Fire, Humor, and Water: Videos by FX Harsono and the Propeller Group at Asia Society

Installation view with FX Harsono’s 1998 Burned Victims in foreground

Several provocative video works in After Darkness: Southeast Asian Art in the Wake of History, on view at Asia Society through January 31, caught my eye, notably ones by FX Harsono and the Propeller Group. The curators chose the works in the exhibition not as a survey of art from Southeast Asia–there are only 7 artists and 1 collective from 3 countries–but because they speak to the role contemporary art can have in countries struggling with reform, free speech, and democracy. FX Harsono uses blowtorches and chainsaws in aggressive performances that express rage at political events in his native Indonesia. Of a later generation, the Propeller Group, a collective of three artist connected to Vietnam, use humor in their polished video works to point to lingering dissonances in contemporary Vietnamese society.

FX Harsono. Detail, Burned Victims, 1998. Burned wood, metal, shoes.

Destruction and Burned Victims are literal titles for these late ’90s video performances. FX Harsono performed Destruction in 1997 as a response to concerns about voter fraud under president Suharto’s authoritarian New Order government. In it, he destroys theater masks resting on three chairs, which represent the three political parties then vying for power. Couched as a piece of public theater–with Harsono in traditional make up and the masks referring to puppet theater–it was also an act of civil disobedience. At that moment, assembly of more than five people was illegal in public space. Harsono attacks and destroys the wooden masks, first by chainsaw and then by blowtorch, in front of onlookers.

FX Harsono. Still, Burned Victims, 1998. Performance video with sound; 8 minutes, 41 seconds.

FX Harsono. Still, Burned Victims, 1998. Performance video with sound; 8 minutes, 41 seconds.

Burned Victims memorializes a protest in 1998 against Suharto that turned violent–rioters locked civilians inside a shopping mall in Jakarta and set the building on fire. The sculptural installation is equally grisly–a row of charred, torso shaped pieces of wood suspended on metal frames, each of which has a pair of burned shoes at the end. The different pairs of burned shoes turn what might be a more abstract sculpture into something much more stark and horrible, reminding of the individuality of the victims of the fire. In the video performance, Harsono douses the torsos with gasoline and lights them on fire. Signs with slogans of Riot burn, and Harsono places another sign in front of the audience: “Who is responsible?”

The Propeller Group. (Still) The Dream, 2012. Single-channel HD video; 4 minutes, 20 seconds.

The Propeller Group, who had an exhibition last year at James Cohen gallery, strike a different tone. Their two video works use humor to critique society in a more distant and subtle approach than Harsono’s outraged cry. One, called The Dream, shows a Honda Dream motorbike that, strategically placed overnight on a city street by the artists, is dismantled of its parts by various thieves as the night wears on. The skeleton of the bike is on view in the gallery in front of a time-lapse video of the night. It is quite humorous to watch this ubiquitous Vietnamese status symbol disappear over the course of the night. Behind the joke, the Propeller Group also comment on the corrosive elements of capitalist change that has swept the nominally Communist state.

Installation view of The Dream at Asia Society, featuring stripped down body of Honda Dream motorbike in foreground

The second work that they show, The Guerrillas of Cu Chi, consists of two facing monitors–one plays Viet Cong promotional footage from 19631 and the other shows present-day foreign tourists shooting old AK47s leftover from the Vietnam war. The tourists mug for the camera as they gleefully enacting war scenes. Both videos are about the Cu Chi Tunnels, underground passages used by the Viet Cong to combat the U.S. during the Vietnam war that are outside Ho Chi Minh City. The same soundtrack and captions overlays both, highlighting eerie parallels despite the disjunct in time and purpose. Both the old propaganda and the new tourist site are distant from the carnage and suffering that characterized the lived experience of the war, and indeed, instead seem designed to perpetuate such history as war games.

The Propeller Group. Still, The Guerrillas of Cu Chi, 2012. Two-channel synchronized video installation with sound; 20 minutes, 4 seconds.

The Propeller Group. Still, The Guerrillas of Cu Chi, 2012. Two-channel synchronized video installation with sound; 20 minutes, 4 seconds.

