The national question
A Guggenheim exhibition puts a spin on Asian countries' sense of identity and cultural stereotypes, writes Richard James Havis
What is a nation? Is it a population enclosed by a geographical boundary? A group of people with a shared history? An ethnicity? Ideas like these, with a specific relation to Southeast Asia, are explored in a thought-provoking exhibition called "No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia" at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
The show, curated by June Yap, illustrates the difficulties of assigning nationhood by presenting a diverse collection of contemporary art that the museum bought for the exhibition. It's the first part of the Guggenheim's UBS MAP Global Art Initiative, announced in April last year, that sets out to augment the museum's collection with works from under-represented regions. The exhibition will travel to Hong Kong in October, where it will show at the Asia Society.
"'No Country' is about the paradox of nation," says Yap, an independent curator from Singapore who has a two-year residency at the Guggenheim.
"We use the word nation to define identity, but in practice, it does not define them, because it does not encompass the limits and extent of that identity. The way that we understand nations today usually refers to a group of people living within a geographical delineation. But those spaces are usually very congested, and you have groups fighting against each other from within. Some people want to cross over to other countries and identify with something else. So there is a sense of borderlessness."
The exhibition brings together works from several countries including Vietnam, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Malaysia, India and Pakistan. Those unfamiliar with the art movements of the region may be surprised at the modernity of the works: manipulated photography from Pakistan, video art from Vietnam, and metallic sculpture from Bangladesh, for example. The exhibits run counter to the general preconceptions of art from these countries. That was the point, says Yap: "I wanted the exhibition to show what contemporary art practice is in the region today, and show it in a very diverse way. The idea was to put together a show that featured exhibits that visitors to the museum would not expect to see from these places."
By highlighting the modern works, the show makes clear how these regions are often represented in a clichéd fashion elsewhere, says Yap. Most of the works are contemporary and they have been acquired by the Guggenheim for the collection, she adds.
Hanoi-based artist Tran Luong's Lâp Lòe (which means "blink") is a nine-minute video work that explores how the same object can be used to symbolise different ideas in different countries - and within the same country, too. In Vietnam, the scarf represents the Communist Party. "It has a lot of meaning there," says Yap. "Children get it in school, and they wear it very proudly. As a boy Tran, too, wore it proudly. But boys would also use the scarf in fights in school."
Tran, a former member of the Gang of Five, the group that introduced contemporary art to Vietnam, wanted to see what the scarf would mean to other Asian cultures that did not fully appreciate its cultural context in Vietnam.
"The scarf became part of a performance, in which he would ask members of the audience to interact with it," says Yap. "In Japan and Indonesia, for example, the responses were completely different. It is just fabric that is dyed red. But the number of meanings that are loaded onto it gives it a lot of impact. It is a simple object that becomes very symbolic."
Another Vietnamese work, Television Commercial for Communism, is fascinating and provocative. The one-minute video, made by The Propeller Group, is exactly as titled: a slick TV ad for communist ideology.
"The group approached TBWA, an advertising company in Vietnam, and invited them to think about making an advert for communism. The advertising team tried to discover a way to positively brand communism. As they grappled with the idea, it started to become simplified: it became about people being equal and living in a place with a sense of community."
The final advertisement makes communist societies look friendly and sociable. "The concept got reduced to the idea that everyone would be happy if they could all live together in this way," Yap says. "So they made a 'flag of smiles'."
The exercise was a play between communism and capitalism: "There is a juxtaposition of advertising, our contemporary propaganda, and communist ideological propaganda."
Love Bed, by Bangladeshi artist Tayeba Begum Lipi, highlights the problems of imposing a reading on the exhibit without having a proper knowledge of the cultural context. A barbed-wire bed would seemingly speak of violence, whether wartime, or domestic. "Bangladesh is one of the youngest nations in the region. It has a history of violence," says Yap, referring to the country's two partitions. But although a reference to violence is part of the work, it's not the artist's primary focus, the curator says.
Instead, the bed, a place of comfort and relaxation, is presented as an object of extreme discomfort, to show the hardships of everyday life. "She intended it to represent the women in the community where she grew up. In spite of hardship, the women were resilient, they had optimism, and they managed to successfully bring up families. It's easy to read this as a comment on violence. But to read that into it is to miss how the artist was feeling when she was making the work."
Colourful and happy by contrast, Thai artist Navin Rawanchaikul's Places of Rebirth examines his family roots. It was inspired by a visit to Pakistan, where the artist's ancestors hail from. The picture, which features a tuk-tuk ferrying him across the India-Pakistan border, is painted in the style of a movie poster, and features many smiling family members.
"The work traces his family's migration," says Yap. "It's an attempt to find his own roots. It has different strands of his family history in it." The poster comes from his childhood memories, the curator says: "There was a movie theatre in his home in Chiang Mai, and when he was young, and he and his friends would see the posters.
"They would not go to the films, so they would try to work out what the story was by looking at the posters. This is him imagining what he did back then, projecting himself back." Graphically, it's a good way of exploring the idea: "He is not exploring linear time in this artwork, and it is useful, because he chops up time and makes a collage with the pieces," says Yap.
Yap spent three months travelling through the region to research the exhibition. The theme is tightly adhered to, but she says she tried not to be too constrained by it. "The 'No Country' theme is very broad, and deliberately so. That way, I could do a lot of things with it."
The works will become part of the Guggenheim's permanent collection, so it's important that they fit with what has already been acquired, she adds. "They have to work with the other works, and they have to be able to stand on their own, and have enough possibilities for research. It has to be possible to extrapolate other things about the region from them. They are individual, but there are relationships between them so that we can show them together."
The "No Country" of the exhibition title comes from a 1928 poem, Sailing to Byzantium, by Irishman William Butler Yeats and which begins: "That is no country for old men. The young in one another's arms, birds in the trees - Those dying generations - at their song/ The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas / Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long / Whatever is begotten, born, and dies". Yap says Yeats waxed lyrical about the time when Byzantium was a focus of culture, life, politics and faith, and it seemed to be eternal. "This is in contrast to the poet himself, who was mortal, and going to pass away some time. There is a similar kind of paradox in the idea of nationhood. There is a sense of impermanence in a nation, but there is the desire for permanence, too," she says.
The idea of permanence and change is especially relevant to Southeast Asia. Some states have existed for more than a thousand years (Vietnam, for example, came into being in 257BC), while other Southeast Asian states that exist today were predated by cultures or other political unions: the Malay kingdoms were formed into Malaya by the British in 1948, for instance.
Art can help observers understand more about where these states and cultures may be headed in the future, Yap says. "We have to look further back into the past and then project forward to try to understand how they will be constructed in the future.
"It makes us think about what sort of societies we want ourselves to be in, and what experiences and knowledge that we have gained or not gained."