"The Unburied Sounds of a Troubled Horizon," 2022, is a single-channel video installation by Tuan Andrew Nguyen that explores the ways in which material contains memory and holds potential for transformation, reincarnation, and healing. The project is inspired by the people of Quang Tri, on the North Central Coast of Vietnam, which was one of the most heavily bombed areas in the history of modern warfare. For multiple generations, its residents have lived with the physical residue and lingering trauma of war. Since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, thousands of farmers have died from UXO (unexploded ordnances) and approximately 80 percent of Quang Tri is still contaminated by undetonated mines and explosives. In the face of this grim reality, the ongoing recovery and creative repurposing of these ordnances is a testament to the perseverance of the local community, which Nguyen observed firsthand during his time spent in the region. They have used these remnants of destruction as raw materials with which to build and rebuild their lives, for uses as varied as building materials, tools, craft, and currency.
"The Unburied Sounds of a Troubled Horizon" centers around a woman named Nguyet and her mother, who run a small junkyard on the outskirts of Quang Tri, and Nguyet’s cousin Lai. For the artist, Nguyet is both a fully fleshed character and a narrative vehicle for his own physical exploration of material memory. Nguyet earns her living scavenging and selling pieces of UXO. She grew up in post-war Vietnam, constructing memories and abstract images in her head of metal falling from the sky as she listened to stories told by her parents and other survivors of bombings and air raids. Nguyet compulsively crafts delicate hanging mobiles from the bomb scraps she salvages.
Her mother, who suffers from PTSD, believes that her daughter is haunted and that the mobiles she makes are indicative of ghostly possession. However, Nguyet soon discovers by chance that these sculptures, which are drawn from her imagination, hold a remarkable resemblance to the works of Alexander Calder. She embarks on a journey to uncover the source of this uncanny likeness–consulting along her way a spirit-medium and a monk–before arriving at the realization that she is, in fact, the reincarnation of the famous American artist. On her search, as Nguyet opens herself up to the possibility of reincarnation, she also learns about sound and vibrational healing. She helps her mother through her trauma and reconnects with her cousin Lai.
Many children in the region have unknowingly stepped on mines and cluster munitions, losing life and limb. Nguyet’s younger cousin Lai is one such victim, losing both legs, one arm, and an eye, and his story is revealed as the film unfolds. In the film, Nguyet fabricates makeshift prosthetic limbs for Lai out of UXO scraps, rebuilding his limbs from the very materials that took them from him. Nguyen crafted this narrative to mirror the lived experience of the actor who plays Lai, who as a child stepped on an unexploded ordnance.
Nguyen writes, "I find it absolutely crucial at this moment to make these connections between spaces, people, times, and stories, as well as to re-imagine the relationship between object and maker, victim and agent. Reconsidering and imagining these connections, are stepping stones towards empathy, healing, and imagining new futures.”
For Nguyen, material animism and reincarnation are a generative space, one that holds the potential to construct futures built upon deeply embodied notions of building and rebuilding. The Unburied Sounds of a Troubled Horizon is both an exploration of these transformative possibilities and a testament to the resilience of communities who find ways to work through trauma.