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Art Basel HK 2018: Spotlight on Southeast Asia

Art Basel Hong Kong 2018 opened yesterday in what might have been the most public private viewing ever. Crowds thronged, and the buzz was palpable. It was no surprise then, to hear that a US$35 million Willem de Kooning painting had been sold just an hour and a half after the opening of the fair.

Featuring 248 galleries from 32 countries and territories, we were naturally curious about the Southeast Asian presence at what’s been billed as Asia’s most important art fair. Here’s a list of some of the Southeast Asian work that caught our eye:

1) Left–Wing Project (Belok Kiri Jalan Terus), 2017-2018, Isabel and Alfredo Aquilizan

This massive installation by Filipino artists Isabel and Alfredo Aquilizan appeared to be the only Southeast Asian work in the fair’s Encounters section:

These sections of the fair have a museum-like quality about them, being dedicated to showcasing large-scale sculptures and installations by leading artists from around the world. In the work presented in conjunction with Yavuz Gallery, 7 wing-like kinetic sculptures made from hand-forged sickles are suspended from the ceiling, counter-balanced by sacks of rice hanging from weighing scales. A soundtrack of noises recorded from Javanese sickle factories accompanies the work, which was produced in collaboration with farmers and blacksmiths in Yogyakarta.

Artist Isabel Aquilizan observed that in Indonesia, “sickle-making is a dying industry,” and that the work was very much her and her husband’s “documentation of the everyday,” based on observations of rural life while on a residency in Yogyakarta. She recalled seeing Indonesian farmers setting off to work carrying their sickles, but to farm land which was not owned by them.

A close-up of those magnificent sickle-wings

Some visitors to the work had apparently never seen sickles or scales prior to attending Art Basel!  The work was, therefore, well-positioned to inform, educate and engage viewers about the difficult issues of social inequality and labour exploitation. Interestingly, the Aquilizans had originally intended for viewers to be able to walk through the installation and to feel the tension of buzzing sickle-wings overhead, threatening to violently drop at any second.

It was curious to see such a (literally!) left-wing work such as this one, displayed in a highly charged capitalist environment. Can privileged people attending art fairs truly grasp the issues of rural agrarian communities? Or, does the work succeed simply because it raises awareness in an unlikely environment and avoids preaching to the converted?

2) Maid in Malaysia: Storm, 2008, Wong Hoy Cheong

Eminent Malaysian contemporary artist Wong Hoy Cheong has always been engaged and actively involved in his country’s political and social issues. In recent years, he has allowed his artistic practice to take a back seat in order to take on a more active role in politics and policy-making. While we are sure his contributions in this area are fulfilling an important need in his country, seeing some of his works (from a decade or more ago) on show at Eslite Gallery’s booth at Art Basel reminded us of why he is so highly respected and has won so many accolades in the art world. His witty 2008 photographic series, Maid in Malaysia, depicts foreign domestic workers performing as various iconic female characters, such as Supergirl (see the featured image above), Storm (from the X-Men) and Joan of Arc, in dramatic tableaux vivants. The mutant X-Man Storm’s ability to control the weather, for example, comes in handy when she has to wash her employer’s family car as she unleashes a veritable deluge of rain! Wong shows us, in wickedly clever ways, how heroic and superhuman our domestic maids are and reminds us of the daily miracles they perform in our homes, often unnoticed and unappreciated.

3) Salvahe, 2015, Norberto “Peewee” Roldan

Norberto “Peewee” Roldan presents this dramatic wall installation at Silverlens Gallery, the backdrop of which includes a Catholic liturgical cape. Gallerist Rachel Rillo explained that the term savalhe refers to a person who goes against laws or the church. Now, however, it’s used more casually in local Filipino lingo to refer to someone being cheeky or naughty.

The words written to bloody, visceral effect on the cape are derogatory terms used by the Spanish to describe their colonial subjects in the Phillippines. In the late 1800s, Filipino rebels who fought the Spanish would apparently sew coded messages into the vestments of priests, so that they could communicate with one another through these symbols, and as a kind of defiant sacrilege during mass. Roldan, in his scathing commentary on Spanish colonial practices, as well as the corrupt power of the church and state, amplifies and enlarges such subversive codes within his work.

