At Bangkok’s JWD Art Space, new group exhibition “A Life Beyond Boundaries (The Geography of Belonging)” brings to focus Southeast Asia’s local narratives and reconsiders what constitutes national identity at one of the most challenging times of the region.
TEXT: Pojai Akratanakul
IMAGES: Courtesy of JWD Art Space
In the city centre of a pandemic-stricken Bangkok, a large group exhibition has not only managed to bring together works by 14 artists hailing from nine Southeast Asia countries, but also revalidate the reasons to question nationhood, identity, and sense of belonging in this ever-challenging time for the region.
On view through 30 September, “A Life Beyond Boundaries (The Geography of Belonging)” at JWD Art Space, curated by Loredana Pazzini-Paracciani, explores the concepts of national identities and borders—asking what makes a nation, and to where we actually belong. And by doing so, the show underscores the common characteristic of Southeast Asian art and its narrative as being specific to each locality.
The show is a continuation of Pazzini-Paracciani’s ongoing interest in diaspora, migration, and displacement, as seen in her past exhibitions and draws inspiration from a posthumous memoir of the same title by the celebrated scholar Benedict Anderson, whose seminal book Imagined Communities (1983) has helped reshape the notions of nationalism and served as an important framework to examining nationhood, especially in Southeast Asian countries.
Here, the artists were invited to interpret their notion of community and boundary. Featuring both emerging and established artists from different generations, the exhibition takes a comparative approach. By placing side-by-side newly commissioned and older artworks, the exhibition finds ways to weave new dialogues. While each work may utter completely different stories, together they represent a sense of mutual familiarity that represents contemporary Southeast Asia.
Greeting visitors at the entrance are vividly coloured flags, resembling those flying in front of buildings such as the United Nations. But on close inspection, none of them are official flags. A cry a voice and a word that shall echo (2021) by Boedi Widjaja borrows its name from part of the patriotic speech by Indonesia’s first president Sukarno at the opening of the Bandung Conference in 1955, at the peak of the Cold War crisis. The 10 points of the Bandung Principles are encoded in colourful geometric patterns and pixels on these flags.
Next to Widjaja’s work is Mark Salvatus’ Weakest Link (2011), a large web of silvery chains forming a ghostly map on the floor. Unlike most cartographic and minimalistic sculptures, which usually appear rigid, Salvatus’ map is participatory and fluid. Each border demarcation carries tension, yet can be morphed by the audience’s pulling, tugging, kicking. Flags and map pieces, the most direct form of representation, set the tone for the exhibition and leave the audience with lingering questions: What is the meaning of set boundary and the official language, and to what extent does this affect the regional, national, communal, or personal experience?
Rooted in the sense of community, Sala Samnak (2020–21) is Lyno Vuth’s translation of a Khmer “rest house”, a communal space that can be found alongside the road in rural Cambodia, and have sometimes been used for rituals since the pre-Angkorian era. Passersby are welcome to take a rest in these houses, which were built by villagers as a contribution to the community. Here, Sala Samnak, which literally translates to “house on fire” in Khmer, is suspended in the air, with flickering neon lights. Its dreamlike appearance not only represents the intangibles revolving around the rest house but also laments the lessening relevancy of sala samnak to local Cambodians today.
Also suspended in mid-air is Bounpaul Phothyzan’s Lie of the Land (2017), comprising a majestic canoe topped with fern. The canoe is a ready-made object used by the villagers of Thambak Village in Bolikhamxay Province, Laos. Through farming, the villagers find parts of bombs in the ground, both active and inactive, a remnant from the Vietnam war, when 260 million cluster bombs were dropped in Laos. Yet because of the good quality of the metal, the villagers find ways to utilise them as tools for survival—from pots and utensils to even housing structures. By spotlighting the story of the villagers, the artwork, bare and raw, prompts the awareness of the historic event which has left a lasting impact on lives.
Unlike many Thai artists of his generation in the late 1980s when national contests and awards were prevalent, and genres such as realism in painting were popular for conveying nationalistic pride, the late Montien Boonma (1953–2000) turned to local materials related to the land. Comprising soil, a sickle, rice sacks, and buffalo horns, La Métamorphose (1988) points to the honest reality of Thai farmers tirelessly labouring for their livelihood. Alongside the installation, Pazzini-Paracciani also chose to showcase rare sketches and photographs from the artist’s archive to enrich the understanding of his artistic practice.
Bringing a more personal dimension, Ly Hoàng Ly’s various studies of Phở, the national Vietnamese dish, is a series she has continued since 2011 through a range of mediums from video and prints, to photographs. Reflecting her pursuits for personal identity, and what constitutes as home, Perpetual Ephemeral: A study of Phở, (2013) captures the performance of the artist preparing Phở from the cow bones that she purchased from Tai Nam Market—an Asian supermarket in Chicago. Accompanying the video, Ash #1, #2, #3 (2017-21) documents the bone pieces close-up, revealing the porous and mouldy-like texture of the bones bearing glints of copper gold. Boiled over many times, the cow bones have undergone a ritualistic process, then subsequently cast into bronze in ceramic shell kiln, which transforms the perishability of its original state into a new form with a longer lifespan.
Citra Sasmita’s Timur Merah Project VI (2021) adapts Kamasan traditional painting, a technique that is considered a rarity today but has been an important departure point for Balinese art since the 15th century. Sasmita depicts the upper, middle, and under worlds from Hinduism, replacing the original image from the fresco at the Kerta Gosa Palace with nude female mythical figures wearing untamed long hair and bellies full of fire. The portrayal of these embodied women makes a powerful statement against the patriarchal society where history is mostly written with men as protagonists. Hà Ninh Pham’s drawing also imagines an otherworldly geography. Contrary to Sasmita, he entirely abandons the real-world narrative, history, and cultural legacy. Stemming from the artist’s ongoing project My Land (2017–), he constructs a new terrain with his own system and rules, within the eight-by-eight grid of 64 space units, making the partial map images, F8.1 [East Wing] and F8.2 [West Wing] (2021).
Elsewhere, Wantanee Siripattananuntakul’s L.I.N.E (2021) makes a muted but thought-provoking subject. A minimalist looking sculpture comprising of a piece of string made of 23.16 karat or 96.5% gold and weighing equal to one Baht (a local weighing unit for gold, not the Thai currency Baht), the artwork is an ironic reminder of the rising income inequality and the widening wealth gap in the country. In Thai culture, each Baht of gold accumulated is a benchmark of wealth. Applicable to certain economic conditions, gold is perceived to be a long-term investment. The string, situated in the corner of a room, appears almost invisible, and sits like “the elephant in the room” like many of the region’s current pressing issues that need to be called to attention. Fittingly on the left hangs a small frame by Burmese artist Soe Yu Nwe. The April Salute (2021) is a sincere image of the symbols of hope for change and a straightforward recognisable stance of bravery from the younger generations.
From a personal perspective of someone living in Southeast Asia, walking through the constellation of artworks in the white cube space of JWD Art Space, the inescapable question comes to my mind: How is it possible that one could know so little about what has happened across the border yet it feels so familiar at the same time? Each of these stories is subject to its own local contexts and specificities, but together they exude an air of familiarity unique to this vast region. In this unprecedented time where physical boundaries are continually heightened by the ongoing pandemic, where choices for the common folk dwindle, and the state rises in power, this cross-border exhibition not only provides a look into the region but offers those within it a missed sense of community and connectedness.
A Life Beyond Boundaries (The Geography of Belonging)
1 June – 30 September 2021
JWD Art Space, Bangkok