Saturday, November 28, 2015   

Experience Asia

Mercy Lo

Friday, October 25, 2013

South and Southeast Asian art will take center stage at the Asia Society Hong Kong Center for more than three months starting on Wednesday.

From February 22 to May 22, the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum in New York put on a group exhibition titled No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia - featuring the works of 22 artists and collectives from the region.

It was the kick-starter for the five- year Guggenheim UBS Global Art Initiative program. With the support of the Swiss bank, the museum plans to expand its permanent collection, purchasing art from three regions in particular - South and Southeast Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East and North Africa.

After its New York showing, the exhibition travels to Hong Kong on the first stop of its Asian tour.

It will be in town until February 16.

Following in the footsteps of other American museums, the Guggenheim is conducting surveys of art from specific regions. This collection focuses on South and Southeast Asia, which account for about 40 percent of the world population.

Show curator June Yap narrowed down her choice to 13 artists - from Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Burma, Pakistan, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

No Country, a title drawn from the opening line of W B Yeats'1928 poem Sailing to Byzantium, asks that we not stereotype Asian art as narrow representations of various national ethos. Borderlessness is the very essence of the show. Yap, a Si
ngaporean, often finds when presenting Asia to an international audience that viewers tend to simplify and reduce their perception of the region, when in fact Asia is complex.

"When we approach such a survey exhibition, we usually first try to find out which country the artist is from, then start reading through that as a framework," says Yap, urging us to forget those frameworks and get immersed in the art itself. "Leave assumptions behind and experience the work first."

Geographically speaking, nations within the South and Southeast Asia region are close to each other. But there is great diversity in their art.

From paintings to sculptures to mixed-media, the featured artworks open up conversations and allow one to re-engage with the region from a different perspective.

Vietnamese artist Tuan Andrew Nguyen carved the figure of a venerated Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, onto classic American baseball bats. The monk had self-immolated on a Saigon street in June 1963 to protest government repression of the Buddhist community.

The oldest work in the entire collection, also from Vietnam, is by Truong Tan, produced not long after the "Doi Moi" economic reforms initiated in 1986.

The oil painting What Do We Want depicts a nude male figure with an averted gaze and nailed to a cross. Ropes across his torso seem to truss him to the frame.

As an openly homosexual artist, Truong's confrontation of taboo sexual themes in his works caused much controversy at the time, with the work considered to have transgressed the concept of aesthetics in the contemporary Vietnamese art scene.

At first glance, Cambodian artist Vandy Rattana's series of landscape photography of isolated ponds surrounded by lush greenery may seem tranquil. But his Bomb Ponds actually depict craters created by American bombs.

During the Vietnam War, US forces dropped nearly 2.8 million tonnes of explosives on the country, including suspected communist bases in neighboring Cambodia and Laos.

The bombs created craters that fill up with still-toxic water during the rainy season.

Rattana combines video with photography to explore the lasting effects of the extensive bombing on the landscape, the people and their collective memory.

Thai video artist Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook appears in her video sitting on a mattress with her dogs watching TV together. The video presents an intersection of the fictional realm of TV drama and the reality of political clashes in Thailand, blurring the imaginary and the real while evoking nostalgia for simpler days.

During the Islamic festival of Eid, Reza Afisina shot a video combined with elements of performance art. For the fasting month of Ramadan, the Indonesian artist recorded a performance of himself reciting biblical verses - specifically Luke 12:3-11 - in front of the camera, while slapping himself repeatedly.

A Bangladeshi artist featured is Tayeba Begum Lipi who, after using stainless-steel razor blades as fabric for her 2011 collection of female undergarments titled Bizarre and Beautiful, returns with another stunning sculpture - Love Bed - a marriage bed made out of the same material.

For the next few months, Asia Society Hong Kong Center will be transformed into a pan-Asian gallery space, exploring the histories and context of various nations in the region. Next stop after Hong Kong is Singapore. All the exhibits, after touring Asia, will become part of the permanent collection of the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum.

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