Sung Tieu unpacks “Havana syndrome” in her latest work

FROM A HOTEL room in Brazil come the shrieks of children at play and the clangs of construction work. Sung Tieu tussles with her noise-cancelling headphones before a calm silence sets in over Zoom. The Vietnamese-born, Berlin-based artist touched down for the 2021 Bienal de São Paulo the previous night, accompanied by an entourage of her students from Städelschule, a fine-art academy in Germany where she is a guest professor. She has had a busy year jet-setting towards recognition. In October her film, “Moving Target Shadow Detection”, premiered at the Frieze London festival, one of the biggest events in the art calendar, where it won a coveted award. It is easy to see why the jury was captivated.

Rendered as nano-drone camera footage, the film reconstructs the strange events of 2016 surrounding the first reported cases of Havana syndrome, a mysterious malady afflicting Western diplomats; more than 200 cases have since been reported around the world. Viewers buzz in 3-D down the gaudily lit lobby of Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Havana, into an elevator and then a bedroom cast in the glow of a blaring television.

In rooms much like these, several American diplomats suffered brain injuries resembling concussions after hearing high-pitched sounds that sent waves of pressure through their heads. Was it an attack by a foreign power using a new weapon? The mating call of crickets grating eardrums? Sung Tieu does not pretend to have an answer. “I am not a scientist,” she acknowledges; still, she thinks her work can help viewers make sense of the ordeal, at the same time provoking reflections on history, memory and the malleability of perception.

To unravel the mystery, Ms Tieu returns to the scene of the crime. So painstakingly detailed is her reconstruction that scratches on signs in the antiquated elevator are visible. Her images analyse the structure of the hotel, showing its eggshell walls and old-fashioned furniture as an endoscope would display a body’s insides. The eerie footage imagines how the incidents could have taken place in such safe-looking confines.

This is not Ms Tieu’s first take on Havana syndrome. Last year at Nottingham Contemporary, an art gallery, she exhibited “In Cold Print”, an installation comprising newspaper spreads, audio recordings, sculptures and other elements that created a disquieting soundscape. Working with neuroscientists at Nottingham Trent University, she exposed herself to tapes that mimicked the high-pitched noises which plagued sufferers, monitoring her brain activity with an MRI scanner. The results showed tissue flushed with purple and speckled with gold and green, a technicolour rendering of the brain-damage experienced by the syndrome’s victims.

Yet while some such scans have affirmed that the syndrome is real, others have suggested that the effects are ultimately minor. The uncertainty has fed speculation and multiple interpretations–and as Ms Tieu explores, allows imagination to flourish.

Haunted houses

The ease with which senses and perception can be distorted is one of her preoccupations. In her graduate show at the Royal Academy of Arts in 2018, the sounds of chirping birds emanated from abandoned handbags, along with the pop of fireworks and whir of helicopter blades. Layered and repeated, the sounds merged into the soundtrack of war. Fireworks turn into gunfire and explosions, a birdsong becomes a frightened call and the helicopter a harbinger of destruction.

Ms Tieu’s interest in psychological warfare stems partly from her Vietnamese roots and her studies in international relations. During the Vietnam war, American engineers recorded and broadcast eerie ghost-like sounds and modified voices, purporting to be dead Viet Cong soldiers—a bid to exploit Vietnamese spiritual beliefs that was named Operation Wandering Soul.

This made Ms Tieu consider whether Havana syndrome might itself be a kind of returning ghost. “The film speculates on the devices that American intelligence has developed over the decades,” she says, and how they could be haunting blameless American diplomats now. In one shot, the camera hovers beside a series of pictures on a virtual wall that contain grainy footage of military bases and desert landscapes. These are familiar images, says Ms Tieu, which evoke America’s watchful gaze over the world. Then the garish green hallways of Hotel Nacional take centre-stage again, a reminder that no one is immune from surveillance.

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