Here are a few examples of political art I enjoy from Asia:
“10 Evil scenes of Thai politic” by Vasan Sitthiket at number 1 Gallery in Bangkok:
“ …When we all became the followers who living in Demoncrazy society, we have only rights to be the tame animals whose feed by vomit of the rulers to get some energy for made the products and market for their wealthy...”
"ฉากเซ็นอนุมัติเมกะโปร เจ็คต์" (Sign contract for Mega-project scene!)
"จงราษฎรจนโง่เขลานิรันดร์ไป" (You must poor and idiot forever)
Indonesian artist I Nyoman Masriadi
"Sudah biasa di telanjangi" (Used to being stripped) - which broke a record at Christie's
Artists bite the hand that feeds.
Now faced with the extraordinary surge of Asian art, in market prices and quality and diversity of production, rebel artists keep spewing their guts into the plastic cups of cheap wine of happening art spaces.
Before that, recalcitrants and politicos were mostly protesters exiled in farm lands, rock musicians and artisans turned poets and craftsmen, churning out tourist gifts and promotional painted posters.
In 1996 I went to Beijing with my writer friend, now international bestseller 山颯 Shan Sa, who’d left her hometown during the Tian An Men protests in 1989. While looking for the remnants of an old craftsmen’s district, we were summoned by intriguing, pungent fragrances, to a quiet courtyard house. A group exhibition had brought together female artists, to work on a gender agenda. The main room was littered with patterns of herbs and spices across the floor, like drying leaves in a market street. Only all the herbs had been chosen and laid down according to their traditional medicinal virtues for female ailments. It was a beautiful, red and smelly layout of women’s travails through life, from the first menses to menopause. In the next room there hung large foam canvases, in whose soft and fuzzy surfaces silhouettes of male attributes had been cut out: a handgun, a baton, a wrench… The whole exhibit was a wonderful assault on the senses. Not only were we bathed in women’s intimate scents, as if I had been castrated, made a novice eunuch, and introduced by my employ, for the first time, to the court’s gynaeceum, but the glow of the deep red dates, beans and filaments was projecting onto every wall, nesting the rooms in a warm, protective placenta. How wonderful to have shed the burden of post-89 heartache, and readily embrace universal and timeless issues, with such sensorial power. It was installation art, but devoid of pseudo-conceptual drivel. It did not pose or posture, ooh or aah, curtsy or preach. It was strong and went straight for the throat.Outside on the main steps, taking some air and sunshine from the womb experience, were two vagabonds chatting and smoking cheerily. The short bald one was a painter, and the scruffy one in flipflops and a vaquero hat was rock hero 崔健 Cui Jian’s electric violin. We instantly made friends and agreed to join them for dinner later, not too far away.At the convened time and place, we found ourselves in an enormous construction site, muddy crossroads under unfinished highways, with a stick pole as a bus stop. Our new friends took us on a packed minibus. We drove across town, past sprawling underdeveloped suburbs, giving way to fields, endless fields, and sparse villages. Factory workers on board were replaced with farm labourers. As the sun was dropping to eye level, our host shouted for the bus to stop. We were in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by fields of maze, on the just one straight road from the capital. I expected a propeller plane to dive upon us.
We walked on a little to find an off-road. The night fell fast on the unlit dirt road. The only guiding light was a blue glow ahead of us, on the horizon. Suddenly our feet sank ankle-deep in a flaky, crunching matter. It was cold to the touch, and smooth like little beans. A truck had lost its cargo of grain along the road, which spread evenly and glittered under the stars. Finally the light ahead appeared clearly, and the violinist said we were home. It was a modern, imposing block, brightly lit from outside by powerful spotlights, its façade marked “Police Station”. The entire horizon was pitch black. This police station was the only human presence for miles, and bright enough to be visible from the stars above. We walked past it, onto a mud path, into the blackness.
Emerging from tall weeds was an old compound, an abandoned school. Here the violinist lived, breeding German shepherds for the police. He was under restricted order, and had to work for the local authorities in retribution for disturbing the peace and threatening social order in 1989. He had eloped to Beijing when we had met him. He cooked us some wonderfully crisp spinach, and we smoked some strong weed he grew in the backyard. His girlfriend appeared from nowhere, a shy, diminutive art student. She invited us to see her works in one of the abandoned classrooms. We crossed the courtyard, past the snoring police dogs. Under the harsh flicker of a naked bulb, were displayed large oil paintings of elongated, spindly men in fiery reds and blues, rising across dark emptiness. They were screaming, their fists high in the air. Their hands brandished their emasculated genitals, blood spraying in flowery splatter.
Back in the living quarters, our hosts sang us old poetry in the gentle candlelight of dozens of erect penises, in various stages of melt. Those had been moulded by the soft-spoken painter, after his own apparatus. As it was getting late, he offered to bring us back to the city.
