You and I, We’ve Never Been So Far Apart: Works from Asia Program 1
Positioning Asia, in particular Southeast Asia, beyond geographical borders, is more often than not a self-conscious exercise in constituting a unified field of practice characterised by commonalities that are held in opposition to a similarly constituted ‘other‘ – the ‘west’, or the rest of Asia (such as China, Japan, Korea and India for instance), that has as its purpose, the marking of difference. Given the sense of peripherality that Southeast Asia is associated with, culturally and economically, an obliging exoticism is generally seen as the least painful of routes. However, nonspecific differences bracketed into an imaginary category of ‘Asian-ness’ of the region, implies a fundamental unity that is simultaneously made contradictory with assertions of the cultural specificity of each nation state, where both the shared and distinguishable are if not non-existent at the level of its individuals and member states, are at least deeply problematic. Yet that is not to say the regional and nation state paradigms and narratives are not useful and efficacious in navigating within a global setting such as an international exhibition that expects it. It is thus with a certain disquiet that a few recent video works have been selected, less for their representativeness, and more for their ambiguous and inflected modes of expression within their own contexts. Nevertheless, such an undertaking is not without potential conflict of its own, as a selection is made of video artworks by artists who live and work in this ‘region’, with little effort given to expanding the category (as it would not challenge the form of mapping) – with an artist each from Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, and it is likely that casual readings will inevitably slip into formulations of ‘nation’ and ‘Asia’. While appearing to acquiesce to, and perhaps unable to escape from, this familiar mapping, an attempt is made to complicate a predictable conclusion: not all nation states of Southeast Asia are included; a couple – Vietnam and Myanmar, are deliberately privileged given their relatively less prominent cultural and economic visibility; the work of the Japanese artist is by virtue of collaboration with the Vietnamese artist; and Hong Kong, as a Special Administrative Region of China, is not of the Southeast region, yet it has a certain affinity with other parts of Southeast Asia given its colonial past. The desire for juxtaposing these artworks thus is to allow for other readings to emerge, to create a condition for reading, and not the reading itself.
In a witty re-staging of a previous work The River of Ink (2008) at The Future of Exhibition: It Feels Like I’ve Been Here Before presented at the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, July 2010, Shubigi Rao’s de-gendered and de-ethicised alter-ego, S. Raoul, is killed in a most banal fashion – “In what appears to be a tragic accident, S. Raoul tripped and broke his neck while attempting to negotiate space in a cultural context. The obstacle responsible for the fall is believed to be a collection of artefacts, survivors of violent acts of cultural genocide, collectively fished out of the River of Ink (also known as the Dustbins of History).” Rao’s pithy summary of the mortal dangers of immutable cultural contexts highlights the perennial problem citing ‘Asia’ as teleological defence for presentation, if not its explanation. The question that needs to be asked is therefore less ‘what are artists doing’ in Asia, but ‘what else are artists doing?’ Ambiguous manifestations of cultural context, a burden alleviated by increasing reflexivity (a burden curatorial texts have a tendency to exacerbate), mark the video artworks selected. Deliberately loose, curatorially speaking, these artworks play on notions of distance, separation and proximity of assumed cultural contexts, in an attempt to produce aesthetics of dialogue, of shared yet individual subjectivity, exchange and influence.
Broadly, and briefly, the curatorial intent is for the selected video works to present as a whole a less trenchant view of the artists’ national and regional contexts than they could be made to seem to have, thus allowing the works to demonstrate with subtlety, sensitivity and humour, the true condition of the artists’ practice. Another conscious deliberation was for the video artworks to have a certain purposive employment of sound, music or ambient noise, though more to create an audience experience that would be highly sensitive to non-visual suggestion. In terms of subject, a few loose themes emerge, a sense of space (and time) in Hayati Moktar’s Penawar’s unhurried and muted observation of the clearing and closure of a family estate in Penang, that stirs with its sense of loss and longing. The home of multiple generations that has been the setting for family weddings, parties and social gatherings which various prominent public figures of the time attended, in Moktar’s hands, seems almost impossible to be emptied out; and Universe Just a Fathom by Tin Win Aung and Wah Nu, a reflection on Buddhist ontology that is inspired by invasive medical technologies, creates a compelling journey that escapes its simple visual aesthetic. Likewise, the collaboration of Japanese artist Takayuki Yamamoto and Vietnamese artist Hoang Duong Cam, On Each Milestone, fuses a fictional quest for an unspecified object with documentary research on an ethnic group, the Raglai of the Kingdom of Aman, now part of Vietnam, focusing on a Raglai musician’s performance not only of Raglai’s tradition tunes but also popular international tunes at a naturally preserved park.
Two video artworks explore notions of influence, drawing attention to the assimilation of cultures rather than resistance: Ho Tzu Nyen’s EARTH (((radio))) borrows from French post-Revolution aesthetics while sampling music popularised by the expanding American music culture and industry in the 80s and 90s, its far-reaching effects felt by his generation growing-up in Singapore; and Thai artist Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s The Two Planets series presents conversations and observations of Thai villagers encountering paintings by Jean-François Millet, Vincent Van Gogh and Édouard Manet, with the villagers themselves the subject of Rasdjarmrearnsook’s own monumentalization of rural folk.
Finally, on a lighter note but still on the topic of the blending of cultures, methods and imagination are Kwan Sheung Chi’s doing it with Chi… making an Exit Bag that caricaturises instructional home television programs popularised by global media with a more dire recipe; and Indonesian collective Tromarama’s Happy Hour, reminiscent of children’s fiction where objects come to life, depicts money on holiday, cheerfully forgetting their other more solemn role. While the banknotes are Indonesian, the tune they sing to is traceable to other historical and cultural trade and influence, that illustrates how economies in Southeast Asia are dependent on larger more powerful markets.
The selection of video works by these artists collectively defy reductive and simplified evaluation, and it is hoped that as the title suggests, beyond stock cultural characterizations and bland universals, different readings will surface that then serve to indicate that cliché differences and similarities aside, the distance between audience and artist (and between artists) isn’t so far, and perhaps did not require the artifice of mediation, of nation and Asian-ness, after all.
Curated by June Yap
Independent curator and write based in Singapore, previously with the Singapore Art Museum and the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore. Her curatorial work and research focuses on contemporary art practices in Asia.
 In Passing: Visionary Felled by Tragic Misstep – Tragic death of Author, Thinker and Inventor S. Raoul allegedly caused by tripping over cultural artefact, Time Machine takes you to September 2006, Shubigi Rao “No Cover no Color” (2006) and “The River of Ink” (2008).
**This curatorial was taken from here.