“After Darkness”: Southeast Asian contemporary art at Asia Society, New York

“After Darkness: Southeast Asian Art in the Wake of History” runs until 21 January 2018 at New York’s Asia Society Museum.

The group show at Asia Society showcases the work of seven contemporary artists and one artist group from Indonesia, Myanmar and Vietnam, questioning the power of art to change the world and tackle socio-political occurrences.

Angki Purbandono, 'Beyond Versace', 2005–10, two artist books: C-prints on metallic paper, closed book, H. 19⅝ x W. 19⅝ x D. 315⁄16 in. (50 x 50 x 10 cm); ppen book: H. 19⅝ x W. 39⅜ x D. 315⁄16 in. (50 x 100 x 10 cm). Dr. Wiyu Wahono Collection. Image courtesy the artist.

Angki Purbandono, ‘Beyond Versace’, 2005–10, two artist books: C-prints on metallic paper; closed book, H. 19⅝ x W. 19⅝ x D. 315⁄16 in; open book: H. 19⅝ x W. 39⅜ x D. 315⁄16 in. Dr. Wiyu Wahono Collection. Image courtesy the artist.

“After Darkness: Southeast Asian Art in the Wake of History”, the current show at Asia Society in New York, is a poignant, yet critical examination of the use of artistic voice and action in a time of social strife and transition.

The title of the exhibition originates in the phrase “after darkness comes the light”, from the writings of Raden Adjeng Kartini, the daughter of the Regent of Jepara in Java, and an icon and champion of women’s emancipation in Indonesia. The title is meant to give voice to those who are disenfranchised and existing on the margins of society. Boon Hui Tan, Vice President for Global Arts & Cultural Programs and Director of the Asia Society Museum said that the “work of each of these artists represents their unfiltered responses to political trauma and societal transition in their home countries.”

Tintin Wulia, 'Violence Against Fruits' (still), 2000, single-channel video with sound, 2m56s. Image courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery.

Tintin Wulia, ‘Violence Against Fruits’ (still), 2000, single channel video with sound, 2min:56sec. Image courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery.

The videos, sculptures, prints, drawings and installations explore responses to themes of dislocation, economic disparity, political repression and family ties. Often without codified theories of contemporary art to refer to, these artists reached within themselves to grapple with themes of oppression, including the unjust treatment of the powerless.

Myanmar

Wounding, trauma, and healing are viscerally explored in a dedicated installation and video work by Burmese artist Htein Lin entitled A Show of Hands (2013-ongoing). In the video Lin functions as a type of ‘doctor’, encasing the right hands of ‘wounded’ former political prisoners in a series of casts.

 Htein Lin, 'A Show of Hands', 2013–present, surgical plaster and multimedia installation, dimensions variable. Installation view at Asia Society Museum, 2017. Image courtesy Asia Society.

Htein Lin, ‘A Show of Hands’, 2013–present, surgical plaster and multimedia installation, dimensions variable. Installation view at Asia Society Museum, 2017. Image courtesy Asia Society.

The video shows him slowly wrapping their hands in plaster soaked gauze. His tone is familiar and matter-of-fact as formerly brutalised individuals calmly and even jokingly relate their stories, belying the emotional and physical scarring from years of violence they endured under the military regime. His roster of ‘patients’ included women and men, and even ordained Buddhist monks. Lin plans to cast up to one thousand hands, yet highlights the importance of each participant’s individual identity. Each person’s name is meticulously noted next to their cast, along with their arrest and release dates, as well as the location of their incarceration. The artist, who himself spent six years in prison from 1998 to 2004, managed to continue his own art practice at the time by using discarded materials of prison debris like bits of cloth, cigarette butts and bars of soap.

Htein Lin, 'A Show of Hands', 2013–present, surgical plaster and multimedia installation, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the artist.

Htein Lin, ‘A Show of Hands’, 2013–present, surgical plaster and multimedia installation, dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artist.

Multimedia artist Nge Lay uses photographic images layered with implications and associations. Taking an old glass film negative of a dead ancestor she uses a raw torchlight to print their image. This is somewhat difficult to discern when first viewing the 45 lightboxes of blue, green and brown prints in Imagination Spheres (2008-2009) as they initially seem to be a type of stained glass. These stylised, haunting images become the ghosts of memory designed to evoke a contemporary interpretation of forgotten spirits.

Nge Lay, 'Imagination Sphere', 2008–2009, photography installation with 45 light boxes. Singapore Art Museum Collection.

Nge Lay, ‘Imagination Sphere’, 2008–2009, photography installation with 45 lightboxes. Singapore Art Museum Collection. Image courtesy Asia Society.

Lay’s photographic work also includes staged performance acts. As a young girl she witnessed many people die in front of her, due to the violence of those unstable times. As a way of exorcising trauma she embarked upon a series imagining herself as a bloody, dead corpse. This is an untraditionally brutal and stark image for a woman to produce in Myanmar, and is reminiscent of the blood-laced work of the late Cuban artist Ana Mendieta.

Nge Lay, 'Observing of Self Being Dead', 2011, color photograph, H. 36 x W. 54 in. (91.4 x 137.2 cm). Image courtesy of the artist.

