Nov 01 2013

Spotlight: Laos at Singapore Biennale 2013

by Sylvia Tsai

Interview with curator Misouda Heuangsoukkhoun and participating artists Bounpaul Phothyzan and Marisa Darasavath

In the past few years, Laos’ art scene has remained relatively under the radar while neighboring Southeast Asian countries, such as Myanmar and Cambodia, have gained considerable international recognition (Vietnam and Thailand already have a notable presence). It was therefore a treat to see two Lao artists participating in this year’s Singapore Biennale.

Bounpaul Phothyzan (b. 1979) and Marisa Darasavath (b. 1972) are both artists currently working in Laos. Phothyzan is an emerging contemporary artist whose practice, which began with painting, has since turned towards installation and performance in order to address social and environmental concerns. For the Biennale, he presented his site-specific installation We Live (2013), produced in collaboration with Phnonkham villagers.

As an established painter, Darasavath explores the female form with lush, bold colors, free-flowing lines and patterns. Her detailed compositions typically portray women at work, performing daily activities.

Responsible for bringing these two artists to the Biennale this year is Misouda Heuangsoukkhoun, who has been curating since 2006, when she was selected to participate in the Mekong Art And Culture project. At that time she organized the exhibition “Underlying: Contemporary Art Exhibition From the Mekong Sub-Region,” and has since then, among various projects, founded her own space, Lao Gallery, in Vientiane.

During the Biennale preview, ArtAsiaPacific took the opportunity to speak with these three figures who are slowly but surely defining the Lao art scene.

MARISA DARASAVATH, Untitled, 2013, oil on canvas, 250 × 500 cm. Courtesy the artist. 

Misouda Heuangsoukkhoun

How did you select Bounpaul Phothyzan and Marisa Darasavath as participating artists?

I’m currently based in Australia so when given this chance to curate for the Biennale, I went back to Laos and spoke to a lot of artists from the older generation and also from this generation. I chose a couple of the artists and asked them to propose their idea and from there, made my final selection. For Bounpaul and Marisa, I felt like their works reflected the theme of the Biennale and also believed that both of them had concepts and approaches that were good models for artists, especially students in Laos to follow.

For Bounpaul, his work used to be really realistic and mainstream. In Laos, if your work is not like that no one will buy your works and you cannot make a living. Both Bounpaul and Marisa used to paint for tourists. But once Bounpaul had the opportunity to study at Mahasarakham University in Thailand, he saw many works in varying media and styles and that inspired him to experiment with his own practice.

Marisa, on the other hand, has a very strong vision and has developed unique style unlike younger artists who still are trying to find themselves.

From your experience with the Lao art scene, how do you see the community developing?

There are quite a number of problems in Laos that make the contemporary art of my country incomparable to other countries. Education is one thing and the audience is another. Speaking of problems in Laos, Bounpaul’s work for the Biennale has been rejected in our country—it cannot show in Laos. Initially we had planned to do this installation on the Friendship Bridge in the Mekong River. But was turned down by the Director of the Department of Fine Art, Ministry of Information and Culture because he thought it might allude to the political situation surrounding the Mekong River dam project. Nobody wants to touch upon that topic. Censorship is still prevalent in my country. Artists cannot do works that speak about politics, religion or prostitution. But in the end, I’m not even sure it has to do with art, just an overexertion of power.

In your opinion, how can things move forward?

I think schools should take the initial steps towards change. They have to set a standard.  But I think this is everywhere. Students have to paint a certain way to get high distinction; you cannot go outside of that style. The audience is always expecting this from the artists. So if you present viewers a new style, they won’t accept it. I also believe we need more curatorial training in Laos to help mediate new understandings about art.

How many active curators are there currently? How many contemporary art galleries and museums?

I didn’t want to answer that question, but it’s just me. We have M Gallery, but no museum of art.

What do you hope to communicate through your section of the Biennale?

I hope to give the audience another view of Lao art. It’s quite difficult to explain to people, because if you are in our country, you won’t see works like this. You have to approach these works openly, without a preconceived standard. This is not just for Lao artwork but for all the works at the Biennale. I don’t want people coming into this thinking that works from the Philippines are like this, from Malaysia are like that, etc. Take all of that out of your mind and just enjoy and try to understand more about the artists and the artistic development of that country.

