Amid economic calamity, people seek solace in fantasy. For this year’s Venice Biennale, the Thailand and Singapore pavilions—the only two representing Southeast Asia—toy with two kinds of escapism: going to the movies and taking a vacation. Recession also fuels nostalgia. The Southeast Asian artists at Venice interpret the 2009 Biennale theme of “Making Worlds” by probing the way retro iconography remakes national identity. Both countries depart from previous entries by mixing real and imagined artifacts in dizzying installations that reveal nationalism to be a kind of performance.
Singapore presents a reconstructive documentation of early Singaporean cinema named “Life of Imitation.” Unlike the 2007 Biennale’s quartet of site-specific works by installation and performance artist Jason Lim, the giant of Singaporean performance art history Da Wu Tang and multi-media artists Vincent Leow and Zulkifle Mahmod, this year’s pavilion is concept-specific. Tang Fu Kuen, who is best known as a dramaturge, curates the video performance artist Ming Wong and the city’s last active painter of movie billboards, Neo Chon Teck. In a sequence of rooms they tweak preconceptions of race and language, image and gender in re-shot clips of feature films made around Singapore’s independence from Malaysia in 1965.
Thailand proffers an interactive parody of a travel agency, “Gondola al Paradiso Co., Ltd.” Curators Thavorn Ko-udomvit and Amrit Chusuwan, together with Sakarin Krue-on, Michael Shaowanasai and five emerging artists, satirize how their heavily touristed kingdom has commodified Thai-ness into personalizable product. Contrasting with earlier minimalist representatives at Venice—Montri Toemsombat in 2003, Montien Boonma in 2005—Michael declares: “We have it, we flaunt it.”
Venice knows a thing or two about classic movies and commodified canal boats. In other parallels, Bangkok still blithely bills itself the “Venice of the East,” despite having paved over many of its canals. Singapore emulates Venice in more practical ways. A nimble, articulate city-empire that integrates east and west, it made art a development goal. Just five years after its debut appearance at Venice in 2001, Lion City launched its own Singapore Biennale.
The Singapore Pavilion archives and reinvents cinematic materials from its culturally pluralistic past before the inculcation of a Singaporean national identity. “Being born in the 1970s, we grew up watching repeats of 1950s and 1960s films; they shaped our imagination,” says Tang of his collaboration with Wong. “We are taken by how colorful and vibrant the films were in pre-independence Singapore, when linguistic, cultural and racial categories were more fluid.” Their performative interventions show how that fluidity calcified.
Wong specializes in subverted film re-enactment. He plays all the characters in Four Malay Stories (2005), a four-channel black-and-white digital video installation excerpting movies from 1959–71 by the iconic Malaysian actor and director P. Ramlee. “I interpret scenes from ‘national cinema’—a notion of cinema for certain nations based on their common language,” says Wong—a Chinese acting in Malay—Singapore’s official language despite only 14 percent of the population being Malay. “This notion is specific to a certain time in recent history, before globalization. It says a lot about the roots of ‘cultural identity.’”
In a Venice premiere, In Love for the Mood (2009), Wong reinterprets Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000), a sultry romance set in 1960s Hong Kong. He investigates mimicry through a scene in which a woman rehearses before the male lead how she would confront her husband’s infidelity. Chinese detailing abounds, yet a blue-eyed Caucasian actress plays both male and female leads, uttering their lines in broken Cantonese.
“Their performances negotiate several issues: male-to-female and female-to-male identities, age, language and race, actor and director,” Wong says. “It isn’t just a gender debate. There are no neat divisions within the exploration of identity… and the ambiguity that follows.”
Wong addresses the marginalization of the “other” in another new piece, Life of Imitation (2009). He excerpts Douglas Sirk’s 1959 Imitation of Life, a Hollywood melodrama about a pale mixed-race woman embarrassed by the blackness of her mother. Despite an intermarried population, Singapore categorizes race under the official acronym CMIO: Chinese, Malay, Indian, and yes, Others. So Wong directs Chinese, Malay and Indian Singaporean actresses speaking Singlish in each of the three roles in swift rotation, keeping the characters’ racial identity in constant question. In front of her helpless mother and a witness, the daughter cries out: “I am white, white, white!”
