“The Possibility of an Island” brings into focus the new art world centre of Asia. Specifically highlighting the emerging sphere of Southeast Asia and the surrounding Asia Pacific region, this territory is lauded as one of the most important contemporary art destinations due to its diverse and extremely vibrant art landscape. Curated by Matthias Arndt, the selection of artists represented within the show inhabit various sovereign states that share a common bond defined by nature: a connection to island geography. This presentation is but one of many landmark exhibitions that acknowledge such a marked shift in international attention into artist production from Southeast Asia that emphasises the importance and increasing influence of this area for the art world.
Each artistic voice within this exhibition is united by a particular physical connection and proximity to islands and archipelagos surrounded by water. This shared circumstance and context forms a conceptual point of departure for investigating the various works on display. In this way, a dichotomy between similarity and difference is engaged with and conveyed through the vastly unique, cross-cultural lived experiences by the practitioners within the show from the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, Singapore and Australia, who provide audiences with alternative perspectives and new possibilities for perceiving contemporary art. While exploring the notion of “island mentality” and observing the layered characteristics that arise from these interconnected networks, curator Matthias Arndt delves further into this topic by calling for a reassessment of the Western art world’s Euro-American lens. In doing so, “The Possibility of an Island” aims to provide London audiences with a mirror onto parallel isolationist existences while considering the inherent paradoxes that lie within.
There is no better place to start than by examining the dynamic cultural production and exchange taking place within the Philippines. Filipino art deals with the many challenges and realities of contemporary life, but it is also deeply rooted in the multi-layered and colourful Filipino history, both recent and ancient. It is a country of scattered landscapes, fragmented histories and large socio-economic discrepancies.
Included in the show, Rodel Tapaya (b. 1980), Marina Cruz (b. 1982), Nona Garcia (b. 1978) and Kawayan de Guia (b. 1979) represent more senior artists who stand within a long lineage of a strong painting tradition in their nation’s art history. Tapaya’s work is anchored in an ongoing amalgamation of folk narrative and contemporary reality. Filtering his observations of the world through mythology and pre-colonial historical research, he creates whimsical montages that recall detailed historical paintings by narrative painters such as Hieronymus Bosch and Latin American magic realism. Here universal ideas concerning civilisation, tradition and progress are located, conflating stories of colonisation, capitalism and globalisation that engage with a sense of morality. His three major paintings in the exhibition include: “Lost in the Humming Air” (2020) — inspired by the process of collage and informed by the theme of the slums in Manila — while “Reservoir” (2020) and “Nowhere Man” (2020) speak directly to folk stories that connect to contemporary experience. In juxtaposition, a strong sense of pictorial realism is found in the work of Marina Cruz. As exemplified in her paintings “Revealing holes amongst the vast dots” (2020), “Orange Flower and Orange Stains” (2020) and “Those collar also look like flowers” (2020), Cruz explores the central topic of dress brought to life through masterfully executed oil paintings. Her works explore ideas concerning fragility, beauty and memory via imagery of clothing, while drawing upon the importance placed on ancestral connections within Filipino culture through the engagement in handmade family heirloom dresses and fabric.
Kawayan de Guia is best known for producing three-dimensional pieces that combine indigenous artifacts with contemporary ideas about sculpture and installation. Based in Baguio City, de Guia’s practice proffers ironic and sometimes comedic perceptions of sociopolitical issues in contemporary Philippine society and its colonial past as exemplified in his three distinctly haphazard compositional pieces in the show. De Guia aims to pay homage to things rendered mute, silent or lost, be it by history, politics or spirituality in an effort to convey messages of discontent, sadness, or displacement. This sentiment is also located in the work of Nona Garcia. In her practice, the identities of objects and people are revealed and concealed in her silent painted worlds. Faltering somewhere between reality and illusion, her photorealist renditions of empty spaces and objects, or obscured figures that are filled with the traces of human identity and abandonment.
A younger generation of painters from the Philippines is also presented in the work of JC Jacinto (b. 1985), Zean Cabangis (b.1985) and Yeo Kaa (b. 1989). Jacinto’s equally haunting works are inspired by the artist’s interest in the autonomous life of rocks, trees and minerals and their inherent capacity to record the passage of time. His paintings "Was" (2020) and "Living In An Entity" (2020) according to the artist, depict “elements and places as fluid and immaterial. The things we can observe and perceive, even ourselves and where we are at the moment and the things occupying our immediate environment exist only in that exact nanosecond, and then they become a memory...Our sense of self, matter, place and time are projections of the universe.” Cabangis’ creative explorations carry on a further existential line of thought through the employment of acrylic and emulsion transfer on canvas. Finding expression in transforming memories and scenes from his travels into abstracted and ambiguous landscapes, perception and examination of place figure prominently in his works. His heavy lines and planes redefine spaces and structures, rendering the familiar unfamiliar, the real into somewhere new and imagined. While in contrast, Yeo Kaa’s bold, extremely distinctive visual language of highly stylised animesque figures deceptively underline feelings of worry and anxiety brought about by contemporary life.
