negotiating home, history and nation

singapore art museum (sam)
12 March - 26 June 2011

Singapore Art Museum presented an extensive two decade survey of Southeast Asian art produced from 1991 to 2011, featuring works by Agus Suwage (Indonesia), Vasan Sitthiket (Thailand), Suzann Victor (Singapore), Wong Hoy Cheong (Malaysia), Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan (Philippines), and Tran Luong (Vietnam) among others from these same six countries.

The exhibition, envisioned and curated by Iola Lenzi in collaboration with SAM’s Director Tan Boon Hui and Curator Khairuddin Hori, offered audiences an insight into recent Southeast Asian art practices which have emerged over a period of political and social flux and which, while presenting specific works from diverse countries across diverse mediums, seem to be in dialogue with one another. Most pertinently, though, this exhibition allowed for Southeast Asian art to be viewed in the context of its own regional history and on its own terms rather than being curated from a comparative Eurocentric perspective or in context with ‘Western’ theories of modernism/post modernism.

Says Iola Lenzi: ‘I have wanted to curate a big Southeast Asian contemporary show for many years. My goal was not to demonstrate that the best of the region more than holds its own in an international context, for this we knew. But rather, my ambition was to present works from six very diverse Southeast Asian nations in visual and conceptual conversation together. Despite the linguistic, religious and ethnic differences of Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam, there are significant commonalities shared by these countries’ peoples that allow the critical comparison of their respective contemporary practices.

‘I think “Home, History and Nation” proves that this conversation is a natural one, not forced. “Home, History and Nation” is not the definitive Southeast Asian show, but it may well be the first to prove that Southeast Asian contemporary art exists and can—I would argue should—be examined in its own critical framework independently of China, wider Asia, or the West.’

Here religion, spirituality, geo-politics, gender inequality, racial bias and post-colonialism take centre stage and become obvious as the thread of critical discourse running through the exhibits. This exhibition, though long overdue, should not come as a surprise as it reprises many of the themes Lenzi has looked at in other, smaller (indeed often very low-budget) Southeast Asian contemporary shows: nationalism, empowerment, rural/urban tensions, sexuality, high art/low art boundaries, multiple identities, and visual languages specific to the region, amongst others. Assembling some of the region’s most seminal works of the last decades, it features a good number of the artists and pieces Lenzi has curated and written about in the course of the last fifteen years. These practitioners and artworks, mostly unknown in the commercial mainstream, may as it turn out, be the stuff of Southeast Asian art history.

To begin with, an interactive installation titled History Class (2000) by Thai artist Sutee Kunavichayanont welcomed viewers into the museum. This work consisted of fourteen wooden classroom desks assembled in rows. Each desk was engraved with images and texts drawn from various episodes in modern Thai history, which could be ‘discovered’ when audiences placed a paper and etched over it in pencil thus revealing references to the people’s uprisings, student protests, assassinations, military crackdowns and torture. Manit Sriwanichpoom’s photographic series, Horror in Pink (2001), presented his performance character, in his popular pink suit and garb, as an amused stranger observing critical moments of Thai history as documented through the news media, all the while attempting to subtly inform his audiences on decades of social injustices and atrocities on ordinary civilians.

Continuing the political rhetoric was Heri Dono’s Wayang Legenda Indonesia Baru (2000). Shadow puppets executed in the wayang kulit tradition, their outlines recognisable as those of the Indonesian islands, were conceptualised a couple of years after Suharto’s regime was overthrown. This poignant artwork was a reflection of a nation which, in all its diverse religions, cultures and languages, was in communal and political flux after the nation’s uprising and Suharto’s downfall. Each formerly repressed island is represented as an animated sparring character wanting to go his or her own way, with its people wanting to control their destiny and survival.

Vasan Sitthiket highlighted the plight of Thai farmers in a simple, literal but emotive installation in Committing Suicide Culture: The Only Way Thai Farmers Escape Debt (1995), featuring wooden cutouts of farmers hanging by the noose on a pole painted in red, white and blue, the Thai national colours, hovering over mounds of rice husks. I was struck by the realisation that these suicides are not, as I previously thought, unique to the situation in India.