“Of course, the actor is the wrong race, gender, age and nationality,” Wong explains. “This breakdown in visual communication allows us to see through the narrative to the issues underneath.” Dressing-room mirrors at the exit confront viewers, whether C, M, I or O, with just how much one’s own identity is whitened or otherwise defined.
The pavilion also presents us with the localization of Western culture in Singapore’s milieu. The billboard painter, Neo Chon Teck collaborates with Wong on billboards inside and outside the palazzo. These respond to the Biennale’s stated aim to explore painting, process and lineage, while executing a poster’s function of advertizing the pavilion.
Museum-style vitrines display documentation of the project and charmingly hand-annotated memorabilia from the collection of Singaporean connoisseur Wong Han Min, recording the evolution of cinema buildings. The prolific Ming Wong also shows Polaroids of old movie theaters he shot while tracing the journeys of film pioneers across Singapore and Malaysia. “These were once grand architectural monuments, now either decaying or relegated to more banal purposes,” he says. “Some retain their original signage in English, Chinese, Tamil and Jawi.” Tang laments the fast disappearance of the “architectures of entertainment” and of billboard painters, “who are artists in their own right.” His archival impulse raises an urgent concern across Asia: is appropriated Western culture a heritage worth preserving? Singaporeans, Tang claims, would see this work as “a fun, reflexive take on history that is generally not in the conscience of the young generation. As we experience a reawakening of local film production, a revisitation of that forgotten age when Singapore was a major film center is timely.”
As Southeast Asia modernizes, it faces dilemmas in how to manage its past. The genteel traditional image Thailand projects to tourists jars with the country’s messy, hybrid reality. That gap recently became more glaring with a military coup in 2006 and violent political division. The Land-of-Smiles mask has slipped. The country’s face is inextricable from official ideology of what is “Thai” and “un-Thai.” Originating under waves of military dictatorship that dogged the 1930–60s, the definition of Thai-ness is more of a homogenizing instruction on how to be genteel than a description of diverse Thai peoples and their behavior.
In this context, Thai-ness has become the hottest topic of Thai art, driven by the frisson of taboo. In July 2008, the opening exhibition of Bangkok Art & Culture Centre, “Traces of Siamese Smile,” bristled with critiques of nationalist shibboleths. “Each generation has a say about the term as long as it is still unresolved,” Michael says. “Some day we will let it go, but at present Thai-ness is center stage.”
The Thai team probes this border between the real and the pretend. Given the sensitive culture of maintaining face, they don’t identify Thailand by name or flag, but spoof the generic tropical idyll that Thais advertize. “Gondola al Paradiso Co., Ltd.” represents a commercial vessel to paradise. Set in a busy residential district, the pavilion resembles a travel agency. It cheerily promises pleasure through posters, light boxes and take-away publicity material, such as postcards, fliers and a souvenir book, Notes from Paradise. Browsers and those outside Venice can swoon over the website www.gondolaalparadiso.com, online for a year from March 26, 2009. ”We are always open,” Michael perkily assures. “Just for you.” Commenting on the duality of advertising as an art and a tool of manipulation, he says: “Propaganda comes in many forms: flat lies with a hint of truth, or truth with a touch of fantasy.” It is up to the viewers to decide what they value.
“You will be greeted genuinely as our guest. Let our agents interest you with exotic destinations where you will be pampered with cool drinks, delicious cuisine and beautiful people,” Michael insinuates with his trademark sauciness. “You may connect online with exotic new friends. You may actually see the faces of paradise before you even get there.” He is alluding to the sexual attractions that official promotions gloss over, but he repudiates any victim posturing. “Yes, we are a physically small people and we have a quality of beauty that is fragile and smooth, but this does not mean we are weak! It is about time for us to be proud of what we have and who we are!”
Their PR material uses gushing prose to advertize normal things in Thai life that seem unreal, but only because they subvert Thais and foreigners’ preconceptions. Clues about the unreliability of such information include posters depicting queasy combinations like rice with watermelon or som tam noodles with slices of apple, reinforcing that Thai cuisine has always incorporated non-indigenous ingredients. Yet postcards of floating-market vendors in sombreros aren’t un-Thai since few Thais dress traditionally anymore. Notes from Paradise guides us to obscure provinces like Singburi, provides handy phrases like “help! I’ve been ripped off!” and rates destinations like the best slaughterhouses.
