The Biennale as Crucible

There are always murky pools and pitfalls to navigate as an artist-curator, especially for a biennale as large and pivotal as South Asia’s Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Often though, the resolutions that presented themselves during a year of travel and ongoing curatorial research rarely conflicted with the substructure of my artistic research, often aligning in surprising ways, and despite my strong inclination to demarcate my personal practice from my curatorial work. For instance, underpinning my work as an artist and writer is the conviction that it is not paramount to be effectual in one’s time. This acceptance of pace of change, but more importantly recognising the distraction of quantifying effectiveness, has allowed me to spend a decade at a time on single projects. In my current position as artistic director of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2021 however, it is possible that for the first time, the work can be effectual, or at the very least, provide the critical crucible for showcasing effective work. In postponing the biennale because of the global pandemic, it becomes necessary to ask again – what is the role of an event such as this? How can an artist as curator inform differently the decisions and processes involved at every level of work in rebuilding the biennale?

It makes more sense here to write about a continuing preoccupation – that constructing the curatorial structure of the biennale has also meant grappling with the problem of region. As the first KMB curator not based in India, and as a Singaporean, this is an opportunity for me to spotlight the vivid practices and discourses in Southeast Asia, while also being troubled by facile geographical categorisation. The main reason, for me, will always be the dangers of the appeal to authority, or the claim to speak on behalf of a region from a position of knowledge that, as a curator, is sometimes expected. Classifications such as “South Asia” or “Southeast Asia” are challenging to resolve. They appear to bring together states that diverge quite radically, but also given the complex geo-politics, histories, and cultures with porous ‘boundaries’ here, “South Asia” would present them as a supposedly unified region. For me, these terms are especially troubling because they assume that we must read this rich tapestry, this multiplicity, primarily as state or region first. This is evident in the way interaction between cultures or communities is invariably framed as transnational or inter-statist, where national identity becomes the signifier of all parties in the conversation. All the same I recognise the significance of critical cultural production in postcolonial states particularly having to grapple with what constitutes statehood, nation-building, and regional allyship. It isn’t simply about the ‘balance of power’ – itself a hierarchical phrase that negates other systems of power within communities and collectives – but about recognising that the rhetoric that privileges certain groups over others is already being reframed or undone.

A visible example of intersecting frameworks between regions would be how artists navigate the collisions of borders, communities, languages, media, and so on when negotiating the generational trauma inherent in post-colonial states. These approaches may be similar or divergent, but what is notable is that they are still very current, especially when thinking about the way much of the global South continues to cater to the North in terms of resources, but also in the neo-colonising of our countries as ideologically circumscribed battlegrounds. Added to this is the pervasive habit of considering state and inviolate borders as a starting point. This repudiates the reality of the multiple ways in which languages and ideas diffuse across lines, and the way the digital spread resists borders. 

This reality is perhaps best appreciated in artistic practices that directly excavate and implicate the monetisation of everything – environmental concerns, activism, crisis, knowledge production, transmission and access, global capital flows and inequities. Vital in these practices is the rejection of a monolithic narrative, choosing instead an espousal of submerged and manifold stories, and through whose agencies they diverge. Of special note are artistic practices that examine language hegemonies, historical record, suppressed or vanishing languages and indigenous living. With spectacular materiality and tactility, these works embody critical reinventions of craft traditions and performative gestures. The critical reinventions are twofold – firstly, there is a negotiation with traditional medium, tactility, texture, technique and craft. Secondly, there is a strong understanding of generational heritage as disruptor of convention and capricious global market forces, as witnessed in the effectiveness of collectives in decolonising and recording previously unheard histories.

Curating with a global South focus leads naturally to an emphasis on community work and solidarities, but also parsing the problems inherent in such all-encompassing terms. ‘Localness’ has its essentialist problems as much as widespread ideas of what comprise dominant discourses and practices of region. Mapping divergent methods and approaches are aspects that speak more of localness to me, when talking about geopolitical borders, for instance. So while certain South Asian practices tend to focus on land, analogous Southeast Asian practices that address similar geopolitical concerns look to the sea. But more than mere territorial site, these geographies are method, metaphor, material and medium to examine concerns as diverse as problems of ownership, rights, displacement, and exile; landscape and ecologies, human and interspecies interactions, natural cycles and human impact; post-industrial devastation; and possible regenerative propositions.

A lot of this thinking has been present in my work as an artist, though perhaps more axiomatically than overtly. Again, this comes back to the substantial onus involved in curating as an artist – to instinctively ring-fence (and subdue) personal aesthetic inclinations when encountering different artistic practices, and to look beyond the obviously engaging, to the sensitivity of approach, to the fidelity of the work to its initiating ideas and contexts. How to ‘transplant’ the works into the heritage-rich and redolent sites in Kochi, without flattening or erasing contexts, and how to resist degenerative spectacle in favour of work that continues to travel in the minds of its viewers, no matter their contexts. To think of the biennale as commons was an easier way to begin; now, almost two years and a pandemic and a postponement later, it seems that it remains a vital counterpoint to rigid regionalities, and a bulwark against blinkered insularity.

Published in February 2021.

About the Writer

Photo credit @ Samir Sahay

Artist and writer Shubigi Rao’s interests include libraries, archival systems, histories and lies, literature and violence, ecologies, and natural history. Her art, texts, films, and photographs look at current and historical flashpoints as perspectival shifts to examining contemporary crises of displacement, whether of people, languages, cultures, or knowledge bodies.

