As the leading platform for showcasing art and artists from the Southeast Asia region, Singapore celebrated its new year with one week of exciting art events under the big umbrella of Singapore Art Week, which includes the fair Art Stage, the Singapore Biennial, Art After Dark in Gillman Barrack gallery district, and a series of galleries and museums shows, talks, openings and cocktails.
We picked 10 amazing artistic projects by artists from the relatively obscure scenes in the SEA region. A discovery for us, as well as a significant role that Singapore brilliantly and cleverly plays in the region.
TEXT / CoBo Editorial Force
IMAGES / Courtesy of Art Stage, Singapore Biennial, Artists and Galleries
Emily Phyo (b. 1982, Myanmar)
Being 365 (2015)
Smartphone photographs posted on Instagram, video.
Art the Southeast Asia Forum, the young Burmese artist Emily Phyo presented hundreds of photos that she took of a different person everyday in 2015, recording their ages, professions and names. Instagram was her exhibition platform – space for art is aware find in her home country. Governed by the pace of her own life, lacking of leisure time and a production budget, she examines existing relationships and forges new ones, documenting Myanmar’s current state of flux. The country is arguably the world’s fasting growing economy at present. Just two years ago, artist in Myanmar were barely allowed to communicate, let alone travel. Today, the use of cellphones and social media grows exponentially. Yangon is moving at a faster pace than ever before, and its residents are experiencing the rise of capital growth through simple changes in daily routine.
Svay’s work I, Svay Sareth, eat rubber sandals was prompted by a confrontation with a motorbike vendor selling highly symbolic rubber tyre sandals in Siem Reap in 2015. Svay purchased every available pair for appropriation as tragicomic resistance to the recasting of authoritarian rule, from communism to capitalism, in his lifetime.
The single-channel video nods to two historic works – Charlie Chaplin’s 1925 The Gold Rush in which speculative fortune seekers starve enough to eat one’s own shoes, and Jorgen Leth’s scene of Andy Warhol’s cool indifference eating a hamburger in his 1982 film 66 scenes from America. Seated at an impoverished community, Svay gnaws and spits his meal, refusing yet another ideology that numbs and separates society. The critical and cathartic practice of Svay is rooted in an autobiography of resistance. Refusing historical particularity and voyeurism, and ideas of power and futility.
3. Than Sok (b. 1983, Cambodia)
Various products, watercolour on paper. Variable dimensions.
Promotion (2013) is part of Than Sok’s ongoing investigations into materials and rituals of belief systems and power structures therein. The series is drawn from the artist’s experience as a short-term Buddhist monk at the Cambodian temple Wat Samakiram in Brooklyn. Noting the ever-present ritual of giving and receiving, Than was especially surprised at the laity’s offering upon his departure ceremony: products of everyday life, such as cash, tea, and toothpaste, whose, brands, languages and designs speak to a globalised market. Rather than consuming these gifts, the artist advertises them. By sedulously re-presenting their likeness – a valued skill and practice in Buddhist image-making tradition – and offering them to audiences for consumption. Than both critiques and extends the karmic promise: to give is to receive.
4. Anon Pairot (b. 1979, Thailand)
Weapon for Citizen (2016)
Toy guns fabricated from assorted textiles made in Thailand. Variable dimensions
Anon Pairot’s art interventions are linked to his experience in working on the development and distribution of products for OTOP – One Tambon (Thai : “sub-district”) One Product, a development initiative by Thaksin Shinawatr’s government. He met numerous craftsmen at small and medium companies which worked order without ever having the opportunity to apply their creativity. As he became increasingly aware of their precarious living conditions and their distress brought on by financial woes and pessimism for their future, Pairot’s desire to raise the communities’ issues was reinforced by his motivation to challenge the craftsmen’s imagination and business skills in daily life.
In the installation work presented at Southeast Asian Forum, Weapon for Citizen (2016) questions the growing importance of military spending in Thailand’s national budget at the expense of social protection such as a education and healthcare. These toy guns were commissioned by Pairot and made by the same craftsmen behind the ubiquitous souvenirs found in touristic area across Thailand. Taking the form of souvenirs, they are made from different textiles from Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Korat and Rachaburi and have kept their local material identity, not in oder to play to tourists’ favour for the exotic but to preserve links with locally made souvenirs. In doing so, Pairot plays on feelings and perceptions towards his chosen materials by eliminating aspects of industrial production and mass consumption related to the manufacture of both aspens and souvenirs. This can be described as a way for Pairot to restore his hope in the future of fast-fading transitional crafts. These are also artefacts which depict the canalisation of weapons and what they symbolise – power, death and more intrusions into individual liberties under cover of more security.
