Highlight: Edwin Roseno ‘Green hypermarket’ series

 
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Edwin Roseno, Indonesia b.1979 / Premna microphylla (from ‘Green hypermarket’ series) 2011–12 / 150 digital prints on aluminium, ed.1/5 / Gift of the artist through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation 2013

In the lead up to ‘The 8th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT8) we look back to a work acquired during APT7 by artist Edwin Roseno.  ‘Green hypermarket’ was a gift of the artist, the series a poignant reminder of economic and environmental tensions that are increasingly relevant today in countries of the Asia Pacific region.

Yogyakarta-based photographer Edwin Roseno is an active member of the young generation of Indonesian artists that were highlighted in APT7. He is the manager of MES56, a prominent Yogyakarta photographic project space, and is at the forefront of contemporary Indonesian photography.

Created especially for APT7, ‘Green hypermarket’ 2011–12 consists of 150 images that feature combinations of everyday materials — plants and consumer packaging — to question the relationships and associations they have in our lives. Using cans, bottles, cartons and plastic containers he bought in supermarkets, Roseno potted a variety of plants sourced from friends, neighbours and local nurseries. The photographs present the symbolic dichotomies of natural and manufactured, renewable and discarded, local and global, ancient and modern.

The fundamental human need for food was the basis for Roseno’s project. Through it he investigated the food production process from its simplest means to global mass-manufacturing, revealing the industry’s inherent health and environmental implications. However, these curious images are not solely a commentary on consumerism; the contrasts are often beautiful and ethereal as they hover in a constellation of circular panels, harmonising fragile natural forms with the glossy texture and rigidity of discarded synthetic objects, now degraded and empty. Some provide elegant aesthetic compositions: tall cactus spines push skyward from a discoloured round chocolate-wafer tin; the long green leaves of a yucca extend out in every direction from a brightly coloured Blue Band margarine container; and the delicate fronds of the Premna microphylla sprout from the bold graphics of a can of Spam. Other couplings can be read with more symbolic connotations. For example, a Coca-Cola can, which sports the brand of one of the most recognisable global corporations, grows a shrub of bamboo, a plant treasured across Asia and the lifeblood of many communities; while a small, humble cactus with fine thistles emerges from a Campbell’s soup can, considered the icon of the Pop art movement.

By borrowing plants to make his images, Roseno was forced to engage with his local community, a process he found very important to the project and through which he gained further knowledge of local plants, including those useful for food and medicine. Whether indigenous or introduced, these plants had been grown in his local environment, nurtured by an owner and grow in response to the seasons; the containers, however, whether from global brands or Indonesian companies, are abundantly available, with their ingredients, production process and origin often foreign and disconnected from any single location.

Imagery of commercial branding is now an inescapable part of urban life and can evoke nostalgia as well as consumer desire. Plant life can also evoke a sense of belonging or familiarity. In this way, Roseno’s images contrast our emotional connections to both, with the realisation that some consumer icons are more recognisable than many plant species — perhaps the work suggests that we appreciate plants for their aesthetic quality, but that their role in the food we eat is either absent or removed from our conscious thoughts through commercial production. ‘Green hypermarket’ is a poignant reminder of economic and environmental tensions that are increasingly relevant today, particularly in the growing economies of Asia where urbanisation, globalisation and mass consumerism have evolved rapidly, and younger generations can grow up in societies no longer functioning through traditional or local customs.

This work is currently showing in the Gallery’s touring Queensland exhibition ‘Indo Pop: Indonesian Art From APT7

Highlight: Vandy Rattana ‘Fire of the Year’

 
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Vandy Rattana, Cambodia b.1980 / Fire of the Year 5 2008 / Digital print on paper / The Kenneth and Yasuko Myer Collection of Contemporary Asian Art. Purchased 2013 with funds from Michael Sidney Myer through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist

Compelled to rectify voids in Cambodian history, Vandy Rattana documents everyday life, recording events that reflect the country’s rapid transformation while revealing the ever-present realities: a haunting past and an uncertain, challenging future. He captures social contexts in their natural state, avoiding stereotypes and the perspective of foreigners, to illustrate the constructs permeating Cambodian life. In an interview with curator and scholar of contemporary Cambodian art Erin Gleeson, he expressed his motivation, conscious of the loss of history and culture that has already occurred:

Whether my photographs are conceptual or documentary projects, my goal is to show life and invite people to examine life. At this time it is important to create images because in Cambodia we lack an archive. Documentation is both a reflector and creator of history. We need documentation to help us understand the changes from generation to generation.1

As a child growing up in Phnom Penh in the period immediately following the Khmer Rouge, Vandy became aware of the rapidly changing urban environment, and found inspiration in foreign cinema. As well as working for the Phnom Penh Post as a photojournalist, he has created series that deal with both individual and community experiences. In 2008, he captured the ‘First High-Rise’ being built in Cambodia with a curiosity in the transformation it represented from the ‘horizontal world’ in which he’d grown up.2 More recently he has created a major documentary film and photography project, ‘Bomb Ponds’, for which he travelled across the country recording the craters left by the US bombing from 1965 to 1973, during the Vietnam War. The work exposes the underlying trauma that permeates the Cambodian psyche through the seemingly natural ‘ponds’ that dot the landscape.

Vandy’s 2008 series ‘Fire of the Year’ was featured in ‘The 6th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’. It captures the calamitous destruction of a fire that tore through the district of Dteuk Tlah (‘Clear Water’) on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. The area was home to 300 families living in stilted houses over a polluted and garbage-strewn lake. Most of the poorly built houses were razed in the fire, with only a few saved by those able to pay bribes to the fire brigade, known colloquially as the ‘fire police’.3

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]Vandy Rattana / Fire of the Year 6 2008 / Digital print on paper / The Kenneth and Yasuko Myer Collection of Contemporary Asian Art. Purchased 2013 with funds from Michael Sidney Myer through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist

The carnage and loss is a reminder of the disasters that continually occur throughout developing nations, where their effect is heavily compounded by the socioeconomic conditions of the region. In Vandy’s images, evidence remains of cramped living conditions and poor structural materials, exposing infrastructure defenceless to a fire despite its common occurrence in the capital. Blackened housing posts and corrugated iron contrast against the cloudy haze of smoke that infuses the careful compositions, forbidding any distant view. The memory of community is everywhere, yet only a few lonely figures are present that evoke individual situations; a figure with a hose in a seemingly futile effort, surrounded by destruction; a pair of men trying to salvage iron from a still-smoking heap; and a child crouched on a charcoal post in a sea of charred wreckage, flames still burning in the background. With some objectivity, Vandy has documented this tragic incident, but in doing so conjures ideas about the wider realities of urban life in Cambodia, events that have passed and those yet to face.

Vandy Rattana was one of the six founding members of the artist collective Stiev Selapak (‘Art Rebels’) in 2009, which opened Sa Sa Gallery, the first contemporary art space run by Cambodian artists for Cambodians. Now showing around the world, he is one of the key figures in Cambodian contemporary art.

Endnotes
1  Vandy Rattana, interviewed by Erin Gleeson, ‘Avant-garde blaze new trails’, Phnom Penh Post, 12 August 2009.
2  Vandy Rattana, interviewed by Gridthiya Gaweewong, Connect: Phnom Penh: Rescue Archaeology: Contemporary Art and Urban Change in Cambodia [exhibition catalogue], ifa-Galerie, Berlin, 2013, p.109.
3  Mellissa Kavenagh, ‘Fire of the Year’, in The 6th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art [exhibition catalogue], Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, 2009, p.139.

Ah Xian: Heavy Wounds

 
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Ah Xian, China/Australia b.1960 / Heavy wounds series no.10 1991 / Oil on canvas / Gift of Nicholas Jose and Claire Roberts through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation 2008. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist

The Gallery holds 15 works from the 1991 ‘Heavy wounds’ series by Ah Xian, making it the largest public collection of his paintings. The series represents a formative moment for one of Australia’s most prominent artists, and marks an early stage in a career that would become one of the most poignant explorations of contemporary cross-cultural practice in Australian art.