Her current decade-long project, Pulp: A Short Biography of the Banished Book is about the history of book destruction and the future of knowledge. The first Pulp volume was shortlisted in 2018, and the second volume won in 2020 the Singapore Literature Prize (creative non-fiction). The first portion of the project, Written in the Margins won the APB Signature Prize 2018 Juror’s Choice Award. Rao has also been featured in March Meets 2019, 4th Kochi-Muziris Biennale (2018), 10th Taipei Biennial, (2016); 3rd Pune Biennale (2017), Digital Arts Festival, Copenhagen, Denmark (2013); and 2nd Singapore Biennale (2008). She is currently the Artistic Director for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2021.

New Museum Perspectives with Aaron Seeto

The Director of Museum MACAN, Aaron Seeto, has a vast experience working to advance the goals of contemporary arts organisations and curating significant exhibitions of artists from the Asia and Pacific regions. Seeto was formerly Curatorial Manager of Asian and Pacific Art, at Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane, Australia where he led the curatorial team at the eighth Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT8) in 2015. For eight years prior, he was the Director of Sydney’s ground-breaking 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. 

What characterises and drives the energy of Indonesia’s art ecology, and does it vary from city to city?

Indonesia has a very diverse artistic scene, but there is definitely a need for stronger infrastructure for artists, such as regular venues to exhibit, galleries with continuous programmes, funding opportunities, etc. But despite this, artists always seem to find creative solutions. Perhaps this inventiveness is what gives the scene its energy? I saw this very clearly in the current Jogja Biennale, which introduced so many young artists to new audiences and which had an infectious energy and a real sense of urgency, despite what were limitations on the exhibition.

There are variations from city to city, and this has much to do with their very specific art and social histories, which inflect the teachings of art schools and the creative outputs of its artists. 

How would you describe the relationship between private patronage and public cultural provision in the Indonesian art scene – how distinct or diffuse are their boundaries?

In places like Singapore, the role of public institutions and their connection to civic space is clear. But in the developing context of Indonesia, I would suggest that both philanthropy and government support for the arts needs further development and encouragement, in order to sustain a truly effective civic discourse.  

At the core of the mission and vision of Museum MACAN, is a principle which revolves around art education; it has an important civic aspiration that it seeks to share as widely as possible. We have opened a private museum developed through private means, which serves a very public function ­– we understand that our activities occur within the public sphere. I have been thinking about these divisions between public and private quite a bit, and I think that how they operate is not so clear-cut as they may have been in the past. The situation should not be either/or – governments of all persuasions and individuals of various means should be encouraged to do more.

Museum MACAN opened fairly recently, in November 2017, with a mission to support “interdisciplinary education and cultural exchange”. What are your thoughts on the urgency and cruciality in invigorating art education in the country?

On a global context, arts education is in decline and it is crucial that it is supported. I would say that there is an urgent need to support art education in Indonesia, where the national development is vast and the people need a way to reflect on the societal changes happening around them. This is where arts education come into play. We really need to build a robust education programme that is relevant to citizens from different ages and backgrounds. At the moment, MACAN is focusing on arts education for children and students, as a way to spark critical thinking among the young minds. 

Could you share about the museum’s practice of commissioning artists – how does it effectuate new perspectives?

Our UOB Museum MACAN Children’s Art Space Commission is one of the programmes which involves commissioning artists. Developed for young audiences, the process of commissioning always sparks conversations that challenge how we understand our audiences and involves artists in a very unique relationship with the institution. In two years since the Museum opened, we have worked with Entang Wiharso (Indonesia), Gatot Indrajati (Indonesia), Shooshie Sulaiman (Malaysia) and Mit Jai Inn (Thailand). Our most current commission is Color in Cave by Mit Jai Inn, who has completely transformed the space into an almost anarchic zone of free play and colour. 

UOB Museum MACAN Children’s Art Space Commission – Color in Cave, 2019. Photo courtesy of Museum MACAN.

What are some memorable moments and projects you find yourself returning to and reflecting on, in your role at the museum?

Before we officially opened, we developed a two-part performance project called “First Sight”. It was two, one-day only performance programmes that included an amazing line-up of artists including FX Harsono, Heman Chong, Yin Xiuzhen, Justin Shoulder, Melati Suryodarmo, Tisna Sanjaya, Xu Zhen, and Duto Hardono. The audience response was completely unexpected, and the production which tested my team to its limits was a great success.

Melati Suryodarmo, Fins und Eins, 2016. Performance at “First Sight”, Museum MACAN, Jakarta, Indonesia, 2017. Image courtesy of Museum MACAN.
Duto Hardono, Variation & Improvisation for ‘In Harmonia Progressio’, 2017. Performance at “First Sight”, Museum MACAN, Jakarta, Indonesia. 2017. Image courtesy of Museum MACAN.

What I learnt from this is how receptive Indonesian audiences are to performance practice, as well as how well my team operates under pressure. To be honest, I don’t know if an event like this could have been pulled off anywhere else. Months later, we saw the impact again with the totally mesmerising exhibition by Lee Ming Wei, “Seven Stories”, which included seven major performance works which saw us collaborating with teams of singers and dancers from across Indonesia – again the audience impact was extraordinary. The visitor responses outlining how the exhibition impacted people were incredible.

Lee Mingwei, Guernica in Sand (performance), 2006. Performance at “Lee Mingwei: Seven Stories”, Museum MACAN, Jakarta, Indonesia, 2019. Image courtesy of Museum MACAN.

I suppose I constantly come back to the reflection about how much the team and I have achieved in only two years. 

How do you see Museum MACAN positioned in the artistic landscape of Indonesia, and more widely on an international level?

I see Museum MACAN as being one part of the conversation in Indonesia. Indonesia has such a vibrant scene, great artists, great collectors, an extraordinary art history; the museum forms a part of its developing infrastructure. There are of course internal ambitions when it comes to programmes and projects, that bring together local concerns with artists from elsewhere. I hope what we do continues to generate interest and conversation, and contribute to much needed discussion about modern and contemporary art from Southeast Asia.

