See Asia through its artists

Works from the region make their way here in a travelling exhibition by the Guggenheim

Our Children. -- PHOTO: TANG DA WU
Our Children. -- PHOTO: TANG DA WU
Lap Loe, 2012. -- PHOTO: TRAN LUONG
Lap Loe, 2012. -- PHOTO: TRAN LUONG
1:14.9, 2011–12. -- PHOTO: SHILPA GUPTA
1:14.9, 2011–12. -- PHOTO: SHILPA GUPTA
Lovebed, 2012. -- PHOTO: TAYEBA BEGUM LIPI
Lovebed, 2012. -- PHOTO: TAYEBA BEGUM LIPI
Volcanic Ash Series #4, 2012 (Triptych). -- PHOTO: ARIN DWIHARTANTO SUNARYO
Volcanic Ash Series #4, 2012 (Triptych). -- PHOTO: ARIN DWIHARTANTO SUNARYO
The Singapore exhibition marks the debut of Morning Glory by Sopheap Pich (above), which is made of rattan. -- PHOTO: SOPHEAP PICH
The Singapore exhibition marks the debut of Morning Glory by Sopheap Pich (above), which is made of rattan. -- PHOTO: SOPHEAP PICH
Curator June Yap (left) and Centre for Contemporary Arts director Ute Meta Bauer will reach out to the public through No Country: Contemporary Art For South And South-east Asia. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
Curator June Yap (left) and Centre for Contemporary Arts director Ute Meta Bauer will reach out to the public through No Country: Contemporary Art For South And South-east Asia. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

If you want to see what is happening with South and South-east Asian art, a travelling exhibition which makes its final stop in Singapore this month could be a good place to start.

The small scale show featuring 19 artworks by 16 emerging and established artists and collectives is an initiative by the famous Guggenheim Museum in New York to widen its Western-centric collection by featuring art from this part of the world.

It appointed Singaporean curator June Yap to pick the artworks which form part of the museum's permanent collection.

Yap, 40, who worked in the curatorial departments of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in Singapore and the Singapore Art Museum, and has been an independent curator since 2008, spent three months travelling the region to visit the artists and select the works for the exhibition titled, No Country: Contemporary Art For South And South-east Asia.

The show, which debuted at the Guggenheim in New York last year and travelled to Hong Kong earlier this year, opens at the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Gillman Barracks on Saturday. No Country is part of the the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative, which aims to strengthen representation of art from different parts of the world.

The Singapore exhibition marks the debut of two works - Loss by Indian artist Sheela Gowda and Morning Glory by Sopheap Pich from Cambodia - not previously seen in the New York (Feb 22-May 22, 2013) Hong Kong shows.

The Hong Kong show featured 18 works by 13 artists, while the New York one had 27 works by 22 artists. In total, the Guggenheim acquired 36 works by 27 artists and collectives.

Yap tells Life! the idea behind this exhibition is to encourage cross-cultural dialogue about contemporary art and cultural practice.

Reaching out to the public and running education programmes are key elements of the initiative, which is why the relatively new Centre for Contemporary Arts was picked as the venue over museums.

She says: "The centre lends to the project the possibility to extend its research and discursive aspects. Certainly, the established institutions in Singapore were considered. However, exhibition arrangements were most suitable with the centre."

Professor Ute Meta Bauer, 55, founding director of the centre, says that the show brings "a complex perspective on contemporary artistic production that addresses the diversity of South and South-east Asia".

Indeed, No Country demonstrates not just the vitality of art practices but also the dynamism of culture in the region.

Yap travelled to countries including Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines, Bangladesh and India to gather art for the show. "What was important for me was to introduce critical practices from the region that would become part of the museum's collection and also works that provide impetus for further discussion relevant in the US and also in Asia," she says.

So she picked some of the most compelling and innovative artists in the region and South Asia.

Singapore's leading contemporary artist Tang Da Wu's installation work, Our Children, inspired by a Teochew parable, is shown alongside those of other regional heavyweights such as multi-disciplinary Indian artist Shilpa Gupta and Thailand's Navin Rawanchaikul, who represented his country at the Venice Biennale in 2011.

Cambodian installation artist Pich continues with his use of the humble rattan to make powerful sculptures that comment on Cambodian society.

The works on display include painting, sculpture, photography, video, works on paper and installations.

Among several stand-out works is Pakistani artist Bani Abidi's artworks which bring together elements of video art, performance and photography.

In The Boy Who Got Tired Of Posing, a 2006 work which is in the show, the artist plays on the trend of popular studio photography in 1980s Pakistan, when parents encourage their sons to dress up for portrait shots. In the work's final image, the subject, tired of performing, mischievously elects to exit the frame.

In the large 219.7×720.1cm painting, Places Of Rebirth (2009), Thai artist Rawanchaikul draws on his first visit to Pakistan, the birthplace of his ancestors, in November 2008.

The artist's family moved to Thailand in pursuit of opportunity and in the aftermath of the 1947 partition of India, which forced millions to migrate from the country.

By train, ship, and on foot, his mother and great-grandfather travelled from Gujranwala in Pakistan to India to Chiang Mai in Thailand to arrive at the place of what he calls "his family's rebirth".

