NINA MANGALANAYAGAM, photograph from “Homeland” series, 2008. Copyright Nina Mangalanayagam. Courtesy Institute of International Visual Arts, London.

Entanglement: The Ambivalence of Identity

Iniva (Institute of International Visual Arts)
Sri Lanka Thailand India China Japan Denmark UK
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

Since the notion of identity has long been central to cultural theory and contemporary art, an exhibition entitled “Entanglement: The Ambivalence of Identity,” in which artists with mixed racial or national backgrounds explored their relationship with their own past and present in diverse media, might not seem a cutting-edge undertaking. The show’s catalog, which dwells on long-established heavyweights of postcolonialism furthered this somewhat dated impression; yet it was not clear that all exhibited works invited such densely theoretical interpretation. Many proved both more personal and universal in their approaches, excelling on these counts.

An example of this was Lacuna (2009), Swedish-born Danish-Sri Lankan artist Nina Mangalanayagam’s ten-minute silent film. The work maintains a steady focus on the artist’s face as she struggles to master the subtleties of nonverbal communication encompassed in the gesture sometimes known as the “Indian Head Nod.” Her persistent bobbing is touching, yet the subtitled narrative, telling of her gradual realization of her own “otherness” during childhood, gives the piece a moralizing air. On this evidence, her best work remains her photography. The series “Homeland” (2008) shows the artist with her family at home in Sweden, engaged in typical national activities—mushroom picking, decorating the Christmas tree, painting Easter eggs—her Tamil father seemingly having reached some degree of accord with his adopted country; the artist, though, seems more equivocal, even confused. The true extent and nature of integration are left unresolved.

Anthony Key, born in South Africa to Chinese parents and now based in Britain, similarly traces his evolving notion of identity, often through the ingredients and packaging of Chinese restaurants. The specially commissioned Book of Numbers (2011), is one of his finest works, painstakingly listing every Chinese restaurant and takeaway in the United Kingdom on a scroll made of over 8,000 chopsticks. An almost religious aura is created in the process, effectively conveying the significance of these businesses to the immigrant community.

Displays from Navin Rawanchaikul and Simon Fujiwara were more challenging. Navin, a Thai artist of Indian descent, showed three uncharacteristic works celebrating his local community in Chiang Mai. In Hong Rub Khaek (2008), interviews with seven immigrants, who, like Navin’s parents, settled in the city following World War II and the Partition of India, are collaged together. Each interviewee affirms the openness, cooperation and affection found in Thailand despite religious and cultural differences. This unanimity is heartwarming, yet also curiously distancing: the lack of any disharmony (beyond persistent use of the Thai word khaek, or “visitor,” to describe their status) is disconcerting to modern ears. Perhaps the trauma of their forced emigrations should place preoccupations concerning identity into some perspective.

Simon Fujiwara’s video installation, Artist’s Book Club: Hakuruberri Fuin no Monogatari (2010), subverted viewers’ assumptions with even greater panache. An Anglo-Japanese writer is interviewed by a well-spoken British correspondent concerning his admiration for Mark Twain’s novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, particularly the complex history of its Japanese translations and adaptations. Fujiwara plays the role of the writer, mixing intriguing glimpses into the novel’s history with salacious tidbits about his character’s life. The genre of the arts documentary is effectively satirized; just as the correspondent persists in interpreting his interviewee’s work through his biography and admiration for Huckleberry Finn, we struggle to locate the real Fujiwara and to feel ourselves included in the joke. Sometimes the crudity of presentation wears thin, but this too may be part of the artist’s game.

Despite its clear theme, “Entanglement” felt surprisingly disparate. As globalization continues, group shows can only provide snapshots of the complexity of cultural identity. Race or ethnicity, once preeminent in such discussions, plays just one role among many. Some of these artists act as effective outriders for increasingly widespread feelings of alienation, while others are acute commentators on society’s obsession with such sentiments. The exhibition boasted a careful selection of impressive work, yet, in the end, it was perhaps inevitable that it barely scratched the surface of this multifaceted topic.