The ASEAN Secretariat
70A Jalan Sisingamangaraja, Jakarta 12110
08/08/2019 - 06/09/2019
Having recently celebrated its Golden Jubilee, ASEAN's great achievement as an organisation has been its pivotal role in maintaining peace, stability, and prosperity in a region that was threatened to be torn apart during the Cold War-era conflict. So successful has ASEAN been in fact that it was suggested that ASEAN receive a Nobel Peace Prize (1). Certainly as ASEAN enters into its next 50 years and beyond, political, economic, and social challenges will become ever more complicated, requiring resistance to the tidal pull of global forces and stronger cooperation between all Member States (2).
Artistic expression, and its ability to engage the imagination more readily than facts and opinions, can be a potent force for change in the Information Age. The establishment of a new ASEAN Gallery to "[promote] awareness of universal ideals as well as the realities we all have to live with” (3) is timely considering the increasingly polarised global political situation we face today. The Gallery offers a unique opportunity to share the vision of an ASEAN identity, bringing the lands, languages, religions, and races of Southeast Asia into the heart of the new ASEAN Secretariat building.
In the midst of the dismantling of colonialism in the region and the emergence of modern Southeast Asian states in the early twentieth century, artists vigorously debated between competing ideologies. In tribute to these "Great Debates" (4) of the past, "Shifting Tides" - the first exhibition in the new ASEAN Gallery - convenes a group of artists who raise questions as to what it means to be part of ASEAN within prevailing political, cultural, and personal narratives.
Eko Nugroho's "The Deaf Costume and Colonize" serves to counter both the history of Indonesia's violent post-colonial past and present-day internal rivalries threatening to fracture its hard-won democratic freedom. In a work co-created with weaving communities in Jogjakarta, graffiti-like slogans mask a uniformed figure armed with a sword and standing over a disembodied torso. It is Nugroho’s warning to the nation that freedom is not a given and may fall victim anytime to an internecine revolt that seeks to do away with the current system and "re-colonise" Indonesia from within.
Heri Dono's "The Party of a Democracy & Pancasila Country" continues to explore contemporary politics, specifically the recent Indonesian election. Dono's clown-like characters are placed on a stage representing opposing political parties. Using theatre and illusion as an allegory, Dono draws our attention to the proliferation of fake news and intolerant attitudes prevalent in contemporary political discourse, not just in Indonesia but also across the globe.
Entang Wiharso's "Unburied History" is a monumental aluminum sculpture that expresses the deep historical and contemporary divisions associated with ideological and physical borders. A marching line of armed police and military figures intertwine with trampled figures, tongues, and intestines, creating a violent and imposing tableaux. Wiharso, who lives a transnational existence between Indonesia and the US, highlights the challenges of immigration and increasingly hermetic sovereign nations.
Savanhdary Vongpoothom's "Resound 1" is a reflection of her diasporic experience having migrated to Australia as an eight year old from Lao PDR in 1979 after the Vietnam War. Fusing traditional weaving styles with the geometric compositions characteristic of modern abstract art, Vongpoothorn incorporates elements of Theravada Buddhism into repetitious, painted, and punctured canvases. The meditative exercise of puncturing the canvas by burning is synonymous with Buddhist notions of creation and destruction but is also an aesthetic and material reference to the design of Laotian weaving (5).
In Jigger Cruz's "Dear Robert, I rest and combine but I fell asleep" the canvas becomes a conceptual and physical struggle to rewrite his identity. By taking a classical painting and destroying the image with thick applications of paint and violent intrusions to the surface, the work becomes a battle-ground of hegemonic ideas and histories:
"Cruz's mark making is therefore not random and gratuitous but rather a challenge to the painting's neutrality, a questioning of its assumed innocence. The painting is a text; it speaks, and its message can be interpreted, among other things, as the reification of a series of cultural and political truths. Its very existence is a proclamation, and thus a provocation: one that Cruz has decided to confront face-to-face. Cruz's mark making speaks, too, but not as a lone voice. Rather, it speaks over and against the discourse that is responsible for its marginalisation. His peripheral painting moves from outside the frame onto the canvas in order to interrupt and transform dominant art-historical discourse." (6)
The series of works by Loi Cai Xiang were conceived in a hospital bed while he was recovering from surgery. He recalled the irony of his condition as he witnessed children playing happily outside, perceiving how vastly different two people's experiences could be while inhabiting the same space. The looming spherical forms in his paintings, marked by cracks and fissures, encroach on environs familiar to Loi. The benign environments infiltrated by these strange orbs illustrate opposing forces in Loi's own struggle to reflect on his own dualities and to establish a sense of himself and of belonging. Loi, "likened this [struggle] to the tendency of humans to veer between extremes, viewing scenarios as black or white. His perspective was that we become accustomed to being taught what was right or wrong, good or bad, moral or immoral. And yet, reality itself was not so clearly defined." (7)
Southeast Asia has a sophisticated history of combining tradition with new ideas and concepts while forging its own unique path through periods of renewal. The new ASEAN Gallery can exemplify these qualities and be a powerful ally for Southeast Asian artists. "Art can rise to the challenge of illuminating and driving change, rather than merely describing disturbing realities… Southeast Asian art [operates] to make sense of and sometimes activate this re-ordering world, their corralling of allusion and subtext providing structure to works that fulfill a public calling." (8)
Within this selection of artworks are preoccupations with domestic and international politics, transcultural experience of migration, postcolonial reconstruction of history, and the nature of truth. As the many voices of Southeast Asia continue to gather in this space to deepen our understanding of the world and humanity, so too will the ASEAN Gallery awaken to its position as an arts and cultural institution for the future
(1) Mahbubani, Kishore and Sng, Jeffery, The ASEAN Miracle: A Catalyst for Peace, p. 7. (2) Lee, Hsien Loong, speech at the ISEAS 50th Anniversary Lecture on 13 March 2018. (3) https://asean.org/asean/asean-secretariat/asean-gallery/ (4) Sabapathy, TK, “Developing Regionalist Perspectives in South-East Asian Art Historiography”, in The Second Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art. p. 14. (5) https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/138.2015/ (6) Ramsay, Benny Nemerofsky, “A Mark from the Periphery”, in Jigger Cruz, P. 91. (7) Lim, Deborah, Loi Cai Xiang: The Spectrum of Reality, P. 3. (8) Lenzi, Iola, “Conceptual Strategies in Southeast Asian Art: A Local Narrative”, in Concept Context Contestation: Art and the Collective in Southeast Asia, P. 23.