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When (Art and) Action Speak Louder than Words

Them: “So which part of the world are you from?”     Me: “Southeast Asia”

Them: “Oh, lovely!”

If only my conversations went something like this, I would be so much more comfortable talking about my origins. More typically, I get puzzled looks and the retort,  “Oh! But you’re actually from India, right?”

Apparently, when I say I am from Southeast Asia, I am not quite saying enough.

Over the years, a handful of contemporary art exhibitions have grappled with the task of characterising Southeast Asia, either because it was central to the show’s curation, or because it felt like a prerequisite to the agenda of showcasing ‘Southeast Asian art.’ This includes the seminal 1996 exhibition Contemporary Art in Asia: Traditions/Tensions in New York City’s Asia Society, and the 2011 exhibition Negotiating Home, History and Nation at the Singapore Art Museum. The latter, curated by Iola Lenzi, placed the spotlight on a unified concept of Southeast Asian contemporary art.

South of China, East of India and North of Australia – that’s where we are. But is that also who we are? On this broad understanding of the term (geographically, anyway):

“the term “Southeast Asia” refers to the huge peninsula of Indochina and the extensive archipelago of what is sometimes called the East Indies. The region can be subdivided into mainland Southeast Asia and insular Southeast Asia. The political units contained in this region are Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines… A common geographic and climatic pattern prevails over all of Southeast Asia and has resulted in a particular pattern of settlement and cultural development.”

So far, so straightforward.

Art historical commentators have however questioned these labels. Singapore Biennale 2019 Artistic Director Patrick Flores, for example, has recently spoken of the need for a “decentering” of Southeast Asia and for a consideration of “more interesting geographic trajectories and specificities,” in the context of its art.

Flores makes the point for example that Southeast Asia “is also ‘south’ and ‘east’ Asia.”

“So South Asia would include countries like India and Sri Lanka, and East Asia would mean China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan?”

The Southeast Asian region is purportedly home to 1000 of the 6000 languages spoken worldwide, with a staggering amount of cultural diversity. Add socio-political and developmental asymmetries to the mix, and the task of teasing out common thematic threads becomes all the more herculean.

The latest exhibition looking at Southeast Asian art history is the one currently on at LASALLE College of the Arts, held in conjunction with the school’s first art historical conference Art and Action: Contemporary Art and Discourse in Southeast Asia. Also curated by Iola Lenzi and aiming to reveal a strand of Southeast Asian contemporary art that responds to the region’s socio-cultural and political order, Moving Pledges: Art and Action in Southeast Asia shows 13 works from 14 artists created between 1977 and 2018.

Let us start with the oldest work of the lot, FX Harsono’s installation titled Apa yang anda lakukan jika krupuk ini adalah pistol beneran? (What would you do if these crackers were real pistols?) (1977- ):

This is a powerful piece that utilises the lighthearted reference of locally produced crackers as an entry point to a very grave conversation. Reminiscent of ideas associated with the Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru movement that Harsono and others pioneered in Indonesia, the installation is an artwork with a social purpose. Lauded as one of the first participatory works of art in Indonesia and the region– it invites visitors to pen their responses to the title question in a provided notebook. The audience is also given a chance to read responses in the notebooks from previous iterations, and through that process, are invited to think about our collective regional voice.

Some of the entries in the notebook

Although Harsono’s work is placed at the back of the single room gallery, it makes just as good a starting point as any other for this exhibition experience of looking at ‘art and action.’ The space feels very much like a classroom, where you can see almost all candidates in a single view upon entry. The exhibition also upholds the integrity of its academic discussion on ‘action’ through the involved participation of the audience, an endearing nod to its location in an art college campus.

Singaporean artists Justin Loke and Yang Jie acknowledge this context in their commissioned work Decadent Teachers (2018):

A mind map drawn on a rather archaic- looking, but obviously recently made blackboard, links various nuggets of contemporary culture in Singapore to broader Asia. The other side of the blackboard has a half-erased chalk drawing resembling a Chinese literati painting – something like a natural landscape. The work brought to mind notions of academic ‘spoon-feeding’ and rote-learning. It seemed to exclude viewers from the ‘action,’ of arriving at truth or knowledge through their own independent intellectual engagement.

