“People, Money, Ghosts (Movement as Metaphor)”: curator Roger Nelson on Southeast Asian art – interview

The recent group exhibition at Jim Thompson Art Centre reflects on the increasing global mobility in the artistic community and beyond.

Art Radar explores the themes in the exhibition and talks about recent trends in Southeast Asian art with curator Roger Nelson. 

Installation of "People, Money, Ghosts (Movement as Metaphor)" at Jim Thompson Art Centre. Image courtesy Jim Thompson Art Centre.

“People, Money, Ghosts (Movement as Metaphor)”, installation view at Jim Thompson Art Centre. Image courtesy Jim Thompson Art Center.

From 7 March to 30 June 2017 Bangkok’s Jim Thompson Art Center holds the group exhibition “People, Money, Ghosts (Movement as Metaphor)” with works from Khvay Samnang (based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia), Amy Lien and Enzo Camacho (based in Manila, Berlin and New York) and Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai (based in Hue, Vietnam). Curated by Roger Nelson, “People, Money, Ghosts” explores ideas and processes of migration.

The exhibition investigates how the migration of populations, industries, ideas, beliefs, technologies and aesthetics are adjusting concepts of the world and national boundaries. The works in the exhibition cross borders, are made in locations other than the artists’ so called “home” and question experiences of what it means to be of a certain place. The result is an experience that portrays the world in a state of constant movement and change.

Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai, 'Day by Day', 2014-15, single-changel HD video, colour, sound, 58 minutes. Image courtesy Jim Thompson Art Centre.

Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai, ‘Day by Day’, 2014-15, single-channel HD video, colour, sound, 58:00 min. Image courtesy Jim Thompson Art Center.

Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai explains how the practice of residencies is able to change perspectives and even approaches to creative production:

I think that the residencies, the traveling between different regions have made me care deeply and conscious my history and background better. The first few works in my career were realised within the spaces of studios, focusing on themes such as the human body and femaleness. My more recent works have expanded beyond the studio…Although the themes are history, society and experiences of immigrants, I have learned more about the history and the current social and political state that I’m living in.

Khvay Samnang, 'Rubber Man', 2014, single-chanel HD video colour, sound, 8 minutes 31 seconds. Image courtesy Jim Thompson Art Centre.

Khvay Samnang, ‘Rubber Man’, 2014, single-channel HD video colour, sound, 8:31 min. Image courtesy Jim Thompson Art Center.

Khvay Samnang’s works Yantra Man (2015) and Rubber Man (2014) explore experiences of movement in Cambodia, drawing from history – of Cambodian soldiers sent to fight for France in World War I and references to the long-standing rubber plantations in the region.

Khvay Samnang, 'Yantra Man', 2015, steel and engraved lead, 12 pieces, dimensions variable. Image courtesy Jim Thompson Art Centre.

Khvay Samnang, ‘Yantra Man’, 2015, steel and engraved lead, 12 pieces, dimensions variable. Image courtesy Jim Thompson Art Center.

The collaborating duo Amy Lien and Enzo Camacho created video sculptures evoking ghosts that leave their legs in the forest while their head and torso terrorise city inhabitants. This ghost can be found in the traditions of several nations in the region, such as Thailand’s akrasue, Cambodia’s arb or the Philippine manananggal. As Lien and Camacho explain in their exhibition text, the ghost is “a floating head with a slippery backstory; a shy predator auto-illuminating the swampy outskirts of the village; a shit-eater; a migrant in search of foul smells”.

Amy Lien and Enzo Camacho, 'Arb/Krasue +855 U NOTICE ME', 2017, ceramic, wig, stainless steel, projector with mount and mask, single-chanel HD video, colour, dimensions variable, 6 minutes 20 seconds. Image courtesy Jim Thompson Art Centre.

Amy Lien and Enzo Camacho, ‘Arb/Krasue +855 U NOTICE ME’, 2017, ceramic, wig, stainless steel, projector with mount and mask, single-channel HD video, colour, dimensions variable, 6:20 min. Image courtesy Jim Thompson Art Center.

Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai’s Day by Day (2014-17) is an ongoing project that documents the lives of stateless Vietnamese migrant communities living in floating villages in Cambodia and in Vietnam. She explained the origins of the project in detail to Art Radar:

At the beginning of 2014, I did a two-month residency at Sa Sa Art Project. Thus, I had an opportunity to befriend the undocumented immigrant community around Tonle Sap lake – Siem Reap. They told me stories about the history of the village, about their uncertain, unstable lives through wars and genocides, about their current living state. This led me to a deeper research that lasted for a year following the residency. I visited other villages in Kampong Luong, Sason, Kan Dieng, Pursat, I traced to the border areas between Vietnam and Cambodia, where Vietnamese immigrants from Cambodia are pouring to. This research helped me connect and reconsider the events of the past from different perspectives, understand their connections and impacts on the current social and political state.

