No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation

The first exhibition of the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative, No Country proposes a reevaluation of South and Southeast Asia and its countries based on its cultural relationships, influences, affinities, and negotiations. It offers a glimpse into the region’s diverse contemporary art practices, and presents the possibility of understanding its countries as greater than the contents of their political and geographical boundaries. Challenging romanticized perceptions of the region, the artworks in No Country lay bare a complex set of conditions that resulted from the rise and fall of kingdoms and empires, and which bear the historical traces of colonization and the often-traumatic birth of nations. These works explore universal themes of national identity and community, cultural knowledge, power, and faith. The exhibition’s title—drawn from the opening line of the W. B. Yeats poem “Sailing to Byzantium” (1928) that is referenced in the title of Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel No Country for Old Men—alludes to this transformative journey, one which eludes simple delineation.

The visual narrative that characterizes Bani Abidi’s practice takes a historical turn in the series The Boy Who Got Tired of Posing (2006), which is made up of two photographic sequences and a video. Through these related elements, the figure of Mohammad bin Qasim, considered Pakistan’s early colonial founder in state history, is brought to life in a lighthearted and candid portrayal that provides an opportunity to reflect on the history of the South Asian nation.

Abidi explores historical and contemporary representations of the figure of bin Qasim, and the proliferation of this narrative in state history and shared culture, through her fictional depictions of the hero in his emblematic form—wearing the Arabic keffiyeh, brandishing a sword, and riding a charging horse. In The Boy Who Got Tired of Posing, the artist plays on the trend of popular studio photography in 1980s Pakistan, which saw parents encourage their sons to dress up as bin Qasim for portrait shots. In the work’s final image, the subject, tired of performing, mischievously elects to exit the frame.

In This Video is a Reenactment, also from The Boy Who Got Tired of Posing series, Abidi recalls Labbaik, a televisual dramatization of the colonial founder’s conquest, by excerpting a sequence showing the hero’s momentous horseback ride. In Abidi’s video, however, the act is slowed down, accentuating its histrionic impact on the nation.

In a suite of eight monochrome photographs, The Ghost of Mohammed Bin Qasim, Bani Abidi monumentalizes the figure, who appears to haunt various sites of national significance around Karachi including the Lahore Fort, the tomb of Emperor Jahangir, and the National Mausoleum of the founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, or Mazar-e-Quaid. Yet on closer examination, these glimpses of the return of the historical figure contain various incongruities and awkwardnesses. A short fictional text reveals the story of how the haunting began with the conversion of a young man, Yusof Masih, to Islam, and his imagining himself as bin Qasim. The figure, juxtaposed with iconic contexts, raises questions of the roles of nationhood, nationalism, and narratives of origin in the trajectory of history.

Reza Afisina is Artistic Director of the Arts Laboratory of Jakarta-based artist collective ruangrupa, founded in 2000 with a focus on video, photography, and installation. Afisina’s early experimental work What . . . (2001) marks a significant moment of convergence between Indonesian performance art and video, and a turning point in the practice of the artist, whose background is in cinematography. The video, which was shot during the Islamic holiday Eid, held in in the fasting months of Ramadhan, records a performance by the artist carried out while alone in ruangrupa’s space. Contemplating the occasion’s purpose as a time for spiritual reflection, he turned to certain biblical verses, specifically Luke 12:3–11. In this passage, Luke relates Jesus’s warnings against hypocrisy and stresses the importance of truth and confession; “whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light,” he declares, “and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed upon the housetops.”

What . . . stages a reflexive moment—the artist watching himself being “watched” by the camera—and underscores the religious text’s edict of the necessity for mindfulness and faith, a lesson also conveyed by the Koran. While Indonesia’s administration is secular, it is a predominantly Muslim country; Afisina’s work presents a moderate and inclusive view of its context, one in which the values of different religions converge. As a source of religious guidance, this biblical text shares with the Koran the aim of teaching readers how to comport themselves, understand, and believe. Emphasizing the verses’ counsel and admonishment, the artist slaps himself repeatedly, an act of violence that becomes increasingly uncomfortable for the viewer. In so doing, he raises the subjects of justice, retribution, suffering, empathy, and compassion.

The physical severity of the performance in Afisina’s film questions the rationalization of other forms of violence, and violence as a choice. Through its forceful portrayal of the relationship of violence—even when well-intentioned—to pain, the work suggests that its immediacy and familiarity may also be fundamental to producing a shared sense of compassion for one’s fellow man, regardless of religion.

The title of Khadim Ali’s Rustam Series (2011–12) references the hero of the Persian Shahnameh (Book of kings). The protagonist of Ferdowsi’s 11th-century epic poem is recognized for his valor and strength, but Ali’s work recalls only his name; the paintings allude to the persecution of the Hazara minority in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a community that finds itself displaced on both sides of the border. The work depicts demons, and suggests that the legendary character of the Rustam has been usurped in contemporary times as justification for hostility and bloodshed, his heroism now ascribed to those who perpetrate violence and domination. In a broader sense, the work reflects on the upheavals and crises that emerge from lingering difference.

Following the style of miniature painting, and in particular the technique of neem rang (half-color), the artist uses traditional methods of production including pigmentation with gold and silver leaf. This traditional South Asian aesthetic, now also marked by Persian influences, is a form of Mughal painting that was once used in illustrated texts, primarily to represent royalty, battles, and legends. The rich and sensitive detailing of these historical portraits is, like the literary epic, revived in Ali’s work, which accords the traditional practice a contemporary relevance by aligning its cultural significance with the circumstances of today.

The title of Khadim Ali’s Rustam Series (2011–12) references the hero of the Persian Shahnameh (Book of kings). The protagonist of Ferdowsi’s 11th-century epic poem is recognized for his valor and strength, but Ali’s work recalls only his name; the paintings allude to the persecution of the Hazara minority in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a community that finds itself displaced on both sides of the border. The work depicts demons, and suggests that the legendary character of the Rustam has been usurped in contemporary times as justification for hostility and bloodshed, his heroism now ascribed to those who perpetrate violence and domination. In a broader sense, the work reflects on the upheavals and crises that emerge from lingering difference.

Following the style of miniature painting, and in particular the technique of neem rang (half-color), the artist uses traditional methods of production including pigmentation with gold and silver leaf. This traditional South Asian aesthetic, now also marked by Persian influences, is a form of Mughal painting that was once used in illustrated texts, primarily to represent royalty, battles, and legends. The rich and sensitive detailing of these historical portraits is, like the literary epic, revived in Ali’s work, which accords the traditional practice a contemporary relevance by aligning its cultural significance with the circumstances of today.

