The National Art Centre and the Mori Art Museum are jointly staging an exhibition that explores contemporary Southeast Asian art.
Commemorating the 50th anniversary of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), this ambitious exhibition showcases the contemporary art of the region through multiple media.
A first for both galleries in terms of presenting a joint exhibition across the two Roppongi sites in Tokyo, the exhibition “SUNSHOWER: Contemporary Art from Southeast Asia 1980s to Now” tracks the development of contemporary Southeast Asian art since 1980, with its many artists highlighting the social, economic and political character of the various regions they originate and work from.
Creating an exhibition as broad and expansive as this one, in both geographical scope and the range of issues explored, is no mean feat. The two museums – Mori Art Museum and National Art Centre in Tokyo – set up a 14-person strong curatorial team, and after a two-and-a-half-year period of field research, the team chose around 190 artworks by 86 artists, from 10 different countries. Critical for the curators was featuring a cross-section of the work being produced across Southeast Asia in the last forty years, leading to such a vast display. As Naoki Yoneda, curator from The National Art Centre, Tokyo, explains,
Though Japan is geopolitically quite familiar with Southeast Asia, we have had only a few opportunities so far to see the artistic activities in this region. I hope this huge scale survey show could draw the attention of the Japanese audience not only to the art history but also to the subject-matters that artists have been attacking.
These subject matters are certainly far-reaching and the exhibition is split into eight sections across the two galleries to help compartmentalise the different and overlapping themes on display. The exhibition technically starts at The National Art Centre, Tokyo (NACT), with themes including “Fluid World”, “Passion and Revolution”, “Archiving”, “Diverse Identities” and “Day by Day”; offerings at the Mori Art Museum revolve around themes of “Growth and Loss”, “What is Art?”, “Medium as Meditation” and “Dialogue with History”.
What this breadth of exploration allows, alongside the varied individual artists, artist groups and media on display, is a “festival-like atmosphere”, as noted in the exhibition’s press release. This relaxed atmosphere is emphasised by the extended opening hours of the National Art Centre during the exhibition, allowing visitors to explore the work into the evening.
This sprawling exhibition undoubtedly deals with many complex and sometimes difficult themes; in particular, some of the Vietnamese works in the “Dialogue with History” section tackle difficult issues surrounding cultural heritage and loss following the Vietnam War. However, there is also a playfulness and lightheartedness intrinsic to this show that the two venues and the range of work lend themselves too. The ‘festival atmosphere’ is further felt through the bright colours and audio works on display. One particular artwork, which rings through the Mori Art Museum, is Felix Bacolor’s Stormy Weather, made up of over 1,000 wind chimes that jangle continuously, swaying in the wind from two fans. As the Mori Art Museum comments,
These colourful plastic decorations speak of both the festive nature of Southeast Asia and a global economy supported by mass production, as they deliver a palpable vibration from which we sense signs of change.
Spanning four generations, the exhibition includes work from influential artists such as Montien Boonma from Thailand and Roberto Chabet from the Philippines, as well as a younger generation born in the 1980s and 1990s, such as Ho Rui An (Singapore) and Korakrit Arunanondchai (Thailand).
The dizzying video work of the latter artist proves a highlight of a visit. Shown in its own blue-lit room off the main gallery with incredible views of the Roppongi area (the Mori Art Museum is on the 53rd floor), Arunanondchai’s 24-minute film is interlaced with the artist’s own hip-hop music. As the museum explains,
Portraying an autobiographical theme that interweaves contemporary Thai society and Arunanondchai’s own family, the work is edited as a series of fragmented images incorporating various cultural phenomenon such as folklore, television show scandals, movies and Manchester United, a hugely popular team in Thailand. Suggesting a mythology that takes place in an information capitalism-based society, here the high-rise buildings of Bangkok become temples, and floating drones are the eyes of God, who looks down over a completely syncretic world interconnected by the Internet. It could be said that Arunanonchai, by creating a mythological tale, is trying to express the invisible form of contemporary society.
Masterfully edited, this mesmerising piece highlights the interplay between tradition and modernity, weaving historic myths with contemporary realities, characteristic of the exhibition as a whole and often explored through the context of the urban metropolis.
Another highlight is the work of Indonesian collective JWA, or Jakarta Wasted Artists. Their intriguing Graphic Exchange displays a collection of signs bartered from small and big businesses in the Jakarta area. In exchange for the signs, JWA offered to design and produce new, more modern signage. The result is an installation of the existing signs that now serves as a visual archive of the urban economy and issues facing Javanese businesses, reinforced by a film which documents the exchange process of the signage and interviews business-owners, contributing to the visual histories of the area that the signs provide.
Yee I-Lann‘s Fluid World is a particularly intriguing piece in The National Art Centre’s show, taken from the Malaysian artist’s “Orang Besar” series from 2010 and as part of a larger section that considers map-themed works, reflecting complex societies and histories from a range of perspectives.
A key underlying aspect of many of the works on display is their participatory nature, with many demanding interaction to complete the art work. Anggun Priambodo’s Toko Kerpeluan (Necessity Shop) allows visitors to enter the shop and purchase goods inside. Similarly, internationally acclaimed Thai artist Surasi Kusolwong‘s installation includes five tons of yarn and threads, within which nine gold necklaces are hidden.
Employing metaphors on contemporary consumerism and culture, the artist intends for visitors to search through her installation for the necklaces, and allows them to remove them from the gallery if they wish. Visitor participation in this sense creates a performance piece, as new visitors arriving to view the piece will become disorientated, unsure whether the individuals are part of the work as a whole.
- Singaporean and Indonesian artists explore “Fantasy Islands” at Objectifs, Singapore – January 2017 – 7 Singaporean and Indonesian contemporary artists deal with the notion of ‘island’ and the fantasies attached to it
- “Letters to Chantri #1”: Thai artist Korakrit Arunanondchai at S.M.A.K. in Belgium – April 2016 – controversial Buddhist sect provides genesis for immersive installation’s purification ritual
- Preview: Art Dubai Marker 2016 – Spotlight on the Philippines – March 2016 – homegrown artist-run spaces in the Philippines take centre stage in Art Dubai Marker 2016
- Changing times: Indonesian art at Singapore Biennale 2013 – October 2015 – artists reflect on “if the world changed” through works exploring tradition, history, politics and society
- “Southeast Asian art history doesn’t have a canon yet”: Isabel Ching – interview – April 2014 – Singaporean curator and academic Isabel Ching discusses the challenges of making art in Southeast Asia
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