Exhibition Period
28 Jun 2008 - 27 Jul 2008
Opening Hours
20 Jun 2008

WONG Hoy Cheong

WONG Hoy Cheong was born in 1960 in George Town in Penang, Malaysia. He studied literature, education and fine arts at Brandeis University, Harvard University and the University of Massachusetts (Amherst) in the USA. WONG is currently based in Kuala Lumpur and Kuala Kubu Baru, Selangor, Malaysia.

WONG’s intellectual and academic background began in the field of literature rather than fine art, which serves as an explanation for his continuous fascination for scholarship and rhetoric shown in his works.

Underlying WONG’s playfulness is a serious inquiry into Asian and world history, society and politics as seen through the lens of Malaysia’s colonial and post-colonial experience. His has sought to disturb our sense of security, reminding us of the slipperiness that lies between fact and fiction, past and present, and the perpetual reinvention of our own histories.

WONG is an artist unrestricted by style or medium, his diverse education background led to his inter-disciplinary works, involving areas such as drawing, installation, photography, theater/performance and video; and has explored the interrelationship of history, politics, culture and ethnicity.

WONG was awarded by The Rockefeller Foundation with the Bellagio Creative Arts Fellows in 2011. In 2000, Newsweek (International) named him as one of the 10 trailblazers of Asia under the title “Mavericks & Rebels”. In 1999, Asiaweek named him as one of the10 art and culture “Leaders of the Next Millennium”. Deutsche Bank Headquarters in Frankfurt, Germany collects his work and has a floor named after him. Cornell University even has a scholarship - “H. C. Wong Scholarship” – named after him for his work as “Outstanding Educator.”

1986        Master of Fine Arts, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, USA
1984        Master in Education, Harvard University, Cambridge, USA
1982        Bachelor of Arts (Magna cum Laude with Honors), Brandeis University, Waltham, USA
2010        "Days of Our Lives: Wong Hoy Cheong Selected Works 1998-2010", ESLITE GALLERY,

                Taipei, Taiwan
2008        "Wong Hoy Cheong 2002-2007", NUS Museum & Gallery, Singapore
2006        "Bound for Glory", Valentine Willie Fine Art, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
2004        "Selected Works 1984-2004", National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
               "Re:Looking", Alexander Ochs Galleries, Berlin, Germany
               "slight shifts", Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, UK
2003        "fact-fiction", Kunsthalle, Vienna, Austria
               "Selected Works 1994-2002", Djanogaly Gallery, Nottingham; Organisation for Visual Arts,

                London, UK
2002        "Selected Works 1994-2002", John Hansard Gallery, Southampton;  Organisation for Visual

                Arts, London, UK
               "Selected Works 1994-2002", Bluecoat Gallery, Liverpool / Organisation for Visual Arts,

                London, UK
               "Whose text?", Valentine Willie Fine Art, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
1999        "Seeds of Change", Habitat, London, UK
1996        "Of Migrants and Rubber Trees: Drawings and Installations", Creative Centre, National

                Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
2010        "Culture(S) of Copy", Goethe Institute, Hong Kong / Edith Russ Site for Media Art,

                Oldenburg, Germany
               "Unreal Asia", Zürcher Theater Spektakel, Zurich, Switzerland
2009        "Code Sharing", Contemporary Art Centre, Vilnius, Lithuania
               "55th International Short Film Festival Oberhausen: Unreal Asia", Oberhausen, Germany
               "Magnetic Power", Coreana Museum of Art & other galleries, Seoul, Korea
               "4th Fukuoka Asian Art Triennial", Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, Fukuoka, Japan
               "10th Lyon Biennale", Lyon, France
               "Non Everyday: Hidden Force Fields", Hong Gah Museum, Taipei, Taiwan
2008        "Orienting Istanbul", College of Environmental Design, University of California, Berkeley, USA
                Taipei Biennial 2008, Museum of Fine Arts & other venues, Taipei, Taiwan
               "Coffee, Cigarettes and Pad Thai: Contemporary Art in Southeast Asia", ESLITE GALLERY,

                Taipei, Taiwan
               "The Independence Project", Gertrude Contemporary Space, Melbourne, Australia / Petronas

                Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
2007        Istanbul Biennial, Istanbul, Turkey
                Print Basel, Basel, Switzerland
               "Koloniale Träume - Autonome Zonen", Graz, Austria
2006        "Naked Life", Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei, Taiwan
               "Asian Contemporary Art in Print", Asia Society Gallery, New York City / Tyler Print

                Institute, Singapore
2005        Guangzhou Triennial, Guangzhou, China 
               "Colonialism without Colonies?", Shedhalle, Zurich, Switzerland
               "Contact", Le Lieu Unique, Nantes, France
               "Strategy", Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia
2004        "Ethnic Marketing", Center for Contemporary Art, Geneva, Switzerland
               "Minority Report", Aarhus Art Building, Aarhus, Denmark
                Art Forum, Berlin, Germany
               "Liverpool Biennial", Liverpool, UK
               "Asian Traffic", Gallery 4A, Sydney, Australia
               "SHAKE", OK Center for Contemporary Art, Linz, Austria / Villa Arson, Nice, France
2003        "Cam-taten", Kunstraum, Linz, Austria
               "Dreams and Conflicts (Z.O.U. and Utopia Station)", 50th Venice Biennale, Venice, Italy
               "handlungsanweisungen - instructions for actions", Kunsthalle, Vienna, Austria
2002        "The Spice Route", ifa Gallery, Stuttgart, Germany
               "Identities: Who We Are", National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
               "Refuge", Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Høvikodden, Norway
               "Asian Party Global Game (curated project)", ARCO, Madrid, Spain
2001        "ARS 01", KIASMA Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki, Finland
               "Flashpoint", Rimbun Dahan Gallery, Sungai Buloh, Malaysia
               "Headlights", Valentine Willie Fine Art, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
2000        "Overtag", BildMuseet, Umea, Sweden
               "Lines of Descent", Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, Australia (touring exhibtion)
               "La Ville, Le Jardin, La Memoire", Villa Medici, Rome, Italy
               "Poisonous Targets (2-persons show)", Gallery 4A, Sydney, Australia
               "Mutations / Urban Rumours", Fri-Art Contemporary Art Centre, Fribourg, Switzerland
               "Invisible Boundary", Utsonomiya Museum of Art, Utsonomiya, Japan
                3rd Kwangju Biennale, Kwangju, Korea
1999        "Time for Tea", National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
               "babel", Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, UK
               "Sogni / Dreams", Fondazine Sandretto Re Rebaudengo Per L' latre, Torino; Venice Biennale,

                Venice, Italy
               "Cities on the Move 5", Hayward Gallery, London, UK
                1st Fukuoka Asian Art Triennial, Asian Art Museum, Fukuoka, Japan
               "Cities on the Move 4", Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Copenhagen, Denmark
               "Intervention", Museum-in-Progress, Vienna, Austria
1998        "Siapa? Apa? Kenapa?", Artis Pro Activ, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
               "Schools: Textual Works", Valentine Willie Fine Art, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
               "Cities on The Move 2", CapcMusee d’art Contemporain, Bordeaux, France
               "Rupa Malaysia", Brunei Gallery, London, UK / National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
1997        "Cities on The Move", The Secession, Vienna, Austria 
               "Art in Southeast Asia: Glimpses into the Future", Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, Japan

                (touring exhibition)
1996        "Imagining the Contemporary Body: Malaysia, Philippines & Singapore", Petronas Gallery,

                Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
               "2nd Asia-Pacific Triennial", Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, Australia
1995        "Visions of Happiness: 10 Contemporary Asian Artists", Japan Foundation Forum Gallery,

                Tokyo, Japan
Asian Art Museum, Fukuoka, Japan 
ArtNow International, San Francisco, USA
Canberra Institute of Art, Australian National University, Canberra, Australia
Deutsche Bank Collection, Germany
Fondazione Cassa Di Risparmio Di Modena, Modena, Italy
KLM, Amsterdam, Netherlands 
Musée d'art contemporain de Lyon, Lyon, France
National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia 
National Bank, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, Australia
Singapore Art Museum, Singapore
University of Massachusetts, Amherst, USA



“Agus Suwage’s works range from drawing, painting, installation and kinetic objects that show his ability to deal with myriad issues through deeply metaphorical imager, as well as appropriation. Most of his works are playful and satirical, yet have a strong message.

“Through a series of self-portrait paintings done since 2000, Suwage has questioned the problem of identity as it is constructed by the physical appearance of the human body. He alludes to specific social circumstances in Indonesia, where certain racial appearances had once been stereotyped, as well as becoming the target of violet desires. The series, which is an ongoing project for Suwage, is not only self-critical, but also tends to deliver delicate criticism toward the existing social systems and hidden layers in Indonesian culture.” (Excerpt from Singapore Biennale 2006 Short Guide. Written by Agung Hujatnikajennong)

Suwage has held numerous solo exhibitions, most recently I/CON at Nadi Gallery, Jakarta, Indonesia (2007). His works have been shown widely in regional and international exhibitions such as Thermocline of Art: New Asian Waves at ZKM, Karlsruhe, Germany (2007); Singapore Biennale (2006); Space and Scape, Bali Biennale, Indonesia (2005); Gwangju Biennale 2000, Gwangju, Korea; Awas! Recent Art from Indonesia, exhibition touring Indonesia, Australia, Japan, Germany and Netherlands; Sixth Biennial of Havana, Cuba (1997); and The Second Asia Pacific Triennial, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, Australia (1996).


Titarubi received her degree on ceramic art from Bandung Institute of Technology (Bandung, Indonesia) and has been working as an artist since 1988. Even as she studied ceramic art, she is always freeing up her self to explore different mediums in her works. She believes that every media have their own language and she desire to explore the possibilities of it. Titarubi’s works, both solo and collaborative, has been exhibited widely in several galleries and events in Asia and Europe including The inaugural Singapore Biennale, Bali Biennale, Yogyakarta Biennale, CP Biennale Jakarta, and ZKM The Center for Art and Media (Karlsruhe, Germany),

More recently, she was commissioned by the National Museum of Singapore to produce a work for the Museum’s rotunda, as part of its Art-On-Site program. For this project Titarubi created a fiberglass copy of Michelangelo’s David (about 8.5 meters high, twice bigger than the original), which glowed from inside, and is covered with a feminine attribute – brocade in bright colors.

Titarubi’s works will next be exhibited in The National Gallery of Indonesia (Jakarta, May), The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (Darwin, Australia, July) and The 2008 Busan Biennale Sculpture Project (Busan, September). There are also plans to hold a solo exhibition at Valentine Willie Art Space in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia at the end of 2008.



