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Tuan Andrew Nguyen: The Boat People

This digital publication accompanies the exhibition "Tuan Andrew Nguyen: The Boat People," on display in the Amsden Gallery at the Ulrich Museum of Art at Wichita State University, January 26-May 6, 2023. With text by Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Ksenya Gurshtein and design by Stev Overstreet Creative Communications Intern Eun Sil Kim.

This digital publication accompanies the exhibition "Tuan Andrew Nguyen: The Boat People," on display in the Amsden Gallery at the Ulrich Museum of Art at Wichita State University, January 26-May 6, 2023. With text by Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Ksenya Gurshtein and design by Stev Overstreet Creative Communications Intern Eun Sil Kim.

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<strong>Tuan</strong> <strong>Andrew</strong> <strong>Nguyen</strong>: <strong>The</strong> <strong>Boat</strong> <strong>People</strong><br />

January 26 — May 6, 2023<br />

Wichita State University<br />

Mon.-Sat.: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. | Closed Sundays, University & Major Holidays | Free Admission 316.97v8.3664<br />

@ulrichmuseum | ulrich.wichita.edu | 1845 Fairmount Wichita, KS | 67260-0046


This exhibition presents a single work:<br />

<strong>Tuan</strong> <strong>Andrew</strong> <strong>Nguyen</strong>, <strong>The</strong> <strong>Boat</strong> <strong>People</strong>, 2020. Single-channel video, 4k, super 16mm transferred to digital color video,<br />

5.1 surround sound. 20 minutes. Courtesy of the artist and James Cohan, New York.<br />

<strong>The</strong> Ulrich Museum would like to express deep gratitude to the artist and the staff at the James Cohan Gallery, particularly<br />

Paula Naughton, for their assistance in making this exhibition and publication possible. <strong>The</strong> Ulrich is grateful<br />

for the ongoing support of Salon Circle members who make the Museum’s exhibitions and programs possible<br />

through their Salon memberships. We also receive funding for general operational support from the City of Wichita<br />

and Wichita State University.<br />

Public Program<br />

Chau Thuy: A <strong>Boat</strong> <strong>People</strong> Survivor’s Story of Hope<br />

February 16, 2023<br />

5:30 p.m. Reception<br />

6 p.m. Program<br />

In conjunction with the exhibition <strong>Tuan</strong> <strong>Andrew</strong> <strong>Nguyen</strong>: <strong>The</strong> <strong>Boat</strong> <strong>People</strong>, Chau Thuy, President and Founder of the<br />

Vietnamese Heritage Museum, will share his passion for preserving the history, art, and culture of Vietnamese <strong>Boat</strong><br />

<strong>People</strong>. His own extraordinary journey as a refugee is reflected in his art and the books he has authored.<br />

Cover :<br />

<strong>Tuan</strong> <strong>Andrew</strong> <strong>Nguyen</strong>,<br />

<strong>The</strong> <strong>Boat</strong> <strong>People</strong> (still),<br />

2020. Single-channel<br />

video. Image courtesy<br />

the artist and James<br />

Cohan, New York.<br />

2


Burning Desires: Looping Past and Future in <strong>Tuan</strong> <strong>Andrew</strong> <strong>Nguyen</strong>’s<strong>The</strong> <strong>Boat</strong> <strong>People</strong><br />

“That idea of liberation is so interesting, to liberate yourself from the histories that hold you, and at<br />

the same time, to be empowered by those histories.” –<strong>Tuan</strong> <strong>Andrew</strong> <strong>Nguyen</strong> 1<br />

<strong>Tuan</strong> <strong>Andrew</strong> <strong>Nguyen</strong>,<br />

<strong>The</strong> <strong>Boat</strong> <strong>People</strong> (still),<br />

2020. Single-channel<br />

video. Image courtesy<br />

the artist and James<br />

Cohan, New York.<br />

One way of valuing a work of art has to do with how many<br />

ideas it opens onto and how many connections between<br />

them it allows a viewer to make. A related way of valuing art asks<br />

what temporal frame a work is relevant to, with the past, present,<br />

and future being the typical options. For me, the appeal of <strong>Tuan</strong><br />