4) The Carnival and Radio Silence, 2018, Indieguerillas

Artist duo Indieguerillas are the husband-and-wife-team Dyatmiko (“Miko”) Bawono and Santi Ariestyowanti. Based in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, they are known for their artworks that often respond to and comment on the fast-paced, materialistic, tech-and-social-media-obsessed lives of contemporary Indonesians, combining elements of pop culture with traditional folkloric imagery. A recurring theme in their works is the image of the Javanese wayang kulit servant characters, the Punakawan, which they use to symbolize the common man, themselves included. We were delighted to see a couple of their works on show at Mizuma Gallery’s booth at Art Basel this year – one, a painting entitled The Carnival and the other, one of their fantastical surf/skateboard sculptures, Radio Silence. The Carnival’s busy, noisy, brightly coloured imagery stimulates and assaults the senses – a depiction of how we are constantly bombarded with all kinds of information throughout our day and our minds are never still. With Radio Silence, on the other hand, the artists proffer a solution – that we be at peace with the constant onslaught of information, gently surfing or skating over all of it, with a playful, joyful spirit. Good advice!

5) Surga Meleleh,  2014-2018, Agus Suwage

Indonesian artist Agus Suwage provokes and disturbs with this exciting collection of works entitled Surga Meleleh (loosely translated as “Heaven Melts”). Presented by Nadi Gallery, we’re informed in an official notification that this series is a “personal recording of the tension between the profane and the spiritual world.”

Yup, definitely profane

In a more casual chat with the gallerists, however, a comment is passed that there is just “so much sex” in this work that perhaps it’s simply the artist’s idea of heaven. (Then again, Suwage who is a famed animal activist, has also included an image of his beloved pet dog, so make of that what you will). Whether you prefer the lofty explanation or the more primal one, you won’t be able to tear your eyes from this piece. Even the title of the work rolls sensually off the tongue – go on, try saying it.

6) Medusa, Perseus, 2017, Wawi Navarroza

Marble is a stone that we tend to associate with ancient Greek and Roman sculptures of mythical gods and goddesses, heroes and heroines. It is very much associated with the Western art history canon and with works that immortalize the mighty, the powerful and the important. The fact is, however, that marble can be found all over the world and, in particular, in Romblon, the capital of the Philippine marble industry.

In Filipino contemporary artist Wawi Navarroza’s Medusa series, she deliberately and consciously situates her exploration of her subject matter, marble, in the Philippines, in order to re-examine the geography of art history and of myth. Here, Navarroza appropriates the classical Greek hero immortalised in marble and reimagines him as a flesh-and-blood Filipino marble-worker, born and raised in Romblon, who boldly meets the camera’s and the viewer’s gaze.

7) Under the Shadow of Flag, 2018, Entang Wiharso

Dare we say, one can recognise an Entang Wiharso work from a mile away – his intricate metalwork, ugly/beautiful creatures and dark, chaotic overtones have become something of a hallmark. This arresting new work on display at the Mizuma Gallery booth “focuses on the duality of Wiharso’s cultures and experiences in his two homelands – Indonesia and America.” This work according to Wiharso, is part of a series “which looks at conditions in America and Indonesia – the extreme behaviour, the move toward fanaticism and polarization, and an increasingly common refusal to acknowledge others’ feelings.”

We especially loved the bulging handmade resin eyes in this work, a small touch which gave the figures in the piece a particularly menacing and reptilian air.

So –  is there a place for Southeast Asian contemporary art within the larger juggernaut of the Asian art market? While Southeast Asian works did not dominate the fair by any measure, we certainly think that things look promising. Filipino artists had some excellent general representation at the fair and well-known names presented interesting new offerings.

While de Kooning made the headlines this year, we’re confident that it won’t be long before a Southeast Asian artist does the same!

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