Photo for Art in America by Harry Vu
Born in 1976 in Saigon, Nguyen emigrated with his family as a refugee to the United States in 1979, and grew up in California. He began regularly visiting Vietnam during college, and after receiving his MFA from California Institute of the Arts in 2004, relocated to Ho Chi Minh City, where he cofounded the Propeller Group artist collective in 2006 and the nonprofit art space Sàn Art in 2007.
While there can be a certain melancholy among diasporic artists grasping at generalized ideas of a motherland, Nguyen circumvents that disappointment by rooting his work in specific histories that he rigorously researches in order to make room for poetry. In The Specters of Ancestors Becoming (2019), Nguyen worked with members of the Vietnamese community in Senegal, whose origins trace back to West African soldiers sent by French colonizers to fight against the Vietnamese liberation uprisings in the 1940s. Nguyen asked members of the community to devise and enact conversations with their elders, showing how fragmented consciousness of cultural inheritance is communicated between generations.
Such intergenerational transmission recurs frequently in Nguyen’s work. We Were Lost in Our Country (2019) features interviews with members of the Aboriginal Ngurrara community in Western Australia alongside testimony about the Ngurrara Canvas II, an immense painting made by 40 Ngurrara artists that depicts a map of their land created as evidence to reclaim that land from the Australian government. Many of the original artists having died, the painting serves as a complex dialogue between ancestors and descendants. The ways in which land bears witness also figure in The Island (2017) and The Boat People (2020), both of which look at two sites of former Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian refugee camps. Rather than aligning these sites solely with past traumas, Nguyen presents them as places of generative fantasy, where bodies are empowered by oceans instead of drowning in them and where the fate of being the last humans on Earth affords new communion with objects and the landscape. For refugees past and present, this type of ingenuity is a survival strategy.
Nguyen is never satisfied with research as a static mode of exposition: when archival footage is interwoven into his films, it is in part to question the motives of the camera and the coercive tactics of the moving image, while conjuring distinct power in the refusal to present a single truth. In an interview over Zoom during a family visit in Orange County, California, Nguyen—the subject of a solo show opening at the New Museum in New York this coming June—spoke about his long-term relationships with his collaborators, using a biennial as a civic tool, and the potency of sharing personal histories.
LUMI TAN For the sake of a shared vocabulary, how would you define “research” as it figures in your practice?
TUAN ANDREW NGUYEN Research involves listening to people’s stories and being attuned to the frequencies of knowledge making its way to you. Many of my projects are based on topics that I learned through stories as a child. The Island, for example, was shot on an island off the coast of Malaysia that was the site of one of the largest refugee camps after the American war in Vietnam. The story of this place came up numerous times at the dinner table, during death anniversaries or family gatherings. It impressed so deeply in my psyche that, when I was in Malaysia for an event, I suddenly remembered those stories and I made an impromptu trip to the coast to find this island, which then became the subject of the film.
Research also involves this strange push and pull between wanting and accepting. When I’m doing research, there’s always something I want from it—I want it to go a certain way to continue the dialogue of the work I’ve made previously and the histories I’m interested in. But I also have to accept where it takes me. I learned that in a really significant way when I was making The Specter of Ancestors Becoming (2019). I grew up hearing stories about my grandfather’s younger brother, my granduncle, who was a conscript in the French army. He hated the French, but he was forced to fight on their side against the Vietnamese uprising. After that battle, he was sent to Algeria and experienced the Algerian revolution against the French. After that, he was sent to Martinique, another French colony.
As I grew up and began to understand colonial history, I realized he must’ve been a French tirailleur, a colonial soldier. I began finding statistics about the hundreds of thousands of colonial conscripts who were sent to Europe to defend France during World War I and World War II. I was intrigued with the possibilities of finding solidarities and friendships between tirailleurs from different French colonies. Did Senegalese tirailleurs support and defend Indochinese tirailleurs, or vice versa? If so, what did that look like? What kind of relationships were built there? That desire came from my own personal history of hearing his stories and my experiences in the American South and wanting to see more solidarity between people of color. Of course, there was no proof or documentation that any such solidarities happened. Maybe it was purposely erased from the books, or maybe the French didn’t put the tirailleurs together. It wasn’t until I was on the ground in Dakar and started sharing stories with people that a whole other way of understanding the history of French colonial soldiers, beyond the textbook research, made itself visible.
Another way of looking at research is to think about how the research will be shared. Will it be fictionalized? Will information be shared in a way that is generous but not didactic? I’m not an academic researcher. I’m not going to write a book about the history of colonial soldiers. So how do I make it more interesting and accessible to people?
TAN Have there been times when a certain trust was afforded to you because you’re an artist and
not a historian or anthropologist, or because your artistic approach prioritizes building relationships through listening?
NGUYEN Introducing myself as an artist to different communities has not helped me in regard to gaining trust. People are uncertain of what artists do. If I introduce myself as a filmmaker, though, people who don’t have a background in art oftentimes find it easier to imagine what we might produce together. I also find that it helps to share my story first. When I first met the Ngurrara people in Western Australia for We Were Lost in Our Country, the community were wondering, “Why is a Vietnamese-American filmmaker interested in working with us?” For me, their story is very much a story of forced migration—they were forced to migrate off their native desert land and work on cattle stations. I can understand that, I can empathize with that. We found ties between our similar stories, and that allowed the conversation to become more open and trusting. Trust is crucial. It’s easy to go into a community, make an artwork, and then leave. But that’s really problematic because people’s stories then just become commodities used to promote certain political agendas or make profit. That’s what advertising and propaganda do, and that’s exactly what I’m working against.
