Posts Tagged ‘Thai art’
Prices (2011), William Powhida. Image courtesy of the artist’s personal site.
A belated look at Art Stage Singapore 2012 .. or ASS, as some are fond of referring to it.
There are no numbers here.
And there are no definitely no checklists inventorying who sold what to whom for how much. (Interest in art itself deflected by interest in their prices – just about so neat a fulfillment of Marx’s notion of the commodity fetish it’s nearly ridiculous.)
A disjointed juxtaposition seemed like the only comprehensible response to the bloated phenomenon that is the contemporary art fair.
Next to the entrance to this year’s Art Stage fair, where a posse of goons in dark suits stand like chthonic sentinels before a walkthrough metal detector soaring ceiling-wards, guests are greeted by an aureate version of Robert Indiana’s iconic LOVE statue (above). This one isn’t too large. Measuring some six by six feet, it’s love on a manageable, human scale. Unlike its more monumental counterparts – say, the colossal one just a block away from the MoMA in Manhattan – this piece crouches down to look the viewer in the face … or, more pertinently, to let the viewer look it in its (type)face.
Painted a gleaming gold, this particular incarnation of Indiana’s work was proudly displayed on a L-shaped platform, like the embrace of a cupped hand, with spotlights trained on it both from above and below, the illumination serving to bring out the incandescent shimmer of the hue. The sides were coloured a bold, garish red: besides chiming with the rich vermilion and crimson shades of the wall-to-wall carpeting beneath, the immediate evocation – for me anyways – was a pair of Louboutin stilettos.
Indiana’s LOVE design first emerged from the socio-political ferment of the 1960s as, of all things, a MoMA Christmas card. (It was also probably a response to certain nascent visual trends, like Pop Art and hard-edge painting). According to this Mental Floss article:
Robert Indiana never intended for his LOVE sculpture to become an emblem of 1960s counterculture, because it had nothing to do with free love or hippies. As with his other works, LOVE was all about personal symbolism
The word “love” was connected to his childhood experiences attending a Christian Science church, where the only decoration was the wall inscription, “God is Love.”
The colors were an homage to his father, who worked at a Phillips 66 gas station during the Depression. “When I was a kid, my mother used to drive my father to work in Indianapolis, and I would see, practically every day of my young life, a huge Phillips 66 sign,” he once wrote. “So it is the red and green of that sign against the blue Hoosier sky.”
The tilted O was common in medieval typography, and Indiana has variously described the leaning letter as representing either a cat’s eye or an erect phallus.
The LOVE icon as commentary on Christian Science – and, more broadly, the promises and blandishments of organized religion …
… here morphed into a gilded monument, glittering away under the spotlights.
A neat segue.
First, Stephen Colbert on what he dubbed “moneytheism”:
And it means that our collective cultural belief that the unfettered free market will take care of us is also not delusional. No. It is actually a religion. You see, psychiatrists often use use cultural acceptance to explain why it is not crazy to hold certain religious beliefs, say, a virgin gave brith to God’s son, or it’s an abomination to eat shrimp, or we protect ourselves from evil by wearing magic underwear. So, let’s just classify belief in the free market as religion. After all, they both have invisible hands, and move in mysterious ways. That way, no one can call us crazy and we can get all the benefits the government gives to churches. We no longer have to pay taxes on the money we make as long as we face Wall Street six times a day and say our prayer. “There is no god but Alan and more profits are his prophet.” Then on Judgment Day Ronald Reagan will return on a cloud of glory and take us up to money heaven.
(From the Nov 19, 2008, episode of The Colbert Report. Watch the relevant clip here.)
Now Martha Rosler on the money-driven world of the contemporary art fair:
Accusations of purely symbolic display, of hypocrisy, are easily evaded by turning to, finally, the third method of global discipline, the art fair, for fairs make no promises other than sales and parties; there is no shortage of appeals to pleasure. There has been a notable increase in the number and locations of art fairs in a short period, reflecting the art world’s rapid monetization; art investors, patrons, and clientele have shaken off the need for internal processes of quality control in favor of speeded-up multiplication of financial and prestige value. Some important fairs have set up satellite branches elsewhere. Other important fairs are satellites that outshine their original venues and have gone from the periphery of the art world’s vetting circuit to center stage. At art fairs, artworks are scrutinized for financial-portfolio suitability, while off-site fun (parties and dinners), fabulousness (conspicuous consumption), and non-art shopping are the selling points for the best-attended fairs—those in Miami, New York, and London (and of course the original, Basel). Dealers pay quite a lot to participate, however, and the success of the fair as a business venture depends on the dealers’ ability to make decent sales and thus to want to return in subsequent years.
(See Martha Rosler, “Take the Money and Run? Can Political and Socio-critical Art “Survive”?” in e-flux Journal 12 [01/2010].)
The always-already interpellated subject, according to Althusser:
To take a highly ‘concrete’ example, we all have friends who, when they knock on our door and we ask, through the door, the question ‘Who’s there?’, answer (since ‘it’s obvious’) ‘It’s me’. And we recognize that ‘it is him’, or ‘her’. We open the door, and ‘it’s true, it really was she who was there’. To take another example, when we recognize somebody of our (previous) acquaintance ((re)-connaissance) in the street, we show him that we have recognized him (and have recognized that he has recognized us) by saying to him ‘Hello, my friend’, and shaking his hand (a material ritual practice of ideological recognition in everyday life – in France, at least; elsewhere, there are other rituals) ……
As a first formulation I shall say: all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects, by the functioning of the category of the subject.
This is a proposition which entails that we distinguish for the moment between concrete individuals on the one hand and concrete subjects on the other, although at this level concrete subjects only exist insofar as they are supported by a concrete individual.
I shall then suggest that ideology ‘acts’ or ‘functions’ in such a way that it ‘recruits’ subjects among the individuals (it recruits them all), or ‘transforms’ the individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) by that very precise operation which I have called interpellationor hailing, and which can be imagined along the lines of the most commonplace everyday police (or other) hailing: ‘Hey, you there!’
Assuming that the theoretical scene I have imagined takes place in the street, the hailed individual will turn round. By this mere one-hundred-and-eighty-degree physical conversion, he becomes a subject. Why? Because he has recognized that the hail was ‘really’ addressed to him, and that ‘it was really him who was hailed’ (and not someone else). Experience shows that the practical telecommunication of hailings is such that they hardly ever miss their man: verbal call or whistle, the one hailed always recognizes that it is really him who is being hailed. And yet it is a strange phenomenon, and one which cannot be explained solely by ‘guilt feelings’, despite the large numbers who ‘have something on their consciences’.
Naturally for the convenience and clarity of my little theoretical theatre I have had to present things in the form of a sequence, with a before and an after, and thus in the form of a temporal succession. There are individuals walking along. Somewhere (usually behind them) the hail rings out: ‘Hey, you there!’ One individual (nine times out often it is the right one) turns round, believing/suspecting/knowing that it is for him, i.e. recognizing that ‘it really is he’ who is meant by the hailing. But in reality these things happen without any succession. The existence of ideology and the hailing or interpellation of individuals as subjects are one and the same thing.