<strong>Andrew</strong> <strong>Nguyen</strong>’s <strong>The</strong> <strong>Boat</strong> <strong>People</strong> is that the scope of possible<br />

connections and paths for making sense of this work is so great<br />

and varied that the work is equally relevant to how we think about<br />

both the past and the future from the perspective of the present.<br />

Made in 2018-2020, Ngueyn’s video contains a minimal and very<br />

loosely outlined plot. A group of five children—an older girl of<br />

perhaps 10 or 12 and four younger boys whom she has picked<br />

up on her journeys—travel around by boat in a post-apocalyptic<br />

world after an unspecified catastrophe. <strong>The</strong> only adult the children<br />

reference is the girl’s mother, who died some time ago. As<br />

far as anyone knows, the kids are the only humans left alive. <strong>The</strong>y<br />

find themselves in Bataan, a city and province in the Philippines,<br />

where they explore abandoned sites of human habitation. <strong>The</strong>y<br />

spend the most time at the locations that memorialize sites of two<br />

large-scale 20th century human tragedies. <strong>The</strong> first is the 1942<br />

Battle of Bataan waged during World War II and the subsequent<br />

Bataan Death March, a forced relocation by the Japanese army<br />

of 60,000-80,000 Filipino and American prisoners of war during<br />

which thousands died on the way. <strong>The</strong> second is the exodus of the<br />

<strong>Boat</strong> <strong>People</strong>—refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia—<br />

who fled war and regime change in Indochina and arrived in the<br />

Philippines starting in 1981, with an estimated 400,000 people (the<br />

same number of people as the entire current populaton of Wichita)<br />

passing through the Philippine Refugee Processing Center (PRPC)<br />

in Bataan over the course of a decade. Hundreds of thousands<br />

more are believed to have died at sea during their journeys.<br />

As they explore the lush yet desolate world around them, the<br />

children seem to intuit that some objects hold particular symbolic<br />

power in representing the momentous events in the past. <strong>The</strong> children<br />

carve uncannily accurate wooden replicas of these objects and<br />

then set them on fire in order to release the ghosts of the past and<br />

set the objects free. On the beach, the young girl finds a head of<br />

ambiguous origin—perhaps severed from a statue of Guanyin or the<br />

Buddha found nearby. Most of the video consists of a conversation<br />

between the girl, who speaks Tagalog, and the head, which appears<br />

to come alive and spe aks English. <strong>The</strong> film closes with a vision of<br />

the head—presumably a wooden replica of the original stone?—<br />

burning on the beach.<br />

3


What can we do to set the past free in order to have a future?<br />

That is a central question of <strong>The</strong> <strong>Boat</strong> <strong>People</strong>, which the film<br />

addresses by placing its protagonists in a world where the mutual<br />

interdependence of these two temporalities is particularly evident.<br />

<strong>The</strong> film appears to be set in the future. Given the camera’s frequent<br />

fixation on ocean water, that future seems to be one in which<br />

climate change predictions have come true and ocean rise has<br />

Salukat ensemble. <strong>The</strong> music sounds electronically inflected and<br />

sci-fi “futuristic” but is created using Indonesian gamelan—an<br />

ancient musical tradition centered on percussion instruments that<br />

dates as far back as the 3rd century CE.<br />

In Javanese mythology, the king who invented the gamelan created<br />

a gong in order to summon the gods and the other percussion<br />

<strong>Tuan</strong> <strong>Andrew</strong> <strong>Nguyen</strong>,<br />

<strong>The</strong> <strong>Boat</strong> <strong>People</strong> (still),<br />

2020. Single-channel<br />

video. Image courtesy<br />

the artist and James<br />

Cohan, New York.<br />

human life, perhaps causing the civilizational catastrophe to which<br />

the children allude. Current projections estimate that future global<br />

mean sea level rise will range anywhere from 1 to almost 7 feet by<br />

2100 and up to 12 feet by 2150. 2 Countries in Southeast Asia that<br />

are surrounded by water, such as the Phillippines, will be particularly<br />

vulnerable to the destruction of both human habitat and food<br />

supply chains, creating the possibility of large numbers of climate<br />

refugees. Globally, the projections for the number of climate refugees<br />

who will be displaced by 2050 range from 200 million to 1.2<br />

billion people. 3<br />

Change on this scale is nearly impossible for humans to conceive—<br />

or cope with imagining, given the guilt before future generations that<br />

it might justly provoke in the people of the present. Our collective<br />

reluctance to imagine the impact that science has long predicted<br />

makes artistic attempts to do so particularly important. <strong>Nguyen</strong>’s<br />

