When you think of television sets and videos, your favourite programmes and characters most likely come to mind. Whether it’s on-demand streaming or YouTube, the flashes of colour and variety of sounds take you through a whirlpool of emotions and evoke sentiments that you didn’t even realise existed.
But this experience—one now considered a “given” in most households and industries today—used to be a novelty. Now existing in the form of flattened rectangular screens and pocket-sized digital equipment, television and video had their beginnings in the shape of bulky boxes and cumbersome wind-up cameras. Their first-ever entry into the creation of artworks is a conversation that is still ongoing and perpetually shifting.
Intrigued by how this addition to art-making has affected us closer to home, I ventured to the See Me, See You: Early Video Installation of Southeast Asia exhibition at National Gallery Singapore (NGS)—where you get to be up close and personal with significant video works from Southeast Asia—in hopes of better understanding how all this came to be. I also spoke to some members of Kolektif, NGS’ youth outreach wing, to hear their perspectives.
Exhibiting Southeast Asian video art histories
A two-part exhibition, See Me, See You is one of the first retrospective surveys of early video installation artworks in Southeast Asia from the 1980s to 1990s. It features pioneering works in the new media art world by ten artists from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Singapore. Since not all of the original installations were preserved, with some undergoing technological and artistic changes since their initial creation, the curators at NGS recreated these artworks in hopes of providing visitors with the most accurate presentation of how they most likely appeared when first shown to the public. Most of the artworks are recreated using materials like cathode-ray tube televisions, projectors, lightbulbs, sound equipment, and steel.
Presented in 2024, the first part of See Me, See You featured artworks by Apinan Poshyananda, Baharudin Mohd Arus, Chng Nai Wee, Johnny Manahan, and Jean Marie Syjuco (who inspired the exhibition title). In Syjuco’s artwork Revenge of the Giraffe, a video camera filmed the happenings inside the gallery where her artwork was situated, and the live footage was played on a cathode-ray television set near the gallery’s main entrance.
In the second and final part of the exhibition, artworks by Ray Langenbach, Hasnul Saidon, Heri Dono, Krisna Murti, and Vincent Leow illuminate issues surrounding culture and politics in different Southeast Asian countries. Specifically, the installations by Saidon, Langenbach and Dono, which I will explore further in the rest of this story, give rise to new ways of perceiving and analysing art.
We also spoke to some members of Kolektif to find out more about how and why they became involved with the visitor outreach efforts for the second half of the exhibition. Through programmes like “The ____ (Blank) Project,” which accompanied See Me, See You, this youth volunteer group aims to empower youths aged between 17-25 to create meaningful connections between art and issues that are important to them. These insightful conversations helped us learn more about their individual perspectives on the artworks in the exhibition and their hopes for the future of Singapore’s art scene.
Three eye-catching and thought-provoking installations
When you enter the gallery, a large mandala-like circular cloth greets you. The work of Malaysian artist Hasnul Saidon, this ripple-resembling piece titled In The Precious Garden was first created in 1993 and was inspired by the birth of his daughter. The cotton fabric has words written in black ink on it, but the sentences do not elicit any logical conclusions upon first reading. The use of black and white colours are balanced appropriately with the auditory overlays of muffled song and prayers, which play from the cathode-ray television sets parked around the mandala.
Influenced by the texts of a philosopher and a mystic, the artwork invites visitors to draw their own meanings and conclusions. Visitors are encouraged to follow the trail of marked-out footprints around the artwork to read the sentences. Yet, the installation lacks a fixed pathway for the visitors to follow, empowering them to decide which visual features they would like to explore first. Giving visitors the option of deciding what to look at first pays homage to the rhizomatic nature of Saidon’s artwork. Viewing the artwork in this way creates a creative minefield for art enthusiasts but may also be too overwhelming to fully comprehend.
The thought-provoking piece initially was too abstract for 19-year-old Tricia Loh to appreciate. However, as the art history major started watching videos by Saidon and reading leaflets on this artwork, her liking towards it grew. The cyclical nature of the artwork’s “infinite circle” metaphorises the never-ending possibilities for what the artwork symbolises, as well as the questions which visitors may have for the work.
“The ____ (Blank) Project” included the “Garden of Discovery” activity which Ms Loh worked on . The former was inspired by Saidon’s artwork. During the activity, participants made their own paper “garden circle”. It included three tiers with text-prompts on each side and participants had to use their predictive text on their phones to answer the prompts. Despite her concerns of the artworks’ interpretability, youths and families and even some middle-aged individuals showed up with their friends and had insightful conversations about their online identities. Ms Loh said: “[The experience] was a reminder that art really can be for everyone.”
