Art Happen
Documenting art and identity in formation: An arts agent's story
Pushing the boundaries, an Indonesian and Singapore exchange
Categories: Exhibitions

Years back in 2004 when I was creating my thesis, Why has international success eluded Singaporean artists? Of couse, this statement was not what I could totally agree too deep in myself, at that time when I could or could not determine yet this question. But academically, this was a challenge that my thesis advisor has some how crafted for my focus.

That hypothesis alone brought me swinging from libraries to the residences of artists, to galleries and magazine malls. What was I doing? The point is, after findings, running through publications and detecting publicities of local artists versus overseas, I could at least make a point that the locals ain’t making enough visibility in print media than the international counterparts.

Vincent Leow was one art practitioner that I chosen as an indicator of a local artist whom have had exhibited internationally which I could then make findings to justify the final answer to my thesis.

There was a history in Vincent’s practice that would be interesting to raise in case it was finally deemed that Singapore art failed for lack of the freedom of expression. In the December of 1993, in a 12-hour Artists’ General Assembly (AGA – a week-long arts festival) New Year’s Eve show which is part of a series of New Year events that began with The Artists Village 24-hour “Time Show”, The Substation’s “Round the Clock” for New Year’s, and 5th Passage organised a 12-hour New Year’s show, “Body Fields”. A minor controversy ensued over Vincent Leow’s performance at “Body Fields” he drank his urine during the performance. The police probe into that matter on the grounds of public display without permit and the media raised the act into a public reference. Until now, institutes use this reference in freedom of speech although the police and government took no action against either artist or organisers finally.

Taking a look at “Southeast Asian Art Today”, an informative book dealing with the contemporary art of this region, edited by Joyce Fenema, a designer who is of Dutch origin, she covered in the introduction a number of issues that recur regularly in analyses of contemporary art from Asia. ‘The lack of good art education facilities in Southeast Asia – partly to be blamed on a lack of funding – is a constant theme in discussions about art in Asia and it is also why many artists go to America or Europe to study. On their return, these artists are confronted with their own culture, tending to view it with mixed feelings. Some of them then choose a synthesis between the two cultures, while others aim to give visual form to the national identity of their country of origin.’

On the same study, art historian Els van der Plas, Artistic Director of the Gate¬†Foundation, written ‘Vincent Leow (1961) immediately catches one’s attention, being described as an ‘enfant terrible’. He studied at the Singapore Art Academy and the Mount Royal Graduate School of Art in Baltimore, in the USA. His work is distinguished by critical analyses of the society around him combined with a highly personal imagery. He not only makes installations but also produces paintings that ‘reflect his identity’ and that express “my feelings about living here (in Singapore – evdp), my concern as a human being”, and “the importance of being a Singaporean”…. “I’m in a muddle of western clothes, western education, Asian traditions and the resultant difficulty of communicating with my parents”.’

On a similar article Plas also mentioned his Indonesian counterpart, ‘The Indonesian selection offers a cross-section of the art scene in that country; the wooden sculptures of Anusapati, rooted in the tradition; the paintings and performances of Heri Dono that are inspired by wayang plays; and Sudarisman’s surrealist work. The experimental work of Dadang Christianto to which Astri Wright recently devoted a long article in the magazine¬†“Art Asia Pacific”, Vol.III no.1, 1996 is unfortunately not covered here.’

I then learnt from Heri Dono while we were having coffee, at that time when I picked him up at the airport in Singapore for an exhibition, that he met Vincent for various times during joint exhibitions. One of them I found was ‘The First Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ – The Asia-Pacific Triennial is a landmark exhibition and the first of its kind of this scale in the world to focus on the contemporary art of Asia and the Pacific, including Australia and New Zealand.

Heri Dono is being described as ‘an internationally successful representative of a new generation of Indonesian artists respecting and representing the local, while fusing it with the contemporary. This seen in contrast to Indonesian artists who in the 70s and 80s, under the banner of New Art Movement, chose to set local influences aside in favour of a Western modern mode of expression’ in Verdens World Artister, ‘in contrast with artists in the 70 – 80s under the banner of New Art Movement, who chose to set local influences aside in favour of a Western modern mode of expression.’

Heri Dono started as a painter, of a generation recognisable for bringing traditional elements clearly associated to wayang figurative elements together with elements of the Western modernism of post-expressionism and cubism. Dono brought with him a playful dedication to cartoon animation, of which he had some practical background.

But indeed holding on the tradition and bringing it to an expression of the modern has a level of challenge. He expressed in a talk at LASALLE College of the Arts that I attended that he was often probed by authorities about his shows and have to regularly find ways to ensure that his art making would preserve how they were originally being conceptualised. Artists of the traditional were also qestioning of his mode of modern expression with traditional medium such as Indonesian Dalang (hand puppet performance).

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