From the far end of the exhibition galleries comes the sound of rushing water. Already, in contrast to blowtorches and AK47s, the use of water rather than fire or guns strikes a less violent note. In this video performance, Harsono writes his name in Chinese characters over and over again. The artist is ethnically Chinese, a minority in Indonesia, and in the face of discrimination against the language and culture, he only learned the Chinese characters of his name as an adult. We watch from the other side of the glass panel as the strokes of black paint begin to overlap and take up more and more of the surface, growing into a black mass. Suddenly water pours down from above, washing away the ink even as the artist keeps making the motions with his hand. Rather than water as a cleansing agent, here water is a deluge sweeping away the artist’s Sisyphean efforts in a show of force and might.

FX Harsono. Writing in the Rain. 2011. Video performance

Phone Tag: Interview with Giselle Stanborough

Giselle Stanborough, Giselle Dates, 2016, performance documentation, photo by Zan Wimberley

This August, I Skyped with Giselle Stanborough, an intermedia artist who lives and works in Sydney, Australia, having received her MFA in 2015 from the University Of New South Wales. Prior Phone Tag participant Marian Tubbs met Giselle through mutual friends in Sydney. Coincidentally Giselle recently moved into Marian’s former living space, a live-work space intended by the local government to foster artists through subsidized rent for a year. Giselle and Marian also share an interest in the permutations of identity on the internet. Currently Giselle is developing a series that relates online dating and the gallery experience, drawing parallels between the expectations people can bring to both.

 

Phone Tag is a generative interview format, where I ask each participating artist five questions (plus others as the discussion meanders). At the end, I ask him or her to introduce me to a working artist whose attitude and work they find interesting and inspiring, who I then interview with the same five questions.

*****

LW: “What are you working now? Where are you focusing your energies?”

GS: “I have this ongoing project that uses internet dating services, like Tinder and OK Cupid as well as a site that I made, that organizes to go on dates in galleries and particular exhibitions. It will be having another iteration in a year in Melbourne. We rejig the content for whatever particular exhibition it will be a part of, whatever particular city. I just started looking at how to change the work for that context, which involves a lot of sitting at the computer. I’ll be doing a lot of that this week.”

LW: “To back up, could you describe this project? It’s connected to your website GiselleDates.com, right?”

GS: “That’s right. I guess the project is a way to look at those high lofty ideals about art—connecting consciousness, overcoming existential loneliness, creating deeper connections with another kind of experience of life in the world—and to look at how that exists outside of the gallery and in people’s daily life. So it is trying to create a kind of cohesion between the goals of art and dilemmas of isolation, of consciousness that is not in the silo of contemporary art but just part of life, like people trying to connect on social media and apps and stuff. It’s also to try and have conversations about art with people who don’t have a vested interest in art. Which I always find really interesting and refreshing.”

LW: “Absolutely. I think the most challenging thing is when somebody who’s not into art asks, ‘What is this? Why is this art?’”

GS: “That’s the best question. That’s the most important one. And you can forget to ask that.”

Giselle Stanborough, Giselle Dates, 2016, Installation documentation, photo by Zan Wimberley

LW: “So for this project, you are going on dates with people. Do they know it is an art project?”

GS: “Yeah. Just because it is an art project doesn’t mean I’m not dating them. I’ve had relationships that have come out this project.”

LW: “There we go! That’s an outcome you don’t always see.”

GS: “Art can be a conduit to connection or a conversation piece for a day, rather than—I don’t know if you’ve been on many dates with people that you met online: they tend to be quite rehearsed and really boring and really career-oriented. At least the appeal of going to an art gallery is that it gives us something else to talk about…that’s not a monologue. You can have conversations that you don’t anticipate.”

LW: “Do you think of it as performative?”

GS: “Yeah. But, I think of most things as performative.”

LW: “Well, maybe dating is already performative…”

GS: “Exactly. Yes, it’s performative, but what isn’t?”

LW: “Is there an exhibition display when you show this project?”

GS: “There has been, but I’m not sure if there will be for this upcoming show in Melbourne. I’m going to make a series of ads. I know that in America you have the Bachelor [TV show]…”

LW: “Yes.”

