Change begins with small acts. The title of my blog is taken from Paul Gilroy's powerful slim volume packing a resounding counter-cultural critical punch.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

3 Young Contemporaries : Review

by Carmen Nge

A tongue-in-cheek whimsy and an engagement with the everyday marked the recent exhibition at Valentine Willie Fine Art, which showcased 3 young contemporary artists from the region: Eko Nugroho, Vincent Leong and Natthawut Sing-Thong,

In this show, Eko—who hails from Yogyakarta and is a major comic artist back in Indonesia—birthed a grotesque icon for our postmodern age: the Minotaur of industrialization and cheap labour. Like the monstrosity from ancient Greek mythology, Eko’s is a hybrid creature—in this case, half human, half machine.

His minotaurs are a fusion of body parts (torsos, arms, legs, miscellaneous limbs) and machinery (wheels, smoke stacks, pulleys, motors); these are bodies without faces, without identities apart from their value as a mobile workforce. We like to believe that we have ascended into a high tech digital age but Eko reminds us, with his crude machine-man, that we are still ever reliant on the basic foundation of capitalism: human labour.

A central motif that links his vibrantly disturbing paintings (all of which were created in Malaysia during a short residency at Rimbun Dahan earlier this year) is that of industrial spires, or, factory chimneys (‘cerobong’) spewing smoke. These funnels of pollutants are usually positioned atop heads, suggesting human complicity in environmental degradation as well as rampant development. Another all too-familiar image is that of our Petronas Twin Towers, which sneak their way into paintings, contextualizing Eko’s preoccupations. His treatment of the relationship between Indonesia and Malaysia is difficult to dismiss.

Inspired by logos and appliqués on uniforms and clothing, his embroidered works are especially intricate and unusual; they most closely reference his comic illustrations, and are filled with bizarre symbols and metaphors of wide topical interest—terrorism, nationalism, anarchy.

Eko’s video art is more cryptic—titles like Dark Disco (2005) and The Breeders (2004) only hint at meaning—but their raw and rough around the edges quality simulates his DIY sensibility. Unsurprisingly, Eko is the founder-president of Daging Tumbuh, a collective initiated in 2000 that self-publishes bi-annual comics compilations, with a following in Indonesia and as far abroad as Belgium and the Netherlands.

What is most arresting about Eko’s work is their surreal familiarity. These are images of a time and place we know all too well—our excessively turmoil-ridden world—but taken apart into signs, symbols, metaphors of meaning and then reformulated into unsettling narratives that tickle, titillate and trouble.

The only Malaysian artist in the show, Vincent Leong, takes on issues of a global spectrum, ranging from the ongoing war in Iraq to the iconography of martial arts hero, Bruce Lee. His work underscores an underlying concern of young artists working within our contemporaneous milieu: how to engage with the serious/topical without being sucked into a sense of futility about it.

Vincent’s series of lightboxes (Car Boom!!!, Operation Iraqi Love [OIL], and Suicide Lovers) manages to solicit the unthinkable from their audience: a smile (and even an exclamation of “so cute!”) when looking at images referencing the current atrocities in Iraq.

This writer views the lightboxes as a homage to Takashi Murakami, Japan’s most successful pop artist, who has taken the concept of ‘cute’ (or kawaii in Japanese) to a whole new dimension. Capitalizing on the Japanese obsession with cute, Murakami creates works that look adorable but nevertheless tackle issues as dark as the atomic bomb and nuclear fallout.

Though Murakami’s work is veiled more symbolically, Vincent’s work is more transparent. The hidden images are only evident to us when his lightboxes are switched on; without light, we only see decorative pastel paper (gift wrapping, in actuality) with innocuous and cheerful bubble designs. The message could not be clearer: truth will only come to light when there exists greater transparency.

In his video piece, How to be Bruce, Vincent explores something wholly different: martial arts icon Bruce Lee. Taking a scene from The Way of the Dragon where Lee battles Chuck Norris in an East versus West kungfu showdown, Vincent boils it down to a precise distillation of symbols: arrows and dots. Lee is represented by a blue dot and his nemesis a red one. Arrows of similar colours zip and zap onscreen, indicating the speed and range of the two fighters’ hand and leg movements.

This is an instruction video worthy of adulation because it denies us the very essence of a Bruce Lee fight sequence: Bruce Lee himself. The man, the myth, the icon is reduced to a blue dot and his infamous kicks and punches distilled into blue arrows. We only have a soundscape to remember him by and to reference his movements; the high-pitched Bruce Lee kungfu cry is the only vestige of his superhuman lethal flying fist. The rest are codified and reproduced as a system of simple signs.

From photo-image outlines (a two-dimensional take on British artist Rachel Whitread’s negative space) and a video pastiche of handshakes, to nifty, too-clever for words Transformer-like sculptures made from light bulbs, switches and adaptors (co-joined with Rubik-cube ingenuity), Vincent Leong’s works defy easy categorization. What is certain is the artist’s willingness to engage with popular culture and contemporary concerns with wit, whimsy and a wacky sense of humour.

Of the three, Nattawut Sing-Thong, who hails from Chiangmai, is the most introspective and somber. His mostly gray and black-hued canvasses are too self-referential to be easily appreciated. The Gray Thought series purports to be philosophical—with the colour gray representing integrated thought (artist notes)—but the black objects atop human heads are too simplistic, relying on images that are more functional than they are meaningful (hammer, rock, fire).

Natthawut’s two largest paneled work—Untitled [Blue Rose] and Jungle Devil—are beautiful to look at (pastel on black ink-soaked paper), with realistically rendered images (rose, flower, heart), but these common objects are stripped from their everyday contexts and repositioned against a dark, amorphous backdrop. They become abstractions, fragmented from their usual semiotic structures.

It is as if the artist challenges us to remove ourselves from the usual structures of seeing and meaning-making to contemplate new ways of understanding the things around us—a tough task indeed.

This review appeared in Off The Edge, June 2005 issue