The result is a one-hour video, a participatory installation and collaborative digital photographic collages installed inside a small hut.

Khvay Samnang, 'Katha', 2015, raw Cambodian cotton, engraved lead, 4cm x 4cm x 3,300cm. Image courtesy Jim Thompson Art Centre.

Khvay Samnang, ‘Katha’, 2015, raw Cambodian cotton, engraved lead, 4 x 4 x 3.3 cm. Image courtesy Jim Thompson Art Center.

Trends in Southeast Asian art

Art Radar had a chat with curator Roger Nelson about art practices and current trends in contemporary art in the region.

Can you explain a bit about how the exhibition came about and why it is important to have such an exhibition in the current context? 

The idea for the exhibition really grew out of my observations of the participating artists, as well as countless conversations with them, conducted over a period of several years. I noticed that travel and residencies were becoming increasingly important in their practices, and that this was also reflective of a broader trend among contemporary artists (especially of their generation), in Southeast Asia and beyond.

The invitation to curate this exhibition for the Jim Thompson Art Center presented an opportunity to participate in that institution’s very well-considered and quite deliberate programme, in these past few years, of turning to focus on the broader region of Southeast Asia. This continues Artistic Director Gridthiya Gaweewong‘s pioneering curatorial work with artists across the region, which began in the 1990s. I decided not to include any Thai artists in the “People, Money, Ghosts (Movement as Metaphor)” exhibition, but instead carefully considered the selection of works and their framing, to try to make the show relevant to its host institution and host city, and to engage with some of the ideas, aesthetics and discourses that are already circulating there.

Installation of "People, Money, Ghosts (Movement as Metaphor)" at Jim Thompson Art Centre. Image courtesy Jim Thompson Art Centre.

“People, Money, Ghosts (Movement as Metaphor)”, installation view at Jim Thompson Art Centre. Image courtesy Jim Thompson Art Center.

Outside Southeast Asia, curatorial attention to the region often tends to bind artistic practices to their location in Southeast Asia, in a manner which is often well-intentioned, but nevertheless can be quite reductive. Whereas inside Southeast Asia, despite an increasing focus on ideas of “regionalism”, there is a persistent (and indeed in many places increasingly resurgent) cultural nationalism, which among other things often functions to categorise artists according to what passport they hold. With this exhibition, I wanted to put pressure on the linking of an artist’s work and their place of origin, by presenting works that were made in locations far from the artists’ “home” cities. This in turn begins to throw the whole notion of “home” into question. By denaturalising the perceived link between an artist’s place of origin and their practice, I feel that a multiplicity of other interconnections and entanglements can emerge. These traverse numerous locations within and beyond the region.

These are some reasons why I felt that the exhibition project spoke to the contemporary moment, in terms of artistic and cultural discourse. But in addition to these, “People, Money, Ghosts” opened in a moment of worldwide political crisis, felt especially sharply through restrictions on human movement. Trump’s “travel bans” were in the headlines as the exhibition opened; moreover, it’s said that more people have been forced to flee their homes this past year than ever before in human history. As I suggest in the exhibition’s introductory wall text, the show is not made in response to the present political disaster; it is, however, in its shadow.

With people’s lives more mobile than ever, in what ways could artists play a role in making sense of and adapting to this changing landscape, particularly in Southeast Asia? 

While it is true to say that people’s lives are more mobile than ever, it’s also important to historicise this phenomenon. Within the exhibited artworks, we find numerous echoes of forms of mobility that are in fact decades or centuries old. For example, one of Khvay Samnang’s works addresses the rubber plantation industry, which began well over a century ago under colonial rule, and another of his works takes up the story of the Cambodian soldiers sent to fight for France in World War I, who have been largely forgotten.

Amy Lien and Enzo Camacho’s video sculptures make use of the figure of the manananggal/krasue/arb, a mythical being that is many centuries old, and can be found in locations across the region. And Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai’s hour-long documentary film presents the stories of dozens of stateless Vietnamese fishing villagers, who narrate their own families’ tales of migration between Vietnamese and Cambodian territories, some going back several generations.

Amy Lien and Enzo Camacho, 'Arb/Krasue +855 WE-B-2GETHER', 2017, ceramic, wig, stainless steel, projector with mount and mask, single-chanel HD video, colour, dimensions variable, 6 minutes 18 seconds. Image courtesy Jim Thompson Art Centre.

