Sung Tieu: Civic Floor

Four dark steel tables and geometric sculptures are surrounded by artworks in white frames hung horizontally in a white walled and floored gallery.

Exhibition view: Sung Tieu: Civic Floor, MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, 2023. Photo: Dario Lasagni

Hayden Gallery
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Sung Tieu
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Sung Tieu employs sculpture, drawing, sound, video, and installation to examine a wide range of subjects in which social or political power is articulated through sensory and psychological realms.

Through various media, Tieu crafts a spatial narrative in each of her exhibitions that reflects her research into bureaucratic systems and the psychological or emotional impact of their use of space. Many of the artist’s works and past architectural interventions have served as evocative reconstructions of sites of control, surveillance, or bureaucracy—at times, subtly referencing her own lived experience with various administrative environments.

Perception is a key node in Tieu’s work as she elaborates the often alienating effects of sound and our sensory experiences of architecture and design. In recent pieces, she has distorted a Wagnerian opera as an “orchestra” of office sounds (Zugzwang [2020]); reconstructed the acoustic attacks alleged to have caused Havana syndrome, capturing her own exposure to the sound via brain scans (In Cold Print [2020]); and drawn on US military psychological operations’ audio recordings designed to destabilize the Vietnamese National Liberation Front (No Gods, No Masters [2017]).

In Civic Floor, visitors enter an artificially blank space, its floor brightened with white carpeting that adds a sense of isolation and placelessness. Central to the presentation is a suite of abstract steel sculptures, imposing in substance and weight, which reference architectural spaces designed for detention. Reflective stainless steel plates suspended above them allow partial aerial views of their interiors, filled with soil. A new series of tablet-like plaster reliefs derived from the paperwork for US asylum petitions hangs on the gallery walls and offers a formal analysis of the bureaucratic forms themselves. In their abstract fields of lines and boxes, they illustrate the spatial parameters within which an asylum seeker’s story might exist. In corresponding stainless steel plaques, the forms’ narrow parameters (boxes, lines, cells) are quantified in square millimeters, allowing us to consider how these tightly apportioned spaces operate in tandem with the often casual hostility and incidental violence of administrative systems and their architectures. Three stainless steel stools, typical of immigration and detention spaces, are affixed to the gallery walls. Their displacement in the gallery alludes to how they have also been introduced as seating in restaurants, airports, playgrounds, and state offices— and how easily these public areas have taken up the security and control measures of carceral spaces.

With this suite of works, as well as in a new multichannel sound installation compelling visitors to traverse the gallery, Tieu invites us to consider space and its allowances in not only formal, sculptural terms that entreat the histories of Minimalism but also sociopolitical terms, which echo the title’s invocation of citizenship and the rights it confers.

Sung Tieu: Civic Floor is organized by Natalie Bell, Curator.

Visitors are invited to remove their shoes in the gallery space.

Civic Floor is produced in partnership with Luxembourg -Musée d’Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean and Southern Alberta Art Gallery Maansiksikaitsitapiitsinikssin (SAAG). Civic Floor at MIT List Visual Arts Center will be presented concurrently with Infra-Specter at Amant, Brooklyn (March 30–August 27, 2023). Marking a larger collaboration, as well as their respective exhibitions, MIT List Visual Arts Center, Amant, Mudam Luxembourg, and SAAG will coedit an artist-led reader focused on critical research in architecture, labor, politics, and infrastructure that has informed Tieu’s practice in recent years.

Sung Tieu (b. 1987, Hai Duong, Vietnam) lives and works in Berlin. She has held recent solo exhibitions at Kunstmuseum Bonn; Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst, Leipzig (2021); Nottingham Contemporary; and Haus der Kunst, Munich (2020). Her work was included in the 34th Bienal de São Paulo, the 2021 Kyiv Biennial and was exhibited in group survey exhibitions at Museion, Bolzano; Kunsthalle Basel (2021); Museum Angewandte Kunst, Frankfurt; GAMeC Museum, Bergamo; Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin (2020) and Kunsthaus Hamburg (2019). She received the 2021 Frieze Artist Award and the 2021 Ars Viva award and the audience award of the 2021 Preis der Nationalgalerie, Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin.


Exhibitions at the List Center are made possible with the support of Fotene & Tom Coté, Audrey & James Foster, Idee German Schoenheimer, Joyce Linde, Cynthia & John Reed, and Sara-Ann & Robert Sanders. This exhibition is also supported by generous donors to the 2020 McDermott Award Gala, hosted by the Council for the Arts at MIT. Additional support is provided by The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Foundation. Special thanks to the Consulate General of the Federal Republic of Germany Boston.

General operating support is provided by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the Council for the Arts at MIT; Philip S. Khoury, Associate Provost at MIT; the MIT School of Architecture + Planning; the Mass Cultural Council; and many generous individual donors. In-kind media sponsorship provided by 90.9 WBUR. The Advisory Committee Members of the List Visual Arts Center are gratefully acknowledged.