GS: “…and I’m interested in that performance of heterosexuality. I’m interested in the idea of bourgeois heterosexuality as performance. So, to make a series of ads that sort of position me as a bachelorette-style person, which internet dating profiles do anyway. Those will be on screens in the galleries, but I often use screen spaces that aren’t technically for exhibition—screens that are out by the front desk or near the elevators. Or they might have user feedback screens. I use those screens because they have a kind of anti-viewer, art/not art way of being experienced by people who walk into the gallery.”

Giselle Stanborough, The Lonely Tail, 2012, 4 channel digital video (still), 3 mins

LW: “One of the things that I think is interesting is how you’re inserting yourself—not a character, not some idea—but yourself into these digital spaces. Is it important that it be you?”

GS: “Yeah, it is. Questions of selfhood are really, really complicated.

I think in a time of user-generated mediums and pop culture, we’re used to having an abstracted sense of our own self. Like: ‘Yeah, it’s me but it’s not the whole of me. It’s a part of me.’ It is a way that we are accustomed to accepting our positionality in the world. We are too big to be in any one spot at once, on a Facebook profile or a Tinder profile or a performance art work or with our mom, but we can accept that part as very authentic. Does that make sense?”

LW: “It does. At the same time, I think people often have an idea of the internet as this space where you can create the perfect self.”

GS: “The interesting thing is, yes, you can create your perfect self, but you can also be your most loathsome, despicable self. People say our generation is narcissistic, and there is an awful horrible element as well. It isn’t an experience of yourself from behind your own eyebrows—you’re already abstracted from yourself. And it’s not just self-love online; there’s a lot of self-loathing as well.”

LW: “You describe a lot of screen time in your practice. How does that figure into an ideal day in the studio, and what does an ideal day in the studio look like for you?”

GS: “An ideal day… I also do installation elements or physical or performative component, so I would like to do screen stuff, do some animating, and then I would like to do stuff with my hands. Today, for example, I put on all these stupid little rhinestones with this glue stick for a work. It came in this stupid little rose box but the rose was crushed from being sent from China and I had to set the iron on the lowest temperature and iron out the little fake leaves. It was nice, doing stuff with my hands. I don’t know if it was an ideal day, but it was pretty good.”

Giselle Stanborough, Lozein True Love, 2016, digital composite

LW: “Who has influenced your practice?”

GS: “In terms of other artists—it’s not a very unique answer—but Mark Leckey has really had a profound impact on the way that I see art and objects intercepting, and an interest in the precedents of cyber space. Instead of saying ‘Oh, this is so new. There was nothing like it before,’ Leckey looks at other parallels, even heaven or the way that the internet carries a narrative about where to draw the line between what’s human and what’s not. Or what’s animal, what’s mechanical, what’s divine. Those sorts of things that have been going on for a long time, and that cyber space is the most recent type of.”

LW: “When did you first think of yourself as an artist?”

GS: “It fades in and out…I don’t really think of it as something that I am, but as something that I do. Every now and again, when I’m going overseas and I write my occupation down on the immigration paper, then I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s right. I’m an artist.’ I try and stay away from those identity things about being an artist. Because then I’m scared about the kinds of things that come along with it, like art being middle class or male. I just don’t even: I take little baby steps, so maybe I don’t think of myself that way even yet.

As well, I know a lot of people that work in the arts and are artists, all my neighbors here. When things are normalized, they sort of become invisible. It is just a part of our lives and we don’t think about what that means in relation to other careers. You don’t really know what other people do. What do stockbrokers do? Actually do? They feel that way about us. What do I actually do all day? ‘Oh, I iron out shitty little rose leaves from the internet.’”

LW: “You’re in Sydney. Do you like it?”

GS: “I think about this. Some people have a strong sense of place. For me, it is not that significant. Maybe because the internet has so much to do with my practice. Sydney is all right, so are other places.

[Laughs]

No, Sydney is awesome. Thank you, city of Sydney, for subsidizing my rent.”

Giselle Stanborough, Lozein Pride, 2016, digital composite

LW: “Do you think it is more important for an artist to be in a big city, a Sydney or a New York, with all that entails: expensive rent, opportunities to show work, to be in a cultural scene, or to be in a small place where you can focus on making and maybe not have all of the pressures of rent or making it?”

