Time for Asean art to flourish

loading Some of the participants of Silpakorn University’s 70th anniversary celebration's Asean Contemporary Painting Project at the Museum of Contemporary Art (Moca) in Bangkok.

Asean integration is the order of the day, and the decades ahead. In the arts, the potential for intraregional collaboration is enormous.

Stakeholders in the art world in South- East Asia are beginning to talk and work with one another again. This is a very promising development. One conversation that got going recently was the Asean Contemporary Painting Project (Symposium and Workshop) held in Bangkok from July 2-5.

Savid Lock’s installation mentioned during the talk by the Philippines’ Dayang Yraola.

Organised by the Silpakorn University’s Painting, Sculpture and Graphic Art Faculty to mark its 70th anniversary, the two-pronged festival comprised a painting workshop on one hand and, on the other, talks given by country representatives on the history and trends of contemporary art in respective Asean countries. Both events were held at the Thai National Gallery in Chao Fa Road.

Country papers were presented by guest lecturers such as Thai National Artist Prof Vichoke Mukdamanee (Thailand), Tan Yen Peng (Singapore), Dayang Yraola (the Philippines), Nguyen Thi Hien Le (Vietnam), Suwarno Wisetrotomo (Indonesia), Lyno Vuth (Vietnam) and Ooi Kok Chuen (Malaysia).

Guest artists Edi Sunaryo (Indonesia), Sivilay Soovamvasing (Laos), Raymond Yap (Singapore), Min Han Pyonge (Myanmar) and Nguyen Quynh Na (Vietnam) together with a selected group of Thai artists were there to paint according to a broad Asean Vision theme.

Indonesian artist Edi Sunaryo, known more for his sensual paintings and scultpures, with a painting skewed to the Asean Vision theme at the Bangkok Workshop.

Vietnamese artist Nyuyen Quyen Na with a dark "selfie" painting.

Though artists in the region still get together actively for exhibitions, festivals, art-camps/workshops or residencies either individually, in special-interest groups or through associations/societies, the more structured Asean-wide nexus in terms of identity, consciousness and shared destiny has been sorely missing.

The last time Asean artists, academics, historians-commentators and administrators got together was some 10 years ago. One was the comprehensive two-tier Philip Morris Asean Art Awards (1994-2004) with a preliminary nationallevel competition culminating in the finale in an Asean capital on a rotational basis. The non-acquisitive competition pushed the Contemporary Art agenda with attractive cash prizes but suffered from its cigarette-linked branding and its purported business-lobby bloc.

On a regular basis at an Asean level were also the Symposium on Art and Aesthetics; the Square Sculpture Symposium; the Asean Youth Painting Workshop and the Travelling Exhibition of Painting, Photography and Children’s Art. Some of these programmes were under the aegis of the Asean Committee on Culture and Information (COCi). Wider afield, those deserving mention are the now-defunct Asean Art Show in Japan, the ongoing Fukuoka Art Triennial (next in 2015) and the Asia- Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (started in 1993, next in November 2015- May 2016) in Brisbane, Australia.

A young artist’s work in the Best Art Thesis Exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, Bangkok.

South-East Asia boasts a burgeoning economy with a vast market of 600 million people, and its cultural richness can be gleaned from the fact that it accounts for 21 out of 33 UN-listed world cultural heritage sites. In fact, its diversity is so great and complex that it has made the 2015 target of a conscious Asean Community sub-texted “One Vision, One Identity” seem like just PR hype.

Happily, Japan Foundation’s Asia Centre, which was disbanded in 2004, has recently been revived. And last December, Japan heralded its reconnection with Asean after a lull with a flush of funds amounting to 20 billion yen (RM633.1mil) for Asean cultural exchanges. However, no allocation for arts and culture has been mentioned and no time frame has been announced. In April this year, the Asean Ministers Responsible for Culture and Arts (AMCA) Plus-3 (China, Japan and South Korea) met in Hue in Vietnam to excogitate a road map for greater Asean integration. Some are even talking about Plus-4, with an eye on the ascendancy of India.

The last decade saw Asean’s momentum weakening at a time when shinkansenspeed globalisation saw dramatic lifestyle changes and technological advancement, what with greater Internet penetration, affordable widespread air travel on budget airlines, social-media explosion and, with it, new and more communicable diseases.

