Tuan Andrew Nguyen’s videos and sculptures uncover haunting artifacts and stories from the Vietnam War. They’re coming soon to the New Museum.
By Frank Rose for the New York Times. Photo by Harry Vu.
Not quite 20 minutes into “The Unburied Sounds of a Troubled Horizon,” a film by the artist Tuan Andrew Nguyen, the camera settles on a distinctive-looking monument at the far end of a wooden footbridge. We’re in Quang Tri province, central Vietnam. The bridge spans the Ben Hai River, which for 21 years, from the French debacle at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 to the fall of Saigon in 1975, was the demarcation line between North and South Vietnam. A couple of miles in either direction was the so-called Demilitarized Zone, a “buffer” that became one of the most-bombed places on the planet.
This reconstructed footbridge was the tenuous link that connected warring halves of the divided country. The postwar monument at its southern end is called Desire for National Reunification, but the tragic reality of this place is that it is so littered with unexploded shells that anyone who ventures beyond a few well-worn paths risks being blown apart. Memories fade but the trauma survives, not just in peoples’ minds but in the land they inhabit.
“Unburied Sounds” is the centerpiece of “Tuan Andrew Nguyen: Radiant Remembrance,” set to open at the New Museum in Manhattan on June 29 — less than a month after he was awarded the 2023 Joan Miro Prize in Barcelona. It will be his first major solo museum exhibition in the United States. The last time he was in a leading American art institution, six years ago, was with the Propeller Group, the Ho Chi Minh City-based collective that captured the art world’s attention even as the trio was on the verge of splintering.
The Propeller Group was known for the sly and artful commentary of such projects as “Television Commercial for Communism,” a mock rebranding campaign that presented the New Communism as a slightly daffy lifestyle choice characterized by loosefitting clothes, sappy folk music and smile after friendly smile. Nguyen’s current work is more personal, more subtle and more ambitious. His videos, which along with artifacts he created for them, will fill the third-floor galleries of the New Museum, exploring questions of memory and identity with an urgency that only someone caught between two cultures — someone whose given names are “Tuan” and “Andrew,” for example — could muster.
“Since the Propeller Group, a lot of my work has been about memory,” the 47-year-old artist said in a video interview from his studio in Ho Chi Minh City. “And how memory functions to help us deal with trauma. Intergenerational trauma.”
Nguyen was born in Ho Chi Minh City in 1976, the son of a former South Vietnamese draftee. He was 2 years old when his parents escaped Vietnam as “boat people.” He grew up in Oklahoma, Texas and then Southern California, where he discovered art as a pre-med student at the University of California, Irvine. He studied there under Daniel Joseph Martinez, the artist who was either celebrated or notorious, depending on your point of view, for his contribution to the famously disputatious 1993 Whitney Biennial: a collection of little metal museum tags that each carried a word or two of the message “I Can’t Imagine Ever Wanting To Be White.” Nguyen also imbibed American street culture — hip-hop, break dancing, graffiti. Then, after earning an M.F.A. from the California Institute of the Arts, he returned to the city his parents had fled.
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