In investigating Indonesia’s diverse cultural offering, urgent topics concerning local identity, culture, modernization, and a critical stance with regard to issues of power and politics are at the forefront of artistic production. Drawing upon a long tradition of contemporary artistic practice that began with the modernist movement in the 1950s and following this period, artist activists strongly involved in the democratisation movements of the 1970′s emerged. Artists such as Handiwirman Saputra (b. 1975) and Eko Nugroho (b. 1977) are based in the artistic hub of Yogyakarta and work directly with local communities. Saputra creates organic, abstract sculptural works that investigate material and form. His largely non-objective practice is illustrated in his two pieces: “Tuturkarena - Dan Bentuk lstirahat Dibawah Dengan Jepitan” (2017) and “Pedestal dan Garis Burung Mati (A Pedestal and Lines of a Dead Dird)” (2013) that explore the inner and outer shapes of structures while meandering between the playful and absurd. Nugroho can be counted as one of the most acclaimed members of the younger generation of Indonesian contemporary artists that came to maturity during the period of upheaval and reform that occurred in the wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the subsequent fall of the Suharto regime and the transition to democracy in Indonesia. He is deeply engaged with the culture of his time and committed to making socio-political commentary in his work. Grounded in both local traditions and global popular culture, he has cited the influence of traditional batik and embroidery styles combined with inspiration from contemporary street art, graffiti and comics. His two paintings in the show speak to universal topics concerning progress, development, environmental conservation, political power, war, peace and a striving for harmony. Democracy and what this means for the citizens of Indonesia is also directly referenced in his monumental embroidery piece “Family Dinner After Democracy” (2020).
The inclusion of Entang Wirharso (b. 1967) in this presentation via his two major sculptural reliefs “Portrait in front of Art History” (2016) and “Shrouds Have No Pockets” (2017) is also key. Since the 1970s Wiharso has remained deeply engaged with social and political issues, exploring the role of the artist in society. For Wiharso, creating work is a way of understanding the human condition, of heightening our ability to perceive, feel and understand human problems like love, hate, fanaticism, religion, and ideology. As he furthers, “I depict the condition of humans who are often divided by complex, multilayered political, ethnic, racial, and religious systems: they co-exist yet their communication is limited and indirect. Figures are interconnected by intuitive as well as intellectual linkages, including ornamental vegetation, tongues, tails, intestines, animal skin patterns, fences and detailed landscapes.“ Further compatriots include Mella Jaarsma (b. 1960) and Zico Albaiquni (b. 1987). Jaarsma is best known for her complex costume installations and focus on forms of cultural and racial diversity embedded within clothing, the body and food. Her two-channel video piece “Low Tea” (2013) and suspended costume piece “A Blinkered View - High Tea Low Tea” (2013) observe the importance of tea culture in Indonesia and what one can learn through this ongoing story. While Albaiquni’s vibrant figurative narration in oil and giclee on canvas “In Struggle to Change the World” (2020) grapples with equality located in global art, directly referencing key visual markers that signal the development of global art within the context of the Indonesian situation.
I depict the condition of humans who are often divided by complex, multilayered political, ethnic, racial, and religious systems: they co-exist yet their communication is limited and indirect.Artist
Colonial power, human encounter and a homage to disappearing folk traditions within established narratives of history painting are directly referenced within Singaporean artist counterpart Alvin Ong’s (b. 1988) two striking figurative paintings. Known for synthesising histories, mythologies and folk-forms into surreal improvisations and non-linear narratives his two inter-related paintings are no exception. As the artist explains, these pieces are inspired “by John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Sir Frank Swettenham in the Singaporean national art collection, painted in 1904 at the height of imperial and colonial power...These artworks co-opt the pose in Sargent’s portrait, refashioning the established traditions of colonial portraiture within the artist’s own explorations of local history, culture and identity.” “Sayang” — derived from the Malay word to encompass a range of meanings which include “love”, “longing” and “dejection” — explores human intimacy and a nostalgic longing for a lost time and landscape. While “Dondang sayang” — literally meaning “love ballad” in Malay — was developed subsequently out of the limbic arrangements explored in its companion piece, connecting to folk music believed to have originated in Melaka in the 14th century due to Portuguese influence.
