In Tuan Andrew Nguyen’s latest work, The Boat People (2020), a group of children search for objects left over from the ruins of human civilization. Led by a young girl, who we learn is the last woman on earth, the children call themselves the boat people, referring to their mode of transportation and reclaiming the derogatory term describing refugees who fled Vietnam by sea following the end of the American war in Vietnam in 1975. As the last survivors of the human race, the phrase becomes one of pride.
To seek the stories of their ancestors, the children meticulously create wooden replicas of the objects they encounter—and eventually burn them, releasing their ashes into the ocean in a ritual unknowable to the viewer. When the girl encounters the severed head of a Quan Yin statue on the beach, they discuss death, intergenerational knowledge, the afterlife, and more.
Set in Bataan, Philippines, the children find Buddhist and Catholic sculptures, but only replicate the Buddhist ones. Nguyen previously explored these religious tensions in Enemy’s Enemy: A Monument to A Monument (2009), where an image of Thích Quảng Đức self-immolating—one based on a famed photograph of the Buddhist monk’s 1963 protest against the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government and its pro-Catholic policies that repressed the Buddhist community—is carved into a baseball bat. And these themes of war and migration run throughout the artist’s entire oeuvre, particularly in his four-channel video installation The Spector of Ancestors Becoming (2019), which focuses on the descendants of Senegalese soldiers of the French army deployed to Indochina between 1947 and 1954 to extinguish Vietnamese uprisings against French colonial rule.
In The Boat People, Nguyen considers what happens when we’re left without our ancestors. The work debuted in March at James Cohan Gallery in New York, serving as the centerpiece of Nguyen’s solo exhibition “A Lotus in a Sea of Fire.” (The exhibition, which also features charred wood sculptures, is currently closed to the public but accessible online.) While in New York for the opening, Nguyen, who is based in Ho Chi Minh City, sat down with ARTnews to discuss his latest work and his decades-long career examining racial memory and the legacy of colonialism.
ARTnews: In The Boat People, the objects the children recreate have largely landed in the Philippines as a result of political strife. I was reminded of your work Enemy’s Enemy: A Monument to A Monument, which touches upon cultural transmission resulting from invasion—specifically as it relates to baseball, an American sport, and what’s left behind even after military occupation ends. Why did you decide to focus on the legacies of colonialism and the physical objects and cultural remnants left in the wake of colonization?
Tuan Andrew Nguyen: Colonialism changed the world in so many different ways, and the legacies of it weigh heavy, especially in places like Vietnam and the Philippines. Oftentimes it’s not apparent—it undulates under the skin and resurfaces in how we relate to each other. In Vietnam, the residue of colonialism comes up through food and language, and even how we think about race. People in Vietnam still have a penchant for lighter skin, for instance, so it runs deep and it’s a continually destructive legacy. Because it’s so invisible most of the time, I think about how to make it visible, and that’s in the monuments as well as the architecture that are left over. I’m looking at those objects to talk about something else—the intangible voids that we have from the colonial project. When you anchor that into an object, it’s easier to wrap your head around all of the destructions that have occurred.
Because you’re able to focus on the materiality?
Yeah, you can focus on the materiality of it, so you can cite those traumas in the object. And a lot of my work is about how objects have—or don’t have—stories. I think objects have a certain kind of karma, and the life of an object and the things that objects have witnessed and hold testimonies to are quite fascinating. What were the causes and conditions that enabled an object to survive through time, through intense periods of war, for instance?
And you deal specifically with surviving religious statues and historical memorials in The Boat People. How has your thinking around monuments, their roles and their functions, changed since making Enemy’s Enemy: A Monument to A Monument over a decade ago?
My obsession then was with the grand political motivations behind monuments, whether erecting or destroying them. For Enemy’s Enemy: A Monument to A Monument, I was thinking about the political motivation to erect this huge statue of Thích Quảng Đức, but I guess I was also thinking about what it means to make a smaller monument. The shrine to Thích Quảng Đức that was made by the community was quite forgotten when that huge monument was erected across the street.
My thinking about monuments drastically changed when I was doing The Island (2017). It was a film shot in Pulau Bidong, an island off the coast of Malaysia. I was originally interested in the island because a group of refugees came back to build a memorial to the boat people, refugees who escaped Vietnam by sea. And six months later, the memorial was destroyed, and no one at the time knew why or by whom. We later found out that it was the government in Hanoi that gave orders to the Malaysian government for its destruction. So it was a community organized memorialization of those histories, and at the same time, a politically motivated destruction.
I am still interested in those interrogations, but in this current exhibition, I’m looking more at monuments that were unintentional. This boat in the refugee museum in Bataan ends up becoming a monument. The Quan Yin statues and Buddhist temples built by hand by refugees were also unintended monuments, and almost in opposition to political monuments. I’m thinking about the things people make when they’re in these states of liminality, and the political significance that has.
It’s interesting, because you mention the role of governments in the lives of monuments, and in The Boat People, the children create replicas of monuments but also destroy those copies in the end. Within the context of funerary practices in Vietnam and the Philippines, is burning the replicas a votive offering, transporting the monuments from this realm to the afterlife?
