SINCE THE ASIA SOCIETY Hong Kong Center opened its doors last year, the organisation has upped the ante on Hong Kong’s art scene. Its cavernous gallery – set in a former 19th-century explosives magazine above Pacific Place – has hosted beautifully curated exhibitions ranging from Buddhist-inspired installations to underground Chinese art from the post-Mao era. Arriving from New York’s Guggenheim Museum, the current exhibition “No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia” is among the most hotly anticipated in the city. Part of the museum’s ambitious five-year Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative, the exhibition runs until mid-February.
Singaporean curator June Yap spent months travelling through new hotspots in the Asian art world, including Indonesia, Cambodia and Vietnam, to pull together 18 artists. From gripping, politically charged videos to anti-Taliban miniature paintings, the show is a glimpse of some of the region’s most sought-after art.
The art: One of Thailand’s most eccentric artists, Araya is showing a video titled The Treachery of the Moon. In the work, the 56-year-old artist appears clad in white sitting on a mattress with her dogs curled up around her. She is watching scenes from a soap opera interspersed with images of political clashes in Thailand. “The woman’s life has been invaded by these political groups,” says Araya. “The news that keeps moving in the air causes heavy feelings.” Nostalgic music plays in the background, suggesting her longing for simpler times when peace prevailed in Thailand.
The materials: Photography and video.
The breakthrough: Conversations with Death on Life’s First Street (2005), a series of black-and-white videos in which Araya instructs cadavers on the experience of death. Eerie and futile, the work hit a nerve with audiences worldwide.
The conversation piece: The Two Planets series (2008), in which she took replicas of 19th-century Western paintings deep into rural Thailand and filmed clusters of farmers discussing the art. Shot from the perspective of a member of the crowd, her videos pull viewers into the conversation. “I see the way that people treasure artworks, but I also live in an environment where farmers and villagers seem to be on the opposite side – living without being valued by society,” she says. Aiming to bridge the two worlds, her work gives agency to the overlooked and questions the authority of Western art.
The next step: A bizarre experiment she began 10 years ago in which she lives with 15 street dogs. “I never compare dogs to humans,” she declares. “I’m happy to spend time with such pure, clean and innocent beings.”
Tuan Andrew Nguyen
The art: A wooden baseball bat with an image of the Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc, who set himself on fire in a bustling Saigon street in 1963. “He was the first Buddhist monk to self-immolate during the Vietnam-US conflict,” says Nguyen. “Many others followed in protest.” Carving the image of the burning monk into a baseball bat, a symbol of strength and American culture, he usurps the object’s power and activates a painful memory.
The materials: Sculpture, installation, video and performance.
The breakthrough: The 37-year-old artist first gained recognition in the film-festival circuit for his documentaries. Among the most pivotal moments in his career was joining forces with artists Phunam and Matt Lucero to form The Propeller Group collective in 2006.
The conversation piece: Hip-hop History Sampling Hip-hop History: The Red Remix (2008), a performance work in which Wowy, a Vietnamese rapper and graffiti artist, rode an old bicycle through Ho Chi Minh City. Blaring from a speaker on the bike was a compilation of rap songs about the country. “It’s funny to think about it in this way, but listening to loud music in most contexts, and especially in Vietnam, is a very participatory and performative act,” says Nguyen. “Vietnamese people don’t have a habit of going to museums, so a lot of our work attempts to find strategies to present art outside the white cube.”
The next step: The Propeller Group is creating a feature-length documentary about Vietnamese fighter pilot Pham Tuan, who was the first Asian in space in 1980.
The art: Bomb Ponds (2009), a video and photography series that ventures into the dark underbelly of Cambodia’s past. Between 1964 and 1973, the US military dropped more than 2.7 million tons of bombs on the nation. Rattana accidentally stumbled across one of the bomb craters and, shocked by his discovery, began travelling across the country taking photographs and speaking to witnesses to expose Cambodia’s forgotten history. “There is a Khmer proverb that says, ‘You can hear something a thousand times and not know it, yet if you see it with your eyes just once, you know,’ ” he says.
