Identity crises raise an unfortunate paradox: if one spends too much time asking “Who am I?” the only answer one comes up with is “I don’t know.” Southeast Asian identity is the subject of “Coffee, Cigarettes and Pad Thai,” for which Singaporean curator Eugene Tan brought together 17 artists from Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. Tan’s own insecurities about Southeast Asian identity were palpable and he fretted about the status of Southeast Asia vis-à-vis the West and Asia’s two proto-super powers, China and India. Fortunately, the works he put forward are not all similarly obsessed.
Looming threats from India and China were found less in the works than Tan’s curatorial statement, in which he speculates that economic strength will lead to cultural dominance. The notion is echoed in Ho Tzu Nyen’s work, Wo men yi ren tu yi kou shui jiu neng ba ni yan si (2007), a plexiglass box containing a film of saliva that puns on Mao Zedong’s famous threat that were China to spit, Taiwan would drown.
One artist’s response to the region’s rapid but precarious urbanization was Nipan Oranniwesna’s City of Ghosts (2006). The piece is a four-meter-long topographical map of an endless anonymous city made entirely of talcum powder. The show’s blockbuster, the work was created by cutting everything but the roads out of various city maps, then using these as stencils over which the white powder is applied, leaving a delicate, sprawling relief atop of a low platform. Nipan’s portrayal of a modern megalopolis as a fragile castle in the sand is more than just a stab at big corporations or Western cultural imperialism, but rather a larger view of history and ecology, and especially our impermanence in the greater scheme. A swipe of the hand could literally erase this city.
Similar ideas are addressed with humor in works by Porntaweesak Rimsakul. Dinosaur (2001) is comprised of mass-produced teapots that walk on mechanical toy legs; The Fountain (2005) is a gas stove that shoots water from its burners instead of flames; and Blender of Imagination (2007) is a comic diorama of miniature cars and roads with a conventional kitchen blender standing in for a building. Meanwhile, Manit Sriwanichpoom stars in his series, “Pink Man Begins" (1997), photos of him on the street, in front of a McDonald’s in a garish pink suit, pushing a bright pink shopping cart—the region’s best lampoon yet of consumerist euphoria.
Tan’s own identity crisis was mirrored in a few works. “The Gleaners and the Ghillies” series (2008) by Richard Streitmatter-Tran poses construction workers and tribesmen in staged scenes vaguely reminiscent of Millet’s The Gleaners (1857). Titarubi’s Surrounding David (2008) coats a replica of Michelangelo’s famous statue in pink brocade. These variations on Western masters are more a failure of imagination than the strength to push forward. To break through the identity crisis, courage is just what is needed.