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War, abstraction and censorship in Southeast Asia
February 10, 2016
A closer look at the Prudential Eye Awards 2016 in Singapore
The Singapore Art Week 2016 is a wrap. The country’s prestigious nine-day art festival is steadily growing every year, making the city more attractive than ever for investors, art lovers and young emerging artists in Southeast Asia. One of the highlights of this year’s Art Week were the Prudential Eye Awards, held at Singapore’s futuristic Marina Bay Sands.
But one wonders why Singapore and its censorship are becoming an art destination. Are we presented a watered-down version of Southeast Asian art? No – it is all according to plan.
First launched in 2008 by Parallel Contemporary Art and the Saatchi Gallery, the Global Eye Programme has since supported and created initiatives in Malaysia, Indonesian, Korea, Hong Kong and Thailand. Last year’s winner, the Japanese collective ChiméPom, were exclusively known in Japan but then catapulted on the international art stage after being the overall winner in 2015.
Similar adventures await the Cambodian artist and this year’s winner Sareth Svay. His work often bears association with war. Having been a refugee himself, his art utilises metals, uniforms and camouflage, all drawing on the processes of survival, adventure, power and futility. None of it is censored, leaving room for interpretations.
Next level abstraction
The strong connection of Southeast Asian art and abstraction, which first emerged in the 1960s, appears to remain relevant in 2016. Although under-appreciated by art collectors, according to the art critic Sonia Kolesnik-Jessop, the tradition is still evolving, incorporating mixed media as well as becoming more gestural and tactile. One example is the young Indian artist Manish Nai, who was awarded in the painting category at the Prudential Eye Awards.
Seemingly removed from traditional painting, Nai’s works rather resemble scraps from any Indian construction site. But exactly here lies the significance. Using cheap and ubiquitous materials, such as jute and newspapers, he recreates Indian society on the canvas.
Although Art Stage Singapore, which is one of the fairs throughout Art Week, appeared as having a ‘global city’ agenda, there is an increasing amount of art from Southeast Asia that seems to be concerned with local issues more than with global cities – one example being the work of the Vietnamese filmmaker and video artist Trinh Thi Nguyen, who was also nominated in the Digital / Video category at the Prudential Eye Awards. Her work continuously investigates the role of memory in the hidden and misinterpreted history of her country. She is certainly someone to keep a ‘prudential eye’ on.
As the city is becoming more and more a magnet for art and creativity in the region, Singapore is giving Hong Kong a run for its money. However, it seems curious that the regional art scene is welcome to explore and showcase in a country that isn’t the most liberal when it comes to media censorship. One example is the celebrated local director Ken Kwek and his film Sex.Violence,FamilyValues, which got banned by the authorities in 2012.
While Singapore still keeps a close eye on its own critics and the local media, it invites artists from the region to openly criticise the status quo. What seems like a paradigm, is actually a well thought out agenda. Like everything else in Singapore, be the financial market or the underground system, all is planned and projected decades in advance. While the art scene might as well be an artificially created investment opportunity, the artists and their work are genuine and truthful expressions.
By Peter Schimke