GS: “That’s an interesting question. In 2015, I moved back home for a while, which was really quite isolating but also kind of a cleansing experience, where you find your own values. When you’re in the big city, it is easy to get swept up. Things and cultural economy have their own kind of impacts. After that period at home, I didn’t give a shit. There’s all sort of weird things that are part of the industry, rather than art itself with a capital A. I find after that period it’s easier for me to be like, ‘Oh, this is about the manifestation of art and capitalism in Sydney’ or ‘Oh, that’s like capital A art.’ Leaving Sydney for a while for a quiet place was really good for me, but I don’t think it is sustainable. There’s not as much employment opportunity.

Also, Sydney is not a big city like New York. It’s a small city. New York is a big city. I think a lot of Australians have a reverence for centers of America and Europe, and I think now we are looking other spaces. Post-colonial narratives allow us to look to our closer neighbors for other ways that art impacts society.”

LW: “Are you thinking of anything in particular when you say that, a certain place?”

GS: “I’ve been interested in a post-colonial kind of queer identity politics, and looking particularly at a Southeast Asian context for that. A lot of that does come through Sydney because they are our neighbors and because of the diaspora. It’s something that I’ve really enjoyed watching come to the art scene here.”

LW: “Well, those are my questions. Thank you for participating in Phone Tag.”

GS: “Thanks so much!”

 

 

Phone Tag: Interview with Marian Tubbs

Marian Tubbs, i am series of chemical changes, 2017, Pigment print on silk

Earlier this spring, I Skyped with Marian Tubbs, an Australian artist based in Sydney. Previous Phone Tag participant Kate Newby connected us, and in this interview we discuss how the two met in New York, some of the ramifications of operating as an artist with a more international purview and how that can relate to social connections. Marian investigates images and materials that are so poor or ubiquitous as to be unnoticed, often sourced from the digital, through sculptural objects and installations that are undergirded by a philosophical framework.

 

Phone Tag is a generative interview format, where I ask each participating artist five questions (plus others as the discussion meanders). At the end, I ask him or her to introduce me to a working artist whose attitude and work they find interesting and inspiring, who I then interview with the same five questions.

*****

Marian Tubbs, Quiet revolutions and enfant terribles, 2017, Installation view

LW: “Kate mentioned she knew you through a show at SculptureCenter.”

MT: “Yeah. We come from proximate worlds—she’s originally from New Zealand and I’m from Australia—but exhibit and work a fair amount overseas. I became familiar with her work through shows that were on in Sydney at galleries that I also work with, but strangely we did not meet until installing in the cold underground caverns of SculptureCenter. I took a break from my mess, walked around the corner and said “Hey I’m Marian” and she was like, “No way, I’m Kate.” When we finally met, it was lovely, there was a genuine appreciation of each other’s work. This year she is in the Sydney Biennale and I’ll work on some stuff in NYC so we will get to hang again. We’ve talked of doing a dreamy show together…”

LW: “So you were in New York recently, and you’ve been here before as well, right?”

MT: “Yes, I’ve been visiting New York since 2012 for things; first I came to present at a philosophy conference. And the next year, when I was running away from my PhD, I lived there for six months. I was pretty young and into seeing what the place was about. It’s a great city to drop out in, because there’s so much going on you don’t feel like you’re dropping out. I think those months were the most that I ever enjoyed the place— I had no agenda, so I could just go walking, do yoga, and see music. It was low pressure, though I ended up being in a couple of exhibitions before I left. Since then, I’ve come back to be in or curate shows.”

LW: “Tell me about your philosophy degree.”

MT: “It’s a Doctor of Philosophy, practice-led—…could be singular to Australian universities?”

LW: “So related to your art practice?”

MT: “Yes, very much. My PhD was on aesthetics and philosophy. Specifically how poor materiality, like found objects, images, or words play roles, as minor voices in artworks and mess with value. I wrote about practices that I learn from, philosophy, and my own work.”

LW: “So was it separate from your practice of making, or a chance to think through issues related to making?”

MT: “Yeah, I used direct examples from making to direct the questioning. Finding a voice for this can be tough but ultimately rewarding. It’s something that I hope continues to have a future in Australia, but I think we’ll be fighting for as long as cuts keep happening and the conservative government keeps being in place.”

