Art and liberation: Indonesia’s Semsar Siahaan – artist profile

The late artist, known for humanitarian overtures in his work, has a solo show of his oeuvre at Gajah Gallery in Singapore.

Art Radar looks at the artist and the legacy that he has left behind.

GG-Semsar Siahaan (urgent)-9

“Semsar Siahaan: Art, Liberation”, 2 – 19 November 2017, installation view at Gajah Gallery Singapore. Image courtesy Gajah Gallery.

When Semsar Siahaan departed Indonesia in 1998, the situation was dire for him and many others. Against the backdrop of the New Order regime, Siahaan and many of Indonesia’s critical intelligentsia fled for their lives, fearing persecution. Siahaan’s next stop was Canada, where he resided in Victoria for a number of years. Continuing to make, exhibit and develop his art practice, Siahaan’s work centred on a humanist approach; his artworks often address issues and hard questions that confront man. Today, 28 of Semsar Siahaan’s works are displayed at Gajah Gallery in the exhibition “Art, Liberation”, spanning works from two critical decades of his life: 1984 to 2004.

Semsar Siahaan’s art emerged out of a dissatisfaction with the New Order and the role that it had designated art in Indonesian society. By the 1960s, the New Order and its authoritative leanings showed extreme preference to decorative, abstract art, clamping down on art seen as overtly political. Yet, as the New Order dragged on, the legitimacy of the regime wore down; incidents such as the 1965 massacres, with the attendant civil unrest, confusion and terror that it generated took a toll.

Semsar Siahaan, 'Timur Rumit', 1987-1990, Oil on Canvas, 100 x 75cm. Image courtesy the artist and Gajah Gallery.

Semsar Siahaan, ‘Timur Rumit’, 1987-1990, oil on canvas, 100 x 75 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Gajah Gallery.

In 1977 Siahaan returned from San Francisco, where he had pursued a formal art education at the San Francisco Art Institute. Returning to Indonesia, Siahaan was confronted with the self-serving, anti-political bent that art had, and how removed it was from the lived experiences of the Indonesian. He had enrolled at the Faculty of Arts and Design at the Bandung Institute of Arts; however, to him, something was wrong with the state of the arts in Indonesia.

In 1981, Siahaan set fire to a sculpture made by one of his teachers, Sunaryo. Burning the sculpture, and then wrapping it in banana leaves and serving it with yellow rice, Sunaryo coined the phrase “the art of the incident”. He was subsequently suspended from school. By the mid-1980s, Siahaan was involved as a founding member of a handful of social organisations that aimed at protesting the injustices of the New Order. In 1988, however, Siahaan was awarded a solo exhibition at the Jakarta Art Centre. The exhibition was a banner for progressive thought in fine art. Championing human rights, political reform and an openness to freedom of expression, Siahaan’s works were included in an exhibition called “Liberation Art”, which subsequently toured four Indonesian cities.

"Semsar Siahaan: Art, Liberation", 2 - 19 November 2017, installation view at Gajah Gallery Singapore. Image courtesy Gajah Gallery.

“Semsar Siahaan: Art, Liberation”, 2 – 19 November 2017, installation view at Gajah Gallery Singapore. Image courtesy Gajah Gallery.

“Art, Liberation” carries many of the themes that have accompanied Siahaan throughout his whole life. One of the key pieces of the exhibition is Siahaan’s appropriation of Manet’s Olympia (1863). Depicting a blonde-haired, pink-cheeked Olympia spread out on a couch, Siahaan’s Olympia is a parody of the Western tourist stereotype, with sunglasses perched on her nose, pearl necklace and tropical coconut beside her. As scores of Indonesian figures crowd around the outstretched Olympia, Siahaan’s work becomes a scathing critique of Indonesia’s oft-subservient relationship with Western capitalism and its mores. Using a key work in the Western art canon, Siahaan’s work turns the lens back upon the West and their influence upon the rest of the world.

Semsar Siahaan, 'Olympia Identity with Mother and Child',1987, oil on canvas, 140.5 x 290cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Gajah Gallery

Semsar Siahaan, ‘Olympia Identity with Mother and Child’,1987, oil on canvas, 140.5 x 290 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Gajah Gallery.

In the same vein, G8 Pizza and the Study of the Falling Man (2003) remarks on the role of the G8 as an association. Depicting the coalition of eight of the world’s leading economies in a segmented eight-part mixed media installation, Siahaan’s suspicion of the G8 leaders is markedly obvious as the faces of the G8 leaders loom large in the work, with varying degrees of greed, anger and cruelty reflected in their expressions. Arranged around a table surrounded by unknown, unnamed spectators, G8 Pizza and the Study of the Falling Man can be read as a critique of the rifts and divisions that the G8 create across the world, as well as their attitude towards the so-called peripheral economies. Created using found cardboard, Siahaan created G8 Pizza during his years in Canada.

Semsar Siahaan, 'G-8 Pizza and The Study of The Falling Man', 2003, Charcoal on Used Cardboard, 400 x 400 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Gajah Gallery

Semsar Siahaan, ‘G-8 Pizza and The Study of The Falling Man’, 2003, charcoal on used cardboard, 400 x 400 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Gajah Gallery

Blinded by UN (2003), a work rendered on a used shoebox, is also another work that makes a pointed remark at the international world body. Drawn using tones of brown and green, the guns, outstretched hands, and naked palms evoke a sense of violence mixed with desperation. A burning critique of the effectiveness of the UN, the work brings to mind the multitudes of UN interventions that turned sour since its founding. The brutality in Siahaan’s work is hard to escape, as the barrel of a gun fills the whole of the bottom right corner of the shoebox, almost as if on the attack.

Semsar Siahaan, 'Blinded by UN', 2003, Charcoal on used showbox, 83.5 x 130.5 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Gajah Gallery

Semsar Siahaan, ‘Blinded by UN’, 2003, charcoal on used shoebox, 83.5 x 130.5 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Gajah Gallery

With such a scathing ouevre of works behind him, Siahaan’s legacy has been one of honest political critique expressed through art. Targeting injustice in his work, Siahaan has, today, become acknowledged as an essential part of Indonesian art history, closely associated with the progressive art movement that emerged in the 1970s and that reacted against the perceived lack of freedom of expression. By 1998, Siahaan had departed for Canada in the wake of political crisis, racial unrest and persecution against the intelligentsia. With activists, poets and students shot dead, kidnapped and otherwise hurt, Siahaan left the country.

Semsar Siahaan, 'Villa Indah', 1984, Oil on Canvas, 141 x 141cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Gajah Gallery.

Semsar Siahaan, ‘Villa Indah’, 1984, oil on canvas, 141 x 141 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Gajah Gallery.

Siahaan continued to exhibit and produce works in Victoria until his return to Indonesia many years later; this time, however, he returned in a mood of retirement. In 2005 he passed away in his home in Bali, Indonesia. His works continue to express the context and sentiments that roiled in his homeland in the late 20th century. Evoking the confusion and sense of injustice that pervaded the nation, Siahaan’s works became important markers of a unique political situation in young contemporary Southeast Asia.

Junni Chen

1956

Related topics: Indonesian artists, pop art, paintinggallery shows, events in Singapore

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Art jobs and opportunities | Three Shadows Photography Art Centre, The Culture Initiative, Brooklyn Museum… and more

Looking for new career options in the arts? Art Radar Opportunities is an archive of openings in the visual art world. 