Winner Jumalon graduated from the College of Fine Arts, University of the Philippines in 2005. He was the finalist for Philip Morris ASEAN Art Award (2003 and 2005). Jumalon participated in many group exhibitions in the region and has had two solo exhibitions in Philippine (2005) and Malaysia (2006).


“My art is survival. To date, three spaces define my art—Zamboanga, my hometown; Laguna where I spent four years in scholarship in a secondary school; and Metro Manila, where I’m currently studying fine arts in a university. Having to uproot myself twice and grow up thrice all over again has affected my instincts and aesthetics. Back in Zamboanga, I painted mostly colorful pictures of myself at play using circular patterns. The images were whimsical, carefree. My paintings in Laguna, on the other hand, were done in subdued earth colors. I was then living in a mountain where my alma mater stands, learning the rigors of the academic art world. Lost, I was groping for an identity, painting self-portraits. It was then that I started using a layering technique, drawing faces over faces, an observation perhaps, watching fellow students with different personalities go under guises just to establish that harmony. Currently, I’m living alone, playing with wide spaces and abstract figures—graffiti, black scratches on white background. I see stark black and white—anonymous, animosity, bare—my perception of urbanity. These images, random and varied, are my companion in my necessary evolution to fit in and endure.”

─ Winner Jumalon

Jane LEE

1963        Born in Singapore
Now lives and works in Singapore
2004        Graduated from LASALLE-SIA College of the Arts, BA in Fine Arts, Singapore 
Diploma in Fashion from LASALLE-SIA College of the Arts, Singapore
2009        Jane Lee, Osage Gallery, Singapore
2006        Transformation / Process, Taksu Gallery, Singapore
2011        "Jane Lee, Donna Ong and Wilson Shieh", ESLITE GALLERY, Taipei, Taiwan
               "SO Contemporary", Institute of Contemporary Arts, LASALLE College of

                the Arts, Singapore
2010        "The Burden of representation: Abstraction In Asia Today", Osage Kwun Tong, Hong Kong
               "Jane Lee, Lee Kit, Donna Ong", Osage Kwun Tong, Hong Kong
               "Popping Up: Revisiting the Relationship between 2D and 3D", Hong Kong Art Centre,

                Hong Kong
2009        "Code Share: 5 continents, 10 biennales, 20 artists", The Contemporary Art Centre,

                Vilnius, Lithuania
2008        "Wonder, Singapore Biennale 2008", City Hall, Singapore
               "Coffee, Cigarettes and Pad Thai: Contemporary Art in Southeast Asia",

                ESLITE GALLERY, Taipei, Taiwan
            "Always Here But Not Always Present: Art in a Senseless World", Singapore

                Management University, Singapore
2007        "Sovereign Art Prize", Hong Kong
               "Singapore Art Show", Singapore Art Museum, Singapore
2005-2006        "Artery - Inaugural Exhibition", Singapore Management University, Singapore
2006        "Nasi Campur", Taksu Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Jakarta, Indonesia; Singapore
               "New Contemporaries", Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, Singapore
2005        "Philip Morris Singapore Art Awards 2005", Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Singapore
2007        Winner of International Residency Art Prize, Singapore Art Exhibition
               Hong Kong The 2007 Sovereign Art Prize (Finalist)
2005        Singapore Philip Morris Singapore Art Awards 2005 (Juror’s Choice) 
2003        Singapore-Asian Art Awards (Finalist) 



Donna ONG

1978        Born in Singapore
Now lives and works in Singapore
1999        Graduated from Bartlett School, University College London (UCL), B.Sc. Architecture
2003        Graduated from Goldsmiths College, University of London, UK, BA (Hon) Fine Art
2004        "Palace of Dreams", The Arts House at the Old Parliament, Singapore
2011        "Jane Lee, Donna Ong and Wilson Shieh", ESLITE GALLERY, Taipei, Taiwan
               "Singapore Platform", Art Stage Singapore, Marina Bay Sands, Singapore
2010        "Homestay", Osage Gallery, Shanghai, China
               "Jane Lee, Lee Kit, and Donna Ong", Osage Gallery, Kwun Tong, Hong Kong
2009        "President's Young Talent Exhibition", Singapore Art Museum 8Q SAM, Singapore
               "8Q-Rate:School", Singapore Art Museum 8Q SAM, Singapore
               "Crystal City", National Museum of Singapore, Singapore
               "Some Rooms", Osage Gallery, Kwun Tong, Hong Kong
               "Jakarta Biennale 2009", Jakarta, Indonesia
               "AROUND", Sound Art Festival, Lamma Island, Hong Kong
2008        Venice Architectural Biennale 2008, Venice, Italy
               "Arts Initiative Tokyo Residency", Scai x Scai Gallery, Tokyo, Japan
               "Kuandu Biennale 2008", Kuandu Museum of Fine Arts, Taipei, Taiwan 
               "BMW Young Artist Residency", Singapore Tyler Print Institute, Singapore
               "Always Here But Not Always Present: Art in a Senseless World",

               Singapore Management University, Singapore
               "Coffee, Cigarettes and Pad Thai: Contemporary Art in Southeast Asia",

                ESLITE GALLERY, Taipei, Taiwan
               "Gloaming", Grey Projects, Singapore
2007        "Hybrid", Singapore Season China, Beijing, China
               "Footnotes on Geopolitics, Market and Amnesia (Curated Section), 2nd Moscow

                Biennale of Contemporary Art", Moscow, Rusia
               "A Progressive Affair", Gallery Eighty, Singapore
               "Project: Eden (Phase II)", Tickle Art, Singapore
               "Project: Eden", Singapore Arts Festival, Singapore
2006        "Belief, Singapore Biennale 2006", City Hall, Singapore
2005        "Project: Waterfall (Curated Section)", Singapore Art Show, Singapore
               "Project L403", Telok Kurau Studios, Singapore
               《Secret, Interiors》 (Collaboration with George Chua), Sonic Festival 2005, Singapore
               "When I Feel Free Around You", TAGS #14, Third Place Café, Singapore
2002        "Sefton Open 2003", Atkinson Art Gallery, UK
               "Job-Seekers' Alliance", St. Saviours Church, London, UK
                Goldsmiths Degree Show, London, UK
               "About Play", Plastique Kinetic Worms, Singapore
2008        Arts Initiative Tokyo, Japan
2009        People's Choice Award, the President's Young Talents, for work entitled Dissolution.
               "Young Artist Award", Singapore
2007        Front Award (For outstanding contribution in the Arts) Front Television Program, Singapore
2003        1st Prize, Sefton Open 2003 (2D Art), UK
1999        Shell-NAC Scholarship, National Arts Council, Singapore
                Architecture theory prize, University College London
1997        Singapore Undergraduate Scholarship, University College London
                Nicola Clay Prize for Art
                Art History Prize, Laudander Award  
                Michelle Knight Travel Scholarship, Malvern Girls’ College




Nipan Oranniwesna graduated with a BFA from Silpakorn University in 1986. He was granted a scholarship (Monbusho) by the Japanese government to continue his study and completed an MFA from Tokyo National University of Fine Arts & Music in 1993. Nipan has exhibited both in Thailand and internationally. Recent group exhibition include From Surface to Origin: Journeys Through Recent Art from India & Thailand at Gallery Soulflower, Bangkok; Paradise Engineering at The Art Centre, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok (2008); Thai Pavilion at the 52nd Venice Biennale, Venice, Italy (2007); Show Me Thai at Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo (MOT) in Japan (2007).

Using a minimalist vocabulary and unusual and symbolically charged choice of materials, such as baby powder, ice, rice, milk, gourd, Buddhist monk’s robe etc, Nipan present us with a personal rendition of his surrounding. His works are mostly created from his personal “moment of contemplation” and “memories”, which are then expanded into dialogue with “phenomenon in its surrounding”. 


Poklong Anading received his BFA from the University of the Philippines, College of Fine Arts in 1999 and has since participated in numerous exhibitions in galleries and museums both locally and abroad. In 2002, He represented Philippines in the 4th Gwangju Biennale held in Gwangju, Korea. Anading has also received several awards including the 12th Gawad CCP for Experimental Video in 1999, the Cultural Center of the Philippines 13th Artists Awards in 2006, and the Ateneo Arts Award with a Studio Residency Grant in Sydney in 2006.

Anading's art often investigates the politics and metaphysics of representation. In his photographic works, he exposes the limiting and enabling conditions that structure the ‘gaze’ and our encounter with the perceived ‘Other’. With his video and mixed-media installations, the artist is also concerned with foregrounding the centrality of time and process and the entanglement of the viewer in the work of art. Ultimately, the artist aims to transform the time and place of looking into the time and place of meditation—where it becomes possible to re-imagine and re-orient our relation to the ‘Other’ and the things of the world.


Trained as a painter, Luisito “Louie” Cordero graduated with a BA in Fine Arts from the University of the Philippines in 2001 and has since held several solo exhibitions and participated in numerous group exhibitions in the Philippines, New York, Paris, London, and several cities in Asia. Among the awards he has received are the Ateneo Art Awards (2004) and the Cultural Center of the Philippines Thirteen Artist Award (2006).

The paintings of Cordero abound with unpleasant imageries: “turds coiled like serpents poised to strike, putrid puddles of sticky mucous, distended spines, yanked-out offals and teeth, vomit running like rivulets, and dollops of brain matter oozing out of shotgun wounds to the head”. Drawn from popular culture, myths, and mass media, these images reflect a contemporary fascination with both the refined and the lewd. Repulsive yet strangely captivating, Cordero’s works is an ingenious manipulation of the sick pleasure one derives form the abject is a direct confrontation with contemporary consumerism and forms the core of his practice.

Ana Prvacki

Ana Prvacki’s practice centers upon interventions into daily life, which are derived to a large extent from her vivid imagination. She harnesses these inventive thoughts, coupled with an open-ended methodology informed by art history, design, marketing, advertising, urban planning and Zen Buddhism, to create innovative and quirky means which transform the viewer’s perception and experience of daily life and routine. Working through Ananatural, a company that Prvacki established in 2003 and is CEO of, the ‘company’ specializes in supplying a wide variety of solutions to our daily problems, worries and fears.

Her work has been included in the Singapore Biennial (2006), Singapore; Torino Triennale, The Pantagruel Syndrome (2005), Turin, Italy; Cityscapes, ARCO, Madrid, Spain (2006); The last piece by John Fare (2007), gb agency, Paris, France; and most recently she has performed at Artists Space for When Time Becomes Form curated by Marina Abramovic. She is currently preparing new works for the Biennale of Sydney and the Bucharest Young Artists Biennial.

