Three Southeast Asian artists approach the subject of urban living in very different ways.
In the third of a short series of posts on artworks in Primo Marella Gallery’s “DEEP S.E.A.” exhibition, we examine different responses from Cambodian artist Khvay Samnang, Indonesian-born Aditya Novali and Singaporean Donna Ong to the fast-paced urban development that is transforming the Southeast Asian landscape and society.
Other posts in this four part series
Opening in November 2012, “DEEP S.E.A.” was curated by numerous invited “Contributors”:
- Iola Lenzi (Myanmar)
- Jim Amberson (Singapore)
- Zoe Butt (Vietnam)
- Catherine Choron-Baix (France)
- Patrick D. Flores (Philippines)
- Erin Gleeson (Cambodia)
- Tony Godfrey (Singapore)
- June Yap (Singapore)
- Jim Supangkat (Indonesia)
Exhibiting alongside Cambodian Khvay Samnang, Indonesian Aditya Novali and Donna Ong, from Singapore, were eight other artists from the Southeast Asian region:
- Sopheap Pich (Cambodia)
- Natee Utarit (Thailand)
- Nithakhong Somsanith (Laos)
- Khvay Samnang Aung Ko (Myanmar)
- La Huy (Vietnam)
- Ruben Pang (Singapore)
- Nguyễn Thái Tuấn (Vietnam)
- Isabel & Alfredo Aquilizan (Philippines)
Khvay Samnang’s art as social commentary
Performance at Boeng Kak Lake
Thirty-one-year old Svay Rieng-born Khvay Samnang is known for his socially-oriented performances and photographs that deal with issues related to Cambodia’s poorest communities.
In 2011, Samnang displayed a performance-based project at SA SA Bassac, an art gallery in Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh, which highlighted the eviction of more than 3,500 residents from villages surrounding the Boeung Kak lake. In order to transform the area into a commercial development, Shukaku Inc., a company headed by Cambodian senator Lao Meng Khin, the lake was filled with sand, causing polluted floods in nearby areas.
During the performance, Samnang stood in different places inside the lake’s polluted waters and poured buckets of sand over his head. The project criticised the phenomenon of land grabbing in Cambodia, which was introduced when the Khmer Rouge destroyed all land records between 1975 and 1979 and the government’s land concession scheme forced farmers off of the land in order to lease it to big companies, creating a new class of landless poor.
Portrait of Phnom Penh’s White Building
“Human Nature Series” (2011), a series of digital prints featured in “DEEP S.E.A.”, deals with the inhabitants of an iconic building in downtown Phnom Penh. The construction is popularly known as the “White Building“, and its history is tied to Cambodia’s traumatic past.
Erected in the 1960’s as a block of public-owned apartments for civil servants, the “White Building” was abandoned during the mass evacuation of the city by the Khmer Rouge and fell into disrepair. In the eighties, inhabitants gradually repopulated the run-down estate where trees grow in poorly lit alleyways and water pipes and electric cables intertwine.
The building is home to a cross-section of Phnom Penh’s citizens: genocide survivors, including many artists, heavily persecuted by the Khmer Rouge, social workers, artisans, students, prostitutes and drug dealers.
After learning that the building was in danger of being demolished by real estate developers, Samnang, who teaches there at Sa Sa Art Projects, decided to portray his neighbours in their dilapidated homes. However, he encountered resistance: Samnang circumvented the obstacle by asking them to wear masks of his own invention.
Aditya Novali’s housing development-prisons
Aditya Novali takes a different approach to the theme of social housing. With a series of wooden maquettes entitled “The Wall Series: Asian (Un)Real Estate Project” (2012), Novali explores the failure of the modernist public housing scheme (PDF download) started on a massive scale in Indonesia in the 1950s, and questions the idea that the welfare of the lower-classes can be improved by low-cost housing developments, where people must adjust to living in alienating spaces that are akin to cages or prisons. To make this point, Novali created a series of rotatable triangular tubes, what the artist calls “rotable paintings”, to represent miniature blocks of flats that hang on the wall like paintings.
