Fantasies of the past often live on as scattered material remnants in the present. The architectural installation in Hương Ngô’s “In the Shadow of the Future” refers to one such enduring vestige: the star-shaped terraced complexes of Ivry-sur-Seine, France. These communal housing structures, designed by Jean Renaudie and Renée Gailhoustet, in one of Paris’s so-called banlieues rouges (red suburbs), are represented in Ngô’s show by a wooden trilateral sculpture filled with plants. Within its frame, three monitors display a video of a cosmonaut loitering gingerly in the neighborhood, interacting with local residents from l’Union des Jeunes Vietnamiens de France and l’Union Générale des Vietnamiens de France, two unions representing Vietnamese people. The central character is based on Phạm Tuân, a Vietnamese fighter pilot, who became the first Asian space traveler in 1980, when he went into orbit as part of the Soviet Intercosmos program, an effort at “friendship diplomacy.” On the wall hangs a concrete relief of a newspaper clipping that touts the mission’s victory for the Communist Party of Vietnam. During the preceding decade, many Vietnamese refugees fleeing the Vietnam War settled in Ivry-sur-Seine.
As Ngô’s cosmonaut roams the commune, he represents not only Phạm’s phantom but also his legend. The character’s overt fictitiousness is mixed with grains of truth: His image is intercut with archival footage, including a commercial captioned “Mon quartier c’est ma vie” (My Neighborhood Is My Life), announcing the housing project’s mythic narrative. At times, singing from the unions' choir rehearsal provides an ethereal soundtrack. But rather than doleful reminiscence, Ngô’s reimagination of this episode in history encapsulates the interminable state of hope and displacement that characterizes the twentieth century’s communitarian visions.