How do you feel about the use of the term “Southeast Asia” to frame the paradigm of art and cultural production in this region? What effect does it have on the way such production is perceived?

All of these kinds of terms which attempt to define a geography are double-edged. For our friends who are unfamiliar with the nuance of the various situations and geographies, it can be a useful means to locate artists and territories. But for those of us who are working in this context, as much as it can help to generate a sense of collegiality across the various geographies it denotes, we also know that it elides so many complexities of colonial and national histories, migration, ethnicity, language, economic experience, social and political realities, and so on. We should be grateful that it can help to bring so many interesting people together under a shared rubric, but we should also strive for depth and complexity, not flatness of experience.

What are some exciting programmes or plans in store for Museum MACAN in 2020?

One of the things which we strive for in our programme is to not only support Indonesian artists in the development of major exhibitions, sometimes their first solo or survey exhibition, but to also introduce artists who have never been presented in the region. Next year we have a major survey of Melati Suryodarmo and Agus Suwage, the presentation of the ambitious film work Manifesto by Julian Rosefeldt and a career survey by Chiharu Shiota that audiences can look forward to.

Works by Mit Jai Inn and Melati Suryodarmo will be presented at S.E.A. Focus 2020. Click here to find out more.

Celebrating Collaborative Possibilities with Susan Baik

Susan Baik is the owner and founder of BAIK ART, a contemporary art gallery in Los Angeles and Seoul. She is also a partner of Baik + Khneysser.  In 2016, she organized the exhibition Art and the Measure of Liberty at the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Korea to the United Nations. In 2017, she assisted with Unexpected Light: Works of Young-Il Ahn at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) to its critical acclaim as the first exhibition of a Korean-American artist at a major institution.  As the visionary behind the BAIK ART residency program, Baik places her artists into a country or culture distinctly different from their own. Each concurrent residency takes place in a different country and culminates in a curated exhibition accompanied by a comprehensive catalog. Baik currently serves as a Board Member at 18th Street Art Center, the Korea Arts Foundation of America at Los Angeles, and on the Art Committee at Davidson College in North Carolina. She graduated with a degree in Fine Art from the University of California, Irvine.

Baik Art is showcasing works by two Indonesian artists, Nindityo Adipurnomo and Eddy Susanto, at this year’s edition of S.E.A. Focus. Could you tell us more about the decision to show these artists at the exhibition? How would you describe the changes, over the last few years, with regards to the regional and international market for contemporary Indonesian art?

Baik Art’s involvement with the Indonesia art scene started with the Baik Art Residency Program in 2016, through a collaboration with Cemeti Art House, a Yogyakarta-based institution founded by artists Nindityo Adipurnomo and Mella Jaarsma. During this period, I was truly inspired by a visit to Jogja. I had an eye-opening experience witnessing a dynamic art scene with rich cultural history, exciting collaborations between artists, and innovative practices. Immediately, I recognized a desire for Baik Art’s platform to be a frontier to connect this rich art world with others around the globe. 

Baik Art has chosen to present Eddy Susanto and Nindityo Adipurnomo in S.E.A. Focus because of previous successful collaborations. In 2018, Baik Art’s Seoul gallery hosted Eddy Susanto’s exhibition 10+3 PROJECT: Small Narrative Paintings. In an effort to continue collaborating with the Indonesian art scene during the pandemic, Baik Art also presented Nindityo Adipurnomo during Art Jakarta Virtual.

Eddy Susanto, #5 Oxydentalism-Asia Influence on Western; after Thomas Doesburgh 1694, 2018, Drawing pen & acrylic on canvas, 200 x 150 cm. Image courtesy of Baik Art.
Nindityo Adipurnomo, 31 Selera Cowok, 2019, Gouache on paper, 57 x 92 cm. Image courtesy of Baik Art.

Baik Art’s participation in Art Jakarta Virtual was an experimental moment. It was the first online exhibition for an international market. The decision to present Nindityo Adipurnomo’s work was an attempt to navigate how a virtual 2D screen could depict a 3D interactive space. The sculptural quality of Adipurnomo’s work posed an immediate technical challenge for viewers to experience the fullness of the work without being physically present. Not only this, the underlying messages expressed in Adipurnomo’s work are often controversial, confrontational, and difficult to grasp without immediate access to the work. While Art Jakarta Virtual resulted in a successful exhibition, the technical challenges still remain in attempting to depict physical works of art on a digital screen.

These difficulties presented themselves once again in the selection of works for S.E.A. Focus. While Adipurnomo’s work faced spatial difficulties, Eddy Susanto’s newest work demanded specific lighting arrangement to accurately display it as intended. These technicalities limited the opportunities for these artists to be shown in virtual exhibitions, but nonetheless they offer insight for Baik Art and other galleries to find creative new ways to adapt to changing times. As with any exhibition in a physical gallery space, the desire to maintain quality of presentation and care for the artist and their work remains of utmost importance. Baik Art presents never-before-exhibited works from both Nindityo Adipurnomo and Eddy Susanto at S.E.A. Focus as a continuation of the process of sharing and promoting Indonesian artists to an international audience.

Regarding regional changes I have witnessed in the last few years, there is a clear forward-thinking momentum arising in Indonesia. Even during my limited visits, each time I recognize a greater, more active participation in the development of a diversity of creative, social spaces. This progression is occurring not only in the visual art world, but also in design, fashion, music, and café culture to name a few. I think that internationally, Indonesia’s recognition as a thriving, creative culture is nurturing more international collaborations between creators as well as attracting the attention of collectors across the world.

The Baik Art Mural Project, run collaboratively with 18th Street Arts Centre in Los Angeles, has been ongoing since 2014. Could you elaborate on the premise of this project and the gallery’s specific interest in muralism here?

Mural of Songs For My Father, Bouquets For My Mother, Amir H. Fallah, 2019. Image courtesy of Baik Art.

