Welcome to the Jungle
13 Apr - 16 Jun 2013
Yokohama Museum of Contemporary Art, Japan
5 Oct - 24 Nov 2013
The Contemporary Art Museum, Kumamoto, Japan
In 1958, Malaysian artist Patrick Ng presented a painting titled Spirit of Earth, Water and Air, illustrating amongst others, three maidens ‘floating’ amongst Water Lilly pads in a quiet river, fringed with banana, pineapple and palm plants and trees in what seem like a tropical jungle. Above them, a man wearing only a piece of loincloth ascends, back-facing the viewer and front-facing a woman who appears akin a winged goddess; his arms are stretched out, his fingers reaching those of other men who emerged from the left to right of the painting as if they were his doppelgänger. On the top right corner, a man and a woman foregrounds a deep orange morning sun above a thatched roof village hut in a tableau of youthful optimism; meanwhile on the left, a female figure stretches her arms in front of a crescent moon surrounded by stars. As human as these men and women may appear, the painting’s title however suggests otherwise; these are ‘spirits’, spirits in a jungle.
Spirit of Earth, Water and Air (1958)
Patrick Ng (Malaysia)
Oil on canvas
137 x 122cm
Collection of National Visual Art Gallery Malaysia
Within the Southeast Asian psyche, the jungle is not just a physical space, but also a mental and spiritual one. And given the fact that the original terrain where Southeast Asia sits on was originally of lush jungles and rainforests with meandering rivers, streams and vibrant fauna and wildlife, the use of metaphors such as the that in the Javanese wayang (puppet play), even if it speaks of the celestial world, or the conscious re-greening of a country such as Singapore as an aesthetical and psychological exercise, and rapid deforestation for immense economic gains appears perfectly rational. These are principal factors that led me to suggest the audacious exhibition title, Welcome to the Jungle, one that is intended to introduce new audiences to a fragment of contemporary art from Southeast Asia since the last decade. ‘Jungle’ is a word derived from the Sanskrit ‘jāngala’ meaning ‘wild, uncultivated ground’ and this exhibition demonstrates the practices of artists who continue to grapple those grounds with intimate issues such as that pertaining the personal and national histories and identities; rapid urban growth, economic successes and collisions; and the ethereal and devotional while pushing the artistic envelope with traditional and unorthodox materials and strategies.
In the past decade, a myriad of projects driven by artists concerning the land, involving rural and urban communities have taken place in Southeast Asia. Perhaps, the most internationally known of these efforts is The Land Project from the province of Chiang Mai, Thailand initiated in 1998 by Thai artists Kamin Lertchaiprasert and Rirkrit Tiravanija and managed through The Land Foundation. Originally operated from an office and independent gallery near Wat Umong temple (now house and studio of Lertchaiprasert), The Land Project actually takes place some 20 minutes away from the city at an unused rice field at Baan Muang Fu, T. Baan Mae, A. San Pa Tong. Artists are invited to live and work on this barren field usually for up to one year at a time as part of a free ‘organic’ laboratory where activities including Vipassana meditation, experimental house building, traditional farming and the design of renewable energy sources take place. To date, artists such as Superflex, Atelier van Lieshout, Arthur Meyer, Tobias Rehberger and Phillippe Parreno have participated in The Land Project alongside Thai artists such as Mit Jai In, Prachya Phintong and Angkrit Ajchariyasophon.
In 2005 in Indonesia, performance artist Arief Yudi Rahman formerly of the collective Geber Modus Operandi initiated Jatiwangi Art Factory in the village of Jatisura, West Java. Since then, projects and festivals such as the Jatiwangi Residency Festival, Village Video Festival and Ceramic Music Festival have taken place with the participation of village residents through the exchange of contemporary and traditional arts practices. In encouraging this exchange, each visiting artist to Jatiwangi Art Factory projects is typically housed within a village household, in the care of a local family. The eventual result of this arrangement are the presentation of artworks in various forms, be it music, sculptural objects, rituals, performances etc. and relates the interaction, mutual inspiration and knowledge exchanges between the parties.