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JOB | Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia | Head of Arts and Creative Industries | The British Council in Malaysia – 3 December 2017

The British Council in Malaysia is seeking a Head of Arts and Creative Industries to play a leadership role in arts and partnership work in Malaysia. Responsibilities include organisational and cross-institutional programming, designing and delivering cultural strategy, leveraging and creating partnerships with art institutions, government, donors and corporates. The full-time permanent position requires excellent written and oral communication skills in English and Bahasa Malaysia. MORE HERE

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OPEN CALL | European and Central Asia | Call for Applications | The Culture Initiative – 5 December 2017

Funded by AFEW International, The Culture Initiative is an art fund as part of the 22nd International AIDS conference 2018 programming in Amsterdam. The Initiative is calling visual and performing artists from Eastern European and Central Asian Countries (EECA) to apply for its artist residencies in Amsterdam to create work reflecting on HIV/AIDS and related topics in relation to the “The West and the East” global social and political context. Five artists will be selected and will conduct their residencies in the lead up to the conference taking place from 23 to 27 July 2018. There will be three long-term residencies (2-3 months between May and August 2018) and two short-term residencies (1-2 weeks between 13 and 27 July 2018) during the conference period. MORE HERE

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OPEN CALL | Santa Maria da Feira, Portugal | Call for Performance Artists | Imaginarius: International Street Theater Festival of Santa Maria da Feira – 31 December 2017

The Imaginarious Festival is Portugal’s leading arts and cultural event dedicated to performance art in the street. The Festival’s 2018 Mais Imaginarius programme is now calling national and international artists to submit project proposals addressing and activating the city’s streetscape. Applicants must be available for performance on 24, 25 and 26 May 2018 from local time 2 pm to 2 am next day. There will be funding available for both national and international travel and accommodation in Santa Maria de Feira for a limited stay. MORE HERE

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JOB | New York | Consulting Curator, African Art | Brooklyn Museum – apply by unspecified

The Brooklyn Museum is recruiting a part-time Consulting Curator specialising in African Art. The Curator will develop and deliver a new installation plan for the Museum’s rich African art collection. The ideal candidate will have a PhD in African art or anthropology and a minimum of three years of museum experience. Key responsibilities include collection research, curatorial initiation and collaboration, liaising with the Conservation team and public programme advocacy. MORE HERE

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OPEN CALL | Beijing | Call for Application | Three Shadows Photography Art Centre – apply by unspecified

Three Shadows Photography Art Centre is the leading art space in China dedicated to photography upon its founding. The Art Centre’s Artist-in-Residency programme is offering AIR Studios to photographers available from March to November 2018. Residents are encouraged to design a unique programme during their stay – e.g. new commissions, collaborating with other artists in Beijing or teaching workshops in the area. Although the AIR programme is primarily tailored to photographers, Three Shadows may also consider specific submissions from artists working in other media, researchers and curators interested in living and working in China. Apply or email inquiries to qiyan@threeshadows.cn MORE HERE

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OPEN CALL | Hong Kong | Call for Proposals | Asia Art Archive (AAA) – 26 November 2017

AAA is calling proposals for The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Greater China Research Grant, which offers one-year fellowships to up to three individuals to study AAA’s Collection and develop historical research projects contingent to contemporary art in the Greater China region including Mainland China, Taiwan, Macau and Hong Kong. Eligible applicants are postgraduates and pre-doctoral fellows with a research focus on contemporary art or Greater China studies, and independent scholars and writers with trackable research and publication records. The top grantee will receive USD15,000, which should be able to cover residency, travelling and project development and production. The selected projects will begin in March 2018 and complete by March 2019. MORE HERE

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OPEN CALL | Global | Call for Proposals | Center Stage Korea 2018 – 30 November 2017

Korea Arts Management Service is offering grants to international initiatives (venues, festival organisers, networks) that deliver projects with Korean artists and is financially responsible to the artists. The project must start and end between February 2018 and December 2019 and performance works or programmes will be prioritised. The grant will be paid to the Korean artists directly and can partially cover airfares and shipping costs. MORE HERE

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OPEN CALL | Global | Call for Sculptural Entries | 100 Sculptures of Tomorrow – 30 November 2017

100 Sculptures of Tomorrow is a publication offering emerging sculpture artists from around the world to gain international recognition and exposure. The book will be authored by Kurt Beers, Director of Beers London, and published by Thames & Hudson. Submissions by emerging artists of all ages are welcome. There is an entry fee of GBP10 (approx. USD13) per application. MORE HERE

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OPEN CALL | Global | Call for Entries | ITS LIQUID International Contest – 1 December 2017

The 5th edition of ITS LIQUID International Contest is a free theme art award open to artists, architects, designers and fashion designers from all over the world. Worth a total of EUR100,000 (approx. USD116,332) this year, the Prizes are divided into ten categories: painting, installation/sculpture, photography, video art, computer graphics, architecture, performing art, product design, fashion design and illustration/drawing. Winners will also receive professional representation, international exhibition inclusion and online and in-print featuring. Each applicant can submit 2 to 20 artworks resulting in a range of entry fees from EUR30 to EUR180 (approx. USD35 to USD109). MORE HERE

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INTERNSHIP | Venice, Italy | Internship (paid) | Peggy Guggenheim Collection – 1 December 2017

The Peggy Guggenheim Collection is a museum owned and operated by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. The institution is now offering an internship opportunity to international students and recent graduates who study art, art history or related disciplines. Fluency in English and spoken Italian are pre-requisites. The internship takes place from one month (minimum) to three months (maximum) with the next round starting from May 2018. Students will receive a compensation ranging from EUR800 (approx. USD944) to EUR2,400 (approx. USD2,833). MORE HERE

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INTERNSHIP | Venice, Italy | Unpaid Internship | The National Pavilion United Arab Emirates (UAE) – 3 December 2017

The National Pavilion United Arab Emirates (UAE) at la Biennale di Venezia manages the UAE’s participation in various offerings of the Biennale. The Venice Internship programme offers training and cultural exchange opportunities for emerging arts and architecture professionals to spend one month in Venice staffing the UAE’s art exhibition at the 16th International Architecture Exhibition of la Biennale di Venezia taking place from 26 May 26 to 25 November 2018. The internship is open to Emiratis and long-term residents of the UAE aged 21 and above with an interest or background in arts and architecture. All applicants must register and apply online. MORE HERE

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“Cold Nights” at UCCA: curators Boliang Shen and Zhanglun Dai – interview

Art Radar asks the curators of “Cold Nights” to shed light on the exhibition and their curatorial methodologies.

“Cold Nights” at UCCA in Beijing offers a contemporary re-take of the complex human relationships in 1940s China.

“Cold Nights”, 15 September - 17 December 2017, UCCA, Beijing. Image courtesy Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA).

“Cold Nights”, 15 September – 17 December 2017, UCCA, Beijing. Image courtesy Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA).

Capitalist excess, a dysfunctional family, communication breakdown, and a widening gap between traditional and modern ideologies are some of the issues raised by modern Chinese writer Ba Jin in his 1947 novel “Cold Nights”. Although these problems persist in today’s China, in fact in many societies around the world, they are set in an era of war and conflict in 1940s Chongqing.

Curators Boliang Shen and Zhanglun Dai have taken this novel and created an intricate artistic plot deploying commissioned works from four young artists in “Cold Nights”, running at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing until 17 December 2017. They asked the artists – Chen Zhou, Liu Shiyuan, Nabuqi and Li Ran – to “play” the roles of four protagonists and requested them to create works that reflect the personality of their respective fictional characters as well as echo something about the reality of their own lives.

Art Radar sat down with Boliang Shen and Zhanglun Dai to learn more about the show they co-curated, to discuss the art works they commissioned for this exhibition and to find out about their curatorial methodology.

“Cold Nights”, 15 September - 17 December 2017, UCCA, Beijing. Image courtesy Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA).

“Cold Nights”, 15 September – 17 December 2017, UCCA, Beijing. Image courtesy Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA).

In recent exhibitions of Chinese contemporary art, we have seen instances where the starting point has been a piece of modern Chinese literature, such as Cheng Ran’s “Diary of a Madman” at the New Museum or “Tales of Our Time” at the Guggenheim, both drawing on the writings of Lu Xun (both 2016/17). What makes your curatorial approach to “Cold Nights” unique?

Zhanglun Dai (ZLD): We invited the artists to read the novel and visualize their feelings and to perform the protagonist through their artistic creation. We didn’t just ask them to interpret the character of their protagonist or to just use the narrative elements of the novel to try to construct the exhibitions narration.

Boliang Shen (BLS): I think, using a literary work as a title or as inspiration for a show is not very different. What makes our show different, is that the artists both create as well as perform the roles. It’s just like they are the actors but they are not just making theater but they play the roles of different characters by creating works of art. The reason we asked the artists to do this, is because nowadays artists only represent themselves and they always make very clear, correct, simple, objective demonstration towards the political and social situation. But in literary works you can see different individuals when they face the situation from their own perspective, their own situation their own feelings, their behaviors are highly different. In China, different artists face the situation in China from the standpoint of their family, their background but as an intellectual you need to give a very objective depiction …However, when I ask you to play the role of other people you can look at the world and people around you in a very different way.

ZLD: The artists told us that this was also a unique approach for them. In other group shows, the artists usually do not see each other until opening day, but for this exhibition from-the-go,they had to communicate with each other very closely. How do I understand you? How do you understand me? And how do we place our work in the shared exhibition space?

“Cold Nights”, 15 September - 17 December 2017, UCCA, Beijing. Image courtesy Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA).

“Cold Nights”, 15 September – 17 December 2017, UCCA, Beijing. Image courtesy Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA).

