13 Asian artists investigate authority and power mechanisms at Singapore’s Institute of Contemporary art at LASALLE College of the Arts.
“Moving pledges: art and action in Southeast Asia” runs until 23 January 2019. Curated by Iola Lenzi, the group show is deeply rooted in the Southeast Asian political and socio-cultural framework.
Hito Steyerl, filmmaker, artist and writer notes that “art’s role is to investigate the way things are seen and comprehended—the lenses through which people see things” and this is what the 13 artworks in “Moving pledges: art and action in Southeast Asia” aim to do. The exhibition opened at the Earl Lu Gallery, Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore (ICAS) on 20 October and is a supporting event to the conference being hosted at the LASALLE College of the Arts later this year, from 3-5 December, Art and Action: Contemporary Art and Discourse in Southeast Asia. The works of 14 artists range from the late 1970s to the present. The curatorial statement explains that
the exhibition employs a ‘snapshot’ curatorial approach to reveal a distinctive and enduring strand of Southeast Asian contemporary art centred on interrogating the social-cultural-political order” and that the artworks use “inventive aesthetic and conceptual strategies to engage viewers on shared social questions.
Whose pledge does the exhibition refer to? Iola Lenzi, the curator of the exhibition, says that she leaves it to the viewer to find the meaning, though she prefers the more open reading of pledge as promise and bond. She adds:
Of the state to the citizen? those of citizens to the state? Or of citizens to each other? The key is pledge as promise and responsibility, and the consequences of broken or distorted pledges, ‘moving pledges’.
The exhibition space is organised to appear informal. At the door, there is a two-sided chalkboard with a mind map drawn on one side and a semi-erased image on the other. Inside there is a rack of embroidered jackets, sarongs, caps and sandals to try on and a full length mirror that allows you to see how the apparel fits. Even the works that are not performative are accessible as there are no white lines or cordons to stay behind. Lenzi explains that the informality is intrinsic to the kind of Southeast Asian art that she works with and for. “Southeast Asian art that I focus on broke with mainstream art of the time because it sought to connect directly with audiences. All audiences. Not elites who went to art exhibitions, or patrons collecting paintings. The goal was to grapple with what was going on here and now in a new way, actively, to engage wide audiences. That was a key component of the rupture, so the art evidences this fundamental change of art language in its materials and construction methods.”
With artworks from Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam, the exhibition barely represents half of Southeast Asia. Nonetheless, the works confront some of the themes that appear in the region’s art time and again: the politics of power; forgotten histories and narratives; identity; cultural imperialism and the “other” view.
Meaning in contemporary art is a construct that often requires the audience to play an active role. Many of the works in the exhibition rely on audience participation like Jakkai Siributr’s Changing Room (2017). The installation, which is fashioned after a clothing outlet’s changing room, consists of a clothes rack with embroidered military jackets, a table with embroidered kapiyohs (traditional Muslim caps worn in the South of Thailand) and a mirror. Visitor are invited to try on the jackets and caps, which have been embroidered with images from the decades old Buddhist –Muslim conflict in Southern Thailand.
Similarly, Restu Ratnaningtyas’ Transmission (2014) consists of 16 white cotton sarongs block-printed with black motifs. Visitors are invited to try on the sarongs and at first glance they appear very conventional. However, instead of the usual patterns that can be found on sarongs, faceless women, bodiless helmets and body parts decorate the fabric.
Josephine Turalba, whose work focuses on the politics of violence, also invites visitors to wear her handstitched sandals (Scandals, 2013-). Made with empty bullet cartridges, visitors can walk around the gallery in them to experience the discomfort and pain that the shells inflict even when spent.
But does the viewer gain insight into the other’s situation by simply donning the garments and looking at oneself in the mirror or by walking around in colourful footwear? In this age of Instagrammable art it is a bit hard to say how many walk away with just selfies without really understanding another’s view.
While the above works engage effortlessly on the participatory level and make audience involvement easy, some works require context before they can be understood or interacted with. In ICAS’s house- style, there are no labels or wall text to identify or explain the artworks.
FX Harsono’s Apa yang anda lakukan jika krupuk ini adalah pistol beneran? [What would you do if these crackers were real pistols?] (1977–) is one such work. The installation includes a couple of crackers in the shape of a pistol, a blank notebook for audience responses, relic notebooks filled with previous viewers’ comments and the cast-iron moulds used to produce the crackers all lying on a table. The work was novel at the time when it was first exhibited. Rather than its materiality or form, the key component of the work was the question that it posed, with the intention to trigger a response in the viewer. While the question of gun control and its use continues to be pertinent, this methodology of art interrogating or presenting an idea is now central to much of the region’s art.
