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  • No Jobs, No Country: Sung Tieu on the family history behind her latest show


No Jobs, No Country: Sung Tieu on the family history behind her latest show

Artist Sung Tieu's family moved to East Berlin when she was five years old as Vietnamese contract workers.

Photo: Nadine Fraczkowski

Your show at the n.b.k., No Jobs, No Country, focuses on ‘Objekt Gehrenseestraße’, an enormous dormitory complex in Lichtenberg primarily used to house foreign workers in East Berlin. What is your connection to the building?

It was essentially a big complex for mostly Vietnamese contract workers until the fall of the Wall. And then, after that, a lot of the contract workers remained or stayed there. There were also people like my mum and me, who moved there as asylum seekers when I was just five years old in 1993. In the exhibition, I’ve included a New York Times newspaper article from 1995 by the journalist Alan Cowell called ‘No Jobs, No Country’. I also included my fictionalised response, a letter to the editor, which I wrote a year or so ago but backdated from 1995 and wrote from the perspective of me as a child.

The building has been empty since 2003, and now they’re planning to demolish it…

For me, it wasn’t a “ghetto” – it’s literally where I grew up.

Exactly. I thought it was really timely to do a project now before it gets turned into a multi-use shopping and office complex. I obtained the floorplans of the building from the Bauamt. And I made a steel metal sculpture that captures the outlines of the space – it’s quite big, around a metre and half tall.

The black metal of that sculpture, Block G (Gehrenseestraße, Berlin), gives it real severity; it looks like a grim futuristic prison…

The idea for me was to really draw a connection to minimalism. Within minimalism, these austere forms are not perceived as uninviting but rather open up a space for abstract thinking – for thinking through form and our relationship to form. These forms are not neutral in the way we understand them. A floor plan dictates how we move within space, and for me, it was a way to connect the floor plan of Gehrenseestraße to the ‘floorplan’ of a bureaucratic document.

Photo: Jens Ziehe

I also made some A4 plaster documents of permanent residency applications; they’re very abstract. They restrict the human element, and make you fit into the parameters of the bureaucratic state, in the same way that each Vietnamese contract worker was only allocated four square metres of living space. Most of them would share rooms that had three or four beds.

Some 60,000 Vietnamese contract workers were hired by East Germany in the 1970s and 1980s. After reunification, the government attempted to send back those who stayed on, providing a $140 million relief fund to Vietnam in part-exchange. This meant a precarious existence for Vietnamese workers as they waited to find out if they could stay…

My father had a bad time being a contract worker… Eventually, it drove him into alcohol and violence.

Vietnamese contract workers were allowed to work in Germany for a maximum of four to five years before being sent back. It was an unwritten rule that you were not allowed to get pregnant because then you wouldn’t be able to fulfil your working conditions. The idea of concentrating Vietnamese contract workers in certain buildings was to ensure they didn’t mingle with Germans. That in itself is an act of segregation.

You live close to the factory; you go to work, then you stay in your complex, and then you go back to work. If the Vietnamese mingled with Germans, they might fall in love and want to stay in Germany. It was so strict that they had a guard to make sure no visitors came after 10pm.

How did you and your mother come to seek asylum in Germany?

Well, my dad was one of the GDR contract workers who stayed on, so he was already here. And then my mom and I followed to be with him, but we didn’t have a legal reason to come to Germany. That wasn’t really allowed – it’s this kind of legal grey zone where you have to come up with a reason to stay in the country. We needed to get a residence permit every few months, which needed to be renewed. You weren’t allowed to ask for welfare, but at the same time you couldn’t work. So people like my mother took secret cash-in-hand jobs.

The New York Times article from 1995 describes the German state as being in a difficult position, because its demand for the return of the Vietnamese workers means they’re essentially fulfilling the aims of the neo-Nazis in “keeping foreigners out”.

Absolutely. But also, the way it’s framed by the journalist, it’s as if it’s a logical consequence. His article turns the workers into abstracted humans. It’s not about any person in particular – but for somebody who’s living there and affected by the political decisions, it’s very emotional.