The 43-year-old artist says he is interested in "the fluid nature of migratory histories," which can often be seen in South and South-east Asia.

The idea of exchange, adapatation of cultures and the interpretation and reinterpretation of stories can be seen in several of the other artworks on display.

One work that is not being shown in Singapore is that of multi-disciplinary artist Ho Tzu Nyen's four-channel video, The Cloud Of Unknowing. Yap says this is because the single-channel Venice Biennale-version is being presented at the Singapore Art Museum at the same time.

The Asian show is a landmark event as the Guggenheim seeks to broaden its reach. Its New York collection has more than 6,800 artworks but before the recent acquisitions, only 12 were from South and South-east Asia, and none from Singapore.

On the challenge of curating a show on this scale, Yap says: "The main challenge was time. It is an ambitious venture, but also the beginning of a dialogue that is meant to go beyond this exhibition and collection."

Five exhibition highlights


By Arin Dwihartanto Sunaryo, 36, Indonesia

Volcanic ash and pigmented resin, 146x547cm

The Bandung-based artist is known for pushing the boundaries of painting and creative use of materials.

Acquired for the Guggenheim's collection, Volcanic Ash Series #4, 2012, is made using a combination of resin and, as pigment, volcanic ash from the 2010 eruption of Mount Merapi, the most active volcano in Indonesia.

Rejecting the paint brush in favour of applying paint directly to the canvas with his hands, Sunaryo became impatient with the prolonged drying time of oil paint and started experimenting with pigmented resin. In its natural, plant-derived form, resin connects with age-old methods of preservation, notably used in ancient Egyptian mummification.

Curator June Yap recalls being "struck" by this work when she walked into his Bandung studio.

"The work captures the colour and energy of the eruption. As you step closer to the work, you recognise its palpable nature in the little bits of ash he has incorporated."

She calls the piece creative and compelling in its exploration of both aesthetic and conceptual ideas.


By Tayeba Begum Lipi, 44, Bangladesh

Stainless steel, 79.4x184.8x221cm

The artist, who made a quiet Venice Biennale debut in 2011, continues her exploration of the issues of feminity in this installation. A bed made from razor blades references domestic violence.

Yap says it has been "surprising" to see how people were drawn to this work when it was shown in New York and Hong Kong. "In spite of the peril of the blades, viewers seem to want to get close to it. The blade represents not merely the violence implied by its sharp edges, but also its function as a basic tool to aid in child birth, a scenario that the artist recalls from her childhood."

1:14.9, 2011-12

By Shilpa Gupta, 35, India

Hand-wound polyester thread and wood vitrine with engraved brass plaque and glass, 158x56x51cm

In August 1947, the end of British rule led to the creation of two nations - India and Pakistan.

Since their independence, the two countries have fought three major wars and have had a fenced border.

As a response to the volatile political situation, Mumbai-based Gupta creates a handwoven ball of thread encased in a vitrine.

Yap says: "The work addresses threat, fear and religious prejudice through an elegant, poetic sculptural form.

"As updated in 2007, the fenced Indo-Pakistan border is 1,188.5 miles long. Alluding to this vast distance of circumscription and surveillance through the application of a 14.9-to-1 ratio, Gupta has hand wound almost 80 miles of thread into an egg-shaped ball. This coiled yet delicate mass stands as a reflection on the volatility of borders."

LAP LOE, 2012

By Tran Luong, 54, Vietnam

Single-channel colour video with sound, 10 minutes 4 seconds

The artist's practice spans painting, installation and performance art. This video work, whose title loosely means "blink" or "flicker" in Vietnamese, is derived from a performance by the artist that began in 2007. It was inspired by the sight of his son returning from school wearing a red scarf that reminded him of his own childhood. The performance has been staged in various countries including Vietnam, South Korea, Indonesia and Singapore.

The red scarf, Yap says, is "an item of historical and political significance associated with communism".

The work comments on "the history and status of Vietnam by extending from the performance's various incarnations. The image of the scarf remains ambiguous, its rising, snapping, falling movements never more than allusive or suggestive. While the lashing scarf is, for the artist, a cause of pain, it is also a transitory phenomenon and a catalyst for understanding."


By Tang Da Wu, 70, Singapore

Galvanized steel, glass and milk, 160x200x60cms

The minimalist work is suggestive of a Chinese altar and its recognition of lineage and the past.

It is inspired by a Teochew parable in which a young boy experiences a humbling moment of enlightenment at the sight of a kneeling baby goat being fed by its mother.

Since 1988, the veteran Singapore artist has been known for his observations of Singapore's contemporary art scene.

He founded the first artist colony here, The Artists Village, now defunct.

Yap says of the work: "It is about culture and its transmission. Da Wu is such a wonderful storyteller and it was his narrative that brought the sculpture to life when I first encountered it in his studio.

"It takes you a moment to recognise that this sleek sculpture is not a table but a creature.

"The two figures, while seemingly stationary, are also in dynamic tension, and resemble Chinese characters, symbolising the narrative in spare strokes and lines.

"At one level, it is about sustenance and nurture. It is also a comment on the production of our future to which we have a shared responsibility."