Critic's Guide: Southeast Asia

Cambodia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and more: a round-up of the best current shows throughout the subregion

BY Brian Curtin in Critic's Guides | 22 AUG 16

Emily Phyo, Being Daw Htay Yee, #358, 2015, iPhone photograph posted on Instagram. Courtesy: Nathalie Johnston

Emily Phyo, ‘Being 365’
Myanm/art, Yangon, Myanmar
12 August – 1 September

Founded this year by art historian and curator Nathalie Johnston, Myanm/art is the most recent addition to a steady history of Yangon organizations that aim to shape and record the practices of artists typically beleaguered by the oppressive and unpredictable politics of their country. In ‘Being 365’, a series of 365 photographic portraits, one taken every day for a year, Emily Phyo documents the freighted relationship between the locals and the passing of time. With their eyes wrapped in measuring tape, Phyo reveals the absurd manner in which human bodies and personalities can become subject to statistical regulation. Posting the various faces on Instagram and Facebook, she also undercuts the vain ambitions of typical users of social media platforms. In either setting – the gallery or the screen – an ambivalent humanism shines through these images, reminding us of our continued existence while also skirting the particulars of Myanmar’s current rocky road out of its past.

New-Territories/M4, Pyrodulia, 2016, black carbon, dimensions variable. Courtesy: TARS Gallery, Bangkok

TARS Gallery, Bangkok, Thailand
5 August – 23 September

Frenchman Pierre Béchon opened TARS in 2015, amid an upsurge in art-related activities that has seen two well-heeled commercial galleries and a private museum open in Bangkok and Chiang Mai respectively. Since then, the gallery has maintained a cautious but focused programme founded in both a productive dialogue with artists of different territories and disciplines, and a consideration of what exactly ‘contemporary art’ constitutes. ‘(In)territories/rituals’ links the experimental architects New-Territories/M4 – whose burnt paper monolith dominates the space – with Ruangsak Anuwatwimon’s gilded casts of bullet holes from violent events in Thai history. Brussels-based Alexandre Lavet’s art-about-art photographs of white cube galleries whose artworks have been erased provide light relief, as do Thomas Merret’s claims to have captured the imperceptible boundary between the Tyrrhenian and Mediterranean seas.

Nge Lay, The Relevancy of Restricted Things, 2010, digital photograph, 60 x 90 cm. Courtesy: Cemeti Arthouse/Ruang Mes65, Yogyakarta

‘Concept Context Contestation: art and the collective in Southeast Asia’
Cemeti Art House and Ruang MES65, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
20 August – 21 September

Travelling and evolving from its initial staging at the Bangkok Art and Culture Center in 2013 (via a censored event in Vietnam), this show of 34 artists and collectives is a sprawling, sometimes ribald, affair. Though premised on a shaky aim of ‘demonstrating’ links between conceptual art practices from around the region and, by implication, differentiating it from ‘the west’, a trans-historical approach and a number of site-specific collaborations make for compelling viewing. Alwin Reamillo’s long-standing visceral approach to ‘social sculpture’ segues into the cooler aesthetics of Prapat Jiwarangsan, a recent graduate of London’s Royal College of Art, while the agitprop of punk collective Taring Padi rubs against the transgender sensibilities of Michael Shaowanasai. Curated by Iola Lenzi (Singapore) with Vipash Purichanont (Thailand) and Agung Hujatnikajennong (Indonesia), a two-day introductory seminar addressed potent themes such as ‘Conceptual and aesthetic responses to state authority in Southeast Asian art post–1975’, a discourse that may well serve the opening of the new Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in 2017 in Jakarta, directed by Thomas J. Berghuis.

Koh Nguang How, Bakong Ruins by Shui Tit Sing, 1963, 2014, colour photograph. Courtesy: Singapore Art Archive Project and Koh Nguang How

Singapore Art Archive Project @ SA SA BASSAC: Koh Nguang How & Shui Tit Sing
SA SA BASSAC, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
31 July – 8 October

Curated by Mélanie Mermod  and Vera Mey, who recently completed a curatorial stint at the city-state’s Center for Contemporary Art, this selection from Koh Nguang How’s ‘Singapore Art Archive Project’ – an archival project researching pre-2005 contemporary art in Singapore – draws on a visit that the artist Shui Tit Sing (1914-97) made to Cambodia in 1963. Shui emigrated from mainland China to Singapore and a member of the Ten Men Art Group, a collective of artist immigrants. At SA SA BASSAC, ephemera from the trip and related to the collective is mixed with personal maps, notebooks and other artifacts. Koh, who is currently in residence at space, weaves this further, combining the material with a number of more contemporary references. As the question of Southeast Asian ‘regionality’ continues to heat up, this project offers a timely reminder of the problems and promises of re-constructing the past.

Sriwhana Spong, Fragments of Actions, 2013, installated in the artist’s parents’ garden following an exhibition at the Auckland Art Gallery, 2013. Courtesy: the artist and Michael Lett

Sriwhana Spong and Maria Taniguchi, ‘Oceanic Feeling’
Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, Singapore
20 August – 16 October                     

Manila-based Maria Taniguchi won the 2015 Hugo Boss Asia Art award for her series of delicately painted black bricks, bricks that upon closer examination reveal intimate imperfections that shift perceptions of the handcrafted and manufactured. This superbly queer-ed modernism reverberates perfectly with Auckland-based Sriwhana Spong’s large Villa America (2012), a billowing sheet of silk dyed with Fanta Orange that also carries that the wear-and-tear of its exhibition histories. ‘Oceanic Feeling’ surveys the pair’s respective decade-long practices, displaying the variety of media that both employ, including video and, for Spong, dance. The title plays resonates with ideas of both continuity and comparability, which is a necessary conceit given the trans-national interests of both artists. Spong is of Indonesian descent, and in the video 24 Hour Garden (2006), the artist films Balinese ritual objects, which are re-made from found materials and exhibited in her garden in New Zealand.

Jon Cuyson, 'Dancing the Shrimp (The Tactical Improvisation of Post Colonial Space Mix)', 2016, exhibition view, Vargas Museum, Manila. Courtesy: the artist

Jon Cuyson, ‘Dancing the Shrimp (The Tactical Improvisation of Postcolonial Space Mix)’
Vargas Museum, Manila, Philippines
11 August – 15 September

Under the watchful eye of director Patrick D. Flores, also an academic at the University of Philippines Diliman where the institution is housed, many local artists are invited to take their first professional steps at the Vargas. In ‘Dancing the Shrimp …’, Jon Cuyson theatrically reworks the museum’s lobby with fluorescent lights and a soundtrack of ritual chants and electronic beats. Objects, artifacts, video and text artfully alter the space in manner that adds a campy touch to a number of Philippine artists and critics’ long-standing interest in hybridity; post-modern revelry that surpasses what can be tortured references to postcolonial history. However, the peculiar title of the show is a reference to Filipino labourers in 19th-century Louisiana, who learned to remove the shells of shrimp with their feet. Amidst the glare and curiosities, Cuyson has created a fictional trans seafarer named Kerel, who weaves the disparate elements together and highlights the crash of different times. 

Brian Curtin is an art critic based in Bangkok, Thailand. His book Essential Desires: Contemporary Art in Thailand is due to be published by Reaktion Books in 2021.