Portikus presents “Bangawan Solo”, Arin Rungjang’s first institutional solo show in Germany.
Woven through memory, music and moving image, the Thai artist’s work investigates lesser-known histories in Southeast Asia.
When Arin Rungjang speaks about history, he does so through a practiced language of rumour and hearsay: it is neither fact nor fiction, neither valourised nor uncontested. The result is a collective shifting truth, not unique, but delivered through shards, each incomplete, the whole contingent upon the representational, linguistic, cultural and phycological circumstances of its delivery. As history digs itself further and further into forgetfulness, only fragments remain – words, sounds and images. These fragments are memory and oblivion at the same time, parts of an incomplete whole and assembled subsequently. Rearranged and re-interpreted, they inevitably cross paths with fiction.
For Rungjang, the contention is rooted in how political histories are represented in his native Thailand, both in terms of the nation-state’s relationship to colonialism and how the major ideologies of the 20th century have been instrumentalised to build on different brands of fascism. As such, the discovery and examination of collective and personal memory is the driving force of his practice. It is the work’s confounding of the relation between reality and representation, and with it the resulting slipperiness between the factual and the imagined memory, that places it squarely in the context of an inquiry into how artists have reinvented documentary modes of representation in the last two decades: as a way to negotiate personal or global discord.
“Bengawan Solo”: the agency of the ‘small event’
In his ongoing solo show “Bengawan Solo” – the artist’s first in Germany – Rungjang deftly revisits personal and collective historical material, overlapping major and minor narratives across multiple times, places and languages. And while his work naturally encompasses history’s most infamous and catastrophic moments, his primary interest lies in the lesser-known aspects of Thai and Southeast Asian history and their indelible intersection with the present.
Born in 1975, Rungjang came into the art scene during a time of tremendous social conflict, marked permanently in the national psyche by the massacre of students on 6 October 1976. The multimedia artist, along with many of his peers who were also scarred by this ‘beginning’, graduated from art school in the late 1990s, a period of relative optimism with regard to Bangkok’s independent organisations and burgeoning international markets. But, as the artist points out, this era of progress was cut short, their “channels [having] dwindled” into State-promoted systems of “meagre compensation” and flattened imagination. Meanwhile, Thailand’s political calamity has only deepened, prompting investigations into narrative agency and the historical avenues artists choose to articulate.
“Bengawan Solo” is an attempt to inflate the storylines which have been subject to systematic, or even personal, degradation. Hosted by Frankfurt’s Portikus, the show exhibits a seven-channel video installation poised as cultural artefact; for Rungjang, the memories captured through moving image and sound have the ability to draw together distant events, or uproot them from their buried contexts and re-enliven them for public consumption. In his exploration of history and everyday life experiences, he deftly dissects material and revisits master-narratives through what curator Christina Lehnert calls the “agency of the small event”.
The exhibition’s title lends itself from the song Bengawan Solo, written in 1940 by Gesang Martohartono. Having been originally conceived for the 2017 Jakarta Biennale, the video highlights the song as one of Indonesia’s most popular folk pieces, its name referring to Java’s Solo river. Here Rungjang’s work juxtaposes his own personal histories, the singers’ stories and the complex history of the region, ultimately contrasting the song’s romantic lyricism with the dark history of the river during the Indonesian massacre of 1965-1967.
Rungjang’s first encounter with Bengawan Solo was when he saw Wong Kar Wai’s seminal film In the Mood for Love (2000), in which the song was performed by Shanghainese singer Rebecca Pan. The film depicts a journalist, Chow Mo-wan (played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai), and his wife moving into their new Hong Kong apartment. But with his wife often away on business, the lonely Chow slowly makes the acquaintance of Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung Man-yuk), whose own significant other also seems preoccupied with work. As the two friends realise their respective partners are cheating on them, they begin to fall for one another; however, neither wants to come to terms with their unfaithfulness.