Porntaweesak RIMSAKUL

Porntaweesak Rimsakul graduated from the Department of Visual Arts in Bangkok University in 2002 and Master's degree in Paintings in Silapakorn University 2005. His works have since been presented in many international art exhibitions: in 2005 at Actes de Fe i de Generositat, Performance with Peter Baren, La bisbal d'empordà&Barcelona in Spain; T1 Torino Triennale Tremusei at Castello di Rivoli Museo d'Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli Torino, Italy; and Politics of fun at Haus Der Kulturen der welt, Berlin, Deutschland in Germany, Austria and Japan. In 2006, his works were exhibited in the SOI Project 2006 at Saint–Sulpice Paris and in 2007, in All About Laughter at Mori Art Museum, Tokyo; Thermocline of Art: Asian New Waves at ZKM in Germany; and ATTITUDE 2007 at Contemporary Art Museum, Kumamoto, Japan.

Handiwirman SAPUTRA

Within the context of the Indonesian contemporary art, Handiwirman Saputra has been described one of the leading young artists of today. He is known as a prominent member of the Jendela group (literally: “window”), a Yogyakarta-based art group established in the early nineties. Most of Handiwirman’s works correspond to the artist’s specific understanding of physical objects and their immediate environments. ‘Physical objects’, in Handiwirman’s perspective, refer to an array of things—ranging from natural materials, man-made objects, historical artifacts, to industrial goods; all substances that the artist hopes “to speak for themselves”. (written by Agung Hujatnikajennong)


Although his strongest work includes gritty black and white beauty and realism, Thai photo-artist Manit Sriwanichpoom is best known internationally for his iconic ‘Pink Man’ series, his high gloss comment on contemporary Asian aspirations. His solo shows include Bangkok in Pink at the Yokohama Museum of Art, Japan; Pink Man in Paradise at Monash University, Australia and Valentine Willie Fine Art, Malaysia; Repertoire of the Innermost at the Plum Blossom Gallery, Singapore; and Beijing Pink at the Highland Gallery, China. His works are held by the Maison européenne de la photographie (Paris), the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum (Japan), the Singapore Art Museum and private collectors. In 2002, he was named one of the world’s 100 most interesting emerging photographers by Phaidon Press in their book BLINK. In 2007 he was awarded the Higashikawa Overseas Photographer Prize.


Richard Streitmatter-Tran received his degree in the Studio for Interrelated Media (SIM) at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston. His solo and collective work has been exhibited in several cities in the United States, Europe and Asia including the 52nd Venice Biennale, Venice, Italy (2007);  Shenzhen and Hong Kong Bi-city Biennale, China (2007); Singapore Biennale (2006); 2005 Pocheon Asian Art Festival, Korea; Gwangju Biennale (2004), Korea; the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin; the Blue Space Gallery in Ho Chi Minh City; the 7th Asiatopia Performance Art Festival in Bangkok; Art Tech Media 06 in Barcelona; and Thermocline of Art: New Asian Waves at ZKM in Karlsruhe, Germany (2007). He is an arts correspondent for the Madrid-based arts magazine Art.Es and and Ho Chi Minh City editor for Contemporary magazine. He was awarded the 2005 Martell Contemporary Asian Art Research Grant in 2005 from the Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong for his year-long research project, Mediating the Mekong. He was Teaching Fellow at Harvard University (2000-2004), conducted media arts research at the MIT Media Lab (2000), Visiting Lecturer at the Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts University in 2003 and currently Lecturer at RMIT Vietnam.

In 2000 he established and moderates the E-DENTITY group in Boston, an online community of designers, information architects, artists, performers, poets, and writers. The group has over two hundred members and facilitates online collaboration between cultural producers worldwide. In 2003, he was a founding member of ProjectOne, a Ho Chi Minh City-based performance art group now defunct.

Two years later he became a founding member of Mogas Station, a group of international creators (artists and architects) based in Ho Chi Minh City, working to promote and present contemporary art in Vietnam. Its members came together in 2005 to create art, the very first artist initiated bilingual contemporary art magazine in English and Vietnamese. In parallel with publishing art magazine, Mogas Station, as a collective, continue to develop a number of art projects. Their first major contemporary art work was launched at the Singapore Biennale 2006. Three installations (LZ) were realized at two official sites of the Biennale in tandem with the premiere issue of art magazine launch.Their second major work, Rokovoko, premiered at the 52nd Venice Biennale (2007) with the Migration Addicts project in the collateral events.

Tintin WULIA

Tintin Wulia earned her Bachelor of Engineering in Architecture from the Parahyangan Catholic University, Indonesia in 1998, and Bachelor of Music in Film Scoring from Berklee College of Music, USA in 1997. During her cross-disciplinary studies she started exploring visual arts (mainly through digital video) and investigating how spatial composition could contribute to narrative. Through realizing her works in the formats of film/single-channel video and objects-based as well as new media installation, Wulia is researching the tensions between the personal and the political, particularly in context of boundary renegotiations. She is interested in the flux of the contact zone, where the issues of migration, geopolitical borders and interpersonal borders collide. Wulia's work has been awarded, screened, exhibited, and collected internationally, amongst others in the International Film Festival Rotterdam, Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival, New York Underground Film Festival, Hamburg International Short Film Festival, Festival Film dan Video Independen Indonesia, SBS TV Australia, Istanbul Biennial, Yokohama

Triennial, Jakarta Biennial, Van Abbemuseum, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, and London's Institute of Contemporary Arts. She is also a recipient of the Australian Postgraduate Awards 2007-2009 for her research in Fine Art at RMIT University, Australia.



A consistent honor student during his early school years, Alvin Zafra attended the University of Santo Tomas (1995) where he took up Painting as a major under the College of Architecture and Fine Arts. After one year, he transferred to the College of Fine Arts at the University of the Philippines, Diliman Campus, where he finished the course (BFA Painting). He was awarded the Dominador CastaÑeda Award for Visual Essay (Best Thesis, 2000) for his seminal work Argument from Nowhere, a painting of epic proportions utilizing a drawing technique he referred to as ‘Object/Medium’. This approach uses the destructibility of palpable objects, including human bone structure (most especially the human skull) as a drawing medium. The artist chose abrasive paper (sandpaper) as a drawing support and is continuously using sandpaper in creating his artworks.

The artist already had two solo exhibitions – Destroy/Erase/Improve (2001) at BigSkyMind and Paper Trails (2005) at Future Prospects, both at Quezon City, Philippines. He has participated and is still participating in numerous group exhibitions along with young and contemporary Filipino artists.

Zafra currently works as a Production Designer and Art Director for independent films, music videos and television. He is also a project manager for BeSpoke Trading, a manufacturing company that specializes in customized modern furniture. (written by Rhine Bernardino)

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Past Projection

By Patrick D. Flores

Emerging in Philippine contemporary art is a startling fixation on a dissipating image. And it is rendered in a renewed conception of painting, the sensuous kind in which the luster and density of pigment tend to grasp a sentiment that mingles melancholy and rage, within a vernacular of portraiture and graffiti. It could be, on the one hand, enigmatic and foreboding; on the other, unruly if not wild, given to punk-like prank, a rebellion that is addressed to the limits and surpluses of art itself as a privileged avant-garde institution and the discourse of identity as a preemptive strike at subjectivity. Coming from a history of the seventies through the nineties in which the “post-colonial” by turns meant “native” and “international,” “social realist” and “experimental,” depending on which side the artist was of Imelda Marcos’s prohibitive Cultural Center of the Philippines, this fascination could only be burdened, spiraling as it does into the “global” in which the image is primal.

There are many ways to spin this interest, one of which is to explore the critical turn in a cinematic imaginary that has outlived its potency, significantly diminished by the digital and by extension the hypermedia. In this decline, the cinema, once hailed for its ubiquity and enchantment, has become a cause of nostalgia, an index of an era that may best be remembered in the museum as art and artifact, a relic of an earlier analogue technoscape. Peter Weibel traces the trajectories of this dissipation, “the Expanded Cinema movement in the sixties extended the cinematographic code with the cinematic elements itself, with analogous means. The video revolution in the seventies with its electromagnetic basis allowed intensive manipulation and artificial construction of the image in a post-production stage. The digital apparatus of the eighties and nineties created an explosion of the algorithmic image with completely new features like observer dependency, interactivity, virtuality, programmed behavior, and so forth.”[1]

In this relay, the cinema has significantly moved away from the realm of the quotidian and into the sphere of the museological. In fact, the theorist Raymond Bellour believes that film, which was formerly viewed as being an impure art made up of the other arts and having nothing to offer “except reality—is, paradoxically, becoming gradually more pure insofar as its most active verity is becoming that of its mode of display.”[2] And this display may well transpire within an exhibitionary setting, perhaps in the ambience of a biennale, and in all likelihood under the aegis of curators.

Cinema is invoked here as a speculation. It can be proposed that since the Filipino artists represented in the exhibition grew up at the tail end of the age of film, cinema may have been a strong influence in their unconscious, and that its waning may have led them to regard the cinematic as bleeding into the past, worthy of memory that is painterly in the present. This is most discernible in the work of Winner Jumalon in which the close-up technique is central but not mystifying. The artist does not preserve the seamlessness of the surface; he ruthlessly disfigures it, but not before he beautifully primes it and nearly lovingly lavishes it with impasto.

Jumalon’s obsession with the face took a sharp profile in the exhibition Face Values in 2006 in which a painting of a woman in a market was prominent. What drew his attention to her was a kind of pigmentation close to her eye, a sign of the constitution of the skin of the face as a ground that sheds. In some occasions, the same quirk exfoliates like a palimpsest of stickers as in his thesis painting at the university. Jumalon is taken by this peeling and swarming, and is interested in dispelling the illusion of completion, even as these distressing efforts or efforts to distress have made him solvent as a painter. Jumalon reveals that his agitated gesture stems from his fear that the picture—or, better still, the picturesque—might in the end overwhelm him, pressure him to abdicate his agency as originator, inevitably reducing him to a thing that sells. This saps the vigor of the heroic painterly activity, and thus the painter becomes properly apprehensive.  

Bellour cites artists “for whom movies are raw material” and in whom “pulsates an enormous and protean mass of all kinds of installations. For a long time they were dependent on the ideological effects of television and the inherent nature of video itself. Using the most diverse approaches, many of them gradually drew closer to cinema, re-appropriating certain elements of the machinery of the movies as well as cinematic modes of figuration and narrative postures….” In our time, the border between the cinematic and the post-cinematic has become more fluid in the dominion of the contemporary.