We were back on the main road, in the vast darkness. We headed West, on foot. As the horizon began to pale, we saw caravans of tractors laden with produce, headed for the city. We hitched a ride, and rested comfortably until we approached the suburbs, where the painted invited us to his house.
We hopped off, and followed a foul, dank stream into a wide, open-air garbage dump. Here our friend was safe from inquisitive eyes. His roughcast shack opened onto dozens of huge erect phalluses, made of wax. Every swollen glans sported Chairman Mao’s head. I thought hiding in a garbage dump was a good idea. A large foam door contraption had been made to look like a giant vagina, through whose labia you squeezed to the other side. He showed us a series of large paintings in the same Dali inspiration, picturing pregnant hermaphrodite écorchés, whose fetuses sprouted erect penises that connected to the brain, across sunny horizons. The artwork was basic, devoid of pop culture or political symbolisms. It elicited simple gut reactions, but transported one to distant, yet innermost, esoteric, yet organic, landscapes of the mind. Flesh and impulses, digestive, reproductive, nervous, respiratory, open like the pages of a book, in all their mutant beauty.
Two days later we went to the painter’s vernissage, in town. The gallery’s basement walls were lined with butcher hooks, like any Chinese restaurant’s window kitchen displaying its poultry. Except the ducks had their heads up inside the chickens’ arses, forming a comical alignment of yellow and brown monstrosities. In the centre lay a huge vat, filled with pigs’ innards and carcasses, bathing in a diluted solution of preservatives. In the middle floated the naked bodies of the painter and his wife, chatting pleasantly with their guests, as one does in a public bath. Then the police came and took the artists away, and closed the party down. In Chinese, chicken 雞 stand for whores, and ducks 鴨 for gigolos. Chicken art ruled. Later in the same year, millions of chicken and ducks were culled in Hong Kong and China.
Ten years later, I learnt the painter had moved to an expensive artist village, where each villa has an SUV and imported motorcycles. The violinist is now a reputed singer and producer (左小祖咒).
State factories built by the East Germans in Beijing and Shanghai have reconverted as art warehouses, filled with endless treasures of jaw-dropping originality, in-your-face, mordant individuality, and still more substance than attitude. Everything is big and larger than life.
Away from the tired irony of propaganda pop art and agit-prop t-shirt iconography that landed China in respectable western galleries and museums, one can browse endlessly through hundreds of emerging personalities, each in their own way putting our contemporary society to task, and rubbing our faces into realities not entirely pleasant. As art communities flourish, art dealers push the real estate up, and authorities put them up for commercial and residential redevelopment.
In Shanghai, the Mo Ga Shan Rd art warehouses are already under siege from homeware department stores. So artists simply relocate to more affordable and less conspicuous digs. In spite of all the overexposed and speculative hoopla over Chinese contemporary art, and many an overblown success story up their own superstar behinds in Paris or New York, I’ve never seen – proportionately, say, to the French art scene - so many artists with enough integrity to keep exploring and working oblivious to market demands, as if obeying to historical and social impulses that just need to come out, like it or not. A lot of the Chinese art scene resembles thousands of patients in derelict wards, bleeding themselves of the pus and dreams that have been festering for too many generations. Contrast that to the famous British at dealer who reportedly first brought Chinese contemporary art to the limelight, by commissioning from copyist workshops large interpretations of her own Photoshop copy and paste mock-ups.
But now the art market is a little in the doldrums. Thousands of families have put their unique child through art school, dreaming of quick success stories. Suddenly investment bankers are pulling out of arts and real estate developments, and auctions are plunging.
Meanwhile, other Asian countries have seen their own arts scenes discovered by astute foreign collectors, curators and dealers. India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, whose artists have been able to work, however frugally, unfettered and unrecognized by local or outsider considerations, are now maturing fast, throwing some money around, kicking off their own art biennalles, and redeploying their often inadequate facilities. They are going through the same rapid transformation as mainland China, and addressing radical changes with powerful art works: dealing first with conflicted national and community identities, then as their respective media slowly open up, from Taiwan to South Korea, the Philippines' people's revolution and Indonesia’s Reformasi, confronting their respective political histories which had been muted since the Sixties, and picking up where liberation movements had vanished, left for prison, or converted.
For example Indonesian contemporary art has flourished from the 1997 monetary crisis, through student demonstrations and farmers' protests, to president Suharto's resignation and the first free elections in a generation. Burdened with decades of corrupt military rule and raging inflation, the technocratic misuse of government funds, the greed and cruelty of the elites, "beautiful Indonesia" is a country full of bold talent and great suffering, where art is still a matter of life and death. The recent blossoming onto the world stage also owes to a healthy competition between modernis abstrak Bandoeng, heralded by the Common Room gallery, academic Yogjakarta, with Cemeti Art House, and exotic Bali. Jakarta acts mostly as a market place. There I met then-rising-stars Eddie Hara and Bob Sick, the tattooed Basquiat, turning a genius Warholian trick at Galerie Langgeng: walk-in portraits, oil, life-size. Ruangrupa is another groundbreaking, younger gallery.