The premise of Baik Art’s Mural Project is rooted in wider public accessibility to art through a very direct and immediate display. From 2014 – 2020, Baik Art’s Los Angeles gallery in Culver City would host a mural in collaboration with 18th Street Art Center and a guest artist. This large mural, facing a busy intersection, invited a diverse audience to take even a quick glance for a momentary interaction with the art world as they went about their day. The real attraction to this mural project was the opportunity to bring art outside into the public arena, and regardless of whether people had prior interest in art or an intention to find it, it existed openly for everyone to encounter.

The collaboration with 18th Street Art Center was a recognition of shared values with belief in residency and cross culture that aligns strongly with Baik Art. Along with this, 18th Street Art Center is a very established institution for the Los Angeles art scene and has existed for close to 30 years.

Baik Art’s residency programme has been described as especially “nomadic”, spanning locations as diverse as Seoul, Yogyakarta, and Mexico City. Why would you say this geographical diversity is so important for the programme?

As an institution with international ties at its foundation with gallery operations in Los Angeles and Seoul, Baik Art is inherently a space of geographical and cultural diversity with constant nomadic interactions occurring across the globe. This basis is the true point of success for the gallery in an increasingly globalized world where audiences are developing deeper curiosity and seeking points of access to experience multiculturalism.

Baik Art Residency Program is centered on the importance of spending time together and an openness to different backgrounds and cultures, celebrating uniqueness and similarities that are all brought to the table. We hope to learn about and share different art practices and artists in order to generate more empathetic understanding and effective communication between communities and cultures.

In an interview with The Artling back in 2016, you described the importance of “maintaining a balance between one’s own heritage and newer cultures.” From its nomadic residency programme to the gallery’s international roster of artists, this particularly ‘global’ outlook seems to also pervade Baik Art’s fundamental structure and operations. How does Baik Art navigate the complexities of ‘globalism’ especially in its representation of artists from Southeast Asia, a region that persistently resists a ‘universal’ logic?

A major question that galleries must navigate when presenting artists of different cultures to a new audience is how to gather and cater to the tastes of public interest while maintaining authenticity and care for the artist and their work. This becomes an increasingly blurred line as the world globalizes. To ensure that viewers always experience the fulness and depth of an artist’s practice, my focus remains 100% on the artists and embracing their collective message on globalization, globalism, and shared learning. Baik Art’s mission has been, and will continue to be, the promotion of empathy experienced through communication in art that is able to transcend regionalism, and resist the temptation for solely inward-looking dialogue apart from others.

What are some exhibitions or events that Baik Art will be hosting over the next few months that you are particularly excited?

In November of 2020, Baik Art launched a dialogue series that invites two artists from different regions and a guest curator to discuss various art practices, perspectives, and inspirations. The first four sessions of this series are a collaboration with curator Anuradha Vikram. While these dialogues have been conducted through Zoom Webinars to accommodate for the pandemic, Baik Art had originally intended to move to a bigger space in downtown Los Angeles to host these discussions and exist as an exhibition space. As with everyone, the gallery has learned to adapt to current circumstances and the dialogues can be approached as another form of presentation of art spaces.

An exciting exhibition taking place in Baik Art’s Seoul gallery will be showcasing Los Angeles based artist Elliott Hundley. Although a successful and well-known artist in the United States, Hundley’s work has never been exhibited in Korea. As such, Baik Art will proudly present his works for the first time in Seoul in this exhibition focused on his drawings.

Another intriguing, upcoming collaboration is with Judith Khneysser who has collaborated with Baik Art for the last couple of years especially for art fairs such as Felix in Los Angeles and Armory in New York. This partnered programming has existed under the name Baik + Khneysser. With Judith, Baik Art plans to show a series of pop-up exhibitions, the first of which will be held at a farmhouse in Los Angeles.

Exploring Yogyakarta with Mella Jaarsma

Mella Jaarsma has become known for her complex costume installations and her focus on forms of cultural and racial diversity embedded within clothing, the body, and food. She was born in the Netherlands in 1960, studied visual art at Minerva Academy in Groningen (1978-1984), Art Institute of Jakarta (1984) and at the Indonesian Institute of the Arts in Yogyakarta (1985-1986). She has lived and worked in Indonesia ever since. In 1988, she co-founded Cemeti Art House, now called Cemeti Institute for Art & Society with Nindityo Adipurnomo, one of the first spaces for contemporary art in Indonesia, which to this day remains an important platform for young artists and art workers in the country and region.

Mella Jaarsma’s works have been presented widely in exhibitions and art events in Indonesia and abroad, including: ‘Dunia Dalam Berita’, Macan Museum, Jakarta (2019); the Thailand Biennale (2018); the 20th Sydney Biennale (2016); ‘The Roving Eye’, Arter, Istanbul(2014); ‘Singapore Biennale’, Singapore Art Museum (2011), and many others. Her work is part of the collection of the Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, National Gallery of Australia and the Singapore Art Museum, amongst others.

Under what socio-cultural and socio-political conditions was Cemeti birthed? Are you still responding to those conditions to date, and have your motivations and vision for the space shifted or morphed since its establishment?

By the late 1980s, well over a decade after the founding of the New Art Movement, there were only a handful of artists who continued to challenge the political status quo in Indonesia. The newly opened Cemeti, however, provided space for experimental practices and diverse art forms, thereby becoming a playground that nurtured an emerging generation of artists who in the 1990sre-engaged with socially and politically focused works. Cemeti provided a place for artists to meet and to present their works free from state, institutional, or market regulations and conservatism. We went on to create diverse programmes and encourage audiences to become part of the art scene, participating in group discussions, artists’ talks, events, etc. When selecting artists to work with, we were not so much looking for the “new” in the sense of “avant-garde”, but rather for work that had something to say, raising questions and proposing different perspectives through its visual language.

