»Research is never neutral«

Sung Tieu © Diana Phammatter

Artist Sung Tieu has been nominated for this year’s Preis der Nationalgalerie. We spoke with the artist about the role of research in her work and how it can be integrated.

You are one of four nominees for this year’s Preis der Nationalgalerie. What are you planning for the exhibition?

My project for the Preis der Nationalgalerie builds on my exhibition ›Multiboy‹ at GfZK in Leipzig. That exhibition was based on a flight list that showed which Vietnamese contract workers went to which factories in East Germany. I then collected the original products—from tampons and condoms to shoe polish and detergent—that were produced by these workers. My aim was to lay open the various forms of invisible labour that went into these goods.


What role do specific, individual fates play in this? Are the objects on display linked to particular individuals, for instance?

I see the exhibition as being more about the larger bureaucratic system that documents people, their work processes and transactions—I don’t really investigate a more personal layer. All of this was mainly research work that I did at Bundesarchiv, which is the main repository of correspondences between the various ministries of the GDR. Actual people for the most part only appear anonymously in these files, as a number—or when they become conspicuous: Such and such person had an accident or died, or such and such got pregnant, hence: What are we going to do with them now? As a contract worker you were not supposed to get pregnant. That was against the labour programme’s intentions. On other occasions it’s about contract extensions or special leave, or someone has run away again and so forth.

Sung Tieu, No Gods, No Masters, 2017, HD-Video und 4-Kanal-Ton, Filmstill

How did you integrate these documents into the exhibition?

The works on paper shown in the exhibition are not the actual original documents from the Bundesarchiv; instead I have transcribed them word by work and transferred them into a new layout. This kind of translation into an artistic language is important to me. Although the content remains the same, the nature of the information changes in the process. Something is added or has shifted. Also, there is also a kind of labour in the act of transcription, in the stubborn typing of it all—and it makes a huge difference whether such work has been done, no matter whether you see it in the end result or not.

»I am not at all keen to define a fixed method for my work. It is an expression of artistic freedom to be able to change the approach each time.«

To what extent is such a rather appropriative approach to working with documents also a kind of method for you?

I am not at all keen to define a fixed method for my work. It is an expression of artistic freedom to be able to change the approach each time. I adapt the way I deal with research material depending on the situation. My exhibition ›Zugzwang‹ at Haus der Kunst in Munich integrated documents from asylum procedures, for instance. But in contrast to ›Multiboy‹, I modified their content and intervened in the texts of these rigid, prescriptive, and reality-producing bureaucratic documents in order to generalise them, but also to counteract the feeling that one is at the mercy of these official documents, not least because of their confusing minutiae. Who would fight to change this one small question in a questionnaire alongside a hundred other questions? But that is precisely why it is important to literally intervene in the so-called small print.


Would it be an option for you to exhibit research material ›directly‹, so to speak—without further processing?

Pure, strictly documentary research material displayed in artistic works is, if you ask me, rather boring. It stages a linearity and conveys a forced ›A-leads-to-B‹ sensibility. Research, as how I see it, is never neutral, even if it pretends to be. What’s important to me is to understand such material formally and visually as well. The hope is that through artistic treatment more complex relations can surface; that questions about the kind of information we are actually dealing with and how this information is treated can arise. Then, beyond the facts, something else can come into view: the mechanisms that fabricate those facts.

Preis der Nationalgalerie 2021. Lamin Fofana. Calla Henkel & Max Pitegoff. Sandra Mujinga. Sung Tieu
16 SEP 2021—27 FEB 2022
Preview as part of Berlin Art Week on 15 SEP from 8pm with pre-booked time slot ticket.