For over two decades, Ah Xian’s practice has involved processes that not only engage Chinese and European artistic traditions but also challenge established techniques and presentation. His style evolved gradually: he needed a period of disconnection before he could let go of the political influence of the Cultural Revolution and begin to consider instead the vast and rich culture of China. He first expressed this in porcelain, and subsequently in a range of revered traditional materials. Ah Xian acknowledges that, when working in China, artists cannot ignore politics, yet after a certain time away he found a deep interest in his heritage, noting that ‘the artists who have left China, become very Chinese’.1

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Ah Xian, China/Australia b.1960 / Heavy wounds series no.8 1991 / Oil on canvas / Gift of the artist through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation 2012. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist

‘Heavy wounds’ was a precursor to Ah Xian’s signature style of figurative sculpture. It constitutes a juncture between key stages in his career as well as between working in Australia and China. He first visited Australia in 1989, and soon after returning to Beijing — following the Tian’anmen Square massacre of 4 June 1989 — sought political asylum. These are some of Ah Xian’s earliest paintings after immigrating. They signify a time when he could respond to his personal experience of the violent events, while coming to terms with the dislocation he encountered on leaving the country in which it occurred. As scholar and curator of Chinese contemporary art Melissa Chiu has said of the series: ‘The sense of isolation and trauma in Ah Xian’s paintings is as much a reflection on China in the post- June Fourth period as it is upon the uncertainty of having just migrated to Australia’.2

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Ah Xian, China/Australia b.1960 / Heavy wounds series no.5 1991 / Oil on canvas / Gift of the artist through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation 2012. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist

Ah Xian’s career has never been restricted by the artistic conventions of the environments in which he has worked. Self-taught, he began painting nudes in the early 1980s, often set against the stark and imposing urban landscapes of his native Beijing. The depiction of the naked body was considered extreme at the time: in 1983, government officials interrogated him and confiscated some of his paintings as part of the ‘anti-spiritual pollution’ campaign.3 The busts painted in ‘Heavy wounds’ appear in numerous later sculptures, and the body has continued to be the central subject of his work, providing a platform from which to experiment with material and imagery.

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Ah Xian, China/Australia b.1960 / Heavy wounds series (unfinished 3) 1991 / Oil and pencil on canvas / Gift of the artist through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation 2012. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist

The ‘Heavy wounds’ series references the socialist realist posters distributed by the Chinese Red Cross during the Cultural Revolution, which included instructions on bandaging wounds, preventing illness and disease, and dealing with trauma. A sense of irony pervades the series: Ah Xian repurposes these posters in response to the June Fourth event, employing the vernacular of the Chinese Communist Party to criticise their actions while making use of a style he had resisted when painting in China. The paintings are didactic rather than sympathetic to the wounded. Their blank expressions and plain clothing create anonymous characters, conveying the collective sentiment of socialism. The bare brick and bland architecture that appears in the backgrounds of several works bear designs that Ah Xian rendered in his earlier paintings in China, while the bandaged limbs led to further works depicting wrapped and sometimes dismembered body parts.

‘Heavy wounds’ is on display in the Queensland Art Gallery’s Watermall — this is the first time they have been displayed together since their premiere at Irving Gallery (now Sherman Galleries) in Sydney in 1991. The exhibition follows the generous gift of the artist of 14 paintings last year, complementing previous gifts by Carrillo Gantner, AO, and Ziyin Gantner, Nicholas Jose and Claire Roberts, whose support of Ah Xian’s work precedes his arrival in Australia. The series augments the Gallery’s extensive holdings of works by the artist, which include porcelain busts from his ‘China China’ series, lacquer and cloisonné works from the ‘Human human’ series, and bronze busts from ‘Metaphysica’ (currently touring 14 regional Queensland venues), purchased with funds from Tim Fairfax, AC.

Endnotes
1  Ah Xian interviewed by Rhana Devenport, Ah Xian [exhibition catalogue], Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, 2003, p.25.
2  Melissa Chiu, Breakout: Chinese Art Outside China, Charta, Milan, 2006, p.184.
3  Roni Feinstein, ‘A Journey to China’ in Art in America, vol.90, no.2, February 2002, p.10.