Nge Lay, ‘Observing of Self Being Dead’, 2011, colour photograph, 36 x 54 in. Image courtesy of the artist.

Vietnam

The American-Vietnam war will forever haunt the American psyche, as evinced by the epic series “The Vietnam War” directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, divided in 10 parts for a total duration of 18 hours, which is currently screening on American Public Television (PBS). Because it takes so long to exhume trauma, the section on Vietnam begins with Dinh Q. Lê’s composed wall Light and Belief (2012)consisting of 70 ink drawings and watercolours from Vietnamese soldier artists.

Dinh Q. Le, 'Light and Belief: Sketches of Life from the Vietnam War', 2012, 70 drawings in pencil, watercolor, ink and oil on paper, and single-channel video with sound.

Dinh Q. Le, ‘Light and Belief: Sketches of Life from the Vietnam War’, 2012, 70 drawings in pencil, watercolour, ink and oil on paper, and single-channel video with sound. Image courtesy Asia Society.

Lê, of the most important members of the contemporary art scene in Ho Chi Minh City refuses to allow the drawings to serve as mawkish cartoons of Viet Cong propaganda. He also produced an accompanying documentary interviewing the creators who actually accompanied the troops into the battlefield. Many of the soldier’s portraits, which the artists likened to “our personal diaries” would be sent back to the fighter’s families after their loved ones died in battle, given a sacred spot in their ancestral homes. The male and female sketch and watercolour painters unabashedly discussed the day-to-day realities of living on the run in the jungles, while striving to tell a story and boost morale. The artist, who is a Viet Kieu, or returning Vietnamese, arrived back in Vietnam in 1993 (he originally emigrated with his family to the United States in 1978). He also co-founded Sàn Art in 2007, the first nonprofit artist run exhibition space and reading room in Vietnam.

Lê also displays his more recent and breathtaking abstract celluloid-like C-print scroll paintings. These lush ribbons of colour folding onto themselves resemble the grandeur of Morris Louis’s definitive colour field paintings.

Dinh Q. Le, 'Scroll #4' from "Four Perspectives" (detail), 2016.

Dinh Q. Le, ‘Scroll #4’ from “Four Perspectives” (detail), 2016.

Tuan Andrew Nguyen, Matt Lucero and Phunam Thuc Ha of the collective The Propeller Group from Ho Chi Minh City show a provocative and socially caustic two-channel video installation The Guerrillas of Cu Chi (2012). The first video consists of a 1963 black and white propaganda film of the Viet Cong who created the Cu Chi underground tunnels outside Ho Chi Minh City that helped them win the American-Vietnam war. As the black and white video projects onto one wall, on the opposite wall is a colour video showing mostly Western tourists above the current Cu Chi underground tunnel site now an amusement park-like shooting range. For the mere cost of around one dollar tourists can blast away with AK-47s and M-16s at mock enemies. The outlandish and obvious tensions created by this cross breeding of cause and effect videos playing simultaneously and directly across from one another is glaringly disjointed and effective at conveying the deep cynicism of an essentially disheartened revolution.

The Propeller Group, 'The Guerrillas of Cu Chi' (still), 2012.

The Propeller Group, ‘The Guerrillas of Cu Chi’ (still), 2012. Image courtesy © The Propeller Group and James Cohan, New York.

The Propeller Group, 'The Dream', 2012, single-channel HD video and motorbike frame with steel pallet; motorbike: H. 57 x L. 47⅛ x D. 31½ in. (145 x 120 x 80 cm), 4m20s. The Burger Collection. Image courtesy © The Propeller Group and James Cohan, New York.

The Propeller Group, ‘The Dream’, 2012, single channel HD video and motorbike frame with steel pallet; motorbike: H. 57 x L. 47⅛ x D. 31½ in, 4min:20sec. The Burger Collection. Image courtesy © The Propeller Group and James Cohan, New York.

The group then turns their attention to the relationship between expediency and upwardly mobile capitalism with The Dream (2012), both a sculptural installation and video. In the video a Honda Dream motorcycle used by millions everyday to navigate through the daunting traffic in Vietnamese cities has been deliberately left outside overnight. In a time-lapse stream lasting the course of one night, its valuable components were stripped and stolen, showing the underbelly of the ‘pure’ Communist ideology of the government. Displayed inside the gallery is the actual stripped down motorbike, forlorn and denuded by its piranhas of the night.

The Propeller Group, 'The Dream', 2012, single-channel HD video and motorbike frame with steel pallet; motorbike: H. 57 x L. 47⅛ x D. 31½ in. (145 x 120 x 80 cm), 4m20s. The Burger Collection. Image courtesy © The Propeller Group and James Cohan, New York.

The Propeller Group, ‘The Dream’, 2012, single channel HD video and motorbike frame with steel pallet; motorbike: H. 57 x L. 47⅛ x D. 31½ in, 4min:20sec. The Burger Collection. Image courtesy © The Propeller Group and James Cohan, New York.