We have been running Cemeti for ten years under the Suharto regime. The different eras since then are very much reflected throughout our programmes and projects, but the basic concept of providing space for diverse perspectives, discourses, and dialogues through the arts is still in place. Shifting social and political contexts, as well as the work and practice of different artists across generations, have also changed the form and focus of Cemeti. When we started in 1988, our goal was simple: to create a space for artists to meet and exhibit their work. As time went on, we engaged with the social and cultural climate, hoping to learn from it and develop projects that were relevant to the conditions in Indonesia at any given moment. Our main tactic for survival was to stay under the radar while connecting to local realities. Our exhibitions and projects were connected to the local public in a fast-changing society, while at the same time we tried to make the work of the Indonesian scene visible to the international art world.

What position does Cemeti occupy in the development of Indonesian contemporary art, and what existing positions or forces does it seek to challenge and problematise?

In the beginning, we had to fulfill the task of ‘promoting’, to get the Indonesian artists on the International map, when in the nineties slowly there started to be an interest of what was happening in South East Asia. So we started with documenting, creating artist’s files, publications and connecting the artists to curators, as well as trying to bring the artists further in career by seeking further studies, residencies, etc. The international exchange and the growing art infrastructure in Indonesia had brought many changes. The art scene is dynamic and nowadays it feels much more like we can work and collaborate on different issues with many partners, looking into different challenges like; government support, alternative education, the dominance of the art market, growing conservatism, public involvement, censorship, etc.  

The term “laboratory” or “laboratorium” is often used to describe art spaces, particularly artist-run ones, in Indonesia. What do you think is the allure or effectiveness of such a term? Would you describe Cemeti as a “laboratory”?

I think every space has their own vision and objectives. I think Cemeti is not a laboratory, because we care as much of communicating to our public as the development of artists and art workers. But anyhow, the work that we have been doing in Cemeti, I see it as being in a kitchen, experimenting, trying things out, with a focus on the process and discussion. We (the artists run spaces) are cooking, while the museums, commercial galleries, and art fairs can ‘eat the food that is ready’ to consume.    

How would you characterise the energy and spirit of collectivising in Indonesia, specifically in Yogyakarta, where collectives like MES 56 and Taring Padi were founded? Are there common urgencies that drive their approach, and how do they contrast or support art education in the country?

Yogyakarta is the melting pot of artists from different regions and cultures in Indonesia. Artists come from other islands and areas to study art in Yogyakarta, after which they often don’t return because there is no art infrastructure. I see the community-based art practices in Yogyakarta as a sort of alternative education system. With the character of the city in which it is easy to ‘go around’ and ‘hang around’, artists’ communities are sort of organically taking shape during or after official education.  Some of them arise from frustration, criticising the dated art education system, or from protests towards the government like Taring Padi, or because they share a passion in a specific discipline, like MES 56 with video and photography.  

With no government support, for young artists to work in a community-based manner is a liberating endeavour. They can set their own rules and it is an important playground to develop all kinds of aspects. But on the other hand, I also criticise the communities that sometimes play too safely – they can hide, and they don’t make an individual statement through their art; in this way, too much is compromised.

You take on multiple roles that, for certain, converge in many ways – as artist, teacher, “art worker”; do you find one taking precedence over the rest? What do you consider your work or your practice?

I think this also reflects the situation in Indonesia. If you want things to happen you depend on personal initiatives, which grow out of necessity. So working in Cemeti is as important for me as developing my work as an artist.  Throughout 28 years of running Cemeti together with the team, I spent 80% of my time at that job. I am now happy to be balancing this after stepping out for three years and being able to now spend approximately 80% of my time on my art practice.  

What is the significance of IVAA, and do you feel that the function of and engagement with the archive differs between Indonesia and Europe?  

This archive-cum-foundation was also founded out of urgency. When we started in 1995, no visual art archive existed, except the Jakarta Art Council archive. In that sense, it is very different from the European archives, in which an awareness of the importance of historical materials is part of government policies. Because of the lack of an established infrastructure with museums and other institutions in Indonesia, on one hand, most roles in the arts like curators, achievers, and art historians are self-taught and develop slowly, but on the other hand, this also creates space and freedom to work in non-conventional ways.

Who are some younger artists and/or art projects in the Southeast Asian region you’ve been excited about and provoked by? Why?

The contemporary art scene in Indonesia has been limited to Java and Bali and is particularly clustered in such cities as Jakarta, Bandung, and Yogyakarta. When we talk about Indonesian artists we usually mean artists from Java or artists from other regions who settled in Java, because of its art institutional landscape. I was very excited to see the Biennale Jogja XVEquator #5, which took place this year and had the title ‘Do we live in the same PLAYGROUND?’. It was curated by Akiq AW and Arham Rahman from Indonesia, and Penwadee Nophaket Manont from Thailand. Bringing together artists and collectives from Southeast Asia, it finally included artists from regions like Aceh, Kalimantan, Madura, Sulawesi and Pattani, drawing into the center issues of the periphery. This was also the first Biennale in Indonesia with a balanced selection of female artists.

What are some of your upcoming projects or collaborations in 2020 we can look forward to?

I am looking forward to the upcoming two-year focus on Cemeti’s programme ‘Rhizomatic Archipelago’, which will run land, sea and river residencies for diverse communities across the Indonesia archipelago. I am also working towards my solo exhibition at the National Gallery of Jakarta which will take place in July 2020, curated by Alia Swastika. I am excited to show my works from the past ten years, as they haven’t been exhibited together. I am concurrently working on a new series of work – after the exhibition in Jakarta, I hope to show everything back at my basecamp, Yogyakarta!