5. Htein Lin (b. 1966, Myanmar)
Outside of the fair, in Gillman Barrack, the gallery district in Singapore, renowned Burmese artist Htein Lin opened his first Singapore solo show at Yavuz Gallery. Htein Lin: Recovering the Past delves into the artist’s personal history, reflecting upon his experiences growing up in Myanmar, and later as a revolutionary soldier and political prisoner in his own country.
Htein Lin’s deeply personal works are based upon his extraordinary life experiences, political developments in Myanmar and its Buddhist faith. In 1988, the 22-year old Htein Lin partook in the pro-democracy student protests in Rangoon University, where he studied law. After the violent coup by the military junta, formerly known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), he went underground and spent four years in refugee and student rebel camps on the borders of Myanmar, joining the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF). Returning to Yangon in 1992, Htein Lin was arrested several years later on spurious accusations of opposition activity on the 10th anniversary of the 8888 Uprising. He spent almost seven years in jail – including some time at Insein, the country’s most notorious prison – and it was during this period that he developed his artistic practice by using items available to him like bowls and cigarette lighters, in the absence of brushes to secretly create hundreds of works on scraps of fabrics, prison uniforms and soap. After his release, he moved to London in 2006, and back to Myanmar in 2013 after the dissolution of the military junta. Entangling personal, communal and national histories, Htein Lin: Recovering the Past traces the artist’s harrowing experiences alongside developments in Myanmar’s history – through its many trials and tribulations, but perhaps more importantly, its healing process in recent years.
6. Pannaphan Yodmanee (b. 1988, Thailand)
Mixed media: found objects, artist-made icons, concrete and paint. Site-specific installation, 300 × 1600 cm. Collection of the Artist. Singapore Biennale 2016 commission
In a titanic mural, Pannaphan Yodmanee examines the relevance of Buddhist philosophy to our lives. She presents a mapping of the Buddhist cosmos that resembles a landscape painting. Using materials raw and natural, as well as the new and mass-produced, her amalgamation of contemporary and traditional Thai art creates a unified cartography of the heavens and the earth that chronicles Southeast Asian history. Pannaphan’s ongoing investigation of the intersecting points between Buddhist cosmology and modern science has led her to consider the concepts of change, loss, devastation and inevitable armageddon. The artist argues that our persistent striving for development and progress ultimately exposes our shortcomings and the revelation of a larger universe outside our spheres of comfort and control. She presents us with the ultimate question: at the end of all ends, will we find comfort in our faith?
7. Martha Atienza (b. 1981, the Philippines)
Endless Hours at Sea, 2014, 2016
Video, sound and light installation, water, stainless steel, aluminium, mechanics, LED light and air compression. Dimensions variable. Collection of the Artist
She understands her surroundings as a landscape of people, first and foremost, and is currently investigating the usage of art as a tool for effecting social change and development. Endless Hours at Sea is an exploration of the tempestuous emotional and psychological relationship humankind has with water. Seas and oceans have often been regarded as territories to be charted and conquered. Yet to actually voyage on watery expanses is to exist in a liminal space: always a ‘somewhere’ between leaving and arriving, and a ‘nowhere’ forever surrounded by ever-changing waters and weather conditions. This multimedia installation brings together material Atienza recorded from four oceanic journeys on cargo ships, and immerses the viewer in the constant state of flux that characterises life on board these vessels. As more than 400,000 Filipinos work ‘overseas’, this is an artistic journey that also finds echoes in the experiences of many of her countrymen. Endless is ultimately a work that reverberates close to home for Atienza – almost all of her family is involved in the maritime industry, including her grandfather who was a lighthouse keeper. Sociological in nature, Atienza’s work reflects a keen observation of her immediate environment.
