Tiffany Chung – Thu Thiem

An archaeological project for future remembrance
13 Nov 2018 - 5 May 2019 | Johann Jacobs Museum

Tiffany Chung excavates in ruins and urban waste to reveal objects: children’s shoes, window frames, tiles and the like. The artist’s excavation site, called Thủ Thiêm, is an old city quarter in Saigon (Vietnam).

The objects that Chung encounters in her archaeological research aren’t necessarily exceptional things. They are rather trivial witnesses of an everyday and bygone life, which still resonates within the objects, like the sound of a musical instrument. And so, the objects tell of the presence of the French colonial power in Indochina, just as they tell of the sentimental value of a porcelain rice bowl.

Thủ Thiêm was a lively quarter, an urban organism, which was overwritten – with a master plan, an optimistic makeover of the urban space, an exhaustive transformation which leaves nothing as it was before and tears at the social structures.  This master plan which creates a type of tabula rasa and effaces history is met by the artist with a different plan: an artistic cartography which simultaneously captures the spiritual and historical dimensions of a place.

“an archaeological project for future remembrance” is the first European museum exhibition of the Vietnamese American artist Tiffany Chung.


Kindly supported by

Tyler Rollins Fine Art


Title image: Work detail of Tiffany Chung, 1972 Thu Thiem Development Plan by US AID (Agency for International Development), ink and oil on vellum and paper, 110 x 70 cm, 2013. Courtesy of the artist and Tyler Rollins Fine Art, New York. 


Cartographies of 'ma'

by Roger M. Buergel
Tiffany Chung

Child’s Shoe, retrieved in Cây Bàng Street, Thủ Thiêm, from: An archaeological project for future remembrance, Tiffany Chung.

The material residues of past eras and empires have long been the pursuits of archaeology. Tricks of the trade include a poking and picking that reshuffle historical sediments – layers of history and objects embedded into the earth – unearthing artifacts that don’t necessarily carry a greater message than their own material presence. These objects are mute and while some of them implore us to examine them further, we still can’t discern from which depths of history these pleas emanate or even what they are trying to say to us.


Recovered windows from demolished houses, 126 x 126 x 20 cm, Detail.

Vietnamese-American artist Tiffany Chung embarked on an archaeological project some years ago. It is a project devoted to these depths of history – only she doesn’t find these depths, as one might expect, in a remote antiquity. Chung’s excavation, rather, searches in the shallows. Shallows that lie in the modern age – an era that is verily defunct, yet still lingers in the shape of our present.

Chung was born in Vietnam. She left the country with her family after the war and grew up in California. In the year 2000, she returned to Saigon bringing with her questions concerning her family’s fate – questions about the fate of a country that has ever been a nexus of power for shifting regimes and their inherent interests. But Chung also had questions about the meaning and agency artistic media might have when considering social connections. This is particularly true of connections that aren’t necessarily evident because they concern the ‘everyday’ and the people who inhabit it. This can include relations between personal experiences and power – political conflicts, for example, as well as the trauma that follows. (Chung’s current work on the war in Syria should be mentioned here).

Many of the experiences in which individuals and violence suddenly stand face to face, remain silent. In their silence, they don’t disappear; they linger and are passed on. Even, perhaps, through the objects Chung excavates in her archaeology of the modern.

Whilst working in Saigon, Chung devised the medium of the “map” as a tool for her artistic creations. The maps of early European explorers are marked by blank spaces which, little by little, were filled in. Without the discipline of cartography, the entire project of the modern, of appropriation and of rewriting the landscape, of surveying and plundering (some parts) of the world – would all have been well-nigh impossible. Maps are not neutral documents; they have a center from which they determine proportions of the whole.

Tiffany Chung

Work detail of Tiffany Chung, 1972 Thu Thiem Development Plan by US AID (Agency for International Development), ink and oil on vellum and paper, 110 x 70 cm, 2013. Courtesy of the artist and Tyler Rollins Fine Art, New York.