I might add: what thus seems to take place outside ideology (to be precise, in the street), in reality takes place in ideology. What really takes place in ideology seems therefore to take place outside it. That is why those who are in ideology believe themselves by definition outside ideology: one of the effects of ideology is the practical denegation of the ideological character of ideology by ideology: ideology never says, ‘I am ideological’. It is necessary to be outside ideology, i.e. in scientific knowledge, to be able to say: I am in ideology (a quite exceptional case) or (the general case): I was in ideology. As is well known, the accusation of being in ideology only applies to others, never to oneself (unless one is really a Spinozist or a Marxist, which, in this matter, is to be exactly the same thing). Which amounts to saying that ideology has no outside (for itself), but at the same time that it is nothing but outside (for science and reality).
Above is Indo-Thai artist Navin Rawanchikul’s massive painting, part of his Navinland installation.
This, perhaps, represents the navel-gazing of the art world at its best.
The label describes it: “Navinland Needs You: We Are Asia! is a newly composed art created especially for Art Stage Singapore 2012. Almost 13-metres in length, the centrepiece acrylic canvas is a celebratory Who’s Who of many of the significant figures in Asian Art today.”
Indeed it is. Below is a listing – helpfully provided by Art Stage, next to the painting – of just who.
Wally-spotting was never so amusing.
In the meantime, here is a snippet from art critic Ben Davis’ 9.5 Theses on Art and Class:
2.0 Today, the ruling class, which is capitalist, dominates the sphere of the visual arts
2.1 It is part of the definition of a ruling class that it controls the material resources of society
2.2 The ruling ideologies, which serve to reproduce this material situation, also represent the interests of the ruling class
2.3 The dominant values given to art, therefore, will be ones that serve the interests of the current ruling class
2.4 Concretely, within the sphere of the contemporary visual arts, the agents whose interests determine the dominant values of art are: large corporations, including auction houses and corporate collectors; art investors, private collectors and patrons; trustees and administrators of large cultural institutions and universities
2.5 One role for art, therefore, is as a luxury good, whose superior craftsmanship or intellectual prestige indicates superior social status
2.6 Another role for art is to serve as financial instrument or tradable repository of value
2.7 Another role for art is as sign of “giving back” to the community, to whitewash ill-gotten gains
2.8 Another role for art is symbolic escape valve for radical impulses, to serve as a place to isolate and contain social energy that runs counter to the dominant ideology
2.9 A final role for art is the self-replication of ruling-class ideology about art itself—the dominant values given to art serve not only to enact ruling-class values directly, but also to subjugate, within the sphere of the arts, other possible values of art
And here is current darling of the New York art scene, William Powhida, famed for his take-no-prisoners approach to art world critique, and his Dear Art World, the text of which is transcribed below (courtesy of brainpickings.com):
Dear Art World,
I feel you sitting there trying to process the CRAZY shit going on. I’ve been there for months, and it’s driving me INSANE. Fuck it, it seems counterproductive to EVEN talk about this shit, because EVERYONE ALREADY KNOWS WHY “SHIT is REALLY FUCKED UP,” or why I’m wrong.
BUT, I’ve come to some conclusions about shit. One is that we spend A LOT of time BLAMING each other for notunderstanding WHAT the problem actually is — TRANSPARENCY, Barack Obama, mandates LOBBYISTS, immigrants, RESPONSIBILITY, FREEDOM Truth, LIZARD PEOPLE, FLUORIDE in the water… TOO MUCH OR TOO LITTLE OF ANY OF IT.
I mean, everyone ALREADY has the Answer, it’s just that every ELSE just has ‘it’ all wrong. It’s really simple, apparently, to fix everything by applying some JESUS™, REGULATION®, or CONSTITUTION™ to it. If only we’d just free the Market, convict some bankers, spiritually channel the Founding Fathers, regulate derivatives, STOP eating GM corn syrup, spend more…time with your Family OR LEGALIZE DRUGS.
EXCEPT WE don’t do shit*, because this is AMERICA, Land of the Mr. Softee® and home of the BRAVES® where we are FREE to ARGUE about the CAUSES of social and ECONOMIC inequalities until the grass-fed cows come home. We argue in comment threads, on Facebook™, and twitter™. AND, when we aren’t arguing, We agree with our favorite ‘experts’ on FOX®, CNBC™, and CNN™ as we slide into RECESSION 2.0.
One of the OBVIOUS conclusions I’ve arrived at is that a very FEW people LIKE it that way. WHILE SHIT is bad for MOST of us — 9%+ unemployment, $14 TRILLION+ debt, and a perpetual War on Terror® — *THEY* hope we’ll all just pull a lever next fall ‘PROBLEM SOLVED’ and argue some more about the INTENTIONS of the CLIMATE, BECAUSE the 1% is doing fine.
The only FACTS worth stating are that 20% of the population controls 85% of the net worth and earned 49.9% of the income last year. IN the AMERICAN SPIRIT™ of BLAME and recrimination I’m going to point the finger at…deREGULATED CAPITALISM®! IT is in the very spirit of Capitalism to ACQUIRE MORE CAPITAL. To quote @O_SattyCripnAzz, fellow citizen and member of #Team #1mmy [?], “Money is money no matter how u get it.”
Unfortunately, the same 1% also supports the rest of us by BYING shit and funding almost everything else (museums, residencies, grants…) putting some of us in an awkward position (YOU TOO NATO and Pedro), BUT that doesn’t mean we should SHUT THE FUCK UP, take their MONEY, and say ‘Thank you!’ The Art World is NOT separate from SOCIETY and THIS is how SHIT gets all FUCKED UP — PLUTARCHY, motherfuckers.
So, in my useless capacity as a tool artist, I’ve made some pictures about this SHIT that are FREE to look at**, and they’re ALL DERIVATIVES.
[signed William Powhida]
** Bring a chair
Dear Art World (2011), William Powhida. Image from the artist’s site.
Korean artist Lee Yongbaek’s Broken Mirror Classic consists of a mirror in a gilt frame.
Serendipitously, the perfect moment of self-regarding complicity.
CUT THRU: A View on 21st Century Thai Art is currently on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art Singapore (ICAS), Lasalle.
A snippet from an essay by the show’s curator, Loredana Pazzini-Parraciani, included in the accompanying booklet:
Slicing through vernacular culture, secular beliefs and religion, CUT THRU presents new and recent bodies of works by nine young art practitioners from Thailand. Invested by the holy significance of three times three, the number nine in Thai culture is also semantic [sic] with the Thai word for ‘advance’ or ‘forward’ (kaoo). To go forward is the core aim of this exhibition: to explore the intentions and means of 21st century artists from Thailand while attempting to decode the individual approach these artists take towards their home culture. Thai culture is indeed a culture difficult to fully grasp and understand, for behind the iconic Thai smile, which often carries greater meaning, there is a complex, multi-layered society.
Each work presented in CUT THRU expounds a strong senses of materiality – industrial/traditional, secular/religious, old/new – offering to the audience sensory experiences by transporting the viewer to the streets of Bangkok, old shadow puppet theaters, homes of the local people, and ancestral places of worship.
[top] Piyatat Hemmatat’s work. [2nd from top] Apasmara – Fendi (2010) and Apasmara – Gucci (2010). Both Lambda prints on Kodak endura paper. [3rd from top] Apasmara – Celine (2010). Lambda print on Kodak endura paper. [bottom] Apasmara – Dior (2010). Lambda print on Kodak endura paper. All, Piyatat Hemmatat.
