A Review of 'Moving Pledges: Art and Action in Southeast Asia' at ICA Singapore

Iola Lenzi affirms her thesis on a strand of regional canon
By Ian Tee

Koh Nguang How, '16 views: Koh Nguang How's eye on Singapore art and artists in the city', 1988-1998 (printed 2018), 16 black and white and colour photographs, various dimensions. Image courtesy of the artist.

Koh Nguang How, '16 views: Koh Nguang How's eye on Singapore art and artists in the city', 1988-1998 (printed 2018), 16 black and white and colour photographs, various dimensions. Image courtesy of the artist.

"We, the citizens…"

The national pledge becomes a refrain in Singaporean artist Tay Wei Leng's audio installation 'Integration III'. These words seem to permeate through the gallery walls, setting the tone for 'Moving Pledges', a group exhibition guest curated by Iola Lenzi at the Institute of Contemporary Art Singapore (ICAS). 'Integration III' is unnerving not for appropriating a national symbol, but for shifting the position of a reciter to that of a listener. This gesture implicates a critical assessment of agency, as it challenges the passivity of blind recitation with that of still listening. Just like the other works in this group exhibition, it is meant to provoke questions about one's relationship with power and possibilities for action.

'Moving Pledges' features 13 works by 14 artists, spanning across five countries and 40 years from 1997 to 2017. Yet it should be emphasised that this show is by no means is this a comprehensive survey of Southeast Asian art. Compared to curator Iola Lenzi's preview projects 'Negotiating Home, History and Nation' (2011) at the Singapore Art Museum and 'Concept. Context. Contestation' (2013) a touring show first installed at Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, this compact presentation is modest in production and scale. However, it does not shy in potency with seminal works on view such as Manit Sriwanichpoom's 'Horror in pink #1-6' and Sutee Kunavichayanont's 'History Lesson (Indonesian Version)'.

‘Moving pledges: Art and action in Southeast Asia’, 2018, gallery installation view. Image courtesy of Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, LASALLE College of the Arts (photo: Weizhong Deng).

‘Moving pledges: Art and action in Southeast Asia’, 2018, gallery installation view. Image courtesy of Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, LASALLE College of the Arts (photo: Weizhong Deng).

Besides familiar case studies, the exhibition also includes works that seek to fill some of the gaps in regional art history. '16 views: Koh Nguang How's eye on Singapore art and artists in the city' is a set of 16 black and white photographs of early public performance art in Singapore. Koh is both an artist and a founding member of Singapore's The Artists Village, and his work reveals an insider's perspective on the ephemeral public interventions of his contemporaries such as Tang Da Wu and Amanda Heng. More than just documentation, Lenzi wishes for them to be seen as an artwork in their own right, saying: "Koh is often known as an archivist, but that does not do justice to his images' compositional accomplishment, and his artist's eye picking out a performance's salient moments which he frames such that viewers get an experiential sense of the work."

A groundbreaking historical moment recovered by the curator is FX Harsono's 'Apa yang anda lakukan jika krupuk ini adalah pistol beneran? [What would you do if these crackers were real pistols?]'. The work is the first known instance of participatory art in Southeast Asia, presented in 1977 at a time of escalating military violence in Suharto's New Order regime. Today, Harsono's title-question and pink rice cracker guns still have a strong grip on the imagination. 'What would you do…' is effective because its mechanism speaks directly to the audience, eliciting a reflex that does not need to be voiced. However, its presentation as a vinyl sticker on the table with the objects can seem detached and a little contrived.

A visitor interacting with the embroidered military jacket and kabiyoh in Jakkai Siributr’s installation ‘Changing Room’, 2017. Image courtesy of Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, LASALLE College of the Arts (photo: Weizhong Deng).

A visitor interacting with the embroidered military jacket and kabiyoh in Jakkai Siributr’s installation ‘Changing Room’, 2017. Image courtesy of Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, LASALLE College of the Arts (photo: Weizhong Deng).

Despite the works' politically charged overtone, Lenzi asserts that "these artists define themselves as artists rather than activists" and avoids using the term social practice in an exclusionary binary position vis-a-vis formal practice. Instead, her thesis argues for approaches taken by Southeast Asian artists rooted in life and its tensions, to which they respond with, among others things, local vernaculars as a means of audience activation. It is a conceptual sensibility that embraces utility, craft, mass appeal and beauty; rather than "art for art's sake". She believes these modes embody a certain Southeast Asian canon, a proposition not without its detractors but 'Moving Pledges' offers a condensed set of evidence to support her claim.

While the works on view reflect art made in troubled times, the politics of historicisation is also not lost in the exhibition's context. It is being situated within an art school, LASALLE College of the Arts, and is organised in conjunction with an upcoming conference sharing the subtitle 'Art and Action'. What is at stake is a story of art often intertwined with, co-opted by, bound to narratives of nationhood and academic trends. With its tight, "bare bones" presentation, 'Moving Pledges' encourages a type of engagement that is less about spectacle even in light of its interactive elements. Between the Instagram opportunity provided by Jakkai Siributr's 'Changing Room' installation and the reverberating presence of Tay's 'Integration III', it is an appreciation of the strategies taken by these artists that come forth.

The conference ‘Art and Action: Contemporary Art and Discourse in Southeast Asia’ is organised by LASALLE’s MA Asian Art Histories Programme and is happening 3-5 December 2018. It critically examines the development of art practices in Southeast Asia from the 1970s to the present, focusing on the role of artists and artworks as social conduits. For more information, visit the Art and Action website.