Southeast Asia Focus at London’s Cromwell Place
1 December 2020
The Possibility of an Island (3–11 December 2020), a group show organised by A3 – Arndt Art Agency at Cromwell Place in London, encompasses contemporary art practices from across Southeast Asia.
Foreground: Svay Sareth, The Heart Healer (2018). Cotton, kapok, and wilk. 120 x 135 x 90 cm; background: Handiwirman Saputra, Pedestal dan Garis Burung Mati (A Pedestal and Lines of a Dead Bird) (2013). Acrylic on canvas. 3 panels each: 100 x 90 cm; 100 x 240 cm together. Exhibition view: The Possibility of an Island, A3 – Arndt Art Agency, Cromwell Place, London (3–11 December 2020). Courtesy Cromwell Place.
With a focus on island geographies such as Indonesia and the Philippines, 34 works by 18 artists have been curated within the 143-metre-square Pavilion Gallery by A3 founder Matthias Arndt to create 'a mirror onto parallel isolationist existences while considering the inherent paradoxes that lie within'.
Reflecting this complex sentiment is Singaporean artist Alvin Ong with his paintings Sayang and Dondang Sayang (both 2020)—the titles of which are derived from the Malay word 'sayang', which translates variably to 'love', 'longing', and 'dejection', and to 'love ballad' when preceded by the word 'dondang'.
Ong's paintings were inspired by John Singer Sargent's portrait of British colonial administrator Sir Frank Swettenham in the Singaporean national art collection, though a likeness is no longer visible. Rendered in Ong's signature amorphous style, the two bodies in Sayang (2020) appear to merge into one.
An explicit reference to imperial power is made in Australian artist Abdul Abdullah's oil on linen painting And the Portuguese and the Dutch (2020), which portrays the surface of the ocean overlaid with white text reading 'Go Home British Soldier'.
Fellow contemporary Australian artist Danie Mellor, who is of mixed Scottish and Aboriginal descent, joins Abdullah in reflecting on colonial legacies.
In Mellor's painting Far Away (2020), muted sepia and grey tones rendered in acrylic on linen with gesso and iridescent wash depict an Aboriginal man and child taken from a 19th-century postcard image taken by Alfred Atkinson, overlaid on an image taken by the artist in Northern Queensland, of a crop of trees on the edge of a body of water. For Mellor, this act of combining offers a means to visit the 'complex and fraught narrative' of Australia's recent history.
Overall, Possibility of an Island is an ambitious attempt at picturing a region through its myriad artistic practices and cultures, especially when recalling the fragmentary nature of nations such as the Philippines, which is made up of some 7,100 islands—a number that is comparatively compact in comparison to Indonesia's 17,508 odd. To address this, Arndt invited artists from differing generations, offering a variety of views into contemporary issues.
Rodel Tapaya, Marina Cruz, Nona Gardia, and Kawayan de Guia, all born between 1978 and 1982, are showing work alongside marginally younger Filipino artists such as JC Jacinto, Zean Cabangis, and Yeo Kaa, born between 1985 and 1989.
Mostly presenting works in oil and acrylic painting, these artists reflect on collisions between past and present, as seen in the mixed media works of Kawayan de Guia, where natural elements come in contact with machines and consumerist icons, such as the Louis Vuitton design in Too Clean Living (2020).
The titles of de Guia's two other works, Anti Climax Extinctions and New Age Pranks (both 2020), reflect contemporary anxieties that define modern, urban existence that are shared by younger artists in the show.
Yeo Kaa's bold acrylic on canvas paintings i bet you can't do it, i was hoping you won't choose the wrong things but i know you will, and why u sad when u wanted it too one point (all 2020), for instance, portray fictional characters floating in dystopian landscapes in various states of dismay and despair.
Further reflections on the human condition are present in Indonesian artist Entang Wiharso's wall sculpture of entangled human figures surrounded by machinic elements, Shrouds Have No Pockets (2017), while Eko Nugroho's immense painting Family Dinner After Democracy (2020) incorporates traditional batik and embroidery styles in an infernal scene that sees masked individuals navigating a moonlit landscape foregrounded by a monstrous insect, resembling a cockroach.
Awash with expressions and styles, The Possibility of an Island goes further than its consideration of an island's isolationist qualities to consider the many possibilities of an island, offering viewers the opportunity to learn about practices arising from specific contexts while considering connections across fragmented geographies.—[O]