No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia

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Asia Society’s No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia is an overwhelming mélange of art from the region; curator June Yap talks to Ysabelle Cheung about going beyond the border

There are no clean borders in the No Country exhibition currently on at Asia Society. A group show jointly hosted by New York’s Guggenheim museum (they have since acquired all the pieces for their permanent collection), UBS and the Asia Society Hong Kong Centre, the exhibition is described as an attempt ‘to engage critically with the region on its own terms’ – meaning, as curator June Yap says, ‘the suggestion of an absence of borders’.

The region mentioned is the cluster of countries that make up South and Southeast Asia, the title a reference to both WB Yeats’ poem Sailing to Byzantium and Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men (which was inspired by the Yeats poem). The exhibition, featuring 13 artists, is the first in a travelling series put together by Guggenheim UBS MAP, a new global art initiative aiming to encourage cross-cultural engagement and creation.

Weaving together a rich tapestry of cultural rebirth, political uprisings sprouting from a long history of colonialism and the inherent conflict in national and personal identity, the show is not simply a showcase of each country in turn. “Walking in, it’s not immediately clear where the work is from or what context it may be referencing,” Yap says. “This is important so you can approach the work with an open mind. The engagement then becomes more enriching because you’re not just looking for symbols associated with a particular history or culture – it allows for new knowledge to come in and be absorbed.”

The exhibition includes Vietnam-born artist Tuan Andrew Nguyen’s Enemy’s Enemy: Monument to a Monument, a sculpted baseball bat with a carved monk aflame sitting right in its core – it is a response to a monument erected to commemorate Thích Quang Đuc, who performed self-immolation in Vietnam in 1963 to protest against the suppression of Buddhist practices.

Other works includes Bangladeshi artist Tayeba Begum Lipi’s Love Bed, a stainless steel bed frame spiked with jagged razor blades and paper clips, perhaps an aggressive reminder of gender-specific violence, and video artist Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s The Treachery of the Moon, which consists of startlingly raw images of political uprisings in Thailand, superimposed over extracts from popular TV dramas. Malaysian artist Vincent Leong’s photograph Keeping Up With the Abdullahs features family members of Indian and Chinese backgrounds, while Karachi-born artist Bani Adidi’s work centres around the fictional narrative of a young boy who converts to Islam and takes pictures of himself in front of historical monuments.

The collection of works featured is comprehensive, not because of categorisation or fair-friendly material (neither of which describe this show), but in its ability to provoke and engage each visitor – Asian or otherwise – from the second they walk into the room. It is perhaps the first of its kind to represent artists from this region at this scale and in this context. “In a sense, yes – South Asian and Southeast Asian art hasn’t been given quite as much attention in terms of global focus,” Yap explains. “But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t visibility within the country themselves.” In fact, the artists chosen are renowned in their home countries for their works, with art biennales and fairs listed in their biographies, but Yap stresses, again, that the art should speak for itself.

“Even within regions, to some extent, we don’t know very much about each other,” she says. 
“Each visitor comes in with their own knowledge, and that for me is where the connection occurs.”

The exhibition travels to Singapore after its stint at the Asia Society. Although the title is No Country, the exhibition, in its webbed network of superfluous contexts and connections, could be a glimpse into what the contentious term ‘country’ might eventually come to mean.

 

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