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Issue 208

Four Artists to Watch in 2020

Why we’re excited about new works by Jamie Crewe, Sung Tieu, Rodrigo Hernández and Thảo Nguyên Phan

BY Johanna Hedva, Kito Nedo, Barbara Casavecchia AND Rowan Hisayo Buchanan in Features | 25 DEC 19

Jamie Crewe
Sung Tieu
Rodrigo Hernández
Thảo Nguyên Phan 

Jamie Crewe, Ashley, 2020, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Charlotte Percival

Jamie Crewe

Horror is the genre of our times because, obviously, our times are horrifying. This has happened before: say, in the domestic horror noir films of the 1940s, which depicted, from the perspective of a woman, husbands returning from the war as monsters. The specific, disorientating conundrum of horror is always anchored by the question of who exactly the monsters are: them, us, everyone? This question, politically, is about cause, blame. In what, in whom, did this horror originate, so that we might vanquish it? Vanquishing performs moral value: it defines a simple binary of evil vs. good that is reassuring to wield against the horrifying indeterminacy of the world; it gives you a seemingly stable place to stand. 

Yet, horror has long been the most pliable and fertile genre for those of us who are horrifying because of our indeterminacies, as deemed by the normative. Horror, in its different historical iterations, is where we freaks of society have seen ourselves represented. I can’t think of one canonical villain whose monstrosity is not explained through their queerness. Often, a villain’s abject otherness stems from mental illness or disability, which is always co-constructed with their queerness. For the insane villain of the minute, look no further than Joker (2019): a dancing, make-up-wearing, living-with-his-mother incel. 

Throughout artist Jamie Crewe’s work, an artery of horror has animated narratives from literature and film with the mythic, the mess of gender and the mutability of the body. It now blooms in full blood with Ashley, the film Crewe made as a recipient of the 2019/20 Margaret Tait Award, with long-time collaborators Tom and John Turrell. Ashley is a rural horror film, shot on the west coast of Scotland, which takes modern femininity and, in Crewe’s words, ‘mine[s] it for terror’. Played by the artist, the sole protagonist, Ashley, spends a weekend in a small cottage in a landscape that writhes with unknown menace. Ashley is trans, but the specificities are ambiguous. Crewe told me their intention was to make the audience wonder whether Ashley is a woman. ‘A question’, they added, ‘that Ashley is perhaps asking themself in the film.’ Crewe asks us to encounter their body as Ashley’s, while also troubling this as a stable relationship. Because the malevolent force hums subtly in the background, never coalescing into a discrete enemy, it drenches the world of the film in agitation, fear and a disquieting strangeness that seems to be everywhere but whose source is unknown.

At 45 minutes, this is Crewe’s longest film and their first conceived for cinema. Appropriating the horror genre, the artist explained, ‘makes use of the cinematic injunction, the powerlessness and smallness’ that the audience feels sitting in the dark. This, Crewe said, is ‘an isolated film about isolation’, which casts Ashley as a kind of equivalent of the audience. Neither has agency – or, rather, whatever agency Ashley does have is different, dissenting, from normative agency. Perhaps the same can be said for the audience.

Jamie Crewe, Ashley, 2020, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Charlotte Percival

In the first scene, the screen drains from the thrumming vermillion title card to the colours of the film’s world, bucolic and bright. Ashley appears, pulling a Prince-purple suitcase down a dirt path. A little bird pants between moss and logs. The dark night beyond the cottage windows smells of salt and ‘something night-flowering’, says the voice-over (provided by performance artist Travis Alabanza), moving Ashley to tears. Ashley doesn’t speak on screen: ‘The voice’, Crewe told me, ‘is saying something that is not illustrated on the body.’ It floats just above the image, leading Ashley’s body along the path of a story being told, as though they are compelled to follow that which eludes their control. Ashley wants us to ask about bodies and the stories they tell, which, for some of us, are always elsewhere from a place of control, never untroubled by embodiment. Ashley feels profoundly out of place, but is that because of the place or because of Ashley?