Setting the Scene

The Main Protagonist: Wenxuan

Artist Chen Zhou (b. 1987) was assigned the “role” of Wenxuan, the main protagonist of the novel who is a weak and sickly character drowning in the oppressive environment of both his work and home. Instead of getting fulfillment from his job, he is stuck behind a desk as a junior proof-reader in a corrupt publishing house. At home things don’t look much better. His wife is disloyal to him, he is unable to communicate with his mother or son and the situation is exasperated by the poor condition of his health. He suffers from lung disease which makes him cough blood, once even on a manuscript he was proof-reading. He slips more and more into poverty and is unable to adapt to the changing society and circumstances around him.

Chen Zhou was commissioned by the curators to create a corresponding video work. His contribution entitled Blue Hole sees the characters and setting engulfed by blue light, evoking scenes of a cold and distant future world.

Chen Zhou, 'Blue Hole', 2017, HD video. Music: Gao Jiafeng. 26min:03sec. Image courtesy Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA).

Chen Zhou, ‘Blue Hole’, 2017, HD video. Music: Gao Jiafeng. 26min:03sec. Image courtesy Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA).

Tell us more about Chen Zhou’s video Blue Hole and the accompanying bench.

ZLD: The main character in Chen’s movie is hiding in a [blue] hole, always communicating by phone or via WeChat. Wenxuan, also hides in his home, is unable to communicate with this wife, his mother or the changing world around him. The artist lives in Shanghai and visited together with teenagers night clubs, to experience their lives.  He realized that youth in China are very fond of cyber games, they communicate online rather than talk to each other face to face. Chen feels that these teenagers are very lonely and unable to use words to communicate, not unlike the main character in the novel.

BLS: Towards end of the movie there is a butterfly that flies around, but it is stuck. It cannot leave the borders of the frame. Similarly, the only way people communicate today is through their cell phones.

ZLD: A butterfly often symbolizes freedom of spirit in Chinese philosophy such as for example in Zhuangzi. For Chen, the spirit of human beings is not free. Like the butterfly that cannot fly out of the screen.

BLS: The artist made this blue [light] bench, which looks like a screen, for the audience to sit on. So, the faces of the audiences reflect the blue light, like the characters in the movie that are constantly in a blue hole.

Liu Shiyuan, ‘The Best is Yet to Come(in italic)’, 2017, HD video, colour, stereo sound, 20min:30sec. Music: Kristian Mondrup Nielsen. Installation view of “Cold Nights”, 15 September - 17 December 2017, UCCA, Beijing. Image courtesy Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA).

Liu Shiyuan, ‘The Best is Yet to Come’, 2017, HD video, colour, stereo sound, 20min:30sec. Music: Kristian Mondrup Nielsen. Installation view of “Cold Nights”, 15 September – 17 December 2017, UCCA, Beijing. Image courtesy Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA).

Wenxuan’s wife Shusheng

The next work is Liu Shiyuan’s (b. 1985) video The Best is Yet to Come. She has been assigned the character of Shusheng, Wenxuan’s wife. A modern woman who dismisses the role of a submissive wife and daughter-in-law but instead enjoys her lucrative job and the luxuries that wealth and a rich lover can provide. Let us talk more about this work.

BLS: Artist Liu Shiyuan created a sloped space for the audience to lie down on and watch the video screen. The first half of the video depicts the stream of thoughts of a young woman, who could be representative of Shusheng or the artist herself. While looking at the sky, she contemplates time and the chain of events without drawing any conclusions. Gradually the truth reveals itself to her and she discovers the essence of things hinted at through scenes of nature, words and grids of images she created, cartoons or pictures appropriated from 20th century archives.

Liu Shiyuan, ‘The Best is Yet to Come(in italic)’, 2017, HD video, colour, stereo sound, 20min:30sec. Music: Kristian Mondrup Nielsen. Image courtesy Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA).

Liu Shiyuan, ‘The Best is Yet to Come’, 2017, HD video, colour, stereo sound, 20min:30sec. Music: Kristian Mondrup Nielsen. Image courtesy Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA).

BLS: Liu tries to create a link between a good and bad life, reality and imagination. She lives in Copenhagen. An alarming number of oysters have flooded the shoreline. The government has declared this a disaster and encouraged people to eat these oysters. The artist feels that this is a strange phenomenon, because oysters are so expensive and considered a delicacy but now they are worthless, even a liability. It is like in the novel, where people enjoy life and have fun even if it is during war time. Also, you can see that the slanted space and the screen together make up the shape of an oyster shell.

The artist responds to some of the details in the novel. For example, we see a girl eating an oyster for the first time. When she tries to swallow the oyster, she feels the oyster is like snot. In the novel, Wenxuan dies from a disease of the lung; mucus was stuck in his throat.

Liu Shiyuan, ‘The Best is Yet to Come(in italic)’, 2017, HD video, colour, stereo sound, 20min:30sec. Music: Kristian Mondrup Nielsen. Installation view of “Cold Nights”, 15 September - 17 December 2017, UCCA, Beijing. Image courtesy Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA).

Liu Shiyuan, ‘The Best is Yet to Come’, 2017, HD video, colour, stereo sound, 20min:30sec. Music: Kristian Mondrup Nielsen. Installation view of “Cold Nights”, 15 September – 17 December 2017, UCCA, Beijing. Image courtesy Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA).

Wenxuan’s Mother

Nabuqi (b. 1984) was assigned the role of Wenxuan’s mother who is very traditional and lives a secluded live with her son and grand-son. She is resentful of her emancipated daughter-in-law. The artist created an installation for this show whose main element is a small room enclosed by curtains with fake plants inside it and lit from within. But her work encompasses several other elements. Tell us more about her installation.

ZLD: Nabuqi’s work is complex and contains several elements. The first part, is the ceiling of the entire exhibition space. It moves from low to high. At the entrance of the exhibition the ceiling was built low and at the exit the ceiling is at its highest.

The reason Nabuqi made this ceiling low is to embody the relationship between Wenxuan and his wife – depressing and oppressive. Wenxuan’s mother always wants to control her son and make him her possession. […] Cleverly symbolising her hate for her daughter-in-law is the shadow that the ceiling throws on Liu’s work, who represents Shusheng.

Her installation made up of fake plants with no soil, no nutrition to sustain them, is like the fate and destiny of the four protagonists that live at a time and in a society where there is no sustenance in their lives [both physically and emotionally]. There is also a fan, which makes the curtains flutter, signifying the fluttering destinies of the four characters in the novel.

The third part of her work is a light, which every nine minutes will flash once for three seconds. In Chongqing, during the war, people would hear a bomb siren signaling the coming of Japanese [fighter jets]. She uses the flash of light to interrupt the time-line of the three videos, which is symbolic of the mother’s interference in the lives of the three young people.When you watch the videos, your eyes are momentarily blinded by the flashing light.

The fourth element in her work are the mirrors. For Nabuqi, the exhibition is like a theater stage, where both the protagonists and the audience are like actors. So, when you walk through the exhibition space, you can see yourself in the mirrors. Nabuqi sees the role of the mother as being dependent. Her life is always dependent on other people’s lives, economically or emotionally. Therefore, from any angle of the exhibition space, you see mirrored in it one of the other works [characters] of the show. In addition, the video works also communicate with each other through the mirrors.

BLS: This space is very difficult for curators to create a show in, because this wall must stay and cannot be removed. So, we incorporated it into the show and we used it naturally as something that stands among the three figures. Nabuqi used the wall in a smart way by attaching a mirror along its length. It is a barrier, an obstacle, a border as well as something that contains everything like a vessel.

Nabuqie, 'At dusk after the rain… slanted sunlight…where light spots in all sizes……. fade, …….washing out… and winding towards…….the end, a sharp honking is heard… disappear', 2017, mixed media, dimensions variable. Image courtesy Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA).

Nabuqi, ‘At dusk after the rain… slanted sunlight…where light spots in all sizes……. fade, …….washing out… and winding towards…….the end, a sharp honking is heard… disappear’, 2017, mixed media, dimensions variable. Image courtesy Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA).

This monitor hanging from the ceiling and showing an up-side-down image of a home is also part of her work. What is it?

ZLD: Nabuqi is trying to construct a domestic space. We see a typical modern family home with its furnishings and she turns it upside down. This alludes to the lives of the people in the novel, whose lives were upended. This small work hanging from a high ceiling visually creates a balance with the large installation [on the ground] at the beginning of the space with its low ceiling.

BLS: Nothing is normal. Everything is on an angle. In precarious times people’s lives cannot be normal.

Li Ran, 'Night of Patmos', 2017, single channel HD video, black and white, sound, 20min:00sec. Image courtesy Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA).

