In times of travel restrictions and lockdowns, Richard Koh Fine Art’s timely exhibition explores border crossing and diaspora across gallery spaces in three different countries in Southeast Asia.
TEXT: Denise Tsui
IMAGES: Courtesy of Richard Koh Fine Art
R: Richard Koh; L: Loredana Pazzini-Paracciani
As new and unprecedented travel bans are seemingly imposed every day in a global effort to contain a pandemic that is striking our countries and cities, we find ourselves living in peculiar times—many of us are grounded, quite literally—meanwhile life must go on, and perhaps, there’s no better time to discuss questions of diaspora and border crossing than now.
“Phantoms and Aliens: The Invisible Other” opened to the public across three locations, namely Richard Koh Projects in Bangkok; and Richard Koh Fine Art in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Split into three chapters, the exhibition features eight artists and is an ambitious undertaking to explore themes of diaspora and migration in mainland Southeast Asia.
While I was sadly unable to visit the exhibition in person due to travel restrictions, I was deeply curious about the curatorial approach of having a diasporic show, unveiled in three chapters almost simultaneously across three locations—each separated by a geographic border. Therefore, by email, I spoke to both Richard Koh, founder of Richard Koh Fine Art and curator, writer and researcher, Loredana Pazzini-Paracciani in an attempt to unpack the project which, according to them, has been two years in the making.
As a highly regarded and successful gallerist, why did you decide to take on this ambitious project together with Loredana?
R: This project was an idea I had for a while. I was trying to find the right curator to do it, and I wanted the theme of across borders, i.e. in different spaces as part of the curatorial show, as the title suggests. With Loredana’s familiarity and interest in the Indochina region, in addition to her impartiality in terms of our gallery’s usual aesthetics, I thought she would be an apt curator for the project.
In your opinion, what role does the curator and a curatorial premise have on exhibitions in a commercial gallery? How important is this for you as a gallery owner?
R: In my opinion it all depends on what the objective of the show is. The main objective for the gallery is to try to strike a balance, to encourage a dialogue with the other shows that we do. We will have a few more shows this year curated by other curators that will engage in current issues in Southeast Asia. Prior to this, we were engaging in the same issues more subtly. This year, we are tackling the issues in a more straightforward manner.
The scope of your curatorial premise for this project is extremely wide; the concerns of social marginalisation are pertinent and applicable not only to Southeast Asia at large but is a global concern every continent must deal with. What led you to select mainland Southeast Asia in particular? Are there specific histories within these select countries that you feel are particularly important for us to know?
L: Indeed, social marginalisation prompted by migration and border crossing is a phenomenon that is happening everywhere. Let’s just look, for example, at migration from Latin America into the US or from North Africa or the Turkish border into Europe. In relation to my curatorial work, my research angle has always been specific to Southeast Asia. Migration in the region happens on a daily basis in a constant flux of people that are prompted to cross natural and national borders amidst geopolitical conflict, economic struggle, ethnic diversity and persecution. Given my research approach, it was only natural that this project would deal with a region where so much is going on. Specifically, with “Phantoms and Aliens” we wanted to focus primarily on mainland Southeast Asia which is defined by a geographic contiguity of countries, where migration happens almost as an osmotic impulse across porous borders. The conceptual framework of this project follows the same logic by being in itself diasporic. As you know the exhibition unfolds as a tryptic, divided in three chapters across Richard Koh’s three galleries located in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok. This diasporic approach to the exhibition opens up multiple prospects for the audience, and the artists, to see and perceive the works from different standpoints, culturally and otherwise. There is a lot more to say in relation to the whole region, so our exhibition is but an initial step to flash out some concerns. In no way do we feel that the stories by the eight artists featured in this project are exhaustive—a lot more needs to be investigated, which leaves many possibilities for future projects.
How and when did the project and research start?
L: Richard and I started talking about this project approximately two years ago. At that point it was a casual conversation about developing and curating a project simultaneously for all his galleries. Richard came up with that idea, which I embraced happily. I thought it was an interesting proposition to unfold a curatorial project across three different spaces—something that I had never done before. Also, because my research has been focusing, for the last few years, on diaspora, we felt that was a good fit to talk about diaspora and border crossing while proposing a project that was diasporic from within itself.
“Phantoms and Aliens: The Invisible Other” unfolds in three chapters across three locations, namely Richard Koh Projects (BKK); and Richard Koh Fine Art (KL and SG). Do the three chapters delineate some sort of narrative? How should we, as a viewer, be approaching it?