The next artwork which caught my attention was The Language Lesson by Ray Langenbach. At the front of the exhibition hall, two rattan mannequins with cathode-ray televisions positioned as their ‘heads’ faced each other. A back-and-forth interrogation ensued and questions were mechanically asked in Malay and American-accented English. In between the mannequins lay a miniature check print catwalk resembling an airport landing strip; adorned on both sides of the strip are lightbulbs with the Christian crucifix and Islamic crescent moon and star embossed into them. Every few minutes, the lights would flicker on and off, punching the air with loud clicks.
Uniquely combining American English and Malay, The Language Lesson encourages viewers to think more deeply about in-between spaces. Both languages are taken out of their natural habitats and coalesce into the common ground of the art gallery, bringing to mind ideas of cultural displacement and complex identities.
On the other hand, Heri Dono’s Hoping to Hear from You Soon centralises political strife and citizens’ collective turmoil during the era of President Suharto’s New Order regime in Indonesia. The work involves a projected video of two individuals eating at a warung (eatery) against a white tarp with painted words like “100% haram” (forbidden in Islamic law), “kura-kura ninja” (ninja turtle) and “sapi asli” (authentic cow), along with images of cow body parts, jamu drink, and other animals. These words and images speak to the socio-cultural customs and contexts of the time when the installation was made.
Hoping to Hear from You Soon was not reinstalled by the curators, but rather belongs to Dono’s personal collection of artworks. Accompanied by an ambience of everyday sounds and indistinct chatter like what one would hear at a warung, it evokes a hard-hitting sense of loss and surveillance for viewers, whether or not they have personally experienced the socio-political tensions of President Suharto’s New Order regime. An urgent sense of “being watched” never seems to leave, embedding itself under viewers’ skin.
This was Ms Jessica Wu’s favourite artwork at the exhibition. The 20-year-old student said: “Having visited the city and knowing the cultural contexts of this work a bit better really helped me connect with it. Since our programme was partially centred around open conversations, the themes represented by this artwork provided quite a bit of inspiration.” In the early stages of planning the related programme under Kolektif, she and her team considered having “conversation tents” for participants to enter and chat with others.
Moving forward: Exploring the changing definition of new media artworks
The marriage between technological and traditional art mediums in See Me, See You encouraged me to think more deeply about the process of art-making and technology’s place in it. One question I was interested in was whether technology, be it video cameras or even artificial intelligence, could undercut the humanistic aspects of creating art. The idea of defying conventional artistic mediums of painting and sculpture filled me with great excitement. I could only imagine how pertinent social and cultural issues could be expressed in future new media installations. Yet, I also felt an inkling of trepidation as to whether the authenticity of the delicate, tedious art-making process would be diluted. Would technology replace the artist’s struggle to make art that truly speaks to the soul?
I explored these ideas during my conversations with some of the Kolektif youth members. These conversations revealed that every individual has a different way of navigating the way that new media artworks are being created and redefined for mass consumption.
When asked about her views regarding technology’s impact on art, 21-year-old Kolektif member Ari Tan said: “Art is a human thing to me. I think stuff like AI could potentially maybe aid art and creativity, but it should really remain a stepping stone to creating a piece of art.”
Meanwhile, Loh expressed that artists are doing what they can to embrace change and make sense of all the technological and non-technological factors influencing Singapore’s artistic landscape. “(New media) is anything that attempts to reshape a traditional mode of presentation,” she said. “Once technology is involved (with art-making), it becomes this novel concept and the whole exhibition is surrounded by that.”
As for the future of new media art in Singapore and Southeast Asia, Ms Wu had this to say: “I would really love to see artworks that rely really heavily on technology but that are also reflexive about the nature and usage of the same technology! The technological age (and) youths being tech-natives seems like an exciting and provocative theme that I think we can explore reflexively, especially since technology is so prevalent in our lives and we’re more likely to find these materials and topics familiar to us.”
Concerns over whether to incorporate technology or stick to traditional mediums are shared by many artists. After visiting See Me, See You, I feel that both technology and tradition must be embraced in order to delve into new terrains of what art is and can be. While technology has made certain aspects of art-making much more convenient, it does not necessarily make the art itself “better.” The visual commentary of an artwork should be enhanced by technology but not overshadowed by it.
See Me, See You reveals the interdisciplinary diversity of the still-expanding genre of new media art, which is full of both visual beauty and subtle socio-cultural and political critique. Yet, I also came away with a sense of ambivalence about art and technology. With the rest of the world becoming more hyper-technological, it’s important that artists are not left behind.
See Me, See You: Early Video Installation of Southeast Asia (Part Two) runs until 4 February 2024 at National Gallery Singapore. Click here to learn more.
Header image: Hasnul Saidon, In the Precious Garden (1993, recreated 2023), mixed-media installation and video. All images courtesy of the author.