Like horror, myth is both a facile and capacious means for considering how stories about specific characters scale up to become archetypes, an umbilical cord that yokes us to an originary narrative ground. Crewe’s previous work – in particular Pastoral Drama (2018), which retells the myth of Eurydice and Orpheus as Eumelio and Apollo – has used myth to vivify contemporary questions of gender and the narratives they produce. The legends in Ashley are local: they come from the BBC horror series West Country Tales (1982–83) and Scottish landscape films (after Tait). The backbone is Crewe’s experience at the Cove Park artist residency on the Scottish west coast. These influences make the space of the film more intimate, its dread uncomfortably, invasively close. We watch Ashley touch their hair, pull a dress from their suitcase and smooth out its wrinkles, fill a teapot with water to boil. These gestures feel infested with agency, but whose agency? Are these objects, in fact, subjects? Do they have their own will and, if so, what do they want? Through the apparatus of horror, which not only objectifies but abjectifies, Crewe asks us to consider the limits of the subject – how, why and for what purposes a ‘who’ becomes a ‘what’ – as well as the potency of its inverse: in what febrile and smouldering circumstances can a ‘what’ become a ‘who’? 

–  Johanna Hedva

Jamie Crewe is a beautiful bronze figure with a polished cocotte’s head. They live in Glasgow, UK. They were the recipient of the 2019/20 Margaret Tait Award; the resulting commission, Ashley, will premiere at Glasgow Film Festival, which runs from 26 February to 8 March. In 2020, they will have sister exhibitions at Humber Street Gallery, Hull, UK (‘Solidarity & Love’, 18 January–29 March), and Grand Union, Birmingham, UK (‘Love & Solidarity’, 7 February – 17 April).

Sung Tieu, Parkstück (Park Piece), 2019, installation view, FRAGILE, Berlin. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Jonas Wendelin

Sung Tieu

According to the writer David Owen, we live in a deafening world. In his book Volume Control (2019), Owen characterizes the human senses not as separate information channels but as a tightly woven network, so that what we hear, for example, depends on what we see: ‘A great deal of the information we get about sound comes through our eyes,’ he writes.

Sung Tieu’s videos and large-scale installations look to this complex interlinking of perception, images and sounds. Her installation Parkstück (Park Piece, 2019) – shown at FRAGILE, Berlin, last summer – comprised two stainless-steel picnic tables. The innocuous remains of a picnic were spread out on the tables and around the space: plates, cutlery, a cooler, a wicker basket. Looking closely, you could see that the two tables were securely bolted to the ground, the way they are in prisons. Meanwhile, six speakers hidden around the space played sounds associated with very different situations: slow and heavy breathing; summer days in the park and birdsong; an airplane passing overhead; footsteps and the metallic rattling of keys; a snatch of piano music. Depending on which of these sounds you heard, your reading of the situation changed completely.

On one of the picnic tables, there was also a sheet of newsprint folded and wedged under a brown cardboard lunchbox. Here you could read a fictional article, written by the artist, reporting on a playground brawl in the wealthy Hamburg neighbourhood of Harvestehude, which had to be broken up by police. In the article, a police spokesperson praises the indestructability of the city’s new benches while calling for an extension of the powers of Hamburg’s security forces.

Tieu’s fictitious scenario is not so far from reality. For a time, Hamburg really did have so-called danger zones: under a controversial 2005 law, police could define areas where they were allowed to stop and search passers-by without warrants. The zones in question, however, were not wealthy neighbourhoods, but socially diverse or poor parts of town. In 2014, a protest movement against the civil-rights violations perpetrated under the stop and search rule emerged; protesters carried toilet brushes during demonstrations, which became symbols of the cause and received nationwide media attention. The practice was declared unconstitutional and, in 2016, these ‘danger zones’ were abolished – only to be replaced by a new term: ‘dangerous places’.

Sung Tieu, Parkstück (Park Piece), 2019, installation view, FRAGILE, Berlin. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Jonas Wendelin

When I spoke to Tieu over the phone last November, she was on a residency in Singapore, preparing her next two shows. Opening in February, a presentation at Nottingham Contemporary will centre on the so-called Havana syndrome. Shortly after President Donald Trump’s election, in November 2016, several American diplomats working at the US embassy in Cuba complained of strange, annoying chirping noises, which led to hearing problems, headaches and symptoms similar to that of a concussion. The Trump administration accused the Cuban government of some sort of sonic attack with a secret acoustic weapon.

Tieu listened to a recording of the Havana syndrome sounds that had been re-created and circulated online. During the session, the artist had her brain MRI-scanned by a specialist. Her Nottingham show will explore different lines of argument regarding the case and will feature a six-channel sound piece that includes a sonic version of Tieu’s own brainwaves reacting to the sounds connected to the syndrome.