[top] E-dam (2010), Coyote (2010) and E-Dang (2010), Tawan Wattuya. All watercolour on paper. [middle] Coyote (2010), Tawan Wattuya. Watercolour on paper. [bottom] Honesty at All Costs, Even to Lose One’s Life (2010) and Lady Boys (2009), Tawan Wattuya. All watercolour on paper.
[top] Chusak Srikwan’s work. [2nd from top] Shadow-Play Dharma (2010). Leather carving installation. [3rd from top] Shoot (2010). Leather carving. [bottom] Buddha (2010) and Onguleeman (2010). Both leather carving.
It’s yesterday once more.
Ahmad Mashadi, director of the NUS Museum, has a piece out in the latest issue of Third Text, which embeds certain emergent art practices of the 1970s in their historical moment. The ’60s and ’70 were turbulent times for SE Asia in general, the anti-colonialist movement sweeping the region irresistibly towards angry, uneasy independence for many of its fledgling nation-states, and Mashadi seeks to realign art historical and socio-political narratives. While this piece is essentially something of a rehash of his earlier essay for the Telah Terbit catalogue, it’s still nonetheless a fascinating read — if only because there isn’t very much like it out there.
Shoobie doo lang lang …
A shoutout to JW for the link !
FRAMING THE 1970s
This article attempts to shed light on the critical artistic practices taking place in Southeast Asia during the 1970s. The ﬁrst part outlines the contexts of social and political transformation in the region within which developments in prevailing artistic practices and conventions took place. The tenor or intensity of such conditions varied across locations, yet they broadly informed the emergence of artistic discourses marked by newer attitudes towards the role of artists and art, as well as the constitution, the materiality of art, and the considered references made to society and notions of publicness.
Towards this end, we may consider two historical premises, both of which are critical in understanding ‘why Southeast Asia in the 1970s?’. First, Southeast Asia might be perceived as a set of emerging nations whose domestic social, economic and political concerns often appear vexing and tumultuous, yet nevertheless intersect with prevailing discourses of international politics, in particular with Cold War ideologies. The project of decolonisation also brought into play rhetoric intended to exemplify the independent nation-state and its destiny. Such rhetoric has greatly, if not fundamentally, affected the formation and reception of culture, history and self-perception in the region. Second, artistic developments in Southeast Asia from the 1950s on were affected by an increased access to Euro-American artistic models and an eventual shift towards ‘internationalism’, expressed through the pervasiveness and institutionalisation of abstraction and formalism as dominant modes of expression. The institutionalisation of these modes of depiction was both an indication of the extent to which they were celebrated as universal languages enabling cross-border interactions and an expression of progress that could be shaped according to the will of a given state.
As a practice marked by criticality and reﬂexivity, the contemporary locates itself within these horizontal-synchronic references to the present and social contexts, and the vertical-diachronic autonomy of artistic discourse as it unfolds over time. In order to explore the potential of such readings, the second part of this article will provide a chronological description of key developments during the 1970s in Southeast Asia, a time when the synchronic and the diachronic came together in a highly explosive way.
The Malaysian artist Redza Piyadasa stencilled these words onto an otherwise empty plinth in 1976: ‘This is a statement about form.’ In doing so, he attempted to bring into focus the need to rethink ways of perceiving art and its mediatory element, the object. The latter, rendered absent, no longer functioned as a carrier of intrinsic meanings or value, therefore undermining the absoluteness of aesthetic and critical judgements. Pablo Baen Santos paints an image of the New Christ (1980), a blue-collar common man cruciﬁed on a dollar sign, with an American ﬂag waving in the background. It is ﬁgurative, conceived to communicate effectively and to connect emotively to the ongoing economic and political struggles in the Philippines. Decidedly leftist in its politics, the work is informed by anti-capitalistic and anti-American sentiments. If these works are to provide a cursory snapshot of contemporary practices in Southeast Asia during the 1970s, then such practices characterised two broad approaches – conceptualism and statement-making – as well as realism and forms of activism. However, these approaches should not be seen as mutually exclusive, but instead as trajectories founded upon shared contextual currents.
The outcome may be described in relation to the emergence of the ‘aesthetics of rejection’ and ‘aesthetics of empathy’. It is not a bifurcation of artistic trajectories, but rather an intertwined proposition of the contemporary. Criticality, conceptualisms and activism describe these interests, best expressed by David C Medalla in 1975. When asked by interviewer Cid Reyes what he wanted Philippine artists to ‘rebel against’, Medalla stated:
Well, against authority. One should not just accept authority in anything, least of all in art. I don’t mean one should rebel merely for the sake of rebellion: that will be absurd. That is to say, only after having examined reality can one accept certain fundamental concepts. Our young artists should immerse themselves in the lives of the people. They must be thoroughly critical, not only of what is currently fashionable but also of all those artistic forms they are adapting from abroad. They should learn to integrate themselves with the needs of the masses of the people. I think it can be done. 1
These interests are signiﬁcant and broad ranging, not only in their relevance to art from the Philippines, but also to our discussion on contemporary art in Southeast Asia. They may be explored along several fronts: as critical responses to conventions and modes of ‘internationalism’; through questions pertaining to institutions and institutionalisation of art; and through regional and national political developments. As a cultural projection of nation, earlier modern developments as expressed through abstraction in the 1950s and 1960s attempted to reﬂect notions of national ‘progressiveness’ by displacing the conservatism of earlier styles. In turn, such developments sought to capitalise on the language of abstraction in order to facilitate international engagements. The idea of international fraternity often played itself out through biennales and other large-scale, recurring international arts events. Relentlessly, according to Purita Kalaw-Ledesma, founder of the Art Association of the Philippines in 1948, the drive towards internationalism and international recognition:
. . . took the form of a desire to compete. . . to crash the international scene, it was believed that one had to paint in the international style. The feeling grew that the Filipino artist was as good as anyone.2
Some of the many artists who participated in international events included Vicente Manansala and Nena Saguil (Spanish-American Biennale, Cuba, 1958), Napoleo´ n Abueva and Jose´ Joya (Venice Biennale, 1962) and Arturo Luz, Lee Aguinaldo (Sa˜o Paulo Biennale, 1971). These participations were undertaken at considerable cost and effort, yet as Kalaw-Ledesma recalled, ‘our entries were lost in the sea of similar works, each working in the same school of abstract thought’.3
Disappointed by the outcome of the Sa˜o Paulo participation, Arturo Luz lamented:
. . . in my opinion the Bienal de Sa˜o Paulo is a showplace for the big nations determined to gain prestige and rather expensive exercise for the small participating nations. . . My own guess is that international recognition will come if we win an award or send an exhibition which is truly original and outstanding by international standards.4
Nevertheless, the trend towards abstraction and formalism continued. Mediated by the various searches for national and cultural identities, this trend was inﬂected by the local through references to indigenous motifs and philosophical frames. Declared a universalist language, abstraction became subject to institutional appropriation and reiﬁcation and thus to critique. In locating abstraction as part of the project of nation, Syed Ahmad Jamal claimed:
The Merdeka [Post-Independence Malaysian] artists of the ﬁfties and sixties subscribed mainly to the aesthetics of Abstract Expressionism. The immediacy and mystical quality of the mainstream art of the 1960s appealed particularly to the Malaysian temperament, sensitivity and cultural heritage.5
The statement projects an attempt to locate Malaysian art within the fraternity of the international. But the reference made to the ‘Malaysian temperament, sensitivity and cultural heritage’ makes clear the anxiety underwriting the problems of situating the abstract in Malaysia and resituating the same back into the global discourse, a process characterised by its inherent unevenness where Asian abstraction art was often regarded as ‘derivative’ by the hegemonic West. For contemporary artists during the 1970s, these contexts and contingencies provided points of introspection, opening new grounds for critique and generating new points of departure. On the one hand, considered references to ‘universalist Western’ perspectives that privileged notions of progression provided ground upon which to form discourses leading to a range of aesthetic investigations and developments, concomitant with the emerging regard for the sense of the self within the broadening sphere of the modern experience. On the other hand, the perceived uneven relationships underlying internationalist engagements coupled with speciﬁc and localised communitarian needs posed considerable challenges in catalysing theoretical and artistic developments. In Indonesia, the relatively open developments during the 1970s had been made possible by the fall of President Sukarno in 1966 and the subsequent removal of the Communists from the cultural landscape. A cultural manifesto known as Manikebu (Manifesto Kebudayaan), which was introduced in 1963 by a group of cultural activists arguing on behalf of freedom of artistic expression in contradistinction to the directed approaches of cultural productions of the past decade, was rejected by Sukarno and attacked by LEKRA (Lembaga Kebudayaan Rakyat), the Communist Party’s cultural arm, then closely tied to the Sukarno government. The inﬂuence of LEKRA diminished along with the displacement of the Sukarno government. A failed coup known as Gestapu took place on 30 September 1965 with the military targeting suspected Communists and leftists, often through the involvement of Islamic militias. Left-wing artists including writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer and painter Hendra Gunawan were imprisoned.
