Seven contemporary performance artists explore politics and expression at the inaugural Asia-Pacific Triennial of Performing Arts.
Art Radar takes a closer look at some of the participating performance artists and their practice.
A new exhibition at the Arts Centre Melbourne gathers together the pioneers of performance art in Southeast Asia. “Political Acts: Pioneers of Performance Art in Southeast Asia”, part of the Asia TOPA: Asia-Pacific Triennial of Performing Arts events across the city will be on until 21 May 2017. The seven featured artists are all part of the driving force of innovative performance artists of the region, and include:
- Dadang Christanto (Indonesia / Australia)
- Lee Wen (Singapore)
- Liew Teck Leong (Malaysia)
- Khvay Samnang (Cambodia)
- Moe Satt (Myanmar)
- Melati Suryodarmo (Indonesia)
- Tran Luong (Vietnam)
Performance art in Southeast Asia acknowledges the cultural traditions within the region as well as critically exploring social, political and environmental issues.
As curator Dr. Steven Tonkin points out in his curatorial essay, performance art in Southeast Asia developed after China’s boom in the field in the 1990s and 2000s. While Dadang Christanto, Lee Wen, Melati Suryodarmo and Tran Luong are now veterans of the region, Khvay Samnang, Liew Teck Leong and Moe Satt have emerged in the last fifteen years to extend the scene to the next generation.
An increase in performing art festivals has been a part of this development, supporting artists and facilitating creative exchanges. Digital media has also played a part, allowing the ephemeral nature of performance art to be recorded and displayed in diverse settings. Tonkin observes that
What was once a dichotomy between the ‘live’ event and the ‘mediatised’ performance has now become a creative collusion within a media-saturated, contemporary global culture, accelerating the circulation and engagement with Southeast Asian performance art.
The image maker
Best-known for his Yellow Man performances, Singaporean Lee Wen (b. 1957) has been developing his creative practice since he joined Singapore’s first artist collective, The Artists Village, in the 1980s. His Journey of a Yellow Man began as an exploration of cultural complexities during his time living in London, where he delved into his experience as a Chinese-Singaporean English-speaker. The first performance in 1992 explored feelings of difference and dislocation.
a lot of what we did were considered adventurous, sometimes even dangerous if not insane as they were done with a spirit to break out of the market driven art scene and also to respond to a post-colonial sensitivity towards identity formation. Not all of this was done consciously… these days, there is less risk-taking, as artists tend to be more cautious of boundaries and offending the status quo.
From 1994 to 2003 performance art was banned in Singapore, which motivated Lee Wen to champion the cause of performance art more specifically in order to encourage a more open and tolerant attitude. However, Lee Wen has always seen his work as mixed media and very much in the field of contemporary visual art. As Tonkin points out in his essay,
Lee Wen describes himself as an ‘image maker’. In every performance he creates images with his body, the objects he uses and the space he inhabits, which are then recorded and communicated through films and photography.
The politics of colour
Liew Teck Leong (b. 1970) is a Malaysian artist who first started out as an expressionist painter before moving to installation, photography and public art performances in the 2000s after he became a member of the artists’ collective Rumah Air Panas/RAP Art Society.
Several of Liew Teck Leong’s works use colour in order to explore political issues. In one of his major works, 1 Black Malaysia # 001 (2012), he was slowly covered in black stamps of the logo from the national government’s programme of unity and progress, a process which was recorded in 12 photos. Black Malaysia refers to 2009 protests in which people wore black in protests as an act of civil disobedience. Liew invokes the reference as his skin is progressively blackened, mourning the loss of democracy.
Liew has also used yellow, a colour used in protests by Malaysia’s Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih). As Tonkins explains about Liew’s work,
While grounded in a specific event, the artist’s act of protest can be extrapolated to more broadly critique the political situation in various nation states.
The cost of development
Khvay Samnang (b. 1982) studied painting at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh, although he now works across performance, photography, video and installation. He co-founded the artist collective Stiev Selepak (or Art Rebels) and helped establish the artist-run space Sa Sa Art Projects in Phnom Penh. Using subtlety and humor, he explores concepts of mediation, change and continuity.
The impact of development on the environment has been a key theme of some of his work, and since 2011 he has used sand as a material to criticise the uncontrolled momentum of urban development around Phnom Penh. In works like Untitled (Sand) (2011) and Samnang Cow Taxi Moves Sand (2011), he aptly displays the limited influence of the individual and the enormity of the environmental changes. He has recently extended this motif and turned his attention to large-scale, foreign-owned rubber plantations in the remote province in northeast Cambodia. In the Rubber Man (2014) he pours white rubber over his naked body, bringing attention to the big companies responsible for displacing communities and destroying the environmental balance.
Transforming the contemporary art scene in Myanmar
Yangon-born Moe Satt (b. 1983) is a self-taught artist who uses his body as the primary vehicle for his art, as well as incorporating aspects of photography, film and installations. In 2008 he founded Myanmar’s first international festival of performance art, Beyond Pressure.
The use of hands reoccur through a number of his works, such as in F ‘n’ F (Face and Fingers) (2008–09) in which he uses hand and facial gestures to convey meanings to his audience and Hands Around in Yangon (2012), a number of portraits of daily tasks and rituals as seen through the hands of Yangon’s inhabitants.
In an interview with the Asia Art Archive Moe Satt compares the earlier performance art scene in Myanmar with the younger artists. He explains the evolution from staged performances at art galleries to street performances and, since 2000, the opportunity to participate in art festivals overseas, observing that
Outburst, escapology and emotionalism are popular themes amongst the early generations of Myanmar performance artists. The younger generation of performance artists have become more and more conceptual, calm, simple, concrete and interactive.
- “Recovering the Past”: Myanmar artist Htein Lin at Yavuz Gallery, Singapore – February 2017 – in his first solo show in Singapore, Htein Lin explores family history, life in Myanmar and past challenges
- Contemporary Dialogues: Art in Myanmar – interview – October 2014 – FluxKit talk about Contemporary Dialogues, an international festival of culture and arts at PEN Myanmar in Yangon, an organisation promoting literature and freedom of expression
- Soft blows: Vietnamese artist Tran Luong’s red scarf – Guggenheim video interview – October 2013 – Vietnamese artist Tran Luong discusses his latest work and his involvement in the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative, in a video interview produced by the Guggenheim Museum
- DEEP S.E.A.: Khvay Samnang, Aditya Novali and Donna Ong’s tales of three cities – February 2013 – in our third post on Primo Marella Gallery’s “DEEP S.E.A.” exhibition, we examine different responses from three Southeast Asian artists to the realities of contemporary urban life
- Sand-covered Cambodian artist Khvay Samnang’s Phnom Penh lake performance – August 2011 – Cambodian artist Khvay Samnang questions urban development in his home country through performance photography and video, on show at local gallery SA SA BASSAC
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