Perhaps more significantly, recent art developments reflect a paradigm shift addressing more direct current issues – conceived and presented in different ways, forms and thrust, and often scatological or in-your-face. The proliferation of new media and trends of interdisciplinary art encompassing visuals and performances, the traditional and the innovative suggests new sensibilities and shared psyche. Art today is “a” and “the” lifestyle entertainment, engaging the unsuspecting public in ways willy-nilly in what can be termed a “second-hand smoke”.

An excerpt from the multidisciplinary A Bend In The River (2014), a collaborative dance project by choreographer Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, visual artist Sopheap Pich and composer Him Sophy.

A young artist’s work in the Best Art Thesis exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery.

In the Thai capital, there is a prevailing sense of uneasy calm with a mei-pen-rai (Thai attitude of “never mind”) businessas- usual alacrity under the reins of the military junta which seized power, purportedly to restore a semblance of order from the fractious and destabilising rivalry between the Yellow Shirts and the Red Shirts.

Malaysian artist-sculptor Heng Eow Lin and his work done at the Bangkok workshop. Kulimbased Heng will turn 70 next year.

Even without the Asean-agenda programmes, Thailand, as in the other Asean capitals with a long arts tradition, boasts of a hectic calendar from Chiangrai to Haadyai with a frenzy of art camps, workshops, symposiums, festivals or gender or mediumlinked expositions such as the World Watermedia Exposition which saw the participation of 146 artists from some 30 countries (including six from Malaysia) and an unwieldy exhibition of 289 works, at the Ratchadamroen Contemporary Art Centre (RCAC). The RCAC also simultaneously hosted Art Street and the prestigious Thailand Young Artists Talent exhibition, which had seen a workshop in Thai National Artist Thawan Duchanee’s Baan Dam in Chiangrai and an exhibition in Los Angeles under the helm of another Thai National artist, Kamol Tassananchalee. The Thai Art Council USA has organised exchanges with American artists together with LA ArtCore, and singly since 2006, youth camps for Thai artists in Los Angeles.

Other exhibitions at the same time included the Po-Chang (the oldest art academy built in 1905, and accorded university status in 1943) Art Festival, the Neo Barbarian 3 (Thai-Indonesian Exchanges – apart from structured oneto- one exchanges with Holland and the US) in Chiangmai and Bangkok, and the Creative Contemporary (Cicada Art Factory, Bangkok, January-February). The Thai Culture Ministry’s Office of Contemporary Art & Culture oversees and actively promotes many of the programmes.

An unbanscape work by Thailand’s Somsak Raksuwan for the Asean Vision show – a far cry from the more critical socio-political commentary in his Thailand’s Democracy solo exhibition elsewhere earlier.

Despite the exigencies of space and scope at the Thai National Gallery, a satellite of art spaces has sprouted in the last decade, mainly the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Bangkok (opens Tuesday to Sunday, 10am-6pm, admission: 180 baht), which showcases some 800 works over 20,000sqm on five floors, mainly of the collection of industrialistphilanthropist Boonchai Bencharonkul, plus a special exhibition of flamboyant Thawan Duchanee.

Other popular venues include the Rattanokosin Exhibition Hall, the Thai Cultural Centre, the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC), and the Queen’s Gallery with three floors of exhibition space for rent. From April till August 3, the gallery is hosting the Best Art Thesis exhibition of selected student works from various universities. Last year, it hosted the grand Sixth International Visual Artists Association of Thailand annual show, which included guest artists from Malaysia and Singapore.

The Three Kingdoms trilogy in the MOCA Bangkok – The Celestial Realm (Sompop Budtarad), The Human Realm (Panya Vijinthanasarn) and The Unfortunate Realm (Prateep Kochabua).

A work on the top floor of the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre.

Not all exhibitions are of the “rah-rah” come-together type. Commenting on the current Thai socio-political turmoil and corruption, for instance, are Somsak Raksuwan’s Thailand Democracy (PSG Art Gallery, Bangkok) and the Sawatdee Anxiety exhibition of 33-year-olds Suwit Maprajuab and Peerawayt Krasasoem (Whitespace Gallery, Bangkok, until August 15). These works pale in comparison to the more scurrilous fare of Vasan Sitthiket, an avowed anti- Thaksin activist.

For all the lively art activities in Thailand and other major capitals, no single Asean country can claim hegemony despite Singapore having bragging rights to the world-class Art Stage Singapore and with the scheduled 2015 opening of the Singapore National Gallery. If anything, better arts infrastructure and programmes will hasten Asean integration rather than create a hierarchical gap.

Ooi Kok Chuen has been writing on the art scene at home and abroad for 30 years.

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