jungle and domestic scenes.
The film is part of an exhibition by Vietnamese-born German artist Sung Tieu being held at Nha San Collective in Hanoi, where she explores the blurred lines between fact and fiction, between objectivity and subjectivity, between constructed reality and deep-seated Vietnamese spirituality.
The video was filmed by Sung Tieu in Mo Cay District, Nui Ba Den (Black Virgin Mountain) in Tay Ninh Province and her own family home in Hai Duong. The title of the film, “No Gods, No Masters” – a slogan once used by anarchists, feminists and workers in Europe during the 19th and 20th century – suggests Sung’s deliberate decision to juxtapose these seemingly unrelated scenes – one in the wild and one in her own family home.
For “Remote Viewing”, Sung Tieu works with multiple media: video and four-channel sound installations, as well as newspaper prints on fomex.
The intricate sound installation combines her own field recordings in these three settings with the extended version of Ghost tape No.10, a haunting mixtape used by the U.S. army during the Vietnam War to try and get the Viet Cong to surrender.
The three prints, on the other hand, chronicle three different spaces in time: 1969, 1996 and 2017. They are fictious, yet research-based pieces that were written using specific historical implications about the ghost tape, the life of a coconut farmer in Mo Cay and tourism on Black Virgin Mountain. They are the results of a collaboration between Sung Tieu and American journalist Vincent Bevins during an accidental encounter in Vietnam.
Sung Tieu, who is currently based in London, spoke to VnExpress International about her work at Nha San Collective, how it is an effort to maintain the depth and complexitity of the images of Vietnam, the collective memories of the war, and how it interweaves history with her own personal experiences, both as a Vietnamese immigrant and Viet Kieu – a term often used for Vietnamese living abroad.
Remote Viewing (Installation View at Nha San Collective), 2017. Photo courtesy of the artist
Remote Viewing (Installation View at Nha San Collective), 2017. Photo courtesy of the artist
How did you come up with the idea for this project?
During my research for this work, I came across “Ghost Tape No.10”, which is a recording of PSYOP (Psychological Operations) developed by the U.S. military department in Saigon at the time to scare the Vietnamese soldiers.
I visited different places where they broadcast the tape, and that’s why the articles [in the exhibition] are set in Mo Cay and Black Virgin Mountain. The tape was broadcast via loudspeakers from U.S. helicopters, and from the backpacks of the soldiers. The four-minute track consists of four elements: the funeral music, a child screaming “daddy, daddy come home”, noises of the wind that sound almost Holywood-ish, and the father of a dead soldier talking about how he died, saying: “If you’re still alive, my friend, you should go home.”
Very few people know about this tape. It actually took inspiration from Vietnamese spiritual traditions, based on the belief that when your soul wanders far from your ancestors’ land, it will always be restless. Whether the tape worked or not is unknown, but what I thought was interesting about it was the fact that they used psychology as a form of warfare, and in this specific instance, it was related to a ghost, to the spirituality of Vietnamese people.
The film also has footage of your family. What is the connection between these settings – the jungles where the tape was broadcast and your family home?
I was born in Hai Duong Province but I left for Germany with my mother when I was five. Even though I try to come back to Vietnam every year, I still feel like a visitor.
My family here only remember specific moments when I’m visiting, and the rest of the time when I’m not around, I exist only as an image. There are so many gaps in our experiences together that I’ve almost become a ghost. I only appear very rarely and then I disappear.
So the ghost has become a metaphor for the way I perceive my own existence in Vietnam.
Whenever I’m back, my family in Vietnam usually perform this ritual for me. In the video work, you’ll see my aunties praying. They call on a ghost to take possession of one of my aunties’ bodies, and the ghost will speak to me about my future. For the past two years, it has been mostly about marriage, babies and having a stable financial income, because as you know, as an artist I don’t have a stable income.
I thought it was interesting that the image of the ghost shifts from one point of interest to another. If you think about the war, how the Americans used the tape as pyschological warfare, and how in 2017, my family called on the spirit world to talk about contemporary interests and the way I should live my life.
As an artist, you’re asking questions, you’re reflecting on what’s happening within your surroundings, so from a personal perspective, it [spirituality] clearly has an effect. For this exhibition, I’d like to question those beliefs and certain norms, whether it’s gender norms or family structures.
So it’s a comparison between the two places – the jungle and the domestic scenes – that might appear abstract.
