Art review: Vivid cross-cultural conversations at Guggenheim's South and South-east Asia show

There are things a visitor to the exhibition, No Country: Contemporary Art For South And South-east Asia, could easily get his knickers in a twist about.

The compact travelling show from the Guggenheim Museum in New York premiered last year and made a stop in Hong Kong before opening here in May at the Centre for Contemporary Art, with 19 works by 16 critically acclaimed artists and collectives.

The ambition of a famed Western art institution to be a voice on art from this hemisphere, when it was heretofore oblivious to the scene - its collection of more than 6,800 works of art included only 12 pieces from South and South-east Asia - might rub a viewer the wrong way.

The museum's about-turn followed an injection of funds from Swiss bank UBS in 2012 to purchase art from non-Western regions, including Latin America, the Middle East and North Africa, which overlap with the bank's business interests. A total of 36 pieces were acquired under the South and South-east Asia category.

Those inured about art and money sleeping together might instead chafe at the way the exhibition lumps two distinct terrains and disparate countries with diverse cultures and artistic practices together.

These doubts, however, melt away in the face of an earnest show which wears its heart on its title, a profound work of art itself.

"No Country" borrows from William Butler Yeats' poem Sailing To Byzantium and Cormac McCarthy's novel No Country For Old Men. Both writings share the same two words and, they are for the curator, Singaporean June Yap, a deft device which conveys the spirit of creative exchange and transformation which takes place between the poem and novel.

She uses this motif to survey the sprawling geographic terrain and varied artistic practices of South and Southeast Asia, focusing on how, rather than what, cultures and influences are passed on in the region and, in turn, shape identities and relations.

By adopting this non-essentialist view, a common ground emerges, allowing otherwise dissimilar works such as Tang Da Wu's abstract sculpture, Our Children, and Bani Abidi's photographic prints, The Boy Who Got Tired Of Posing, to enter into conversation.

Tang, a pioneer of contemporary art in Singapore, references a tale from traditional Teochew opera about filial piety in his work. The forms of his spare glass-and-steel sculpture allude to a baby goat genuflecting as it suckles its mother.

The prints by Pakistan-born Abidi, on the other hand, examine historical and recent representations of Mohammad bin Qasim, a general from the Islamic caliphate of Umayyad in the early 8th century, who is written into Pakistan's state history as its early founder.

Her photographs, of boys wearing keffiyehs and striking heroic poses with swords, are a nod to a fad in 1980s Pakistan, where parents favoured studio portraits of their sons dressed as the nation's founding hero. In Abidi's final image, however, the costume lies abandoned on the floor, the sitter caught exiting the make-believe set with his foot stuck in a corner of the frame.

With Tang's tableau, a vestige of Teochew opera in Singapore and the culture of venerating one's elders are preserved, albeit in a form which has morphed from its origin. This notion of cultural transmission and its potency underscores Abidi's work, but her photographs also expose how such transference renders historical and cultural narrative vulnerable.

Such vivid cross-country, cross-cultural dialogue continues elsewhere in the exhibition, for example, between Filipino artist Norberto Roldan's painting, F-16, and Vietnamese artist Tuan Andrew Nguyen's wooden sculpture, Enemy's Enemy: Monument To A Monument.

The carving of a bodhisattva, an enlightened being, in Enemy's Enemy is a memorial to the venerated Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc, who immolated himself in 1963 to protest the repression of the Buddhist community by the then South Vietnamese government.

The image, carved into the tip of an American baseball bat, adds another shade to the work, alluding to the role of the United States in the Vietnam War of the same period and its support of the South Vietnamese government.

This layering of histories persists in Roldan's diptych. One panel bears comments by former US President William McKinley on the country's decision, influenced by religion, to occupy the Philippines in 1898. Juxtaposed with this is the image of an American fighter jet flying over Afghanistan in a post-Sept 11 world, where wars against terrorism continue to be fought in various countries, including the Philippines.

It is plain that both works share superficial similarities as assemblages of social, historical and political moments. But the underpinning of this show opens up another channel between the two to consider how power, in forms such as political supremacy and religion, can engender both unity and division and perpetuate itself through generations.

Other works in the exhibition reinforce the merits of saying "No" to a country-specific approach when looking at art from the region.

In Navin Rawanchaikul's Places Of Rebirth, the panoramic painting, made in the style of Indian movie posters, traces the Thai-born artist's family history to the 1947 partition of South Asia. With ancestry from both Pakistan and India, Rawanchaikul's life, and work, highlight how personal and national identities in the region are often in flux, swayed by changes in politics, governments and territorial boundaries, and migration.

Similarly, video installations by Vietnamese artist Tran Luong and the artist collective, Otolith Group, point to how beliefs and values in this region, specifically Socialist ones, are not sui generis but formed through a complex confluence of trans-national alliances and ideological affinities.

Yet equally, one cannot ignore the powerful resonance among works in the show from the South Asia bloc, which frequently examine the separation of India and Pakistan in 1947 and its cultural repercussions.

Shilpa Gupta's work, 1:14.9, visualises the barbed border between the two states as a thread, which she then wound into a white, egg-shaped ball. Displayed coolly in a vitrine, the visual metaphor of the boundary is a charged counterpoint to the violence, death and suffering brought on by a bisection of land.

This less than clean-cut severance plays out in Amar Kanwar's spell-binding trilogy of video works, A Season Outside, A Night Of Prophecy, and To Remember.

Of the three, A Night Of Prophecy, proves the most haunting. People from different parts of India, divided by history, language, caste and economic backgrounds, chorus in their different mother tongues, poems and songs that resound with the anguish of broken dreams, blind justice and suffocating fears.

Yes, it is easy to spark deep conversation between works of art by borrowing ready themes from a nation-based narrative. But in choosing not to privilege this less complicated way of seeing and understanding art, the show challenges and enriches artistic discourse and the audience.

And it does so by stepping away from self-consciousness, exploring not contemporary art of the region but contemporary art for the region, sacrificing reductive definitions of what art from South and South-east Asia is, to open up discussions for the region, and perhaps the world, of how it came to be and continues to be.

view it


Where: Centre for Contemporary Art, Block 43 Malan Road, Gillman Barracks

When: Till July 20, noon to 7pm (Tuesday to Thursday and weekends), noon to 9pm (Friday), closed on Mondays

Admission: Free

Info: For updates on exhibition programmes, visit

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.