In your response, you criticise the racial connotations of the journalist’s use of the word “ghetto” to describe the complex. But later, after recalling how your mother regularly cooked in the communal bathrooms, you return to the word and reconsider it…

I think it’s a certain perception of the word. I mean, for us, somebody cooking in the bathroom was just normal. I suppose it’s the outside perspective and the interpretation of the word that struck me. For me, it wasn’t a “ghetto” – it’s literally where I grew up, although we did live in poor conditions. Maybe that’s why I included a picture of myself as a young girl, to give the audience a concrete person or a concrete story to relate to. Not a lot of people, even among my friends, know that I lived there.

You also write about the breakdown of your parent’s marriage…

It just didn’t work. The New York Times journalist talks in his article about “the German version of the American dream” – the expectations of coming to Germany and then building a life here. And it wasn’t easy.

My father had a bad time being a contract worker. There was a lot of racism and he always considered himself very capable and intelligent. He was a university graduate doing very monotonous work, and he just couldn’t do what he wanted to do with the language barrier. Eventually, it drove him into alcohol and violence.

Will you be sad to see the Gehrenseestraße building get demolished?

I have a lot of friends from there, and there was always a lot happening with the community. I think it is a bit sad to lose that part of our history. Despite all the racist outbursts, Germany forgets that, once upon a time, contract workers like the Vietnamese were essential to the GDR economy. Even that housing complex makes you aware of the history. It leaves a physical marker, and once it’s gone, there won’t be a plaque or any space dedicated to it.

Germany’s bureaucracy is famously unyielding, producing difficulties especially for foreign workers. In your 2020 work Zugzwang at the Haus der Kunst, you created an unsettling bureaucratic office. Why does the theme resonate with you so much? 

I think it comes out of anxiety. I studied politics before I studied art, and it was a struggle for me to understand the political system and to understand my rights. I’m interested in bureaucracy within art, because I think there’s something really boring about it! Generally, bureaucracy is not a popular theme, and I think there’s so much space for negotiation and change regarding migrant rights and asylum. We have NGOs and activism for all kinds of fields within society but not that much within bureaucracy itself.

Photo: Jens Ziehe

Bureaucracy can place tremendous administrative burdens on immigrants and racially marginalised people. It’s difficult not to draw a link with the systematic and reductive categorisation of minority groups that took place in Germany under the National Socialists.

I’m interested in bureaucracy within art, because I think there’s something really boring about it!

I think we’re always on that very thin line. I’m most interested in the street-level bureaucrat who makes decisions while trying to follow the rules of the EU.

In the work Zugzwang, I had a figure like this and named him James Stevens after the butler in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, The Remains of the Day, where the butler follows Lord Darlington’s commands without questioning the morality at all. Lord Darlington obviously flirted with the Nazis, and brought them to his estate. For me, that is a dangerous line, a moral inversion. It is as if you say: “Okay, I follow the rules of the EU because there are great politicians out there that are super smart, so I don’t need to think for myself anymore. I’m just gonna do my job.” But what does it actually mean?

What are the rules I’m representing? Do I stand behind them? Do I have no conflicting feelings?

The law is relaxing when it comes to dual citizenship. You had to give up your Vietnamese citizenship to obtain a German one – would you now try to get your Vietnamese one back as well?

That’s a good question. I haven’t looked into this. I personally never wanted to give up my Vietnamese citizenship. But I think it’s more complicated when you look at the bigger picture. If something happens to me outside Europe, would the German Embassy still be responsible for me? Or would they say, “Okay, she’s also a Vietnamese citizen,” and then not do anything?

You’re currently in New York City. What are you working on?

I’m looking at fracking chemicals and I’ve been speaking to data scientists and chemists about it. The project focuses on the vibration of the Earth at fracking sites. And I recorded the sound of that vibration in order to hear what the Earth feels or senses. There’s a lot of data from the Environmental Protection Agency in the US, and we’re trying to figure out what fracking chemicals they pump in there, because some of it is a trade secret. But we’re having to go through five million date entries which is a bit mad and some of the entries are also a bit of a joke. Like DNA. I mean, somebody probably just took a piss.

  • No Jobs, No Country. Through May 7, 2023 n.b.k., Mitte