Amy Lien and Enzo Camacho, ‘Arb/Krasue +855 WE-B-2GETHER’, 2017, ceramic, wig, stainless steel, projector with mount and mask, single-chanel HD video, colour, dimensions variable, 6:18 min. Image courtesy Jim Thompson Art Center.

In the exhibition catalogue, I quote a text by the renowned Sri Lankan-American art historian and curator Ananda Coomaraswamy. In it, he writes:

Civilisation must henceforth be human rather than local or national, or it cannot exist. In a world of rapid communications it must be founded in the common purposes and intuitions of humanity, since in the absence of common motives, there cannot be cooperation for agreed ends.

As I note in the catalogue, these words could have been written yesterday, but in fact were first published 101 years ago, in 1916. Coomaraswamy could never have foreseen the scale and nature of the “rapid communications” that digital technologies have enabled today, of course. But we must also not forget that the migration of populations, goods and beliefs is not a new phenomenon, and that a sense of our world as undergoing rapid and unprecedented changes is not new, either.

Transnational mobility, rapid communications, and a sense of the world in flux are often imagined to be hallmarks of contemporaneity, but they are all defining features of modernity, too. This is revealed through historical research, of course, but also through a close attention to the work of the exhibiting artists. These works help us to make sense of today’s world, but I think they also reveal its deep links with the past.

I have also tried to draw out some of the historical dimensions of “People, Money, Ghosts” through a series of lectures (in Thai and English), which have accompanied the exhibition. These lectures have focused on historical and theoretical topics, and thus I hope offered various contexts within which the exhibited works can be considered.

Installation of "People, Money, Ghosts (Movement as Metaphor)" at Jim Thompson Art Centre. Image courtesy Jim Thompson Art Centre.

“People, Money, Ghosts (Movement as Metaphor)”, installation view at Jim Thompson Art Centre. Image courtesy Jim Thompson Art Center.

What trends have you noticed in the art scene in Southeast Asia in the past five years? 

I am not alone in remarking that residencies are becoming increasingly important, for artists in Southeast Asia and beyond. It is notable that most of the region’s major cities are home to residency programmes, and that these are often described – especially by younger artists – as playing a kind of educational role, often in a context of perceived shortcomings of other educational institutions.

The presence of history in contemporary art is also an important phenomenon in practices across the region. This is reflected as well in projects by the two Southeast Asian artists invited to participate in this year’s documenta 14 in Athens and Kassel. Thailand’s Arin Rungjang presents videos and installations reflecting on historical events of the 1940s and the 1970s, which took place in Germany, Greece and Thailand. Whereas Cambodia’s Khvay Samnang presents sculptures and a video which are informed by the continuing traditions of the Chong people, who are indigenous to highland and forested regions of Cambodia and neighbouring countries.

The importance of history in contemporary practices has also been remarked on by a number of scholars, such as Singapore’s June Yap (in her recent book Retrospective: A Historiographical Aesthetic In Contemporary Singapore And Malaysia). The journal, which I co-founded and co-edit, Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia, brings together historical research with writing on more recent art, but insists on a historically informed perspective.

Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai, 'ID Card', 2014,heat transfer prints on recycled fabric, 340 pieces, each piece 5.7cm x 8.1cm, installation dimensions variable. Image courtesy Jim Thompson Art Centre.

Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai, ‘ID Card’, 2014, heat transfer prints on recycled fabric, 340 pieces, each piece 5.7 x 8.1 cm, dimensions variable. Image courtesy Jim Thompson Art Center.

One aspect to this which has been less remarked upon in Southeast Asia-centred discourses is the spectre of art history within contemporary art. In “People, Money, Ghosts”, aesthetic histories are hinted at in each of the exhibited works. Khvay Samnang’s Rubber Man includes hand-carved wooden sculptures, which were inspired by those made by the highland people in Cambodia’s northeastern provinces. Amy Lien and Enzo Camacho’s works include references to pre-modern sculpture, in the ceramic sculpted heads, as well as citations of avant-garde designer fashions, in the garments worn by actors in the videos, and also in the accompanying catalogue text. And Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai’s Travels installation presents digital photographic collages that are made in homage to the form of decoration commonly found in the thatched homes of the villagers she worked with for the project.

These art historiographical impulses in the contemporary art of this region and beyond, while only hinted at in this exhibition, are something I hope to further explore in my next project.

Claire Wilson

1728

Related topics: Vietnamese artists, art and community, political, social, installation, art centres, events in Bangkok, feature

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