Recently, on 24th February 2013, SAM Assistant Curator Naomi Wang, American researcher Natalie Johnston and myself had the good fortune to become the first foreigners invited to participate in an extraordinary project initiated by artist Aung Ko at his birthplace at Thuyedan Village near Pyay, Myanmar. In this village project affectionately known as ‘Aung Ko’s Village Project’ wholly finance by Aung Ko himself, local artists are invited to inspire and be inspired by the village and its inhabitants without any expectations of eventual presentations or projects. More significantly, we were told that as far as anyone from the village could remember, we are not only the first foreigners invited to the project, but also the first foreigners to have stepped foot on their land. This land, in the cloudless, dry and searing February heat of almost 40°C has turned into clay-like dirt and dust. In a distance, brown hills roll, outlining a border between Pyay and the nearby Rakhine State, now barren of the rich jungle that it once was, is a victim of both commercial logging and the villager’s foraging of materials for daily use. This change in landscape I was told, happened rather drastically and was most noticeable since the past decade. It is a far cry from the kind of jungle that the famed ethnic Shan State Army or the Naga tribe of Myanmar would be found in; it is a changed jungle but not a lesser landscape. Meanwhile, the Malaysian Borneo jungles have suffered a similar fate. From 1995 to 2000, up to 86% of its jungles were lost to deforestation due to the lucrative palm oil industry. This industry contributed $27 billion in 2011 to the Malaysian economy, however, its ecological, cultural and social impact is irreversible and leaves much to be desired.
View from paddy field at Thuyedan Village (Myanmar) to the hills that was once a forest
February 2013, © Khai Hori
Jungles everywhere in Southeast Asia have changed, for most, into urbanised towns and sprawling modern cities. In 1963 in Singapore, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew initiated what was to become known as the ‘Garden City’ campaign, transforming and greening (if not re-greening) the state’s harsh concrete, urbanized and sterile landscape. In 1995, Lee pointed that this greening of Singapore was necessary as he “always believed that a blighted urban landscape, a concrete jungle destroys the human spirit."
This ‘spirit’ is not only one that is philosophical but one that exists within the histories and realities of the peoples and cultures of Southeast Asia. At the beginning and end of every traditional wayang performance in Java, Indonesia, the gunungan (mountain motif), or the kayon (jungle motif) is introduced not only to indicate the beginning and end of a performance, but also as an obligatory reminder of the divine and necessity of having faith, developing security and fostering a sense equilibrium in real life. The gunungan or kayon contain several key elements whose key amongst others are the dewadaru, a tree known for its ironwood like quality in real life and in wayang, symbolises the celestial jungle and tree of life; meru mountain, the heavenly mountain, a high and cool place where one can find peace and respite, and a representation of an upward path towards god; a pool of water or life’s elixir at the foot of dewadaru and meru; an ecology of animals such as tigers, buffaloes, monkeys and peacocks; and two guardian giants protects the entrance to meru. 
Gunungan for Wayang Kulit
Collection of Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore
The compositional arrangement of Janji Sejahtera (2008) by Muhammad ‘UCUP’ Yusuf from Indonesia seems to mimic this composition of gunungan or kayon. A large tree heads the top of this long woodcut print, reminding us of dewadaru. Its roots and reason for its vigor are the myriad of social conditions pictured below. Slogans and expressions such as ‘berdikari, berdiri diatas kaki sendiri’ (independence, stand on your own two feet), ‘bebaskan ekspresi seni kerakyatanmu’ (liberate your cultural expressions), ‘gotong royong tolong menolong bangun solidaritas’ (camaraderie to achieve solidarity), ‘janji sejahtera bersama’ (promise of peace together), ‘sama hak’ (equal rights) and ‘tepat guna’ (use with prudence) in an illustration that suggests a kind of utopia. These slogans sit alongside scenarios of holistic and communal life choices such as participating in sporting lifestyles, the creation of a community library and knowledge sharing, regular dinners with family, co-operative farming community and a marketplace where its commodities are affordable to all. Yusuf is one of the founding members of artist collective Taring Padi, a group of artists from the Indonesian city of Yogyakarta formed in 1998 interested in excavating social and political injustices through art and community related projects and are well known in the arts community for their satirical woodcut prints. Tak Kunjung Padam (2008) or ‘unflagging determination’ commemorates one such social undertaking by the collective in Porong, East Java that was the site of a disastrous mudslide where boiling hot mud in May 2006 ravaged eight villages and displaced 12,000 people as a result of a failed natural gas sounding exercise by Lapindo Brantas Inc. Janji Sejahtera, Tak Kunjung Padam and other works by Yusuf and Taring Padi speaks of the land in relation to a spirit, albeit of a different kind, a ‘fighting spirit’ and the spirit toward ownership and rights. The slogan ‘keadilan terbitlah terang’ (with justice comes light) emblazoned on the red banner at the bottom of the print reminds us of this.
