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“As We Were”: Reflections on Loss in Contemporary Southeast Asian Art

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Exhibitions of contemporary art in Singapore seem to have taken something of a literary turn: Objectifs Centre for Photography and Film’s recently-opened With You Here Between: Defamiliarizations takes its cue from a poem by the Sufi mystic Rumi, while the title of Time Passes, guest-curated by Samantha Yap at the National Gallery Singapore earlier this year, was a nod to Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse. In this strange new age of enforced isolation, the need to pause and to reflect (which we’d perhaps associate more closely with the solitary act of reading than with gallery-going), seems more pertinent than ever.

As We Were is no exception to this wave of contemplative introspection. Curated and organised by SEED the Art Space, the exhibition takes its title from Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, which recounts the author’s experiences of grief in the year following her husband’s death. The exhibition features 46 artworks from 8 Southeast Asian countries, all drawn from the prolific collection of husband-and-wife duo Michelangelo and Lourdes Samson. Together with Ivy Lam and Connie Wong, Lourdes is also one of the co- founders of SEED. 

Exhibition view of As We Were. In the foreground is Kawayan de Guia’s Trojan Horse (2011).

During my visit, SEED explained how the exhibition began as a small private show slated for 2020, the year the Samsons turned 50. The joint birthday celebration was cancelled, however, with the onset of pandemic restrictions. Lourdes also lost her mother during this period, and was unable to return to the Philippines to see her for the last time. Her experiences of grief and loss prompted a rethinking of the exhibition’s initial celebratory premise, inflecting it with an elegiac tone and turning it into a milestone event of a slightly different sort: a commemoration of time’s passage and the inevitability of change.  

A diverse range of works spanning painting, sculpture, installation, photography and video art were selected and grouped according to three broad categories: spirituality, the environment, and socio-political engagement. Framed through the prism of loss, these seemingly disparate works compose a thoughtful elegy to our shared experience of mortality. Walking through the exhibition brings viewers up close with death in its various forms — death, as experienced on an individual or communal level, death in the destruction of natural habitats, and the death of a nation’s “spirit” under iron-fisted rule. Each “zone” of the open-plan exhibition hall brings together works identifiable with either one of the three categories. 

Spiritual reflections on mortality 

Uttaporn Nimmalaikeaw, Buddhist Saint of Children (2014), mixed media.

Towards the right of the hall, several delicate sculptural installations evoke the ephemerality of life, creating a meditative atmosphere suggestive of spiritual transcendence. Uttaporn Nimmalaikeaw’s Buddhist Saint of Children (2014) is a sensitive three-dimensional portrait of the artist’s mother painted, in photographic detail, on several layers of gauzy, gossamer black fabric, and suspended over a wooden dais gilded in red and gold — the traditional colours of a Thai temple. 

Sopheap Pich, Figure (2010), rattan, burlap, pigment and water-based paint.

One of Sopheap Pich’s iconic rattan-and-burlap Buddhas, Figure (2010), hangs close by, the lower “unfinished” half of its torso dissolving into curling strands of rattan. The exhibition catalogue frames this interplay of form and formlessness as an expression of “letting go”, and as a reflection of the immaterial states of being that Buddhist philosophy aspires towards. 

Suzann Victor, Belief (2017), crushed stained glass.

Allusions to Christian iconography surface too in Suzann Victor’s Belief (2017). Encrusted with crushed stained glass in shades of sapphire blue and turquoise, Belief is an anatomical sculpture of a heart replete with serpentine arteries, and an invitation to relook at how art and architecture point to the divine. 

In these works, bodies are both dematerialised and then reconstructed: consider Victor’s process of pulverising glass and then painstakingly reassembling it to form a heart, a vital organ and the symbolic seat of the soul. Or Uttaporn’s technique of fragmenting his mother’s image so that it hovers tentatively, appearing as a whole only when viewed from specific angles. As with many others in the show, the theme of memento mori threads through these works, tying them in with the curatorial focus on reflection and loss. 

A socio-political turn

Norberto Roldan, First Lady (2012), acrylic and oil on canvas.

 

Manit Sriwanichpoom, 5 Generals Who Return Happiness to People (2014), archival pigment print on archival paper, diasec.

 

Natee Utarit, Blue King (2008), oil on canvas.