BOUNPAUL PHOTHYZAN, still from video in We Live, 2013, mixed-media installation, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist.

BOUNPAUL PHOTHYZAN, still from video in We Live, 2013, mixed-media installation, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist.

photo from We Live, 2013, mixed-media installation, dimensions variable. Courtesy of artist.

BOUNPAUL PHOTHYZAN, installation view of We Live, 2013, mixed-media installation at the Singapore Biennale 2013. Courtesy the artist.

Bounpaul Phothyzan

Can you speak a little about your artistic practice?

I was trained as a painter and have continued realistic painting as my main practice. However, lately I have felt that painting has not been able communicate my message to the audience and have since begun to experiment with other media.

In your work for the Biennale, We Live (2013), you address environmental problems, a theme you also touch upon in your paintings. What drew you to these concerns and to the Bolikhamxay Province in central Laos as location for the project?

This area has been rich in natural resources and agriculture. But through the years, they have increasingly become affected by natural disasters such as floods and droughts. In the past, these kinds of occurrences never happened in the village of Phnonkham but two or three years ago, they have begun to experience annual floods. Many of the villagers have moved away. I chose this problem to represent other environmental issues we need to be conscious of, and to bring awareness to the fact that our actions have an effect on the environment.

Your work involved the participation of Phnonkham villagers in helping you to construct a fish skeleton from dead trees along the dried up riverbanks of the village. How did you elicit their participation and get permission to use their land?

My country is still experiencing a lot of government issues so this process took some time. When I first asked the villagers to participate, it was quite problematic because they were afraid and unsure of what was going on, and if there were going to be consequences if they engaged with the project. I made several trips to the village and each time explained what my intentions were for this work. Eventually, I earned their trust.

What do the villagers get out of this collaboration, both in the process of creating the land installation and afterwards?

This is an alternative approach to inform the villagers of the environmental changes happening. By participating, the villagers can gain a deeper understanding of art, but also of the environmental issues. After the project, we conducted many interviews with the villagers. Many responded by saying that they didn’t know their actions would affect the environment. So now they have a greater awareness.

Any future projects you can share?

The next project is a continuation of this one, reflecting on ways human development impacts our ecology. People claim to be cutting down trees to sustain their livelihood, but it is not necessarily the case anymore. It has become an excuse for their commercial agendas. I plan to work in Northern Laos because we still have wonderful forest ranges up there but people are starting to cut the trees down at a rapid pace just for themselves.

Being a part of the Biennale, what do you hope to communicate to the international audience?

In the case of Laos, if one province is cutting and burning trees, it will also affect neighboring countries. Our actions are not just limited to ourselves, but will affect others, which is why I titled this work We Live.

MARISA DARASAVATHUntitled, 2013, oil on canvas, 140 × 190 cm. Courtesy the artist. 

MARISA DARASAVATHUntitled, 2013, oil on canvas, 190 × 140 cm. Courtesy the artist. 

Marisa Darasavath

Your works have such vibrancy and life. What do you hope to convey with your paintings?

I am interested in the female figure and in portraying the lifestyle of women I observe. I capture women in moments of everyday life, for example, cooking, bathing or fishing, or in relationships they have with their loved ones. I think a woman’s curves are very beautiful and that’s why I apply Lao textile patterns, to emphasize and blend the organic forms into the figurative representations.

For the Biennale, you have an entire gallery space showing quite large-scale paintings. Why did you choose this format for your works?

When I first began painting, I created realistic portraits. I then began to experiment by combining the portrait with various patterns working outward to create these very full-bodied compositions. The scale of the works never really crossed my mind.  

Where do your subjects come from?

For some works, I draw inspiration from the Hmong people, who are an ethnic group in Laos and in most parts of Thailand and China. Other times, I paint from memory, my own experiences of everyday routines. I paint in this manner to remind myself of the way life used to be and also to preserve activities that are quickly disappearing.

What do you hope to communicate to your audience?

I would like to express the joyful spirit of life. Even if my paintings depict women who are hard at work, there is a sense of contentment. The colorful palette and curvaceous lines are my ways of conveying this feeling.

The Singapore Biennale 2013 runs from October 26, 2013–February 16, 2014.

Sylvia Tsai is assistant editor at ArtAsiaPacific.