Signature Art Prize gives voice to minorities

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By Sam L. Marcelo, Associate Editor, High Life

Verdant in color and languid in pace, Phan Thao Nguyen’s Tropical Siesta was named the Grand Prize winner of the Asia Pacific Breweries (APB) Foundation Signature Art Prize in a ceremony recently held at the National Museum of Singapore. The 14-minute two-channel video, steeped in the languor of a tepid afternoon, reinterprets the writing of French Jesuit missionary Alexandre de Rhodes (1591–1660), who documented his travels in Vietnam in several books. The installation is composed of a pair of projections set at an angle, accompanied by six oil paintings on x-ray film, each depicting a scene from the video, hanging on the opposite wall.

“The first thing that strikes you as you encounter Thao’s work is a mood. It’s very tranquil,” said Louis Ho, curator of the Signature Art Prize exhibition, which features the 15 finalists culled from 113 nominations. Redolent of a Southeast Asian countryside — with its rice paddies, burbling streams, and overall lassitude — Tropical Siesta was compared to a “pastoral pre-Raphaelite painting” by one of the judges.

Ms. Phan’s imaginary tales of crime and punishment, and a water goddess are populated only by children. Despite the innocence of its young actors, Tropical Siesta possesses a dark undercurrent rife with references to the history of communism in Vietnam, one of the few remaining communist countries in the world. The work, according to Zoe Butt’s curatorial essay, “speaks to the dark eras of Vietnamese history where the country has economically and ideologically struggled.” Ms. Butt continues: “This traumatic history, which saw thousands lose their dignity and livelihood, remains politically sensitive and un-reconciled, thus not published or taught within national educational curricula.”

Tropical Siesta is part of a larger project titled Poetic Amnesia, which includes drawings, paintings, sculptures, and other media. “I think it’s important for an artist from Vietnam to get international recognition because in Vietnam, the situation for the arts still has a lot of limitations,” said Ms. Phan, who studied in Singapore’s Lasalle College of the Arts before pursuing an MFA in Painting and Drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “We don’t have any support from institutions or from the government — and there is still the system of censorship. Even though there are many artists doing wonderful work, if they don’t really show and get recognized somewhere else outside of Vietnam, it will be hard for them. This prize has a personal meaning but, somehow, it also will create an impact on the art scene inside Vietnam,” the Grand Prize winner told Filipino journalists.

On its fourth edition, the Signature Art Prize is a triennial award for contemporary art organized by the APB Foundation and the Singapore Art Museum (this year’s exhibition is installed at the National Museum of Singapore because SAM is undergoing a S$90-million renovation scheduled to be completed by 2021).

First given in 2008, the prize is one of Southeast Asia’s largest, in financial and geographic terms: Ms. Phan received S$60,000 for besting 113 nominations from 46 countries and territories. Casting a wider net to include Central Asia — composed of Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan — “made sense” said Mr. Ho, who is also a curator at SAM. “Central Asia is definitely one of the most complex and dynamic regions in the world today. I don’t want to keep repeating stuff that we’ve already put in the press release but we actually mean it: contemporary art emerging from that region is fascinating.”

Brand, a work from Kazakhstan that made the final cut, greets visitors upon entering the exhibition space. Eight panels of leather flensed off from a grunting ox (a yak found in the Himalayas) have been carved with numbers, recalling the identification numbers tattooed by Nazis on the forearms of prisoners.

“It also pays homage to the history of violence during the Soviet era in the 20th century,” said Mr. Ho. “There are allusions to traditional culture but also to a history of violence that we are all familiar with. These forked references are very specific but universal enough for us to understand.”

Although the exhibition is a jury prize show without a curatorial concept, Mr. Ho feels that it is coherent, regardless (or is it because of?) of the predilections and interests of the jurors — namely, Mami Kataoka, chief curator at Mori Art Museum (Japan) and artistic director of the recently concluded 21st Biennale of Sydney; Bose Krishnamachari, president of Kochi Biennale Foundation (India); Joyce Toh, head of content and senior curator at SAM (Singapore); Gerard Vaughan, former director of the National Gallery of Australia (Australia); and Wong Hoy Cheong, artist and independent curator (Malaysia).

“The expression of minority identities is a very important part of this exhibition,” said Mr. Ho. Marginalized voices — whether ethnic, economic, or sexual — were the focus of works such as Kaokao #1, a space-filling chevron-shaped installation from New Zealand evoking a traditional Maori pattern; Ex Nilalang (Balud, Dyesebel, Lola ex Machina), a video trilogy from Club Ate, a Filipino-Australian collective, which tackles queer experiences via Filipino mythology and iconography (a manananggal, a mermaid à la Mars Ravelo’s comic book character Dyesebel, and a jeepney-esque creature); and He was lost yesterday and we found him today and Museum of the Lost, a mixed media work by a pair of Korean artists who, in the most literal sense of “focusing on the marginal,” took anonymous characters from pictures and blew them up into portraits only about a foot shy of being life-sized.

“Putting marginalized narratives into the center was very prevalent in a lot of the works,” said Mr. Wong. “For the past few years, like it or not, there’s been such a great sense of the deconstruction of, in PoMo [postmodern] language, the grand narrative.”

