After the Battle: Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba's Art Is Haunted by His Experience of the Vietnam War, Writes Michael Glover

Article excerpt

It seems fitting that W G Sebald's enthrallingly graphic and gruesome account of the firebombing of Hamburg in 1943 should have been published after his death in a book of essays entitled On the Natural History of Destruction. One of the many remarkable things he has to tell us in those essays concerns the witness to war of the defeated. A strange silence fell upon German writers in the aftermath of the Second World War. According to Sebald, they were either unable or unwilling to write about the conflict until many decades later. "The darkest aspects of the final act of destruction, as experienced by the great majority of the German population, remained under a kind of taboo like a shameful family secret, a secret that could not even be privately acknowledged."

Here are the bald facts. Thanks to the sadism of Bomber Harris and others, a million tonnes of bombs fell on 131 German towns and cities. Six hundred thousand civilians died, and three and a half million homes were destroyed.

Were things similar in the aftermath of the Vietnam War? Did the defeated cower in guilty, psychologically overburdened silence? Not at all. The vanquished Americans went at it full tilt, in film after film, beating their finely toned, manly breasts in glorious Technicolor and surround-sound. The war was seized on, quite shamelessly, as a great cinematic opportunity. Hell, it had all been for real, boys!

But not so the victorious Vietnamese. The first remarkable work of fiction to come out of the winning side was published privately, in 1991, by a group of writers. This book, known in English as The Sorrow of War, had been written by Bao Ninh, a man who joined the war as an 13-year-old combatant in 1965 and served for a decade, rising through the ranks to command scout units in the Glorious 27th Youth Brigade. Of the 500 young recruits who went south from Hanoi in 1965, only ten returned. Of those ten, six then committed suicide.

But what of those Vietnamese who were too young to fight in that conflict? To what extent did they, too, witness it? Last month Manchester City Art Gallery opened a retrospective of work by Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba, a young Japanese-born artist based in Ho Chi Minh City. It is the first time that a major retrospective of his work has been shown in this country.

Nguyen-Hatsushiba was born in 1968 to a Japanese mother and a Vietnamese father. He was still a child during the final years of the war. His work on display at the gallery--four films and a large-scale installation entitled The Globe Project: the Garden of Globes (2007)--refers constantly to war (Vietnam and others), civil conflict and the displacement of peoples, but it does so refractedly, as if seen through a slightly distorting glass.

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"It was more like an adventure to me," says Nguyen-Hatsushiba when I quiz him. "I had no sense of fear. A soldier played with me and my toy car. …