Li Ran, ‘Night of Patmos’, 2017, single channel HD video, black and white, sound, 20min:00sec. Image courtesy Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA).

Fengguang (lover)

This leads us to the fourth and last work in the show, Night of Patmos, a black and white video by artist Li Ran (b. 1986) who has been assigned the role of Fengguang, the bank manager who is Shusheng’s boss and lover. He represents capitalism and all that is not traditional and that which is modern. Tell us about this video work.

BLS: The character of the lover is rarely directly depicted in the novel, rather he is mentioned through the words of others. The whole family refers to him as “that person” and when he is discussed an atmosphere of fear sets in. Fengguang represents a threatening power that comes from the outside; he is younger, modern and rich.  For Li Ran it was hard to depict him directly, so he made up a story to convey the atmosphere [that he conjures up]. He adopts a narrative style used by writers in the 1940s when they describe the peaceful life in Beijing in the autumn or in small cities. He portrays a group of people very joyfully climbing a mountain together.

However, in the end it turns out to be the gathering of a cult in the mountains promising salvation from the doomed world below. Not unlike Fengguang who gives Shusheng assurances of a better life away from the war, even spiritual salvation. In fact, these are all empty promises because there is no escape in a time of crisis. The artist combines historical photographs of theater plays from the 1950s through to the 80s of official theater productions about the good life in China or Chinese actors playing the role of foreigners in exaggerated ways. He restaged sequences from the Bible, but lightly distorted them because he wants to create an atmosphere that is both bizarre and sublime. Most of the parts he chose from the Bible are about power and power relations, for example between Jacob and Isaac.

Li Ran, 'Night of Patmos', 2017, single channel HD video, black and white, sound, 20min:00sec. Installation view of “Cold Nights”, 15 September - 17 December 2017, UCCA, Beijing. Image courtesy Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA).

Li Ran, ‘Night of Patmos’, 2017, single channel HD video, black and white, sound, 20min:00sec. Installation view of “Cold Nights”, 15 September – 17 December 2017, UCCA, Beijing. Image courtesy Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA).

So, is this where the reference to the title Night of Patmos comes from?

BLS: Yes, because Patmos is where John wrote the “Revelation”.

ZLD: Fengguang is actually a modern man in that city. He tries to imitate the style of foreigners and the most Western style comes from the biblical content.

He loves Shusheng but tries to hide his feelings because he knows that she has a family, a husband. So, he has a monologue with himself about his feelings. So that is why we prefer to use earphones rather than speakers [to hear the soundtrack].

BLS: Because a lover’s voice is only audible in secret or in private.

“Cold Nights”, 15 September - 17 December 2017, UCCA, Beijing. Image courtesy Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA).

“Cold Nights”, 15 September – 17 December 2017, UCCA, Beijing. Image courtesy Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA).

The End

ZLD: The end of the novel, describes Shusheng flying back to Chongqing with her lover after one year when it has been liberated. She returns to the house where she used to live with her family and finds out that her husband is dead. Her son and mother-in-law have disappeared and no one knows where to. She feels very lonely and very cold at that moment…

What are some future projects you are working on?

ZLD: We are planning a trilogy of exhibitions based on novels. The next one perhaps maybe based on a writer from another country. This was just the beginning and a preparation for our next project.

Nooshfar Afnan

1952

“Cold Nights” is in view from 15 September to 17 December at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, 4 Jiuxianqiao Rd, Chaoyang Qu, Beijing Shi, China, 100096.

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Shanghai Biennale appoints Cuauhtémoc Medina as Chief Curator for 2018

The Mexican curator will be leading the Shanghai Biennale in 2018.

The recent announcement also includes two new appointments for the 2018 edition of the Biennale.

The Shanghai Power Station of Art during Shanghai Biennale 2016. Image courtesy Power Station of Art.

The Shanghai Power Station of Art during Shanghai Biennale 2016. Image courtesy Power Station of Art.

The 12th edition of the Shanghai Biennale will take place at the Power Station of Art (PSA) from 10 November 2018 to 10 March 2019. After careful consideration by members of the PSA Academic Committee and confirmation from the Shanghai Municipal Administration of Culture, Radio, Film &TV, Cuauhtémoc Medina has been appointed the Chief Curator of the 2018 Shanghai Biennale. The official title for the 2018 event will be announced at the end of this year.

Alongside the Chief Curator, two other appointments have been made, as a result of PSA’s experimentation with the event’s academic research methodology, promotion and administrative management. Shi Hanato will be the Biennial’s Chief Coordinator, and He Huanhuan will be its Head of Administrative Affairs.

Born in Mexico, Cuauhtémoc Medina is an internationally renowned art curator, critic and historian. He currently serves as Chief Curator at the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC) in Mexico City, where he has curated a number of exhibitions by artists such as Harun Farocki, Raqs Media Collective, Jeremy Deller, Vicente Rojo, Jill Magid and Hito Steyerl, among others.

Medina curated the ninth edition of Manifesta in 2012, and Teresa Margolles’s Mexican Pavilion for the 2009 Venice Biennale, and has been an associate curator of Latin American art at London’s Tate Modern. Since 1993 he has been a full-time researcher and lecturer at Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and is recipient of the Menil Collection’s Walter Hopps Award for Curatorial Achievement

Shanghai Biennale 2018 Chief Curator Cuauhtémoc Medina. Image courtesy Power Station of Art.

Shanghai Biennale 2018 Chief Curator Cuauhtémoc Medina. Image courtesy Power Station of Art.

Speaking of his appointment, Medina said as reported by PSA:

Biennales are large scale exhibitions that, beyond offering a certain perspective on the potential of art and culture today, inscribe a city and an event as a provisory and symbolic artistic world center. That Shanghai hosts an exhibition of that kind is most appropriate for it provides a clear image of the current decentering of our cultural narratives and the significance that China and Asia have in the cultural and economic circuits of today.

The Shanghai Biennale ought to become in the next years one of the most important sites of rethinking and renegotiating the geographies and concepts of contemporary art as we get into a new world history era. I hope that I will be able to produce, in collaboration with colleagues from China and around the world, an exhibition that will enhance the importance of a growing cultural production that infuses subjective complexity into the complex texture of our times.

C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia

1960

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“Unbecoming”: the “humanimal”, queer world of India’s Tejal Shah – artist profile

Kunsthaus Hamburg presents the Indian artist’s latest work encompassing video, drawings and collages. 

Tejal Shah’s “humanimals” are the result of her research on the relationship between society and environment, sexuality and science, ecology and Buddhism.

Tejal Shah, 'Between the Waves – Outer', 2012, mixed media collage, digital print on archival rag paper, 70 x 50 cm.

Tejal Shah, ‘Between the Waves – Outer’, 2012, mixed media collage, digital print on archival rag paper, 70 x 50 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

The “humanimals”

First presented at dOCUMENTA (13), Between the Waves (2012), a five-channel video installation by the artist Tejal Shah, situates the viewer on uncertain terrain. Combining various points of reference, including a costume made by Rebecca Horn for her 1970-1972 film Unicorn, alien visitations, and the environmental crises facing urban populations, Shah suggests that the ecological is situated directly within the political imaginaries of human and non-human subjects.

Shah’s work reads as parable: as the unicorn-horned subjects – “humanimals” in the artist’s terms – traverse various distinct landscapes including forests, beaches and landfills, their relationship to both their environment and to the viewer becomes increasingly abstract, yet engrossing. In each of these settings, the humanimals maintain a distinct connection to their idiosyncratic features, milking and stroking their horns, cradling and stroking each others’ bodies, and posing amidst rain soaked branches, dry excavation sites, and underwater among other, equally alien creatures.

Tejal Shah, 'Between the Waves' (video still), 2012, 5- channel video installation, HD. Image courtesy Project 88, Mumbai & Barbara Gross Galerie, Munich.

Tejal Shah, ‘Between the Waves’ (video still), 2012, 5-channel video installation, HD. Image courtesy Project 88, Mumbai & Barbara Gross Galerie, Munich.

Tejal Shah (b. 1979, Bhilai, India; currently based in Goa, India), who has studied at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, the Art Institute of Chicago and Bard, has previously exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, Oslo (2016-17), the Whitechapel Gallery iLondon (2014), the Gujral Foundation in New Delhi (2014) and the Centre Pompidou in Paris (2011).

Curated by Chus Martinez at Kunsthaus Hamburg, the exhibition “Unbecoming” presents Tejal Shah’s latest series of drawings Unbecoming (2017), which the show draws the title from, as well as the work Between the Waves and a series of collages that relate to the environmental themes of the video installation. 

