What do we mean by the term ‘Asia’? Initially the name given by the Ancient Greeks to the territories east of the Aegean Sea, today it still broadly refers to the ‘East’, as set in geopolitical distinction to the ‘West’: something generally defined from without as opposed to from within. Amongst other connotations and projections, perhaps one of the most misconstrued is the idea that some form of integral pan-Asian unity or essence exists. Thus to invoke ‘Asia’ is to risk being implicated in a levelling of distinct territories and identities into a landscape of false equivalencies.
‘Mekong – New Mythologies’ poses the world’s 12th-longest river – which flows from the Tibetan plateaus through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam – as a physical and metaphoric ‘liquid territory’. The work of the 12 artists and collectives featured purports to demonstrate the mutability and transience of borders and definitions, coalescing mythology with history and evincing affinities derived from the regional landscape.
That the contributors are billed as Southeast Asian artists – erroneously including Pakistan, China and Hong Kong – is an initial indication of the difficulties in escaping prescribed socio-geographic categories. Indeed, sometimes geography is all that seems to link the artists: Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan’s InHabit (2017), for example, alludes to artistic collaboration through a cardboard collage, while Heman Chong’s ‘Things that Remain Unwritten’ (2017) is a series of abstract blue paintings interspersed throughout the gallery. Elsewhere, soft resonances are drawn out between artists taking natural elements as their subject matter. Leung Chi Wo’s Untitled (Blue Water) (2014), a triptych of photographs of the sea, faces Dinh Q. Lê’s The Scroll of the Mediterranean Sea, April 12th, 2015 (2016), which cascades glossily from the ceiling. In their three-channel video work, The night is immenser than its hours. Pure memory is bigger than its borders (2017), Vong Phaophanit and Claire Oboussier succeed in teasing out complexities of nation versus environment through their juxtaposition of footage of industrial scenes alongside open expanses of river.
The invocation of a liquid territory, we might conclude, is most provocative if taken in the sense of constituting a ‘space of flows’ – as network theorist Manuel Castells describes the all-pervasive circulation of information and ideas that defines our current society. Rather than essentializing works of art by their geographic, cultural or ecological features, this show is strongest where it illuminates both the ubiquity of culture and its distinct permutations. Thai artist Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s video Two Planets: Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass and the Thai Villagers (2008), for instance, depicts a group of locals seated in an open field in front of a projection of Édouard Manet’s famous reclining nude. The film is subtitled with their bemused comments: ‘Western women cannot get naked like that,’ says one; ‘They only take their clothes off when they exercise,’ says another. The work demonstrates the disjunctive and often comical ways in which ideas get circulated. Instead of ‘navigating unique specificities’ of so-called territories, as the exhibition catalogue suggests, it is more productive to think about the ways in which art has fractured notions of global and local along different fault lines. As evidenced in Samson Young’s landscapes of musical registers distinguishing sounds in Hong Kong from Mainland China (Liquid Borders I [Tsim Bei Tsui & Sha Tau Kok], 2012) and Cao Fei’s escape into the virtual world of Second Life (Cao Fei [SL Avatar: China Tracy], China Tracy Portrait 06, 2007), artistic production creates its own mythologies and imagined territories, articulating new solidarities to both empowering and effacing effect.
Main image: Dinh Q. Lê, We Were Once Warriors Fusion Maia Resort - Da Nang, digital collage, 76 x 102 cm. Courtesy: the artist and 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, Hong Kong