Tainted by his links to the Communists and implicated in several events associated with the attempted coup, President Sukarno eventually ceded his powers to Suharto who established a New Order government in 1966. The new president oversaw a series of policy changes including a more hospitable attitude towards the US. With the left-wing rhetoric of LEKRA removed from the cultural discourse of Indonesian art, and Sukarno’s spectacular fall from grace, the entire ediﬁce of Communist aesthetics imploded as well. The effects were immediately felt with the dissipation of the discourse between the Yogyakarta and Bandung schools. In its place arose a less polemical articulation of the introspective self and culture as mediated by formalism. Those harassed by the left during the late 1950s and early 1960s welcomed the opportunity to explore concerns relating to individual expression associated with high modernism. Indeed, the government-run Taman Ismail Marzuki (TIM) Art Center opened in 1968 with little incident. Although state-controlled, the Center provided a place for artistic practice relatively free from the undue inﬂuence of any one ideology. Aesthetic experimentation and formal references to indigenous cultures consequently ﬂourished in the Indonesian artworld. These kinds of sites and the gradual erosion of politics as a key concern for artists later gave rise to another group of practitioners eager to redeﬁne the trajectory of Indonesian art so that it more closely related to the country’s history and society.
In 1969, a year after the opening of TIM, the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) opened in Manila. Its construction, supported in part by the US, resulted in a building that initially hosted groups and shows from abroad. The visual arts initiatives offered an internationalist orientation focusing on high modernism and new experimental forms, including conceptual and performance art which were seen as extensions of an emerging Filipino modernity that seamlessly embraced a dynamic spirit inherent within regional and indigenous cultures. The early history of the CCP coincided with the increasing political tensions within the Philippines; in 1972, President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law and the establishment of a Bagong Lipunan (New Society), ostensibly in order to safeguard democracy and introduce ‘law and order’. The CCP positioned itself as an institution intended to promote criticality in artistic and curatorial practices connected to the practices of Roberto Chabet and Raymundo Albano as well as with their associates. Yet the Center’s links to the Marcos regime and the apparent exclusion of artists identiﬁed with the political opposition compelled many to view the CCP as merely a cultural extension of Marcos’s rule. The political opposition dubbed the CCP a monument to a morally bankrupt elite and throughout the 1970s the Center was approached by some artists as afoil against which to express resistance to the Marcos government. 6 A case in point is Kaisahan (Solidarity), led by Pablo Baen Santos, which initiated protests against the Marcos government and American patronage by incorporating strategies taken from realism and street art. The group issued a Declaration of Principles, which stressed the creation of nationalist art intended for the people and reﬂective of their aspirations.
Such art was to function as a means of communication, an imperative that extended to the production of banners and posters used in demonstrations and marches, as well as to political cartoons published in various popular media venues. Realism was deployed in order to critique the state’s patronage of the arts through such institutions as the CCP, which tended to favour abstraction and conceptual practices that for many appeared artiﬁcial, mannerist and overly indexical of international movements.
Across Southeast Asia, the end of the Second World War also meant the beginning of decolonisation, which proved to be a period of intense change and turmoil. Although the transfer of power from colonial rulers to emerging indigenous elites was relatively peaceful in the Philippines, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Malaya and Singapore, in Vietnam and Indonesia it was not. The 1960s and 1970s, when numerous transformative and tumultuous social and political shifts took place, complicated the picture further. This period of transformation coincided with the Cold War, a struggle that involved global politics of patronage as the US and USSR lent their support to particular political factions in those countries they hoped to inﬂuence. Instruments of diplomacy and foreign policy became tools for imposing a narrow binary perspective on political doctrines, many of which resulted in violence, death and untold trauma. The US extended both direct and indirect forms of support to regimes considered critical in stopping the advance or inﬂuence of Communism, particularly after the fall of South Vietnam in 1975. In practice, these interventions also involved aiding or assisting regional governments in order to neutralise the inﬂuence of the political left, even if it meant disregarding the will of the popular electorate. 7
Key political events were often read in relation to these patterns of support. The imposition of martial law in the Philippines, and the military actions against students at Thammasat University in Thailand in 1973 and 1976, as well as actions undertaken in Indonesia in 1978, galvanized a range of popular struggles that included the formation or consolidation of artists’ groups afﬁliated with the political left. Inspired by leftist politics and anti-Americanism, student protest groups were widespread, especially in the Philippines and Thailand. In the latter, these protests emerged through a form of criticism articulated through Surrealism and at times powerfully combined with images of religious signiﬁcance. The works of Somchai Hatthakitkoson and Thammasak Booncherd directly refer to what they regarded as the imperialist presence of the United States in Thailand. Somchai’s The Goddess Kali of the 20th Century (1972) was conceived as a metaphor of public indignation directed towards the prostitution of Thai women to US soldiers.
Attempts to deﬁne art according to broader ethical and religious constructs often involved incorporating a range of iconographic signs, then repurposing them in order to allude to contemporary concerns. Buddhism, for example, was denoted through images of the Buddha or through decorative motifs associated with the practice of Buddhism. Such tactics were put into practice by groups such as the Dharma Group, led by Pratuang Emjaroen. Pratuang undertook a series of paintings addressing the violent suppression of pro-democracy student protests in 1973 and 1976. 8
In Red Morning Glories and Rotten Riﬂes (1976), the head of the Buddha has been pierced, stained with blood and placed amidst alandscape of riﬂe butts and muzzles. Pratuang describes his intent thus: [they] symbolise the feelings of confusion and disbelief at the sight of such horriﬁc scenes. There are crying faces and a sky with heavy black storm clouds. Tears stream endlessly down the face of the Buddha, a symbol of the Thai people under threat. 9
Red Morning Glories and Rotten Riﬂes was shown in the third exhibition of the Dharma Group at the Bhirasri Institute of Modern Art, which opened on 5 October 1976. Coincidentally enough, a student protest against Thai military rule was violently quashed by the state the day after the show’s opening, a grisly echo of a similar confrontation that took place in 1973. The exhibition was closed soon after.