The turn in the cinematic cannot be alienated from a wider shift, however. Related to it is a turn in the idea of “experience.” If the cinematic has substantially mutated, could experience still survive? The anthropologist Robert Desjarlais does not think so, “In the modern industrial era, many took ‘experience’ for an essential part of human nature because its defining features—reflective depth, temporal integration, and a cumulative transcendence—blended so well with the reigning actions and sensibilities of the age. But the poverty and transience that are increasingly coming to characterize life in the fringes of many societies today suggest that experience might become… a relic of the past.”[3]

This could be key to the art of Louie Cordero in which the image is abject yet robust, throbbing yet to a certain degree indifferent, too cool and facetious. He draws references from comics and animé with the entitlement of a native. And there is mischief and madness in it. But its ludic gesture is neither ironic nor paradoxical; it wades through a welter of kitsch and could be indulgent and self-absorbed, and resist the vocabulary of the “satire” or even of “bricolage.” Having said that, it is searing, baffling, caustic. Its aesthetic is closer to Manuel Ocampo’s than to Santiago Bose’s: the former, scatological; the latter, iconoclastic. In the mélange of entrails, excreta, regurgitations, and other graphic details of glut and the unexpected lapses into the idylls of a comfortable existence or the grimness of editorial cartoons is a certain tangential commentary that is difficult to place, and perhaps rightly and astutely so. In a recent collaborative work at the National Art Gallery of the Philippines, he painted an entire wall of black zombies and wrote across it the affirmative words “Say Now to Drugs,” a critique of the negativity of the more well-known admonition “Say No to Drugs,” which has apparently only bred more addictions. It is in this kind of elusive game, somewhere between gangland and utopia, that Cordero’s art thrives, prompting the critic Alice Guillermo, who has been witness to the many highs and lows of Philippine modern art, to liken him to Ocampo, who “seems to have punctured the quivering bag of taboos and let the whole sordid mess pour out, evoking perverse and forbidden visual delights.” In her review of the exhibition Synthetic Fury (2006), she concludes that Cordero “brings out the horrors of our times in pop colors that are not sweet, nor witty, nor flirty as they were before, but now corrosive and bitter with a lethal aftertaste.”[4]

As Jumalon tries to distill nostalgia for a vanished image by memorializing cinema in idiosyncratic ways, so does Cordero attempt to valiantly create a space for it beyond any aesthetic authority that is coincident to any political regime. This is a productively impossible task, something that could only be exasperating. But the ritual proceeds, nevertheless. And it may well benefit wayfarers in this odyssey to heed Hans Belting’s insight that the instance curates—and curators—make sense of the image, its world contracts, “As soon as images became more popular than the church’s institutions and began to act directly in God’s name, they became undesirable. It was never easy to control images with words because, like saints, they engaged deeper levels of experience and fulfilled desires other than the ones living church authorities were able to address…. Theologians were satisfied only when they could ‘explain’ the images.”[5]

It is but uncanny that forming part of this repertoire of art from the Philippines is Poklong Anading’s video Dry Bite in which he fleshes out Andy Warhol’s axiom of celebrity and sensation, “Anyone can be famous for 15 minutes.” The artist’s intention is very telling, “I want to capture individuals on film, filling up the frame—a close shot of their face vertically in my viewfinder, as tight as from the forehead to the chin, can be seen. I will start shooting the moment the eyes open up to the last second the eyes unconsciously closes.” There are twenty of these instant celebrities, as it were, whose exposures are linked by blank frames and move along unpredictable intervals.

The video project of Anading may be a foil to his earlier project Anonymity in which he photographs strangers in a dense district in Manila at past noon, with his subjects holding up a mirror close to their faces. This device bounces off the sun’s unstinting light and radiates an ethereal glare, some kind of aura of an urban sublime, that is made starker by the grey landscape that blankets it. Their strangeness and facelessness become elegant and wistful as if petrified in a post-nuclear film but simultaneously refusing to cede their full-bodied milieu and the urgent struggles of everyday toil that a nihilistic tableau could never imbibe.

Alvin’s Zafra video No. 80 Versus Complex presents the artist grinding a skull, from which fine particles a work of art is formed, a spectral minimal painting from the grain of the dead. It saturates our experience with both eerie and wistful intimations of the fragility of the image. It transfigures into a kind of electronic memento mori that remembers vanity and prefigures inevitable decline. And the maker here is depicted as being part of the process of redeeming the departed, dematerializing its vestige, his live body vigorously abstracting the human cranium into the dust of art.

Anading and Cordero were at the trenches of the artist-initiated space period in Philippine contemporary art in the early part of the century, working with the collectives Surrounded by Water and Big Sky Mind, and later Future Prospects. They propped up platforms on which to explore their expression beyond the fine-arts academy and possibly away from the typical gallery circuit. This was their laboratory and their carnival. Zafra likewise hovered around this orbit of independent art making. But Jumalon belongs to a younger generation of artists. Coming from the south of the country and studying in a high school for the arts, he made a mark in an annual competition and soon found himself whirling in the market, without having to run the course of the local art world. These two types of admission into the scene demonstrate another turn: from the alternative art space to the auction house.

This finitude in painting is for certain, but its afterlife in contemporary art, specifically in video, is ceaselessly formative. It does not so much transcend the constraint of an end as supplement the constructive failure of an ever-hopeful image that returns beyond recognition. And all seems to be a residue of fondness for the cinema, a sentimentality that no matter how it is repressed or derided never dies out. It haunts its disbelievers and stirs the faithful. It also proves that at least in Philippine art, the moving image is more than just a diversion. It may well be an aesthetic devotion that is most felt in the melodrama of a much lamented national history and the travails of having to suffer this global world, just like compromised faces, battered by paint, scattered by light, crushed to specks, but also staring into the aperture bare and open and forward before finally blinking.  


Patrick D. Flores is Professor in the Art Studies Department, University of the Philippines. He is also the curator of the Arts Division at Philippine National Museum. Currently, he is researching on curators of contemporary art in Southeast Asia.




[1] Peter Weibel, “Preface”, in Future Cinema: The Cinematic Imaginary after Film, ed. by Jeffrey Shaw and Peter Weibel (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003), 16.

[2] Raymond Bellour, Future Cinema: The Cinematic Imaginary after Film, ed. by Jeffrey Shaw and Peter Weibel (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2003), 59.

[3] Robert Desjarlais, Shelter Blues: Sanity and Selfhood among the Homeless (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), 249.

[4] Alice Gullermo, “Corrosive Candy Pop”, Pananaw 6 (2007), 84-85.

[5] Hans Belting, Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art, trans. by Edmund Jephcott (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1994), 1.

The Aftermath of Playing with Slippery Lubricants

By Agung Hujatnikajennong


Contemporary art practice today, be it in Indonesia, Southeast Asia, or anywhere else in the world, should be examined not merely through its artistic context, but should also acknowledge its engagement with social formation. It is only in this way that art expression will remain part of a dynamic network, instead of being formed exclusively by rigid and distant aesthetic discourse. The characteristics of contemporary art practice are always a result of a process that involves various elements specific to the art world. In this essay, the production and reception of Indonesian contemporary art will be analyzed through its relationship with the new and contested concept of territory forged by globalization, in which political milieus, movement of the people, access to technology, economic positioning, governmental regulations and institutional patronage, all converging and interconnecting within a short period of time, are just some of the determining factors.


Indonesian Contemporary Art in the 1990s

If we understand “globalization” as the intensification of worldwide social relations, as Anthony Giddens has put it, the practice of contemporary art in a specific locale like Indonesia can only occur as a consequence of practices taking place in distant locations, and vice versa.[1] To elaborate this point, a quick flashback to the 1990s is necessary to demonstrate the projection and reception of Indonesian contemporary art in the international arena. The regional and international interdependency that occurred during this era has played a central role in shaping a desired representation of Indonesia.

The introduction of Indonesian contemporary art to the international art scene happened through the work of artists such as Heri Dono, Dadang Christanto, Arahmaiani, Tisna Sanjaya, Mella Jaarsma, Nindityo Adipurnomo, to name but a few. They were involved in various triennials and biennales, touring exhibitions, symposiums, workshops and artist-in-residence programs in Asia-Pacific, Europe and the United States during the 1990s. Indonesian curator, Jim Supangkat has described these artists as the “‘80s generation,” whose works represent a continuation of the tendency started by the earlier Indonesian avant-gardist movement, Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru (Indonesian New Art Movement, 1975–1980s).[2] Many of the artists in the “‘80s generation” established reputations as young emerging artists internationally, even though they were not as well known at home in Indonesia.

Apart from an artistic approach that reflects a specific development in Indonesian art, the presence of Indonesian “‘80s generation” on the international stage cannot be separated from the wider changes happening in the art world. In the Asia-Pacific region, the establishment of new state-funded art centres and projects in the 1990s, primarily in Japan and Australia, have created new platforms for networks and exchanges. The Fukuoka Asian Art Exhibition in the 1980s, which subsequently became the Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale in 1999; The Asia Pacific Triennial (1993) organized by Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, Australia; the Biennale of Sydney; the series of Asian exhibitions organized by the Japan Foundation during the 1990s; and Tradition/Tensions (1996) organized by the Asia Society in New York, are just some of the prestigious events that asserted the wave of regionalism in contemporary art.

The international political milieu which underwent transformation following the Post-Cold War era, the bankruptcy of communism, and the rise of the Asian economic Tigers, have also enabled the creation of new networks which were not previously possible. The post-ideology situation led to the implementation of new cultural policies by governments in the region. This was particularly so in countries within the Asia-Pacific exploring new policies to minimize the potential of military conflicts while maximizing opportunities to boost trade and economic development.[3] Subsidies and grants for art projects were boosted, making art and cultural projects “slippery lubricants,” as Apinan Poshyananda refers to them, to facilitate and improve diplomatic and political relations among these countries.[4]

This new regional cultural climate also represented a strong motive to identify specific artistic practices within Euro-America-centric paradigms. Exhibitions and symposia held during this period also introduced new discourses and ways to understand the term and praxis of “contemporary art” in Asia.[5] Seen from a theoretical perspective, the emergence of the paradigm was also furthered by debates surrounding the buzzwords of the time, such as marginalia, post-colonialism, identity, post-structuralism, postmodernism and “Otherness,” which started to appear in academic discourse in the West. Theoretical milieus of the era had made possible the myriad of art practices that engage with notions of “localness” and “pluralism.” This eventually led to the inclusion of art from the non-Western world as part of the development of Euro-American art.