The materials: Photography and video.
The breakthrough: A self-taught photographer, Rattana was shortlisted for the Prix Pictet award in 2009 and invited to participate in the prestigious Asia Pacific Triennial in Brisbane, where he showed Fire of the Year (2008), dark photographs documenting a slum that burned down outside Phnom Penh.
The conversation piece: At 33, Rattana is the youngest artist in the exhibition. Bomb Ponds stands out as his most impressive work. “The meaningful series continues to travel. It has resonated far and wide,” says curator Erin Gleeson.
The next step: Now based in Taiwan, he’s working on a series focused on the arbitrariness of violence for a solo show opening in March at Sa Sa Bassac, a non-profit art space that he cofounded in Phnom Penh. He is also working on publications with exiled, Paris-based Khmer historian Vandy Kaonn.
The art: Born in Pakistan to refugees from Afghanistan, Ali is a member of the Hazara minority group. As a child, he recalls his grandfather singing verses from the 11th-century Persian epic Shahnameh (The Book of Kings) about the virtuous warrior Rustam battling demons. His elaborate miniature paintings explore the Taliban’s manipulation of this epic story – for propaganda purposes they declared themselves the “Rustams of Islam” to justify their persecution of the Hazaras. The horned demon in Ali’s painting alludes to both the unfairly demonised Hazaras and the threatening nature of the Taliban.
The materials: Watercolour, gouache and ink on paper.
The breakthrough: The Bamiyan Drawing Project (2006), which the 35-year-old artist began in Afghanistan after the Taliban destroyed the sixth-century Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001. “I conducted a drawing workshop with the ‘bunker born kids’, children who were born during the war in the caves and bunkers,” says Ali. “I asked them to do whatever they wanted and they illustrated their story – the genocide and massacres of Hazaras. The little girls showed their houses burning and their mums getting killed.” He exhibited these drawings at the Asia Pacific Triennial alongside miniature paintings. Ali also held workshops inviting Australian children to respond to the emotive drawings.
The conversation piece: The Absent Kitchen (2006) series that Ali created during a residency in Fukuoka. Bringing the Bamiyan drawings to Japan, he asked local children for their reaction to the Afghan children’s images. Ali then combined the poignant images and created his own paintings.
The next step: Examining the painful history of his country, Ali has been working with individuals who were compelled to weave carpets for their survival as children under the Taliban. The weavers are making new positive associations out of traumatic memories as Ali teaches them to see carpets as a form of art.
The art: A provocative sculpture titled 1:14.9 (2011–12). Inspired by a government report stating that the length of the border fence between India and Pakistan was 1,188.5 miles (1,913km), Gupta hand-wound a 79.5 mile-long piece of white thread into a ball. The work’s title refers to the ratio of this thread to that of the border fence. Her inert, tightly bound, egg-shaped ball stands in stark contrast to the ever-growing divide between the countries.
The materials: Sculpture, video, photography, performance and installations.
The breakthrough: In 2003 London’s Tate Gallery commissioned Gupta to make an Internet artwork. Her website titled Blessed Bandwidth invited visitors to receive “blessings” from various religions and dress up their selected gods. Created a year after the Gujarat riots, the work examines the authority of religious institutions.
The conversation piece: Speaking Wall, an interactive sound installation in which viewers stand on a row of bricks and wear headphones. A voice narrates a story about a transient border drawn into the dirt and calls out directions for the viewer to follow. As with much of Gupta’s work, the audience is transformed into performers. “Participating helps diffuse the space between the artist, object and viewer,” explains Gupta. “It also questions authorship in a world in which all our actions are interlinked.”
The next step: Gupta, 37, just finished a work composed of 100 etched stones installed in the Haeinsa Temple, a Buddhist monastery in Korea. Next she’ll work on a collaboration with Kvadrat, a Danish design company.