Art as a Cultural Movement:

Opening a Window on Southeast Asia

2019 / November

Chen Chun-fang /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Scott Williams

To many Taiwanese, Southeast Asia is a faraway land of different languages, cultures and religions. But viewing Taiwan through the lens of contemporary Southeast-Asian art, with its depictions of the cultural body blows inflicted by colonial rule and later transition to more democratic governance, can help us discover that we have more in common with Southeast-­Asian nations than we thought.

This past summer, the Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts hosted “Sunshower,” Taiwan’s first large-scale exhibition of contemporary art from Southeast Asia. Originally held in Japan in 2017 at a cost of US$3 million, the exhibition was developed by 14 curators on the basis of a two-year-long survey of Southeast-Asian art. KMFA’s new version of the exhibit featured works by 47 artists selected from the Japanese event, enabling local people to experience this rich banquet of the region’s art for themselves.

A genuine understanding

In Taiwan, people’s impressions of Southeast Asia all too often begin and end with stereotypes of poverty and backwardness. This view ignores the rich artistic and cultural heritage that the region’s long history has gifted it with.

According to the Ministry of Labor, nearly 710,000 Southeast-Asian migrant workers were living and working in Taiwan as of the end of 2018. Our island is also home to many “new immigrants” from the region, and their children. While Southeast Asians now make up a significant portion of the social fabric of Taiwan, little progress has been made in getting to know them, and prejudices persist.

Lee Yulin, director of the KMFA, began seeing breakout Southeast-Asian contemporary art at international venues a number of years ago. Lee, who once studied in New York, believes that the situation of Southeast Asians in Taiwan has created an urgent need for dialogue. She therefore decided to use contemporary art as a means to introduce the public to Southeast Asia. “My goal was to help people truly connect with Southeast Asia, to stop viewing it simply through the lens of the market—whether for labor, spouses, or 600 million consumers—and instead truly forge a good relationship.”

Striking similarities

Although Taiwan and the countries of Southeast Asia differ in their languages, religions, and history, all have experienced colonialism, democratization, and rapid economic growth.

Htein Lin, a Myanma artist incarcerated for seven years for anti-government activities, never let imprison­ment get in the way of his creativity. During his in­carcera­tion, he painted a series of works on canvases made from old prison uniforms, making use of available materials such as toothpaste tubes and broken glass in place of paintbrushes. He called the series “00235” after his inmate number. Exhibited publicly following his release, the paintings document his time in prison while also reveal­ing his pursuit of life and commitment to ideals.

Htein Lin’s work recalls that of the Taiwanese photo­grapher Ouyang Wen, who was imprisoned on Green Island during the White Terror. Ouyang was ordered to take photographs of an inspection visit by Chiang Ching-kuo. Provided with a basic darkroom to develop the photos, he secretly held on to extra film and used it to document local culture and customs, creating a valuable record of life on the island in the 1950s and 60s.

Rich creative fodder

Whereas classical art emphasizes beauty and harmony, contemporary art often aims to make the viewer think. The economies, political systems, and societies of Southeast Asia have seen dramatic changes over the last 40 years. Contemporary art’s embrace of social issues means that it too has experienced explosive development. Artists have processed this simmering cultural fodder into Southeast Asia’s freewheeling contemporary art.

Sunshower (2017), by Thai artist and filmmaker Api­chat­pong Weerasethakul and artist Chai Siris, is a case in point. A four-ton manmade elephant suspended in midair, it is a shocking piece of art. Apichatpong excels at using light, and placed a round light source in front of the elephant to symbolize the moon. A close look at the sculpture reveals details such as the hair and the wrinkles in the skin. As the color of the “moon” changes, so too does the elephant’s expression, its half-closed eyes seeming both asleep and awake and giving it a lifelike appearance.

The piece was exhibited in the section of the show entitled “Between Development and Inheritance.” A sacred symbol in Thailand, the elephant has in modern times been reduced to a mere tool for attracting tourists. The artists seem to be asking viewers: “How should modern humanity coexist with the environment?” Lee says that the struggles birthed by modernity aren’t unique to Southeast Asia, but are faced by all postcolonial nations. The colonizers brought modernity, along with values such as democracy, the rule of law, freedom and convenience, but other things of value were undeniably sacrificed or discarded in the process.

Diverse perspectives

KMFA invited immigrants from several Southeast-­Asian nations to serve as cultural ambassadors for the exhibition. Their perspectives exposed life narratives beyond those of art professionals. Lacking an understanding of Southeast-Asian history, Taiwanese visitors to the show often skimmed over some works, but Nguyen Thi Thanh Ha, an immigrant from Vietnam well versed in the region’s history, saw much more in them.

Cambodian artist Lim Sokchanlina’s National Road Number 5 (2015) uses photographs to document the effects of freeway construction on nearby homes. Thanh Ha sees in it not only the struggles and hopes arising out of develop­ment, but also traces of Vietnamese families living in Cambodia. Generally followers of Theravada Buddhism, Cambodians don’t make offerings to their ancestors in their homes. But there are incense burners and three photos of ancestors visible in the piece, as well as Earth God figures on the ground. These are all Vietnamese customs. Thanh Ha explains that Vietnamese place the Earth God on the ground because he has charge of the earth. This ­differs from Taiwan, where it is customary to place him on an altar. Additionally, Vietnamese see the Earth God as also handling matters related to wealth, and picture him looking something like the Happy Buddha, with a big belly and smiling face. In contrast, Taiwanese envision the God of Wealth wearing a government official’s hat and uniform.

Starting a dialogue

Lee says migrant workers are like angels, and she encouraged her colleagues to bring any in their employ to the exhibition. She tells us that on one occasion a volunteer brought her aged mother to the exhibit along with her mother’s caregiver, an Indonesian woman named A-ya. When they came to Toko Keperluan Necessity Shop (2010/2017), a large piece designed by Anggun Priambodo (aka Culap) that incorporates a variety of everyday items from Indonesia and decorative motifs from the South Pacific, the usually shy A-ya began excitedly describing things from her hometown. A-ya’s outburst was a happy surprise to both the volunteer and her mother.

Lee was excited at the prospect of children coming to the museum and being exposed to Southeast-Asian topics. She says that the stereotype of Southeast-Asian immigrant mothers as economically disadvantaged leads to their children not accepting their mothers’ cultures, feeling inferior to their peers, and sometimes being bullied. Support from Rotary International brought hundreds of students from remote areas to the “Sunshower” exhibit, where docents helped create an environment that both made it easier for children of Southeast-Asian mothers to acknowledge their mothers’ cultures, and also encouraged their classmates to ask them questions.

Although the “Sunshower” exhibition concluded on September 1, additional shows introducing other facets of Southeast-Asian art are set to follow, including an exhibition of tattoo art and, next year, one on Austronesian indigen­eity and contemporary art. Lee sees these shows as the start of a movement to make Taiwanese more familiar with Southeast-Asian culture. She hopes that the people who attend them will become like seeds, disseminating greater understanding of Southeast Asia across Taiwan.  

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