The landmark exhibition “No Country” is in Singapore until July 2014 on the final leg of its journey.
The Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) at Gillman Barracks is playing host to the touring exhibition “No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia” until 20 July 2014. The exhibition is the first of the three-part Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative.
Curated by June Yap, a Singaporean curator, “No Country” showcases nineteen works by sixteen artists and collectives from South and Southeast Asian countries. After its inaugural exhibit at the Guggenheim in New York in the spring of 2013, the exhibition travelled to Hong Kong in October 2013 and is now in Singapore on the last leg of its journey.
The Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative is a collaboration between Swiss bank UBS and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. It aims to acquire and exhibit contemporary art from the bank’s emerging growth markets of South and Southeast Asia, Latin America, North Africa and the Middle East.
Geographical span: “An almost impossible commission”
The task of tackling a region as varied as Southeast Asia and representing its contemporary art practices in a landmark exhibition is a daunting task by itself, not only because of the number of countries in the region (eleven), but also because of the diversity in the artistic practices of each country.
To add to that, South Asia – which is home to almost twenty percent of the world’s population and is equally diverse with Afghanistan on its western end and Sri Lanka on its eastern – makes for an almost impossible commission to put together in just one year.
While the exhibition’s geographical delineation is clearly according to the bank’s financial market definition, the theme of the exhibition seems to want the viewer to experience the works without the trappings and boundaries of geography. The title of the exhibition refers to W.B. Yeat’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium” as well as to Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men and the 2007 Hollywood movie of the same name. According to curator June Yap, the exhibition explores the same themes of morality and mortality as the poem, book and film it takes its inspiration from.
Just as the poem was adapted across different channels, the artworks in the exhibition also explore the theme through different media including painting, sculpture, installation and video. Sub-themes such reflection and encounter, intersections and dualities, diversities and divisions, and the desire for unity and community are communicated in the artworks on display.
First impressions: Flowers and razor blades
Walking into the exhibition space, the works that immediately catch the eye are Sopheap Pich’s Morning Glory (2011), Tayeba Begum Lipi’s Love Bed (2012) and Navin Rawanchaikul’s Place of Rebirth (2009). In terms of size, colour and material, they provide the aspects of shock and awe that seem to be a hallmark of many contemporary art exhibitions.
Sopheap Pich’s massive rattan and bamboo flower evokes, for him, memories of the Khmer Rouge’s governance and is a reminder of how the distinctive flower was a source of nourishment for many Cambodians during that era.
Tayeba Begum Lipi’s sparkling stainless steel bed seems to be a celebration of love from afar, but closer inspection reveals that it is made up of razor blades which have become iconic of the artist’s work. The cold steel blades arise from Lipi’s personal memory of growing up in Bangladesh and are a stark contrast to the perception of the bed as a place for warmth and rest.
Navin Rawanchaikul’s 23-feet long panoramic work utilises the bold colours and style of billboard movie posters that are popular in the Indian subcontinent. However, the people and places in the painting are those he encountered on his first visit to his ancestral home in Pakistan. The images tell the story of not only his own voyage but also that of history, migration and memory. Rawanchaikul, a Thai artist, navigates the geographical, political and cultural paths that his forefathers traversed from Pakistan to Thailand at the time of the subcontinent’s partition in 1947.
The exhibition also has quieter works which make their statements in muted yet compelling tones. Tuan Andrew Nguyen’s Enemy’s Enemy: Monument to a Monument (2012) is a baseball bat standing quietly in one corner. This well-known symbol of American sports and culture is transformed into a sculpture of the venerated Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc who immolated himself in 1963 to protest against the repression of Buddhism in Vietnam.
Shilpa Gupta’s 1:14.9 (2011-12), which looks like a huge ostrich egg in a glass case, is actually a ball of hand-wound polyester thread, 79 miles long, which represents the 1188.5 miles (at a scale of 1:14.9) of fenced border that exists between India and Pakistan from the West to the Northwest.
Vincent Leong’s Keeping up with the Abdullahs (1 and 2) (2012) are two prints which look like typical family portraits of the Malay Sultanate in the early nineteenth century, but while the setting and costumes are Malay, the portraits’ subjects are from two of Malaysia’s ethnic minorities: the Chinese and Indians. The work references Malaysia’s history of ethnic segregation and the topic of cultural assimilation as a means of societal harmony.
Representation through video
The exhibition also has five video works of varying lengths. Amar Kanwar’s The Trilogy: A Night of Prophecy (2002) is the longest at 77 minutes. Each of the three videos in the trilogy shows a historical, political and cultural event that has shaped India and which needs to be confronted if there is to be change.
Coincidentally, the shortest video is part of Pakistani artist Bani Abidi’s series of works “The Boy Who Got Tired of Posing” (2006). The 58-second video is part of a set of works comprising two photographs and a video. It is a witty take on the country’s representation of Mohammed Bin Qasim, a general from the Umayyad caliphate who conquered the region in 711 AD and is seen as central in the country’s official narrative as an independent Muslim state within South Asia.
In terms of themes or artists, “No Country” springs no surprises for those familiar with the region’s art. The issues of identity, politics, history and religion have been and continue to be discussed by the regions’ artists.
Though titled “No Country”, the works in the exhibition are almost impossible to read without reference to the socio-political and historical developments within each country. The choice of artists is also familiar, as many of those selected have exhibited in Singapore before. For the uninitiated, the exhibition should be seen as a preview to the regions’ artistic practices, as there is immense diversity in each of the regions as well as within each of the countries represented.
Related Topics: South Asian artists, Southeast Asian artists, reviews, art about history, art about identity, art about memory, art about migration, connecting Asia to itself, museum shows, touring exhibitions, curatorial practice, events in Singapore
- “Southeast Asian art history doesn’t have a canon yet”: Isabel Ching – interview – March 2014 – Art Radar speaks with curator Isabel Ching about the Brandnew Art Projectin Bangkok, her research into Conceptualism and her thoughts on art in Southeast Asia
- Disrupted Choreographies from Vietnam – in pictures – March 2014 – eight Vietnamese artists explore alternative views of colonisation and alter assumptions of history at the Museum of Contemporary Art Nîmes’
- Art and queer ideas from Bangkok and Manila: Radiation – in pictures – February 2014 – what is queer identity in Southeast Asia? 25 international artists reflect
- 6 Southeast Asian artists to watch in 2014 – curator Louis Ho’s predictions – January 2014 – Singapore curator Louis Ho reveals to Art Radar his top six young Southeast Asian artists to watch for 2014
- Transcending borders: “No Country” at Asia Society Hong Kong – June Yap curator interview – October 2013 – The Asia Society Hong Kong Centre presents “No Country”, a show that explores the diversity of contemporary art from the region
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