Art/Culture  •  Impressions


In celebration of the 50th anniversary of ASEAN, the largest, most comprehensive show of SE Asian Contemporary Art is being staged in Tokyo at the Mori Museum and National Art Center Tokyo.

September 13, 2017

As you ascend the escalator in the foyer of the Mori Museum on the 53rd floor of the Mori Tower, you are also confronted with Sunshower by Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Chai Siris, a giant elephant lying on his side with a light of changing colors behind him that could represent the sun.

While the albino elephant is both a rarity in Thailand and the elephant of kings, upon closer inspection it is not clear whether this elephant is an albino or whether it’s merely white. The white elephant has come to represent Siam, the idea of nobility, of loyalty of Thainess. So the elephant, while this elephant is perhaps merely a lighter color, the albino elephant is seen as the king of elephants and the elephant of Kings.  

Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Chai Siris,
The name of the show itself is also Sunshower, a nod to our geography as, in the tropics, we experience sunshowers: rain falling from clear skies, which is a frequently-seen meteorological phenomenon in Southeast Asia.

“The post WWII decolonization led the countries of the region to democratization and internationalization despite periods of turmoil, and after decades of rapid economic and urban development we have come to understand that these were truly drastic changes. Sunshower thus serves as a poetic metaphor for a region that has passed through various vicissitudes.”  

There is a common thread that unifies us, perhaps even without the umbrella called ASEAN, and to a certain extent this show enables us to ask questions about or look through different lenses at our commonalities: what reverberates through our nations and transcends borders?

The show is most impactful in context of the history and meaning of ASEAN as a community, as well as Japan’s relationship to the countries of this union; it is, however, not essential for it can also serve as a learning experience and a journey through contemporary art in the last 50 years of the ASEAN region.  

The show at the Mori Art Museum does a good job at giving an introduction to the art in the region and a snapshot also of what is happening now: the language and message of today, including the concerns of the artists at the moment, aside from any specific historical contexts. The show is not arranged in any kind of chronological order but rather over nine themes thus dividing the show into nine sections that flow into each other.  The themes include Fluid World (that speaks to fluid borders), Medium as Meditation, Passion and Revolution, and Day to Day.

The first piece in the main gallery of the Mori is a giant cage, grids, bars and the sound of them vibrating. This is an installation by Singaporean artist Zul Mahmod, VIBRATEvibration. When thinking of the rather confined society that Singapore is, with its surveillance and rules that make it an extremely efficient business hub and peaceful place to live, this can be seen as a snapshot by the artist of that reality. There are many works by Singaporean artists in Sunshower, all addressing some element of politics and their society, all employing quite unique mediums.  

Beyond the cage is an installation by Cambodian artist Tith Kanitha titled Tep Soda Chan. What you see is a makeshift house, not unlike one you would see in other developing Southeast Asian cities. There is a painting on the window of a skyscraper, much like one you would see from the window of a hut like this in any city in Southeast Asia where there are still pockets of local housing beside major new developments. The name of the work is inspired by a film that portrays people living happily despite their poverty and challenges. This is something that might be familiar across Southeast Asia.

Across from this is a mural by Malaysian artist Liew Kung Yu, Cadangan-Cadangan Untuk Negaraku (Proposals for My Country), four large-scale, highly camp and kitsch photomontage tableaux that depicts modern day Malaysia with the elements that one connects to luxury, from ornate columns to marble statues. This is placed in contrast to elements that define Malaysian culture: together creating the juxtaposition that is modern day Malaysia.

Tith Kanitha,
Liew Kung Yu,

The research projects that are dotted throughout the Museum are telling of the research and studies that are done by art collectives, curators, and artists in the region. Korakrit Arunanondchai takes over a room where the work, Painting with history in a room filled with people with funny names 3 – is installed with bleached denim pillows and a backdrop of blue-tinted windows that looks out to the city of Tokyo.

Korakrit’s Bangkok Boys and story of nagas, heaven and hell, and metamorphosis feel right at home here as this “blue city” is the world that it seems to rise from. What was memorable was the naga on the wall, a shadow from the wires and installation that resembles the naga of ancient folklore that features prominently in the video, a feature unique to the set up at the Mori.

Korakrit Arunanondchai
The paintings of Udomsak Krisanamis sits in a large room alongside the sculptures of the late Montien Boonma. Udomsak’s ping pong table is made of found materials at the Mori, but functions as a ping pong table showing that everything he does makes use of his environment, integrated into his life. Montien Boonma’s sculptures are a deconstructed Buddhist utopia, they beg us to ask, can Buddhism and our cultural heritage live within a different cultural framework that is divorced from the archaic ornamental extravagances?

