New York

Tuan Andrew Nguyen, The Unburied Sounds of a Troubled Horizon, 2022, 4K video, color, sound, 60 minutes.

Tuan Andrew Nguyen, The Unburied Sounds of a Troubled Horizon, 2022, 4K video, color, sound, 60 minutes.

Tuan Andrew Nguyen

Working primarily in film and sculpture, Tuan Andrew Nguyen, who is based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, seeks to give visibility and voice to displaced and marginalized communities, often through the use of what theorist Marianne Hirsch has called “testimonial objects,” i.e., physical repositories of memory that retain the agency to narrate these recollections. Tackling the lingering trauma of the Vietnam War, the centerpiece of this exhibition—which also featured a selection of sculptures and photographs—was The Unburied Sounds of a Troubled Horizon, 2022, a feature-length film shot in the central province of Quảng Trị, one of the most heavily bombed areas in the history of modern warfare. Its lush landscape is still studded with tons of unexploded ordnance that continues to claim lives and limbs. For Nguyen, this lethal quarry is a handy material metaphor that bears the traces of the otherwise invisible and ongoing psychological trauma of war; its “unburying,” while fraught with danger, is necessary for people to process their pain.

The film’s protagonist, Nguyet, runs a scrapyard and lives with her mom, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and haplessly mourns her long-dead husband and son. Scavenging and selling unexploded ammunition, Nguyet also compulsively transforms these residues of war into mobiles that bear an uncanny resemblance to the works of Alexander Calder. The film’s speculative premise is that she is the American artist reincarnated; it is also about Nguyet’s discovering the purpose and potential of the objects she makes, which, as compared to the shovels or planters into which shells are more commonly refashioned, initially appear to have no utility. (The reference to Calder reminds us of the artist’s principled antiwar position, expressed through both art and activism, a radical politics that became subjugated within canonical art-historical accounts to his aesthetic innovations.)

Nguyen’s films are the end products of a sustained process of contextual research and community dialogue. For Unburied Sounds, he skillfully weaves Nguyet’s fictional journey together with folklore, history, and testimony, with ghost stories and survivor accounts, enriching and complicating the work’s narrative arc. Nguyet’s aunt tells her about a village haunted by the mutually antagonistic spirits of two brothers who fought on opposing sides during the war, their bodies and souls never having been properly laid to rest. A young monk recounts the history of a nearby temple that was bombed in 1968; while one explosive destroyed the building’s front wall, another failed to detonate, sparing the lives of those within. The head monk, who interprets this functional failure not as mere happenstance but as an act of compassion and resistance—indeed, as a rejection by the device itself of its own destructive purpose—turns the artillery casing into a temple bell as a reminder of this empathetic gesture. The young monk has had it tuned to a frequency that scientific research shows helps heal those struggling with PTSD, which leads Nguyet to use her sculptures to ease her mother’s condition. Nguyet’s story also tragically intertwines with that of a character named Lai, a horribly maimed young man whose injuries are unequivocally not fictional. He plays her cousin, who in this tale as a child accidentally set off a series of cluster munitions, which claimed the life of Nguyet’s brother. Lai instructs children on the dangers of unexploded ordnance by telling his story, using his significant injuries as visual aids. Nguyet occasionally makes prostheses for Lai, and eventually replaces an earlier, scrappier, and more functional one with a shiny brass version that resembles the gesturing hands of a bodhisattva, transforming Lai from a mere survivor into a spiritual being.

Overall, Nguyen’s film is a poignant parable about art’s purpose and value. It suggests that, as both narrative and object, art can be an instrument of healing that aids in the processing of unfathomable loss. While this understanding is not entirely novel, especially in contexts where art’s links to spirituality and community have not yet been severed by capitalist spectacle and crass commodification, being reminded of it is useful. As a prosthesis of sorts, art can help return functionality to a traumatized body without simply burying the wounds it carries.