The title of Khadim Ali’s Rustam Series (2011–12) references the hero of the Persian Shahnameh (Book of kings). The protagonist of Ferdowsi’s 11th-century epic poem is recognized for his valor and strength, but Ali’s work recalls only his name; the paintings allude to the persecution of the Hazara minority in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a community that finds itself displaced on both sides of the border. The work depicts demons, and suggests that the legendary character of the Rustam has been usurped in contemporary times as justification for hostility and bloodshed, his heroism now ascribed to those who perpetrate violence and domination. In a broader sense, the work reflects on the upheavals and crises that emerge from lingering difference.

Following the style of miniature painting, and in particular the technique of neem rang (half-color), the artist uses traditional methods of production including pigmentation with gold and silver leaf. This traditional South Asian aesthetic, now also marked by Persian influences, is a form of Mughal painting that was once used in illustrated texts, primarily to represent royalty, battles, and legends. The rich and sensitive detailing of these historical portraits is, like the literary epic, revived in Ali’s work, which accords the traditional practice a contemporary relevance by aligning its cultural significance with the circumstances of today.

For Anonymity (2004– ), Poklong Anading photographs people in the streets of different cities he visits, showing them holding circular mirrors in front of their faces; this work, Counter Acts (2004), is the first in the series. The photographic gesture of seizing a moment in time—wherein the act of seeing and the nature of light dictate the visual result—is here both doubled and foiled. The gazes of artist and subjects as they attempt to regard one another are obscured, the sunlight that is directed toward the camera by the mirrors controverting both the act of observation and the act of photography. In this group shot, the obstruction of vision is multiplied, intensifying this effect. The image is grainy and overexposed, its detail is, ironically, apparent in its shadows and darker areas. The anticipated process of illumination and revelation never occurs, the result speaking instead to concealment and the absence of knowledge. Presenting this image on a lightbox, the artist magnifies further the instability of the photographic surface, as this format speeds up the degeneration of the image over time.

In White Stupa Doesn't Need Gold (2010), Aung Myint begins with the form of a typical Buddhist pagoda (easily recognized by its gilded bell-shaped dome, examples of which dot the Myanmarian landscape). But the artist disrupts the expected representation by depicting the structure unembellished against an enigmatic inky-black background. Scattered casually across the dark expanse are squares of gold leaf that recall the opulence of the historic parabeik, concertina-style books illustrated with royal or religious scenes. Unlike the gilded pagodas—tourist attractions and objects of cultural pride—the gold in Aung Myint’s painting seems to have become detached and inessential, leaving the dome to radiate even while unadorned. Seeming to critique the privileging of appearance over substance, and acting as a prompt to introspection, the artist’s measured observation—rooted as it is in the cultures and histories of a country undergoing political and social reform—also speaks to the inevitability of change, as evidenced in the passage of empires.

In Full Moon (2012), Simryn Gill disassembles and resequences books from her grandfather’s collection. The contents of Full Moon’s liberated pages range from technical explanations, economic analyses, and sociopolitical commentaries to the fictional, transcendental, and spiritual. Foregrounding these texts, Gill inscribes their shuffled leaves with circular designs in ink, gouache, grass pigment, laundry detergent, and correction fluid. These methodical but still lively markings effectively recalibrate the diversity of the pages’ theoretical content, bringing them into unexpected congruence or commensuration. Unmoored from their bindings, they attain a literal and metaphorical lightness characteristic of Gill’s oeuvre, an understated humor that here surfaces in a resistance to the gravity of the texts’ scholarship and cultural importance.

Pinned to the wall in a row, the pages of Full Moon appear to frame each other or coalesce into groupings as one moves from work to work, or when viewed at a distance. As their details swim in and out of focus, the certainty of the truths they embody seems also to waver. Attempting to produce this most basic of shapes upon these textual surfaces, Gill’s exercises in understanding present aspirations to perfection that, like the fullness of the moon, are difficult to perceive with the naked eye.

The subject of Indian artist Sheela Gowda’s Loss (2008) is the region of Kashmir, which is bordered by India, Pakistan, China, and Afghanistan. Historically, this was a center of exchange and syncretism where Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam flourished. However, since the partition of South Asia, it has become an area fraught with the violence and uncertainty that has accompanied the region’s boundary dispute. Having selected six photographs shown by Safiya Lone at a seminar in Kashmir in 2008, the artist attempts to reconcile the separation between the complexities of the region and her own mediated experience thereof.

Abdul Gani Lone, Safiya Lone’s grandfather, conscientiously recorded the burials of every youth in his village who perished as a result of the conflicts in Kashmir, documenting the path taken by the bodies to their graves. These images, with their poignant glimpses of local landscapes, reappear in Gowda’s work. The streets and paths pictured appear outwardly ordinary, the photographs having been taken during lulls between clashes, both national and local. The route depicted, from leafy grounds and everyday streets to the walled graveyard with its blooming white apple flowers, portrays an imagined Kashmir, a natural treasure and (as the Mughal-era saying goes) a heaven on earth. Yet the innocent pleasure of these images is overshadowed by their intention as a memento of those who have been lost.

Mumbai-based artist Shilpa Gupta addresses the weighty issues of religion, nationality, and history with wry humor. Using video, sculpture, photography, and sound, she distills critical observations into pithy reflections on conditions in South Asia. In 1:14.9 (2011–12), a hand-wound ball of thread is accompanied by a small plaque reading “1188.5 MILES OF FENCED BORDER – WEST, NORTH-WEST / DATA UPDATE: DEC 31, 2007.” Using sterile data about the fencing of the border between India and Pakistan extracted from a publicly available report by the Ministry of Home Affairs in India, she poetically represents the geopolitical division as a gleaming orb—a form that seems, at first, as abstract as the raw statistics from which it is derived. Yet the thread’s fragility reflects the tenuous nature of national boundaries, which demand constant restatement and surveillance. The object’s ovoid shape also suggests origins or genesis, and calls to mind the South Asian partition, which occurred either side of midnight on August 14, 1947, birthing two distinct nations in immediate succession.

Ho Tzu Nyen’s multichannel video installation The Cloud of Unknowing (2011) explores the expansive subject of the representation of the elusive and amorphous cloud. Inspired by philosopher Hubert Damisch’s thesis on the form’s aesthetics and symbolism, A Theory of /Cloud/: Toward a History of Painting, first published in French in 1972, Ho’s work incorporates a set of eight compartmentalized vignettes, each centered on a character that stands for the cloud’s representation in historically significant Western European artworks by artists including Caravaggio, Francisco de Zurbarán, Antonio da Correggio, Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini, Andrea Mantegna, and René Magritte, as well as the Eastern landscapes of Mi Fu and Wen Zhengming. This incorporation and blending of cultural, historical, and philosophical references, both Eastern and Western, is prevalent in Ho’s practice, which references painting (EARTH, 2009), pop music (The Bohemian Rhapsody Project, 2006), literature (The King Lear Project, 2008) and philosophy (Zarathustra: A Film for Everyone and No One, 2009).

