Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia
Film still from Ho Tzu Nyen, "2 or 3 Tigers" (2015), 2-channel HD video, 10-channel sound

“SUNSHOWER”: Encounters with Contemporary Art from Southeast Asia

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By Leow Puay Tin

(1645 words, 14-minute read)

The “SUNSHOWER: Contemporary Art from Southeast Asia 1980s to Now” exhibition in Tokyo has collected so much material that it could be split into two substantial halves, one at the Mori Art Museum and the other at The National Art Center, Tokyo. It is a showcase of a profusion of artworks through a sampling of important and new works by a range of established and emerging artists from the various member countries of ASEAN, now celebrating the 50th year of its formation.

The exhibition, which takes its name from a phenomenon of rain falling on a sunny day, circumvents an examination of the relationship of Japan, a recent-past imperial aggressor, to the region by taking the approach of a survey of contemporary art from Southeast Asia. It leaves the individual works, lifted from their original contexts, to speak for themselves to the viewer. Since I was seeing most of the artworks for the first time (aside from some Malaysian pieces), viewing the works on two separate days turned out to be both exciting and exhausting, particularly at the Mori Art Museum where it was frequently difficult and overwhelming to take in the numerous artworks which were displayed close to one another in the shared spaces. As a result, I nearly missed Montien Boonma’s Melting Void/Molds for the Mind (1998) which challenges conventional ideas about the Buddha and Buddhism by displaying the plaster cast moulds used for casting Buddha statues, instead of the product, the Buddha himself. The viewer could discover the Buddha only by looking inside the moulds.

Montien Boonma, “Melting Void/Molds for the Mind” (1998), plaster, color pigment, steel, wood, rope, coconut fiber, etc. Photo: Kioku Keizo; courtesy of Mori Art Museum, Tokyo

I was struck by several artworks which treat the land or landscape, everyday life and ordinary people, and Buddhism (rather than religion per se). Through these real-world subjects, regardless of the time of their making, deep issues of the nation, personal and cultural beliefs, and existence are opened up for questioning and reflection in the present. Many of these works have a political dimension, looking at power, rather than the politics of the day, and in their various ways, try to shake the structures of power. The works which I found affecting included:

Than Sok, “Objects of Belief” (2017), watercolor on paper. Photo: Kioku Keizo; courtesy of Mori Art Museum, Tokyo

Objects of Belief (2017), a series of watercolour paintings of cultural objects commonly found at Buddhist temples by Cambodian artist Than Sok. The unexpected sight of a ‘Western’ gift-wrapped present which is commonly associated with birthdays and Christmas made me pause to think over the question of what people were willing to put their faith in. A few years ago, in Malaysia, a captured wild pig was briefly an ‘object of belief’ when people came from all over to touch it for good luck.

The quiet Monologue (2014) video by the Cambodian artist Vandy Rattana, shot at the site of a bomb raid, addressed to someone (his sister) who was among the people killed there. The text raises questions about life and death from the perspective of someone who survived the destructiveness of war. Among many other reflections, he wonders if the remains of the dead (5,000) was what had caused the two mango trees there to bear such a lot of fruit. The video is a companion piece to his Bomb Ponds (2009), photographs of craters left in the landscape made by bombing operations during the American war in Vietnam.

Vasan Sitthiket, “Lost Info” (2011), 50 statuettes of Vasan Sitthiket and acrylic resin. Photo courtesy of the National Art Center, Tokyo

A small standing army of bespectacled naked men with erect penises (50 identical statuettes of the Thai artist Vasan Sitthiket) holding signs with messages or declarations of all kinds, written urgently in red and black block letters, such as “ART IS MY PASSION”, “WE’RE 99%”, “ALL IDIOT GREEDY GOVERNMENT ARE OUR ENIMIES!”, “MAKE LOVE NOT WAR”, “FREE USA FROM CAPITALISM”. The set-up of Lost Info (2011) makes the artist’s assertions ambivalent, even ridiculous, and yet quixotic, and, ultimately, moving. I was also struck by the text he had used as titles for a series of works called ‘Blue October’ related to the killing of student demonstrators at the Thammasat University in 1976 by the army and paramilitary forces. The titles are fragments of text taken from the media, such as: “For the nation’s identity”, “Today, if you still take pride in your infamous deeds, please come and take the old necklace from me.”, “Dream Is the Highest over All Value”. I found these fragments evocative of the response of the people vis-à-vis the state and its machinery, a mixture of pain, resignation and outrage.

Jakarta Wasted Artists, “Graphic Exchange” (2015), Signboard and video. Photo: Kioku Keizo; courtesy of Mori Art Museum, Tokyo

A display of old signboards which were used by shopkeepers and artisans in Jakarta collected by a group of artists (Jakarta Wasted Artists) who designed new signboards and exchanged them for the old ones. Called Graphic Exchange (2015), the signboards are an archive of the social history and imaginations of an otherwise anonymous people scratching a living in the streets and lanes of the city.

Tuan Andrew Nguyen, “The Irony of Worship” (2017), wood, metal, neon, LED lights and plastic. Photo: Kioku Keizo; courtesy of Mori Art Museum, Tokyo

The Irony of Worship (2017) by the Vietnamese artist Tuan Andrew Nguyen about the pangolin, the most poached animal in the world since its golden scales were highly desirable as medicine, and even as fashion accessories among other uses, is surprisingly evocative. It uses humour and bright colours to present the plight of the sought-after, persecuted pangolin. Its pertinence expanded with a companion LED panel display called The Warning (about being unfortunate objects of mass desire), in a conversation between the Rhino (nearly extinct), Pangolin (highly endangered) and the (once-powerful fire-breathing but now extinct) Dragon.