In most of the exhibitions of Indonesian art that happened internationally, however, the “localness” of Indonesia was stereotyped through the tendency to engage with socio-political problems, such as violence, communal trauma, gender equalities, minor identities, urban marginalia, etc. It also came about as a consequence of the stereotyping of assumptions by international curators interested in illustrating socio-political expressions in contemporary art. Indonesian contemporary art came to be considered as a reflection of Third World “dramas” that international audiences should acknowledge and sympathize with. Such assumptions became more established in the late 1990s when the majority of Indonesians, including artists, were faced with great uncertainty following the Asian economic crisis of 1997, just prior to the downfall of the Suharto regime in 1998.

The regional exhibitions, nevertheless, had constructive impacts, namely through the dissemination of work which may otherwise have remained unrealized or underground within Indonesia, due either to the lack of resources or to censorship.[6] Apart from that, the echoes of Indonesian socio-political tendency staged dominantly at the international level also contributed to the mannerism occurring in the local context. As the number of well-travelled, Indonesian artists started gaining bigger reputations at home, a big shift of artistic attitude was evident. This was demonstrated by the rapid increase of Indonesian political and pseudo-political art. In the late 1990s, the majority of Indonesian works seemed to respond to the political problems with protest and open criticism towards the government, often in expressive and threatening ways. Open opposition towards laws and regulations passed by the corrupt government were abundant. Younger artists even started using this strategy of expressing local political content as a way of gaining entry into international exhibitions. 


Post-Reform, Post-Regionalism

Exhibitions in Indonesia in the late 1990s demonstrated how the regional reception of Indonesian contemporary art eventually became mainstream. The regional patronage and audiences had played an important role in shaping the identity of Indonesian artists to their own audiences. This, however, did not last long as socio-political conditions that occurred in the aftermath of Suharto’s regime and his New Order government, brought about new artistic tendencies and motives. The changes in the economic and political situation in the Asia-Pacific region have also contributed to the changing pattern of reception and projection of Indonesian contemporary art.

Awas! Recent Art from Indonesia, an exhibition held by the Cemeti Art Foundation, marked a significant leap taken by several Indonesian artists, such as Agus Suwage, Agung Kurniawan, S. Teddy D., Hanura Hosea and Krisna Murti, among others. The exhibition aimed at presenting different, more open artistic attitudes toward the socio-political condition in Indonesia after the political reform of the late 1990s. Responding to the mannerism of political works in Indonesian art, artists in the exhibition expressed scepticism and self-criticism towards the repetition and loss of message, as socio-political art became cultural commodities. The exhibition toured to several cities in Europe, Japan and Australia for three years before returning to Indonesia in 2001.

After 2000, the frequency of government-supported regional projects and exhibitions in the Asia-Pacific underwent a slow-down. The cut of Japanese government subsidies to art and cultural programs and new policies implemented by conservative governments were some of the reasons to blame. The Iraqi invasion by the United States and the “Global War on Terror” created pseudo barriers in the previously fruitful art environment in the region. Research and exchange visits for regular triennials and biennales were obstructed due to government travel bans and bureaucratic restrictions. These obstacles impacted the projection of Indonesian contemporary art on the international stage, particularly after its rise in the 1990s.

In the last three years, major transformations in the Indonesian art scene have occurred as a consequence of greater social, political and economic changes within society. The post-Reform government has become much more open and less repressive. Official censorship has weakened. The result is that most artists have consciously left the tendency to express political issues, and become more inclined with personal issues. This is not to say that most Indonesian artists have become non-political, but it reflects the fact that the majority of Indonesian artists today intentionally avoid grand-narratives in their works. If there are still any, the works much more related to the personal interpretation of more subtle issues, often imbued with humor and tending towards the playful.

On the infrastructural level, the change of patronage was concerned with the emergence of new model of networking. Some artist collectives like ruangrupa in Jakarta, Common Room Network Foundation in Bandung and Mess56 in Yogyakarta have managed to keep in touch with the international art community through their own strategies despite the lack of support from the government. From peer-to-peer and personal networks, they are able to organize international events at home, despite struggling with short-term, self-funding problems. Owing much to the advantage of internet, their activities also mark a new development of artists’ network in the new world information order. Their presence in several international exchanges and exhibitions has come to represent a broader image of Indonesian contemporary art. Their independent attitudes have been a great contribution amidst the “unsettled” artistic climate in the post-Suharto era.

Entering the late 2000s, the rapid changes in the development of Indonesian art have been helped by the new commercial networks. The international market boom caused in part by the rise in popularity of Chinese contemporary art has triggered a new impulse in the market for Indonesian art. In the last three years, new galleries and auction houses, with their aggressive programs, have mushroomed in Indonesia. Consequently, a new regional Southeast Asian market has also formed. After a decade of “honeymoon” with the regional triennials and biennales, which made art development too much dependent on regional diplomatic and political relations, Indonesian artists are now faced with more rhizomatic structures created by the international market. New artists are emerging faster and getting more involved in the globalized art world. Such rapid, yet fragmentary changes, however, have yet to be balanced by proper government support towards the development of the art validating infrastructure, which should take part in establishing the historical parameters and symbolic and cultural value of Indonesian art practice. This is the one aspect that is still woefully inadequate, when looking to the future of Indonesian contemporary art.



Agung Hujatnikajennong is the curator of Selasar Sunaryo Art Space, Bandung, Indonesia. He is also curator of Fluid Zones—Jakarta Biennale 09.


[1] See Giddens’s works on globalization, The Consequences of Modernity (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990) and Runaway World (London: Routledge, 2000).

[2] Jim Supangkat, Art of the 80s: Introduction to the Jakarta Biennale IX, catalogue of Bienniale Seni Rupa Jakarta IX, (Jakarta: Taman Ismail Marzuki; Jakarta Art Council, 1993), 13.

[3] To me personally, Apinan Poshyananda’s essay “The Future: Post-Cold War, Postmodernism, Postmarginalia (Playing with Slippery Lubricants)” is still indeed a classic and seminal work on the political economy of the regional contemporary art exhibitions in Asia-Pacific in the 1990s. See Tradition and Change, Contemporary Art in Asia and the Pacific, ed. by Caroline Turner (Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 1993), 3-24.    

[4] Ibid, 5.

[5] Throughout the 1990s, series of symposium were held in different places in the Asia-Pacific region. Most of these events featured curators, artists and historians with topics surrounding the modernity in Asian art and its relation to contemporary practice. To name a few: Asian Modernism (Tokyo, 1995); Asian Contemporary Art Reconsidered (Tokyo, 1998); as well as seminars accompanying series of exhibitions such as the Asia Pacific Triennials (Brisbane, 1996 and 1999) and Asian art exhibition projects held by The Japan Foundation Asia Center.

[6] Chaitanya Sambrani, “Austerity—Excess—Invention, Asia Pacific Triennial 2002”, Art Monthly (Australia).

Pad Thai Identity: Contemporary Art in Thailand

By Chattiya Nitpolprasert and Connelly La Mar


The tension between national identity and cultural diversity in Thailand, and even what is Thai, has increasingly become a hot-button issue over the last ten years, as the country continues to face a flux in religious, political, and cultural beliefs. Some of these ideas have been the source of several serious conflicts. Many of these conflicts including ones in the field of fine art were characterized by a concerted attempt to cling to traditional beliefs, roles, aesthetics and values—specifically ones that oppose an invasion of globalization that touches things dubbed “Thai” and thereby sacrosanct.

A singular role in this saga of conflicts both past and present has traditionally involved the Ministry of Culture, which was re-established in 2002, and followed nearly one year later the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture. This office’s charge was to support art and cultural projects, however, laced with a key objective: the preservation of Thai identity. In Thailand, federal support of contemporary art and culture is in its basic language tied to the notion of protecting the nation’s indigenous cultural heritage from colonization.

Conflicts over the religious and cultural issues, including violent strife in the southern part of Thailand and the ongoing political crises in Bangkok have led Thailand into a sort of socially and politically ambiguous space, and stoked tensions among Thai people via pseudo-nationalistic concepts. Therefore, this tension has continued and has gradually become normal, with people accepting the idea of living in a state of confusion. This is why it’s not surprising that images of Thai people in advertising have different looks, styles of dress, and religious subtexts in different parts of the country, which shows a localized idea of nationalism and pride linked to simply being Thai.

Thai food is as good a place as any to start talking about the nation and its artistic development in relation to culture, as it is among the most ambiguous and non-offensive of all nationalist markers. This is almost painfully ironic given that Thai identity got a shot in the arm, rather the art world, when its most internationally renowned contemporary artist Rirkrit Tiravanija had his breakthrough moment exhibiting a piece where he made Thai food in a gallery overseas and forced the audience to taste it. So, in this case ironically the food and idea of Thailand proliferating oversees in nook Thai restaurants was being realized in an art piece that was both temporal and experiential. This relational aesthetic plays on the idea of something that seems to subsume any petty notion or dispute over national identity or culture—it is “Pad Thai.”

The purity of certain signifiers in this piece allows the work to be both banal and exotic depending on the audience. Understanding this varied aesthetic, which is cast on the audience with “Pad Thai” allows the food to exist in its literal or physical form—a famous exotic food from the East—and simultaneously as a unique taste blended from a mixture of ingredients like rice noodles, vegetables, peanuts, eggs, tofu and dried shrimp. It does this all in one dish. In its way this piece uniquely showed the breadth of diversity in this country’s artistic conceptions of self and identity, and questioned if culture is policy in terms of Thai-ness and if it needs policing or guiding. The contemporary art being made in this country, such as this piece by Rirkrit, suggests it clearly does not. National interests and artistic culture are robust enough here to set up an internal dialogue between the nation’s different vantage points.

Many artists working in this current political climate have maintained their own independent critical views on Thailand’s growing pains, and how it has chafed during its economic development, along with roles assigned to it as its fame has grown annually as a must-see tourist destination, such as Manit Sriwanichpoom.

Manit’s garish take on consumerism and the social bankruptcy it births is most evident in his older Pink Man series of photographs, which follows a middle-aged male protagonist through a variety of scenes and narratives. The artist’s “Pink Man” is a uniquely brash and tawdry image of a man, whose pink suit and sullen demeanor taints everywhere he steps. In the most biting images in this series Manit appropriates black-and-white photographs of some grisly political moments in Thai history and integrates this character into them. In these moments the protagonist’s obliviousness becomes its own conceit, as he plods along with a shopping cart. The bite of Manit’s work shows the dissonance of change in the country through an artist’s own interest in narratives of culture in the country. His work suggests the dangers of embracing blindly anything that capitalist culture sells and fits the broad profile of contemporary “Pad Thai Identity” among contemporary artists.