Contrasted with the substantial figures of the work’s eight characters, each of which struggles against the burden of physical and material existence and the trappings of obsession and clutter, decay and disrepair, are their unexpected confrontations with the ethereal cloud. Ho’s installation is titled after a mystical treatise from the 14th century, written in the tradition of the Christian Neoplatonists, whose authorship is little-known, and which was intended as a primer for aspiring monastics on the art of contemplative prayer. In Ho’s work, the metaphorical limits of human knowledge that the medieval spiritual text anticipates as inevitable in the search for the divine are represented in the form of terrifying, surreal, or sometimes illuminative encounters with a corporeal “cloud of unknowing.” But these encounters with doubt and uncertainty, as guided by the gnostic text, are transitory, and the spiritual traveler is exhorted to keep the faith and trust that understanding will arrive. In Ho’s work, the binary division of Eastern and Western thought, belief, history, and representation, would appear to have collapsed, suggesting the possibility of new insight.

Amar Kanwar’s trilogy of films focuses on the relationship between India and Pakistan, nations that were established through postcolonial independence and their separation from each other at the stroke of midnight on August 14, 1947 (Pakistan celebrates its independence on the earlier day, India on the later). The sectarian division that continues in the fraught relationship between them is detailed vividly in Kanwar’s A Season Outside (1997), which examines the “12-inch mythical line” marking the border between the two nations at the Punjabi village of Wagah. Ritualized displays of military bravado are performed daily at this site of standoff, and made more poignant by the onerous physical labor of transferring goods from Indian to Pakistani hands across the same divide.

Amar Kanwar’s trilogy of films focuses on the relationship between India and Pakistan, nations that were established through postcolonial independence and their separation from each other at the stroke of midnight on August 14, 1947 (Pakistan celebrates its independence on the earlier day, India on the later). Kanwar recalls the history of this unstable relationship in To Remember (2003), a meditation on the religiously motivated massacres of 2002 in Gujarat, the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi. The film juxtaposes this violence with the memorial to Gandhi’s life and his assassination by a militant Hindu nationalist at Birla House, Delhi, in 1948. Together, these two contemplative works reflect on human aggression, and on a hostility that, as Gandhi believed, segregation does nothing to resolve.

Amar Kanwar’s trilogy of films focuses on the relationship between India and Pakistan, nations that were established through postcolonial independence and their separation from each other at the stroke of midnight on August 14, 1947 (Pakistan celebrates its independence on the earlier day, India on the later). The strife suffered by ruptured communities is brought closer to home in A Night of Prophecy (2002), in which social and cultural differences threaten to tear the nation of India apart. Featuring a series of poems and songs recorded in eleven languages across the states of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Nagaland, and Kashmir, the work portrays a people caught in a struggle around caste, poverty, and disenfranchisement. In one of the poems, “Under Dadar Bridge,” written in the 1970s by Prakash Jadhav in the voice of the historically discriminated-against Dalit caste, a son recalls having asked his deceased mother whether he was born Hindu or Muslim, to which she had replied, “You are an abandoned spark of the world’s lusty fires,” alluding to inherited division. With a poetic rhythm that accentuates their sense of anger and grief, these laments and elegies form a chorus that appears to portend change.

Vincent Leong’s pair of portrait photographs Keeping Up with the Abdullahs (2012) assembles family members from two minority ethnicities in Malaysia, Chinese and India. Featuring men dressed in baju melayu and songkok brimless caps, and women in baju kurong and tudung head scarves, garments that commonly signal Islamic adherence in Malaysia, the images address the subject of assimilation in a multiethnic country. British colonial developments in peninsular Malaysia (then known as Malaya) from the 18th to the 20th centuries accelerated emigration from South and East Asia into the region. Yet immigrant communities were treated differently by the colonial administration, a distinction maintained even after Malaysian independence in 1957. This preservation of difference has resulted in both cultural diversity and intercultural conflict. On May 13, 1969, after the Chinese-led opposition won additional seats in the previously Malay-dominated parliament, Malaysia erupted in a race riot that claimed hundreds of lives. The soul-searching that followed culminated in the watershed 1971 National Cultural Congress, which stated that national cultural policy must henceforth be oriented toward indigenous Malay culture.

Vincent Leong’s pair of portrait photographs Keeping Up with the Abdullahs (2012) assembles family members from two minority ethnicities in Malaysia, Chinese and India. Featuring men dressed in baju melayu and songkok brimless caps, and women in baju kurong and tudung head scarves, garments that commonly signal Islamic adherence in Malaysia, the images address the subject of assimilation in a multiethnic country. British colonial developments in peninsular Malaysia (then known as Malaya) from the 18th to the 20th centuries accelerated emigration from South and East Asia into the region. Yet immigrant communities were treated differently by the colonial administration, a distinction maintained even after Malaysian independence in 1957. This preservation of difference has resulted in both cultural diversity and intercultural conflict. On May 13, 1969, after the Chinese-led opposition won additional seats in the previously Malay-dominated parliament, Malaysia erupted in a race riot that claimed hundreds of lives. The soul-searching that followed culminated in the watershed 1971 National Cultural Congress, which stated that national cultural policy must henceforth be oriented toward indigenous Malay culture.

Sitting (Money) (2004–06) consists of 366 papier mâché figures seated in meditative style, their number representing the days in a year. Kamin Lertchaiprasert’s works are not, however, about the passage of time or the assembling of multiple parts. Rather, they are situated somewhere between these two things, and reflect on the immediate necessity of perseverance and practice in art and life. Lertchaiprasert’s work is inflected by his interest in Buddhist philosophy and meditation, particularly those associated with Theravada Buddhism, Thailand’s state religion and one of the “Three Pillars of Society” defined by King Rama VI (1881–1925). The cultivation of self-awareness that meditation entails is a recurring theme in the artist’s oeuvre, beginning with his earlier series Problem-Wisdom (1993–95), which also consists of papier mâché sculptures and confronts the suffering brought on by a lack of empathy.

The folk-style figures in Sitting (Money) reference the idea of craft, thus relating the act of contemplation to the experiential and historical nature of production symbolized in the work. While Problem-Wisdom, is made of daily newspapers, Sitting (Money) is pieced together from decommissioned Bank of Thailand banknotes previously slated for recycling. These unique figures, while busy with everyday activities, share a meditative posture that references Buddha and his teachings. They embody a tension between Buddhist ideals and the realities of ordinary experience, appearing as if materially, spiritually, and physically tested. The part played by currency in this aesthetic transformation furthers the work’s contemporary existential challenge by conflating spiritual well-being with material wealth.