Towards the end of the show in a section called Dialogue with History, in which Malaysian artist Roslisham Ismail a.k.a Ise’s anOther story revisits multiple events between 1941 and 1945 that took place in Kelantan, his home state near the Malaysia-Thailand border with a coastline fronting the South China Sea. By conducting interviews with locals and collecting anecdotes from elderly residents, he offers another point of view of the wartime years that saw nationalism emerge in Malaysia as a protest against both British rule and Japanese occupation. In a multi-media display of diorama and posters that he created in collaboration with other artists based on various accounts of espionage, covert operations, and survival tactics, Ise relays personal stories that include imagination and rumor: literally (an)Other story to pass on to future generations.

The other part of the show is on display at the National Art Center (a five-minute cab ride or 15-minute walk from the Mori Museum). Here there is a different mood: it feels as if it provides a deeper political and historical point of view through the works than a depiction of “the now”.

The section titled Passion and Revolutions had political works that spoke of the revolutions that took place in the eight countries (all of ASEAN except Thailand) was probably the most challenging and created a rupture in the flow of the show itself. What revolutions do is create a rupture in time, forcing a society to question what it wants to become, what it wants to define itself to be. In one way or another, our neighbors have had to face this question of national identity, having all at some point been colonized, save Thailand.

The artwork that the curators chose to define Thailand’s struggle is a series of paintings by Vasan Sitthiket of the events of the October 6th 1979 protests—in particular the images of the lynchings that occurred along with miniature statues of the artist with an erect penis and signs that together form a kind of wishlist of wants and needs that a developed and peaceful society might desire. This is a part of our recent history that we have yet come to terms with: we are not sure how to treat that scene and whether an earnest picture of cruelty and lack of humanity vis-a-vis another fellow Thais is glaring.

Vasan Sitthiket
What defines a nation state? And what defines a nation state that peacefully co-exists with its immediate neighbors? Historically, although tribal in nature, we are connected if not in language then at least in diet (we all eat rice) and in climate (the sunshowers). The history of colonialism, perhaps dated as it is so behind us, features prominently in the works of artists of countries that endured foreign rule for better or for worse. The video by Singaporean artist Ho Tzu Nyen, One or Several Tigers, explores the shifting shapes of tigers and weretigers in the ancient and modern mythology of Malaysia and Singapore. Tigers are also indigenous to other parts our history. In the colonial days, when the colonialists tried to conquer the tiger, what were they really trying to achieve? What did colonialism achieve is perhaps one of the questions? And how much do our folklore and myths continue to inform us in our modern-day lives?

What follows from this is a series of photographs and a sculpture of red lanterns by the artist Lee Wen. We recognize this as his yellow legs with the giant red lantern that is featured on the promotional material for the show. This series called Strange Fruit follows the yellow man as he travels through the city under his giant red lantern headpiece/bodypiece. We watch him explore the society around him: covered in yellow paint he exaggerates his belonging to the “yellow race” and the red lanter perhaps symbolic of the melting pot in which we (or a large part of SE Asia) find ourselves—including our connection to China, as Chinese migration over the centuries has formed a large part of our collective culture.  

From the Chinese diaspora, we discover the Muslim community through a Thai lens from the Pratchaya Phintong. In Suasana, the films that make up the picture are of Malay Muslim widows in Thailand who lost their husbands in the ongoing conflict between Thailand and Malaysia. In order to support themselves, these women created a network they called Nam Prik Zauquna (‘our taste chili’). This series is inspired by the time that he spent in the Muslim south of Thailand. The films are dark; they seem to represent the violence in the south and the lack of understanding. Burned and blackened by sunlight, they also seem to symbolize the harsh daily lives of these women.

The last room, Day to Day, is a finale that leaves us with a question: a question posed by Surasi Kusolwong Golden Ghost (Reality Called, So I Woke Up) 2014. In a room of threads and fabrics is a treasure hunt for golden necklaces: we search for the golden ghost as a metaphor for this elusive golden necklace, digging, wading, rolling around in the soft bed of fabrics. Sometimes we forget that it his golden ghost we are looking for. Sometimes it is as though the golden ghost is there all along, the joy we feel as we take on the challenge of searching, of the hand-woven threads beneath our feet and hands. Alternatively, the futility of the search when we emerge empty-handed wondering if the search is nothing but a snipe-hunt.

Pratchaya Phintong,
Surasi Kusolwong,
Across from Surasi’s immersive installation is a stack of paper and the hashtag #sunshowerlunchbox on the wall. The papers give instructions to lunch, but lunch that is served only on certain days at certain times right here in the museum: a lunch with Rirkrit Tiravanija. Ever practical, Rirkrit realizes that 50 years of art history in nine sections across two galleries in Tokyo will leave you hungry for some Thai food cooked in a Japanese kitchen and served in the gallery hall. Such things give us hope that the future is bright for art and ASEAN.
Rirkrit Tiravanija,
Sunshowers takes place until October 23rd, 2017 at the Mori Art Museum and The National Art Center Tokyo.