Sung Tieu: Infra-Specter
March 3 0 through September 10, 2023
By PRIYA GANDHI, May 2023
In Sung Tieu’s debut show in the U.S. at Amant, the Vietnamese-born, Berlin-based artist exhibits both past works and a new commission project, continuing her engagement with the line between fact and fiction within the geopolitical sphere. Tieu’s marginally older works are exhibited first and engage the subject of Havana Syndrome, a phenomenon in which U.S. government and military officials experienced unexplainable symptoms of pain. From ringing in the ears to cognitive dysfunctions. symptoms were first reported by embassy workers in Havana, Cuba in 2016. U.S. media coverage assumed psychological warfare, but the U.S. government takes the official stance that the sonic illness is “unlikely” caused by malicious foreign powers. Regardless, as the media picked up the story and stirred doubts, confusing and improbable factors make it impossible to know what exactly happened.
In Moving Target Shadow Detection, 2022, a 3D modeled and rendered video walks the viewer through Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Havana, the site of the first-reported sonic attack. Filmed as a fish-eye POV through dream-like drone footage, the viewer enters an occupied hotel room. Suddenly, thick streams of white steam shoot out of the vent in the bathroom and bedroom, leaving the viewer’s vision opaquely gray. Finally, the viewer exits the space and sees palm trees and the Cuban flag outside. The 3D rendering makes each frame pulsate, like the movement of slow-motion jello. It’s as if the syndrome has already set in for the viewer. Just as Havana Syndrome is visually represented through the billowing steam, an uneasiness clouds Tieu’s works. The line between the understood and the impenetrable is drawn, as a force (an unhearable, unseeable sound represented by the steam) could possibly create physical pain within the human body. We aren’t sure of exactly how, or why, but even the prospect of the sonic power is enough to create unease.
In new pieces, Tieu unearths the controversial fracking (hydraulic fracturing) processes used nationwide, and even in Brooklyn near the museum. Fracking is the process in which liquid is shot into the subterranean rocks of the Earth at high pressure to force open holes for oil and gas extraction. Highly controversial among environmentalists, and lauded by lovers of industry and resource-abundance, fracking requires large amounts of water and releases potent toxic gasses like methane. Through air pollution and water contamination, fracking leaves a long-lasting impact at the cost of all living things around it. Emanating from three pipes that take up half the gallery space, Reverberations I-III, 2023, a sound installation captures the sonic vibrations of the earth by neighboring hydraulic fracturing well sites. The sound is deep and dark and unplaceable, and covers the room in an eerily meditative hum.
In Mural for America, 2023, across from the pipes, an overwhelmingly long, silver slab hangs on a wall. From afar, the stainless steel glistens like fish scales. As you move closer, the slab’s contents are revealed to be small plaques, each engraved with a chemical and a code. With the support of a data scientist and a physician, Tieu studied almost five million logs on a national hydraulic fracturing chemical disclosure registry, from which she compiled a list of known, proprietary, and trade secret chemicals involved in fracking. Still, the exact amount of chemicals is unknown. Mural for America is meant to be living: open for editing based on whether or not the U.S. changes regulations and no longer protects certain ingredients as “trade secrets.” The hard exterior provides a sinisterness; an evil cabinet of chemicals, so separate from anything like flesh. Cloaked behind a misleading visibility, the information hides itself among others just like it. We have the information, but at the same time, we don’t have the information; it’s all very slippery. We can’t hold any truths or accuracies.
In both instances, Havana Syndrome and fracking, the truth is muddied, and data leads to more questions and uncertainties. Tieu connects the two subjects under the shadow of a “specter”, a ghostly sound and feeling that follows you through the exhibition. The question “will we ever know?” haunts us. The sonic attacks and the energy structures are walls of unknown entities that cannot be broken down into all of their parts. We are warned of danger, whether psychological or physical at every turn; wall sculptures outdoors show how close energy pipelines are in Amant’s Bushwick neighborhood. The Information changes; we are left with fear, and always ignorance. WM
Priya Gandhi is a writer located in New York City. She has held positions at Creative Time and the Smart Museum of Art, and has been published in Hyperallergic and MODA Magazine.view all articles from this author