Sung Tieu’s new show at Nottingham Contemporary, ‘In Cold Print,’ brings to light the physiological aspects of Cold War ideologies by re-contextualising them in modern day warfare, looking at notions of weaponry as silent, ghostly or in some way intangible.
Overwhelmingly, in the Vietnamese-born, Germany-based artist’s work, these ideologies seem to exist at the intersection of modern warfare and military PR. Overt and subvert narratives of geopolitical conflict and technology interweave in a way which is subtly dystopic and utterly convincing.
The installation comprises, among other things, sculpture, text and sound. With the starting point of psychological warfare, Tieu manipulates the space so that viewers follow the thread of an imagined quasi-militarised present. Iron fencing and concrete pillars divide and disjoin the gallery, so the intuitive way to move through the space is towards a dead-end.
There’s a lot to take in, literally, as documentation plays a major role in this work. From mirrored images of brain scans to alternative versions of a military uniform, Tieu captures a version of contemporary warfare that we might recognise, yet is divorced from reality by non-traditional colour, pattern and material. Through digital news articles, originating from a fictional source which draws heavily on the tone and visual aesthetics of North American right-wing networks like Fox News, Tieu fleshes out a curious new political present. This documentation, which is described as a combination of “evidence, and counter-evidence, science and conspiracy,” is taken from her ‘Newspaper’ (1969 – ongoing) series.
In one such document, a digital screen resembling a news website, the real military department of PSYOPS (short for Psychological Operations, designed “to convey selected information and indicators to audiences to influence […] the behaviour of governments, organizations, groups, and individuals”) has been fictionally re-branded to the much less-threatening sounding MISO. In another, the US military lead the way on climate change by building a border wall out of recycled materials. Uncanny is an easy word to reach for, but Tieu’s use of language accurately mirrors the cadences of news reportage, with subject matters staying just within the realm of the believable.
The conceptual focus for this work is the so-called ‘Havana Syndrome’ - an unconfirmed phenomenon reported by US embassy staff in Havana in 2018 that saw unexplained disorders and brain injuries resembling concussions sparked by an audio weapon, thought to be designed by the Cuban government. Tieu herself underwent a synthesised version of Havana Syndrome and ‘In Cold Print’ acts as literal documentation of her experience.
The most striking thing about Tieu’s ‘In Cold Print’ is its invocation of the ghostly, the heard-but-unseen. Recordings of ‘ghost’ victims of conflict fill the gallery and act like architectural interventions in the space, conjuring a turbulent and unsettling aural terrain. Throughout, we are left to wonder - is the viewer experiencing a fictionalised account of a ‘real’ phenomenon, ‘real’ evidence of a fictional phenomenon, or something else entirely?