In the Art of Tuan Andrew Nguyen, Vietnam’s Nightmares Live On


One of the wisest, most beautiful and unsettling exhibitions in New York this summer is “Tuan Andrew Nguyen: Radiant Remembrance” at the New Museum, a show about coming to terms with the intergenerational trauma of war. Nguyen works in video and also makes art objects pertaining to them. In the three recent moving-image installations here he creates narratives that operate in cinematic and real space in different, often affecting ways.

Nguyen was born in Saigon, Vietnam, in 1976, and came to the United States with his family three years later. His family lived in Oklahoma, Texas and Southern California, where he earned a B.A. and an M.F. A. Revisiting Vietnam as a young man, he came to see the country and its trials as the primary subject of his art; in 2005 he moved to Ho Chi Minh City, where he continues to live and work.

Nguyen is a documentarian and an assembler of broken things with a preference for collaboration. His work aims to heal the fragmented lives and retrieve the suppressed memories of the marginalized people most affected by colonization, war and displacement, especially in Vietnam.

The artist’s first major exhibition in an American museum, “Radiant Remembrance,” has been organized by Vivian Crockett, a curator at the museum, and Ian Wallace, a curatorial assistant. Its video installations focus on people who live in the shadow of the two long wars for Vietnamese independence.

“The Specter of Ancestors Becoming” (2019) and “Because No One Living Will Listen” (2023) explore the aftermath of the First Indochina War (1946-1954). “The Unburied Sounds of a Troubled Horizon” (2022), the most ambitious work — and possibly a masterpiece — takes up the Vietnam War (1955-1975), which was known in Vietnam as the American War.

Nguyen’s taste for collective artmaking began when, as an undergraduate, he was active in a graffiti crew. It resurfaced in 2006 when he became co-founder of the Propeller Group, a three-artist collective that was especially active in the 2010s.

His own moving-image works are also collaborative: Their stories are based less on official archives than on personal interviews with people who can end up enacting versions of themselves in front of his camera.

He also strives for collaboration among art mediums: most impressively in his sculptures but also in photographs and drawings that accompany the video pieces here.

His working method is clearest in “The Unburied Sounds of a Troubled Horizon,” a 58-minute video that is exhibited with a group of sculptures that also appear onscreen. The ensemble was shown at the James Cohan Gallery last year. It exemplifies Nguyen’s ability to make material, space and perception, both in and around his films — what I would call form — a powerful part of their narratives.

“Unburied Sounds” is set in Quang Tri, a Vietnamese province where abundant munitions fragments and unexploded ordinance (UXO’s) from U.S. bombings are a constant danger and a material resource. They are also the through-line of the video’s plot and the connection to the accompanying sculptures.

The sculptures, all from 2022, give new purposes and meanings to the discarded war metals. “Unexploded Resonance” is the shell of a large bomb, dropped from a B-52 aircraft; it hangs from an antique wood stanchion and serves as a temple gong. “Shattered Arms” is a carved wood statue of the goddess Quan Yin, whose damaged arms and hands have been repaired with shiny brass new ones cast from artillery shells. Brass also figures in “A Rising Moon Through the Smoke,” which copies and translates a signature mobile by the American sculptor Alexander Calder into an artifact worthy of Eastern cultures.

These objects all appear in the film, essential to its tragic, indomitable tale. The film’s main character is Nguyet (the actress Nguyen Kim Oanh), a young artist who collects scrap metal to make her living and her sculpture. Having been born in 1976, shortly after Calder’s death, she believes she is his reincarnation. Another important character is Lai (Ho Van Lai, playing himself) who was horribly maimed as a child when he accidentally detonated a cluster bomb. In the final scene of the film, he sits in saintly serenity on the rocks of a shallow stream, wearing the prosthetic brass hands that Nguyen made to repair the Quan Yin sculpture.

Neither of the remaining pieces have this knitting-together of objects and video. However a four-channel video, “The Specter of Ancestors Becoming” (28:30), achieves its own impact — a kind of slow-moving kaleidoscope — by projecting short scenes of intergenerational and cross-cultural exchanges among the descendants of the Senegalese troops who were enlisted to fight for the French in the First Indochina War, and took Vietnamese wives.

In one segment, a Senegalese-Vietnamese adolescent combs the long, straight hair of her Vietnamese grandmother, while gently quizzing the older woman about her past life in a country that which she will never see again. In another, a Senegalese father argues heatedly with his Senegalese-Vietnamese son, who has named his baby daughter after his Vietnamese mother — still in Vietnam, whose existence his father has done everything to erase.

“Because No One Living Will Listen” (11:30 minutes) is a two-channel video that is Nguyen’s most recent work, and his first to use CGI (computer-generated imagery), which increases the visionary quality of his efforts. It centers on Habiba, a Vietnamese woman who moves mournfully through the landscape holding a letter like a talisman that she has written to her dead Moroccan father, who died when she was a baby. To either side of the screen hang embroideries on white khaki fabric — enlarged versions of propaganda pamphlets that the Viet Minh insurgents dropped on French colonial troops urging them to defect, which Habiba’s father did. Balancing this change of scale, she carries and ultimately burns a small model of the Morocco Gate, built in Hanoi in the late 1950s by Moroccan defectors from the French Army. The elegant anguish of the work’s title sums up her predicament.

The undercurrent of enduring suffering in the wake of war lies at the heart of “Radiant Remembrance” and runs through Nguyen’s work. Suffering is in the details, he seems to say. Nonetheless, his skill at excavating them and at embedding them in moving images and art objects makes this an inspiring, even exhilarating show.

Tuan Andrew Nguyen: Radiant Remembrance

Through Sept. 17, the New Museum, 235 Bowery, Manhattan, (212) 219-1222, newmuseum.org



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