TAN How much responsibility do you feel toward locality in your work, and/or within the biennial circuit? For some projects, such as Crimes of Solidarity (2020), made for Manifesta 13 in Marseille, the labor you put into that to engage locally is extremely apparent.
NGUYEN Manifesta 13 was a special situation. I really enjoy having the support to be able to address a local situation; on the other hand, when a project like The Specter of Ancestors Becoming gets to travel from Dakar around the world and garners a lot of positive response, that is deeply encouraging. Stories that are little-known to the rest of the world get to be shared. That gets back to the community, and they are happy. They feel empowered and proud that their film gets to travel and be seen by so many people.
[In Marseille] not only was there a large community of people having to deal with an urgent housing situation, but also the pandemic forced us to work remotely. We collaboratively made a 71-minute film and performance through online chat applications like WhatsApp, Skype, and Zoom. The project began at a squat called Squat Saint-Just that came to house more than 250 or so inhabitants, mostly asylum seekers from places like Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. The squat was under threat of being torn down by the city, and tenants and volunteers were fighting to keep it from closing. It was a place of care and solidarity, a place that needed solidarity in order to continue.
I wanted to utilize Manifesta’s relationship and bargaining power with Marseille, and I wanted to contribute to the squat in some way. So I proposed to the volunteers and tenants that we make a film about the squat that could speak about the housing situation in Marseille and asylum seekers there in general. Then we would show it in the squat so that it would become a venue of the Biennial—the logic being that, if it’s an official exhibition venue of the biennial, then the city can’t tear it down. And also, if my collaborators were listed as official artists/collaborators in an artwork for Manifesta, they couldn’t be deported.
TAN How did the process of making the film work?
NGUYEN A lot of the scenes were shot as testimonial clips on smartphones and shared back and forth between Marseille and Saigon, where I was locked down. It was important that the writers/actors not only [contribute] to the film but that they have a role every time the film was shown. We removed the [recordings of] dialogue, so they would enact their own dialogue live on stage. Their presence was necessary for the artwork to exist; in order for the work to be realized, it was a requirement that they were physically present in Marseille, in the squat. The idea was to have another level of protection for the participants from deportation and/or being thrown out into the streets.
The squat mysteriously burned down midway through the project. Luckily, with the help of the Manifesta team, we were able to switch up the plans and managed to perform the work during a lull in the pandemic in November 2020. We got one chance, one day, to perform the piece at the music conservatory of Marseille.
TAN How has the collaborative process you employed for Crimes of Solidarity worked with other communities you have engaged?
NGUYEN For most of the projects, I’ll ask people from the communities to participate by writing, and I’ll assist in the writing process. It’s really important for certain topics to have their voices present, and to have their voices be the lead. For The Boat People, shot in Bataan in the Philippines, I invited children from a nearby fishing village to participate as actors. Their understanding of the histories of that place wasn’t fully formed. But it was OK. The film, on one hand, was very much about the history of the site of Bataan as a place where Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian refugees had landed. But it’s also about the traumas of that particular geography during WWII and the multiple migrations in that archipelago. It was also very much about thinking about the future of a space like that, as the narrative was set in a dystopic future where these children roam the world searching for lost histories.
That project was a little bit different than The Specter of Ancestors Becoming and We Were Lost in Our Country. Those projects, in Senegal and Western Australia respectively, were informed by the people in the communities who were dealing with their specific histories and the erasures associated. For most projects, it’s really important that people from the community actually participate not only as actors but as speakers and writers. And in the process of writing and making, everybody involved learns a lot. The research doesn’t end when you press “record” on the video camera: it continues when the camera is rolling and after it’s stopped. That’s when a lot of the research unfolds itself.
TAN Does it also continue after it’s shared with the public? There’s so much that is learned after it’s opened up to different audiences.
NGUYEN Totally. Earlier this year, we were able to finally show The Specter of Ancestors Becoming in Dakar, where it was shot. It was shown at Raw Material Company, which played a major role in the research on the ground. Members of the community who didn’t take part in the film attended the opening celebrations, and so many more stories came out. People volunteered images from their personal family photo archives that ended up in the installation.
TAN You often exhibit objects that are related to your films. How do you understand those forms in terms of communicating with audiences? Your objects are typically presented within institutional walls, whereas film and performance can be circulated much more broadly.
NGUYEN I’m fascinated with the relationship between the intangible narrative and the very tangible object. I think it comes from not having many things when we arrived in the US. Everything we managed to bring had a story—a story of how it survived the journey, a story of its origin, a story that connected that particular object to other objects and with other stories. So I often exhibit objects along with moving-image works. The objects and the narrative are intertwined.
The narrative element gives life to the objects, helping them move beyond commodity. It’s very animist at its core. I don’t share my video work widely on the internet because I think it’s important to experience it in the space where sound can be spatialized, and where the film is in proximity to the objects that appear in it. Sound and space are important. Moving images and sound allow me to do things that wall text alone does not. I am able to layer narrative and meaning, and present questions in more complex and entangled ways. The challenge is how to captivate viewers for an extended period of time long enough for them to have a visceral response or embodied understanding of the stories.