fixation on the way the people of the future might view their past is<br />

a sobering, visceral reminder that those of us living today might also<br />

one day be part of the nameless masses who will be evaluated for<br />

their role in shaping future people’s present.<br />

And what is there to do for the children of the future who have no<br />

“future” as humanity has understood it for the last several centuries?<br />

Adept at basic survival, the kids in <strong>The</strong> <strong>Boat</strong> <strong>People</strong> are obsessed<br />

with setting free the past they cannot grasp but which haunts them<br />

and the land around them. “We seek the stories of our ancestors.<br />

Of who we once were,” says the girl. <strong>The</strong> idea of the past haunting<br />

the future is reinforced both visually and sonically, through the eerie<br />

soundtrack created by composer Dewa Alit and the Gamelan<br />

instruments in order to relay more complex messages. <strong>The</strong> use of<br />

gamelan instruments is thus singularly fitting for this film, given that<br />

the children in <strong>The</strong> <strong>Boat</strong> <strong>People</strong> spend much of their time interacting<br />

with images of the diverse deities whom the 20th century <strong>Boat</strong> <strong>People</strong><br />

erected to seek spiritual solace. Refugees at the PRPC came<br />

from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. <strong>The</strong> images they brought with<br />

them and replicated at PRPC rveflect the diversity of Southeast<br />

Asia’s religious and artistic traditions. <strong>The</strong>y include Khmer depictions<br />

of Brahma or Buddha copied from the Bayon temple complex in<br />

Cambodia; Buddhist depictions of Guanyin, the Boddhisatva of<br />

infinite mercy and compassion; and Christian figures of the Virgin<br />

Mary and Pope John Paul II, who visited the PRPC in 1981.<br />

In the film, the children do not understand the theological nuances<br />

that separate these different gods. Indeed, they cannot even<br />

grasp the concept of “god.” But they do sense that these particular<br />

images contain powerful concentrations of affect—of love, hate,<br />

despair, hope, fear—that have an effect on everything and everyone<br />

that comes after until the unresolved pain of the past is drained of<br />

its power. Like most viewers of <strong>The</strong> <strong>Boat</strong> <strong>People</strong>, the children are<br />

confounded by all the remnants of the past they encounter, which<br />

seems to be part of the film’s point. It takes great effort to figure out<br />

just how many layers of history haunt this landscape, and reconstructing<br />

history in post-apocalyptic conditions is beyond the protagonists’<br />

abilility. <strong>The</strong> solution they invent for resolving and releasing<br />

the hold of the past on the future is brilliant in its simplicty—the<br />

children decide to burn it all in order to set it all free.<br />

4


y copies are light, and they bring the past into the future,”<br />

“Mthe girl says. “And burning brings nowhere to everywhere. I<br />

remember she [the girl’s mother] told me to burn her so I could keep<br />

going.” <strong>The</strong> act of burning wooden replicas is rooted in Hindu and<br />

Buddhist burial rites, which dispose of a body efficiently through fire<br />

once the spirit has left to be reincarnated into a different body or realm.<br />

In interviews, <strong>Nguyen</strong> has also noted the powerful positive associations<br />

of fire and burning in Vietnamese culture that come from both<br />

influential acts of individual political resistance, such as the self-immolation<br />

of the Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc in 1963, and everyday<br />

practices, such as the bvurning of votive offerings for the benefit of<br />

deceased ancestors. Thus rooted in Southeast Asian spiritual practices,<br />

the children’s implicit cosmology sees fire as a necessary symbol<br />

and agent of change within an inexorable life-cycle of all things. Under<br />

controlled circumstances, fire clears out clutter, symbolizing transition,<br />

presence in the now, and release from suffering.<br />

<strong>The</strong> burning of replicas symbolizes in the film the breaking of cycles<br />

of tragedy which run in repeating loops. As the talking head on the<br />

beach tells the girl, “This whole region was engulfed in flames once.<br />

First in war, then in re-enactment of war. <strong>The</strong>y destroyed the jungle.”<br />

Here, too, <strong>Nguyen</strong> emphasizes the long-term impacts of human<br />

actions not just on people but on whole ecosystems, alluding to the<br />

use of the herbicide and defoliant Agent Orange during the Vietnam<br />

War. <strong>The</strong> line about the destruction of the jungle, according to the<br />

artist, also alludes to the fact that parts of the film Apocalypse Now<br />

(1979) were shot not far from Bataan, and the filmmakers burned<br />

down forest for some of their footage—one of the choices made in<br />

that film that arguably perpetuated the imperialist hubris that so often<br />

underpins American discussions of the Vietnam War even by people<br />

critical of it.<br />

<strong>Tuan</strong> <strong>Andrew</strong> <strong>Nguyen</strong>,<br />

<strong>The</strong> <strong>Boat</strong> <strong>People</strong> (still),<br />