Well, what does it mean to send a monument to the afterlife, and who needs that, and what kind of stories does the monument encapsulate and embody? We often think of sending personal items, like money or…
Houses, clothes. Now they even have little car votives and iPhones. I feel like we sometimes need monuments and memorials to ground us in certain histories, and at other times, we need to be free from the oppressive politics of some. There’s one scene where the girl says she’ll free the statue head in her way: by making a copy, burning it, and scattering the ashes into the ocean. But the statue head says that she’s rolled herself to the beach and is going to free herself. Who liberates whom? That idea of liberation is so interesting, to liberate yourself from the histories that hold you, and at the same time, to be empowered by those histories.
When illuminating overlooked histories and moments of political turmoil, you do so through personal conversations. How did you land on dialogue as your storytelling vehicle?
I see dialogue as a counter-position to the monologue, voiceover, or essay film, which are relevant formats, but largely operate from a singular point of view or multiple points of view with similar investments in a certain political positioning. I aim to create a dialectic by looking at conflict through two positions, essentially a discussion, where opposing desires are pitted against each other. This idea of a dialogue, for me, relates back to the Vietnam War being a civil war. It could’ve been a space to discover or develop other potentialities between two very different outlooks as to how the country should move forward after coming out of colonialism, but unfortunately became extremely destructive armed conflict.
For my forthcoming [film that is being shot] in Marseille, France, I’ve been exploring this idea of ventriloquism. I’m working with a group of undocumented migrants, and we’re thinking through how migrants and the diasporic subject must perform ourselves in ways that are haunting and complex. There’s a simultaneous sense of embodiment and disembodiment, and I think that’s something that also happens between the two opposing screens in The Specter of Ancestors Becoming. On one screen, we see and hear a writer/performer reading the scene they wrote, and on the opposite screen, members of the Senegalese-Vietnamese community enact the scene, trying to sync their actions and lips to the dialogue being read.
I am obsessed with looking at how narrative functions within the context of history, especially through the lens of memory. Working with communities that have been made invisible through history and the different threads of history, such as colonialism and post-war migration, I believe I can help empower them again through storytelling.
A common theme in your work is the fragmentation of history and memory. The Specter of Ancestors Becoming imagined potential histories that could have been, and attempts to retain or recover cultural and intergenerational knowledge. The Boat People seems to be a departure from this notion of becoming whole. When the children were recreating the arms of the Quan Yin statue, they sculpted the hands as whole even though the actual statue had fingers missing.
That’s a very precise observation.
And the girl originally wanted to reunite the head of a different Quan Yin statue with the rest of its body, but the deity very strongly objects to that. By the end of the film, the head remains separated. How have your perceptions of wholeness, completeness, and fragmentation evolved since The Specter of Ancestors Becoming?
I think even when I was making The Specter of Ancestors Becoming, I didn’t subscribe to any belief that a whole sense of identity or history was possible. Part of that is due to my understanding of how decimated some of these histories were and how impossible they are to repair. In The Boat People, there’s an attempt, and I think there’s one throughout all of my work. It’s a genuine attempt that exists within this knowledge that you have to try but it’s impossible to have any whole conception of history or identity. It’s Sisyphean. And I think that’s a diasporic condition and a post-colonial condition. But our resistance lies in the attempt.
You’ve mentioned in the past that you were born in Sài Gòn, grew up in the U.S., and you moved back to Vietnam after you completed your M.F.A. at CalArts. How did those themes of wanting to return to motherland come up, if they did, while you were working on The Specter of Ancestors Becoming?
I think being in Vietnam liberated me from this notion of motherland. I had started going back to Vietnam in 1998 when I was in college. I grew up hearing these amazing stories about my grandmother, who, during the Vietnam War, was editor in chief of a highly politicized newspaper that was critical of both sides of the war, which was very rare at the time. In my larger family, my grandmother is one of the only people who followed her dreams of becoming a writer, and she became a published poet at a really young age, which was quite amazing in Vietnam at the time because that would have been in the 1930s. And my grandmother just turned 100 years old last year. My desire was to be with her, to understand her story and learn from her. I had this belief that if I could anchor myself in that very specific history, her history, then I could find more empowerment in that than in a generalized, essentialized idea of a motherland. I think it’s those personal histories that mean more, because that notion of finding roots or a whole sense of identity isn’t possible as a diasporic subject.
Thinking back to your project in Marseille, the idea of performance within a racial context reminds me of racial spectacles as performance, but also the mental gymnastics performed by diasporic subjects to avoid being seen as spectacle. As a Chinese American, I’m hyper-aware of how much space I occupy and often I’m looking at myself being looked at. Simply moving through the world has become something of a performance for me. When I speak of the idea of motherland, I envision it as a place where that racialized performance wouldn’t be necessary, but how has reality compared?
My first thought is that the U.S. is a highly racialized space—and a highly racist place to be. For me, returning to Vietnam, I became highly aware that I was also performing as a Việt Kiều, as a returnee, and there was a kind of hyper-awareness in that for me for an extended period of time, but not in the way that I have to be hyper-aware of my presence here in the U.S.. The awareness is totally different as the stakes are totally different.
Do you think that’s part of the diasporic condition?
Probably, yeah, because when I return to Vietnam, I’m also returning as a diasporic subject. When I’m moving around in the U.S., I’m definitely a diasporic subject. It’s a condition that one can’t escape.