So, to explain this terminology and why diversity and singularity in Thai contemporary art is a “Pad Thai Identity” it is important to explain the significance of “Pad Thai” and how it has changed over time. The dish first became a food tied to nationalism because of rice shortages during WWII when this noodle dish was championed during the rule of Field Marshal Plaek Pibulsonggram. This popularization of this food, as part of a national movement, fundamentally shifted the semantic meaning of the staple-dish. Plaek’s policy of promoting Thai-ness fostered a new notion of Thai identity that existed outside of ethnicity. This is in no way endorsing the semi-fascist tendencies of this leader, but it raises a unique point about the idea of national identity and signifiers. In the same way artists today have presented through their artworks the same sort of recklessness, beauty and freedom at times to define a Thai identity. The identity Plaek put out was legislated, but ironically the heart of this country is always creating its own identity with a nominating process that is organic, and divorced from certain base notions used to manipulate people into hating each other such as race or nationalism— it’s just what’s on the plate. It can be said with some measure of pride that Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia that managed to slip through the fingers of Western colonial powers, however, modernization has in fact driven this country in developmental terms in directions no artist or lawmaker imagined, and as a result creation of cultural policy has often been reactionary and concerned with saving the diminishing Thai spirit and way of life.

On the other hand use of the term “Pad Thai” is meant to have dissonance in it, as it raises questions regarding nationalism and how it is a construct. The food became a staple because of a cult of personality surrounding Plaek and a rice shortage, rather than anything noble. This relates to the long-standing questions asked regarding the nation’s many indigenous minority people, who have no identity as Thais but live in the same country. They raise the ubiquitous question: Do we really have a certain image of being Thai? Exoticism of the country’s art and cultural constructs are dangerous trappings, and have been presented through different curatorial programs, cultural events, tourism campaigns by the Tourism Authority of Thailand and often embraced blindly by ill-informed Thais. These programs are ultimately spurious in nature, as they have fostered stereotypes about Thailand and a myth of “Thai” identity, which is actually malleable.

No singular identity is the clear identity in this country now. There are different artists growing up from different backgrounds, mixing together, and expressing themselves through varied media with often provocative content. However, the current fragmentation and confusion in our society has erased the idea of any certain trend in contemporary art, or artists’ obligations to produce certain scripted works that are “Thai,” and this result constitutes and informs the variety presently in Thai contemporary art.

Elements of time, materiality, locale and the malleability of modern identity in society are other elements in contemporary art further advancing the common denominator of “Pad Thai Identity.” One example of this is via use of diverse materials by artists to create a specific relationship to an artwork. Nipan Oranniwesna’s colossal large-scale floor sculptures, which contain maps made out of baby powder, are a unique example of this sort of practice. The banal nature of the object, which is found in nearly every Thai household, along with the obsessiveness of its production raises questions about the idea of balance, as he details the streets of major metropolitan areas in several pieces including New York, Bangkok and Manila.

Nipan’s work plays interestingly off banal but universal elements present in a recent work by his contemporary Sakarin Krue-on. Sakarin, who often works in terms of site-specific pieces, planted a large rice field in an outdoor space in Germany for Documenta 12 last year, and documented the progression of the field’s growth. This project in terms of materiality brings art back to a common denominator—food as in Rirkrit’s work—and something that everyone touches almost daily in the country: rice. This project, by incorporating some of the most banal and essential materials, allows his work to jointly deal with social issues while presenting something both tactile and tangible. Sakarin’s work in fact now seems more prescient than ever before as the world begins to face possible global food shortages and rationing of goods including rice at hypermarkets such as Tesco-Lotus in Bangkok.

So, the rice field as a space plays multiple roles in this work as an overt agrarian symbol, but one lacking a superimposed methodology to extract meaning—it is just a rice field. The balance of ideas relative to ecological systems offset by the use of technology in the piece is uniquely of a generation of Internet-savvy people—he webstreamed the rice’s growth at galleries in Bangkok during the exhibition. The cyclical nature of Sakarin’s work presents an interesting dialogue when compared with the fragility of Nipan’s, as both exist as standing comments on transience. These two pieces discussed additionally succeed in terms of structure as both are seductively tactile—not that viewers get to touch it, but all eyes may yearn to molest it somewhat.

This brings us to discussing young artists, and asking how varied the prescriptive notion of “Pad Thai Identity” is among this generation of people with more Pop Art aesthetics, or even artists with an affection for performance works made in Los Angeles circa 1979.

Young artists like Porntaweesak Rimsakul are less attached to classic floating signifiers and prefer to revel in affection for objects that often reflect whimsy or an earnest child-like fascination. He makes miniature bathrooms at times, which relate to ideas of model-making in the cheapness of the aesthetic structure, and at others he makes or manipulates electronic gadgets and technology. Works are always tangled in a tense space between functionality and realization of an aesthetic environment.

Artists from his generation are Thai people, but that definition in its own ambiguity does not burden their relationship to objects or their own creativity in an acute way. The spaces of the city and their own curious nature are more likely to inform their choices. In this way Porntaweesak like many artists of his generation function purely in relation to the idea of aesthetics, which exist in present-day Thailand in a global context. Illustration is never part of his role as an artist, or that of many of his contemporaries making site-specific installation works.

Art and artists in Thailand today are more than ever playing an important role in society through their attempts to spread art and ideas in everyday life, which unfortunately is not happening that much at this point. Additionally there are high hopes to build up the infrastructure of art institutions even though at times it seems impossible in this country. Despite these negatives it is undeniable that the development of contemporary art in Thailand over the last century has a strong cultural foundation brought by the artists themselves, without any help from cultural institutions. So, in the artists themselves lies the democratization of Thai art—as what the artists present in different periods actually reflects our society as a whole. Artists work, whether or not it is overtly concerned with notions of identity, create aesthetic diversity and make Thai contemporary art today a diverse and rich form.



Chattiya Nitpolprasert is a curator based in Bangkok, Thailand. She was the curator of a group exhibition titled Paradise Engineering in February 2008 and is part of the curatorial team for Underlying, a traveling exhibition organized as part of the Mekong Art and Culture Project.

Connelly La Mar is a curator and photographer based in Bangkok, Thailand. His first major project in Thailand was the Bangkok International Art Festival, which he conceived and executed in collaboration with the city government in 2007. His written work and essays have been published in numerous publications including the Economist, Tokion and Art Review.

Sons and Daughters: Artists from Singapore and Malaysia

By June Yap


And don’t criticize

What you can’t understand

Your sons and your daughters

Are beyond your command

- Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changin’, 1963


Taking a leaf from the title track of Bob Dylan’s third album released in 1964, and incidentally the name as well of a Scottish band from Glasgow, this text begins with the notion of continuity—of lineage, generational transmission and legacy. Dylan’s album of original compositions focused on issues pertinent to the environment in the United States in the 1960s, of social challenges and the need for change. In a way a protest song of the counterculture then, the song’s lyrics point to a disparity between those who are in power and those who are not, political directions and social realities, parents and children—a gap that it declares will shortly become destabilized by sweeping changes about to occur.

The history of Singapore as a nation appears brief, becoming independent from being a self-governing state only in 1965 when it separated from the Federation of Malaysia, which itself departed from under British rule in 1963. In the case of Malaysia, unification in 1963 of British Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak and British North Borneo, is considered the point of its independence. In effect the two countries share a common history as British Malaya from the 18th century, a thriving time as a trading post for tin and rubber, and a pre-colonial history of course extends much further back, though without as much written record and thus recognition. Yet the historicization process that analyses through differentiation takes a more limited view in that the need then is to define itself via necessary departures from the past, to be able to distinguish itself as being of its own time. History is quite handy, especially if you know how to wield it, and legacy does have a nice ring to it. The early years of independence for Malaysia were marked by social unrest related to issues of race. The events of May 13, 1969 in Malaysia, of race riots which resulted in the declaration of a national emergency, would spill over to Singapore as well, revealing the close relationship of the two nations, and it is suggested that related concerns underlie Singapore’s separation from the Federation. Up to today, issues of race in both nations are considered delicate, requiring a sensitivity not only deferring to political correctness but also one carrying a certain historical trace. Today, the histories of Singapore and Malaysia are largely defined post-colonial, depicting their struggles and achievements within a globalized international context that is also used to ratify current economic and political systems. Acceptable levels of post-modern scepticism aside, the issue of interest here is that of transmission, the persistence of things, and the human agency that makes it so—how do we remember what we care to remember.

The exhibition Coffee, Cigarettes and Pad Thai presents the works of five artists from Singapore and Malaysia: Ho Tzu Nyen, Donna Ong, Ana Prvacki, Jane Lee, and Wong Hoy Cheong, all of a generation that has known the country as a post-colonial state. Framed to examine contemporary practice in the Southeast Asian region post-colonization and within a condition of globalization, the exhibition puts forth the thesis that the East-West relationship is fraught with contradictions, much of which is produced through economic practices—the production versus the control of packaging and consumption of coffee and cigarettes, and the cultural commodification of stir-fried rice noodles. The juxtaposition of Southeast Asia as the receiving end of Western consumer and market decisions with its earlier physical colonization, both of which assign lesser importance to production processes, does not morally appear to jar the masses in general as much given the economic exchange that also takes place alongside the trafficking of the cultural and social “lifestyle choices” that are returned to the populace as the greater good. In market-friendly Singapore and Malaysia, perceptions are no different, and spoilt for choice, it appears that there is little left to consecrate. Yet it is certainly untrue to assume that these choices and acts are carved in stone and impervious to interference, rather as history proves, things often are “a-changin’,” and through these works, we may be able to get a sense of what is being transmitted, and what threads of legacy remain.

In his analysis of the development of contemporary practices in Singapore, curator Russell Storer notes that its emergence “can be located in occasional flares of conceptualism in the 1970s and again, more substantially, in the late 1990s.... As art historian John Clark has written of Asian avant-gardes, ‘the whole of modern Asian art history is full of critical roles played by small groups that appear at particular junctures to coalesce new positions within art discourse and redefine parameters.’”[1] Contemporary practice in Singapore as defined through the interjections that help the “a-changin’” along include projects by The Artists Village which began in 1988–89 and by 5th Passage started by Suzann Victor, Susie Lingham, Daniel Wong and Iris Tan in 1991. The significance of the projects and their role in redefining artistic boundaries is ironically in the connections and sensitivities for history, legacy and transmission in their art. In his reflections on the work of Singaporean artist Zai Kuning, Chow Kim Nam relates the artist commenting to him about the need to cast a wider net in seeking one’s roots, “I think that for all Singaporeans, we should think that we’re more than Singaporeans. If we don’t do that then we are too young to follow the country as a nation. But if we accept other history then we’re both.”[2] The Orang Laut or Melayu Asli—indigenous Malays often described as Sea Gypsies, that the artist was engaging with, while barely documented have a history that goes before the pre-Euro colonization to a time when Singapore was part of the Riau Archipelago. The oral history of the Orang Laut that the artist worked with is poignant in its absence, reminding us of the traces that are left behind for us to recover and continue.