Yet making the familiar figure of the Buddha from cash—the lifeblood of a nation’s economy—is not a simple indictment of contemporary materialism. Rather, it is for the artist a meditative response to the realities of his environment. In Lertchaiprasert’s practice, spirituality is not to be confused with transcendentalism, or with its link to Asian culture. For the artist, the character of the work is not only linked to Thai experience and religious belief, but also suggests universal human truths and experiences. It is in the artist’s attentiveness to material and spiritual change, as well as in his understanding of the human condition’s impermanence, that the work exceeds the limits of religion and nationhood.

Bangladesh was partitioned in 1947 from India and again in 1971 from Pakistan, making it one of the youngest nations in South and Southeast Asia. The wars that resulted in its independence, and the unsettled aftermath thereof, ruptured not only the land and the lives of its people, but also the history and representation of the nation. In a context of conflicting and contested historical accounts, and in the face of ongoing scarcity of resources and development, artists including Tayeba Begum Lipi attempt to formulate aesthetic responses. In 2002, having studied drawing and painting at the University of Dhaka, the artist cofounded the Britto International Artists’ Workshop with her partner, artist Mahbubur Rahman. Later established as Britto Arts Trust, and augmented by the communal Britto Space in Dhaka, the organization extended its reach beyond Bangladesh through exhibitions, residencies, talks, collaborations, and exchanges.

For the artist, the nation’s political state forms the backdrop to another critical political concern: the gendered violence that was rife during both partitions. Her works reflect on both the double bind of the personal and the political, expressing and accentuating a sense of unease through a public form of gendered expression that also speaks to challenges faced by the artist and her contemporaries. In Bizarre and Beautiful (2011), exhibited at the inaugural Bangladesh Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale, she transformed mock stainless-steel razor blades into the fabric of a feminine undergarment. Attractive yet threatening, the article is converted into a hard, gritty form, possessing the qualities of armor or a shield.

Razor blades return in Love Bed (2012), in which the shared space of domesticity, affection, and bliss glints with both threat and invitation. The blade here represents not merely the violence implied by its sharp edge, but also the object’s function as a basic tool to aid in childbirth in the absence of other medical support, a circumstance that the artist recalls from childhood. Printed on the blades is the Bengali name Balaka, a well-known Bangladeshi brand. Coming from a large family, the artist associates the strength of steel with the tenacity of the women who surrounded her as she grew up, individuals who defied the odds to keep their families and communities together. Yet these works resist interpretation according to simple binary opposition along historical, religious, social, or gendered lines. As much as the skeins of razors draped across the bed frame warn against our approach, they also, paradoxically, join together into a productive space for connection and dialogue.

In Tuan Andrew Nguyen’s Enemy’s Enemy: Monument to a Monument (2012), a classic American Louisville Slugger baseball bat is transformed into a meditation on the unifying and divisive powers of religion and sport. The figure carved into the bat is a memorial to Thích Quảng Đức, a highly venerated Buddhist monk who in 1963 performed self-immolation in protest against the repression of the Buddhist community by Ngô Đình Diệm’s South Vietnamese government. An official bias toward Roman Catholicism, a remnant of the region’s French colonization, led, in the post-Cochinchina period after 1954, to religious inequality, prompting Thích Quảng Đức’s demonstration. The selfless act was widely televised, and formed part of the mounting pressure on the Diệm government that led to its deposition later in the year. Popular sports such as baseball can also stir community loyalties, uniting and dividing groups as do organized religions. Enemy’s Enemy illustrates the contradiction embodied by the two phenomena, their shared power to both engender solidarity and instigate conflict. In addition, the commemorative monument, installed in a reunited Vietnam, appears highly incongruous given the communist state ideology’s antipathy toward religion.

Layered over the work’s reference to a specific moment in Vietnamese history is an allusion to the Vietnam War as a whole, and to the U.S. support that the South Vietnamese received during that conflict. The patented bat is manufactured by Hillerich & Bradsby, a company that in the 1940s produced rifle stocks for the U.S. army as part of the war effort. Given this history, and through the image of the flames eating through the bat’s critical section, a sense of violence pervades the work. Yet the figure of the bodhisattva—a name bestowed in acknowledgement of Thích Quảng Đức’s enlightened status—emanates serenity and acquiescence (the monk’s self-sacrifice was performed in silence). In a similar fashion, Nguyen’s earlier work Take Cover Take Care (2008) juxtaposes lyrics by American rapper Tupac Shakur and Vietnamese rapper Wowy carved into the undersides of two manhole covers. In spite of their common genre and subcultural contexts, the two sets of lyrics express markedly contrasting sentiments, the former responding to cultural and social control with the threat of violence, and the latter with a patient acceptance of difference.

In Enemy’s Enemy, the historical Vietnamese craft of woodcarving is brought to contemporary life. This skill, used in architectural detailing and figurative representation, was promoted by the last Vietnamese dynasty, the lineage of Nguyễn (1802–1945). In Enemy’s Enemy the cultural exchange is reciprocated in a commemorative transformation of the American Northern White Ash baseball bat. Thus the work demonstrates the artist’s aptitude for marrying seemingly disparate subjects and materials, reflecting diverse cultural influences from East and West, and incorporating popular-cultural elements.

Founded by Anjalika Sagar and Kodwo Eshun, the Otolith Group produces multiform projects that elaborate on theoretical, conceptual, aural, and visual trajectories. Their research-based practice lends itself to curatorial and publishing experiments as much as it does to works in installation and film. Based in London, the group’s work is characterized by a transnationality that defies the exclusionary strategies of global geopolitics while engaging with its problems and implications.

In Communists Like Us (2006–10), the group selects and sequences photographic images from two archives bequeathed by the educationalist Dr. Anasuya Gyan-Chand to her daughter Chitra Gyan-Chand, who in 2006 passed them on to Anjalika Sagar. Titled Daughter Products I and II, the archives consist of photographic documentation of encounters between politicians and activists in India with their counterparts in Japan, Mao’s China, and other Asian countries from the mid 1950s to the early ’60s, as well as visits by delegations of female activists from India to the Soviet Union throughout the same period. The term daughter products is derived from atomic physics and is used here to allude to the generational aspect of radioactive decay. Communists Like Us interleaves a visual narrative composed from these images of socialist friendship with a textual narrative extracted from the subtitled conversation between revolutionary activist Francis Jeanson and Veronique, a Maoist student played by Anne Wiazemsky, in Jean Luc Godard’s 1967 film La Chinoise.