"Big Brother" by Eddie Hara
"Security" by Abdi Setiawan
Since the Seventies, mixing performance and installation art with traditional techniques, artists have honed their skills at indirect symbolism, in order to circumvent censorship or prison. Abstract and decorative were preferable. Now that democracy is here, corruption and violence have taken other guises, from the global economic crisis to religious strife and impaled heads in East Timor. And so art has become more graphic, seeking technical virtuosity and mixing pop and traditional culture, reaching out to street art and comics.
Political skepticism, stinging revolt and true love for their country are consistent in Bramantyo Prijosusilo’s vibrant exorcism of military horror using traditional Javanese mythology and animism, Isa Perkasa’s nightmarish social commentary, or Entang Wiharso’s haunting poetry. From the Apotik Komik (Comic Pharmacy) group, Rahmat Jabaril and Tisna Sanjaya etch terrifying drawings of riots and military repression, and Popok Tri Wahyudi brings together comic illustration, dreamscapes and political power play.
"Masturbasi Reformasi", by Bramantyo Prijosusilo
"Feast of Democracy" by Isa Perkasa
"Forbidden Exotic Country", by Entang Wiharso, 2005
"Peasant Farmer's Demands I" by Rahmat Jabaril
"Schizophrenic Culture" by Tisna Sanjaya
Popok Tri Wahyudi
As new governments across Asia work to dispel “transitional traumas”, dark and sore dictatorships, abductions, purges and repression, artists move on to issues such as widespread corruption, economic hardship, and health and environmental disasters. But these issues are old news, and somewhat kill the glamour of said emerging “creative hubs”. It is therefore a perverse blessing that, as the new generations of artists overcome their inferiority complexes and turn to local techniques and traditions, authorities, tourism boards and the art establishment encourage a studious and “community-building” return to craftsmanship, and figurative artisanship. Fortunately, for every hundred of picturesque landscapes or farmer girls bathing, there is a group of rebel scum mixing up their brushes and pottery, and coming up with graphic, introspective nightmares. Their art is profoundly idiosyncratic, raw in discourse, sophisticated in delivery.
It is expressionist figurative, from Nunelucio Alvarado's punk folk in the Philippines to Skeet’s geek punk glamour or Andrew Chen’s mutant tribalism in Taiwan, I Made Palguna’s folk esoterism in Bali, or Otsuka Hiroki’s ero manga stream-of-consciousness. It is pop and street art, with Kenji Hirata’s manga cyber-nebulous installations, Motomichi’s toothy horaega kawaimon bacterial monsters, Madsaki’s hard rock art deco, Michael Cheung’s nuclear dreamscapes or MC Yan’s graffiti opera in Hong Kong, Shieko’s wayang kulit (shadow puppetry) seni graffiti in Kuala Lumpur, or Korakrit’s glo-rave in Bangkok.
"Luga Twerka", oil on canvas by Nunelucio Alvarado, 2000
"No Peace No Boom", fibre glass stand by Michael Cheung
"Whorehaus" by MC Yan
This new generation of dropouts, reconverted bankers and noodle peddlers are Young Asian Professionals, as well as their chill rock, obsessive geek, freak counterparts, whose art production breaks away from local standards, art market conventions and post-modern clichés. They are dictating the future directions of Asian creativity. What with the big dollar hangover and powder-milk credit crunch, the Eastern wind may be hot and sticky, but it promises to be a killer ride. While the masses struggle to find their temporary footing in the survivalist food chain, it is in the hands of a few outcasts to salvage the proverbial Oriental spirituality, the long-winded universal harmony of karmic vibes and spicy nights. But as long as the usual suspects and media monopoles control the flow of investments in production and distribution, independent media and productions will suffer.
The main headache remains that even with maturing, diversifying local industries, Asian talents must first make a name abroad, in order to gain some sort of financial credibility at home, often after years of miserable toil or expatriation. Artists recognized and financed by the West fall into a continuous biennale ghetto cut off from local media and audiences. But today the young crop of artists and galleries can finally dig their own trajectories across increasingly open-minded domestic markets, without vying for established sugar daddy speculators.
Asian contemporary art, through thick and thin, has managed to spill over into regional trade shows and touring exhibitions, as exciting alternatives to Western also-ran conceptual slosh. Equally, Asian reservoirs of energy and talent are brimming the world over, cooking up magnificent banquets that need only be served by the right hands to eager publics. Coming soon to an established gallery near you.
I Nyoman Masriadi's "My Adventure Ended After I Met Your Mother" sold for $307,000 at Sotheby’s in 2008.