Socio-political critique bridging Southeast Asia to Turkey

The roving eye: Contemporary art from Southeast Asia
ARTER, Istanbul
17 September 2014 - 4 January 2015

Following her exhibitions of Southeast Asian (SEA) contemporary art, including Negotiating Home, History and Nation, at Singapore Art Museum (2011), and Concept, Context, Contestation: Art and the Collective in Southeast Asia, at Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (2013), Singapore-based SEA art specialist Iola Lenzi curated The Roving Eye: Contemporary Art from Southeast Asia. The largest and most comprehensive regionally curated exhibition to show at an institution outside Asia, Roving Eye opened at ARTER, Istanbul, with over forty works by thirty-six artists from Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam and Malaysia. 

The title suggests a restless oeuvre, and Lenzi explained, ‘among the characteristics that define and distinguish regional contemporary art, is a particular way of looking at the world. It is a trait whereby the artist looks at issues from both inside and outside his or her home base. He or she develops the work thinking about multiple positions and viewpoints. It’s a sophisticated play of perspectives that many artists from the region engage in quite naturally’.

Roving Eye takes into account artists’ juggling of complex perspectives. Works by pioneer as well as later generation artists critique power, authoritarianism, religious extremism, xenophobic tendencies, social exclusion and transcultural flux, through photography, installation, video, sound and sculpture. But the main draw on the opening day were three masterful performances by Melati Suryodarmo, Jason Lim and Bui Cong Khanh.

In her seminal performance I Love You (2007-ongoing) Suryodarmo supports a thirty kilogram glass panel for five continuous hours, occasionally saying out loud ‘I Love You’. Seeing the artist perform in a pant-suit and high heels, staggering, perspiring, balancing, persisting with love towards an object that only weighed heavily in return, was a highly disconcerting experience. Lim and Khanh performed to a packed audience at ARTER. Lim’s The Last Drop (2005-ongoing) had visitors holding their breath as he meditatively balanced drinking-glass atop glass along the edge of a small wooden table. Khanh’s Hymne National (2010), a formalistic performance of the French and Vietnamese national anthems, conveyed concepts of colonialism, cultural influence and constructs of national identity. However, this work raised a pertinent question in my view: Would this regional exhibition be legible to an audience outside of SEA, far removed from its specific histories and socio-political contexts? 

Considering that this exhibition is a major foray for SEA contemporary art into Europe, Roving Eye presumably serves as an introduction to regional art practices for audiences in Istanbul and beyond. Artworks were seemingly selected to show off regional formal and conceptual brio, as well as Southeast Asian art’s deployment of materials as a cue to concept. Playing on ‘juggling perspectives’ is Lee Wen’s Ping Pong Go Round. The pioneer Singapore artist’s tableau subverts the rules of the well-known game through the distortion of its shape. Placed at the entrance of ARTER, and visible through the glass on its street-front opening onto Istiklal, Ping Pong Go Round entices passing tourists and Turkish folk alike to step inside the institution and engage. With one player at its centre (or possibly two) and an unlimited number of players on its outer circumference, Ping Pong Go Round reveals itself as a metaphor for the interests of the centred individual precariously pitched against those of the collective on the outside.

Engaging the collective is a key strategy of SEA artists, and explains why a third of the works here are interactive. Indonesia’s Restu Ratnaningtyas’s eye-catching batik fabrics Transmission (2014), meant for visitors to try out, bear unconventional motifs that signify mutations of tradition and modernity in a globalised world. Alwin Reamillo’s stunning Nicanor Abelardo Grand Piano Project (2010) extends the conversation on globalism through his hybrid grand piano. Hiding clues of his Philippine heritage on a personal, cultural and national front, Reamillo addresses the destruction of family businesses across the region throughout the ’90s due to trade liberalisation. Commonwealth: Project Another Country (2014) by Australian-based Philippine duo Isabel and Alfredo Aquilizan, offers mock-majestic crowns made from recycled tin-cans. Salvaged from cheap mass-produced material, these beguiling objects are rusty and sharp enough to cut. Visitors can try them on at their own peril. Another precarious artwork is Josephine Turalba’s Scandals (2013–14) that are composed entirely of bullet-cartridges. Though deliberately uncomfortable and downright painful to walk in, the sandals and adjacent adulterated ethnographic photographs of colonised Filipinos now wearing these sandals, scrutinise relationships between the subjugated and the oppressor. 

Switching perspectives, Dinh Q. Lê’s The Quality of Mercy (1996), is a recreation of a Khmer Rouge torture chamber lined with wall-to-wall archival images of the eyes of the victims, surrounding the viewer. An extension of Lê’s work The Texture of Memory (2000–01) features on another floor. Here, the artist commissioned Vietnamese craftswomen to embroider portraits of these victims. Like Turalba’s footwear, audience-participation is key to activating this textile-work; as viewers touch the white-on-white embroidered cloth, the outlines darken to reveal victim’s faces. 