 Tejal Shah, detail from the series unbecoming, 2017, Courtesy the artist, Project 88, Mumbai, and Barbara Gross Gallery, Munich, photo: Hayo Heye

Tejal Shah, ‘Unbecoming’ (detail), 2017. Photo: Hayo Heye. Image courtesy the artist, Project 88, Mumbai, and Barbara Gross Gallery, Munich.

The flying Bodhisattvas

In these delicately rendered drawings, small, unnamed figures lie prone or supine, their visages obscured by patterned fabric; in some drawings, the figures fly and bend in the air. These drawings are related to Shah’s recent research interests in Buddhism and specifically the figure of the Bodhisattva, a figure in Mahayana Buddhism that delays his attainment of Nirvana in order to help those who suffer on earth. Unlike the rich natural environments in which the humanimals reside, however, these figures are set against a blank white ground, which lends them an equally alien, extraterrestrial appearance.

Tejal Shah, 'Unbecoming' (detail), 2017. Photo: Hayo Heye. Image courtesy the artist, Project 88, Mumbai, and Barbara Gross Gallery, Munich.

Tejal Shah, ‘Unbecoming’ (detail), 2017. Photo: Hayo Heye. Image courtesy the artist, Project 88, Mumbai, and Barbara Gross Gallery, Munich.

The juxtaposition of these drawings against the five-channel video work also offers insight into the wide-ranging practice of the artist. Since the early 2000s, Shah’s practice has incorporated video, installation, performance and photography that slips between the boundaries of each of these media to invoke the fluid conceptions of race, gender and subjectivities which the artist espouses. The artist distinctly incorporates queer and feminist theory and activism into her artistic practice, eschewing binary idealisation in favour of the pluralities of gender and sexualities.

Tejal Shah, 'Between the Waves' (video still, ), 2012, 5-channel video installation, HD. Image courtesy Project 88, Mumbai & Barbara Gross Galerie, Munich.

Tejal Shah, ‘Between the Waves’ (video still, ), 2012, 5-channel video installation, HD. Image courtesy Project 88, Mumbai & Barbara Gross Galerie, Munich.

Gender and sexuality

Previous work, including the 2006 video installation What Are You?, addresses the geopolitical specificity of gender identity and sexuality in Mumbai. Replicating the real-life working conditions of the hijra sex-worker community on which Shah’s video is based, the installation included shabby mattresses and cabins for viewers to sit in. The subjects confront the viewer directly, the camera zooming into their countenances to fill the screen, suggesting the close relationship between Shah and these communities.

Tejal Shah, video still, Between the Waves, 2012, 5- channel video installation, HD, courtesy Project 88, Mumbai & Barbara Gross Galerie, Munich

Tejal Shah, ‘Between the Waves’ (video still), 2012, 5-channel video installation, HD. Image courtesy Project 88, Mumbai & Barbara Gross Galerie, Munich.

Tejal Shah, video still, Between the Waves, 2012, 5- channel video installation, HD, courtesy Project 88, Mumbai & Barbara Gross Galerie, Munich

Tejal Shah, ‘Between the Waves’ (video still), 2012, 5-channel video installation, HD. Image courtesy Project 88, Mumbai & Barbara Gross Galerie, Munich.

Yet Shah’s empathy does not limit itself to human subjects that are treated inhumanely by society; their practice and political scope is expansive and inclusive. As suggested by the ecological thread that connects the five video installations of Between the Waves, Shah conceives of environmental, gender and sexual justice to be inextricable form one another, and essential to the understanding of a queer political modality. Through video specifically, a medium that allows the artist to traverse regular time to a queer chronology, one that is fractured, discordant and ultimately forms new ways of understanding subjectivities and environments, the artist expands the scope of possibilities for relating to one’s subjectivities and to the earth.

Tejal Shah, installation view, UNBECOMING, Kunsthaus Hamburg 2017, Courtesy the artist, Project 88, Mumbai, and Barbara Gross Gallery, Munich, photo: Hayo Heye

Tejal Shah, ‘Unbecoming’, 25 October – 3 December 2017, installation view at Kunsthaus Hamburg. Photo: Hayo Heye. Image courtesy the artist, Project 88, Mumbai, and Barbara Gross Gallery, Munich.

Programming at Kunsthaus Hamburg expands upon Shah’s interest in Buddhism and their interest in film through collaborations with the Hamburg University of Fine Arts (HFBK). In a lecture presentation at HBFK on 25 October 2017, Shah presented on the research interests in the Middle Way Philosophy School, specifically addressing how the incorporation of a living spiritual practice into an aesthetic practice requires an understanding and an aspiration towards consonance and harmony.

Tejal Shah, 'Unbecoming', 25 October – 3 December 2017, installation view at Kunsthaus Hamburg. Photo: Hayo Heye. Image courtesy the artist, Project 88, Mumbai, and Barbara Gross Gallery, Munich.

Tejal Shah, ‘Unbecoming’, 25 October – 3 December 2017, installation view at Kunsthaus Hamburg. Photo: Hayo Heye. Image courtesy the artist, Project 88, Mumbai, and Barbara Gross Gallery, Munich.

Tejal Shah, 'Unbecoming', 25 October – 3 December 2017, installation view at Kunsthaus Hamburg. Photo: Hayo Heye. Image courtesy the artist, Project 88, Mumbai, and Barbara Gross Gallery, Munich.

Tejal Shah, ‘Unbecoming’, 25 October – 3 December 2017, installation view at Kunsthaus Hamburg. Photo: Hayo Heye. Image courtesy the artist, Project 88, Mumbai, and Barbara Gross Gallery, Munich.

Concurrent with the exhibition is a film series of works selected by Shah of the Indian filmmaker and singer Shabnam Virmani. Known for her documentary films that address the legacy of the mystic saint Kabir, Virmani’s artistic practice, blending music, film and spirituality, shares many common elements with Tejal Shah’s explorations of alterity. The artists’ shared geographic history of India and their multivalent artistic practices provide a political urgency to their work: whether ecological, spiritual and the shared intersections of these valences, Shah and Virmani evoke the radical need for alternative futures in our time. The extent of this engagement, as Shah’s exhibition suggests, exceeds far beyond the artworks – and beyond aesthetics – to social and political realities.

Tausif Noor

1957

“Unbecoming” by Tejal Shah is on view from 25 October to 3 December 2017 at Kunsthaus Hamburg, Klosterwall 15, 20095 Hamburg.

Related Topics: Indian artists, museum shows, political, social, sexuality, environment, installation, video, photography, drawing, events in Germany

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Shimmering country: Aboriginal Australian artists at The Met in New York

The exhibition of six monumental works from contemporary Aboriginal Australian artists represents a commitment to diversity from The Met.

Art Radar takes a look at the exhibition on view at The Met Fifth Avenue in New York City, featuring works from the Kaplan-Levi Gift.

Doreen Reid Nakamarra, 'Marrapinti', 2008, acrylic on canvas, 122 × 153 cm, Gift of Robert Kaplan and Margaret Levi, 2017. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Doreen Reid Nakamarra, ‘Marrapinti’, 2008, acrylic on canvas, 122 × 153 cm, Gift of Robert Kaplan and Margaret Levi, 2017. Image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Taking cue from the natural elements of the earth, “On Country: Australian Aboriginal Art from the Robert Kaplan and Margaret Levi Gift” runs until 17 December 2017 at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, bringing together six large-scale paintings from five of the best-known Australian Aboriginal artists today. The exhibition features artists best known for depicting the landscape of the Australian territory, including Doreen Reid Nakamarra (b. 1955, Warburton, d. 2009, Adelaide), Dorothy Napangardi (b. 1950, Yuendumu, d. 2013, Norther Terrority), Kathleen Petyarre (b. 1940, Utopia), Abie Loy Kemarre (b. 1972, Utopia) and Gunybi Ganambarr (b. 1973, Yirrkala).

Kathleen Petyarre, 'Mountain Devil Lizard Dreaming-Sand-Hill Country (after Hailstorm)', 2000, acrylic on canvas, 182 × 182 cm, Gift of Robert Kaplan and Margaret Levi, 2017. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Kathleen Petyarre, ‘Mountain Devil Lizard Dreaming-Sand-Hill Country (after Hailstorm)’, 2000, acrylic on canvas, 182 × 182 cm. Gift of Robert Kaplan and Margaret Levi, 2017. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Using works that were part of a 2016 gift to The Met, the exhibition explores the relationship that each of the artists share with the Australian territory, and their ability to depict the evocative qualities of the various elements and natural scenery on canvas. One of the main aspects that the exhibition explores is the ability of the artists to capture shimmer. Touted as a highly valued visual effect in Australian Aboriginal art, each of the featured artists have become known for being highly skilled in creating paintings that depict this trait, and have been named some of the most prominent artists of their generation.

