The Possibility of an Island: A3 Arndt Agency’s show at London’s Cromwell Place Echoes Life Lessons from the Islands of Southeast Asia and the Pacific

The Possibility of an Island, installation view, 3 November – 11 December 2020, Cromwell Place, London. Image courtesy of the artists and A3 Arndt Art Agency.
The Possibility of an Island, installation view, 3 November – 11 December 2020, Cromwell Place, London. Image courtesy of the artists and A3 Arndt Art Agency.
The Possibility of an Island, installation view, 3 November – 11 December 2020, Cromwell Place, London. Image courtesy of the artists and A3 Arndt Art Agency.
The Possibility of an Island, installation view, 3 November – 11 December 2020, Cromwell Place, London. Image courtesy of the artists and A3 Arndt Art Agency.
The Possibility of an Island, installation view, 3 November – 11 December 2020, Cromwell Place, London. Image courtesy of the artists and A3 Arndt Art Agency.
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At Cromwell Place—London’s newest exhibition space—a group exhibition celebrates the vibrant contemporary art of Southeast Asia and the Pacific region. Presented by A3 Arndt Art Agency, “The Possibility of an Island” showcased artworks by 18 artists from the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, Singapore and Australia.

 

Text: Louise Malcolm
Images: Courtesy of the artists and A3 Arndt Art Agency

 

“The Possibility of an Island”—it’s a poetic title, and one coined by French novelist Michel Houellebecq for a book he wrote in 2005, although that’s where the similarity ends. While Houellebecq’s novel is about a futuristic cloning cult, A3 Arndt Agency’s exhibition takes a more literal approach. Many of the artists presented in the show “originate from islands; thousands of archipelagos, surrounded by water,” the press release tells us, and Britain is, of course, an island too. Overall, the exhibition seeks to explore the complexities of island life—a self-contained autonomy coupled with the necessity of international exchange.

It’s a good title. The very word, possibility, evokes positivity; a chance, a hope. It speaks to the future and not the present, which in London, in winter, during the second national COVID-19 lockdown and with the uncertainty of Brexit looming on the horizon, feels resoundingly grey. So as Britain pursues separation from Europe, we dream of other islands, tropical havens of possibility, and wonder what they can teach us.

 

The Possibility of an Island, installation view, 3 November – 11 December 2020, Cromwell Place, London. Image courtesy of the artists and A3 Arndt Art Agency.

 

It’s a promise the exhibition delivers on. Large-scale artworks fill the high vaulted and light-infused rooms of Cromwell Place, their bold and vibrant colours permeating the space with an air of exoticism that creates a refuge from London’s wintry chills. Myriad artistic styles entice us—photorealist, figurative and abstract artworks created from diverse media ranging from oil, acrylic, iridescent washes, jute and silk, to aluminium, car paint, resin and more. It’s tempting to be enchanted by this cheerful array of colours and tactile surfaces, but these belie the serious subject matter at the heart of the artworks presented here.

 

The Possibility of an Island, installation view, 3 November – 11 December 2020, Cromwell Place, London. Image courtesy of the artists and A3 Arndt Art Agency.
The Possibility of an Island, installation view, 3 November – 11 December 2020, Cromwell Place, London. Image courtesy of the artists and A3 Arndt Art Agency.

 

In the middle of the gallery sits The Heart Healer (2018), a textile sculpture by Cambodian artist Svay Sareth. Cross-legged and as beatific as a religious statue at Angkor Wat, the sculpture represents Sareth’s mother who, like the artist, endured time in a refugee camp on the Cambodian-Thai border. Its handsewn, rounded edges give the figure a toy-like quality, until we consider the significance of the camouflage fabric with which it’s made. Recalling a memory from the refugee camp, when Sareth gave flowers to his mother in exchange for his freedom, the piece deals with the plight of freedom and the traumas faced by refugees in Cambodia. Water lilies which, even with their roots in the dirtiest waters produce beautiful flowers, are Buddhist symbols of hope and rebirth—those displayed at the exhibition were hand-made by the artist and his mother.