For her concurrent exhibition, ‘Zugzwang’ (roughly, ‘compulsion to move’), at Munich’s Haus der Kunst, Tieu references sociological studies concerning the bureaucratic decision-making processes involved in asylum applications. The artist is interested in the ways in which specific pieces of information are accepted as ‘facts’. All too often, whether or not asylum is granted depends on how credible the applicant appears, on the coherence of their story and how it fits into an existing legal framework. For her installation, the artist plans to work with modified bureaucratic documents, whose questions or categories she is writing herself. ‘I’m interested in the fictional dimension of these bureaucratic elements,’ she told me.

For the Munich show, Tieu is also producing her own version of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser (1845), in which domestic and office noises are sampled into the musical score of the original opera. In a subtle way, this alludes to the complex mesh of aesthetics and politics epitomized by the anti-Semitic composer, whose work was admired and co-opted by the Nazis. Even today, German politicians and other public figures still make the pilgrimage every summer to the Bayreuth Festival to pay homage to the composer, just as the kaiser and imperial chancellor did in the event’s early years. Director and playwright Heiner Müller once summed up this anachronistic theatre as follows: ‘For a director, Bayreuth is a wonderful place to work [...] But it costs money to run, and to earn that money one must harness oneself to the best-oiled machine – which also has an impact on the make-up of the audience.’ Tieu’s installation will link the two parts of this machine: state-funded opera as an emotional powerhouse and the state’s asylum bureaucracy that enacts its existential tragedies every day. 

–  Kito Nedo

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Sung Tieu is an artist based in London, UK, and Berlin, Germany. In 2020, she will have solo exhibitions at Haus der Kunst, Munich, Germany (31 January–21 June), and Nottingham Contemporary, UK (8 February–3 May).

Rodrigo Hernández, ‘O mundo real não alça voo’ (The Real World Does Not Take Flight), 2018, exhibition view, Pivô, São Paulo. Courtesy: the artist, Galeria Madragoa, Lisbon, P420, Bolognia, and ChertLüdde, Berlin; photograph: Everton Ballardin

Rodrigo Hernández

It’s a misconception that every child’s first word will refer to their parents. I once babysat a girl who picked ‘Oh look!’ instead. Since first utterances are signifiers that encompass the entire world, she applied her cheerful ‘Oh look! Oh look!’ to whatever fell under her gaze, as proof of the aleatory connection between all things visual and verbal. 

The artist Rodrigo Hernández is a self-confessed fan of René Magritte and, particularly, his essay ‘Les mots et les images’ (Words and Images, 1929, published in La Révolution surréaliste), which calls into question our automatic ways of seeing and abstracting the world. Hernández’s paintings, reliefs, sculptures and installations operate like machines for flexing the imagination by triggering encounters between imagery and meaning-making.

Hernández’s titles are narrative, poetic, philosophical and often mysterious, like fragments to be deciphered. Take, for instance, ¿Qué escucho cuando escucho el discurrir del tiempo? (What Do I Hear When I Hear the Flow of Time?, 2019), a quote from the American psychologist William James. For his installation, which occupied the facade and Cube room of the Sala de Arte Público Siqueiros in Mexico City, Hernández painted a colourful, constructivist grid on a wall, upon which he interspersed a number of mounted sculptures. This staging encouraged the contemplation of time, the relativity of its duration and extension, and our ways of encoding sensory information in memory. I like to think of Hernández as an adept employer of the ‘evidential paradigm’, an expression coined by the historian Carlo Ginzburg in his 1986 book Clues, Myths and the Historical Method to define the modern process of reconstructing a historical context by means of evidence. The artist loves to keep interpretations open, like his literary hero, the French writer and winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature, Patrick Modiano, who mines memory and its failures and refrains from crafting fully cohesive plots, despite often borrowing the format of detective stories. Hernández used the opening line of Modiano’s novel Missing Person (1978) as the title for his 2016 solo exhibition, ‘I Am Nothing’, at the Heidelberger Kunstverein. Pedigree (2019), his sculptural installation at Galleria Campari in Sesto San Giovanni, pays homage to Modiano’s eponymous 2005 memoir.

