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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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