Informed commentaries on recent art practice in Cambodia invariably make reference to the period of the Khmer Rouge or Communist Party of Kampuchea, which has impacted the country ever since its 1975–79 rule. Sopheap Pich was born in the agricultural town of Battambang in Cambodia, and left the country with his family as a refugee at the end of the Khmer Rouge’s reign, subsequently settling in the United States. However, memories of his childhood experiences in Cambodia and a desire to reconnect with its life drew the artist back to the country in 2002. On returning he was faced with the challenge of relating the contemporary artistic methodologies with which he had become acquainted to local cultural conditions, and to the demands of post–Khmer Rouge political and economic recovery. Through the use of rattan and bamboo, materials familiar from Khmer rural life and craft (they are used to make functional everyday objects such as baskets and fish traps), Pich’s oeuvre bridges the aesthetic and material gulfs between the two. Repurposing these basic components of Cambodian life, he instills the countries’ shared experience with renewed life.

Pich’s early sculptures assume biomorphic forms that represent an essential symbiosis between history and culture, past and present. Such synthesis recurs throughout the artist’s work; in his sculpture The Duel (2008), for example, two organ-like forms that resemble the cavities of the lungs or the chambers of the heart appear intrinsically linked, even as the title of the work suggests a conflicted relationship. The artist characterizes his forms as “real,” alluding to their expression of tangible existence and experience, that relate to his sense of an inexorable kinship with his country. In Morning Glory (2011), the ubiquitous plant is rendered at monumental scale. Considered a weed by gardeners, it is a plant that, like Pich’s bamboo and rattan, is generally regarded as unexceptional. However, in Pich’s sculpture, its status is more ambivalent, at once attractive and a possible nuisance, banal but also valued by Cambodians during the Khmer Rouge regime as a source of nourishment. Transforming the rigid stalks into a more malleable substance, Pich treats the material like a line, making a drawing in space. In its metamorphosis, this spare structure refutes its lightweight appearance with a strength that infuses Cambodian life and culture.

The Propeller Group’s collaborative approach and their interest in the idea of the anti-brand both appear in Television Commercial for Communism (TVCC) (2011–12), in which a platform for dialogue is created on the subject of communism by inviting an advertising company to pitch a rebranding of the ideology in the post–Cold War era. Curious to see how contemporary promotional strategies might be applied to the ideology, the work performs a deconstruction that collapses the historical into the contemporary. TVCC consists of three parts: the first is a multichannel video installation that documents advertising firm TBWA\Vietnam’s brainstorming session around communism’s positive brand identity; the second, an animatic that charts the development of ideas for the commercial; and finally, the resultant spot. The project may be understood not only in relation to the political ideology of Vietnam, but also to the history of the Vietnam War, the first war in which news coverage demonstrably influenced political and public opinion.

In producing TVCC, the group explores historical and contemporary relationships between communism and capitalism, reflecting philosopher Alain Badiou’s proposal that the hypothesis of communism (as distinct from its form) is still viable, and that the future of the ideology lies in its expansion. Distilled from the brainstorming session are the general concepts of equality, cooperation, and sharing. These are then developed into an uncannily convincing minute-long advertisement.

The Propeller Group’s collaborative approach and their interest in the idea of the anti-brand both appear in Television Commercial for Communism (TVCC) (2011–12), in which a platform for dialogue is created on the subject of communism by inviting an advertising company to pitch a rebranding of the ideology in the post–Cold War era. Curious to see how contemporary promotional strategies might be applied to the ideology, the work performs a deconstruction that collapses the historical into the contemporary. TVCC consists of three parts: the first is a multichannel video installation that documents advertising firm TBWA\Vietnam’s brainstorming session around communism’s positive brand identity; the second, an animatic that charts the development of ideas for the commercial; and finally, the resultant spot. The project may be understood not only in relation to the political ideology of Vietnam, but also to the history of the Vietnam War, the first war in which news coverage demonstrably influenced political and public opinion.

In producing TVCC, the group explores historical and contemporary relationships between communism and capitalism, reflecting philosopher Alain Badiou’s proposal that the hypothesis of communism (as distinct from its form) is still viable, and that the future of the ideology lies in its expansion. Distilled from the brainstorming session are the general concepts of equality, cooperation, and sharing. These are then developed into an uncannily convincing minute-long advertisement.

Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook achieved international prominence with an earlier project, Conversations with Death on Life’s First Street (2005), a series of videos in which the artist addresses rooms filled with corpses on the experience and meaning of death. The existential paradox of death in life is represented seamlessly in these stark encounters, which for the artist are not simply about the end of life but explore the state of being between the beginning (birth) and the end (death). In The Treachery of the Moon (2012), this twinning of opposite but related moments is emblematized as the visual intersection of two different worlds, the fictional realm of television drama and the reality of political clashes in 21st-century Thailand. The process of comparing excerpts from popular programs to scenes from the politically motivated violence that has split the nation into factions reveals similar desires and conflicts, and a blurring of the imaginary into the real.

Accompanying the swirl of images that overwhelm the central figures of the artist and her dogs are songs from a more tranquil past, which evoke a nostalgia for simpler and more ethical times. With its evocative title, The Treachery of the Moon articulates Rasdjarmrearnsook’s interest in the possibility of exposing consciousness and memory as dreamlike illusions. The introduction of the figure of the common dog into the artist’s works begins with Afterwards, regret rises in our memory even for bygone hardships (2009), and In reinterpreting old landscape we may have to endure repetitions of the same old karma (2009). In an empathetic commentary on karma, both works feature a domesticated creature whose well-being depends on human kindness.

Navin Rawanchaikul’s Places of Rebirth (2009) was inspired by the Thai artist’s first visit to Pakistan, the birthplace of his ancestors, in November 2008. As part of the South Asian diaspora, the artist’s family moved to Thailand in pursuit of opportunity in the region, and in the aftermath of 1947’s partition of South Asia which had forced millions to migrate out of political and religious exigency. By train, ship, and foot, his mother and great-grandfather traveled from Gujranwala (the Punjab region that is now Pakistan) and India to Chiang Mai in Thailand to arrive at the place of his family’s “rebirth.” During this period, Chiang Mai was a city of many migrants, who came from India, China, and Burma (now Myanmar). The fluid nature of this migratory history is familiar in South and Southeast Asia and often results in the exchange and adaptation of cultures, giving its participants a trans-geographic identity. Consequent to his family’s assimilation into the region, the artist’s family changed its name from Rawal to its present more Thai-sounding form; in a related artwork, he portrays his great-grandfather in a turban, and himself in kindergarten uniform, displaying his former Indian last name in Thai script. These two portraits are titled Kheak and Kheak Origin (both 2010). In Thai, kheak means foreigner, signifying the artist’s inquiry into a past that seems for him partially lost.