At the other end of the main exhibition hall, historical and socio-political themes find resonance in an interactive “classroom” installation, in photographs retouched via analogue processes, and in paintings of iconic political figures. First Lady (2012), Noberto Roldan’s monumental oil-on-canvas, juxtaposes a literary passage evoking the poverty of urban slums against a simplified, black-and-white image of Imelda Marcos glistening with film-noir glamour. In 5 Generals Who Return Happiness to People (2014), Manit Sriwanichpoom, perhaps better known as the artist behind Pink Man, presents five pixelated, closely-cropped, “beheaded” photographs of the Thai military junta, while Natee Utarit sets a statuesque, melancholy blue image of the Thai monarch against a solitary black background in Blue King (2008). The question that they raise — how might manufactured cultural images mediate our encounters with national figures, bestowing on them an aura of celebrity? — align these works somewhat with 1960s American Pop Art

Environmental concerns

Lim Sokchanlina, Rising Tonle Sap #1 and Rising Tonle Sap #4 (2012), inkjet print on fine art paper.

Nature’s death — climate change, environmental degradation, and pollution — emerges as another focal point in As We Were. In Rising Tonle Sap #1 and Rising Tonle Sap #4, artist Lim Sokchanlina transported large blocks of industrial ice to the Tonle Sap River and Tonle Sap Lake, and photographed them melting, highlighting the impact of rising sea levels on coastal communities and ecosystems. 

Connecting the dots 

Although the three themes — spirituality, socio-politics, and the environment — offer useful entry-points into this selection of conceptually and technically sophisticated works, the curators were also careful to avoid setting up rigid or definitive categories. The overall openness of the main exhibition hall allow the works to speak to one another, while a smaller gallery space closer to the entrance and the works around it propose overlaps between the themes.

Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan’s Last Flight (2009), a colourful pair of angel wings assembled out of tattered slippers, is a visually impressive, larger-than-life sculpture which was born out of a long-term collaborative project between the husband-and-wife artist duo and residents of Barangay Uno, a small fishing village in the Philippines. With discarded rubber slippers collected from debris along the village’s shores, the work directly addresses sea pollution. At the same time, the vast accumulation of these inexpensive, expendable, but nonetheless essential articles of clothing perhaps points to how consumerism and poverty reign in equal measure in both cities and their outskirts today. Notions of death and loss — environmental, social and personal — are in turn set against the optimism that angel wings carry, as a symbol of salvation or protection. The work’s somewhat enigmatic title draws in yet another layer of meaning: the idea of migration as a form of escape or deliverance. Yet, this promise of hope is complicated by the brokenness and visual weight of the dirty slipper-wings. 

Charles Lim, SEA State 2: Drift (Stay Still to Move) (2012), single-channel video.

 

Amelia Yuliana, Only a Traveller (2020), 5-channel video.

 

Martha Atienza, Our Islands 11°16’58.4”N 123°45’07.0”E (2017), single channel HD video, no audio.

In the adjacent gallery, video installations by Charles Lim, Amelia Yuliana and Martha Atienza weave together a dream-like, meditative atmosphere, bathing the room in blue light and filling it with the distant lull of waves lapping against the shore. Repetition, ritual, and the all-embracing expansiveness of nature are common motifs in these works, affording a sort of antidote to the experience of loss that grounds much of the show. Atienza’s large, aquarium-like video installation, Our Islands 11°16’58.4”N 123°45’07.0”E (2017), spans the lower length of the room. Across two large television screens, figures in diving masks traipse in slow-motion, over the tropical seabed, mutely and solemnly enacting either a pantomime or a religious procession. Dressed alternately in vaguely historical costumes and contemporary attire, these figures carry suitcases, rifles, boxing gloves, and a life-sized crucifix, forming an absurd, surreal collage of Philippine culture and society.

Our Islands alludes to ideas of violence and conflict amid the seemingly peaceful but environmentally-damaged waters around Bantayan Island and the municipality of Madridejos, where the artist herself lives. Atienza addresses the problems that the fishing community has faced due to poverty, environmental change, and the long absence of family members at sea. While grounded in local concerns, the work arguably addresses common issues shared across island communities everywhere.

As We Were is, on the whole, a wonderfully orchestrated tribute to loss, one that looks change in the eye and acknowledges the impact of the past, as much as it tries to negotiate ways of living in an uncertain present. A passage from The Year of Magical Thinking, quoted in the exhibition text, sensitively captures the tenor of this significant show of Southeast Asian art: 

We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mount our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all. 

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The exhibition will run until 17 October, and is well-worth the journey down to ArtSpace@HeluTrans, 39 Keppel Road. It opens 1:00pm – 7:00pm, from Tuesday to Sunday. Be sure to schedule your visit via https://seedartspace.com/exhibitions/as-we-were/

All works are from the Michelangelo and Lourdes Samson Collection, and all images are courtesy of SEED the Art Space.

 

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