Another work that requires contextualisation is Koh Nguang How’s 16 views, the artist’s eye on Singapore art and artists in the city, which consists of 16 black and white photographs displayed on the wall. Koh is an archivist who documents performances that were held across Singapore from 1988 to 1996. He also took part in some of them. These include Tang Da Wu’s Lifeboat (1989) and Incident in the City (1988) as well as Amanda Heng’s In Memory of 4th June 1989 (1992). However, the work fails to emphasise the importance of these images as documents of emerging social practices in Singapore or the relevance of the monumental archive built up by Koh. An oral narrative from the artist and archivist would have shed some light on the significance of the documentary photography on display.
The exhibition includes two very well-known and familiar artworks by Thai artists Manit Sriwanichpoom and Suttee Kunavichayanont. Manit’s Horror in Pink #1-6 (2001), part of his “Pink Man” series (1997-2017), highlights state brutality in Thailand, which is missing from the national narrative. The Pink Man, inserted as a voyeur in the gruesome images, adds the element of consumerism, which is so prevalent in society whether it is for material goods or information.
An edition of Suttee’s History Class, which he first produced in 2000, is another seminal work in the exhibition. The original work was exhibited on a busy sidewalk in view of Bangkok’s Democracy Monument. It comprised of children’s desks carved with images of events that have been excluded from the official political history taught in Thai schools. Passers-by were invited to sit at the desks and create rubbings of the reliefs and so learn of an alternative narrative. The desks at the ICAS are from a later version of the work, which was exhibited in Indonesia in 2016. Based on the same concept as the original, these desks are engraved with images of incidents from the 1965-1966 civil unrest in Indonesia. The theme of multiple political or historical narratives is common not just in Asia but across the world, and is reflective of the parallels in political and social issues globally.
Different from her usual oeuvre of multimedia installations is Mella Jaarsma’s The Landscaper (2013). The video depicts a whirling dervish wearing a dress composed of a patchwork of miniature images of the Indonesian landscape. The images are in the Mooi Indie (Beautiful Indies) romantic style that was popularised by Dutch painters as an idealised view of the East Indies and was also adopted by some Indonesian artists like Raden Saleh. The landscapes, painted on wooden panels by local artists, are those that can be found on the exteriors of becaks, or bicycle rickshaws. While still popular as craft, this painting style was rejected by later artists looking to define their own national art identity. The dervish represents Sufism or mysticism in Islam – now a displaced idea in Indonesia’s orthodox religious culture. Together, these elements make a statement of the syncretic nature of Indonesian culture and society but do not activate or provoke a response.
Notwithstanding limitations of space, the 13 works in the exhibition only scratch at the surface of the theme of action or social activism in Southeast Asian art. The snapshot that “Moving Pledges” presents echoes what other exhibitions have noted – that Southeast Asian art has its own canon, one that cannot be read via Western art historical narratives. This snapshot may be useful for those looking at Southeast Asia from the outside, but for those on the inside this is a non-issue. The art exists, speaks for itself and is the canon.
Of concern now is how the once Western debate of mainstream and margin – which placed Asian art into the latter because it did not follow the formal requirements of fine art – is beginning to reappear in our own classification of what is or is not contemporary Southeast Asian art. Is art only contemporary if it is holds a social, political or cultural context? Does it become marginalised if it decides to focus on the formal or is contemplative?
Lenzi asserts that Southeast Asian contemporary art she researches is first personal to each artist, but also both answers and mines local conditions without inhibitions. She adds:
This does not mean being oblivious to the world beyond, quite the contrary, but if the artist is interested in empowerment in her/his immediate environment, and the art reflects this agency, then the “call for action” component is hard to ignore.
I defend a particular canon, but there are others… Time will tell which artworks are remembered and demonstrated as central to the times, and have impact going forward. My job today is to analyse, contextualise, and exhibit the strand that I see as relevant.
The impact going forward is why these questions become even more relevant, for an exhibition in an art institution. The reading of past and present art has the power to shape what develops in the future. More often than not, art students take influence from what the art world values. And especially in a country like Singapore, where sustainability is an issue, not many emerging artists may choose to be on the margin.
“Moving pledges: art and action in Southeast Asia” is on view from to 19 October 2018 to 23 January 2019 at the Earl Lu Gallery, Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, LASALLE, 1 McNally Street, Singapore.