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Frieze London 2021

Sung Tieu On Havana Syndrome

Tieu's film Moving Target Shadow Detection (2021), commissioned for this year’s Frieze Artist Award, investigates a mysterious condition

BY Chloe Stead in Frieze London , Frieze Week Magazine , Profiles | 14 OCT 21

Perched on a sofa in her crowded Berlin studio, Sung Tieu clicks through photographs of a generic-looking hotel on her laptop. With its dark wood furniture, satin bedsheets and heavy curtains in muted colours, there’s little to distinguish the government-owned Hotel Nacional from any number of five-star establishments in Havana: let alone to suggest this was allegedly the location, in 2017, of a ‘sonic attack’ on US embassy staff staying there.

‘Havana Syndrome’, the mysterious condition which purportedly resulted from attacks such as this one, is the topic of Tieu’s upcoming film, Moving Target Shadow Detection (2021), commissioned for this year’s Frieze Artist Award, having fascinated the artist since she first heard about it in 2017. Earlier this year, she reached out to veteran journalist Jon Lee Anderson, whose 2018 article for The New Yorker, ‘The Mystery of the Havana syndrome’, is one of the most detailed accounts of what might – or might not – have happened in Cuba. ‘There are so many unanswered questions,’ Tieu reflects. ‘How can such a weapon only penetrate certain rooms without affecting the other guests? And how can no one have seen it? One of the things that I really enjoy about this research is that even an expert like Anderson can’t fully tell me how it works.’

Sung Tieu, Exposure To Havana Syndrome, Brain Anatomy, Coronal Plane, (Sample 5), 2021 © Sung Tieu, Courtesy: the artist, Emalin, London and Sfeir-Semler, Hamburg/Beirut; Photography: Hans-Georg Gaul
Sung Tieu, Exposure To Havana Syndrome, Brain Anatomy, Coronal Plane, (Sample 5), 2021. Courtesy: the artist, Emalin, London; Photography: Hans-Georg Gaul

Here is what we do know: in December 2016, CIA officers in Havana started reporting symptoms – including nausea, headaches, ear pain, fatigue, insomnia and sluggishness – which they associated with loud sounds heard in their homes. Aided by what Jack Hitt, writing in 2019 for Vanity Fair, termed ‘a side helping of Cold War envy’, the idea was quickly developed in the media that this was an act of war by an enemy state, leading the Pentagon, FBI and CIA to launch their own investigations. Over the subsequent five years, reports of US diplomats, intelligence officers and other government officials experiencing Havana syndrome-related symptoms have spread to other cities, including Guangzhou, London and Moscow. In June, Vienna reportedly became the latest target of these stealth ‘attacks’.

Interested in how an otherwise apparently innocuous location became a place of such political significance, Tieu had originally planned to film in the Hotel Nacional, until COVID-19 restrictions and the resulting uprisings in Cuba made it impossible for her to travel. Instead, she is currently working with a motion designer to re-create the hotel in 3D from available online images. ‘We’re really trying to understand the infrastructure of the building – the piping, the ventilation system, the air conditioning,’ she says. ‘The question is not necessarily: did it happen, but how could it have happened?’

Sung Tieu, No Gods, No Masters, 2017, video still. Courtesy: the artist, Emalin, London and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut/Hamburg

Following reports that the sound of the weapon resembles chirping crickets, Tieu’s narrative unfurls from the perspective of an insect, enabling her to translate the confusion surrounding the Havana syndrome into the visual language of the film itself. ‘Insects see and move so differently from humans,’ Tieu explains. ‘I want to create something where the wall of the hotel room becomes a landscape, since most insects fly in such a way that the wall is equally the floor.’ As in earlier films such as No Gods, No Masters (2017), which explores the CIA’s use of sound recordings of ‘ghosts’ to intimidate superstitious Viet Cong soldiers during the Vietnam War (1955–75), Tieu is planning on appropriating surveillance techniques like thermal imaging and drone footage, with the aim, she says, of turning the tools of the military and intelligence services against themselves. ‘As I argued in No Gods, No Masters, the inventors of these devices are as haunted by their creations as the people they’re supposed to affect.’

It’s not the first time that the artist’s practice has explored the Havana syndrome. For ‘In Cold Print’, her 2020 solo exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary, Tieu exposed herself to a reconstruction of the supposed audio attack and then scanned her brain with the help of scientists at a local university. The results were inconclusive. ‘Parts of my brain were really active,’ she says, ‘but you could explain that by saying that my fear of the Havana syndrome could have caused potentially as much distress as the sound itself.’

Sung Tieu, ‘In Cold Print’, 2020, exhibition view, Nottingham Gallery, Nottingham. Courtesy: the artist, Emalin, London and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut/Hamburg; photograph: Plastiques

Then, as now, Tieu refuses to be drawn on whether she believes the enigmatic aliment is the result of a genuine attack or geopolitical paranoia. She does admit, however, that not being able to film in Cuba – until now, her attempts to get a licence for Hotel Nacional have been in vain – has only increased her interest in the phenomenon. ‘It just makes it more mysterious,’ she says. ‘I had hoped that, if I could just get into the room, I might find some answers. But maybe now I’ll never know.’

Sung Tieu's Moving Target Shadow Detection will be available on frieze.com from Wednesday 20 October. 

This article first appeared in Frieze Week, October 2021 under the headline 'Tropical Brainstorm'.

Main image: Still from No Gods, No Masters, 2017

Chloe Stead is assistant editor of frieze. She lives in Berlin, Germany.