During my visit, I chanced upon an artist-friend and some others rubbing crayon against paper at Sutee Kunavichayanont’s installation History class (Indonesian version) (2016):

There are pieces in this show that attest to my personal sense of regional authenticity through their use of visual elements which are undeniably close to home, and Sutee’s work is a good example of this. The artist has created desks made of teak-wood, whose surfaces bear carved images of events partially censored from and inaccurately represented in, Indonesia’s official modern political history on the events of 1965-66.

You are invited to sit, rub the etching surface onto a sheet of paper using pencils or crayons, and keep your creation afterwards. A similar objective as Harsono’s is achieved; to engage audiences on a socially pertinent issue– in this case, national education. The aesthetic of the desks, just like the aesthetic of the fluorescent pink crackers, are quintessential indicators of their places of production. The crackers, for example, bring to mind dining experiences in Indonesia and Malaysia, being a ubiquitous presence at mealtimes, and Sutee’s desks recall temple rubbings commonly found at tourist spots in Cambodia and Thailand.

Consider the statement made by Lenzi during a  panel discussion at the Art and Action conference–

“Southeast Asian artists have shared the methodology of using local culture as a tool to critique their nation’s socio-cultural-political order in the past 4 decades.”

From a reading of the works in the room, the artists seemed to be interested in confronting the vagaries of power with a more layered toolbox than that of mere culture and tradition. Education, economics, tourism and socio-economic mobility are just some of the additional lenses through which we are invited to view the art of this region.

Manit Sriwanichpoom’s well-known photography works in the Horror in Pink series (2001) for example, address political violence and the everyday citizen’s implicit endorsement of it. Here, the artist’s iconic creation Pink Man is doctored into documentary photographs from 1973, 1976 and 1992 capturing different instances of state brutality in Thailand:

The Pink Man is a comfortable, even pleasantly engaged spectator – a blackly humorous statement by Manit on what indifference can look like. It is a prompt for us to re-examine how much each of us behaves just like the awful Pink Man in our capacity as disengaged, dollar-chasing citizens.

Harsono on weapons, Sutee on censorship and Manit on brutalities — these and other works in Moving Pledges push hot-topic political buttons. Should we place emphasis on them together as a unified link in Southeast Asian contemporary art? What are the repercussions of doing so, in respect of other possible themes?

To my mind, the biggest risk in ‘finding’ such commonalities is that we might end up reframing all the artists in the sphere as activists. Consider for example Rirkrit Tiravanija, a Thai artist who has lived and worked all over the world and whose practice largely deals with social engagement in common spaces. (Incidentally, Rirkrit will be in Singapore again for this S.E.A. Focus dining experience). Rirkrit’s commissioned bamboo maze untitled 2018 (the infinite dimensions of smallness) at the Ng Teng Fong Roof Garden at the National Gallery Singapore, was an exercise in relational aesthetics, a response to the idea of a publicly- accessible rooftop, through the creation of an intricate new space for the public to share:

A snapshot of the bamboo installation

Drawing on the notion of the Japanese tea ceremony, the installation featured performances by Japanese artist Mai Ueda and did not pitch itself as being any kind of overt social, political or cultural commentary:

Ueda conducting a tea ceremony within the bamboo maze

Born in Argentina with Thai ancestry, having lived and worked in places like New York and Berlin; it is difficult to slap firm socio-geographical labels on artists like Rirkrit.

This is of course not to say that ‘Southeast Asian’ shows should never be approached from a thematic perspective. Rather, I would simply caution against broad generalisations as artistic value can be lost and misread when we try to draw certain commentary from art that does not prompt us to do so.

Shows like Moving Pledges seem to prescribe to us a shared identity – one derived from phenomena like colonialism, economic shifts between agriculture and manufacturing, the rise of certain political ideologies and gender roles. To my mind, examinations of these phenomena served as promising starting points, but instead of leading to an exhaustive notion of a shared identity, they have instead prompted yet more questions about our region and the label of ‘Southeast Asian contemporary art.’


Moving Pledges: Art and Action in Southeast Asia can be viewed at the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, LASALLE College of the Arts till 23 January. 

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