Sung Tieu, Moving Target Shadow Detection, 2022, HD animation, color and black-and-white, sound, 18 minutes 56 seconds.

Sung Tieu, Moving Target Shadow Detection, 2022, HD animation, color and black-and-white, sound, 18 minutes 56 seconds.

Sung Tieu

The first thing you noticed on entering Sung Tieu’s solo exhibition “Everything or Nothing” was the sound. It occupied the space like something physical, growing louder and louder, both drawing you in and repelling you. It was a speculative reconstruction of the sonic weapon that allegedly causes the unexplained symptoms known as Havana syndrome, reproduced for Tieu’s Moving Target Shadow Detection, 2022, a Frieze Artist Award commission. The video takes us through a meticulous 3D rendering of the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, where Havana syndrome was first recorded. We hover and float through its strange palatial architecture from the perspective of a drone on an exploratory mission. We pass through lobbies, take an elevator up a few floors, and find ourselves in a deserted hotel room where clothes and personal items lie strewn about and a TV is on. It is tuned to an American news channel report on US vice president Kamala Harris’s 2021 visit to Southeast Asia and a concurrent alleged incident of Havana syndrome experienced by American officials in Hanoi. Gradually, the room begins to fill with smoke rushing in from the vents, and slowly the drone’s vision—our vision—begins to be obscured. Finally, as the screen grows white, the drone makes its escape from the hotel and out toward the sea.

The film provides a visceral yet cheeky look at the world of psyops, of intelligence and counterintelligence, and of the often shadowy phenomena that are crucial to the making of our political realities. It takes off from previous projects such as the artist’s 2020 solo exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary in the UK, “In Cold Print,” which looked at the tension between the fictional and the real within the world of counterintelligence. In the Sfeir-Semler show, prints continuing a series first shown in that exhibition, made from brain scans taken from the artist while exposing herself to the sound that’s supposed to cause Havana syndrome, accompanied Moving Target Shadow Detection, bringing together multiple strands of Tieu’s research into the continuing legacies of the Cold War.

Upstairs, we were confronted with a feeling of silence and solemnity: Here, the artist used the history of East German recruitment of North Vietnamese laborers to think about questions of labor (and its invisibility), of movement, and of aspiration. Fall, 2021, a collapsed dome made of Styrofoam sections, dominated the space, evoking an imploded church. In a different orientation, this sculpture was part of Tieu’s exhibition “Multiboy” at the Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst in Leipzig in 2021, which dwelled on the tension between the aspirations of the North Vietnamese guest workers and the conditions of labor and life they endured in the former German Democratic Republic. Employment contracts and bureaucratic documents pertaining to their arrival and presence in Germany lined the walls in silver frames, making these quietly violent pieces of paper seem like votive icons. All around the dome were examples of products the workers had been engaged in manufacturing, from industrial equipment to children’s shoes. Tieu comments on the history of the readymade, drawing attention to the labor that is obscured in such acts of appropriation.

While her own family history intersects with this narrative, Tieu gestures away from any reading of her work as purely personal or identity-driven. One might instead call her position identity-informed: a site of orientation from which one investigates. The show as a whole, especially in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine shortly after it opened, provided a cerebral yet chilling reminder that the Cold War never really ended, and indeed has never been cold.