Tuan Andrew Nguyen: The Island

Media - 2022.51 - SAAM-2022.51_3 - 146374

Tuan Andrew Nguyen, The Island, 2017, single-channel video, color, 5.1 surround sound; 42:00 minutes, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase through the Asian Pacific American Initiative Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, 2022.51

Artist Tuan Andrew Nguyen creates multimedia installations that blend fact, memory, myth, and mysticism and use lush imagery to draw out these entanglements. By digging deep into archives and collaborating with communities, his projects weave together many voices to reveal other truths about — and strategies of repair from — colonial violence. In this Washington, DC debut, his video work The Island (2017) is shown for the first time with Bidong Spirit I, a sculpted headdress Nguyen created for the film. The titles of both artworks refer to the tiny Malaysian island of Pulau Bidong, a primary destination for Vietnamese escaping by boat after the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975.


While this history is ever present in Nguyen’s video, he sets his story in an imagined future. The main character has lived his entire life on the island. From the late 1970s through the early 1990s, Pulau Bidong was the largest, longest running refugee camp and, at peak population, the densest place on earth. Born to parents who hid when the camp was cleared in 1991, he has been entirely alone for many decades, tending to the spirits that remain. One day, a United Nations scientist washes ashore. She informs him that they are the only survivors of nuclear conflicts that made “refugees out of the entire world.” As they explore the island, they debate their responsibility to learn from the island's past, and whether its teachings can save the future. As viewers, we too are invited to ponder these questions. Press characterizations of refugees, found in the archival news reports and first-person testimonies woven throughout, suggest striking parallels to the forced global migrations happening today.

This focused exhibition features the video recently added to SAAM’s collection as part of a longstanding time-based media art initiative. It is presented in a dedicated gallery for immersive media art installations that opened in 2023. This forty-two minute film runs continuously and can be entered at any time.

The presentation is organized by Saisha Grayson, curator of time-based media at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Visiting Information

August 16, 2024 May 4, 2025
Open Daily, 11:30 a.m.–7:00 p.m
Free Admission


Tuan Andrew Nguyen: The Island received Federal support from the Asian Pacific American Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.