The recourse to religion and tradition may also be seen in Malaysia following the race riots of 13 May 1969. In the aftermath of the political and cultural anxieties arising from the riots, the National Cultural Congress convened in Kuala Lumpur from 16 to 20 August 1971. There, the proposal that art be mobilised to serve economic and social objectives rather than the individual was made. It was a controversial proposal, provoking numerous responses that recalled the 1969 riots, including Redza Piyadasa’s May 13th, 1969, which in his words harboured an intimation of a certain sense of nation. 10
A more direct response to the emerging cultural policy aimed at healing the rifts of a multi-ethnic Malaysia appeared some years later. In the years immediately following 1969, Piyadasa worked on various projects that may be described in relation to their afﬁnities to conceptualism and situational practices. In 1974, he, with Sulaiman Esa, authored Towards a Mystical Reality. Although it need not be seen as a direct attempt to critique state views of culture, the manifesto proposes an alternative aesthetic that enables new ways of producing and apprehending art outside Western-centric rationalist positions. The manifesto is noteworthy for proposing an artistic ideology based on cultural and philosophical traditions in Asia; in anticipation of realising this ideology, the authors aimed to ‘sow the seeds for a thinking process which might someday liberate Malaysian artists from their dependence on western inﬂuence’.11 For example, the artists reiterated their quest to redeﬁne parameters by realigning them to borrowings from Asian philosophical notions that enable Asian art production to converse with international concerns; not through a style or formal criteria but an attitude that is mystical and can be unpacked to support new art concepts and productions. By the late 1970s, a strong interest in the Malay culture and Islamic consciousness had emerged in Malaysia. As a Muslim convert of Sri Lankan descent, the 1970s was also a period of introspection for Piyadasa. He began to reﬂect on the vexing question of cultural and national identities in his works, one that had been conditioned by the complexities of colonisation, migration and ethno-nationalism. Piyadasa used archival portrait photography as a basis of his investigations, re-rendering them in ambiguous terms with motifs and colours to engage the viewers’ attention in rethinking the binarist bumiputra (indigenous)/nonbumiputra divide that surfaced in post-1969 Malaysia. 12
During the late 1970s, Sulaiman Esa was drawn to synthesising a conﬂation of ethno-nationalistic modernity with individual expression. He produced a seminal series of prints entitled Waiting for Godot, based on Samuel Beckett’s famous existential play. The series of photoetchings explored a deep personal dilemma regarding the question of artistic purpose and faith, with the prints juxtaposing two contrasting markers of aesthetic and philosophical values through images of the nude and the arabesque. The series foreshadowed the artist’s move towards a Malay-Islamic orientation which became a dominant trend in Malaysian art during the 1980s, coinciding with the rapid rise of pan-Islamism in Southeast Asia. The politicisation of artistic practices may also be located in artistic developments linked to nationalist and anti-colonial struggles of earlier decades. Although the Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru (New Art Movement) emerged in Indonesia under the relative calm of the early phases of Suharto’s New Order, the increasing social tensions and militarism of the late 1970s prompted artists like Dede Eri Supria and F X Harsono to address critical issues such as economic exploitation, global capitalism and social suppression. The group’s manifesto ‘Lines of Attack of the Indonesian New Art Movement’ proposed a rejection of ‘the concept of art that is universal’, insisting instead on a recognition of cultural and historical contexts and social concerns. 13
This critique against increasingly lyrical, mannerist and formal tendencies is paralleled elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Yet these aesthetic positions and notions of criticality in favour of communitarian perspectives may be located within a trajectory of critical positions deﬁned by earlier groups such as the nationalist Persagi (Persatuan Ahli Gambar Indonesia, founded by S Sudjojono in 1938) and LEKRA, the Communist party’s cultural arm, defunct by 1965, both of which were signiﬁcant for their articulations of the rakyat (the people) and its realities.
The artistic movements described above may be seen as a collective critique against the formality, un-reﬂexiveness and repetitiveness of what was called ‘international abstraction’ and ‘provincial lyricism’ which had dominated art-making. While theoretical positions concerning the function and independence of artistic practices tended to differ, they also shared an interest in addressing the conditions of art-making, such as the reception and development of Euro-American models from a postcolonial perspective, as well as the need to challenge the values upheld by institutions and the art market. This helped introduce new forms of practice, in terms of both medium (installation and performance) and content (the explicit invocation of political, gender, religious and environmental issues). Since the late 1970s, the performances and installations of Singaporean artist Tang Da Wu have consistently addressed the profound impact of urbanisation evidenced through the destruction of nature and the trafﬁcking and consumption of wildlife in Asia. Elsewhere, the political activism and protest art seen through seni rupa di kaki lima (street art) incorporated strategies of performance and happenings. As such, the re-emergence and preoccupation with the ‘ﬁgure’, associated with the radical left, need not be seen as mere counterpoints to more conceptual practices. This complexity was highlighted by Patrick Flores in 1998:
The agenda of Philippine art history and criticism through the years has been caught in the vise of antinomies: craft and art, indigenous and colonial, conservative and modern, social realist and conceptual, form and content. While these oppositions may attempt to dramatize discrepancies among competing modes of knowing art and putting it into practice, they cannot even begin to discuss the complexity of the conﬂict, the possibility of encounters, and the art world’s overlapping – because combined and uneven – modes of production. 14
The manifesto of the Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru ﬁts within the agenda of art history and criticism as deﬁned in relation to a broader postcolonial history and culture whereby the new can be made meaningful, detached as it is from the imperatives of Euro-American theories and histories:
To [inspire] the growth of ‘Indonesian’ art by privileging research into the new Indonesian art history, that has its roots in the art practices of Raden Saleh. To examine ways of periodising such history, to study critically its evolvement, to consider its future developments. To acknowledge that in the new Indonesian art history, there are contexts that are unique, so much so that these may not be referenced in ‘imported books’, useful in contextualising Indonesian art, making it conducive for further development.
To aspire to artistic growth that is referenced in the writings and theories of Indonesians art critics, historians and thinkers. To reject totally the perception that Indonesian art is an index to world art, a claim that art is universal, that places Indonesian art contingent to international discourse. 15
Here we may return to the impact of the race riots of 13 May 1969 (the ‘May 13 Incident’) in Malaysia as a foundational point in the development of Malaysian art in the 1970s and 1980s. For many, the incident was signiﬁcant in revealing the limitations of modernism vis-a` -vis the cultural articulation of nation and community. Some declared the need to emphasise communitarian interests that would express a national identity and its values, interests that might correspond with the Rukun Negara (National Principals), a set of national values introduced by the government in 1971 as a response to the May 13 Incident. For T K Sabapathy:
. . . overtly and covertly, events of May 1969 and the Cultural Congress (1971) began to shape thinking and practice among artists; they were far too shattering and fundamental to be ignored. Throughout the 1970s, artists began the difﬁcult, painful process of rethinking their positions, and recasting their perceptions of culture, language, race, state/nation and identity. . . the stakes were too important and consequential not to be involved. 16
Artists sought to engage with this search by oscillating between various dogmatic and critical perspectives. Those associated with Mystical Reality and conceptual approaches tried to explore the limitations of modernism within the local milieu while also engaging with what they perceived as the international. Their works in the early 1970s investigated the assumptions of nation and community, making direct and oblique references to the events of 1969 and the National Cultural Congress of 1971 that had shaped the cultural debates during the period, placing special emphasis on examining and reﬂecting tensions and contradictions between individualism and communitarian interests. The May 13 Incident shattered the positivist complacency of post-independence, bringing to light the problematic of cultural decolonisation and its role in positioning the contemporary. Kaisahan’s manifesto aptly preﬁgures these vexing questions:
For us, therefore, the question ‘for whom is art?’ is a crucial and signiﬁcant one. And our experiences lead us to the answer that art is for the masses. It must not exist simply for the pleasures of the few who can afford it. It must not degenerate into the pastime of a few cultists.