Taking this socially conscious art further in order to provide a multi-layered cultural perspective are works by Nindityo Adipurnomo whose larger than life-size Javanese female hair bun, Hiding Rituals and Mass Production 2, (1997–1998) woven in rattan, comments on the heavy burden of tradition and rituals continued by the Javanese to this day. In Mella Jaarsma’s Saya Goreng Kamu II (2000), performative costumes, constructed from exotic animal skins such as squirrel, goat or snake, challenge cultural associations with the sacred or taboo.

Philippine husband and wife artist duo Alfredo & Isabel Aquilizan, who often create works resulting from a collaboration with local communities, were also represented through their stunning iconic installation Wings (2009). Three large pairs of ‘wings’ were created by putting together used rubber slippers which were intriguingly collected from the Singapore prisons. A sight which instantly evokes the Greek mythology of Icarus, grapples with notions of migration as well as renewed hope and identity for prisoners who leave behind these prisons and their proscribed footwear.

Speaking of identity, still very much a post colonial bone of contention which has been played out by numerous artists to the point of cliché, stands Navin Rawanchaikul’s life-size sculpture Where is Navin? (2007). Modelled on himself in Indian garb ‘he’ holds up his name NAVIN while a number of signposts lie at his feet spelling out his name in different scripts. And as if to answer the question of ‘where?’, the sculpture is accompanied by a video montage Navins of Bollywood (2006) which show different ‘Navins’ appearing at unexpected locations in Bombay. Navin, himself a Thai citizen of Indian Punjabi origin finds his roots, like so many of the Indian diaspora, in present day Pakistan. Being a naturalised Thai (who now resides between Japan and Chang Mai) the artist often enquires into our notions of belonging to a particular landscape when the world has effectively become a global village as a result of our own migratory experiences. Personally, as an Indian having lived in Nigeria and now based in Singapore, I am often stumped when asked where do I originally come from.

Leading us through such questions of identity within the Southeast Asian context is photographic evidence of Lee Wen’s performance Strange Fruit (2004) which hails from his mixed media performances Journey of a Yellow Man. The artist, considered one of the genre’s pioneers in the region since the ’80s, uses his ‘yellow man’ persona to create an exaggerated symbol of his ethnic identity as a citizen of Singapore, critiquing the nationalistic city-state. Foremost local artists of his generation such as Tang Da Wu, Suzann Victor and Vincent Leow were also represented at this exhibition. Leow’s Money Suit (1992), effused with the artist’s aura, stands testament to his performance wherein, dressed in the very suit, he mimicked a frog hopping about picking up dollar bills with his mouth and dropping them into his custom-made money hat, critiquing superstition and the city-state’s evolving attitude towards status and materialistic values. This performance occurred just a couple of years before funding for Performance Arts was pulled, as the medium was deemed vulgar by the governing authorities and a number of restrictive stipulations were put in place, effectively (but not technically) banning performance arts for nearly a decade.

This exhibition is an extensive survey which gave audiences a cogent view of the diverse realities and threads linking Southeast Asia and its art by confronting nationalistic ideals, urbanisation, religion and gender issues through a broad range of media. That many of these socially conscious works have been executed in the region’s traditional handicraft methods not only demonstrates a love for heritage and its continuation in contemporary practices but also the artists’ wish to communicate simply and effectively with the public. The show is documented by an extensive, if expensive (S$80) catalogue, including Iola Lenzi’s exhaustive curatorial essay, as well as texts by Apinan Poshyananda, Nora Taylor and Eileen Legaspi, which further enable the audience to understand the significance of the artworks in the context of their historical or circumstantial environment.

The show ran as a parallel event to the Singapore Biennale. While the Biennale, with its international artworks, served as a trendy showcase for Singapore and its ‘world class’ infrastructure, as a prime tourist and cultural destination, ‘Negotiating Home, History and Nation’ was by far a more provocative display of Southeast Asian artistic discourse through the last two decades.

Heri Dono, Flying Angels, Trap's Outer Rim, 2004. Fibreglass, bamboo, fabric, acrylic paint, transistor radio, electronic and mechanical devices, cable, 8 pieces, 60 x 140 x 15cm approx. each. Collection: the artist.

Lee Wen, Strange Fruit, 2004. C-print, edition 1 of 3, 42 x 59.4cm (landscape) each, 59.4 x 42cm (portrait) each. Collection: Singapore Art Museum.

Navin Rawanchaikul, Where is Navin?, 2007. Painted fibreglass, cloth, wood, 176 x 67 x 45cm. Collection: Singapore Art Museum.