Among these interactive works, perhaps the most salient piece emblematic of SEA is Sutee Kunavichayanont’s History Class II (2013), a set of wooden school desks that innocently seduces viewers into sitting down and making a colourful rubbing. The desks etched surfaces, however, reveal pictorial depictions of tortures, hangings or propagandist quotes from Thai history. Most of the text etched is in Thai script but translations have been made available in Turkish and English, making the artist’s messages accessible. History Class (the series was initiated in 2000) footnotes contentious events in Thai History—the 1930s transition from Absolute to Constitutional Monarchy, the brutal massacres of the 1970s, the reportedly corrupt regime of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (ousted from power in 2006). Key events, like the Thammasat Massacre of 1976, which have not been entered into school history textbooks. Though the piece is Thai-centric, the classroom setting, now extended with Blackboard Drawing I & II (2014) plays upon our ingrained childhood experiences as entry points into accessing the work. Formally and conceptually, Kunavichayanont raises questions about who authors history and how one might challenge historic revisionism. As visitors make a colouring and take home these chapters of censured events, they have already been co-opted by the artist. Like other exhibits on show, History Class II relies on the active reception of its audience and their willingness to engage subversions within the artwork. 

Relating to History Class, are Michael Shaowanasai’s pair of neon street light-boxes, The Untouchables II (2014), on Arter’s façade, and Yee I-Lann’s decadent gold-framed photographs of wilting flowers pinned onto politician’s breast-pockets, Orang Besar Series: YB (2010), placed along the ARTER stairwell. While Shaowanasai’s Thai scripted cheap lights spell out ‘King’ and ‘Queen’ within oval frames, reducing the Monarchy—emblematic of Thailand—to empty plastic symbols, with power switched on and off in full public glare, I-Lann ornately emphasises the countless failed promises of those in power.

Broadening critiques on modernity, globalisation, socio-economic progress and its entailing implications, are Indonesian pioneer artists Krisna Murti and FX Harsono. Murti’s three images, Viewing Pergiwati, Street Theatre, The Last Photograph (all 2010) reveal the artist himself dressed alternately as a man and a woman in traditional Indonesian costume, replete with ornate batik and gold embellishments, and wearing, in some instances, expressive Wayang masks. In the first image, he stands in an urban space against a giant hoarding advertising a major Western brand, in the second, he is in front of a devastated landscape, and in the third, he poses away from a group of hijab-wearing women. Harsono, for his part, illustrates, through a three channel film, Purification (2013), firstly, a syncretic ritual prayer dating from the 14th century, which incorporates aspects of Hinduism and Islam; then the local manufacturing of Hajj souvenirs in Indonesia; and lastly, a street-demonstration of fundamentalists demanding an Islamic revolution. Where Harsono highlights religious syncretism through Brai rituals, Murti sharpens the contrasts between harmonious hybridity and rigid fundamentalism. As the former documents the mass-produced Hajj souvenirs, implicating religion’s influence on commercial enterprise and local politics, Murti attests to rape of the environment through extensive deforestation that enables economic gain. Reminding viewers that religion in itself is not a proponent of violence, Jakkai Siributr’s Transient Shelter (2014)—military and civil uniforms embellished with talismans—takes into account how power-politics appear to work in tandem with Buddhism and superstition. Though non-violence is the central tenet of Buddhism, recent instances in Burma might attest to the contrary.

There are a number of artworks in this exhibition which merit discussion as they underpin powerful political critique, particularly within the work of the older generation of SEA artists. These locally-rooted anxieties, however, also concern the younger generation, some of whom have a diasporic outlook. Artists such as Tay Wei Leng, Chris Chong Chan Fui and artist-collective the Vertical Submarine, explore local assimilation of foreign cultures and global impressions of belonging. Ise Roslisham for his part, bridges SEA and Turkey by engaging two Malaysian families living in Istanbul, adapting to a foreign city through the ingredients they keep in their fridge. Visitors open the doors to discover cultural conflicts through ingredients that may be local to one culture, while exotic for another. Though SEA artists’ concerns stem from specific regional circumstances, one hopes their visual-language is legible to audiences in Istanbul and beyond. Having seen Roving Eye, Dr Amin Jaffer, (International Director of Asian Art, Christies) observed, ‘the commentary on servitude and migration, notions of loyalty to the state/monarchy/government all come though very clearly. The question of ethnicity and multi-culture is indeed a big one, for Chinese or Indians or any of us migratory people to consider’. 

Having followed Lenzi’s work and exhibitions, I have been convinced of social criticism as a defining marker of contemporary art in Southeast Asia. Curatorially, this is the most cohesive exhibition on contemporary SEA art to date, its generously illustrated catalogue grounding the exhibition with four extensive essays on the region.

Lee Wen, Ping-Pong Go Round, 2014. Installation view, The Roving Eye, ARTER, 2014. Photograph Murat German.