We are aware of the contradictions that confront us in committing ourselves to this task. At present, under the conditions of our times, the audience who will view our works will mostly be the intellectuals, students, professionals and others who go to the galleries. But we wish to gradually transform our art so that it has a form understandable to the masses and a content that is relevant to their life. At present, it is inevitable that our art is sometimes commercialized. But we should use this as a means and not as an end for our artistic expressions. 17
As sketched above, these events crucially deﬁne perspectives of nation, community and self, expressed in a range of feverish, even manic, struggles for identiﬁcation and resistance often complicated by the production of cultural identiﬁers in sync with the project of nation-building that so preoccupied governments throughout Southeast Asia. The economic and social transformations that took place in the 1970s, moreover, necessarily inﬂected cultural discourse by compelling artists to reﬂect on a broad spectrum of social conditions. Such transformations also demanded that artists turn inward to focus on the condition known as the self so as to open up the potential of art as practice.
1. Cid Reyes, Conversations on Philippine Art, Cultural Center of the Philippines, Manila, 1980, p 149
2. Purita Kalaw-Ledesma and Amadis Ma Guerrero, The Struggle for Philippine Art, Purita Kalaw-Ledesma, Manila, 1974, p 67
3. Ibid, p 68
4. Ibid, p 71
5. Syed Ahmad Jamal, Contemporary Malaysian Art, National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, 1988, unpaginated
6. Benigno Aquino Jr, ‘A Pantheon for Imelda’, in A Garrison State in the Make and Other Speeches, Benigno S Aquino Jr Foundation, Manila, 1985, unpaginated
7. The Lon Nol government came to power in Cambodia through a coup d’e´ tat against Prince Sihanouk, bringing the country into an escalated civil war that ended in a victory for the Khmer Rouge in 1975. Suharto’s New Order, introduced in 1966 after the bloody purging of the Parti Komunis Indonesia (PKI), which led to an estimated one million deaths, was characterised by the dominance of the military across the economic and political spheres which only ended in the late 1990s. In Thailand, a brief experiment with democracy in 1969 gave way to the return of a military government in 1971, thus foreshadowing the violent suppression of student movements in 1973 and 1976. In the Philippines, President Marcos, sensing an electoral defeat, introduced martial law in 1972, hence precipitating a populist movement for the reconstitution of the democratic process which later culminated in the advent of People’s Power in 1986.
8. Pro-democracy student protests at Thammasat University in 1973 resulted in a bloody confrontation with the Thai military, an incident later commemorated as the ’14 November Uprising’. The ensuing events eventually led to a review of the Thai constitution for the reinstatement of civilian rule. However, the military reassumed power in 1976.
9. Sodchuen Chaiprasathna and Jean Marcel, The Inﬂuence of European Surrealism in Thailand, R Michael Crabtree, trans, Thailand Research Fund, Bangkok, 2005, p 36
10. See T K Sabapathy, Piyadasa: An Overview, 1962–2000, National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, 2001
11. Redza Piyadasa and Sulaiman Esa, Towards a Mystical Reality, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, Kuala Lumpur, 1974, pp 4– 5
12. See Sabapathy, op cit
13. The full manifesto is published in Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru Indonesia, Jim Supangkat, ed, Penerbit PT Gramedia, Jakarta, 1979, p xix. Also see Telah Terbit (Out Now): Southeast Asian Contemporary Art Practices During the 1960s to 1980s, Singapore Art Museum, Singapore, 2007, pp 50–51.
14. Patrick Flores, ‘Missing Link, Burned Bridges: The Art of the 70s’, Pananaw 2, National Commission for Culture and the Arts, Manila, 1998, p 53
15. Telah Terbit (Out Now), op cit, pp 50–51
16. T K Sabapathy, ‘Vision and Idea Relooking Modern Malaysian Art’, Merdeka Makes Art, or Does It?, National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, 1994, p 71
17. Alice Guillermo, Protest/Revolutionary Art in the Philippines 1970–1990, University of the Philippines, Manila, 2001, p 24
Secluded in the hushed, verdant, bug-colonized environs of Fort Canning is the ASEAN Sculpture Garden.
The tiny park, which houses six outdoor works by artists from various SE Asian nations, commemorates a little-remembered slice of regional art history: the ASEAN Sculpture Symposium. It was convened by ASEAN COCI, the organization’s Committee on Culture and Information, in 1981, with the first ever conference taking place that year in Singapore:
ASEAN Sculpture Symposium. With the aim of promoting a sense of community among sculptors of member countries whose works of art will be visible symbols of regional cooperation, COCI held its first symposium in Singapore from March 27 to May 10, 1981. Five distinguished sculptors from the member countries worked under one roof where they discussed, shared and learned from one another to produce a group of five magnificent five-meter tall sculptures displayed at Singapore’s Fort Canning Park. The Indonesian sculptor contributed a copper plate sculpture called “Unity”; Malaysia, a fibreglass work called “Taning Sari” [sic]; the Philippines, a reinforced concrete cast of an unfinished boat called “Fredesvinda”; Thailand, steel plates combination called “Concentration” and Singapore, a rising balance of circular and cylindrical shapes called “Balance”. The entire symposium has been documented on film by the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation.
(Quote from this page.)
I haven’t seen the SBC docu, nor is it available on Youtube the last time I checked. (<lol> Talk about retro power: I haven’t heard the name SBC since .. well, the days when Duncan Watt used to read the news. Anyone remember him?) In any case, the ASEAN Sculpture Symposium lasted six summits, with the last conference taking place in 1989 at the CCP in Manila. The Singapore sculptures were unveiled the year after the Fort Canning symposium – a sixth piece, Together, by Bruneian artist Osman Bin Mohammad, was added to the flock after the Sultanate’s full independence and subsequent ASEAN membership.
Here’s the question, though: what happened to the Taming Sari sculpture (below), which was Malaysia’s original contribution to the project ? I haven’t been able to discover much about it online — not even the name of the artist.* It seems to have been replaced with the current work, Augury (below), by Anthony Lau, in 1988, at the same time that Osman’s piece was introduced.
* Update: Never mind that. The artist in question is Ariffin Mohammed Ismail. See “Asean Sculptors to Display Their Works”, The Straits Times, 2 Apr 1981 (archived here).
Another one for the history detectives.
Not me, though. <lol> I’m done ferreting around.
The other works in the ASEAN Sculpture Garden:
Politics and History in Recent Southeast Asian Contemporary Art, an article penned by locally-based freelance curator and critic Iola Lenzi, appeared in the November 2010 issue of Asian Art.
