Southeast Asian Art Today is an informative book dealing with the contemporary art of this region. It is edited by Joyce Fenema, a designer who is of Dutch origin. She also wrote the introduction, in which she raises a number of issues that recur regularly in analyses of contemporary art from Asia. The lack of good art education facilities in Southeast Asia - partly to be blamed on a lack of funding - is a constant theme in discussions about art in Asia and it is also why many artists go to America or Europe to study. On their return, these artists are confronted with their own culture, tending to view it with mixed feelings. Some of them then choose a synthesis between the two cultures, while others aim to give visual form to the national identity of their country of origin.
By Els van der Plas
In her introduction Fenema also touches on the incestuous character
of the Asian art scene; there is probably not much difference here
from that of the West, but being a somewhat smaller milieu in which
it is easier to survive, it is also more intense. In Asia art is
also heavily defined by political and economic trends, rather than
by events or ideas that are purely artistic in character.
Sometimes Fenema makes somewhat reckless statements such as "Western concepts of sex, angst, death and self which formerly had no place in South-east Asian art have in recent years become part of the vocabulary of young artists, albeit in a larger socio-political context". This does indicate that art in these countries is still definitely related to developments in the West. Fenema writes very much from this perspective and could sometimes ease up on it a little. After all, power relations between Asia and the West in the domain of the arts have been changing over recent years - this reverse development is related to the recession in the West during the 1980s and recent economic growth in Asia.
Fenema also makes no bones about the fact that it is money rather than the quality of the art that is the decisive factor for the art market in Asia. This partially is due to the lack of good critics and curators, a tradition that has been more strongly developed in the West. The Indonesian critic and curator Jim Supangkat, who wrote the first introductory essay in this book also highlights this problem. Not only is there a lack of good art schools and curators; so far there is no museum of modern art in Indonesia. Fortunately this situation is now changing; a National Gallery in Jakarta is being worked on, while in Singapore a prestigious new museum has just opened.
After Fenema's introduction, there are introductory essays by different authors on artistic developments in the countries in question - Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand; each essay is followed by a section focusing on a number of artists with texts, colour illustrations, and short biographies. Fenema claims that the choice of the artists is not determined by their popularity in their own country or abroad, but by the integrity of their work; emphasis is given to artists with innovative ideas who will probably be influential for new generations. Fenema also states that one of the most important tasks for Asian artists is "to come to terms with their own cultural values".
The best thing to show the calibre of the book is perhaps to look at the work of the artists selected. Vincent Leow (1961) immediately catches one's attention, being described as an 'enfant terrible'. He studied at the Singapore Art Academy and the Mount Royal Graduate School of Art in Baltimore, in the USA. His work is distinguished by critical analyses of the society around him combined with a highly personal imagery. He not only makes installations but also produces paintings that 'reflect his identity' and that express "my feelings about living here (in Singapore - evdp), my concern as a human being", and "the importance of being a Singaporean".... "I'm in a muddle of western clothes, western education, Asian traditions and the resultant difficulty of communicating with my parents".
Experiments with performances and installations are extremely fashionable in Southeast Asia at present; imported from the West and adapted to local circumstances, these new forms give artists enormous freedom of action. In the West these forms derived from (and were thus rooted in) developments such as conceptual art, Dada, and the happenings of the 1960s. In Asia, even though it is very widespread, the experiment feels a little 'top-heavy' when placed in comparison with its conceptual origins. Installations and performance still have to put down roots if the art is ever to go beyond mere experiment. Supangkat even writes that the term 'installation' was only introduced into Indonesia in 1991 by the art critic Dr. Sanento Yuliman, showing just how youthful this movement is.
Be they ever so recent there are still some splendid installations by artists of great promise illustrated in this book; take for instance the disturbing, highly committed work of the Malaysian artist Tan Chin Kuan (1966), works such as 'The Sound of Angst' (1995), 'Tragic of Yellow Skin' (1990), and 'Judgement Day' that deal with racism and the commercialization of the arts, which display a considerable understanding of how to handle visual means. Then there is Kamol Phaosavasdi of Thailand (1958), who returned to Bangkok after completing his studies in Los Angeles, and makes powerful politically charged installations and performances. He has broached subjects such as pollution in Thailand and the pillage of the jungle to build new golf courses; his work also comprises an onslaught on the art institutions of his country. Phaosavasdi works mainly with 'ordinary' materials such as cloth, bamboo mats, metal objects, and plastic.
The work of the Philippine artist, Rey Paz Contreras (1950) stands out with its strange mix of existing objects and wood and stone carving executed with great skill. 'The Hunter' consists of a head carved in black stone topped with a cow's skull and accompanied by a wooden stick and a traditional headdress. His 'Ethnic Woman' of 1993 displays a similar bizarre combination of traditional head ornaments on a beautifully sculpted stone head standing on a traditionally carved wooden plinth.
The Indonesian selection offers a cross-section of the art scene in that country; the wooden sculptures of Anusapati, rooted in the tradition; the paintings and performances of Heri Dono that are inspired by wayang plays; and Sudarisman's surrealist work. The experimental work of Dadang Christianto to which Astri Wright recently devoted a long article in the magazine Art Asia Pacific, Vol.III no.1, 1996 is unfortunately not covered here.
It would be too much to expect all the countries of the region to be discussed in detail, but the book is an important contribution to our knowledge of contemporary art in Southeast Asia. It is informative, the choice of the contributors is good and their texts and choice of artists is varied and of quality. There are a number of surprising choices and the book gives both specialists and others an insight into what is going on in art in Southeast Asia right now.
Art Historian Els van der Plas is Artistic Director of the Gate Foundation.