Recalling the environment created in Hans Haacke’s Condensation Cube (1963–65), Ho Tzu Nyen’s work Wo men yi ren tu yi kou shui jiu neng ba ni yan si (2008), its Mandarin title translated loosely to “our combined spit would drown you,” abbreviates the climate of relations between China and Taiwan—the republic and the island, in a manner that also explores representation of tenuousness of relationships and states of dependency. It references the expression that China can overwhelm any possible resistance by the sheer weight of its population, in this case via expectorate, the phlegm that it can effortlessly produce sizeable quantities of. One encounters the expression in various forms, in one version, the combined spit has the power of engulfing the world rather than just the Taiwanese territory alone, used to illustrate the global effect of the republic economically in recent years; and another similar anecdote featuring earthquakes, the equivalent of the scale of an act of god, occurring with the mere coordinated stamping of feet by the republic’s people.

Ho’s works frequently occupy an ambiguous position between myth and reality, weaving the two in a way that questions the veracity of history as it is told. In the work presented, the apparently light-hearted and half-joking comment is made tangible, and slightly more menacing as spitting hardly connotes affection. Curator and critic Edward Fry describes, “the consequence of these [referring to Joseph Beuys and Hans Haacke] transgressions is to illuminate previously unnoticed myths, be they aesthetic, theoretical, or social, and to confront the instrumentalisms of thought and social practice which inevitably accompany these myths.”[3] The attempt in Ho’s case to weight an otherwise flippant remark is to interject on the need for critical reflexivity not merely in terms of China’s growing influence, but also to interrogate the ambiguous relationship of the artist who is neither of China (though third-generation migrant Chinese, as many other Singaporean Chinese are) nor Taiwan but finds himself in a position of being at least “Chinese” enough to perhaps contribute some bodily fluids, at the same time deliberately refusing to indulge the reference with unnecessary spectacle, while still imparting its full psychological impact.

The work by Donna Ong inspired by natural history, myth and narrative, on the other hand contrasts with its attention to the phantasmic. As if caught in a reverie, Palace of Dreams (2004) as its title suggests is a world of the fantastic and the impossible, its detailed drawings of winged-insects hinting at the obsessions of an entomologist whose presence is felt with the centrally-placed desk that itself has mutated into a flying contraption, seemingly abandoned, suggesting its owner having taken flight. Humanity’s dream of flight from observing flying creatures to creating things that fly or float, to the commercial air and space travel of today intimates an intrinsic yearning and pursuit of the unknown and unreachable. Here the line between reality and fiction blurs as private fantasies take physical form, resulting in the narrative of an incessant dream that is composed from traces left behind.

The purpose of globalization is that of exchange, and in our commodified environment economic exchange is the ideal relationship. Money gets its value from the act of exchange, its function is essentially symbolic of the transaction made, yet as a physical object it fails to remain quite as abstract and pure. In the work At the tips of your fingertips (towards a clean money culture) (2007) Ana Prvacki attempts to provide another level of value to the object, by removing the dirt and substances it might have accumulated with its circulation, and imparting upon it an added value that personalizes it for the viewer. It is a federal crime to modify currency in any manner except its smell, which the artist does. Presented first at UBS Art Gallery and elaborated at Artists Space in New York the artist legally laundered over US$6,500 through the duration of the performances. At the performances, especially so at the Artists Space, the exchange between the artist and the participants went beyond the notes themselves, sharing stories about money as object and currency, and urban legends regarding money laundering. By providing a juncture where the note stops circulating and readjusting its currency from mere exchange to personal significance, the artist appears to be intervening as if to critique a financial system that would be happy to have its money “laundered” even if only in jest. A participant of the interactive work from the Swiss Federal Banking Commission expressed a sense of regret at having to put the freshly-scented note back into circulation. Sure it would be nice if dollars smelt pleasant, obscuring its true purpose of mere agency and making the world seem a better place even if momentarily, but the real value in the work is the sense of belonging and connection made with an otherwise abstract world of finance, and in so doing shifting it slightly away from its expected moorings.

Historical reference that provides for a sense of continuity is intentionally foreclosed in the process adopted in Jane Lee’s works. Her paintings, at times verging on the sculptural, are concerned primarily with the possibilities that the material itself can provide. Earlier works comprising of layers of acrylic paint criss-crossing, canvases cut up and bent to form new shapes and relationships with the spaces they are to be installed within, while may be read as referencing abstract expressionist tendencies, both as an aesthetic as well as in the artist’s concerns with the fundamental problem of expression, it is not a deliberate attempt to mine or examine the modernist framework. Fetish I (2008) and Fetish II (2008) comprising coiled strips of acrylic paint sliced and reassembled on a canvas illustrates this through continuing the artist’s exploration of the material limits of acrylic which she arranges almost putty-like upon her canvases. The malleability of acrylic for the artist creates the possibility for play and her works take on an almost whimsical air, opening themselves to the introduction of uncertainty. Describing her process as allowing the painting to take on a life of its own so to speak, and letting the outcome gradually emerge, her approach appears as a refreshing refusal to dictate the expressive process, becoming in a way a part of it instead; a manner that belies the sense of control that the works in their finished and resolved final state seem to imply for the viewer, and a sensibility that is further hinted at in the titles of her works that deny the illusionistic function of painting.

The work of Malaysian artist Wong Hoy Cheong, titled Chronicles of Crime (2005), presents a fictionalization of actual criminal events in the nation state that became fantasy tabloid material. The series of black-and-white staged “crime scenes” in the visual style of film noir record both victims—Canny Ong, caught unawares in a lonely car park her vulnerable back towards us watched from the viewpoint of her abductor, a hand poised over a steering wheel creeping upon her; Noritta Shamsudin, unceremoniously tied to a bed frame, seen through a parted screen, her face twisted away from our gaze; and Xu Jian Huang, lying facedown in a swimming pool of foreboding and apparently endless water; as well as the perpetrators of crime, Botak Chin presiding over his fried chicken final meal; “Bentong Kali” or P. Kalimuthu triumphantly on a rooftop guns in both hands; and Mona Fandey a.k.a Maznah Ismail’s assistant, an unapologetic countenance, axe hanging loosely from his right-hand. The tabloid amplification, shows these individuals as larger-than-life, distorting the realities of the events, and introduces stereotypes in a manner that is intended to engross the viewer with the familiarity of media entertainment. Yet in the representation undertaken by the artist, another level of ambiguity is introduced as the characters become immortalized and fictionalized by the staged photography implying that the elements “faithfully” rendered from the stories surrounding these events are in fact incomplete, and thus drawing attention to the frailty of memory even while it is, according to the artist, the only certainty that we have.

In commenting on the work of Hoy Cheong, curators Beverly Yong and Hasnul J. Saidon noted that, “complex socio-political issues have emerged out of the changing social fabric of our developing nation and region, signaling a call for artists to play the role as the voice of conscience or social commentator.”[4] Such a role, whether deliberately assumed by the artist or occurring through the nature of the work as it develops, while not unique to this generation of artists from Singapore and Malaysia, is perhaps one that requires a reading today that is not limited to the familiar territory of the nations’ history as it is told. Returning to the start of the essay reflecting on historical reference, modes of transmission and drawing from the past, the works by these five artists demonstrate and highlight incongruence, gaps, and contradictions; yet it is precisely these dissonances that creates distinction in history, and reveal its absorption of the past. Contemporary practice in Singapore and Malaysia through the works of these five artists is marked by a need to incorporate a framework that goes beyond the boundaries of their individual nation states, through historical ties, the influences it has from Western counterparts and environments, and to allow for these to become embedded within their expressions in ways that create unexpected relationships and contrasts that nonetheless bears traces of their genesis. The title of the exhibition brings to mind the short film series Coffee and Cigarettes by independent film-maker Jim Jarmusch. Featuring innocuously prosaic and sometimes awkward conversations surrounded by coffee and cigarettes of course, the series of vignettes appear as observations of the idiosyncrasies of communication and life. In the episode Somewhere in California (1993) with Iggy Pop and Tom Waits, Waits entertains with a rather dubious medical background:


Waits                   ... Four car pile-up. I delivered a baby this morning, about 9 o’clock. I’ve been

                   saving lives... I was out there on the highway... You know, there’s nothing worse

                   than roadside surgery... You don’t have your own tools, it’s just... It’s murder.

                   Tracheotomy with a ball-point pen... I’ve been busy.

Pop             Wait a minute, you’re a doctor?

Waits                   Yeah, yeah, I’m a doctor. Music and medicine, my thing is combining the two...

Living in that place where they overlap. A lot of people say it shows up in the music, I don’t know.

Pop             Well, yeah, okay... Yeah, I can see that now. Yeah, okay... The organization and

                   the whole thing... And the humanity of the thing, sure.[5]



June Yap is an independent curator in Singapore.


[1] Russell Storer, “Making Space: Historical Contexts of Contemporary Art in Singapore”, Contemporary Art in Singapore (Singapore: Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, 2007), 9. Referencing John Clark, Modern Asian Art (Sydney: Craftsman House, 1998), 226.

[2] Chow Kim Nam, “Placing Zai: Seeing Kuning through the eyes of Chow Kim Nam”, in Postmodern Singapore, ed. by William S.W. Lim (Singapore: Select Publishing, 2002), 125.

[3] Edward Fry, A New Modernity (November 2003), made available online by Slought Foundation, <http://slought.org/files/downloads/publications/salons/1084.pdf> [accessed April 28, 2008].

[4] Beverly Yong and Hasnul J. Saidon, Between Generations: 50 Years Across Modern Art in Malaysia, (Malaysia: University of Malaya, University Sains Malaysia and Valentine Willie Fine Art, 2007), 117.

[5] Coffee and Cigarettes, dir. by Jim Jarmusch (United Artists, 2003) [on DVD]

In Through the Out Door: Contemporary Art in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

By Richard Streitmatter-Tran


Vietnam continues its transition towards global integration. The Southeast Asian nation of 80 million people recently finalized its World Trade Organization membership and currently occupies a rotating seat on the UN Security Council. These events have confirmed the country’s desire to be seen as an important international player in its own right. By looking outside of itself and its role as engaged in a larger community, Vietnam and its artists see a way into a conversation with the contemporary.

A relaxing of cultural control in the communist nation occurred as early as the late 80s during what is referred to as “Doi Moi.” This policy of renewal and critical introspection, in many ways a counterpart of the Soviet Union’s perestroika, gave artists and the press new freedoms for expression, though it was short-lived. The events of 1989 in Tiananmen Square gave the Vietnamese government the opportunity to visualize what freedom of expression could lead to in a worst-case scenario and several of the new liberties introduced during the renewal period were promptly revoked. Vietnamese artists were once again compelled to toe a fine line between personal expression and national representation.