8. Phuong Linh Nguyen (b. 1985, Vietnam)
Memory of the Blind Elephant, 2016
Single-channel video, rubber latex, soil drawings on paper and metal stands. Dimensions variable. Collection of the Artist. Singapore Biennale 2016 commission
Grew up among many of Vietnam’s most respected contemporary artists, the emerging multidisciplinary artist Phuong Linh Nguyen’s practice spans installation, sculpture and video. Her work conveys a sense of the alienation, dislocation and ephemerality of human life, and looks at the geographical cultural shifts, traditional roots and fragmented history of Vietnam. She travels, conducts field research and collects artefacts from borders and historical sites of exchange, and transforms these materials to construct alternative perspectives and interpretations of fragmented histories and personal narratives. In the work Memory of the Blind Elephant (2016), a commission by the Singapore Biennale, she investigated the history of rubber cultivation which was introduced to France’s territories in Indochina by Dr Alexandre Yersin at the start of the twentieth century. Plantations such as the Michelin Rubber Plantation in Vietnam not only boosted the economy, but also set the scene for the build-up of anti-colonial sentiments and Communist-led strikes. Fascinated by colonial rubber plantations and the role they have played and continue to play in Vietnam, Phuong Linh explores the materiality of rubber and investigates the historical significance of the country’s rubber trees and plantations. Her work is realised in three parts: a video projection, a nine-piece installation, and a suite of soil drawings on paper. The video captures the activities and landscapes surrounding rubber plantations, while the drawings chronicle the artist’s reflections and explorations around the plantations. The installation addresses the history of rubber in Vietnam and the Cham Pa community, who live in central Vietnam where many plantations are located.
9. Pala Pothupitiye (b. 1972, Sri Lanka)
Other Map Series, 2016
Archival digital print, acrylic, ink, pencil on paper and canvas (20 pieces). Various dimensions. Collection of the Artist. Singapore Biennale 2016 commission
Born into a traditional southern Sri Lankan caste of craft-artists and ritualists, he incorporates and reinterprets the material and philosophical content of traditional art, to confront issues such as colonialism, nationalism, religious extremism and militarism, and extends his inquiry to questions of caste, the distinction between art and craft, tradition and modernity, as well as a critique of Eurocentrism. Before starting a project and as part of his creative process, Pala Pothupitiye will usually spend weeks conceptualising and analysing material.
In this series of mapping works, he aims to tell stories of the past of his home country, Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), through the recrafting of official maps. Cartography is an act of history-making; history is created and interpreted by the act of mapping. Is it possible for an artist to look beyond officially constructed maps, and imagine a different past or an alternate future? Pothupitiye attempts to do so in this series, where he re-crafts the official version of maps to tell a different story. The maps he constructs are like palimpsests where he overlays, juxtaposes and transforms portraits of voyages, landscapes, mythical figures and other maps to re-inscribe stories of Sri Lanka’s past and present, interspersed with his own personal history. The maps he refers to range from Ptolemy’s maps of Ceylon to current maps of Sri Lanka. His atlas of maps tells many different stories simultaneously: of the deep scars of colonialism, the civil unrest and religious extremism of recent years, and also the lyrical beauty of a country that was once called Ceylon.
10. Adeele Suleman (b. 1970, Pakistan)
Dread of Not Night 1, 3, 4, 7–9, 2015, 2016.
Blood Stains the Soil 1, 2016. Hand-carved wood, found vintage ceramic plates with enamel paint, harderner and lacquer. Various dimensions
In Adeela Suleman’s decorative, stylised paintings on found ceramic plates mounted on elaborately carved wooden frames, she uses the images of Persian and Mughal miniature painting to create a critical visual vocabulary for her contemporary narratives. While the traditional miniaturist’s repertoire consisted of idyllic landscapes and courtly scenes, Suleman’s works are replete with the imagery of bloodshed, death and violence. The fragile plates mirror and enframe scenes of war, violent killings, combat and destruction. Violence and the memory of violence, the artist reiterates, is deeply embedded in our psyches, our bodies and our landscapes. Commenting on the gem-like quality of her disturbing images, the artist says violence has always been closely connected with beauty. Consider that Islamic arms and armour – objects of violence – were decorated using the most sophisticated techniques of gilding, inlay, and gold and silver encrusting. In Suleman’s words, “The more heinous the crime, the more beautiful the object needs to be.