Its an interesting piece. While socio-political themes in contemporary SE Asian art is not exactly a phenomenon unheard of, it’s definitely a bit more of a rarity in Singapore’s case – which is why the Beyond LKY show at Valentine Willie Fine Art in August last year raised a couple of eyebrows. Not just for the explicitly irreverent theme, which featured several less-than-hagiographic depictions of Lee Kuan Yew, but for the fact that official reaction was decidedly muted. (That not always having been the case hereabouts …) I missed it, but Lenzi discusses at length the more cogent pieces that were included. Some of her judgments seem a tad off-base to me, but otherwise this piece deals seriously with a topic that doesn’t see the light of day much in local publications.
Works mentioned by Lenzi are reproduced at the end of the post. The original article is archived here.
Politics and History in Recent Southeast Asian Contemporary Art
Singapore is not known for socio-political art, either that of others, or the homegrown variety. Yet much of the most compelling contemporary art coming out of Southeast Asia in recent decades examines society, nation, and history. Despite institutional Singapore’s past resistance to these themes, exhibitions engaging with politics and its various subtexts are now less exceptional in the city-state.
Three recent shows dedicated to political issues were put-up in quick succession last summer. The first, Making History: How Southeast Asian Art Reconquers the Past to Conjure the Future, was a six-country, seven-artist exhibition curated by your correspondent at Singapore’s Esplanade, the state-owned, non-profit performing arts centre. Gallery-goer intervention figured prominently in Making History, a majority of pieces seeking an active response from audiences as a means of reminding them of their ownership of history. Alwin Reamillo’s grand piano installation Mang Emo + Mah-Himo Grand Piano Project (3rd Movement: Manila-Fremantle-Singapore), by begging players, involved audiences in its narrative of national history, personal loss, and renewal. Vietnamese artist Khanh Bui also wove personal experience into the fabric of his site-specific drawing and photography montage The Past Moved. Critiquing Vietnam’s blind drive toward urban modernization, Bui’s charcoal-drawn photographer’s studio backdrop represented an untidy Saigon street slated for demolition to make way for a gleaming tower block. Calling viewers in for a sitting and so co-opting them into the piece’s voyeuristic peek at nostalgia in the making, the work recalled that history, even in politically repressive Vietnam, is about voice and choice. As a foreign-born artist firmly anchored in Java, Yogyakarta-based Mella Jaarsma makes art about shifting socio-cultural perspectives. For Making History she presented a costume installation Dirty Hands that back-lit, used shadow and projection to recount Indonesia’s colonial past from a new perspective, suggesting the violence perpetrated by history after the fact.
Other participants were Thai artist Vasan Sitthiket, Burma’s Nge Lay, and the two Singaporeans Tang Da Wu and Green Zeng. Sitthiket, a political activist as well as visual artist, evoked the bloody confrontations between Thailand’s Red and Yellow shirts and the battle for the Mekong in a new series of mural-sized works, his message that everyone is responsible for history. Veteran contemporary practitioner Tang Da Wu and filmmaker Green Zeng both examined slices of Singapore history. The former, selecting anecdotes and landmarks from Singapore’s past, transposing them into the future as a means of posing a critical eye on the sacrifice of liberty made in the name of Singapore’s post-colonial development. Zeng, in Malayan Exchange, printed Singapore money that in featuring people labeled as subversives by the government ruling 1960s Singapore, elliptically asked viewers to question official histories, seek alternative truths, and form their own judgment about the implications of post-colonial nation-building.
Though seldom included in Southeast Asian surveys, art from Burma appears increasingly on the regional radar. Nge Lay, a young artist living in Rangoon, contributed a new photographic sequence that superimposed her own history onto that of her country. The Relevancy of Restricted Things, with a few rapid frames, depicted groups of masked villagers whose dignity, longing, solidarity, frailty and endurance came to the fore as they faced the physically and psychologically oppressive life that is the lot of the Burmese today.
The exhibition culminated in a symposium that placed artists and curator at the heart of a public debate about the implications of the construction of national identity and history. Well-attended, the symposium demonstrated how these subjects, with their underlying reference to current politics, are losing their taboo status in Singapore.
A second exhibition, openly political and timed to coincide with Singapore’s August 9 National Day – flags appear in their thousands all over the island – was put up by Valentine Willie Fine Art.
The show, called Singapore Survey 2010: Beyond LKY, included over 30 works by 19 artists and was as lofty in physical scale as it was in suggestion. For anyone familiar with Singapore knows, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew embodies the 45-year-old republic and the mere mention of the man is enough to inspire awe and curiosity in citizens and residents alike. What then of Beyond LKY’s content and what could Singapore artists say about that unmentioned subject, the future of Singapore after MM Lee’s demise?
The show, with its variations in artistic quality, provided an illuminating glimpse of the generational and ideological differences cleaving the Singapore art scene, and went some way to explaining the direction of recent local art history. More compelling than much of the art, and undoubtedly in Willie’s mind when he came up with his survey concept, was the testing of Singapore’s tolerance of taboo as well as of her artists’ ability to think and create outside the clearly drawn boundaries that most have grown up with where home-politics are concerned. In Singapore, still today, though change is palpable, the public airing of critical thinking remains as problematic as the Minister Mentor’s death.
Willie’s theme posed an undeniable challenge with its inherent allusion to unquestioned authority, power, history, nation, future, and morbidity. What transpired was that while some practitioners had the mettle and sophistication required to fully respond to the curatorial premise, others stayed in their comfort zones, shy of tackling a subject that could only be apprehended with a questioning eye and an open and independent mind.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the older and better-travelled participants produced the most satisfying art. Theirs were not the visually facile, mock-subversive pieces that have been spied in Singapore recently, but instead thoughtful, sometimes nearly wistful works mixing an understanding of the weight of history and a genuine engagement with nation, present and future, however critical their message. Not coincidentally, these practitioners tended to be of the generation that remembers Singapore’s art scene before it became a quasi-business, with grants and public patronage the sole trophies of success.
The work of old hands Jimmy Ong, Tang Da Wu, Jason Lim, and Zai Kuning stood out for its acuity and visual command. Jimmy Ong’s 2010 LKY as Mother & Daughter, rendered in the artist’s signature charcoal on paper, was one of the show’s most intelligent and conceptually far-reaching pieces. The drawing, presenting two tussling nude figures, was no different from many Ong studies. But its allusion to gender change – only a superficial reading could reduce its meaning to one of mere sexual orientation – invited viewers to ponder a radical rethink of Singapore from the inside out.Yet if the piece was subversive in its call to change, it did not antagonise, Ong’s placing MM Lee in the role of mother (he is traditionally referred to as the nation’s father) a gesture of tenderness rather than irony. This intimacy between artist and subject went further, LKY also occupying the vulnerable role of fallible daughter. If the daughter is fragile and inexperienced, she is also human, thus suggested the drawing, entitled to be judged with some benevolence by history. More obliquely, and here was the piece’s ambiguously phrased subtext, imperfect as the daughter may be, she represents the future and thus, with all her flaws, liberation from the past. Taking stock of the power of history, Ong also hinted that Singapore might never be free of its past and that LKY, incarnating both mother and daughter, must somehow go on for ever. Jimmy Ong’s LKY as Mother & Daughter, about power, the possibility of change, and the necessity of confronting history-to-be as a direct product of the past, encapsulated the exhibition’s multi-layered concept.