Painting a game, a play
His rotatable paintings are constructed with several triangular tubes, placed vertically next to each other. The tubes can be turned independently allowing viewers to explore different combinations. One side of each tube depicts a stack of bricks; the second side shows barred windows, recalling prison doors; the third shows large windows that allow viewers to peer inside tiny cell-like units and discover a disturbing scenario of blood-stained furniture, destroyed walls and coffins.
In an email interview with Art Radar, Novali explained,
Actually I started rotatable paintings in 2010 when many people said that painting was over. I disagreed with this opinion and started my exploration of the possibility of its visual instability. I was always fascinated with the theme of urban paradox. And irony plays an important role in my work as it becomes an element in our everyday lives. That is why my rotatable works, including “The Wall” series, are not only representations of interactive work, but [are] also, more importantly, a means to talk about polarity and dualism. Here, I present a space without the human, containing only objects, elements and traces that give rise to a certain narrative. But indeed, interactivity becomes [an] essential part in my art practice, in order to [include] the audience as part of the work and relate [them] into the story. Maybe it is also because of my childhood experience as a traditional puppet master (dalang wayang kulit) that closely related with stage performance and design, that I bring the theatrical quality [into] my work.
Donna Ong’s fantastic landscape
A different vision
In stark visual contrast to Samnang and Novali’s socially-charged visions of contemporary urban life in Southeast Asia, 35-year-old Donna Ong‘s installation A City Dreams of a City (2009), covering two large box-like tables with piled-up crystal jars, bottles and decanters, created the illusion of a delicate, fantastic cityscape.
Initially trained as an architect, Singaporean artist Donna Ong works with complex assemblages made out of everyday objects that create eerie landscapes that relate to her memories and dreams. For the Singapore Arts Festival in 2007, she transformed a forty-foot shipping container into a floral garden made of a collection of hair-clips and brushes.
As the artist told Art Radar in an email interview,
Ultimately, my art practice deals with the childhood desire to imitate, imagine, inhabit and make-do … using whatever objects are available at the moment. Each project is often chosen from a childhood game, dream or narrative, an adult’s search to recapture or fulfil a remembered childhood dream with his or her current skills, knowledge and resources – an adult playing a child’s game much too seriously.
Childhood dreams, urban reality
Donna Ong’s fairytale cityscape, A City Dreams of a City, references the artist’s childhood memories, but at the same time takes its inspiration from Singaporean contemporary urban reality.
Other posts in this four part series
My installation, ‘A City Dreams of a City’ is a similar attempt to recreate and construct a childhood vision, in this case, the magic and image of the city as recalled from childhood. However, it is impossible to see things exactly as one used to, and the knowledge, experience and cynicism gained by the adult one has become, inevitably enters and taints the work.
The uniformity and relentless multiplication of the glass towers reflect the fast-paced, never-ending construction that is taking place in South East Asia, where new tower blocks seem to sprout up magically overnight. Our city landscapes are being altered drastically at an alarming rate in our desire to catch up and perhaps even overtake the West. The material used, i.e. glass, refers to the fragility and thinness of those ambitions, how easily they can be destroyed by the fickle shifts in economy or the whims of nature.
- “DEEP S.E.A.”: Singapore artist Ruben Pang’s search for “melody in white noise” – January 2013 – the second in this series on Primo Marella Gallery’s Southeast Asian art exhibition
- “DEEP S.E.A.”: Why concept determines medium for Burmese artist Aung Ko – January 2013 – the first in this series on Primo Marella Gallery’s Southeast Asian art exhibition
- Who is futureproofing Singaporean art? 26 young artists in SAM survey – May 2012 – Donna Ong included in this survey of new Singaporean contemporary art
- Sand-covered Cambodian artist Khvay Samnang’s Phnom Penh lake performance – August 2011 – Samnang questions urban development in his home country through performance photography, video
- First time for Afghanistani, Kyrgyz and Iraqi artists in Sovereign Asian Art Prize finalist line-up – November 2010 – Aditya Novali nominated for the 2010 prize
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