Join us at 2.30pm Saturday 29 March at the Queensland Art Gallery Lecture Theatre for an artist talk from Ah Xian. In this exclusive opportunity, hear as he reflects on his ‘Heavy Wounds’ series on display. The ‘Heavy Wounds’ painting series, is one of the first series he created in Australia, and last before moving to sculpture. Ah Xian’s ‘Heavy wounds’ series is on display until 3 August 2014.

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Phuan Thai Meng’s work lies as if in disrepair

 

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Phuan Thai Meng, Malaysia b.1974 | The Luring of [ ] . 流水不腐, 户枢不蠹 2012 | Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, mounted on plywood | Six panels | Purchased 2012. Queensland Art Gallery | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | ©: The artist
Malaysian artist Phuan Thai Meng’s photorealist paintings depict urban environments in unique and suggestive ways. He offers glimpses into the forgotten spaces of cities that lie between rapid construction and urban decay, relaying the relationship between these seldom-considered environments and local inhabitants. An educator and co-founder of the artist collective Rumah Air Panas (RAP), Phuan is an active member of the Kuala Lumpur art community whose practice extends beyond painting to include installations and multimedia projects that draw from daily life, local politics and urban development.

The Luring of [ ] . 流水不腐, 户枢不蠹 2012, a panoramic painting almost 10 metres long, presents a view through a number of freeway underpasses in Kuala Lumpur. A common sight in many cities around the world, these structures are so functional and ordinary that their visual effect is often overlooked; we can easily ignore their imposing scale, bleak ugliness and domination of public space. The work’s scale and perspective dwarfs us, capturing the massive bulk of these concrete giants. It also shows the quiet darkness and mildew-stained surfaces hidden underneath the roads on which modern society depends. In technically stunning photorealism, Phuan’s rendition of this urban environment is presented in a seamless fashion, but depicts a place rarely considered beautiful, contrasting the polish of the painting itself with the structural decay and grime of his subject.

Phuan further manipulates this seamless imagery by making unconventional modifications and adding details: a tear or cut, attaching a prop, or revealing a hidden support. Cutting into the canvas along the lines of the pylons, Phuan reveals the substrate of the work, destroying the illusion. The slashed canvas dangles limply in line with the concrete structures, accentuating their decay and neglect. The plywood visible beneath also evokes the structures of slums in urban Malaysia, contrasting the heavy concrete of mass development — a symbol of the country’s economic progress — with the cheap housing occupied by those who are yet to share in this success.

Specially commissioned for the Gallery’s Collection, the work is currently on display in ‘The 7th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT7) until Sunday 14 April.

7th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT7)installation view

Tiffany Chung’s installation gleams seamlessly

 
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Tiffany Chung, Vietnam b.1969 | roaming with the dawn – snow drifts, rain falls, desert wind blows 2012 | 4000 glass animals | Purchased 2012. Queensland Art Gallery | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | © The artist

Tiffany Chung, a highly regarded South-East Asian artist has developed an ambitious work, specially commissioned for the Gallery’s Collection. The installation features in ‘The 7th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT7) which closes Sunday 14 April.

Born in Vietnam, artist Tiffany Chung spent much of her youth in California, where she completed postgraduate studies before returning to her native country in 2000. Having rarely returned after migrating to the United States with her family, she experienced a curiosity for her motherland — in particular, regarding the thriving pop culture emanating from Asia — while many Asians were still looking to the West for inspiration (1).  Her early photographs and video works address economic and social development in Vietnam, her personal experiences of moving to the United States, and the influence of North American culture in Vietnam. Her recent installations and map works diverge from these themes, using the style and attributes of Pop abstraction and neo-Pop. Environmental change and imagined futures are explored through the tactility and repetition of consumer culture, providing her installations with a toy-like materiality.