Another stand-out work was Green Zeng’s second version of Malayan Exchange, first shown in grander scale in Making History. Adorning Zeng’s version of Singapore paper currency were images of James Puthucheary and Lim Hok Siew, two Singapore political outcasts of the early 1960s whose voices were suppressed by exile and incarceration under Lee Kuan Yew’s PAP government. Cerebral rather than gratuitously provocative, the work proposed an alternative vision of Singapore, the city-state at last transcending the monolithic political culture that has defined its post-independence years.
Other works were less committed in tone, and though addressing aspects of Singapore life, failed to capture the nuances of the exhibition theme. But with a show such as this one, singular thus far in the context of Singapore and daring in its invitation to use art as a vehicle for testing the socio-political status quo, the question posed was more important than the answers given.
A third exhibition featured recent wood-block prints on fabric by the Javanese Muhamad Yusuf. Also at Valentine Willie Singapore, running in tandem with Beyond LKY, this Indonesian show titled Indonesia and I was testament to the archipelago’s artists’ continuing ability to perfectly mesh socio-political critique and sure expressive command of form and medium.
A founding member of the Yogyakarta-based activist collective Taring Padi, a group established in the late 1990s at the end of the oppressive Suharto regime, Yusuf has remained faithful to art as a motor of social change. At odds with the pictorially slick and conceptually vacuous paintings in all manner of styles currently being churned out of Javanese studios to satisfy auction-house demand, Yusuf’s prints are as thoughtful in narrative as they are virtuous in composition. In the lineage of Yogyakarta’s many decades of politically-committed practices that defend pluralism and individual freedom, Yusuf here examines environmental problems, women’s rights, ethnic diversity, food-chain issues, labour law and much more. Their form springing out of local political-banner and vernacular woodcut tradition, the 20 exhibited pieces, with irony, wit and a good dose of optimism coupled with Yusuf’s critically engaged eye, successfully presented 21st-century Indonesia in all her complexity.
These three exhibitions, though quite different in content and curatorial thrust, all provided snapshots of socio-political reality in Southeast Asia today. In a region where political and social emancipation are gaining momentum, visual art is being used actively as a tool for progress. Staged in Singapore, these shows augur well for a new climate of expressive openness and candour in the city-state.
Making History: How Southeast Asian Art Reconquers the Past to Conjure the Future was from 14 May to 27 June 2010 at Jendela Visual Arts Space, Esplanade, Singapore and Singapore Survey 2010: Beyond LKY Indonesia and I was from 5 to 29 August 2010 at Valentine Willie Fine Art, Singapore.
Reading the wall labels at the Natee Utarit show is a strenuous undertaking.
This one describes his View of Harmony, from 2007:
The “Town Musicians of Bremen”, a Grimms [sic] Brothers fairytale, tells of a donkey, a dog, a cat and a rooster who travel to the German town after were been abandoned [sic] by their masters because they had outlived their usefulness on the farms. The hungry animals, in a bid to get some food when they pass by a robbers’ cottage, stood on each others’ backs to perform and make music together. In fright of the noise [sic], the robbers flee, leaving the cottage to the animals to enjoy for the rest of their days.
Natee’s adaptation of the story in painting is typical of his practice during this period, where animals are employed as metaphors to comment on the social situation in Thailand. The gesture of unity by the animals is represented as an ornament, reflecting the stereotypical idea of nations in unity, but only as a decorative sign.
And here’s The Prince (2008) in words:
The Prince combines two of Natee’s recent pictorial developments; monochromatic Thai flags and the use of toys as allegorical symbols. The figure of the prince looks towards the flag with apparent allegiance, yet his feet, which point to the foreground, betray his actual stance. One notices that this toy prince, made of modular parts, can easily be manipulated to turn in any direction at whim.
This work is typical of Natee’s practice of this period which uses animals as symbols to conjure a variety of meanings. In Celtic myth, ducks have been said to symbolise transition because of their migratory nature. In political jargon, the term “lame duck” has been used to describe an outgoing politician.
Contemplating the pictures in question, my gut response was: really ? ‘Cause I’m not seeing it …
Both sound like classic examples of a little too much interpretive gusto. View of Harmony, for instance, is undoubtedly a portrayal of the German fairy-tale; a quick comparison with a statue erected in the town of Bremen bears this out (below), testifying to a standard visual template for representing the narrative. The rest of the write-up, however, seems to miss the mark by a pretty wide margin. How is the painting a comment on the social situation in Thailand ? I know almost nothing about the topic, but if by ‘social situation’ the curator – or perhaps the artist – was referring to the incessant upheavals that have gripped Thailand since the 2006 coup that toppled populist leader Thaksin Shinawatra, pitting an affluent, urban South against a largely agrarian, considerably poorer North, its certainly not obvious from the image itself. Or perhaps the picture belies the traditional view of the supposedly seamless assimilation of various minorities, notably the Chinese, into Thai society, suggesting instead divisions along ethnic fault-lines ? Whatever the case though, verbal and visual texts aren’t quite matching up here, at least for me. I guess my point is this: while a socio-political spin on the ‘meaning’ of the painting is perfectly acceptable (boy, do I dislike the m-word though ..), this is no baffling abstraction open to any number of explanations, but a very clear representational image, possessed of pronounced formal qualities and semantic connotations that seem to have been neglected in the rush for obvious, and rather tenuous, answers.
Despite Utarit’s protests that “fairy tales tend to take place in a distant time” and that “it’s almost impossible to trace them back to their origin”, a Grimm Bros’ story isn’t to going to sound very much like a traditional Thai folktale, or even speak to the same concerns. If indeed “fairy tales colour almost every aspect of life at every level … evident in the country’s (Thailand’s) political arena as well as the personal sphere”, why not then something Thai, rather than The Musicians of Bremen? Where, in other words, is the inflection that will allow the depiction of a classic German kindermärchen to be read as a statement on modern-day Thai politics and society? If, aside from the fact of the artist’s nationality, there are no culture-specific indicators here of what the curator/s are in effect claiming is the interpretation of the work, then why can’t every portrayal of the Bremen animals, including Gerhard Marcks’ statue, be looked at in the same way ? Can any visual sign then, if one frames it within the appropriate context – like sticking a Thai name to it – be made to yield the appropriate connections with anything and everything Thai ?
Perhaps if any of the animals in Utarit’s painting a particular breed native to his home country? Or some or all of these creatures are symbols of certain parties, or political affiliations, or public figures, in Thailand? If the answers to the preceding queries are inconclusive, where then is the evidence for a socio-political subtext here ? Is the final answer simply one of intentionality ? (“That’s what the artist says it is …”)
Why is ultimate determinant of significance so often located at the point of production, rather than at the moment of reception ?
But enough with the rhetorical questions. Misgivings aside, Utarit’s oeuvre encompasses a stimulatingly wide range of interests and motifs, including but not limited to: tactility, abstraction, floral still life paintings, the Western canon in general, and that darling of contemporary artists – interrogations of representational modes. A good-ish number of pieces on show here are concerned with articulating the disconnect between the supposed authenticity of photography and the creative license of traditional oil painting. His Kyotek Sae-Wu’s 12 Photographs During 1969 – 1973 series, for instance,