Grandma told me of some villages, they were in the south, or maybe the central region, or possibly from the north, somewhere, here, where the crops went bad and the rivers dried up and children were getting sick. This was at a time when almost everybody was from a village or a hamlet, somewhere rural. When most of the country were farmers or soldiers and when Hanoi and Saigon were like two different countries. It was not too long ago.

Grandma told me of village elders calling upon spiritual mediums to come resolve the turmoil. Because disasters of this magnitude obviously meant that there was something befoul in the land of the spirits – that other dimension that we live with but cannot touch or quite understand.

The spiritual mediums, after much pondering, sitting and breathing and taking in the energies of the land, the trees, the ground, the air, the dried river beds, the rotting fruit, the families, asked if there were boys that had left the village? She or he or they would soon discover that there were two sons who had left for war. But they followed opposite paths and stood on opposite sides. One went North, the other went South. And as the story goes, neither of them came back.

The proper burial of the body after death, especially death far from the land in which one is born and in which one grows up, is tied to the ability of the spirit to find liberation after it leaves that very body. This belief has governed the actions of thousands of people in their search for the bodies of loved ones who died on the battlefield as well as those who died in the exodus from southeast Asia post 1975.

The spirits of the two brothers had returned, but their opposing political views, the beliefs that they held onto when they entered the war, were still intact, and probably even stronger than before. Their conflicts had been transposed into the world of spirits and were causing shifts and disruptions in the physical world, in the dimension we understand.

The spiritual medium would have to resolve these conflicts in order for things to return to how they were for the living bodies of the village, to continue to survive as they had done before. Most of the time the spiritual mediums were successful. Other times the differences were too much to resolve.

These stories have raised me – creating in me a fascination with the power of stories and the ability for narratives to allow us to process various traumas and the multiple complex and entangled political histories we have inherited. How politics and the spiritual get connected in places like this.

These stories have also taught me to look for the visible ways in which we try to connect to the invisible worlds as well as the unseen, the small things in the landscape, the things that people build and burn to connect to worlds beyond our senses, things most people would overlook. As I traverse the multiple cities and towns in Vietnam (and other locations), I record the altars that drivers have created on their dashboards. Their masses of steel flying through the land, squeezing between other vehicles and dodging human bodies, turns the landscape again into a tense backdrop of life and death and connections.

Tuan Andrew Nguyen was born in 1976, in Sai Gon, Viet Nam. He lives and works Ho Chi Minh City. Nguyen’s practice explores strategies of political resistance enacted through counter-memory and post-memory. Extracting and re-working narratives via history and supernaturalisms is an essential part of Nguyen’s video works and sculptures where fact and fiction are both held accountable. Nguyen founded The Propeller Group in 2006, a platform for collectivity that situates itself between an art collective and an advertising company. Between the collective and his individual practice, they’ve had a major traveling exhibition that started at the MCA Chicago, as well as participated in the New Museum Triennial 2012, LA Biennial 2012, Prospect3 New Orleans Triennial, the Whitney Biennial 2017, and the Sharjah Biennial 2019, and the Venice Biennale 2015.