In Places of Rebirth, Rawanchaikul narrates his family’s migration and his own cross-border and cross-cultural negotiations. Painted in the style of the Indian movie posters that fascinated the artist as a child, the work’s self-conscious populist aesthetic reflects an artistic practice that moves from billboard painting to sculpture and pulp comics. Produced in collaboration with former cinema billboard painters, this panoramic display blends multigenerational images of the artist’s family and friends with those of people he encountered in Pakistan, and historical images from the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan. As a portrait of a community’s passage through time and space, his navigation of regional geopolitics is represented through his imaginary journey as a Thai artist in a local taxi (onomatopoeically known as a tuk-tuk), that transports him, along with his Japanese wife and their daughter, across the famous Wagah border dividing India and Pakistan. The painting underscores the way in which the idea of nation is defined by historical narrative, while layering that narrative over the personal and the imaginary. The painting is peppered with upbeat and optimistic messages of brotherhood, friendship, and togetherness that stand in stark contrast to the nations’ present divide. This reimagining and blurring of identity reflect the artist’s desire for a communion based on a dismantling of borders between nations and individuals.

Norberto Roldan’s work offers a commentary on the social, political, and cultural conditions of the Philippines via simple but apposite assemblages of object, text, and image. In F-16 (2012), Roldan explores the subject of power negotiation in geopolitical encounters by drawing a relationship between the colonization of the Philippines and events on today’s global stage. Excerpting from an interview published in the early 20th century with William McKinley, the 25th President of the United States, who victoriously led the “benevolent assimilation” of the Philippines in the Spanish-American War of 1898, the textual half of the diptych quotes the then-President on the reasons for occupation. According to McKinley, the Filipino people “are unfit for self-government and they will soon have anarchy and misrule there worse than Spain’s wars; […] there was nothing left for us to do but take them all; and to educate them and uplift and civilize and Christianize them.”

Subsequent tensions between the Filipino people and American forces would lead to their ouster of U.S. military presence, and to the independence of the Philippines in 1898. Juxtaposed with McKinley’s utterance is an image of an American fighter jet cruising over Afghanistan post-9/11, a reference to Operation Enduring Freedom. In this diptych, the artist presents an open-ended dilemma that reflects not only the two historical events, but also, in relating them, points to the effects of domination and force, specifically their tendency to beget other such interventions and conflicts and thereby perpetuate a cycle of retaliation and vengeance. The juxtaposition of the two events, separated by a century, reveals a critique of human folly as destined to repeat its mistakes.

Arin Dwihartanto Sunaryo’s Volcanic Ash Series #4 (2012) appears entirely painterly, but was in fact made using a combination of resin and, as pigment, volcanic ash from the 2010 eruption of Gunung Merapi, the most active volcano in Indonesia. (This disaster claimed more than 100 lives and left a deep impression on the artist.) The use of these materials results in vivid gradients of natural color. Arin’s curiosity about the fluid character of paint, and his attempts to create a flowing effect, began while he was working in oils in 2005. First experimenting with applying resin to canvas, he eventually began using the resin-and-pigment mixture on its own, allowing the mixture to determine its own form by splashing it on glass. From this point on, the artist took up new tools and altered his format from a vertical to a horizontal plane. Sunrayo's visualization and technique also changed, as he began to “paint” starting with the immediate surface of the image, gradually working back to its base.

Tang Da Wu is credited as the founder of the Artists Village, a collective that has since its inception in 1988 become synonymous with experimental art in Singapore. Tang’s practice, which spans painting, drawing, sculpture, installation, and performance art, is notable for its subtly poetic deconstruction of historical and cultural conditions. His three-part sculpture Our Children (2012) references a story from Teochew opera (a variant of the form distinct to the southern Chinese region from which the artist’s family hails), in which a young boy experiences illumination at the humbling sight of a baby goat genuflecting while suckling at its mother. This image is intended as a parable of the timeless virtues of respect and filial piety, and of the importance of cultural values.

In Tang’s stylized tableau, the goats are wrought in galvanized steel and glass, the act of receiving nourishment represented by a bottle of milk that sits atop the structure. The ensemble calls to mind the Chinese domestic ancestral altar, at which offerings, prayers, and entreaties to one’s forebears are performed in recognition of history, ancestry, and veneration of age-old wisdom. Inscribed on the bottle, which also represents the necessity of nourishment to future generations, are the characters 林道. This refers to a forest pathway or trail, and in the sculpture is a metaphoric allusion to the theme of insight.

Our Children also demonstrates Tang’s skillful distillation of concept and commentary into a visual message and a prompt to reflection. In this work, the two figures appear in dynamic tension and resemble Chinese characters, bringing to life the narrative theme in spare lines and forms. (The parable itself is less smoothly concluded, the boy tragically failing to reconcile with his mother after his revelation.) Recalling Tang’s seminal early work Tiger’s Whip (1991), a commentary on the exploitation of tigers for their organs’ supposed aphrodisiac powers, the work sees Tang explore the interaction of nature and culture. Investigative, rather than simply didactic, his works are intended to inspire rather than merely instruct.

Tran Luong's three-channel video installation Lập Lòe (roughly, “blink” or “flicker”) is derived from a performance by the artist that began in 2007, inspired by the sight of his son returning from school wearing a red scarf that reminded him of his own childhood. The artist invited audiences at his first performance in China to snap a red scarf—an item of historical and political significance associated with communism—against his body, as if play-fighting. The performance was repeated at eleven other sites including cities in Vietnam, Korea, Indonesia, and Singapore. Audience reactions differed widely from place to place, with the scarf taking on diverse significances and provoking a variety of reactions. Lập Lòe comments on the history and status of Vietnam by documenting 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. In a statement accompanying the work, the artist writes: “Là những số phận bất trắc / Những lằn chớp trước cơn mưa giông / Là đàn đom đóm, là trận chiến nhìn từ xa . . . / Hay sự cố gắng của tàn tro trước khi tắt lịm.” (The uncertain fates / Lightning before the storm / The fireflies or battles as seen from afar . . . / Efforts of embers, before they are extinguished). The allegorical text, which reflects on a moment of transition from one stage to the next, is intentionally ambivalent even as it signals the inevitability of change to come.