Dorothy Napangardi, 'Karntakurlangu Jukurrpa', 2002, acrylic on canvas, 168 × 244 cm. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Dorothy Napangardi, ‘Karntakurlangu Jukurrpa’, 2002, acrylic on canvas, 168 × 244 cm. Gift of Robert Kaplan and Margaret Levi, 2016. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Dorothy Napangardi’s Karntakurlangu Jukurrpa (2002) abstracts the form of the land into a multitude of dots and lines that spread out across the canvas. Deeply connected to the culture and land of Australia, Napangardi incorporates the traditions of the Warlpiri, the tribe from which Napangardi hails from. Napangardi takes reference from the journey of the Warlpiri women as they travel east from the sacred site of Mina Mina. Along the course of their journey, the Warlpiri women played a role in creating the topology of the land, carving out the landscape through the use of kurlangu (digging sticks) that rose out of the ground. Napangardi’s painting reveals her own intimacy with the historical narratives of her tribe; at the same time, it reinterprets the very physicality of the land and evokes the people who have shaped it.

Regarded as one of the leading painters of the contemporary Aboriginal art movement, Napangardi’s works have been featured in exhibitions in Australia, the United States and Europe. With a practice that revolved around the topology of the land and the ancestral trails of the Warlpiri tribe, Napangardi had won several awards during her lifetime, including the 8th National Aboriginal Award, as well as the 18th Telstra NATSIA Art Award.

Kathleen Petyarre, 'Sandhills in Atnangkere Country', 1999, acrylic on canvas, 122 × 122 cm. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Kathleen Petyarre, ‘Sandhills in Atnangkere Country’, 1999, acrylic on canvas, 122 × 122 cm. Gift of Robert Kaplan and Margaret Levi, 2016. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

On show are also two works by Kathleen Petyarre, Sandhills in Atnangkere Country (1999) and Mountain Devil Lizard Dreaming-Sandhill Country (after Hailstorm) (2000). Executed in a beautiful reddish-brown, Sandhills in Atnangkere Country also utilises multiple dots to create a dreamlike effect. Not unlike Napangardi, Petyarre also uses her works as a means to visualise the way that the Australian landscape looks from an aerial perspective. Expanding throughout the canvas, Petyarre’s dots trace the outline of the landscape whilst also conveying the trails of the inhabitants that lived and drifted through the land. Born in Atnangker, to the northwest of Utopia, Petyarre began making art with other women at Utopia, eventually creating her signature technique of layering thousands of fine dots across large canvases. At present, Petyarre’s works are also in multiple state collections in Australia.

Gunybi Ganambarr, 'Buyku', 2011, ochre on incised laminate board, 181 × 91 cm. Gift of Robert Kaplan and Margaret Levi, 2016. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Gunybi Ganambarr, ‘Buyku’, 2011, ochre on incised laminate board, 181 × 91 cm. Gift of Robert Kaplan and Margaret Levi, 2016. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Artist Gunybi Ganambarr, however, deviates from Napangardi and Petyarre. Ganambarr’s work, Buyku (2011), is a large painting made out of ochre on incised laminate board. Her usage of industrial laminate board gives a twist to the traditional technique of Arnhem Land bark painting, which involves painting on the interior of a strip of tree bark. Ganambarr’s incorporation of industrial material seeks to spark conversation about the fading of Aboriginal land rights in the face of mining industries in Australia. A dizzying, complex work composed of triangles, Buyku’s form and structure refer to the sacred waters of Gängan, a land in which Ganambarr claims ancestry. Forming a structure of interlocking diamonds, the repeated shape refers to an expression of ancestral power revealed through a flash of light, or in the encounter between fresh and salt water.

Abie Loy Kemarre, 'Bush Hen Dreaming- Bush Leaves', 2003, acrylic on canvas, 182 x 182 cm. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Abie Loy Kemarre, ‘Bush Hen Dreaming- Bush Leaves’, 2003, acrylic on canvas, 182 x 182 cm. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Also on show is Abie Loy Kemarre, incidentally the granddaughter of Kathleen Petyarre. Her work on show is entitled Bush Hen Dreaming (2003), and stretches across a large canvas, forming a geometric pattern in it. The work finds inspiration from a sacred song and dance ceremony, typically carried out by women by a dry water hole, which recounts the journey of a bush hen searching for leaves and seeds. Kemarre’s work builds a motif out of the leaf, repeating the image of the leaf over and over again through the canvas. From afar, Kemarre’s work shows a geometric shape cutting through the painting, almost as though becoming a formal work. However, when viewed closely, Kemarre’s motif of the leaf appears, revealing a connection to the bush and the close relationship to nature that the society has. The work displays an intense focus on the motif of the leaf itself, also adding another perspective on how the land is seen through the eyes of the Aboriginal artist.

Abie Loy Kemarre’s works have been collected by several prominent institutions and collections, including National Gallery of Victoria, Art Gallery of South Australia, the Kelton Foundation, Levi-Kaplan Collection, Kerry Stokes Collection, Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Commission Collection and Festival of Arts Foundation Collection. Kemarre stems from a lineage of prominent Utopia artists, including Emily Kngwarreye and Glorria Petyarre, amongst others.

 *   *   *

Created as an attempt to signal their commitment towards representing diverse cultures, “On Countrylooks at some of the most prominent Aboriginal Australian artists today, bringing their works on show at The Met Fifth Avenue. A dazzling compendium of six works, the exhibition represents an interesting and intimate cross-section of Aboriginal Australian art today.

Junni Chen

1842

“On Country: Australian Aboriginal Art from the Kaplan-Levi Gift” is on view from 11 August to 17 December 2017 in Gallery 918 at The Met Fifth Avenue, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10028.

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“In the Presence of Another Sky”: six decades of India’s Sakti Burman – artist profile

A major retrospective at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai places Burman’s works in their historical contexts.

In collaboration with the Ministry of Culture, Government of India and supported by Art Musings, the exhibition is on display at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai until 26 November 2017. The survey of six decades of the distinguished artist’s practice is curated by poet and cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote.

Sakti Burman, Legends of Hope, 2004, Oil on Canvas, 130 x 162 cm. Image courtesy Art Musings, Mumbai.

Sakti Burman, ‘Legends of Hope’, 2004, oil on canvas, 130 x 162 cm. Image courtesy Art Musings, Mumbai.

An illustrious artistic life

One of India’s most prolific, well-travelled and internationally renowned post-Independence Indian artists, Kolkata-born Sakti Burman, lives and works in Paris. In the Presence of Another Sky”  at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai, celebrates Burman’s six-decade long dedication to painting – a visual feast of a journey that presents the visitor with the varied cultures, mythologies and experiences that played a critical role in the shaping of his world view and his practice.

Sakti Burman studied at the Government College of Arts and Crafts, Kolkata, and later at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts in Paris. Since the mid-1950s Burman has been living in India and France, exhibiting extensively in both countries, and in prestigious locations across Europe and the United States. He had his first solo exhibition in 1954 in Kolkata, and has since exhibited widely across the world at leading galleries in Paris, London, Milan, Zurich, Mumbai, New Delhi and Kolkata. Some of his most recent shows include “The Beholder’s Share at Jehangir Art Gallery (Mumbai, 2016), “Rituals and Reasons: Invoking the Sensual in Art” at Apparao Galleries (Chennai, 2014), “The Wonder of it All”, a retrospective exhibition (Pundole Art Gallery and Apparao Galleries, 2012) and “Archetype and Enraptured Gaze at Aicon Gallery (London, New York, 2009).

Sakti Burman, Harlequin Poet, 2017, Oil on Canvas, 132 x 96 cm. Image courtesy Art Musings, Mumbai.

Sakti Burman, ‘Harlequin Poet’, 2017, oil on canvas, 132 x 96 cm. Image courtesy Art Musings, Mumbai.

Burman has been invited to participate in numerous salons including the Biennale de Paris, Section Française at the Musée d’Art Moderne (Paris), the Salon d’Automne Grand Palais, Paris Salon de la Jeune Peinture, the Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux Arts (Paris) and the Salon des Artistes Française, Grand Palais (Paris). Amongst the many awards he has received in his illustrious career are the Prix des Etrangers (École des Beaux-Arts, Paris), the Medaille Arts, Science et Lettres (Paris), the Medaille d’Argent de Montmorency, the Medaille d’Or, Salon des Artistes Français (Grand Palais, Paris) and the Prix de la Ville de l’Isle-Adam (France).

