China, Indonesia and Thailand have of late been making headlines in the Finnish media for various reasons: China for its strong economic growth and human rights issues, Thailand and Indonesia for natural catastrophes, the tsunami and earthquakes as well as for political unrest. The news has also provided us with daily updates of the military coup in Thailand.
How have the art and artists of these countries reacted to such rapid changes? The extensive exhibition, which will open in Kiasma in February, will present three perspectives on contemporary Asian art. Included are artists from three very different countries: Indonesia, China and Thailand. What these countries do, however, share is strong economic growth and escalating social problems. One quarter of the world’s population, some 1.5 billion people, lives in the three countries.
The countries are culturally very different. Thailand is mainly a Buddhist country, while in Indonesia a number of religions, ranging from animism to Islam, from Christianity to Buddhism and Hinduism, coexist. In China, Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism have prevailed in spite of the long Communist regime. China is developing into an economic superpower and many Asian countries are following suit in adopting the Western market economy.
Fast and slow
How do ancient cultures and contemporary art encounter each other – and do they? China, Indonesia and Thailand all have long histories and strong cultural traditions. Development in these countries seems to be extremely fast and yet, at the same time, the nearly unchanging ancient cultures give them a pulse that appears unaffected by what happens around them. Kiasma’s exhibition shows works in which the old and the new, the East and the West, myths and reality are intertwined.
The subject matters and imagery of the works may reiterate vernacular or traditional cultural elements, but in a new form and contentually linked to the present. The Indonesian artist Heri Dono’s flying puppet installations or “ethnographic” objects placed in display cabinets are reminiscent of Wayang puppets or god masks, but once transferred to the present they speak in plain terms of the problems in Indonesian society, the encounter between the present and the past. The Thai Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook in turn creates video installations in which she discusses death, a theme that in the West has come to be approached so clinically. With very little ceremony, the artist gives lectures and reads sacred texts to the dead or dresses them in hospital morgues. Death becomes ordinary, less frightening, merely a transition from one phase to the next. Hu Yang from China has taken his camera to Shanghai homes, creating commentary on the explosive pace of construction in the city and its impact on individuals through pictures of and interviews with the city’s residents. The old human-scale building stock, which was organised in traditional town blocks and vibrant streetscapes, was demolished to make way for the new skyscrapers and large corporations. Where will these people go from there, what will their fate be in the face of this gigantic machinery that literally grinds the old and the weatherworn to pulp? These are some of the questions that the artists have wanted the audience to consider.
As the Asian proverb goes, “Different fields, different grasshoppers, different seas, different fish”. The universal language of art and global dialogue bring the works now displayed in Kiasma close to the Finnish art audience regardless of the cultural and societal differences.