In this sense, Chung was able to get an idea of the situation when she began to draw maps in Saigon. But one important aspect differentiates these artistic maps from conventional maps. As already mentioned, they document connections that lie beyond empiricism. But they can also document affect – for example, the spiritual significance that a place holds for people. ¹


Thủ Thiêm is a district of Saigon, officially referred to as Ho Chi Minh City since 1975. Saigon is the largest city in Vietnam, positioned in the fertile and formidably culturally rich Mekong Delta. For years, Saigon was the capital of the French colony of Cochinchina. After attaining its independence, the city of Saigon became the capital of the Republic of (South) Vietnam (1955-1975). In the history of Saigon, Thủ Thiêm – which lies in the winding curve of a river – plays an important part. It is, on the one hand, a district within the city, and on the other, it isn’t. It is at once a boomtown and a wasteland.

3-Channel Video, 6’26”, An archaeological project for future remembrance, Tiffany Chung, Detail.

Thủ Thiêm was an evolved quarter; one of Chung’s maps reminds us of this, with Thủ Thiêm depicted like a human organ – reminiscent of a bleeding heart. The Thủ Thiêm quarter was razed to the ground in the wake of a master plan in 2010 – its inhabitants have been  resettled. Following the principle of tabula rasa, the uncontrolled urban growth was to be replaced by an Asian mega city: hypermodern clusters of apartment buildings and shopping malls for the new middle class.

For Chung, Thủ Thiêm has presented, if not implored itself to be read as a type of case study through which historical and affective layers of the modern might be read. And so, she has attentively followed the processes that played out in this territory, searching and scanning the results of the clearing operations: a vast urban wasteland full of relics, which until yesterday might still have been in use, but remain only in shattered existences: shoes, window grates, tiles and cups.


Shoe, retrieved in Cây Bàng Street, Thủ Thiêm, from: An archaeological project for future remembrance, Tiffany Chung.

All of these objects will now be presented at the Johann Jacobs Museum, together with Chung’s painted maps and a video, which shows her excavation work. As already mentioned, Chung’s findings do not correspond to the typical conceptions of archaeology. They are neither ancient nor particularly exceptional. And still, they share a decisive trait with classical objects: they are silent witnesses to an everyday life that has left no other traces behind. The traces have been violently erased, as the developed Thủ Thiêm has had to make way for a modernistic fantasy in planning.

Ceramic Tiles, retrieved in Cây Bàng Street, Thủ Thiêm

In this respect, the master plan, dreamt up by the communist administration, can be positioned in a series of colonial interventions. This series begins in the 17th century: with the Vietnamese conquest of the Mekong Delta. It continues with the French occupation of the region in 1862 and continues into today. Chung documents these interventions in her maps (in the smaller maps which represent Saigon, one recognizes, for example, the first fortifications on the left and right off the shore) and in a series of text plates.


Recovered windows from demolished houses, 126 x 126 x 20 cm, Detail.

The individual text plates reveal diverse observations, descriptions and analyses. They are snapshots of a historical process that is impossible to portray in its entirety. The aesthetic form of the plate acknowledges the necessary fragmentation of this historical narrative. As with the tiles and children’s shoes, only fragments are available to us… The only historical constant that comes to mind are acts of appropriation.

The artist takes a position against violence as a historical constant. Her painted maps, however, aren’t restricted to representations of Thủ Thiêm’s history. Beyond these empirical realities, they also tell of that which has been felt and thought… and which has been concealed. For in the spaces where life and authority collide – villages with gun-toting armies, rice fields with dredgers, Thủ Thiêm with wrecking balls – silence soon returns.

This silence is, however, not a terminus, as the artist says herself, but offers space to think about history differently: “In Eastern culture, ‘ma’ is the silent space in which we are supposed to read between the lines. Sometimes that space gets lost between the lines people read in history books.” In this sense, Chung’s painted Maps are first and foremost this: cartographies of ‘ma’. Let’s learn to read them.

Work detail of Tiffany Chung, Fort du Nord-Plan du terrain militaire (Saigon, 26 août 1891), acrylic, ink and oil on vellum and paper, 27.2 x 30 cm, 2016. Courtesy of the artist and Tyler Rollins Fine Art, New York.

¹ For an example of such a superposition of empirical data and affective intensity – a short digression into the biographical is necessary: Chung’s mother waited for 14 years along the 17th parallel for her husband to return from captivity as a prisoner of war. The 17th parallel was one in the same as the Ben Hai River, which subsequently divided Vietnam into North and South Vietnam as per the 1954 Geneva Accords.

