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Sung Tieu: Invisible forms of migration

INTERVIEW: The 27-year-old artist pulls no punches in addressing migration: both the current refugee crisis and her own migration from Vietnam to Berlin, in Emotion Refuge, at Micky Schubert through Jan 18.

Image for Sung Tieu: Invisible forms of migration
Photo by Viktor Richardsson

Sung Tieu addresses the current refugee crisis and her own migration from Vietnam to Berlin in Emotion Refuge.

The 27-year-old artist’s powerful back-to-back exhibitions in Paris and Berlin have held no punches with regards to the socioeconomic and political factors embedded within migration, and the alienation that may linger long after new homes are found.

In late October, your booth with Micky Schubert at the Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporain (FIAC) art fair in Paris was a hit. What did you show?

I felt I could do anything at FIAC, because nobody knew who I was. [Laughs] The central piece consisted of a female and child mannequin wearing clothing made of plaid laundry bags. These bags, which were originally manufactured in China, have since been used by migrant populations nationwide – in Germany they’re called “Türkenkoffer”. I copied the clothing designs from Celine’s 2013 fashion show, which sparked a debate on cultural appropriation after using the same plaid. I also appropriated photographs of counterfeit Chanel perfumes, mirrored on the opposite wall by images of dead fish in the sea in Vietnam.

So is your solo at Micky Schubert’s gallery an extension?

FIAC was such a punchline; this solo brings my ideas into a more complex balance. For this show, in the work “Emotion Refuge, 2015”, I was interested in tracing those laundry bags back to their origin. Research led me to Indonesia, so I sent the plaid pattern to a textile designer and researcher in Java. One possibility she found is that the red, blue, and white nylon strings were the cheapest. So the fabric likely got its appearance through economic forces.

What draws you into investigating these themes?

I immigrated to Germany in the 1990s, as a post-effect of the Vietnam War, so my work often looks at how migrants create lives in their new homes. Through the Soviet connection, North Vietnamese people could come here as contract labourers. But after reunification, people lost their jobs and were left in a legal grey zone, not knowing whether they would be sent back or whether they could stay. Since many couldn’t get work permits, they opened their own businesses that were inexpensive to start up, such as flower shops or nail salons, which I’ve also explored in previous work.

Which pieces in this show are the most personal for you?

The piece “Self Portrait” sets a personal tone. It’s an LED light bought at the Dong Xuan Center, the Vietnamese wholesale shopping complex in Lichtenberg, and it’s programmed to list the cities I’ve migrated to, lived in and passed through.

Less direct is “Wind (1) and (2)”, two large silkscreened mirrors with obscured and erased images of swarms of birds on them, held up off the floor by children’s water wings. Another LED looks at the migration of the Northern wheatear bird, which flies from Alaska to Kenya in the winter, and then back to breed. It’s very much about invisible or unnoticed forms of migration, necessary for the birds’ survival.

Is this work about the current refugee crisis?

There is one piece that talks concretely about the crisis, another LED called “The Ghost Driver”. It’s programmed with an imagined route from Berlin back to Homs, Syria. It was important for me to just look at the crisis because I came to Germany as a refugee when I was five. I’m indirectly relating my story, but it’s very hard to give myself the authority to talk about the current crisis because I’m not directly affected by it. Instead, I want to raise questions.

EMOTION REFUGE Through Jan 18 | Micky Schubert, Genthiner Str. 36, Tiergarten, U-Bhf Kurfürstenstr., Tue-Sat 12-18

Originally published in issue #144, December 2015.