Rev/Action

Contemporary Southeast Asian Art at Sundaram Tagore Gallery, Manhattan, USA

28 OCTOBER 2015,
Untitled (Siam Republic flag)
Untitled (Siam Republic flag)

There would seem to be two forces that will often tug on an artist from opposite directions. There is the need for inner exploration of the conflicts and possibilities inherent in individual humane development, and there is the tug from the world outside which is filled with corruption, racism, injustice, intolerance, violence and unresolved issues from the historical past. President Obama promised a pivot away from Europe and toward Asia during his presidency since Asia had been sorely neglected by past administrations, and Sundaram Tagore Gallery pivots nicely toward Southeast Asia in its current and very significant show, toward an area of the art world that has been sorely neglected in our neck of the woods. This show focuses on the tug from the outside world and history on Southeast Asian artists as we see artists who seem to feel that their social conditions are of such pressing concerns that the political has to trump the personal, although the show also demonstrates personal development, engagement and commitment as a means to gain greater peace and justice.

If one were interested in finding a contemporary example of what Orwell called ‘doublethink’, the concept of ‘democratic reform’ as embodied in Thailand’s People’s Democratic Reform Committee might fit the bill. Democratic reform? Sounds nice. You might think it means making it easier for the will of a majority of the people in a given society to be enacted. In Thailand, however, it seems to mean that the last five democractically elected governments were not able to complete their terms and a military junta now rules the country. Oh, please don’t forget the kangaroo court that seems to be persecuting the last fairly elected PM, Yingluck Shinawatra, and please, please, please don’t forget the numerous innocent young people who have been thrown in jail for expressing their displeasure over aspects of the Thai system. Oh, that type of democratic reform!

By the way, these sentiments about the Thai junta are mine, exclusively, and do not necessarily reflect anyone else’s opinions, except maybe the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights who pointed out: “In Thailand, which was once a force for democracy in the ASEAN context, the military authorities continue to silence opposition under martial law. More than 1,000 people have been summoned or detained since the May 2014 coup, and many of them brought before military courts.”

Montri Toemsombat seems to reference Thailand’s love/hate relationship with democracy in some of his Black Granite pieces. Among the images you see here is one piece echoing a sign once carried by a protester stating that Thailand’s system of democracy needs to be shaken well before using. Black granite was apparently chosen because it is often the type of material used for tombstones and I’m guessing the gold lettering represents a gilding process, where anything of any quality can be covered with gold to look like gold, while not even approximating gold. To me it represents the legitimizing process used by the junta to destroy democracy and establish the type of government they, and not a majority of the people, want to see.

Mit Jai Inn, another Thai artist in this amazing show, has created pieces resembling bolts of fabric. The current Thai flag is comprised of three colors: white for the purity of Buddhism, blue for the monarchy and red for the people. In the bolts of cloth represented in the current show, however, the color blue has changed to green, representing the military. Indeed, many political observers have pointed out the close relationship between the military and the monarchy and there seems to be an effective feedback loop between them so that they both seem to claim legitimacy from each other and both seem to help ensure the other’s existence. The change to the color green in the flag, to me, indicates that if the Thai military is going to destroy democracy and impose its will on the people, they should take official credit for this feat.

Albert Yonathan Setyawan is an Indonesian artist who created terra cotta stupas on white marble sand in the form of a mandala. Stupas have a long history and the Buddha, himself, requested that his remains be placed in a stupa at a crossroads to remind people of the possibility of awakening and enlightenment. Stupas can also hold the relics of Buddhist monks and nuns and are places of reflection. This could be a work of intense process art requiring immense self-discipline and resolve, yet there could be some political meaning as the curator Loredana Pazzini-Paracciani points out, in her notes to the show, this type of stupa arrangement also reflects a type of arrangement of villages and small towns that existed before Indonesia was forced through external pressures to develop economically. I believe the artist could also be making a statement concerning religious toleration as less than 1% of Indonesia’s population is Buddhist and, although Indonesia used to be known as a place where religious toleration flourished, Human Rights Watch has recently pointed out that Sunni Muslim militants have recently been harassing other religious groups and even threatened to blow up the Borobudur religious complex. Apparently, the government has responded to this threat to religious toleration inconsistently.

Norberto Roldan is an artist in the Philippines who addresses issues of colonization and identity. You may not know that Islam arrived in the Philippines well before Magellan arrived with Christianity from Spain in the late 1500s. Islam first reached the Philippines in the 1300s through traders from Malaysia and Indonesia. The native inhabitants of the Philippines were apparently initially converted to Islam and conflict between Muslims and Spanish Christians lasted into the 1800s, before Spain finally gained ascendency and Filipinos converted en masse to Christianity. When the US took over the Philippines, it too fought Muslim resistance. Perhaps Roldan’s work points to how Philippine history and culture was forever altered as it served as a battle ground between warring religious ideologies and states. What is or might be left of indigenous Filipino thought, religion or culture? How has the character of the Filipino people been affected by the abuses to which they have been subjected over the generations? In the piece pictured in this review we see a Muslim carpet over which are placed crosses of wood and neon. The wooden crosses were salvaged from the homes of common people, representing their acceptance of the religion, while the neon crosses might represent the colonizing ideology and force of the cross in general.

Kim Hak is a Cambodian artist who presents photos of common items that are the basis of survival stories from the time of the Khmer Rouge. For instance, the pot shown with chicken feet has been in his family since the 70s and was involved in the story of how his mother was once forced to steal a chicken to feed his ailing father, but also how the father became so terrified by her act that he could not eat the chicken.

Muhammad “UCUP” Yusuf uses woodblock prints as part of his art-based protests (woodblock prints have traditionally served as a means to spread revolutionary or socially critical art). Chief among his concerns are land expropriation and illegal development where Indonesia is seeing, apparently, infrastructure development at the cost of rural communities. Through his art he champions the cause of the rural inhabitants of Indonesia who face the pressures of modernization and development.

Tran Luong is a Vietnamese artist who is represented with a video piece involving a red scarf. This video ‘Blink’ was inspired by a performance piece in which he allowed the wind to continually whip him with a red scarf until his body began to display little red welts. As this occurs, his body is contrasted with a background of a placid blue sky. The piece seems to be about the potentially negative effect of ideology and attempts to force change from without instead of fostering greater and more humane inner development among a people. Leang Seckon was born in the year that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger decided to secretly bomb Cambodia (1970). He, consequently, lived through the civil war in which Nixon attempted to engage in regime change and then the Khmer terror that resulted as a counter-force to Nixon. We often see a blending of traditional Cambodian religious iconography and images of war showing that Cambodia has struggled for an identity divorced from its role in ideological ‘sideshows’. The piece called Bomb God seems to reference how both sides of the civil war tried to tap into Cambodian history and tradition as justifications for military force and inhuman actions.

Nge Lay and her husband Aung Ko present a video and piece of sculpture which seem to question the direction of Burma under the current military junta. Burma has long been one of the richest of Asian countries in terms of natural resources, with the poorest people in the world. It seems to me that the current reforms by the junta are smoke and mirrors to draw international investment and further line the pockets of the military. Lay’s video is of the Irrawaddy River – Burma’s longest river. The notes to the show say that the waves and color represent the people’s memory while shadows are Burma’s history. A sculpture of a British colonial steamboat is presented in conjunction to the video by Nge Lay’s husband, Aung Ko. To me this signifies that Burma has gone from bad to worse and desperately needs to reclaim its autonomy from foreign powers – when the British colonized the country, at least the steamboat and its commerce were relatively benign. Now the junta is teaming up with China to potentially damn portions of the river, which will flood villages and displace rural inhabitants.