Marian Tubbs, Abstract Sex, 2016, Installation view at the Bard Hessel Museum

LW: “If you had to say in a nutshell what you make, what do you make?”

MT: “I guess I look for objects and materials on- and offline that are not valued highly or thought through very much and by playing with them, I change this for myself, that’s the personal aspect, deepening my being in the world by relating to stuff. I think this is the nice affinity with Kate’s work. That we both go on walks and look at things and kind of see outside what objects are and can be.

I pull and push the ‘real’ into the virtual, or the ‘virtual’ into the real. For instance, I take a bad photograph of something, flatten it so it becomes a video assemblage, or the reverse: find something online and animate to give it a new narrative property, print it out and make a photo-sculpture. Right now I am heading toward some augmented reality stuff.”

LW: “Looking online at your work, it seemed like there is a dialogue with abstraction.”

MT: “Definitely, yeah. It’s funny, you know, it depends who you talk to whether your work is didactic or obscure—”

LW: “Or whether either of those qualities is desirable—”

MT: “Whether you need to have less narrative or, ‘Be less of a difficult artist, Marian.’ The linear and the non-linear I find interesting, because I think that’s where the poetry is. When the work is saying something overt, something that’s kind of really obvious, there’s another abstraction to it because it’s not necessarily me. Rather, I take floating statements, or memes that float around that I find I have some attraction to, but they’re abstract because simply appropriating does not literally communicate my opinion. This could be versus when you get the material or color just right, and it needs no explanation and you hope that someone gets that.”

Marian Tubbs, Contemporary Monsters, 2016, Installation view at Minerva, Sydney

LW: “What are you working on right now?”

MT: “Academic things. I’m writing a lecture that I’m giving loads of attention to because it’s a complicated subject, on queer digital art, or ‘queering the digital.’ This is a guest lecture for a theory course to a large cohort of students across fine arts, theory, design, and media. I’m doing very detailed research because I think it’s a) necessary, and b) I question if I’m even the one that should be giving such a lecture. But I do work with the digital and the feminine, and I’m also a massive fan of so, so many queer artists. I want to avoid presenting information that presents ‘queering’ as a co-optable methodology, so I’m excited for the complexity.

In terms of my own practice, I’m working on new sculptures, which are following on from some of the SculputreCenter’s works, creating these gestural objects and mosses with very fast curing glasses and resins. I’m creating these fairly weird pieces that are a cross in between the organic and plastics manufacturing. I’m also working on getting a studio.

I have a few shows coming up around Sydney, all quite different, curated and collaborative. A show in a curator couple’s house, a group exhibition with the gallery I work with here, Minerva, also another at a relatively young gallery called COMA, and a collaborative sculpture show—for which I am making work with a best friend. I have also just won an award, that I am going to use to assist in changing up my work. Instead of being immediately responsive, I’m going gestate on developing skills (digital and analog) and make a couple of exhibitions over the next while with longer investment.”

LW: “Are you making new work for these smaller shows?”

MT: “Yes. It’s exciting. It’s all in the starting processes right now, calling in favors, moving stuff around.”

LW: “Right. Have you had a studio before in Sydney? Why are you looking for a new one?”

MT: “Right now I live in a place for artists that has been subsidized by the city, and we all have to move in a month, so I have to find something. Even a desk space can be extraordinarily expensive in Sydney.”

LW: “What’s an ideal day like in the studio?”

MT: “I remember saying this when I used to have a studio: that it was simply half day in the studio, half day at the beach. The beach and water in general is productive for me, staring at the water all my thoughts can be emptied out. So ideally a sunrise beach swim, then get to the studio: think, stare at walls, play some music, read, figure stuff out, maybe organize some stuff. Return to the beach, run or yoga. Then do that again the next day—that would be the perfect life.”

Marian Tubbs, Contemporary Monsters, 2016, Installation view at Minerva, Sydney

LW: “It sounds good. I don’t know Sydney, but it sounds like you have the New York issues that we have with rent. One of my questions is: do you think it is more important for an artist to be in a big city like Sydney or New York where there’s a strong cultural scene with museums and galleries and opportunities but it’s expensive, or to be somewhere totally quiet—like the beach—where maybe the focus could just be on making?”

