Converted military structures, erasure, history as it moves, intersections, neglected spaces, a trail of fugitive heritage, terra nullius.
As a country with an edifice complex, crazed by real estate prices, negative gearing and rental nightmares, Australia has a slippery way of forgetting architectural forms that don’t fit its easy quarter-acre-block mythology. Long before IKEA flat-packing, the ghostly, half-moon structures of Nissen Huts were quickly hoisted during WWII for temporary military accommodation in the Asia Pacific. They were then converted for migrant and refugee resettlement in the 1970s. The Nissen Huts weren’t quite homes and weren’t quite camps, and they now form a trail of lost heritage in suburbs like Belmont North near Newcastle.
After an ocean crossing, artist James Nguyen’s father found strange, fleeting shelter in a converted Nissen Hut within the East Hills Migrant Hostel in the outer suburbs of Sydney in the 1980s. Now Australia is in the depths of a conservative wave, encompassing a rejection of refugees and a demonisation of migration by mainstream politicians and media. But as James shows us, one part of this country’s historical amnesia is in plain sight, with the Nissen Huts’ aberrant, tunnel-shaped architecture holding the memories of those who moved here.
James draws obliquely and contemplatively on the forms of documentary cinema. He ventures into a creaking, empty Nissen Hut, moves his body in the uniquely curved and corrugated structure, and holds his body to test the space. The Nissen Huts – and their fugitive history across colonial, military, post-war refugee and residential utilities – remain overlooked. And yet, as James’ cliffhanger ending suggests, the future is history.
About James Nguyen
James makes humble art in collaboration with family and friends, telling their stories and hidden histories.