Rodrigo Hernández, ¿Qué escucho cuando escucho el discurrir del tiempo? (What Do I Hear When I Hear the Flow of Time?), 2019, installation view, Sala de Arte Público Siqueiros, Mexico City. Courtesy: the artist, Galeria Madragoa, Lisbon, and ChertLüdde, Berlin; photograph: Ramiro Chaves

Born in Mexico City, and based between Lisbon and his hometown, Hernández is more than accustomed to the slippages of meaning across cultures, languages and narratives. His parents enrolled him in a Japanese immersion school in Mexico City until the age of 17. He then studied history and philosophy before turning to art, which he pursued at Jan van Eyck Academie in Maastricht and the Kunstakademie in Karlsruhe. His fondness for the synesthetic leanings of the futurists, from Filippo Tommaso Marinetti to Giacomo Balla and Fortunato Depero, evident in his recent vivid papier-mâché sculptures – such as Natal (Christmas) and Abraço (Embrace, both 2019) – is rooted in the freedom of interpretation and misinterpretation inherent in all forms of translation. Surrealism is another key reference, especially the enigmatic paintings of the De Chirico brothers, Giorgio and Alberto (better known as Alberto Savinio). Savinio’s fascinating novel Hermaphrodito (Hermaphrodite, 1918) is an exercise in polysemy and polyphony, with different languages co-existing in the same sentence and four different endings.

‘The Gourd & the Fish’, Hernández’s 2018 exhibition at SALTS, Basel, was inspired by Josetsu’s Catching a Catfish with a Gourd, a 15th-century ink painting that also serves as a kōan – a story or question formulated to test a student’s understanding of Zen Buddhism – on the non-duality of reality. The artist divided the small exhibition space into two identical halves, creating adjoining rooms with parallel entrances guarded by hanging polyurethane casts of a non-descript figure, like twin translucent ghosts. Inside, he painted the walls in dizzying red and blue optical stripes, and installed two vibrant geometric reliefs in painted papier-mâché, partially inspired by vintage Emilio Pucci patterns. The result was an immersive environment in which eye and object, figure and background, two and three dimensions continuously played off each other. Hernández adopted a similar strategy for ‘O mundo real não alça voo’ (The Real World Does Not Take Flight, 2018, after a poem by Wisława Szymborska) at Pivô, São Paulo, where a chequered pattern was repeated across the walls and columns of the space, so that his cardboard reliefs both blended and contrasted with their supports. As a possible countermeasure to the ephemeral nature of his installations, Hernández’s repoussé bas-reliefs in hand-hammered brass fix images that emerge from beneath the surface of his material. And yet, as the title of one piece from 2019 warns: Nothing Is Solid, Nothing Can Be Held in My Hand For Long. It’s a lyric from a song by Sonic Youth, whose title, in turn, says it all: ‘Kill Time’ (1987). 

–  Barbara Casavecchia

Rodrigo Hernández is an artist based in Lisbon, Portugal, and Mexico City, Mexico. In 2020, he will have solo exhibitions at İstanbul Modern, Turkey, Museum of Modern Art, Medellín, Colombia, and SCAD Museum of Art, Savannah, USA. His installation Pedigree is on view at Galleria Campari, Sesto San Giovanni, Italy, until 14 February.

Thảo Nguyên Phan, Mute Grain, 2019, film still. Courtesy: the artist

Thảo Nguyên Phan

Across three split screens, hands stroke a cow’s back. They are young hands, their skin is smooth, their fingers still puttyish with all the growing left to do. The hands begin to stroke long shafts of rice. The soundtrack is soft wind through leaves and the whistle of birds. Underneath is written in simple san serif: ‘Next they began to sell their girls.’ Thảo Nguyên Phan plays with such juxtapositions throughout her video Mute Grain (2019). As great historical injustice is described, we see child performers wrap themselves with lights. Delicate watercolours of children smiling and holding flowers are replaced by archival images of children so starved their heads look like skulls. The painted children have cheerful clothes, the historical only skin and ribs. The fairy tale vanishes to reveal the scythe of history.

