An exhibition exploring boundaries, differences and ‘otherness’ in a survey of contemporary art from the Asia-Pacific region.
“Time of Others” tours four major Asian museums with its third stop being the Singapore Art Museum featuring over 25 artworks by 17 artists across multiple media.
Singapore Art Museum’s (SAM) latest exhibition “Time of Others”, which opened on 21 November 2015, is a curatorial collaboration with three other distinguished museums exhibited in four locations in three countries: the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo (MOT), National Museum of Art, Osaka (NMAO) and the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA).
The exhibition features works by artists responding to social, historical and geopolitical concerns of living in an interconnected world, where notions of boundary, difference and ‘otherness’ have become more complex. The exhibition was at NMAO and MOT in 2015, will be in Singapore until 28 February 2016 and will then travel to QAGOMA in Brisbane.
Drawn from the participating museums’ collections, artist loans and commissions, the works feature a variety of media, with a prevalence of video art and photography.
The 17 artists featured in the Singapore iteration are:
- An-My Lê (Vietnam)
- Basir Mahmood (Pakistan)
- Chen Chieh-Jen (Taiwan)
- Danh Vo (Vietnam)
- Graham Fletcher (New Zealand/Samoa)
- Heman Chong (Singapore)
- Jonathan Jones (Australia)
- Kiri Dalena (The Philippines)
- Lim Minouk (South Korea)
- Miyagi Futoshi (Japan)
- On Kawara (Japan)
- Pratchaya Pinthong (Thailand)
- Ringo Bunoan (The Philippines)
- Saleh Husein (Indonesia)
- Shitamichi Motoyuki (Japan)
- Tozer Pak (Hong Kong)
- Vandy Rattana (Cambodia)
The touring exhibition, co-curated by Che Kyongfa, Hashimoto Azusa, Michelle Ho and Reuben Keehan, features a total of 25 artists from the Asia-Pacific region, although China and India, two of the major regional players, are missing. Not all the artists and their works will be shown at all the locations and the Singapore iteration features, for the first time, the works of Chen Chieh-Jen (Taiwan), Tozer Pak (Hong Kong) and Ringo Bunoan (The Philippines).
The title of the exhibition “Time of Others” allows interpretation on multiple fronts and the works are loosely arranged around the themes of individual and shared histories, cultural specificities and colonial legacies, as well as subjectivities that shape our understanding of culture and identity in today’s complex world.
Presence by Absence
Two works in the exhibition create meaning through absence. Singaporean artist Heman Chong’s work Calendars (2004-2010) is made up of 1,001 photographs that line the walls of a large gallery space.
A walk around the room highlights a few things: first, that the images are calendar pages for the future (2020-2096); second, they depict public places in Singapore that can be accessed by all; and third, that the images are devoid of human presence. This is ironic, since the burgeoning population of the island state, as a result of an open immigration policy (in response to a falling population growth rate), has been a key political and economic concern in recent years. Is such a scenario possible? The images are real and not staged; collected over a period of seven years of chance encounters by the artist.
The random flow of dates also suggests that time is an abstract notion, rather than a linear one, that can vary from individual to individual. Is the work looking back in time and comparing what is now with what will be? Or is it asking how identity can be shaped differently at different moments depending on one’s surroundings?
Another work that prompts contemplation through absence is Kiri Dalena’s Erased Slogans and The Red Book of Slogans (2008). The two-part work is comprised of a video projection on a wooden school desk and a little red book placed on a pedestal created from the arm of a chair.
The video is of a series of archival black and white photographs depicting street protests in the Philippines during the Marcos regime in the 1950s. However, it is impossible to know what they are protesting for (or against) as the banners and placards that they are holding are blank, as Dalena has digitally altered the archival images to remove the text. The missing slogans however are not lost: they have been placed in the little red book that sits adjacent to the desk on the arm of a school chair.
Through this work, Dalena investigates events that have gone missing from the history books and are lost to future generations because of how history has been written or taught, especially in schools. The red book is reminiscent of Mao’s both in size and title. However, its content is the polar opposite. Mao’s widely distributed book outlined guiding principles for a way of life that was acceptable to the Chinese regime, while Dalena’s red book is full of slogans protesting against political and human rights abuses in the Philippines. Perhaps Dalena proposes to publicise or educate the people about these forgotten or suppressed historical events through a handbook but ironically, for the viewer at SAM, the first impediment to accessing this knowledge is that the contents of the book are not open for viewing.