Nguyen Thi Thanh Maia Vietnamese artist born in 1983 and based in Hue, deals with issues of identity, home, nationality, borders and place. Her Day by Day (2014-15) is composed of four interrelated pieces developed from a year-long residency living with stateless refugees. The title originates from villagers in Siem Reap province in Cambodia and Pursat, and over the border in Long An, Vietnam. As stateless villagers, many who lived aboard boats, the adults and especially the children could not imagine their future. They were literally surviving ‘day by day’, and not being part of any nation left them economically vulnerable, and unable to obtain basic goods and services for them or their families. With no legal rights or protection, they are continually subject to paying bribes to officials just to be left in peace. ID Card (2014) consists of four sections, of which one is an interactive participatory piece where Mai places stacks made up of 340 “unofficial” identity cards for the Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees, and was created from heat transferred prints on recycled fabric.

Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai, 'ID Card' (detail), 2014, 340 heat transfer prints on recycled fabric on a table, each: H. 2¼ x W. 3⅛ in. (5.7 x 8.1 cm). Image courtesy of the artist.

Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai, ‘ID Card’ (detail), 2014, 340 heat transfer prints on recycled fabric on a table, each: 2¼ x 3⅛ in. Image courtesy of the artist.

Indonesia

The work of Indonesian artist FX Harsono was chosen as the main image to represent the public face of the exhibition. Harsono has been an artist and activist for over 40 years, both before the 1998 fall of president Suharto, and in the ensuing era of capital reform. Victim—Destruction 1 (1977), his seminal video performance work, was part of a show organised by the Cemeti Art House entitled “Slot In The Box”, an open call before the election for Indonesian artists to deal with the electoral fraud in the Alun-alun Selatan (Southern Square) public square of the capital Yogyakarta through installation and performance art.

This was a very dangerous call because any assembly of more than five people was deemed illegal. In the performance, he painted his face to become the powerful demon king Ravana, part of the epic Sanskrit tale the Ramayana. Dressed in a business suit he set fire to three wayang, or Indonesian dance masks placed on chairs to represent the three political parties Suharto allowed. Using an outsized chainsaw he destroyed the burnt chairs and burnt masks as a direct comment about Suharto controlling the election. The debris left behind was also part of the installation.

FX Harsono, 'Victim—Destruction I', 1997, performance at the Alun-alun Selatan (Southern Square) during the opening for the exhibition “Slot in the Box” at Cemeti Art House, 1997. Image courtesy of Cemeti Art House.

FX Harsono, ‘Victim—Destruction I’, 1997, performance at the Alun-alun Selatan (Southern Square) during the opening for the exhibition “Slot in the Box” at Cemeti Art House, 1997. Image courtesy of Cemeti Art House.

Burned Victims (1998) is a memorial to the actual victims against Suharto and the New Order. Rioters during that time of political unrest performed a ghastly act, locking innocent people inside a mall, blocking the exits and setting fire to the building. Harsono responded by taking nine body shaped pieces of wood, tying them to poles, and soaking them in petrol. They were lit on fire accompanied by different placard slogans like kerusuhan or ‘riot’, or questions asking who was responsible. He then created an installation of the burnt torsos along with shoes as a protest against such arbitrary murders.

FX Harsono, 'Burned Victims', 1998, burned wood, metal, shoes, and performance video with sound, 8m41s. Singapore Art Museum Collection.

FX Harsono, ‘Burned Victims’, 1998, burned wood, metal, shoes, and performance video with sound, 8min:41sec. Singapore Art Museum Collection. Image courtesy Asia Society.

Chinese-Indonesian artist Tintin Wulia, with origins from Jakarta and Brisbane, Australia is part of what is called the younger “2000 generation”, who continue to engage in socio-art practice like the generation before them. Her “public interventions” as she calls them focus on the issues of borders, migration, employment and identity. Her video Trade/Trace/Transit (2014-2016) traces the life of common flat pieces of cardboard found throughout Hong Kong’s Central district, where they are sold and resold in numerous ways, and used by Filipino maids as picnic accoutrements on Sunday day off.  The sculptural installation aspect of the work – bound bales of cardboard – was show at Art Basel Hong Kong in 2016 as Five Tonnes of Homes and Other Understories. It traces the recycling route of the material back to China, where it winds up being repurposed in paper mills.

Tintin Wulia, 'Trade/Trace/Transit' (video still), 2014-2016.

Tintin Wulia, ‘Trade/Trace/Transit’ (video still), 2014-2016. Image courtesy the artist.

This concise impactful show is succinct and timely. It delves into major themes and has a clear, consistent and comprehensive message. Introducing artists from Southeast Asia that many visitors may not be familiar with, it does so in a way that takes a complex subject and makes it accessible and understandable. “After Darkness” shows the power of art to act as witness and resolve trauma by healing through remembrance.

Ellen Pearlman

1948

“After Darkness: Southeast Asian Art in the Wake of History” is on view from 8 September 2017 to 21 January 2018 at Asia Society Museum, .

Related topics: Indonesian artists, Myanmar/Burmese artists, Vietnamese artists, video, film, installation, sculpture, political, social, violence, war, trauma, museum showsevents in New York

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