Sakti Burman, Unknown God, 2016, Oil on Canvas. Image courtesy Art Musings, Mumbai.

Sakti Burman, ‘Unknown God’, 2016, oil on canvas. Image courtesy Art Musings, Mumbai.

A master of dual worlds

In his unique, almost surrealistic style of painting, Burman is known for using a marbling technique that he has developed after years of experimentation wherein he blends oils and acrylics to create fresco-esque works on paper and canvas. The artist creates his own dreamlike, private world in his artworks which are characterised by a conflation of imageries that pay tribute to the two different cultures and geographies that Burman has belonged to. His practice references the traditions, art and aesthetics of Bengal, the region of his birth and at the same time also draws extensively from European mythology, his experiences and his memories of a life lived outside of the country of his origin. It is these multiplicities of influences and subject matter that makes his work recognisable and relatable to audiences in India and internationally. In the words of exhibition curator Ranjit Hoskote (in his essay, “Sakti Burman, At Home in the World”):

My first impression of Burman’s work was strong and immediate. The surfaces of his paintings – marbled and tapestried, suggestive of the murals of Ajanta or Pompeii as they were – rewarded attention by disclosing hidden perspectives and fluidities. Figurative in its choices, this art was figural in its ability to conjure up a constellation of allegories referring to creativity, dilemma, inquiry, and the questor’s journey. At the centre of Burman’s art, it appeared to me, then as now, lay an understanding of the cosmos as pageant or dance: a theatre of appearances, kaleidoscopic in their combination of mutability and intensity, and no less compelling for being momentary.

“In the Presence of Another Sky” (PDF download) celebrates the breadth of Burman’s artistic oeuvre and strengthens his position as an artist who successfully belongs to two worlds – paying tribute to the western canon of modern art, while at the same time having created a niche for himself within a more fledging, evolving contemporary Indian aesthetic. It showcases Burman’s journey as an artist, with over 250 works on display, sectioned thematically into eight chapters that collectively pay homage to his significant contributions to engraving, the art of the book, drawing, sculpture, textiles and painting in various media.

Sakti Burman, “In the Presence of Another Sky”, 17 October – 26 November 2017, Gallery view at National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai, Image courtesy Art Musings, Mumbai

Sakti Burman, “In the Presence of Another Sky”, 17 October – 26 November 2017, installation view at National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai. Image courtesy Art Musings, Mumbai.

A spatial exploration of the artist’s practice

As the spectator walks through the different spaces created by the curator at the majestic National Gallery of Modern Art with its semi-circular galleries, high central dome and open interior space, a deep understanding of the varied transcultural dimensions that were the building blocks to Burman’s seven decades of artistic life takes shape. The sections “A Confluential Imagination” and “Travel as Education” present the plurality of the artist’s cultural influences and the diversity of his travel experiences, which enabled him to break the shackles of conformity that have often held back multicultural artists from the subcontinent. In “The Mark of the Burin” and “The Sweep of the Roller”, Hoskote introduces us to Burman’s printmaking practice, presenting the lithographs and engravings that he created as a textile designer and as an illustrator of books like André Gide’s French translation of Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali.

Sakti Burman, “In the Presence of Another Sky”, 17 October – 26 November 2017, Gallery view at National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai, Image courtesy Art Musings, Mumbai

Sakti Burman, “In the Presence of Another Sky”, 17 October – 26 November 2017, installation view at National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai. Image courtesy Art Musings, Mumbai.

In “The Inspirations of Architecture”, the exhibition celebrates the artist’s love for referencing Gothic, Romanesque and Mughal forms in his work, while “A Storyteller’s Dreams” and “A Dance to the Music of Mythology” draw our attention to the dreamlike and mythological narratives inherent in many of his paintings. And finally, in “The Studio Without Walls”, we get the unique opportunity to enter into the private world of Sakti Burman and explore the artist’s mind– by peeking into his studio to acquaint ourselves with the physical setting that helps define his artistic language – from calendar wall art and scroll paintings to traditional Dokhra objects and Kalighat paintings.

Sakti Burman, With Love to Regine, 1985, Oil on Canvas, 65 x 53 cm. Image courtesy Art Musings, Mumbai.

Sakti Burman, ‘With Love to Regine’, 1985, oil on canvas, 65 x 53 cm. Image courtesy Art Musings, Mumbai.

The retrospective is significant as it presents the breadth of Sakti Burman’s artistic practice to a contemporary audience who are far removed from many of the historical events that have influenced his consciousness, including World War II, the Indian Independence and Partition, the Cold War and Globalisation. As Hoskote says,

My aim, in this retrospective, is to invite viewers to consider the artist in the amplitude of his various avatars, as artisan, storyteller, connoisseur of reverie, and researcher-collector. […] In their elegant fusion of time horizons, Burman’s works remind us that the global contemporary is, above all, a time and place of complex allegiances. We are all entangled in multiple definitions of self, linked by heredity, affinity and choice to various sources of cultural meaning. In such a situation, the artist cannot be pinned down to a specific, narrowly regional definition of selfhood.  

Amita Kini-Singh

1944

“In the Presence of Another Sky” by Sakti Burman is on view from 17 October to 26 November 2017 at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai, Sir Cowasji Jehangir Public Hall, M. G. Road, Fort Mumbai – 400032.

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Negotiating the personal and the public with Hong Kong artist Pak Sheung Chuen at Para Site – in conversation

The current exhibition at Para Site considers how we negotiate our relationship between personal and public domains.

Art Radar interviews Hong Kong artist Pak Sheung Chuen to find out more about his research.

Pak Sheung Chuen, Found image on the ground in front of Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in the Hong Kong S.A.R. The Seal (No.LOCPGIxx2-17#2): Golden jellyfish, 2017, Acrylic paint on wall, size variable. Image courtesy the artist and Para Site.

Pak Sheung Chuen, Found image on the ground in front of Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in the Hong Kong S.A.R. The Seal (No.LOCPGIxx2-17#2): golden jellyfish, 2017, acrylic paint on wall, size variable. Image courtesy the artist and Para Site.

The duo show “Chris Evans, Pak Sheung Chuen: Two Exhibitions” at Para Site, curated by Freya Chou, is a conversation between British artist Chris Evans and Hong Kong artist Pak Sheung Chuen, on view from 23 September to 3 December 2017. The works showcased by the Asian artist are the result of his observations from several court cases, in which he documented and transformed into new interpretations. The narratives gathered from the solemn courthouse become the inspiration for the creations featured in this exhibition, in the form of wallpaper, graffiti, archives and objects.

Through the journey of self-healing, the artist explores ways to release negative energy and create a dialogue around social issues.

 "Pak Sheung Chuen", 23 September - 3 December 2017, Para Site, Hong Kong. Image courtesy Para Site.

“Chris Evans, Pak Sheung Chuen: Two Exhibitions”, 23 September – 3 December 2017, Para Site, Hong Kong. Image courtesy Para Site.

Pak Shueng Chuen, The seal (No.DCCC860-16#24R), Mother's womb, 2017 DCCC860-16#24/170704(11:45-12:58)/DC(WC)/J:YFC/P:HKSAR/D:YCH-LHY-CSK-SKW- LYF/Riot, Acrylic paint on wall. Image courtesy of the artist and Para Site.

Pak Shueng Chuen, ‘The Seal (No.DCCC860-16#24R), Mother’s Womb’, 2017 DCCC860-16#24/170704(11:45-12:58)/DC(WC)/J:YFC/P:HKSAR/D:YCH-LHY-CSK-SKW- LYF/Riot, Acrylic paint on wall. Image courtesy the artist and Para Site.

Pak Sheung Chuen was born in 1977 in Fujian. He immigrated to Hong Kong in 1984 before the city’s handover from Britain to China. In 2002, the artist graduated from the Chinese University of Hong Kong and has been creating artwork in various media. From conceptual works to performances, Pak draws inspiration from the everyday. He has represented Hong Kong in the 53rd edition of the Venice Biennale in 2009.

He has exhibited internationally, including at Liverpool Biennial, Taipei Biennial and Busan Biennale. His works can also be found in collections such as M+ Sigg Collection and Tate Modern, among others.

Art Radar interviews the artist to delve deeper into the concepts behind the current show at Para Site, Hong Kong.

"Pak Sheung Chuen", 23 September - 3 December 2017, Para Site, Hong Kong. Image courtesy Para Site.