Obliged to explain their work in terms of national identity, artists reconfigured their messages, at least on the surface, to address acceptable lines of thinking related to collective nostalgia, traditional values, and unequivocal support for official policy. State-endowed titles such as “People’s Artist” became highlights of careers. At one time not so long ago, it was assumed that graduates of the Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts University would automatically join the Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts Association. The association, like many of its counterparts in Southeast Asia, functions as a guild and in fact an intermediary between the artist and the cultural bureaucracy. The association, as a government agency itself, would apply for exhibitions on behalf of the artist for solo and group shows at their space on Pasteur Street. By becoming a member of the association, one could technically consider themselves approved and philosophically in-line with that of the association (read government) itself. Furthermore, the association provided a community for its artists. However, artists whose opinions differed from the association would have to make the difficult decision to become a member or ostracize themselves from the establishment with the knowledge that public exhibition of their work would remain difficult. The dynamic flux between cultural policy and cultural production was most importantly enforced by the distribution channels for cultural discourse in the country, particularly the state controlled press. This interplay of in/out and give/take continues to this day. Journalism is often little more than reportage and cultural criticism is conspicuously absent. As a result there is no institutional vehicle in print for arts criticism and much of the leading work done in this area has been done underground. Talawas, one such online forum, was recently selected to participate in Documenta 12, yet it remains inaccessible through Vietnam’s firewalls.

All arts exhibitions require a permit from the Ministry of Culture and Information, and photographs, concepts and translations must be sent weeks in advance of receiving authorization. In cases where exhibition permissions are denied, galleries and artists are rarely given the reasons for denial. The “flat denial” in effect closes down all dialogue between the art producers and the bureaucracy, leaving no room for growth by either party. There are many cases where exhibitions have been allowed to run with “offensive” work either being removed or parts of the work being covered or obscured. As a result, artists often compromise their work from the start and in the end reduce the motivations of their work into safe sound bites that the press and public can digest. This explains why there is no shortage of exhibitions with titles as “The Streets of Hanoi” or art works about childhood memories, colors of seasons, representations of the animals of the Chinese zodiac, or clichéd tributes to either the beauty or struggles of women. Art addressing contemporary issues often default to dialectics with the obvious signs: the East versus West paradigm with Coca-Cola representing the corruption of modernity: Rich/Poor, Old/New, Local/Foreign, Expensive/Cheap. Rarely does an examination of issues rise above black/white to a level of cost/benefit.

Despite these limitations, Vietnamese artists have continued to find ways to remain faithful to their original ideas while navigating the bureaucracy of cultural control. One strategy is to remain persistent in educating the press and the government on the value of expression. As the economy improves, access to information has improved—both for artists and bureaucrats. If Vietnam is to move past the crippling interventions that occurred during the 2006 Saigon Open City event that saw the censorship and refusal of arts licensing by the government on one hand and poor communication by the event managers on the other, both the private and government cultural sectors need to work hand-in-hand. One example of successful cooperation is the Festival Hue, which occurs every two years. While it may be true that this festival is an event largely based on entertainment and tourism, it has in the past extended itself to the contemporary arts community by providing venues and spaces for art that include sculpture, site-specific installations and graffiti. By looking at both Saigon Open City and Festival Hue together, it cannot be denied that for more ambitious public exhibitions and events, negotiations through mutual trust can succeed, even if only at the level of an attractive cost/benefit. And while the final realizations of these events almost certainly exclude provoking, interrogative work, it might provide the pre-conditioning of the public to see art and creative expression as important in their lives.

Innovation has often come from smaller organizations, from artist-run collectives and spaces to forward-thinking galleries. As Vietnam has continued to open itself to ideas from the outside in order to remain competitive in the world marketplace (both in economic production and ideas), it has had to reform many of its old practices of control. In order to improve the country from the inside, its people needed the mobility to travel. Passports and visas became more obtainable for citizens. Ideas and imports from abroad received less resistance. Beyond the zero-tolerance policy for direct criticism of the Communist Party itself, many of the enforcements against tabooed “social evils” relaxed, notably for sex and religion. Also keeping in line with other developments within ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) of which Vietnam is a member, Vietnam has sought to portray itself as a regional player offering its voice to the overall objective of stability through consensus. Barring certain cases, such as Myanmar, and travel between Cambodia and Vietnam, Vietnamese citizens could freely travel to neighboring nations without the need for visas. As a result, the arts universities soon embarked upon sister school relationships through joint exhibitions and art forums. All in the name of neighborly love, but more importantly it allowed the Vietnamese to see the strengths and weakness and the state of development of the contemporary art scene in other countries, notably Thailand. Interpersonal questions among artists would inevitably lead to the sharing of each nation’s cultural policies. As many of these collaborations were headed, or at least rubber-stamped, by the university directors (read government), positive outcomes could only result in a move toward better policies. Furthermore, the “in-out-in” phenomenon enabled each country to share its traditional cultures and art, allowing them to still maintain a recognizable and inalienable identity which made the import of foreign ideas in contemporary art less threatening. The exchange of information could be seen as a revolving door. As one exits, a part of equal force and volume would be drawn in from the outside.


The return of the viet kieu

Interestingly enough, a major contribution to the development of the contemporary art scene in Vietnam is from those who have spent most of their lives outside of the country. Artists belonging to Vietnam’s diaspora (known locally as “viet kieu”) have returned to Vietnam to continue their arts practice. Among this category of creatives from abroad include gallerist Quynh Pham, curator Viet Le, and artists Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba, Dinh Q. Le, Sandrine Llouquet, Tiffany Chung, Andrew Tuan Nguyen and myself.

Artists constitute only a fraction of the viet kieu living in Vietnam. Most have come either for opportunities in business, or to settle in their old age. Many come for short periods of time to either reconnect with families, learn the Vietnamese language, or tourism. Only a small portion of these returnees intend to stay in Vietnam for the long term. Most of the viet kieu artists have chosen to work in Ho Chi Minh City rather than the nation’s capital, Hanoi. In many cases, most of the refugees in the Vietnamese diaspora came from the south, so this might seem natural, yet many arrived having been born outside of Vietnam and raised without a strong foundation in its culture. Several were adoptee. Among the viet kieu artists in Ho Chi Minh City, Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba and Dinh Q. Le, were among the earliest to arrive, settle and establish their arts practice. They are also arguably the most internationally recognized among Vietnamese artists. Around five or six years later, a second wave, if I can call it that, of viet kieu artists arrived in a period between 2002 and 2005, which include the other artists mentioned above. A characteristic of this second wave is the development of collaborations. This is perhaps because there were more viet kieu artists in the city than before, but I also think that their artistic practices, which were often linked to backgrounds in design, filmmaking and music, were more attuned to group efforts.

Working closely with local Vietnamese artists, the viet kieu have established galleries, alternative art spaces, and initiatives. Galerie Quynh is among Ho Chi Minh City’s foremost and widely known commercial contemporary art galleries while the newly established non-profit space San Art has contributed to the development and cooperation between local and foreign artists through lectures, scholarships and exhibitions. The relationship between local and viet kieu artists has not always been without misunderstandings and tensions however. Even as of five years ago, Vietnamese artists weren’t entirely sure what to make of the viet kieu. For example, viet kieu artists were often chosen for inclusion in major exhibitions and biennales at the expense of local Vietnamese artists, presumably as they were better connected internationally. Yet as viet kieu artists have continued to develop meaningful commitments and connections to the city and the sophistication and access of local artists to the wider world has improved, the divide between the two groups becomes less pronounced.

I’ve chosen for this exhibition a series of color prints titled The Gleaners and the Ghillies. Jean Francois Millet’s painting The Gleaners (1857) becomes a point from which to interrogate the origins of modern art, as well as contemporary life, in the former French colony of Indochina. In this series of three photographs, French peasant gleaners of the past have been replaced by the Vietnamese workers of the present; and in lieu of the grain stacks are the ghillies, military snipers in specialized camouflage uniforms designed to blend into their environment. However, the effect becomes a radical departure from this intent, and the inverse is achieved: attempts by those to integrate have in turn become created positions of exposure, of being pointed out, isolated. The gravity of Millet’s painting has been restaged as a fantastical farce, with the ghillies coming off looking more like Star Trek tribbles than imposing soldiers.

Vietnam’s viet kieu artists, having left and returned, continue to develop an art community alongside local artists under their own terms, and when the signs are not always clearly defined, one option is simply to walk in through the out door[1].



Richard Streitmatter-Tran is an artist based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. He is also one of the artists in the exhibition.


[1] The eighth and final studio album from the 1970s rock band, Led Zeppelin.

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Whenever Eslite makes modifications or changes to the privacy rights protection policy on the ESLITE GALLERY website, it provides notifications to that effect on the website. You may check the website for any such modifications or changes.


4. Personal information protection notification and consent

In order to provide ESLITE GALLERY website users the best possible web services and protect personal information or users in accordance with Articles 8 and 9 of the Personal Information Protection Act (hereinafter referred to as “the Personal Information Act"), Eslite, hereby, notifies you of the following information:

(1) Collection objectives, personal information categories; duration, area, object, and methods of utilization.

In order to provide ESLITE GALLERY website users ESLITE GALLERY-related products, services, activities, and latest information and to effectively manage the personal information of users and to carry out and analyze user satisfaction surveys (hereinafter referred to as "collection objectives"), Eslite will collect, handle, use, and/or transfer internationally the personal information you provide to the ESLITE GALLERY website in Taiwan or other areas where the aforementioned collection objectives are required before the aforementioned collection objectives disappear, or other personal information provided subsequently with your consent.

(2) Exercising rights

You may exercise the following rights by calling the ESLITE GALLERY (Service phone: 02-8789-3388, ext. 1588). Except where expressly forbidden by the Personal Information Act, Eslite will not refuse to:

01._check or read your personal information.

02._produce copies of your personal information.

03._add information or make corrections to your personal information.

04._stop collecting, handling, using, and/or transferring internationally your personal information.

05._delete your personal information.

06._accept your request to stop marketing aimed at you.

(3) Points for attention

You agree to use an electronic document to show consent as stipulated under the Personal Information Act. If you do not agree to provide your personal information or you request that information be deleted, or that your personal information no longer be collected, handled, used, and/or transferred internationally, you understand that Eslite will probably no longer be able to provide you message-leaving services, allow you to be qualified to take part in online activities, or provide you with a comprehensive array of web services.