 

The Possibility of an Island, installation view, 3 November – 11 December 2020, Cromwell Place, London. Image courtesy of the artists and A3 Arndt Art Agency.

 

Nearby hang a trio of intricate paintings by renowned Filipino artist Rodel Tapaya that draw on the folkloric traditions and pre-colonial mythology of the Philippines. Painted in exquisite detail, each canvas depicts an otherworldly landscape teeming with fantastical figures, together with a variety of animals and plants. Concealed amongst this riot of mythological imagery are objects from contemporary life—traffic lights, a tap and bucket, sign posts and a car wheel. It’s a bizarre juxtaposition that renders these everyday essentials lost and redundant, thereby illuminating the limits of our rational and scientific understanding of the world. The paintings embody contemporary fears of alienation: with oneself, with our traditions and with the natural world. Like every great storyteller, Tapaya connects the past and present, the real and imagined to find new ways of thinking about the political and environmental issues that not only threaten life in the Philippines but also bear global significance.

Hanging in the exhibition’s second room is In Struggle to Change the World (2020), a characteristic example of acclaimed Indonesian painter Zico Albaiquni’s colour-saturated hyperrealism. In it, he wrests three different realities into the two-dimensional constraints of the canvas: at the top, a group of besuited men—politicians and businessmen—inspect a green representation of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937), which is regarded as one of art history’s most moving and powerful anti-war paintings. Below that, Albaiquni depicts himself painting in his studio; on his easel is a graphically simplified landscape in which a sunlit roadway stretches on endlessly. With its acid-green sky, jagged red mountains and purple highway, this landscape manifests Albaiqun’s anxiety most strongly. The narrative reads like a storyboard: if we continue with our business-and-state-sanctioned war against our planet and its people, our future is a burnt and desolate post-nuclear world.

 

The Possibility of an Island, installation view, 3 November – 11 December 2020, Cromwell Place, London. Image courtesy of the artists and A3 Arndt Art Agency.

 

Two paintings by Thai artist Pannaphan Yodmanee, Chronometer Goddess and Nature Goddess (both 2020) stand in contrast to the intense pops of colour and flat application of paint that characterise many of the exhibited artworks. Made with mixed media, including gold leaf and painted elements, on jute, they are reminiscent of ancient Thai art and Buddhist temple murals. Through these mesmerising works—which we can regard as personal icons—Yodmanee explores Buddhist philosophies such as the phenomena of time, reincarnation and the mapping of the cosmos. In her exploration of the role of faith and religion in our lives, Yodmanee’s intentional degradation of these works is key. It laments globalisation’s erosion of traditional and religious belief systems whilst simultaneously warning us against religion’s capacity to foster destruction, conflict and violence.

From islander to islander, what, in the spirit of exchange, can we learn from these rich and complex artworks? Certainly, that art can be a vehicle for joy, hope and resistance, and that religion and mythology can embroider the limited appreciation of the world offered by science and reason. But, most poignantly, their overriding message is to urge our reflection on the human and environmental consequences of how we live in, and relate to, the world around us.

 

“The Possibility of an Island”
3 November – 11 December 2020
Cromwell Place, London

*This exhibition originally ran from 3 November but was paused early on 5 November in adherence to UK government restrictions. It will resume its run when official safety guidelines permit.

 

 

About Arndt Art Agency (A3)
Arndt Art Agency (A3) is an international art agency with operations in Asia, the Pacific, United States and Europe. Their expertise ranges from emerging art landscapes to established markets for a select group of artists who welcome strategic advice and management in today’s global art market. A3 offers advisory services for private and corporate collections and institutions globally. A3 founder Matthias Arndt is an expert in Southeast Asian contemporary art having edited and produced a range of major publications and exhibitions, such as SIP! Indonesian Art Today (2013), ASIA: Looking South (2011) and WASAK! Filipino Art Today (2015). He organised monographic exhibitions for many leading Southeast Asian artists and recently worked as Curatorial Advisor on group exhibition “Contemporary Worlds – Indonesia” (2018) at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, and is a member of the Asia Pacific Acquisition Committee of Tate, London.

 

 

 
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