“Chris Evans, Pak Sheung Chuen: Two Exhibitions”, 23 September – 3 December 2017, Para Site, Hong Kong. Image courtesy Para Site.

Pak Sheung Chuen, Nightmare wallpaper (No.DCCC901-16#8), An angel in conversation with a young lady, 2017 DCCC901-16#8/170612(11:28-3:07)/DC(WK)/J:KWK/P:HKSAR/D:MJT-XXX-CCH-HKS- FTH-CWC-TKC-LCH-LWW-YCF-XXX/Riot, wood panel , wallpaper, 127 x 320 x 1cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Para Site.

Pak Sheung Chuen, ‘Nightmare Wallpaper (No.DCCC901-16#8), An Angel in Conversation with a Young Lady’, 2017 DCCC901-16#8/170612(11:28-3:07)/DC(WK)/J:KWK/P:HKSAR/D:MJT-XXX-CCH-HKS-FTH-CWC-TKC-LCH-LWW-YCF-XXX, riot, wood panel , wallpaper, 127 x 320 x 1cm. Image courtesy the artist and Para Site.

On Colour

What is the role of colour in your works presented in this exhibition? For example, “The Seal” series in black and white versus the “Nightmare Wallpaper” series in colour…

For the “Nightmare Wallpaper” series, I want it to be decorative to serve a role of penetration—to make people love it before they know the hidden meaning behind. That’s why it is colorful and cheerful, but the colour is also related to the meaning and story of the patterns.

For “The Seal” series, it is black and white. It’s like a religious symbol. It gives powerful impact from which you can’t escape. Even you don’t know about it, you still believe it has a mythical power behind—all you have to do is to believe.

Pak Sheung Chuen, Nightmare wallpaper (No.DCCC901-16#36), a goat and a dancer, 2017, DCCC901-16#36/170721(11:49-2:06)/DC(WK)/J:KWK/P:HKSAR/D:MJT-XXX-CCH-HKS- FTH-CWC-TKC-LCH-LWW-YCF-XXX/Riot, wood panel , wallpaper, 127 x 320 x 1cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Para Site.

Pak Sheung Chuen, ‘Nightmare Wallpaper (No.DCCC901-16#36), A Goat and A Dancer’, 2017, DCCC901-16#36/170721(11:49-2:06)/DC(WK)/J:KWK/P:HKSAR/D:MJT-XXX-CCH-HKS- FTH-CWC-TKC-LCH-LWW-YCF-XXX, riot, wood panel , wallpaper, 127 x 320 x 1cm. Image courtesy the artist and Para Site.

On Hong Kong

How have the recent events in Hong Kong influenced or changed your artistic practice?

I have contributed to a column in a local newspaper since 2003. Regarding the social and political situations, I also made artworks to respond. I think it can act as a bridge between art and society. It becomes my style. But when I physically stood in the middle of the Umbrella Movement in 2014, I felt the powerlessness of this art practice. I suspected the ways of my practice that react to political issues wouldn’t help the movement. It seems to be keeping me in far distance to observe and that’s it. Finally, I gave it up.

After the Movement broke down, I was like many other contributors of the Movement who had fallen in depression. I didn’t have any motivation to do anything – just keeping the anger inside. At that moment, almost half year later, art and religion helped me to recover. Incidentally, I went to the court to hear about court cases, where I found it very much like a church setting—and I like doing service at church. I felt comfortable and could concentrate my mind very easily. From that I let my pen go by itself on the paper, and then I interpreted the images and enlarged them through a scanner to observe the emotions of brushstrokes. After almost one and half year of practice as such, it healed me and I can claim the by-products as the artworks.

"Chris Evans, Pak Sheung Chuen: Two Exhibitions", 23 September - 3 December 2017, Para Site, Hong Kong. Image courtesy Para Site.

“Chris Evans, Pak Sheung Chuen: Two Exhibitions”, 23 September – 3 December 2017, Para Site, Hong Kong. Image courtesy Para Site.

Do you feel optimistic or pessimistic about the city’s future?

I felt pessimistic, as all the core values of the Hong Kong have become very fragile, like legal system, legislative council, freedom of speech… The Hong Kong government was supposed to help Hong Kong people to protect these values, but actually you can see how the government has been going against them. Now we can only pin hope on the civil society, but it seems not strong enough, especially after the Umbrella Movement..

噩夢牆紙 Nightmare wallpaper (No.DCCC901-16#25) 內⽿ Inner ears, 2017 DCCC901-16#25/170705(11:06-3:44)/DC(WK)/J:KWK/P:HKSAR/D:MJT-XXX-CCH-HKSFTH- CWC-TKC-LCH-LWW-YCF-XXX/Riot(暴動) wood panel , wallpaper ⽊板、牆紙 127 x 320 x 1cm courtesy of the artist 作品由藝術家提供

Pak Sheung Chuen, ‘Nightmare Wallpaper (No.DCCC901-16#25) Inner ears, 2017, DCCC901-16#25/170705(11:06-3:44)/DC(WK)/J:KWK/P:HKSAR/D:MJT-XXX-CCH-HKSFTH-CWC-TKC-LCH-LWW-YCF-XXX, riot, wood panel , wallpaper, 127 x 320 x 1cm. Image courtesy the artist and Para Site.

 "Pak Sheung Chuen", 23 September - 3 December 2017, Para Site, Hong Kong. Image courtesy Para Site.

“Chris Evans, Pak Sheung Chuen: Two Exhibitions”, 23 September – 3 December 2017, Para Site, Hong Kong. Image courtesy Para Site.

Rationality vs. subjectivity/subconscious

The courtroom usually represents rationality and judgement, yet the automatic drawings conducted at the venue depict the subconscious emotions of your reaction to the cases. What do you make of the notion of rationality versus subconsciousness in your work in this exhibition?

I would not compare myself with the role of judges and lawyers who have been working in a professional system (a closed system or perfect system perhaps?). I am more like a journalist. While a journalist records the fact on the surface for the public, I also record the hidden side, the atmosphere, and emotions and the personal side. A journalist writes stories and news, and I write diary and make symbols and patterns. I can feel that different personalities of the judges have resulted in different judgments and hence different verdicts, but I believe if the legal system is healthy, it will adjust the flaws or mistakes herein.

Pak Sheung Cheun, Nightmare wallpaper (No.DCCC860-16#12), Bloody moth, 2017 DCCC860-16#12/170607(11:10-12:43)/DC(WC)/J:YFC/P:HKSAR/D:YCH-LHY-CSK-SKW- LYF/Riot, wood panel , wallpaper, 127 x 320 x 1cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Para Site.Pak Sheung Cheun, Nightmare wallpaper (No.DCCC860-16#12), Bloody moth, 2017 DCCC860-16#12/170607(11:10-12:43)/DC(WC)/J:YFC/P:HKSAR/D:YCH-LHY-CSK-SKW- LYF/Riot, wood panel , wallpaper, 127 x 320 x 1cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Para Site.

Pak Sheung Cheun, ‘Nightmare Wallpaper (No.DCCC860-16#12), Bloody Moth’, 2017 DCCC860-16#12/170607(11:10-12:43)/DC(WC)/J:YFC/P:HKSAR/D:YCH-LHY-CSK-SKW- LYF, riot, wood panel, wallpaper, 127 x 320 x 1cm. Image courtesy the artist and Para Site.

"Chris Evans, Pak Sheung Chuen : Two Exhibitions", 23 September - 3 December 2017, Para Site, Hong Kong. Image courtesy Para Site.

“Chris Evans, Pak Sheung Chuen: Two Exhibitions”, 23 September – 3 December 2017, Para Site, Hong Kong. Image courtesy Para Site.

Personal healing, collective memory and activism

In response to injustice and traumatic events happening around the world, some artists turn to activism while some turn to spirituality as a means for healing. What is your approach and what do you think artists around the world can do to heal a wounded society?

I think first I have to become a citizen, and then an artist, even though I can’t separate my roles from both of them. I don’t think I focus on political artworks; due to my role as a Hong Kong citizen I can’t stay away from politics. I think first we have to resume health or stay healthy, otherwise we won’t be able to help the others, so I should get healed first and then go back to the Movement. I believe my artwork is on both sides.

Valencia Tong

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“Chris Evans, Pak Sheung Chuen: Two Exhibitions” is on view from 23 September to 3 December 2017 at Para Site, 22/F, Wing Wah Industrial Building, 677 King’s Road, Quarry Bay, Hong Kong.

Related Topics: Hong Kong artists, kinetic, painting, interviews, events in Hong Kong

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