L: There is a narrative, and yet there isn’t, in the sense that the three chapters do not require it to be experienced in a particular sequence. We opened in Bangkok with Chapter 1, followed by Kuala Lumpur with Chapter 2 and Singapore with Chapter 3, in a way that would also make sense for us to move across the three spaces and allow the necessary time for installation at each location. A personal note of gratitude to each team as they worked extremely hard to put this project together! There is no beginning nor end to experience this project, as I said, but rather a sense of continuity, which resonates with the act of border crossing repeated daily and in a continuum. Thematically, most of the works in the show tackle the actual crossing of borders or the isolation and alienation that derives from that moment of geopolitical transition. Samak Kosem’s work for instance, featured in Chapter 3, presents an interesting ethnographic research on young males of Shan ethnicity that cross over from Burma to Chiang Mai to earn a living, often illegally and often as sex workers. His investigation engages directly with this displaced community to understand what it means to be at the border—both physically and mentally. Also, in Chapter 3, Pao Houa Her deals with her personal experience of being dislocated and alienated at times from within her own family. In Chapter 1 Amapannee Satoh tackles migration and displacement from her own perspective as a Muslim woman from southern Thailand witnessing the arrival and departure of Rohingya boats seeking refuge on the shore of Pattani. This resonates with Khin Thethtar Latt’s Pot Pagoda, part of Chapter 2, which talks about war-torn villages in Rakhine State through the assemblage of old pots, that have actually been used to collect water, into a pagoda shape as a site of worship and hope.
What troubles me at times is that there is often a kind of misconception of Southeast Asia particularly from Western and Eurocentric dominant views that still largely regards the region as some kind of unified whole. Yet those who are intimate with the region are acutely aware of the various cultures, histories, intricacies—and geographic borders. A few of the artworks in this show shine light on this question of borders within the region i.e. Lim Sokchanlina’s and Nguyễn Thị Thanh Mai’s works. What are your thoughts on this?
L: It’s a very good question which goes to the heart of my curatorial efforts. All too often Western-centric approaches continue to prevail, despite many steps forward have been made by adopting alternative methodologies. In my work, while I am aware of those theoretical standpoints, I also try to reflect on what is really the current situation in the region and how can the region start telling its own history in its own terms. Taking a geographic approach to Southeast Asia is one way. In the show, as you point out, some of the works more than others deal directly with geographical aspects of migration. For instance, Lim Sokchanlina’s Book Project historicises migration by collecting the wishes of Cambodian migrant workers in KL, while also becoming a poetic and inspiring chronicle of their journey. Nguyễn Thị Thanh Mai’s work, Black Landscapes, deals with the nature of geographic borders, specifically in relation to Vietnamese displaced individuals that have resettled in the Tonlé Sap area in Cambodia. As much as being geopolitical, the borders discussed in Black Landscapes are also very much cultural borders that divide people across generations. Across the eight artists in the project I find that some focus on the psychology of belonging to an imagined, or desired, homeland, while others approach alienation tangentially viewing it through the prism of culture and the ordeal. For instance, A Land of Ghosts by Aung Myat Htay looks specifically at the spiritual and cultural representation of the self in multiethnic Myanmar, while the “Slaughterhouse” series of paintings by Nguyễn Văn Đủ alludes to moments of routine violence, specifically to the daily butchering of cattle.
The exhibitions opened on 28 February, 3 March and 6 March. How has the reception been thus far?
So far, we are very happy about how the project has been received at each location by the general public but also by museum and private collectors. This is very encouraging because it tells us how much contemporary art can do to foster greater awareness of present days social and political issues in the region.
Ampannee Satoh – Phantoms And Aliens: The Invisible Other (Chapter 1)
28 February – 28 March 2020
Richard Koh Projects, Bangkok, Thailand
Aung Myat Htay, Lim Sokchanlina & Nguyễn Thị Thanh Mai – Phantoms And Aliens: The Invisible Other (Chapter 2)
3 – 21 March 2020
Richard Koh Fine Art, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Khin Thethtar Latt (Nora), Nguyễn Văn Đủ, Pao Houa Her & Samak Kosem – Phantoms And Aliens: The Invisible Other (Chapter 3)
6 – 28 March 2020
Richard Koh Fine Art, Gillman Barracks, Singapore
**As of an announcement made on 16 March, Richard Koh Fine Art Kuala Lumpur gallery will be temporarily closed till 31 March. Viewings strictly by appointment only.
Meanwhile the Singapore and Bangkok galleries will continue to operate as per normal opening hours under COVID-19 precautionary measures.
Denise Tsui is the Managing Editor for CoBo Social. A Hong Kong-born Aussie with an addiction to coffee, her research interests are primarily in the study of exhibition models and curatorial practices and art from the Southeast Asia Region. Previously she was an editor for ArtAsiaPacific and curator for a private collection of Australian and New Zealand art. A condensed version of her postgraduate curatorial thesis on contemporary Indonesian art was published in the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies in 2015.
One thought on “Travel bans aside, Richard Koh Fine Art ambitiously unfolds an exhibition across three locations”
I love exhibitions and try to attend the opening of such events often. Recently I was in Milan. And I traveled almost all the exhibitions that took place in Europe. And thanks to the site https://voyagu.com/ I did not need to fly with transfers. The staff helped me find good flights. And I’m glad that I didn’t have to overpay for business class.