Mella is a panellist for the S.E.A. Focus talk Southeast Asia Art Watch: Indonesia alongside Dr. Oei Hong Djien, Mira Asriningtyas, Dito Yuwono, and Tom Tandio. Click here to find out more.

Discussing Theatricality in National Histories with Ho Tzu Nyen

Ho Tzu Nyen (b. 1976, Singapore) has been widely exhibited with one person exhibitions at the Edith-Russ-Haus for Media Art, Oldenburg (2019), Kunstverein, Hamburg (2018), Ming Contemporary Art Museum, Shanghai (2018), TPAM, Yokohama (2018), Asia Art Archive (2017), Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao (2015), Mori Art Museum, Tokyo (2012) and Artspace, Sydney (2011), amongst others. He also represented Singapore at the 54th Venice Biennale (2011). Recent group exhibitions include MOCA, Busan (2019), Aichi Triennial 2019, Toyota City and Nagoya City (2019), Sharjah Biennial 14, Sharjah (2019), Gwangju Biennale, Gwangju (2018), amongst others. He has participated in numerous international film festivals including Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah (2012) and the 41st Directors’ Fortnight at the Cannes International Film Festival in France (2009). He was an Artist-in-Residency at the DAAD (Berlin) from 2015 to 2016, and the Asia Art Archive, Hong Kong (2012 to 2015).

You described your works One or Several Tigers (2018) and Ten Thousand Tigers (2014) as attempts at ‘dreaming’ of other histories apart from those sanctioned by the state. Is this state of ‘dreaming’ significant to your practice? How would you describe the ‘reality’ or ‘realness’ of your artistic narratives?

To cite an old Chinese classic, Chuang Tzu was said to have dreamt of being a butterfly, happily flitting and fluttering about. He didn’t know if he was Chuang Tzu who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming that he was Chuang Tzu.

Ho Tzu Nyen, ‘One or Several Tigers’, 2017. Synchronized double-channel HD projection, automated screen, shadow puppets, 10 channel sound, show control system. Courtesy of Edouard Malingue Gallery and the artist.

There seems to be an especially inherent theatricality to your works. With regards to the sociocultural or national histories that you remain interested in, how would you say this ‘performativity’ of Narrative plays out within your practice?

Theatricality, at the most basic, fundamental level, is the awareness of being seen, or encountered. As such, we might say that all works of art are inherently theatrical, since they exist to be engaged with, even if the audience is no one else but the maker himself or herself. It is also conceivable that one’s audience is non-human, for example in the case of rituals performed for the spirits and the gods, or perhaps aliens, such as the sounds projected into outer space by my Indonesian artist friend Venzha Christ.   

I suppose one can think of national histories as innately theatrical, since they are designed as stories to be addressed to another, whom they interpolate into the narrative.  All national histories insist on the inevitability of the State. Perhaps the work of art is defined by a process of continuous othering, while national histories function through the elimination of otherness…

You have spoken before about the less than satisfactory state of artistic discourse in Singapore. Would you say that your practice is somewhat predicated on this apparent lack within the cultural ecology of Singapore? How would you describe the attempts in recent years (by artists, collectives, independent spaces, etc.) to ameliorate or challenge this vacancy?

The cultural ecology of Singapore has remained stunted for many reasons. Unfortunately, this continues to be true. But at the same time, there have always been exceptional individuals and groups who have not only soldiered on, but made things better for others. As for my own practice, I am sure that the scene made a direct impact on who I am, and why I do what I do. I believe that an artist is, in some ways, an expression of his or her milieu. But I do not believe that my relationship to the cultural ecology is one solely of “lack”.  Rather there have always been people and things that have also inspired me.

Speaking with Interview Magazine back in 2012, you described a “spiritual castration” that seemed to characterise the demythologised secularism of modern experience in Singapore. Do you maintain this view? How would you position the importance of the ‘mythic’ in social and cultural organisation and identity, especially in contemporary Singapore?

At that time, I was probably thinking of Kuo Pao Kun’s Descendants Of The Eunuch Admiral, which is of course a cultural milestone for us in Singapore. But these days, I think it might be important to shift from this unifocal phallo-centrism – a single-mindedness on the male organ and the almost paranoiac fear of its lack, in order to try to relate to the world in a much more distributed way. Not the third eye of the heroic saint, but a thousand small eyes, like those of the potato.  

About the mythic and the secular, I think that question is not so much one or the other, but rather how one can, and is very often the other. After all, the secular can itself be understood as a kind of myth. I think Bataille once described the myth of modernity as the absence of myth.

Could you tell us more about some upcoming projects or ideas you are currently exploring, that audiences can look forward to?

I am now working on a project called Voice of Void. It is an installation with projection, sound and a VR component, and is centred around a group of Japanese philosophers known as the Kyoto School and their experiences during the Second World War. The Kyoto School were regarded as the most signficant Japanese philosophers of their time, but their reputation was severely compromised after WW2. After that, I will have another project in Japan dealing with their secret agencies, spies and soldiers in Southeast Asia.  But I still have much to do to get there!

Weaving Memories

Exploring Trauma and Forgotten Histories in the Works of Dinh Q. Lê

1978: ten-year-old Dinh Q. Lê steps onto a small, overcrowded fishing boat in Southern Vietnam. Together with his mother and several family members, they drift across the Gulf of Thailand, spending a year in a Thai refugee camp before heading to the United States. 

Considered one of the world’s most renowned Vietnamese contemporary artists, Lê’s artistic creations germinated in a pond of cloudy memories and second-hand recollections of the Vietnam War[1] and its aftermath, continuously striving to remember and preserve a part of history that risks being forgotten. The systematic revisiting of these traumatic memories is a distinctive characteristic of his multi-disciplinary practice, one that continuously looks at a history that is difficult to remember yet impossible to forget. Does this process of repetition provide a platform for Lê to reconcile with a troubled and amorphous past, abating the emotional impact of not only experiencing the war but also the guilt of surviving it? With a look at Sigmund Freud’s[2] theorization of trauma, a better understanding of Lê’s practice as one that “merges fact, fiction, and personal recollections to create a tapestry of memories”[3] can be attained.