2020. Single-channel<br />

video. Image courtesy<br />

the artist and James<br />

Cohan, New York.<br />

At the same time, the children’s approach in no way rejects the<br />

importance of the past in shaping any given present. <strong>The</strong> labor<br />

they put into carving the replicas of ancient power objects seems<br />

to create an intense identification with the pain of the past. Equally<br />

importantly, the choice to burn copies rather than originals allows<br />

material culture to continue to exist undisturbed and available for<br />

others in the future to create their own relationships to the past. <strong>The</strong><br />

children brilliantly separate historical facts, which remain in all their<br />

immutability and muteness, from historical affects, the emotional<br />

power of the stories attached to the objects, which the kids do<br />

not want to fester as unresolved trauma. “On one hand, I think<br />

of replicas as a kind of ‘reincarnation,’” <strong>Nguyen</strong> has said in one<br />

interview about his work. “On the other hand, I have to insist that<br />

replicas don’t exist. Each subsequent ‘replica’ performs differently,<br />

hence, I think that these things we call ‘replicas’ are actually very<br />

different from the ‘original.’ I think of them as different incarnations<br />

of the same desire to understand the world at various moments of<br />

rupture, i.e. pandemics, war, environmental disasters.” 4<br />

Fascinatingly, the interest in at once salvaging, replicating, and<br />

releasing a difficult past also exists in <strong>The</strong> <strong>Boat</strong> <strong>People</strong> outside the<br />

frame, on a meta-level. <strong>The</strong> film was produced on location in Bataan<br />

with the help of the Bellas Artes Projects foundation, a non-profit<br />

art center founded by curator Jam Acuzar, who also stars in the film<br />

as the talking head we see on the beach. Launched in 2013 and<br />

shut down by the COVID pandemic, Bellas Artes Projects operated<br />

“in the restored and transported Casa Quiapo, site of the first arts<br />

school in the [Philppines],” which Acuzar helped revive as a place to<br />

connect international artists with local artists and artisans through<br />

residencies, workshops, exhibitions, and cultural tourism. 5 Acuzar,<br />

moreover, is the daughter of Jose Acuzar, the real estate developer<br />

whose Bataan resort Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar served as the<br />

location of several scenes in <strong>The</strong> <strong>Boat</strong> <strong>People</strong> and is a collection of<br />

historic Filipino houses relocated and reconstructed in Bataan for a<br />

new purpose.<br />

5<br />

5


<strong>Tuan</strong> <strong>Andrew</strong> <strong>Nguyen</strong>,<br />

<strong>The</strong> <strong>Boat</strong> <strong>People</strong> (still),<br />

2020. Single-channel<br />

video. Image courtesy<br />

the artist and James<br />

Cohan, New York.<br />

To delve more into the world of the Vietnamese <strong>Boat</strong> <strong>People</strong> while<br />

thinking about <strong>Nguyen</strong>’s <strong>The</strong> <strong>Boat</strong> <strong>People</strong>, I read Vietnamese<br />

American writer Thi Bui’s graphic memoir <strong>The</strong> Best We Could Do. In<br />

it, Bui narrates her family’s harrowing experiences of fleeing Vietnam<br />

and resettling in America—a story that bears at least surface resemblance<br />

to <strong>Tuan</strong> <strong>Andrew</strong> <strong>Nguyen</strong>’s early life of coming to America<br />

with his family as a refugee at age three. Throughout her book,<br />

Bui’s authorial voice shifts between that of a child trying to survive<br />

and make sense of the chaos around her and an adult delving into<br />

her family’s painful past after the birth of her own son. Watching<br />

<strong>The</strong> <strong>Boat</strong> <strong>People</strong> in light of Bui’s book and the child’s voice she is<br />

able to capture, I wondered how trustworthy the young protagonist<br />

of the video is. Are she and her companions really the last people<br />

left on Earth? Or are they, perhaps, children who simply think that<br />

they are, given the chaos and indifference of the surrounding adult<br />

world? Might the stories they tell themselves be another tool of psychological<br />

self-defense against upheaval, akin to their steampunk<br />

headgear, which clearly cannot provide much actual protection but<br />

might offer the psychic benefit of a feeling of safety and protection<br />

for fragile hopes for a better future. Like the children in <strong>The</strong> <strong>Boat</strong><br />

