Art and Design

Guggenheim’s ‘No Country’:
A sign of the times

Ho Tzu Nyen, The Cloud of Unknowing (2011), color video with sound, 28 min., edition 3/5. (Courtesy of Russell Morton)
Ho Tzu Nyen, The Cloud of Unknowing (2011), color video with sound, 28 min., edition 3/5. (Courtesy of Russell Morton)

A groundbreaking initiative in contemporary art was recently launched by the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Under the umbrella title “Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative”, the effort reaches beyond the Western art world with a five-year program encompassing South and Southeast Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and North Africa.

In February, the first phase of the project was launched at the Guggenheim with the exhibition “No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia”.

Curated by June Yap from Singapore, the exhibition includes 24 works by 22 artists from India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam.

The exhibit is significant in its recognition that contemporary art is not an exclusive privilege of the West. In fact, a brief historical survey reveals that the process began in 1984 with the controversial exhibition “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). The show aimed to demonstrate how European artists like Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin and others had benefited from tribal art from Oceania, Africa and North America.

In reaction, five years later in 1989 the Centre Pompidou in Paris launched Jean Hubert Martin’s much discussed “Magiciens de la Terre”, which addressed “one hundred percent of exhibitions ignoring 80 percent of the earth”, with 50-50 participation by Western and non-Western artists.

Slightly less than a decade later, the Asia Society in New York followed with the groundbreaking “Contemporary Art in Asia: Traditions/Tensions” curated by the respected Thai curator Apinan Posyananda, and to which Indonesian curator Jim Supangkat contributed. The show included India, Indonesia, the Philippines, South Korea and Thailand.

Now with the far-reaching changes in the world, including within Asia and Southeast Asia, the initiative by the Guggenheim comes as an extremely timely event.
Arin Dwihartanto Sunaryo, Volcanic Ash Series #4 (2012), volcanic ash and pigmented resin mounted on panel, 146 x 547 cm, triptych. (Courtesy of Arin Dwihartanto Sunaryo)

Arin Dwihartanto Sunaryo, Volcanic Ash Series #4 (2012), volcanic ash and pigmented resin mounted on panel, 146 x 547 cm, triptych. (Courtesy of Arin Dwihartanto Sunaryo)

Aligned with the growing recognition of the world’s interconnectivity, “No Country” — the title credited to a William Butler Yeats poem — works with the idea of borderlessness, which is a topic of economic and artistic discourse today. That the intitiative coincides with the “Encyclopedic Palace” theme of this year’s Venice Biennale is quite a telling coincidence, denoting the spirit of our time.

Such spirit is reflected in the choice of curator June Yap, who is young and female and whose track record includes curating the Singapore Pavilion for the Venice Biennale in 2011.

In Indonesia, the announcement of the Guggenheim project came as a pleasant surprise. Particularly as in 2010 at the SH Contemporary Panel on collecting contemporary art with the participation of museum directors, collectors and curators, there was reportedly little interest from the Guggenheim in Southeast Asia, let alone Indonesia.

Welcoming the initiative, the names of artists started floating as possible candidates for selection. But none of the rumored names were selected, which is also telling of Yap’s stand to stay away from popular names that had benefited from events of a commercial nature such as auctions.

Instead, Yap’s choice fell on the works of two young emerging artists, Reza Afisina and Arin Dwihartanto Sunaryo. Yap says she was interested in the works and what they reveal about art practice, intervention and issues in the country.
Truong Tan, What Do We Want (1993-94), oil on canvas with rope, 94.6 x 200 x 25.4 cm. (Courtesy of Truong Tan)
Truong Tan, What Do We Want (1993-94), oil on canvas with rope, 94.6 x 200 x 25.4 cm. (Courtesy of Truong Tan)

In this sense, Reza’s video What ... (2001) shows the artist, a Muslim, slapping himself while reciting biblical verses that caution of a higher being judging all deeds on earth. His work challenges the notion of religious clashes in an Indonesia-specific situation, but happening elsewhere too. It also reveals the unusual combination (for that time) of video, performance and installation.