Lê was born in 1968, in Hà-Tiên, a small town in the south of Vietnam. His family lived through the war, eventually fleeing to the United States when the Khmer Rouge[4] started making cross-border incursions from neighbouring Cambodia. Arriving in California in 1979, he grew up with Hollywood depictions of a war whose history had been written almost exclusively by the West. Lê explains that “as a child growing up in Simi Valley, California, with the distant memories of a country whose culture and imagery was being fed back to me via mainstream television and film, it was at times difficult to pinpoint which memories were mine or popularly inherited.”[5] This volatile interchange between memory and illusion, fact and fiction, recurs in his practice, which is still galvanized by the process of perceiving the Vietnam War through a Vaselined lens.

The definition of ‘trauma’ centres on intense personal suffering, and is one of the many afflictions that Sigmund Freud studied throughout his career. After World War I, he was intrigued by the propensity of his patients to repeat and re-live unpleasant experiences. He observed that this compulsion was prevalent after sudden and unexpected shocks; the brain inflicts the same traumatic damage on itself, repeatedly. The element of surprise or fright was constant across these patients, the normal defences against danger not having time to operate and the individual being overwhelmed by dread. As a young child experiencing the onslaught of war and having to flee the country, Lê was exposed to a plethora of unpredictable and shocking events. This characteristic of repeatedly reliving these traumas is reflected not only in the subject matter of his works, but also in the processes he uses to create them.

The Vietnam War sparked a renewed interest in the topic of trauma and 1980 saw the formal acknowledgement of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) by the American Psychiatric Association. The method of catharsis, where patients uncover original traumas and purge harrowing memories by vividly recalling them, was pioneered by Freud and has subsequently been widely used to treat patients suffering from PTSD. After years of suppressing his childhood memories, Lê’s recollections resurfaced upon returning to Vietnam in 1993. Through his practice, he grapples with his own traumatic experiences and draws attention to the victims of the same conflicts, memorializing them through the act of creation. Through this process of catharsis, he not only pays tribute to the casualties of war, but also forever attaches his name to them.

Dinh Q. Lê, Untitled From Vietnam to Hollywood (paratroopers), 2005, C-print and linen tape. Photo courtesy of Ocula.

Merging Eastern and Western cultures, Lê’s works have ventured into the realm of large-scale photo montages and installations, documentary film, and appropriated objects and images. His re-interpretation of traditional grass mat weaving has become his trademark, a technique he learned from an aunt during his childhood in Hà-Tiên. Focusing on the recent history of Vietnam, Lê explores themes of loss and redemption, ensuring that the histories of those who perished in its wake are not forgotten. Whilst at the University of California, he engaged with the topic of the Vietnam War for the first time. Frustrated by “an Asian culture with which the West was for a time intimately and violently engaged with, but about which it knew almost nothing about,”[6] Lê produced a series of posters juxtaposing American media images of the war with photos of Vietnamese suffering, unmasking the contradictory accounts of the conflict’s history (Fig. 1).[7] This was the beginning of a practice that continues to challenge the apathy towards war memories and shines a spotlight on forgotten histories.

Dinh Q. Lê,  Cambodia: Splendor and Darkness Triptych, 2005, photo weaving and linen paper. Photo courtesy of Fine Art Biblio.

A trip to Cambodia in 1994 resulted in Lê’s acclaimed Cambodia: Splendor and Darkness series (Fig. 2). He visited the temples in Siem Reap and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh,[8] located at the site of the Khmer Rouge prison and execution centre. Shocked by the contrast between the cruelty of the regime and the beauty of the temples, Lê began working on a series of photo weavings that blended the images of the intricate temple carvings with haunting photographs of the prisoners. Cutting the images into strips, he weaved them together as a way of intertwining cultures and identities.[9] In a careful and repetitive manner, he interweaves the faces of the prisoners with images of the monuments that were also privy to the deaths of countless individuals who helped build them. The artist revisited this series during a residency at STPI in 2018,[10] throwing himself into this compelling act of repetition (Fig. 3).[11]

Dinh Q. Lê, Splendor & Darkness (STPI) #32, 2017, foiling and screen print on Stonehenge paper and archival print on Awagami bamboo paper. Photo courtesy of ArtAsiaPacific.jpg.

The attempt to justify abject brutality and unfathomable aggression under the pretext of war, is one that continues to challenge those who have not only experienced it but also suffer the emotional consequences of having survived it. Shaped by his own recollections of the war, together with second-hand memories and photographic cues, Lê has used his practice as both a refuge and a vessel to immortalise those who no longer have a voice. Freud noted that traumas are alternately relived and suppressed, and Lê’s process of healing and acceptance of his past continues to be an onerous one. Reflecting on the experience of living through but also later remembering the war from afar, his works offer a distanced view of a history that he was born into but living away from. With his photo-weavings now firmly established as his trademark, the repetitive nature of Lê’s practice sees him continuously revisiting the past. Is this done in an attempt to deal with a troubled history or is his mind unable to process these traumatic events, compelling him to continuously relive them? Is war ever truly over for those who have experienced it so vehemently? The nature of suffering is a complex and multifaceted one; whilst Lê’s art has set him on a journey of catharsis, this is one where the destination is still unknown.

Published January 2021.