Using visual metaphor, folk tale, archival footage and oral histories, Phan shows her viewers the Great Famine of 1944–45. Although sources disagree as to the exact number of Vietnamese deaths, most believe it was over a million. The disaster arose from the requisitioning of rice by occupying Japanese military forces and their colonial (Vichy) French administrators. This was exacerbated by the forced replacement of food crops with jute and cotton, and the impact of conflict on transport networks, which made it difficult to get relief to famine-stricken areas. Scholars such as Bùi Minh Dũng have described at length the military machinations behind these events. Phan glosses the global history to focus on the specific pain of those snared by war and hunger. She combines recordings of oral histories with a tale about a brother and sister abandoned during the famine. Their story is presented as part history, part folk tale, part ghost story. Phan told me that, to her, folk tales can represent history in an ‘organic and unofficial way’. And that, ‘in the particular cultural context of Vietnam, where official narrative is very much manipulated and abused, folk tale and vernacular storytelling provide somehow a more truthful but imaginative way of recording and constructing memory and history’.

I asked Phan, who grew up and continues to live in Ho Chi Minh City, if she feels a particular responsibility to depict Vietnamese history. She explained that her choice is ‘more personal than national. But since I care so much about this place, Vietnam is my inspiration, my concern, my attraction.’ Perhaps this explains the delicacy of her work – she is motivated not only by outrage about injustice, but also by love for people and place. It is not just the story of damage done but the story of the beauty that could have been. This is a Vietnamese tale but, as Phan points out in her statement about the piece, famine is ‘still raging in different parts of the world’.

Thảo Nguyên Phan, Voyages de Rhodes No. 81 (Travels of Rhodes No. 81), 2017, watercolour on found books, 24 × 16 cm. Courtesy: the artist

I was intrigued by her willingness to take any material or influence that she needs. She’s studied in Chicago, Singapore and Ho Chi Minh City. She cites her mentorship under Joan Jonas as key to her development as a video artist. She also uses watercolour, silk, steel, fabric, chalk, LEDs, lacquer. Her narratives are informed by folk tales, by history, and she even lists Kawabata Yasunari, a Nobel Prize-winning Japanese novelist, as one of her inspirations. When I asked what motivated her to cite a Japanese writer when making art about an atrocity inflicted by the Japanese occupation, she replied: ‘The kind of tranquility and the Zen atmosphere of his writing is a sharp contrast to the turbulent environment of Japanese occupied territory during and post occupation.’ She feels that it illustrates her approach to storytelling. Phan says: ‘The choice of Kawabata and the topic of Vietnam during the Japanese occupation is also deliberate. I would like to borrow his very poetic, peaceful writing to depict the world of children in turbulent times.’ She aims to present ‘difficult, traumatic content with the most meditative, mindful and sensitive method’.

Phan calls her voice ‘soft’, but it is being heard the world over. I watched Mute Grain in the dim light of my kitchen on a rainy London day, but the work premiered in the UAE, as part of the 2019 Sharjah Biennial, and it has also been shown in China; in early 2020, it will be part of a solo exhibition at WIELS in Brussels alongside a new video installation, Becoming Alluvium, which premiered at LOOP Festival in Barcelona in November and will tour to London’s Chisenhale Gallery. Becoming Alluvium investigates environmental changes along the Mekong River and their effect on both humans and land. This voice might be soft but it has a lot to say.

–  Rowan Hisayo Buchanan 

Thảo Nguyên Phan is an artist based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. She was a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Boss Asia Art Award, on view at Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai, China, until 5 January. Her video Becoming Alluvium (2019), funded by the Han Nefkens Foundation – LOOP Barcelona Video Art Award, is on view at Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona, Spain, until 6 January and will be presented at WIELS, Brussels, Belgium (1 February–26 April) and Chisenhale Gallery, London, UK (26 June–30 August).

This article first appeared in frieze issue 208 with the headline ‘Four Artists to Watch in 2020’.

Johanna Hedva is the author of the novel On Hell (2018). Their album, The Sun and the Moon, was released in March 2019.

Kito Nedo lives in Berlin where he works as contributing editor for frieze and as freelance journalist for several magazines and newspapers. In 2017, he won the ADKV-Art Cologne Award for Art Criticism.

Barbara Casavecchia is a contributing editor of frieze and a freelance writer and curator based in Milan, Italy.

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan is the author of Harmless Like You – the winner of The Authors’ Club First Novel Award and a Betty Trask Award. It was a New York Times Editors’ Choice and an NPR 2017 Great Read. Her second novel, Starling Days, was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award. She is the editor of the Go Home! anthology.