When I asked Reza why he, a Muslim, used biblical texts, he said he was intrigued by the words that he knew from his Catholic school days. Reza himself views the video as bringing together analog systems, the physical in which the horrid slapping of his own body responds to the commands in the texts, and the digital that responds to human action.

Arin Dwihartanto’s painting Volcanic Ash Series #4 presents an illusive landscape using pigmented resin and volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Merapi. Contrasting its beautiful appearance, the painting is an artifact of the disaster that rocked Yogyakarta. Although Arin was not a direct victim of the disaster, it was something that shocked him deeply. His usual vibrant works became monochromatic when he added ash from the volcano to pigmented resin.

“I wanted to keep the ash as a keepsake,” he said. At the same time it marks yet another stage in Arin’s creative experiments with painting. Layered with multiple resin drips and ash, the work includes personal, material and national content while appearing at once sculptural.

Among the other selected works, Poklong Anading’s Counter Acts (2004) fascinates and intrigues both conceptually and visually. Set in four light boxes, the Phillipines native’s chromogenic transparencies show the result of his intervention in conventional photography. Instead of using light to reveal the image, he had the sitters in the image hold circular mirrors reflecting sunlight into the camera lens, thus thwarting the sun’s power through collective action. The result is an alternative aesthetic with metaphorical significance.

Of a different kind is Singapore’s Ho Tzu Nyen’s The Cloud of Unknowing, an immersive 30-minute film titled after a 14th-century mystical treatise on faith that requires some effort from the viewer to relate to. But Ho’s take on the “Cloud”, which in Western understanding denotes the divine and the sacred, whereas the Chinese base their understanding of the cloud on the Taoist philosophy of change, is sublime as the differences fuse in the course of the process
Poklong Anading, Counter Acts (2004), chromogenic transparency in light box, 228.6 x 365.8 cm, edition 3/3. (Courtesy of Poklong Anading)
Poklong Anading, Counter Acts (2004), chromogenic transparency in light box, 228.6 x 365.8 cm, edition 3/3. (Courtesy of Poklong Anading)

In general, the works become more enlightening and meaningful after taking note of their backgrounds. This is true, for instance, of the works by Myanmar artists Wah Nu and Tun Win Aung. A published interview with the two examined the personal background of the video as well as the busts of Bogyoke Aung San. The video showing a person’s endless walk was initially quite boring, but after hearing their story it acquired a dramatic touch and tension and the “long march” became intriguing, even evoking a desire to know more.

It is such stories behind the images that makes this exhibition fascinating, opening up paths of understanding and new ways of seeing. Even if Shilpa Gupta’s sculpture is a perfect work artistically, reaping appreciation without any need to know its context, the explanation of the numerical data in the work reveals a fenced border between India and Pakistan, bringing forward the struggle of identity when a country splits into two.

In the same vein, the information that the sitters in Vincent Leong’s photo Keeping up with the Abdullahs 1, all dressed in Islamic clothing, are actually Chinese and Indian, ethnic minorities of Malaysia, denote the issue of ethnic segregation and strife in the artist’s country.

Vietnam’s Truong Tan’s What Do We Want... featuring a reclining nude, a feminine male figure in crucifix position with a rope around the mid-section, offers insight into the precarious issue of homosexuals in Vietnam, as in other countries, and refers to the trials undergone by the artist as an openly gay man in a homophobic society.

Surely having knowledge of the other works too will add to appreciation, understanding and exchange of cultures as intended by this project. The other artists are well known from biennales and art events like Documenta, and include Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, Aung Myint, Bani Abidi, Amar Kanwar, Khadim Ali, Navin Rawanchaikul, Norberto Roldan, the Otolith Group, the Propeller Group, Tang Da Wu, Tran Luong, Tuan Andrew Nguyen and Wong Hoy Chong. Surprisingly, the selection of works virtually dismisses the issue of violence against women, which is in fact endemic in many of the countries.

But the spotlight on Asia and Southeast Asia has started, for now. Importantly, the works in the show will become part of the Guggenheim’s permament collection.

“No Country: Contemporary Art
for South and Southeast Asia”

Feb. 22 to May 22, 2013
Solomon R.Guggenheim Museum, New York
October 2013 to February 2014
Asia Society, Hong Kong

Paper Edition | Page: 28

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