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Art and the Collective in Southeast Asia

The ASEAN Community will officially join hands in 2015. In anticipation of this dropping of economic borders, Southeast Asia’s arts communities have started thinking about what this means for them. 


Concept Context Contestation: Art and the Collective in Southeast Asia brings 40 artists from the region — Thailand’s biggest ever exhibition of Southeast Asian contemporary art. The works presented reflect on social science’s categorisation of Southeast Asia as home to collectivist cultural groups. 


The Vietnamese Contingent


Five Vietnamese artists represent this S-shaped land. Artworks by Nguyen Van Cuong, Bui Cong Khanh, Phan Thao Nguyen, Tung Mai and Vu Dan Tan share the space of Bangkok’s Art and Culture Centre with art from seven other countries.


Nguyen Van Cuong paints with watercolour on do paper. It sounds harmless enough, until you see the shenanigans that the characters in his Karaoke Series (1997-1998) get up to. Men in suits yell abuse and lots of flying torches examine the scenes of debauchery from every angle. Post-dinner entertainment is a little darker than the black crows in Cuong’s critique of, well, raucous men in suits on a payday’s night out.


Bui Cong Khanh works in all media, from performance to ceramic vases. Saigon Slum (2013) is a sculpture and a video installed in darkened room. A mini-slum of corrugated plastic, complete with toy furniture and glowing lights, sits quietly in a circle while a large screen emits a blueish video of a monsoon flood. The sound of heavy rain and lack of any human presence make the room a desolate place, until you realise that the video is of a fake flood in the replica slum. As little toy chairs float downstream, the sadness of the scene washes away. The joy of the playful creation turns any grim reality check back into dollhouse fantasy.


Silicchalcedon (2013), by Phan Thao Nguyen, is an installation of glass objects and an enormous kidney stone. The stone was donated, at her request, by an anonymous Vietnamese man who had it removed from his body after a decade of pain. 


Thao Nguyen links his story with that of a Vietnamese farmer who found a rock in her pond, only to be fined VND2 million for ‘illegal exploitation of minerals’. Miners from all over the world could also tell us that finding rocks is never painless, but Thao Nguyen has an elegant way of communicating simple messages that turn out not to be so simple.


Aluvita (2013) is a jar of recycled aluminium tablets conceived by Tung Mai. Taking these ‘vitamin’ pills changes behaviour patterns that cause environmental damage. The quack medicine is a quick fix to protect the environment, and with it, future generations. 


The last of the roster is perhaps the most influential — seminal contemporart artist Vu Dan Tan. Tan passed away in 2009, but his playful works continue to poke fun at social pretense. Last month his art was part of a special exhibition at the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum, and in Hanoi, Tan’s works can be seen every day at Salon Natasha, his wife’s gallery.


The Unconnected Collective

Other artists from Southeast Asia were chosen to confront the public with all manner of issues on the wide topic of the collective. Documentaries inform of religious issues or fictitious rock stars. Interactive works permit visitors to read books lying on a bed, play ping pong on a round table, dance with geometric shapes, roam through camera-infested frames, or examine growing colonies of mushrooms. 


While the aim is to reinforce the historical and cultural ties of Southeast Asia, and revel in a logistical bear hug, the show is so diverse it almost fails to present the region as a collective. At worst, it is entertaining. At best, it is thought provoking, since the dominant strategy is to present metaphors that critique with the subtlest discretion. — Cristina Nualart


Concept Context Contestation: Art and the Collective in Southeast Asia is on until Mar. 2 at Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, 939 Rama 1 Rd, Bangkok 10330, Thailand 

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