By refusing to sugar-coat reality, they may receive complaints at home. Yet “Gondola” is actually in tune with “post-tourism” trends for experiencing authenticity. The head of the Thai Biennale selection committee, curator, critic and Culture Ministry official Apinan Poshyananda relishes the way the team, “plays on the idea of Thai-ness, propaganda, and the reconstruction of the space to promote one’s country. In this global crisis, probably the best way to survive is laughter.”
“We are not out for shock value, but looking at the redundancy of the images we recycle,” Michael explains. “We Thais think that this promotional media can make us different from others, make us exotic. But we are no longer exotic. We are so inward. We wear blinkers. We don’t know how we’re seen, and so don’t realize the consequences from giving out that image.” In a classic example, hill tribes are treated as “un-Thai,” yet are exploited in tourism promotion. “Bull’s eye!” Michael exclaims. “Our team members have different backgrounds, geographically, in age, in gender. We even have a gay man. We create works based on our differences.” Michael is a natural spokesman, being a performance artist, impersonator of Thai female archetypes, and star of The Adventure of Iron Pussy (2003), a film he co-directed with Apichatpong Weerasethakul. But he emphasizes the group ethic.
Curator Thavorn Ko-udomvit praises the team for not letting the “self” eclipse the work’s intangible and generic character. He drafted promising young artists whom the principals felt invigorated their own practice: emerging curator Chattiya Nitpolprasert, female multimedia and video artists Sudsiri Pui-ock and Wantanee Siripattananuntakul and the brothers Suwicha and Kritsada Duchsadeevanich. “They are my former students at Silpakorn University, except Michael, and Suporn Chusongdej, a filmmaker who spent years in advertising,” Thavorn explains. “Sakarin Krue-on is the man of the hour in Thai contemporary art. His vision is the core of this pavilion, as well as his experience.”
Aficionados will know Sakarin from his rice terrace at documenta 12 in 2007, though his works often alter pop iconography. He and Michael were selected for Venice in 2003, as was Amrit in 2005, prompting art world rumblings that other Thais deserve a chance, though it’s nothing personal aimed at the highly popular individuals. “Some people are wondering why Thavorn keeps using the same old faces,” art columnist Phatarawadee Phataranawik wrote in Bangkok’s The Nation newspaper. “There is no rule against old faces if their projects fit perfectly,” Apinan responded. “The most important thing is that the winning proposal make the installation into a reality within the limited budget and theme.”
Home skeptics also wonder if Thai-ness has already been overdone. Heightening that risk is the difficulty of outdoing genuine advertizing slogans like Thai Airways’ “Escape Reality and Visit Thailand.” But the Gondola team is responding to the Biennale’s sub-theme of lineage. They acknowledge the pioneers of questioning Thai-ness through art: Rirkrit Tiravanija, Surasi Kusolwong and Navin Rawanchaikul.
Thailand joined the Biennale in 2003, partly thanks to Rirkrit’s efforts. That year, together with Hans Ulrich Obrist and Molly Nesbit, the co-curated “Utopia Station,” an exhibition and program of seminars and performances that functioned as a point for artistic exchange between 160 international artists and architects. In 1993 he served noodles from a canoe and in 1999 he dispensed curry from a wooden platform that he covertly built around a sapling in front of the United States Pavilion as an impromptu Thailand Pavilion. Rirkrit returns this June with more service-art, but this time in the multinational group show in the Italian Pavilion. “It’s a commission for the Italian Pavilion, a sculptural space that functions as the main bookshop,” he says. “It starts off plain and becomes pretty wild.” He will also co-curate a program of book-related events. Rirkrit took social pleasures like serving food to others into the gallery. Now “Gondola” makes art from mere promise of social pleasure.
“Gondola al Paradiso” obliges the viewer’s craving for some of that relaxing Thai sensibility. “We give what you have asked for,” Michael states. Both tourists and hosts find comfort in repeating these clichés; they collude in a routine of artifice. Yet the Thais’ main religion, Buddhism, teaches that craving pleasure is futile, an illusion, the cause of suffering. Ming Wong shares this outlook: “The performance of someone trying to be something that they are not is a universal comic tragedy,” he says. “An unreachable goal, a failed but beautiful attempt, a vain effort. Like someone climbing an escalator in the wrong direction.”