MT: “If I retreated, maybe that would be a sort of curiosity and people would continue to contact me, but there’s that drop out factor. I live in Sydney, rather than up north near water and family, because I earn a living here, so it feels kind of square at the moment. I don’t make work that sells immediately so I need to be employed—and I also find it very wonderful to work with young minds whose politics are fantastic, these conversations give me a lot of energy. I can’t speak for every artist—as the questions beckons—but there are indeed pros and cons to removing yourself from the circuit for sure. That said you can drop out in the city as well and stop being social.”

LW: “You said in passing that you don’t make work that sells, but you have been supported by different grants.”

MT: “Yes, over the last couple of years I received a couple of grants. Also sometimes pieces sell, mostly overseas and to institutions. Actually I’ve had unexpected and great support from commercial galleries. I just try to cover my ears sometimes—not hear too much—when they look at works and go ‘Oh, these will sell.’ I don’t want that to filter through as an impression impacting what I make next. That’s why I shaped my life so that teaching would be integral, so I could figure out a way to pay rent first and not get to a certain age feeling hungry that I needed to accelerate a career. If that makes sense.”

LW: “I know what you mean. It is just an interesting thing to function within that system and resist that system as well.”

MT: “Sure, and it’s not ever a refusal toward someone wanting to be with a work, take it home, or buy it—that’s such a pleasure for me. It’s about not overtly selling into a market but maybe creating new affections, we come back to challenging ascriptions of value here. And taking the risk to do this, means often as an artist, embarrassing myself or making things that don’t look like something that I recognize or have words for.”

Marian Tubbs, Untitled, 2016, Digital print on vinyl, acrylic, 50 × 60 cm

LW: “Who, or what, has influenced your practice?”

MT: “Well maybe this is two-fold. I find an ongoing silly dialogue with friends inspiring, being in touch with other peoples’ lives and chatting about trivial things while I’m doing things. There are possibilities now to be virtual with each other no matter what you’re doing or where. During day-to-day work, and when travelling, we keep joking and pushing each other, sharing generative conversations that could be read as Dada-ist, nonsensical, or neoliberal strategy. A massive sense of humor is super inspiring, because you can say, ‘Yes, you’re doing all of these things, but none of it really matters: its art and its funny and serious.’

In addition I read when I can and spend time thinking about stuff I don’t understand.

In terms of artists that inspire, I think of those who show moments of throwing absolutely everything at it. Those that have gone for the immortality of their work tend to capture me…”

LW: “I liked how you talked about how conversations with friends kept you going. Do you have a strong community in Sydney?”

MT: “Yes, the Sydney scene is very supportive and defiantly growing, no matter the lack of structural support. My convos are also international. As my work spread via the internet, I’ve found cute friends I have never physically met. Being fortunate to have had a few shows overseas and interstate, you meet the people you love and continue to talk to.”

Marian Tubbs, Contemporary Monsters, 2016, Digital video built with gaming technology (still), 6 min 10 sec

LW: “I wonder, do you think your work works well in an international circuit or is there a local element? I’m thinking about how you’re working so much with the internet and that’s the conceit of the internet: it’s this free, open international space. “

MT: “It should be, but it isn’t completely. In terms of the market, it favors material objects. There are obviously some name artists that have gotten through but deterritorialisation is a post-modern idea/fallacy; everything is still centralized and commerce happens in major cities. So conversations about your work can go to different places and that’s incredible, but also it is not a complete game changer. I am very much involved in my local community, but I wouldn’t say my work looks ‘Sydney’ or ‘Australian’ other than the fact that a lot of beach vibes seep into my works.”

LW: “Final question: when did you first think of yourself as an artist?”

MT: “I think I was in year three—that’s like when I was eight or nine years old. I did a drawing in class and I think it was good. I went home and I kept it and I realized drawing was knowledge, it was thinking. There was also some minor support, you know how family or faculty can see you are interested in something and praise you. It was that mix of doing something that I really loved with an inch of encouragement, and I was like, ‘That’s it then.’ ”

LW: “Great. Well, thank you for participating.”

MT: “A pleasure.”

Marian Tubbs, Vulgar Latin, 2014, Digital video (still), 5 min 39 sec