Side Exhibition

by Roger Buergel and Bruno Z'Graggen

The program accompanying the exhibition offers deeper insight into the complex and entangled history of Southeast Asia. At the same time, it dares to build a contemporary bridge between Vietnam and Switzerland. Two video works and a floor sculpture by Quynh Dong – whose biography has its roots in Asia, although the artist grew up in Bern – explore the mystery of cultural identity.

Quynh Dong at the Johann Jacobs Museum
Tiffany Chung - Begleitausstellung
Quynh Dong, Sweet Noel, video HD, colour, sound, single channel, 7:39 minutes, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

The museum is pleased to present three works by Vietnamese-Swiss Artist Quynh Dong as part of the program accompanying the Thủ Thiêm exhibition. The two videos  and a floor sculpture seek to expand the “Vietnam” complex into Switzerland and immerse visitors in the personal side of a migration story.

Bruno Z’Graggen, curator of VIDEO WINDOW, Zurich, suggested this companion exhibition and selected the works.


Quynh Dong was born in Hai Phong, northeastern Vietnam in 1982 and lives and works in Zurich. Her mother emigrated to Hong Kong with her daughter in the mid-1980s for economic reasons before moving to Switzerland in 1990. Dong completed her artistic education in 2010 with a Master in Fine Arts at the Zurich University of the Arts. Residencies have taken her to New York, Amsterdam and Seoul. Kunstraum Baden presented a solo exhibition of her work in 2014.

At the heart of Dong’s work are videos and performances. She is interested in the media implementation and staging of universal emotions such as love, separation, loneliness and longing, as well as in playing with cultural codes, signs and clichés.

Dong’s work is inspired and enriched by her background, family and the reality of life in Switzerland, combined with questions of cultural identity. Her art history and contemporary art interests include Romanticism, Asian painting, Bill Viola’s videos, and the interplay of high and low culture (k-pop music clips and everyday Asian aesthetics). Quynh Dong has been producing ceramic objects since her stay at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam (2013-2015) and is increasingly concerned with aesthetic questions relating to sculpture and the representation of nature.

Das Aquarium, 2007

Das Aquarium, 2007, DV PAL, color, sound (stereo), 1-channel, 5:30 minutes, aspect ratio 4:3

Das Aquarium is Dong’s first video work, with which she immediately won the main prize of the renowned Aeschlimann Corti-Scholarship awarded by the Bernerische Kunstgesellschaft in 2008. It is a silent metaphor for loneliness, memory and longing. The video shows her mother lost in thought at home in her kitchen, looking out at the balcony door into the distance, carrying out everyday activities, leafing through her passport, texting and writing a letter, accompanied by the sounds of traffic and a loudly ticking clock.

Sweet Noel, 2013

Sweet Noel, 2013, HD video, color, sound (stereo), 1-channel, 7:39 minutes, aspect ratio 16:9

The video Sweet Noel recalls tableaux vivants. In it, Dong blends recollections of both Vietnamese and Western painting, song culture and fashion. The celebrated lacquer painting Vuon Xuân Trung Nam Bac (translated: “Spring Garden from the Center, the South and North”) (1970–1988) by Nguyễn Gia Trí (1908-1993) serves as a model for the brightly colored, stage-like garden splendor of plastic flowers. The painter is considered the founder of modern lacquer painting in Vietnam and was influenced by European painting, above all by the French Impressionists. The artist portrays herself as an artificial, grace-like figure multiplied eleven times, performing typically female gestures. She wears a pink sequined dress that looks traditional but was actually bought at a Sweet Sixteen store in New York. One after the other, the figures sing verses of Hai Mùa Noel (translated: “Two Times Christmas”), one of the best-known love songs in Vietnam (these songs are close to the tradition of the French chanson). Snowfall sets in at the dramaturgical climax of the singers’ bliss.


The Second Stage of Beauty, 2014
Tiffany Chung - Begleitausstellung

The Second Stage of Beauty, 2014, Various tulip petals made of fired white clay with double-layer color glaze; dimensions and number of pieces variable

The petals of this iconic flower,  which travelled from China to Europe in the 16th century and triggered a huge speculative bubble in Holland, seem to be withering. The artistic form succeeds in stopping the decay by becoming one with the individual windings of the leaves. But the chosen material, ceramics, leaves no doubt as to the fragility of life processes.


Side Exhibition in cooperation with