Like Dalena, who documents a past that she herself has not experienced, Cambodian artist Vandy Rattana’s Monologue (2014) is an 18-minute video that attempts to uncover a painful historical event, which has been lost to many in the rapidly changing urban and natural environment of Cambodia. It depicts a serene rural landscape, but through Rattana’s monologue with an unseen person, we discover that the landscape has not always been so peaceful and hides a brutal and painful reminder of Cambodia’s past. Though Rattana was born after the end of the Khmer Rouge regime, much of his work involves reviving forgotten historical narratives and like his earlier works leaves the viewer deeply moved and touched by his portrayal.
Saleh Husein’s Arabian Party, 2013 explores the relatively unknown history of Arab-Indonesians. Despite having been part of Indonesia’s history for a long time, Arab-Indonesians were classified as foreigners and their rights restricted under Dutch colonial rule. Through the act of converting historical photographs into paintings, Arabian Party is a personal response to and reflection on issues of nationhood, nationalism and identification.
In a lighter vein, Shitamichi Motoyuki’s series of work “Torii” (2006-12) examines how historical objects that held great meaning, significance and power in the past can become obsolete, repurposed or useless over time. Motoyuki’s series of photographs, which he took over a period of six years, captures images of Shinto gates (known as torii in Japanese) erected by the Japanese outside of Japan. In one photograph of Saipan USA, a majestic white gate now stands at the entrance of a Christian cemetery, and in another, a fallen gate in Taiwan has now been repurposed to serve as benches.
Shinto shrines were erected by the Japanese during World War II in the areas that they occupied and the toriis that stand at the entrance of these shrines represent a transition from the wordly to the sacred. These shrines, which were once places of worship and often tied together with allegiance to the Japanese empire, have today acquired new meaning and purpose.
Shitamachi says that this work was a result of his wanting to understand how the rest of the world perceived Japan. Living in Japan, he had a certain perception and view of the country and its history, but he wanted to understand how it was seen externally. The repurposed or abandoned toriis are symbolic of this multiplicity of meaning not only of objects but also of place, history and time.
Graham Fletcher’s works from the 2010 series “Lounge Room Tribalism” also investigate this multiplicity. His painted canvases portray fashionable living rooms from the 1950s and 1960s where Pacific ethnographic objects like masks are displayed as interior decorations. These objects, which once were important symbols of an Old World culture and people, have been repurposed into new symbols in the New World and what once represented power appears benign in its new setting.
Also about acquired cultural hierarchies is Basir Mahmood’s work Manmade (2010). A split-screen video montage, it depicts a South Asian man in one frame who is changing from his traditional attire into a western suit. In another frame, the man now dressed in the suit, sits and stares expressionlessly at the camera.
The video is silent but viewers can see the man engaging with someone off-screen and seeking continuous feedback and assurance as he changes from a familiar to an unfamiliar attire. The work investigates not only societal perceptions and hierarchies that are presented through attire, but is also personal to the artist whose own artistic journey required him to negotiate hierarchies of class, which he was unfamiliar with at the time he made the work.
The protagonist is an unemployed rickshaw driver whom the artist met for the first time when he made the video. Although the work represents the anxieties of donning a western attire or outlook, in today’s multicultural and turbulent political environment it could also be read in reverse. The anxieties associated with dealing with inherited familial cultures or with migration and new homelands are possibly very similar to the ones experienced here by the protagonist.
War, colonialism and its influences and after-effects are themes that appear in the works of several other artists, like Danh Vo, An-My Lê and Jonathan Jones. These artists tackle the question of how we can authentically and meaningfully conceive, understand and engage with other cultural contexts of society, while residing within our own localities, and being part of a globalised world today.
The exhibition not only includes several artists who have previously not been shown in Singapore or at SAM, but also presents a variety of works that engage the viewer in different ways. The show highlights individual issues but at the same time illustrates how interconnected the world is today. As SAM’s Director Dr Susie Lingham says,
“Time of Others” offers us the opportunity to explore ideas of personal identity, individual memories, as well as cultural and historical narratives through the perspectives of these artists.
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