<strong>People</strong>, Bui in her book seeks origin stories that would allow her to<br />

understand the trauma that shaped her. Like the children, she does<br />

so mainly in the service of setting her own son free from it.<br />

1 Harley Wong and <strong>Tuan</strong> <strong>Andrew</strong> <strong>Nguyen</strong>, “<strong>Tuan</strong> <strong>Andrew</strong> <strong>Nguyen</strong>’s Mystical Art Brings<br />

<strong>People</strong> in Touch With Lost Ancestors,” ARTnews, April 8. 2020, https://www.artnews.<br />

com/art-news/artists/tuan-andrew-nguyen-interview-1202683390/.<br />

2<br />

Rebecca Lindsey, “Climate Change: Global Sea Level,” Climate.gov, April 19, 2022,<br />

https://www.climate.gov/news-features/understanding-climate/climate-change-globalsea-level.<br />

3 Moira Lavelle, “By 2050, 200 Million Climate Refugees May Have Fled <strong>The</strong>ir Homes.<br />

But International Laws Offer <strong>The</strong>m Little Protection,” Inside Climate News, November<br />

2, 2021,<br />

https://insideclimatenews.org/news/02112021/climate-refugees-international-law-cop26/<br />

and Sean McAllister, “<strong>The</strong>re could be 1.2 billion climate refugees by<br />

2050. Here’s what you need to know,” Zurich, January 13, 2023, https://www.zurich.<br />

com/en/media/magazine/2022/there-could-be-1-2-billion-climate-refugees-by-2050-<br />

here-s-what-you-need-to-know.<br />

4 May Adadol Ingawanji and <strong>Tuan</strong> <strong>Andrew</strong> <strong>Nguyen</strong>, “<strong>Tuan</strong> <strong>Andrew</strong> <strong>Nguyen</strong>: <strong>The</strong> <strong>Boat</strong><br />

<strong>People</strong>,” Vdrome, July 8, 2020, https://www.vdrome.org/tuan-andrew-nguyen/.<br />

5<br />

Milie Walton, “<strong>The</strong> Apollo 40 Under 40 Asia Pacific in focus: Jam Acuzar,” Apollo<br />

Magazine, September 22, 2022, https://www.apollo-magazine.com/jam-acuzar-apollo-40-under-40-asia-pacific-in-focus/.<br />

6 May Adadol Ingawanji and <strong>Tuan</strong> <strong>Andrew</strong> <strong>Nguyen</strong>, “<strong>Tuan</strong> <strong>Andrew</strong> <strong>Nguyen</strong>: <strong>The</strong> <strong>Boat</strong><br />

<strong>People</strong>,” Vdrome, July 8, 2020, https://www.vdrome.org/tuan-andrew-nguyen/.<br />

<strong>The</strong> fact that in the end, the temporal setting of <strong>The</strong> <strong>Boat</strong> <strong>People</strong><br />

is as mysterious and unresolvable as so many other questions it<br />

raises should be heartening to a thoughtful observer. <strong>Nguyen</strong> has<br />

said of his protagonist, “She is not merely a survivor, but a creator—<br />

the bridge between the past and the future, the space between<br />

two worlds.” In the same interview, he commented, “I’ve grown up<br />

fascinated with the potentiality of the concept of ‘reincarnation’ and<br />

its logic. Our understandings of time, place, self, action, consequence,<br />

and even identity can become imbued with other potentialities,<br />

different from the ones we’ve inherited, the ones that currently<br />

feel so restrictive.” What would the future look like if we were able<br />

to—release? appease? rethink?—the ghosts of the past now rather<br />

than leaving that job to clean up crews who might come after any<br />

number of possible future catastrophes?<br />

— Ksenya Gurshtein, Ulrich Museum Curator of Modern and<br />

Contemporary Art<br />

6<br />

6


Cast and crew of<br />

<strong>The</strong> <strong>Boat</strong> <strong>People</strong> on<br />

location in Bataan.<br />

Photography:<br />

Anspe Aquino.<br />

Images courtesy<br />

<strong>Tuan</strong> <strong>Andrew</strong> <strong>Nguyen</strong>.<br />

Edwin A. Ulrich Museum of Art, 2023. Brochure text may be reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial license.<br />

All images © of the artist.This brochure was designed by Eun Sil Kim, the Ulrich Museum’s Stev Overstreet Creative Communications Intern.<br />

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