After the battle

Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba's art is haunted by his experience of the Vietnam War

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.

"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. He sensed no danger. He was not really a hero to me, more a kind of superman."

Just one of the memories from those days still troubles him. "We owned a large dog as a pet. The Vietnamese soldiers occupied the first floor of our house. We were forced to live on the second floor. One day my dog was vomiting - from poison, I think. I realised that they were going to kill the dog and eat it. They did. It disappeared." He pauses, and looks at me. "You know, in Vietnam, we eat dog meat in restaurants." I nod.

His life experiences - like his heritage - have been complicated. His family left for Japan after the war. "We managed to get out, but my grandmother, she became a Vietnamese boatperson. She got out, too, eventually. You see, no one knew what would happen after the war. There was chaos, as after any war. We could have been stuck there. I was just six or seven years old."

From Japan the family moved to America, settling in Texas. Jun was educated and spent 15 years of his life there. He talks very quietly, in an American accent. Nguyen-Hatsushiba is wearing a black Nike sweatshirt. One hand is folded upon another. His return 12 years ago to the city once known as Hanoi was compelled, you feel, by a wish to seek out his roots: he tells me how moved he was to watch the televised version of Alex Haley's Roots, the fictional history of slavery in America. In short, he has been desperate to find out how much of his transnational identity is authentically Vietnamese.

The cycle of films in the show goes under the collective title of "Memorials". One of them, Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas: Battle of Easel Point - Memorial Project Okinawa (2003), replays the Vietnam War by transforming the conflict into a kind of underwater ballet. A platoon of divers, tubes of yellow colour strapped to their diving suits like so many cartridge belts, tries to realise images on canvas underwater. As they assault the easels that have been reared up on the ocean bed, explosions of dusty colour float and spiral up and away through the water.

It all seems so beautifully futile - and yet the futility of the gesture is bizarrely memorable. War cannot but be futile. To aestheticise it as a kind of underwater ballet may be a more imaginatively enduring re-creation of warfare than beefy hand-to-hand fighting and the incessant clatter of helicopter gunships.

At the end of our conversation, I ask Nguyen-Hatsushiba whether he considers himself a Vietnamese artist. "If people in Vietnam saw me as a Vietnamese artist, that would be wonderful," he says. "I have been exposed to three nationalities. It is not important I become any of them. In my work I am not any of them." He sighs a little. "This boundary thing. I wish there were no boundaries."

"Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba" is at the Manchester City Art Gallery until 1 June. For more details visit: www.manchestergalleries.org