Choosing to tell these stories, added Ms. Toh, imbues an “activist dimension or a social dimension” to an artist’s practice. “I think artists fundamentally believe that art — if not directly changing the world — can offer a perspective that is not really recognized or seen in the mainstream,” she said. “There is that thought that we can change something about our ways of seeing. It sounds very youthful but it’s still very current and very powerful, especially with a lot of the pessimism that we encounter in current affairs. In this exhibition, I still see that glimmer of hope there, in a way.”

In a separate interview, Ms. Toh said that the online availability of archives has allowed petits récits, or “localized” narratives, to flourish. “Research into history, archives, forgotten or occluded narratives plays a very big part in their thinking. You see artists performing as researchers of sorts. That’s one thing that we’ve seen coming out in a lot of the works in the last two editions,” she said. “There may be a realization that you really do not and should not accept the dominant narrative as the only one.”

The work of Singaporean artist Shubigi Rao, one of two recipients of the Jurors’ Choice Award, is, perhaps, the most straightforward manifestation of archive-as-material and of archive-as-work. Pulp: A Short Biography of the Banished Book. Vol I: Written in the Margins (2014-2016) is the first complete installation of a decade-long project on, in the artist’s words, the “history of book destruction, censorship and other forms of repression, as well as the book as symbol and resistance.” Ms. Rao’s process consists of “visiting public and private collections, libraries and archives globally that have served as flashpoints in history” in order to produce, in this instance, a multimedia installation centered on Sarajevo’s National Library, which burned to the ground 20 years ago during the Siege of Sarajevo.

The genesis of Tropical Siesta, the Grand Prize winner — lest one forget — is a real historical document that was written several centuries old. The Kris Project by Au Sow Yee (Malaysia) and Mud man by Chikako Yamashiro (Japan) were likewise sparked by archival research, the former on the golden era of the Sinophonic film industry and the latter on Okinawans protesting against the construction of a military base.

“Contemporary art is about history,” said Ms. Toh, summarizing the archive-as-material trend in an oxymoronic turn of phrase. “A lot of current work is looking to the past and its many layers and margins. You can contrast this with modernism, which was looking at the future. Our contemporary art seems to be trying to incorporate histories. I think that’s quite fascinating. And again, history and myth are converging.”

Walking through the exhibition, a visitor might notice a glaring fact: there are hardly any paintings at all. Not counting the six small acrylics that support Ms. Phan’s two-channel video, there is only one major painting: After Paradise Lost #1 by Indonesian artist Gede Mahendra Yasa, whose figurative canvas is crammed with scenes from everyday life and art historical references. Incidentally, this work won the People’s Choice Award, which means it garnered the most votes from exhibition visitors.

The “paucity of painting,” as Mr. Ho put it, was so marked that Mr. Krishnamachari was moved to ask about it during the jurors’ panel. “I felt the lack of finding painters from all these regions. Where are these painters? Where have these great minds gone? Do we believe in skill? Do we believe only in the intellectual part of it? Where have these handmade techniques gone?”

The question led to a detour that touched on the importance of nominators (see sidebar) and the evolution of painting. Mr. Wong, who trained as a painter with the students of Abstract Expressionist Hans Hofmann, offered the works of Thasnai Sethaseree (Thailand) and Bae Young-Whan (South Korea) as examples of painting disguised in new clothes.

The recipient of the other Jurors’ Choice Award, Mr. Sethaseree’s Untitled (Hua Lamphong) is a monumental paper collage on Buddhist monk robes possessed of a “visceral tactile quality” that Mr. Wong compared to an abstract painting. “It is as painterly as a painting. It may not use oil paint, it may not use acrylic but, in effect, it is a stunning, stunning painting.” Viewed from a distance, the layers of fabric, newspapers, streamers do indeed coalesce into a luminous piece that could easily be mistaken for a colorful canvas of polka dots and squiggles.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bae’s Abstract Verb — Can you remember? is a four-channel video starring a lone feathered figure dancing, twirling, and gyrating to a joyous percussive beat against a white background. “Someone pointed out that it’s like a Franz Kline painting coming alive,” said Mr. Wong, who added that these observations (made in the same vein as comparing Tropical Siesta to a pre-Raphaelite painting) were not meant to contextualize the works in the West. “What I’m saying is that painting takes on new forms, new media. Painting as defined by oil paint or encaustic or acrylic is not necessary.”

And in this debate on painting, which went on for quite a while, lies the value of the Signature Art Prize. “Art prizes, for better or for worse, can trigger conversation, controversy, and debate,” said Ms. Toh. “They are also a validating platform, even if not everyone will agree with it. It’s good to look at it as a starting point and not the endpoint because then, it will trigger some sort of debate. We actually had one today when we talked about wherefore does painting lie in this art prize. So maybe that can spur a bit more thinking and development.”

(The Asia Pacific Breweries Foundation Signature Art Prize 2018 exhibition is on view till Sept. 2 at the National Museum of Singapore, 93 Stamford Rd., Singapore. BusinessWorld covered the event as a guest of the organizers.)