[1] The Vietnam War took place between 1954 and 1975. It was officially fought between North and South Vietnam, the North Vietnamese army supported by the Soviet Union, China and other communist allies and the South Vietnamese one backed by the United States, South Korea, Australia, Thailand and other anti-communist allies. US military involvement escalated in 1961 and continued until their withdrawal in 1973. Two years later, Communist forces ended the war by seizing control of South Vietnam and in 1976 the country was unified as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

[2] Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was an Austrian neurologist best known for developing the theories and techniques of psychoanalysis. Freud posited that neuroses had their origins in deeply traumatic experiences that had occurred in the past, forgotten and hidden from consciousness. His theories on child sexuality, libido and the ego, are some of the most influential academic concepts of the twentieth century.

[3] Melissa Chiu and Benjamin Genocchio, “Contemporary Asian Art.” (Singapore: Thames & Hudson, 2010).  

[4] In an attempt to socially engineer a classless communist society in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge government, led by Pol Pot, rose to power in 1975 after winning the Cambodian Civil War. Forcibly depopulating the country’s cities, they targeted and murdered perceived political opponents and carried out a genocide in which an estimated 1.5 to 3 million people were killed or died (source: Encyclopaedia Britannica). The Khmer Rouge regime was removed from power when Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1979.

[5] Dinh Q. Lê, “On Dinh” in Dinh Q. Lê: Monuments and Memorials, exhibition catalogue, 2018 (Singapore: STPI 2018), 12.

[6] Holland Cotter, “Vietnamese Voices Against a Whir of War,”, USA, 12 August, 2010, accessed 23 April, 2018,

[7] Lê blended iconic images of the Vietnam War with documentary photographs and anonymous family portraits that he had bought in thrift shops in Vietnam, Lê created a tapestry of memories and fictions that all merge together. From Vietnam to Hollywood explored and reflected upon the experience of living through and later remembering the war from a distance.

[8] A former secondary school, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, was used as a prison and interrogation centre during the Khmer Rouge regime. Soldiers, government officials, academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers, monks, engineers, to name a few, were imprisoned, tortured and killed during the four year regime. An estimated 17,000 people were murdered at the prison and only seven inmates survived.

[9] Photos are cut into strips and the ones placed horizontally are woven into the vertical ones.

[10] Lê’s exhibition at STPI – Monuments and Memorials (17 March – 12 May, 2018) establishes a strong connection between previous works and his STPI residency. He revised the Cambodia: Splendour and Darkness series and adopted the same weaving technique and style for these new works. Having previously done little with the print medium and no papermaking experience, Lê was pushed out of his comfort zone, going beyond the weaving process and creating new three-dimensional works.

[11] As Freud points out in his research findings, repetition itself is the aim of the compulsion.


Caruth, Cathy. ‘Parting Words: Trauma, Silence, and Survival,’ from Trauma, Abstraction and Creativity, 2014-15, 20-33.

Caruth, Cathy, ed. Trauma: Explorations in Memory. USA: The John Hopkins University Press, 1995.

Chiu, Melissa and Benjamin Genocchio. Contemporary Asian Art. Singapore: Thames & Hudson, 2010.

Conway, Martin. A. ‘Memory and Desire: Reading Freud.’ The Psychologist, September 2006.

Coombe, Sofia. ‘Trauma & Memory: Weaving the Past and Present in the Works of Dinh Q. Lê.’ Masters essay, LASALLE College of the Arts, 2018.

Freud, Sigmund, ed. John Rickman. A General Selection from the Works of Sigmund Freud. USA: Anchor Books, 1957.

Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. UK/Austria: The International Psycho-Analytical Press, (year)

Freud, Sigmund. Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis. USA: W. W. Norton & Company Ltd, 1989.

Freud, Sigmund. On Creativity and the Unconscious: Papers on the Psychology of Art, Literature, Love, Religion. USA: Harper & Row Publishers, 1958.

Huong, Bui Nhu and Pham Trung. Vietnamese Contemporary Art 1990-2010. Vietnam: Knowledge Publishing House, 2012.

Jones, Dr Ernest. “War shock and Freud’s Theory of the Neuroses.” USA: Volume: 11 issue: Sect_Psych, 1918.

Lear, Jonathan. Freud. UK: Routledge, 2015.

Nora, Pierre. Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire. Representations, No. 26, Special Issue: Memory and Counter-Memory (Spring 1989), pp. 7-24. USA: University of California Press, 1989.

Pollock, Griselda. Art/Trauma/Representation. Parallax, 15:1, 40-54.

Reid, Anthony, A History of Southeast Asia: Critical Crossroads. UK: Wiley Blackwell, 2015.

Singapore Art Museum. Still Moving: A Triple Bill On The Image. Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, 2014. Exhibition catalogue.

Snowden, Ruth. Freud: The Key Ideas. From psychoanalysis and sex to dreams, the unconscious and more. Great Britain: Hodder & Stoughton, 2017.

STPI. Dinh Q. Lê: Monuments and Memorials. Singapore: STPI, 2018. Exhibition catalogue.

Trang, Dao Mai. 12 Contemporary Artists of Vietnam. Vietnam: Thê Giói Publishers, 2010.

About the Writer

Based in Singapore, Sofia is an art consultant and independent curator who holds a Master of Arts, Asian Art Histories, from Goldsmiths University of London through LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore.

With over a decade in Southeast Asia, Sofia was the Press and Media Relations at STPI – Creative Workshop and Gallery for 2 years. In 2016, she founded Art Locker, a Singapore-based art consultancy offering marketing, PR, curatorial and strategic advice, as well as artist representation. She has collaborated with a plethora of artists from the region, curating shows and managing special projects. In 2019 she partnered with Amador Arts Projects on the production of a short video on audience reception of Cambodian-American artist Anida Yoeu Ali’s ‘The Buddhist Bug’ performance in Kuala Lumpur.

Sofia is the co-founder of Art World Database, a new online compendium of Southeast Asian contemporary artists, set to launch in 2021.