Western art history is also commonly referenced by Thai artist, Natee Utarit’s (b. 1970) whereby imagined compositions and objects traverse and obscure the line between reality and fiction. His painting “The Commitment” (2011) from his “Illustration of the Crisis Series”, presents audiences with a still life that includes elements of the ordinary placed in tandem with the fantastical. A decapitated bull’s head lies stagnant on a ceramic platter that serves as a sacrificial and ceremonial symbol signifying the threshold between living and the dead while alluding to narratives such as Salome’s slaying of St John the Baptist. Fellow Thai artist Pannaphan Yodmanee (b. 1988) is equally interested in exploring human existence through her work. Trained in traditional Buddhist painting, she draws on Buddhist cosmology to create vistas that resemble modern ruins often referencing historical events in Southeast Asia such as conquests, battles and journeys across land and sea. Using gold leaf and vivid blues associated with Thai Buddhist art, she creates her own Buddhist objects and icons in an effort to explore the role that faith and religion have in our lives, and their capacity to foster peace and happiness, but also destruction and violence.
Known for his sculptures and installations that include materials and processes intentionally associated with conflict, Camobdian artist Svay Sareth’s (b. 1972) practice is rooted in an autobiography of war and resistance that directly references his time spent growing up in a refugee camp near the Thai-Cambodian border. Commanding strong attention, Sareth’s sculptural intervention The Heart Healer (2018) depicts Sareth’s own mother seated in a cross legged position, like that of a religious statue, clothed in a combination of camouflaged and civil clothes. The piece resonates with the true story of when Sareth brought his mother back a bouquet of lilies, escaping the camp, in exchange for his own independence.
From the Asia Pacific region Australian contemporary artists Danie Mellor (b. 1971) and Abdul Abdullah (b.1986) round out the exhibition’s presentation informed by their culturally diverse backgrounds and shared interest in colonial legacies within Australia’s entangled history. Mellor (b. 1971) is of Aboriginal and European cultural heritage and is interested in the convergence of culture, history, people and the environment, driven by his own European and Indigenous ancestry. This heritage has shaped the focus of his art which is characterised by its preoccupation with the historical intersections and relationships between indigenous and Western cultures. His major painting “Far away” (2020) depicts an Aboriginal man carrying a child and bicornual basket (jawun) that originally appeared in a late-19th Century postcard image taken by the photographer Alfred Atkinson combined with imagery from photographs taken by the artist in the rainforests of Northern Queensland. In this way, nostalgia and old worlds are enlivened as the artist furthers, “this act of combining images is one that has preoccupied my work for some time now and is a way of revisiting histories of place. The recent history of Australia presents a complex and fraught narrative, with photographs from the country’s late-colonial period providing important glimpses into experiences of Aboriginal peoples and settler life.” Abdullah, on the other hand, is a seventh-generation Muslim Australian. His multi-disciplinary practice is motivated by a longstanding concern on the complex feelings of displacement and alienation associated with histories of diaspora and migration. Colonialism also plays an important role in informing his work, as demonstrated in his painting “And the Portuguese and the Dutch” (2020), that displays imagery of the ocean and overlaid text speaking directly to European colonial expansion across the seas. While his companion embroidery piece — created in Eko Nugroho’s DGTMB Studio in Yogyakarta, Indonesia — references the traditional craft of Afghan war rugs and optimistically speaks to the ways international creative networks are able to collaborate.
This act of combining images has preoccupied my work for some time and is a way of revisiting histories of place. The recent history of Australia presents a complex and fraught narrative, with photographs... providing important glimpses into experiences of Aboriginal peoples and settler life.Artist
Within this exhibition key overarching themes can be located within each artist’s commitment to addressing the manifold issues in their individual societies. Carrying messages that are at once deeply enrooted in the diverse local cultures and traditions, but also a result of a struggle with contemporary life. Social commentary, notions of liberty, colonial legacies and survival all weigh on a discourse concerning the possibilities of island life. These complex discussions engage directly with a Western approach towards Southeast Asia and the Asia Pacific region from the view of the colonist and the invader, and thus, the connection between Southeast Asia and England is directly addressed. In grappling with these complex ideas brought about by physical borders within these territories, Britain is a unique location by which to discuss and gain perspective from abroad about such topics. Existing as an island also, it is of huge importance in relation to the way the United Kingdom also expresses itself and deals with its close neighbours across water. It is exactly this exchange that this exhibition aims to investigate. In the wake of Brexit, the consequences surrounding the importance placed on an inward-looking state of mind, standing apart and prioritising national identity and autonomy are but one byproduct of an island mentality. One thing remains clear as visitors will apprehend throughout this show: islands produce very powerful, contradictory emotional responses not garnered by landlocked nations.
The Possibility of an Island is reopening at Cromwell Place on 3 December through 11 December 2020. To see what else is on and book free access to all of our exhibitions, click here.
Installation photography courtesy of A3-Arndt Agency and Lucy Emms.