Powerful in scale and enchanting in detail, roaming with the dawn – snow drifts, rain falls, desert wind blows 2012 consists of around 4000 glass animals on a 10-metre-long riverine plinth. Allegorically rendering an image of collective migration, it evokes the great forces that exist in the natural world. From golf ball-sized rabbits, cats and turtles to jaguars, rhinoceros, giraffes and elephants, the work features a menagerie of randomly grouped animals, displaying the diversity of the animal kingdom. Their transparency maintains a ghost-like lightness. Created in collaboration with a glassblower in Chung’s home town of Ho Chi Minh City, each animal is individually handmade, employing a craft that is ancient but now also largely used to make souvenirs for tourists. The sheer numbers of animals, their fragility, and their shiny, synthetic surfaces, provide an ethereal vision of an apocalyptic future. Balancing the natural and the surreal, the work recalls ideas of movement, and environmental and social change.

This installation is the second work by Tiffany Chung to enter the Gallery’s Collection. across the sea of dust and fluttering dragonflies 2008 has similar imagery of a migrating flock of animals. The artist has also worked closely with the gallery to develop this concept into an interactive project for Kids’ APT7, titled one day the bird flies across the sea.

Endnote
1. Steven Pettifor. ‘Living in limbo’, Asian Art News, vol.14, no.6, Nov–Dec 2004, pp.62–3.

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Inner energy, cosmic force

 
Unknown | Untitled (Chakraman) (detail) late 19th century | Distemper on cotton | 293 x 51.5cm | Purchased 2010 with funds from the Henry and Amanda Bartlett Trust through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery

Untitled (Chakraman) is a rare example of Nepalese painting. Visually striking in its scale and colour, and rich with iconography, it illustrates concepts connected to Buddhism, Hinduism, tantric principles and yoga, while depicting a great number of deities and incarnations.

The central figure is a yogi (male yoga practitioner) showing the inner structure of the body that presents an aid for yoga and meditation in transforming the body into an enlightened spiritual force. The Hindu yogic system generally believes in the seven chakra (Sanskrit for ‘wheel’) system which are lined along the spine. The serpent goddess Kundalini is believed to lie coiled in the pelvic region until the energy is awakened and ascends through the opening of the lotus petal­–lined chakras, each with its own colour and deity. Travelling from the root or base chakra in the pelvic floor, the force travels through the sacral chakra (governing sexuality), naval, heart, throat and brow chakra, ending in the crown chakra, which in this painting connects to a flaming crown where the chakras continue ascending toward heaven. The composition is strictly symmetrical and coded (some tantric paintings resemble mathematical diagrams), the face echoes the style of Mughal miniature painting, and the body is dotted with lingham-yoni, the abstract, phallic symbols representing male and female energy.

In the lower section of the painting, an array of gods and incarnations connect the yogi to the earthly realm in veneration of Vishnu, the preserver of the universe. The serpent Vasuvi, a transitory manifestation of Vishnu balances above the earth goddess Prithvi, who rests on the boar-headed avatar Varaha. Below is the golden tortoise Kurma, the second avatar of Vishnu, under which Vishnu lies in an ocean, on a multi-hooded serpent with a chauri (fly-whisk) bearer and his consort Lakshmi at his feet. At the base is a ten-armed goddess holding the eight weapons of Vishnu, supported by a frog standing on two spheres representing the sun and moon.

Newar artists of the Kathmandu valley were considered masters in depicting the metaphysical world and tantric art, which was an important didactic instrument in illustrating cosmic order and inner energies. Primarily through religion, Nepalese artists borrowed many of their styles from traditions in India, however as these rapidly evolved with the many courts and artistic centres in India, the Nepalese often continued and refined styles further than their Southern neighbours. Both Nepalese painters and sculptors were hugely influential to Tibetan art, with envoys of artists employed to decorate the Buddhist temples in Tibet and sometimes further into China. Untitled (Chakraman) is a fascinating example of the rich artistic traditions of Nepal, where the confluence of Hinduism and Buddhism inspired great accomplishments and their position amongst Himalayan neighbours offered varied artistic exchange.

Our next post ‘The Chakraman meets the Conservator’ will focus on preparing the work for display.