An openly homosexual artist living in an increasingly liberalized but still conservative environment, Truong Tan developed a practice that was designated as unorthodox, a framing that served to both publicize and censure his work. The categorization has also tended to obscure his work’s idealistic and poetic nuances. In What Do We Want (1993–94), a male figure, his face shown in the profile view that recurs throughout the artist’s oeuvre, lies vulnerable and naked across the canvas, apparently crucified. The male figure’s idealization may be seen in relation to the idealized feminine figure celebrated in the earlier French-influenced Vietnamese aesthetic. Truong Tan’s idealization however is double-edged, as the figure, his face averted in a seemingly nonconfrontational stance, calls attention to a hidden side. This ironic pairing of diplomatic concession with a critique of rigid conservatism was apparent in “Cultural Collision,” an exhibition that Truong Tan participated in along with American artist Bradford Edwards at Red River Gallery in Hanoi in 1995. On this occasion, twelve of Truong Tan’s paintings were censored. In response the artist replaced these censured works with rice-paper paintings inscribed with the deferential response “Excuse Me” in Vietnamese, English, and French.

Characterized by simplicity of material, line, and color, and by a synthetic composition in which form is flattened and contour simplified, Truong Tan’s work has a powerful rawness that underscores his struggle to uncover the basic truths of power, society, and life. A rope, symbolizing social and aesthetic stricture, is wrapped around the middle of What Do We Want. It acts as a constraining device, but also is a nod to modesty. As in his 1994 performance in which the artist, his body wrapped in a sheet and bound by rope, signals a refusal of social, cultural, and sexual limits by stepping out of physical ones, the bound painting is poised between restraint and liberation. What Do We Want is thus less a confrontation than it is an appeal for a more measured reflection on the imposition of constraints. In another performance, Buffalo, staged in the village of Mộc Châu in 1996, the artist shoulders a 40-kilogram plough and attempts to plough a field. The weight of the plough finally defeats him and he collapses, yet the artist’s courageous effort and unrelenting desire to transform an indifferent cultural landscape has not gone unnoticed, its simple yet effective gesture leaving an indelible mark.

The history of American presence in Cambodia is the subject of Vandy Rattana’s Bomb Ponds (2009), a video and series of photographs that looks at the lasting effects of U.S. bombing operations on the nation’s landscape, its people, and their collective memory. Bomb Ponds has its origins in the production of another series of photographs by the artist, Walking Through (2009), which pictures Cambodian rubber plantations introduced during French colonization. While developing this sequence, the artist chanced upon what locals called a “bomb pond,” a body of water within a man-made crater. Curious, he searched for and photographed similarly ravaged sites, drawn to their paradoxically idyllic, overgrown settings.

The craters in Bomb Ponds are the results of 2,756,941 tons of bombs dropped by U.S. forces during the Vietnam War between 1964 and 1973, a figure that was publicly acknowledged only in 2000. It is debatable whether the military operation in Cambodia contributed to the rise of the Khmer Rouge, its aggression fueling the resistance or, despite the loss of life and livelihood, aided the Cambodian people. Either way, the assault also points to the various interventions that Cambodians have faced throughout history, of Thai (Siam), French, Japanese, Vietnamese, and American origin. These interventions were variously administrative, ideological, and territorial, and were, as the artist emphasizes, often more complex than official histories suggest.

Wah Nu and Tun Win Aung’s expansive multi-component work Thousand Pieces of White (2009– ) reflects on 30 years of personal experience; the collaborating artists have established an archive of objects, images, printed matter, and film footage, all on the subject of memory, with each artifact displayed partially concealed beneath a layer of white. Underscoring the way in which memory’s ephemerality works, paradoxically, to enhance its significance, this equalizing veneer also conveys the gradual decay and erasure of links to the past. The fragments that remain visible offer glimpses of public and personal histories, revealing elements of Myanmar’s social, political, and cultural narrative. Yet these partial views are also ambiguous, at once manifesting and obscuring in a manner that is both familiar within contemporary art practice and appropriate to the navigation of a complex national situation. Every element in the artists’ collection of evidence is intimately associated with them, reflecting their having lived through the changes associated with post-independence socialism and military governance, and their current lives in the context of still-evolving political circumstances.

Some Pieces of White assembles four components of the couple’s more politically inflected experiences. White Piece #0131: Forbidden Hero (Breeze Before Storm), White Piece #0132: Forbidden Hero (Heads), and White Piece #0134: His Last Speech We Heard from Myanmar Radio on 19 July of Some Years Ago, all from 2012, reference the figure of Bogyoke (General) Aung San, who played an instrumental role in the nation’s achievement of autonomy from colonial rule and occupation (though he was assassinated before independence was officially attained). While he received popular support in his time, restrictions were placed on representations of the General once martial law was imposed in 1989. In this installation, 40 replica busts of the General face a lightbox, their features thus both illuminated and half-concealed. Juxtaposed with these are a page from a local newspaper and a three-second video loop with an audio recording of Aung San’s titular half-hour speech, in which the “forbidden hero” articulates his hopes for the nation. Yet these attempts at piecing together the memory of the figure also reveal its incompleteness, emphasizing that which has been lost. Similarly, it is but a fragment of history that is recovered in the installation’s second video, White Piece #0133: Thakin Pe Than’s Long March (2012). Here, Wah Nu’s grandfather is shown taking part in a revolutionary march against the British colonizers in October 1938. In these subtle interventions, the ephemeral nature of historic specificity positions objects and images as the starting points of vital narratives.

Wah Nu and Tun Win Aung’s expansive multi-component work Thousand Pieces of White (2009– ) reflects on 30 years of personal experience; the collaborating artists have established an archive of objects, images, printed matter, and film footage, all on the subject of memory, with each artifact displayed partially concealed beneath a layer of white. Underscoring the way in which memory’s ephemerality works, paradoxically, to enhance its significance, this equalizing veneer also conveys the gradual decay and erasure of links to the past. The fragments that remain visible offer glimpses of public and personal histories, revealing elements of Myanmar’s social, political, and cultural narrative. Yet these partial views are also ambiguous, at once manifesting and obscuring in a manner that is both familiar within contemporary art practice and appropriate to the navigation of a complex national situation. Every element in the artists’ collection of evidence is intimately associated with them, reflecting their having lived through the changes associated with post-independence socialism and military governance, and their current lives in the context of still-evolving political circumstances.

Some Pieces of White assembles four components of the couple’s more politically inflected experiences. White Piece #0131: Forbidden Hero (Breeze Before Storm), White Piece #0132: Forbidden Hero (Heads), and White Piece #0134: His Last Speech We Heard from Myanmar Radio on 19 July of Some Years Ago, all from 2012, reference the figure of Bogyoke (General) Aung San, who played an instrumental role in the nation’s achievement of autonomy from colonial rule and occupation (though he was assassinated before independence was officially attained). While he received popular support in his time, restrictions were placed on representations of the General once martial law was imposed in 1989. In this installation, 40 replica busts of the General face a lightbox, their features thus both illuminated and half-concealed. Juxtaposed with these are a page from a local newspaper and a three-second video loop with an audio recording of Aung San’s titular half-hour speech, in which the “forbidden hero” articulates his hopes for the nation. Yet these attempts at piecing together the memory of the figure also reveal its incompleteness, emphasizing that which has been lost. Similarly, it is but a fragment of history that is recovered in the installation’s second video, White Piece #0133: Thakin Pe Than’s Long March (2012). Here, Wah Nu’s grandfather is shown taking part in a revolutionary march against the British colonizers in October 1938. In these subtle interventions, the ephemeral nature of historic specificity positions objects and images as the starting points of vital narratives.

