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One hundred and eight small-scale, and twelve large-scale fibreglass sculptures, modelled in the likeness of Thai artist-activist Vasan Sitthiket in the nude, holding up picket signs while sporting full erections, lined the floor at Yavuz Fine Art. These were set against a backdrop of bold new artworks, all of which put the city-state’s authorities’ tolerance to the test.
Curator Lola Lenzi and the artist decided upon an exhibition in which history and communication would be central themes. According to Lenzi, the inundation of trivial information via social media has essentially drowned out critical voices in, particularly, Southeast Asia, where democracy is still in its infancy.
Well known as a socio-political provocateur who campaigns against the negative effects of urbanisation and global politics, Vasan recalls the recent history of Southeast Asia through his new paintings. Nine black canvases sketched over with chalk and acrylic depict recent and historic moments of uprising, retold under an eclipsed sun: the 1998 riots of Indonesia, the non-violent anti-government protests led by Buddhist monks in Burma (2007), the 1964 and 1969 race riots of Malaysia, the 2010 farmer protest for agrarian reform in the Philippines and even the Occupy Wall Street movement. Drawn in strong swift lines capturing the spirit of those chaotic and unstable moments, these canvases demonstrate the power of free speech, the right to protest and the sort of democratic change capable of bringing autocratic regimes to their knees.
But among this regional chaos and flux lies a calm red herring. Vasan portrays a naked man reading the national paper of Singapore, the Straits Times, upside down. Two headlines read ‘Lee Love You’ referencing the young nation’s proud patriarch Lee Kuan Yew, and beside that ‘Temasek Fall: Loose 100 Billions, 2000 Committed Suicide Yesterday’, referring to Temasek Holdings, a sovereign wealth fund, run by the Prime Minister’s wife, while the last page boasts the new Marina Bay Sands Casino, which the government ensured would continue to be built throughout the unfolding global financial crisis. Hinting at the anomaly that Singapore might be amidst its ASEAN and even global neighbours, Vasan presents two focal points, one where the masses rally for change and another where critical judgement has clearly been abandoned or muzzled under the weight of mind-numbing rationality and conformity.
This History Series echoes the Futurist style of drawing, capturing the momentum of the body while evoking the feel of a blackboard in an old fashioned classroom. Further enabling disenchanted voices to be heard are the one hundred and eight strong army of Vasan dolls mentioned earlier. Audiences at the opening night were invited to make their own mini-picket signs and insert them into the arms of the sculptures, which is where the subtly interactive exhibition got interesting. Given an opportunity to publicly declare something of substance, most audience members chose to write something nonsensical or redundant. This takes us to Vasan’s next set of paintings illustrating the vacuity or passivity of many a citizen when it comes to taking a stake in society, all the while reminding the audience that a citizen’s right to partake in open public discourse is still highly problematic in most countries.
Two large oil canvases, Where Are You From? (Male) and Where Are You From? (Female), present foreign workers—labourers and domestic workers from Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Burma, Brunei, India, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and the Philippines—coming together to build Singapore but who go about ‘unseen’. The disenfranchised minority, painted with empty speech bubbles, face the audience in uncomfortable silence, save for one woman, possibly a sex worker, who says, [model] ‘Cammi Tse says she is still a virgin’. The power of free speech is now offset by the vacuity of celebrity culture and the white noise of Twitter, Facebook and other modes of digital expression.
Acting as an antithesis to the digital are eight outdated TV box-sets of different sizes and makes, clumsily stacked in the corner, displaying Vasan simultaneously reciting the Constitutions of the ASEAN nations, while a ticker tape with the words runs across the screen, out of sync with Vasan’s timing. From this simple act, the glaringly obvious gap between the highest proscribed law and its application, or indeed suppression in reality, is pinpointed, such as in the case of women’s rights in Vietnam or Land reform in Philippines. Illustrating a paradox in our social systems, it is amusing to see Vasan suppress a fit of laughter as he reads the extract on Freedom of Speech and Assembly from Singapore’s Constitution.
Vasan raises a number of questions for a global audience: with numerous digital outlets for our thoughts, what are we doing with our voice? Have we become apathetic towards civic concerns? Is freedom of speech a right or a responsibility?
Vasan, however, rounds up the exhibition with a fairly serene and optimistic mural. Necessary Needs and Nations (States’ Dreams) imagines the ASEAN countries as living breathing bodies in deep slumber, sharing a dreamscape of common goals and aspirations, amid a backdrop of agrarian symbols, perhaps suggesting we return to a simpler time of agricultural self-sufficiency.
Vasan Sitthiket, Voices, 2011. Set of 12 figures. Acrylic, wood and fiverglass, 190 x 60 x 50cm (each).
'Lost Info', 2011. Installation view, Yavuz Fine Art, Singapore. Courtesy of the artist and Yavuz Fine Art.