Death in Venice
Asian artists celebrate life and the afterlife at the biennale, which opens today. Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop, Jason Gagliardi and David McNeill report
ARTISTS FROM INDONESIA, Thailand and Japan have taken a frank - and positive - look at life, death and the afterlife, with the Asian contingent adopting the theme of hope at this year's Venice Biennale.
The 51st Biennale di Venezia, which opens today, will also showcase top artists from China, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea and the Philippines. The two nations that were most affected by the Boxing Day tsunami have since picked themselves up - although works by their artists remain reflective.
The Pavilion Indonesia, entitled Actualising Insight Virtuality, features work by Entang Wiharso, Noor Ibrahim, Yani Mariani, Krisna Murti.
'We chose artists whose art has shown efforts to generate life energy,' says curator Dwi Marianto, who also directs the graduate programme at the Indonesia Arts Institute of Yogyakarta. 'Art that opens a space for imagination, hope, an optimistic outlook, and chemistry of vitality.'
This theme of hope is in sharp contrast to 2003's Mourning the Paradise Lost, after the 2002 Bali bombings. But the tsunami reminds everybody about the need to appreciate the here and now, Dwi says. 'I chose these artists' work because they generate energy of life. People need this kind of art in a chaotic situation. Indonesia is now like a shaky ship in rough water. We need something that can function like a cooling agent.'
Each presented work shows the artists striving to find insightful answers for their own lives. 'They don't merely grab the experiences of others as sensationalised by the media, but generate work which directly reflects their own experiences,' Dwi says. Entang's biennale work is about his reflections on news, opinions and images from the media that influence society's point of view. The artist has moved back and forth between Indonesia and the US and, although a painter by training, he constantly experiments with different media, from three-dimensional objects and performances to installations and video.
'Entang is aware of the recent developments in his country and is concerned by what's happening, from natural disasters to social conflicts,' the curator says. 'But he manages not to be carried away by the situations. He applies his senses and insights in representing the reality he experiences.' Sculptor Ibrahim will present his insights about Indonesian cultural diversity, especially in various traditional dresses, while sculptor Yani Mariani's new work reflects on soil and new plant shoots as metaphors for the endless potential of life. Krisna Murti will show video art about a therapeutic journey between pleasure and happiness. Thailand's slightly macabre contribution to the Venice Biennale is an exhibition featuring the work of one living artist who is preoccupied with the dead, and one who's passed away. Those Dying Wishing to Stay, Those Living Preparing to Leave comprises mixed-media and installation pieces by by Chiang Mai-based Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook and the late Montien Boonma.
Curated by Sutee Kunavichayanont, it will be on show in the sombre Chiostro del Convento di San Francesco della Vigna. Araya's contributions to the Thai Pavilion are video installations entitled Conversation 1, This is Our Creation, and The Class. 'They show communication between the living and dead in different ways,' she says. 'One is all about sitting and singing, one is teaching a class about death, and the other is simply about lying down and speaking about your fears from the heart.'
Boonma's striking installation pieces combine industrial steel and bricks with ephemeral substances such as spices and fragrances to encourage contemplation of the impermanence of human life and the physical world. He also sculpts in metal, wood and ceramics, and his organic collages on paper make liberal use of charcoal, earth and gold leaf. His work shows his deep engagement with Buddhism until his death in 2000.
In one of his last interviews, he said: 'I am not against modernisation, but we have to find solutions for the problems. We took from our ancestors a lot, and now we have the responsibility to choose what to do with it. We cannot return to a primitive life, but we can find the creativity to solve the problems.
'When I work with primitive materials, I want people to rethink the content they stand for. It does not symbolise that I want people to return to the forest. As an artist you are not an expert on environmental problems, but you realise that they exist.
'Then, if we are sincere about the situation, we can directly show it. But it is not the work of the artist that is the solution. It is the results of the work and what kind of thoughts it inspires in people.'
Araya says she was three years behind Boonma at Silpakorn University, and she has a deep respect for his talents.
'I think our work definitely complements each other. Life and death are two small but very important words. Buddhism teaches us a lot about having life and the end of life, and I think we both tried to reflect that in our work.'
Araya admits she's preoccupied with death, but denies it's in morbid. 'Since 1997, I've begun to communicate with death through art. Lament of Desire was my first show dealing with the topic, followed by Why Poetry Rather than Awareness,' she says. 'I think the real question is, who are the ones who experience the charm of death, the living or the dead? Does death have more space than life? And do dead people really care about going to heaven?'
The atmosphere at the Japan Pavilion will be equally sober and personal.
Visitors to the Japan Pavilion may linger over the starkly beautiful, off-kilter photographs of Miyako Ishiuchi, who has turned her lens on a subject painfully close to home: the death of her mother.
A series of single, portrait-style images of her mother's lipsticks, wigs, false teeth, clothes, a pair of battered shoes; and a single shot of a wizened breast taken in the final year of her life, the exhibition explores Ishiuchi's themes of memory and loss.
Shot in close-up, the effect is sombre, almost heartbreaking - the flimsy remnants of a life laid bare for inspection.
'Ishiuchi's intense scrutiny of her mother's personal possessions is the unyielding gaze of an observer who refuses to permit memories dwelling in them to escape,' says Michiko Kasahara, the commissioner of the pavilion.
Now 58, Ishiuchi began her career trying to exorcise her demons with a trinity of highly regarded collections depicting the post-war environment in which she grew up. Yokosuka (Yokosuka Story), a bleak 1977 portrait of the military town she reluctantly called home, was followed by projects on cramped Japanese housing (1978's Apartment) and a red-light district (Endless Night, 1981) before she temporarily gave up photography in her 30s.
She rediscovered her muse when she turned 40 and began photographing the hands and feet of people born in the same year as her: 1947.
'I wanted to see how people wore their 40 years,' she says. 'In the end, I settled on photographing hands and feet. They're our extremities. They are tough, individual and beautiful.'
Ishiuchi's so-called second period has since focused on the human form, particularly in her 1990's collections Hands, Legs, Flesh, Body and Chromosome XY, which features photos of the male body.
She has seldom shied from exploring taboos. Much of her late work has focused on human scars, which she says resonate with experience, memory and even beauty. 'To say you have a large scar is the same as saying you've had a near-death experience, battled through it and live on,' she says.
This interest in the body as what's been described as 'physical manifestation of human memory' prompted the photographic project Mother's 2000-2005 - Traces of the Future.