Wah Nu and Tun Win Aung’s expansive multi-component work Thousand Pieces of White (2009– ) reflects on 30 years of personal experience; the collaborating artists have established an archive of objects, images, printed matter, and film footage, all on the subject of memory, with each artifact displayed partially concealed beneath a layer of white. Underscoring the way in which memory’s ephemerality works, paradoxically, to enhance its significance, this equalizing veneer also conveys the gradual decay and erasure of links to the past. The fragments that remain visible offer glimpses of public and personal histories, revealing elements of Myanmar’s social, political, and cultural narrative. Yet these partial views are also ambiguous, at once manifesting and obscuring in a manner that is both familiar within contemporary art practice and appropriate to the navigation of a complex national situation. Every element in the artists’ collection of evidence is intimately associated with them, reflecting their having lived through the changes associated with post-independence socialism and military governance, and their current lives in the context of still-evolving political circumstances.

Some Pieces of White assembles four components of the couple’s more politically inflected experiences. White Piece #0131: Forbidden Hero (Breeze Before Storm), White Piece #0132: Forbidden Hero (Heads), and White Piece #0134: His Last Speech We Heard from Myanmar Radio on 19 July of Some Years Ago, all from 2012, reference the figure of Bogyoke (General) Aung San, who played an instrumental role in the nation’s achievement of autonomy from colonial rule and occupation (though he was assassinated before independence was officially attained). While he received popular support in his time, restrictions were placed on representations of the General once martial law was imposed in 1989. In this installation, 40 replica busts of the General face a lightbox, their features thus both illuminated and half-concealed. Juxtaposed with these are a page from a local newspaper and a three-second video loop with an audio recording of Aung San’s titular half-hour speech, in which the “forbidden hero” articulates his hopes for the nation. Yet these attempts at piecing together the memory of the figure also reveal its incompleteness, emphasizing that which has been lost. Similarly, it is but a fragment of history that is recovered in the installation’s second video, White Piece #0133: Thakin Pe Than’s Long March (2012). Here, Wah Nu’s grandfather is shown taking part in a revolutionary march against the British colonizers in October 1938. In these subtle interventions, the ephemeral nature of historic specificity positions objects and images as the starting points of vital narratives.

Wah Nu and Tun Win Aung’s expansive multi-component work Thousand Pieces of White (2009– ) reflects on 30 years of personal experience; the collaborating artists have established an archive of objects, images, printed matter, and film footage, all on the subject of memory, with each artifact displayed partially concealed beneath a layer of white. Underscoring the way in which memory’s ephemerality works, paradoxically, to enhance its significance, this equalizing veneer also conveys the gradual decay and erasure of links to the past. The fragments that remain visible offer glimpses of public and personal histories, revealing elements of Myanmar’s social, political, and cultural narrative. Yet these partial views are also ambiguous, at once manifesting and obscuring in a manner that is both familiar within contemporary art practice and appropriate to the navigation of a complex national situation. Every element in the artists’ collection of evidence is intimately associated with them, reflecting their having lived through the changes associated with post-independence socialism and military governance, and their current lives in the context of still-evolving political circumstances.

Some Pieces of White assembles four components of the couple’s more politically inflected experiences. White Piece #0131: Forbidden Hero (Breeze Before Storm), White Piece #0132: Forbidden Hero (Heads), and White Piece #0134: His Last Speech We Heard from Myanmar Radio on 19 July of Some Years Ago, all from 2012, reference the figure of Bogyoke (General) Aung San, who played an instrumental role in the nation’s achievement of autonomy from colonial rule and occupation (though he was assassinated before independence was officially attained). While he received popular support in his time, restrictions were placed on representations of the General once martial law was imposed in 1989. In this installation, 40 replica busts of the General face a lightbox, their features thus both illuminated and half-concealed. Juxtaposed with these are a page from a local newspaper and a three-second video loop with an audio recording of Aung San’s titular half-hour speech, in which the “forbidden hero” articulates his hopes for the nation. Yet these attempts at piecing together the memory of the figure also reveal its incompleteness, emphasizing that which has been lost. Similarly, it is but a fragment of history that is recovered in the installation’s second video, White Piece #0133: Thakin Pe Than’s Long March (2012). Here, Wah Nu’s grandfather is shown taking part in a revolutionary march against the British colonizers in October 1938. In these subtle interventions, the ephemeral nature of historic specificity positions objects and images as the starting points of vital narratives.

Malaysian artist Wong Hoy Cheong’s Doghole (2010) is a nuanced exploration of the occupation of pre-independent Malaysia by the Japanese during and following World War II. It originates from his 1990 installation of painting, performance, and film Sook Ching (“cleansing” or “purge”). This analyzes the titular 1942 massacre through stories of terror and trauma related by survivors, and by the families of young Chinese who were detained by the Kempeitai (Imperial Japanese Army). Doghole portrays the same historical event but concentrates on the single account of Wong Kum Peng, one of very few survivors of the detention cells. In this video, the artist delves deeper into the psychological effects of war, suggesting that its conditions of great stress and uncertainty tend to elicit equally extreme and ambiguous responses, including fantasies of escape and complicity, as well as unexpected acts of empathy and compassion. Wong’s use of contemporary animation techniques lends the work’s reenactment of historical events a vivid quality that seems initially at odds with its grim subject matter. Yet in so doing, he extends its relevance beyond the history of a single event, relating it to comparable incidents of detention throughout the world. The video never makes clear why Wong Kum Peng was imprisoned, nor why he was allowed to survive, but does suggest that even tragic histories can incorporate alternative, hopeful narratives. Doghole is Wong’s attempt to produce, in his word, a “beautiful” film about violence; his eschewing of a naturalistic approach in favor of giving a horrific subject aesthetic appeal ultimately accentuates the exceptional nature of war.

Credits: Story

The inaugural exhibition of the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative, No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia was presented at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York from February 22 to May 22, 2013. The exhibition then traveled to two international venues: the Asia Society Hong Kong Center (October 30, 2013–February 16, 2014) and the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore (May 10–July 20, 2014).

The exhibition was curated by June Yap, Guggenheim UBS MAP Curator, South and Southeast Asia.

All object descriptions were written by Yap and are copyright the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.

To learn more visit guggenheim.org/map.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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