“No Gods, No Masters”, 2017 (Video still). Photo courtesy of the artist
Sung Tieu at her exhibition “Remote Viewing”, currently on display at Nha San Collective. Photo by VnExpress/Bao Yen
What about the articles? How do they complement the audio and video installations?
The articles are sort of like an echo to me, the same way the recordings are an echo to the footage. The newspapers are the more factual way to approach the subject.
I collaborated with Vincent who’s a Southeast Asian correspondent, which was interesting for me because as a German, my main source of information is mostly through European newspapers, and they are what mostly shape my views on Vietnam.
The article set in 1969 – “Troops employ phantastic new tools in ‘Nam” – is fictional in a way because it is based on facts but it never took place. We compiled information that we thought was interesting, for example, about the ghost tape and Nixon. It was written from an American perspective, you can read that through the subtlety of the writing. We purposely tried to report about the Vietnam War at the time to look at the use of language.
The other two articles, “Life plods along in the Mekong” and “Destination: Black Virgin Mountain”, are set in Mo Cay and the Black Virgin Mountain where the ghost tape was broadcast, and they were mainly sourced from my own experiences. For the one in 1996 about Mo Cay, we wrote about a farmer living there. The farmers lived remotely and were not exposed to the changes that the cities in Vietnam went through. I feel their story is a reflection of Vietnam’s economy. As for the farmers, their life hasn’t changed much.
On the other hand, the 2017 article about the Black Virgin Mountain is more about tourism. The mountain witnessed heavy fighting during the war, but today it’s a tourist destination. The tourism industry has re-occupied the mountain, reclaimed it for a purpose. There are different myths about the Black Virgin herself, and one of them is that she killed herself by jumping off the mountain over a loveless affair. Her soul is restless, just like the ghost in the tape. Tourism is interesting to us because it plays such a big part in the way Vietnam is viewed from abroad. If you think about war tourism, the Cu Chi Tunnels, and everything about it.
The newspaper prints are a way to reflect the style of writing and to question that very American perspective, to look at all the different methods of how newspaper articles are constructed to convey a certain truth, and to question our access of information, how we construct fact and fiction or supposedly objective media.
You left Vietnam when you were very young. Can you talk about your experience as an immigrant in Germany and how that is reflected in your work?
My previous works deal with Vietnamese disapora in Berlin. I was interested in how the Vietnamese community made a living in a new country, so I looked into the economic forces.
I was doing a few projects on Dong Xuan Center, which is the Vietnamese shopping mall in Berlin. I wanted to find out how the mall serves as a source of income for the Vietnamese community there. The first generation of immigrants didn’t have a university education and their language skills were limited. The only way to sustain a living was to open a business because you didn’t need an apprenticeship or a university degree.
The Dong Xuan center is the very core of the Vietnamese community in Berlin. The name and the location of the market itself already speak a lot about the North – South, East – West divide, because the center is located in East Berlin [where many Northern Vietnamese lived].
So for the project, I listed different recruitment agreements that Germany had signed, for example, with Vietnam, Turkey and Eastern European countries, to invite them to come and work to help Germans to rebuild their country.
I think we forget very quickly how things came about in the past because we are so in the present, and I just wanted to remind people how the Dong Xuan center came into being by remembering different recruitment agreements that existed, that once, migrants were welcomed because they were needed. So that was the statement I wanted to make at the time.
Between Nations, 2015. (Installation view at CECO
LED, Dong Xuan Center, Berlin). Photo courtesy of the artist
Most of your projects seem to be about the past, about Vietnam.
The Vietnam War is predominantly what I’m exposed to when I’m abroad. And so that’s something, because I’m not living in Vietnam and what I’m exposed to is almost historical. That’s interesting for me.
Vietnam is like a chapter that I needed to explore. When we talk about the Vietnamese diaspora, for instance, there’s not much work being done in this field, so I thought I could explore on my own because I’m not tied down to any historical reconstruction of it. But even though a lot of my works have to do with Vietnam, I don’t want to limit myself to what I can work on.
This exhibition is almost like a way to mirror what I saw, rather than judging what I have seen. It reflects the perceptions of being both an insider and an outsider.
Vietnam, as any other country, is extremely complex and the exhibition strives to keep that complexity.
Sung Tieu, “No Gods, No Masters”, 2017 (Excerpt). Courtesy of the artist
“Remote Viewing” is open to the public until September 23 at Nha San Collective, from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.