On ViewMit List Visual Arts Center
February 23–June 25, 2023
For her first institutional solo show, at MIT List Visual Arts Center, Alison Nguyen presents history as hypnosis (2023), an exciting and complex body of work including a three-channel video installation, sculpture, and prints that revisits traces of personal and collective history. Nguyen’s previous body of work centering Andra8, a computer-generated avatar (based on her own physicality), explored digital technology, in particular artificial intelligence, through her performance in a virtual world she created in a game engine. Nguyen extends these ideas in her new video. However, AI is not material woven into the piece but rather the symbolic infrastructure that forms the speculative fiction.
Entering the exhibition space, one is immersed in deep orange light; the same color appears in Nguyen’s moving image as flash frames or longer punctuations. The vibrant hue of orange, often associated with energy and positivity, draws us into Nguyen’s installation, taking on twisted emotional and historical associations. Orange is also the color of Nguyen’s hand-dyed paper on which she screenprinted the text of a semi-autobiographical poem “Cu” (the Vietnamese word for “penis”) written by her brother Matthew Nguyen. “Cu” recounts the siblings’ bizarre childhood outings to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, chaperoned by an uncle in his old, used limousine. Their uncle, who immigrated to the US from Saigon, was not a professional limousine driver but purchased the car outright. He instructs the children to shout the word “Cu” if they run into trouble in the museum. Originating from this humorous and chaotic personal anecdote of an intergenerational Vietnamese family, the poem simultaneously portrays an image of a “good” migrant in American society visiting a war technology museum that displays tools once used to create the war that displaced them.
The three-channel video, projected on aluminum panels, unfolds fragments of a speculative fiction. In the opening scene, three similarly dressed women (one of whom is played by the artist) are seated in the back of a limousine filled with dirt. They enter a car wash, where they seem to undergo a painful, cathartic, and regenerative internal experience as the mechanical violence of the car wash occurs outside the car’s windows. The viewer also briefly glimpses a dead man lying on the dirt-covered floor of the car. The body never appears again onscreen but the specter of death looms throughout the film. The deserts, gas stations, and malls of Southern California serve as the veneer of Nguyen’s narrative, both referencing tropes of the American road film but at the same time, creating an off-putting, strange, atmosphere that questions those built and natural spaces and their cultural nuances in a broader context that goes beyond the American story. Through a young programmer’s voice heard through the limousine’s bluetooth speaker and the women’s oversized AirPods, we learn that the three protagonists are of artificial consciousness and their memories have been wiped from their last version. Within the installation the placement of the three screens invokes the viewpoint of the backseat of a car; at other times it destabilizes human vision and takes us beyond the periphery.
Cultural critic David Laderman once observed that as “restless youth culture evolved into the countercultural movements of the 1960s, young people weaned on the automobile seemed to appropriate it from its drab nine-to-five or weekend leisure routine and transform it into a literal vehicle for their restlessness and rebellion. Thus, the road trip became valorized as a rite of countercultural passage.” But a passage for whom? Nguyen both inhabits and subverts elements of the road film by centering these three women who might come from either the past or the present: a history from which their presence has been erased and a present in which they don’t belong. Their encounter with two blonde actresses smoking outside of a post-modern glass building emphasizes this dichotomy. “You’re an actress. You’re white,” one of the AI- programmed women deduces. But also through this encounter the trio are invited to a karaoke bar, where a melancholic song plays an essential role in creating an atmosphere of anticipation and suspense.
Reverberations of historical violence are evoked throughout the film. “Are you some kind of Satanists?” an older white cashier at a gas station asks the three women, in reference to their black teeth. Perfect white teeth are an iconic symbol of the American dream while black teeth symbolize savagery, the uncivilized, the wicked, the other. In another instance, an older man pulls out a hair dryer and points it at the women. The imagery not only recalls the famous propaganda poster of Uncle Sam proclaiming “I Want You for US Army” but also more traumatic images of war and gun violence. The women’s reactions to these instances of historical violence cause the viewer to question whether their memories of their previous existence have in fact been fully erased.
While the framed screen, printed poem, and small monitor are positioned on a separate wall beside the three video projections, the interaction of different works inside the space is non-linear. On a wall-mounted arm, the small monitor resembles a car’s side view mirror with one of the protagonists of history as hypnosis repeatedly looking at the viewer asking, “Are you aware that you’re being hypnotized?” The piece is a disruption from the surreal journey projected on the three aluminum panels and draws us into another dimension of the space. Is this a warning or is it a non-human machine manufactured to dictate consciousness? A masterful storyteller, Nguyen keeps inserting narratives within narratives to urge us to be constantly alert and question the stories around us, including those which we tell ourselves. Fragments of both fictional and non-fictional visual, audio, and text in history as hypnosis weaved together to create a surreal and uncomfortable reality that provokes questions and offers an alternative reading of history.
Fifty years ago, the last US combat troops left South Vietnam, ending its direct military involvement. Though dealing with traces of such intricate histories, Nguyen manages to “speak nearby” (borrowing filmmaker and theorist Trinh T. Minh-ha’s term) rather than speak directly about such a loaded topic to create another dimension of reinterpreting and unpacking history. Walking away from the show, one cannot help questioning if the reality they have just experienced is just a part of greater hypnosis that we are living with every day.