RHINO: Fuck, sorry. Stress levels very high these days. I guess it’s just my fears of not existing anymore, not being wanted.

PANGOLIN: But it’s not being wanted that’s gonna ensure your existence, man.

DRAGON: Yeah, it won’t help much if they pay too much attention to you, if they thought you had some sort of influence or power. Trust me.

FX Harsono, “Monumen Bong Belung (Bone Cemetery Monument)” (2011), wood box, electric candle light, paper and photograph. Photo courtesy of the National Art Center, Tokyo.
Detail from FX Harsono, “Monumen Bong Belung (Bone Cemetery Monument)” (2011), wood box, electric candle light, paper and photograph. Photo courtesy of the National Art Center, Tokyo

A memorial artwork with red lights which I initially thought was a Cambodian commemoration of the victims of the Khmer Rouge genocide, but turned out to be quite a recent work (2011) by Indonesian artist FX Harsono. Monumen Bong Belung (Bone Cemetery Monument) was made to commemorate the Chinese killed during the Indonesia’s independence movement. It is presented like a columbarium filled with tiers of miniature Chinese altars with candles and photographs and names of some of those who died: Tan Djing Kim Nio, Sie Hawt Guan, Liem Kiem Gwan, Njoo A Sa, etc. The sight of such familiar names, Chinese and Hokkien-sounding, hit me at an emotional place beyond empathy and pity for the massacred.

Through Rose-Coloured Glasses, is a new work (2017) by the Malaysian artist Yee I-Lann in collaboration with Tam Hong Lam of Pakard Photo Studio, composed of found photographs. Despite the cynical tone of the title, I found it interesting that utilitarian, commercially-produced pictures could cumulatively tell such a powerful narrative about people’s shared desire, regardless of who they were, to document key moments in their personal lives: marriage, graduation, birthday, etc. The photos turned out to be remarkably similar, repetitions with variations and also a display of everyday, real-life diversity. The compositions were built around simple objects in the studio or in the space itself, giving rise to recurrent shots of the same small ‘shell’ chair made of plastic strings with different children in it, and different sets of people standing next to the mock coconut tree.

Chalood Nimsamer, “Rural Sculpture” (1982), lambda print

Rural Sculpture features photographs of the late Thai artist Chalood Nimsamer which were taken of his 1982 performance art piece involving the use of traditional farming tools. It was strangely moving to see the artist looking like a shaman wearing the tools on his body. The photographs invoked for me the ancient, mysterious and endangered connection between the land and humans which still endures and which sustains life on earth.

Looking back, I would have liked to see more works that address the subject of Islam given the importance of Islam in the region, in the way that Buddhism was strongly present in the exhibition. I saw only two pieces which dealt with Islam. One was the Indonesian artist Agus Suwage’s Tembok Toleransi (The Wall of Tolerance) (2013), which used the azan, the Islamic call to prayer. But the muted or the muting of the azan in the piece, made it problematic for me as a work urging tolerance because the barely audible sounds went against the function of the azan which was meant to be heard by people in the community. I wished it could be loud enough for its impact to be felt and responded to. The other was Malaysian artist Liew Kung Yu’s Heritage Metropolis (from the series Proposals for My Country, 2009) which could be read as a response to the introduction of Islamic elements into more and more aspects of public life in a country known abroad for its moderate Islamic stance and multiculturalism.

Film still from Ho Tzu Nyen, “2 or 3 Tigers” (2015), 2-channel HD video, 10-channel sound, 18 min. 45 sec.

The one piece that felt closest to being ‘pan-Southeast Asian’ was Singaporean artist Ho Tzu Nyen’s 2 or 3 Tigers (2015). Although it starts out with a story from Singapore’s colonial past of a tiger attack on an Englishman where virgin jungle was being cleared for development, this piece comes closest to being a ‘Southeast Asian’ work by virtue of the tiger and tiger stories being endemic to the countries in this widely-divergent region. The text conflates the historical (colonisation by the British and Japanese Occupation) with folkloric, fantasy, cartoon and supernatural elements, and somehow the mix evoked a primordial world of the tiger as a force of nature and a pitiless, efficient man-killing machine. The work comprised two animation videos which were interactive with one another and shown on facing screens in a darkened room, giving the viewer seated between them an immersive experience of the tiger. In a brilliant twist of language and meaning, the text changes the words “we’re tigers” to “weretigers”, when man and beast suddenly merge into something spooky, deadly and unstoppable. The “weretiger” is not an evolution. It is suggestive of a miscegenation spawned by the bloodshed and violence of the historical past and which is still present in our midst today.

So, beware!


SUNSHOWER: Contemporary Art from Southeast Asia 1980s to Now” runs from 5 July to 23 October 2017 at the National Art Center, Tokyo and the Mori Art Museum. It is organised by the National Art Center, Tokyo, the Mori Art Museum and Japan Foundation Asia Center.

Guest Contributor Leow Puay Tin is a playwright and text curator who is in Japan on a 6-month-long fellowship from Japan Foundation Asia Center. Currently on leave from Sunway University in Malaysia, she is looking at site-specific performance events or location-based performances which are carried out in non-theatre spaces, while collecting materials to make a new text for performance.

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