An art expedition to Southeast Asia

by Jeff Hammond and Jeff Michael Hammond

Special To The Japan Times

Confronting the ongoing state of transformation that characterizes their native Singapore, two artists exhibiting at a new exhibition, “Welcome to the Jungle,” adopt quite different approaches and media. Francis Ng in “Constructing Construction #1″ turns his camera on an unfinished section of an ugly new highway, a speeding bus whizzing by. Hong Sek Chern, meanwhile, applies Chinese ink to traditional rice paper to map out a multiple-faceted view of the country’s public-housing apartments in “Constructing Old and New.”

The two different interpretations of the urban sprawl fit the theme taken up by Yokohama Museum of Art for its latest exhibition, where “jungle,” relates to concrete as much as it does to foliage.

All the works on display are on loan from the collection of the Singapore Art Museum, but the exhibition reflects a commitment to the contemporary art of the whole of Southeast Asia with a selection of works by a total of 28 artists from across the region.

While there is certainly a concern with the environment, both urban and natural, the interests of the participating artists is wide, as is their choice of media, which includes photography, sculpture and painting, as well as quite a number of video projects. Charles Lim’s video installation “All Lines Flow Out” explores the monsoon drains that lie deep under the feet of Singapore’s oblivious city-dwellers, ready to contain the slew of rainwater that comes with the seasonal winds. The work reminds us that even as the island nation, like many countries, rapidly masters its environment, it is often still at the mercy of nature.

In “World Class Society” (1999), which is said to be Singapore’s first-ever video installation, Lee Wen humorously questions the widespread aspiration to world-class status, found in everything from film festivals to athletes and more. Poklong Anadin’s street photography, meanwhile, focuses on those left behind in this race across Asia for economic and cultural prestige. For his “Anonymity” series, subjects held up a mirror that bounced sunlight back at the camera, resulting in a glare that blotted out their faces. The simple technique transforms light, usually a source of illumination and knowledge, into a means of concealment — a comment on how the nameless, voiceless person on the street is all too often overlooked.

A number of artists turn their eyes from the urban landscape to the surrounding seas and beyond to reach out to others, or to reclaim a sense of self. In “Sulu Stories,” Yee-I-Lann of Malaysia reminds us how the ocean can connect countries and cultures as much as it separates them. Through a series of photo-montages set on the evocative Sulu islands, she presents local characters, and the odd famous face, in often surreal tableaux. Geographically, the islands stretch from the Philippines to Malaysia but the work suggests that despite these divisions of nation, the people of the region, including nearby Indonesia, are closely related through shared stories, identities and culture.

Stories played a significant part in inspiring Zai Kuning to set off from his base in Singapore in search of the descendants of the Orang Laut (sea people) of the remote Riau Archipelago in Indonesia. The Orang Laut are said to have left their islands in houseboats, vowing never to settle on land again. Kuning’s journey, presented in the video “Riau,” introduces us to a way of life that continues in some form today, despite disruptions and transformations along the way.

Asia-based U.S. artist Shannon Lee Castleman trains her camera on the food stalls that urban and commercially-minded nomads haul around their regions. With the vendors themselves deliberately kept out of the photographs, the cinematic lighting and central framing of these often overlooked carts make them the star of their own show.

Doing her best to upstage them, though, is Imelda Marcos, the flamboyant former first lady of the Philippines, photographed enjoying her life of luxury as cracks in the walls and other potential calamities encircle her. These are not photomontages but the real deal — proving she has a sense of humor, Marcos went along with her nephew’s idea to commission the former commercial photographer, Steve Tirona, to take the images for the promotion of her own fashion brand.

By now, the show has drifted somewhat from a tight adherence to its jungle theme, but that doesn’t become an issue. With its diverse array of works each significant enough to stand on its own feet, “Welcome to the Jungle” provides an intriguing and compact survey of contemporary Southeast Asian art — unavoidably selective of course, but with plenty of highlights.

“Welcome to the Jungle: Contemporary Art in Southeast Asia from the Collection of Singapore Art Museum” at the Yokohama Museum of Art runs till June 16; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. ¥1,100. Closed Thu. www.yaf.or.jp