Rungjang thus identifies Bengawan Solo with romance and melancholia as it accompanied his tormented sensual feelings that he held for one of his childhood classmates. Despite his adoration for his then-lover, Rungjang identified with Chow Mo-wan’s actions, a torment “so powerful, that it destroyed both his body and soul”.
The legendary tune describes the merchant river in a poetic and nostalgic way, its ‘swaying palm’ trees and singing nightingales emblematic of tranquil love, but one that is nestled in secrecy and guilt. Composed in the keroncong style, a genre influenced by Portuguese culture from the 15th century, the song depicts, at once, the beauty of the river and the deep-rooted history of violence and oppression throughout the region. During the mid-1960s’ expulsion of communists and Chinese citizens from Indonesia, Bengawan Solo was used, among other atrocities, to dispose of dead bodies. In preparation for the Jakarta Biennale, Rungjang visited the river, its infamous history upsetting his appreciation of the song’s romantic overtones.
Whilst working on his video, Rungjang subsequently came across the story of Anneke Grönloh, a singer of Tondano and Dutch descent who spent much of her childhood in a Japanese concentration camp in the Dutch East Indies, her father having been interned before her birth. After the war, Anneke’s family moved to the Netherlands, though not before memorising Bengawan Solo, which was a favoured ditty amongst Japanese soldiers.
In 1967, Grönloh released her own rendition, her story inevitably reminding Rungjang of Koo Bun Koo Gum, a popular love story in Thailand involving a young Thai girl and a Japanese soldier. The story is representative of a style of Thai love stories that end without clear resolution. It is only implied that Koo Bun Koo Gum ends with the soldier dying after an American air raid during World War II. This implication is of the utmost significance to Rungjang, his working finding solace in the lesser-known (or unknown) moments of historical narration. Consequentially, the Portikus exhibition suggests that meaning can, and does, change drastically following the “tides and turns” of life and the unsavoury, horrific or romantic stories that are revealed in unexpected situations.
Memory and relational aesthetics
In the making of Bengawan Solo, Rungjang invited singer Rachel Saraswati and her keroncong group to adapt the song and carry the weight of its histories. The display of the individual singer and musicians on each of the seven-channel screens is synchronised with texts recounting Rungjang’s personal experience. Of this, he states:
This is history written from a personal memory. It’s powerful, and it’s totally different from the collective memory.
The artist posits that intimate family histories are woven into larger narratives of world war, democracy, memorialisation and politics. In this vein, his work becomes, what he calls, a “floating symbol” of reflection. There is no attempt to assimilate the experiences of the collective and that of the individual; yet Rungjang makes visible, with a song so widely altered and distributed, the contours of a shared alienation, hinting at the unending cycle of domestication, attachment and abandonment. In her oft-cited critique of ‘relational’ art, Claire Bishop suggests:
[The much] theorised rapprochement between art and everyday life may have gone far enough. In its emphasis on sociality and the ‘open-ended’, relational aesthetics forgoes the antagonism that is a prerequisite to the political encounter.
There can be no context, she reasons, without exclusion. And while not particularly confrontational – at least intentionally so – Rungjang’s work leans towards an insistence that art “like life itself” does not deal everyone an equal hand. But finding ways to articulate this imbalance is, in itself, a way to renegotiate history, to remember, to log and take note of its fragmented consistency.
A verse from Rebecca Pan’s Bengawan Solo goes:
Bengawan Solo / River of love we know / Where my heart was set aglow / When we loved not long ago.
For Rungjang, his viewers and those grappling with its undulating metaphors, the song embodies a strain between sweet stillness and flowing currents, between moments that are locked into memory and the erasure of time. “Bengawan Solo” is an attempt to capture this effect on screen, to deconstruct what histories are chosen to perform, which narratives feed the nation-state and, ultimately, the memories we have, for now, agreed to call history.
“Bengawan Solo” by Arin Rungjang is on view from 30 June to 2 September 2018 at Portikus, Alte Brücke 2/Maininsel, D-60594 Frankfurt am Main, Germany.
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