Janji Sejahtera (2008)
Muhammad ‘UCUP’ Yusuf (Indonesia)
Woodcut print on fabric
120 x 240 cm
Singapore Art Museum collection
Tak Kunjung Padam (2008)
Muhammad ‘UCUP’ Yusuf (Indonesia)
Woodcut print on fabric
240 x 120 cm
Singapore Art Museum collection
Spirit(s) and the spiritual play major roles in the lives of Southeast Asians. The brand of Catholicism in The Philippines for example, often referred to as ‘Folk Catholicism’ incorporates the existence of ‘animism’ within Catholicism.
There is a representation of the ‘everyday man’ amidst mythical spirits and other luminaries in the inverted, triangular retablo wall installation Ang Retablo ng Bantaoay or The Retablo of Bantaay (2007) by Roberto Feleo. This man symbolises the populace and one can choose to view him both as victim and/or beneficiary who on one hand ‘received’ religion yet on the other, suffered as the drudge of colonial and feudal masters. This human manifestation in a way, recognises the plight of oppressed natives who prevailed and fought back during the Basi Revolt of 1807. These natives had risen against strict control on the use of basi (sugarcane liquor) imposed by the Spanish conquerors. Basi is a crucial media and offering for communications with the spirit world in pre-Catholic Philippines. Ang Retablo ng Bantaoay also features the pinteng, a valorous warrior figure based on the animistic belief of the Ifugao people who reside in Luzon, north of the Philippines. Known as a much-feared tribe of headhunters, the Ifugao or ‘people of the hill’ believe that when a pinteng warrior dies, he will be rewarded with a head of flames to strike fear into the hearts of his enemies. Another figure, Maguayen, also known as the god of the kingdom of water in Visaya mythology, is represented here with coins on his eyes and lizards on his shoulder. Maguayen is known today as the spirit that holds the role of the Manunggul boatman, transporting souls to the netherworld in the afterlife. Manunggul boatman effigies were found sculpted to the lid of burial jars uncovered in 1964 along with what is believed to be the oldest human remains in Southeast Asia (more than 40,000 years old) by members of the United States Peace Corps in the Tabon Cave in west coast of Palawan island and are still found on the traditional boats in parts of the Sulu Archipelago, Borneo and Malaysia today, suggesting a rich, age-old maritime tradition and intra-cultural connections.
Thai artist Araya Rasdjarmreansook takes on this role of the transporter of departed souls, almost as if living the role of a Manunggul, in a 3-channel video installation and performance titled Thai Medley I, II and III (2002). In the video, we see corpses lying on the floor, in glass tanks filled with water and on metal hospital stretchers. These departed bodies are without names and identities and without families to return to. Rasdjarmreansook is seen chanting and humming Buddhist sutras (religious scripts) for their benefit, herself dressed in garments not dissimilar to those covering the corpses. This ‘performance’ is not performance art in its traditional, theatrical or rhetorical sense, it is a ritualistic and purposeful civic and benevolent act. Unlike that of the godly Manunggul boatman, this human act was born out of compassion, as a gesture of gratitude and to assist the dead’s smooth transition to the afterlife assuming that they would have played fitting roles as part of their membership in society in their living years. Dressing the corpses in decorative fabric and chanting of sutras are not only the acts of service by Rasdjarmreansook, further to this, she sees through their ritual washing and finally, cremation.
Riau (2003), a video piece by Zai Kuning featured one of his visits in search of the Orang Laut or nomadic sea gypsies in Riau Archipelago, Indonesia. In previous times, following seasonal sea conditions, these sea gypsies traversed the coastlines of Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia, living almost the entirety of their lives in small handmade wooden sampans (boats). Along the Johor coast between Malaysia and Singapore, the Orang Laut used to play many pivotal roles particularly due to their special relationship with the Johor Sultan. Amongst the roles tasked were coastal security patrol of the lucrative shipping and trading lanes and performing special services for the royal family at events such as weddings, funerals and hunts. In the early 19th century about 1000 Orang Lauts resided in Singapore with several known sub-ethnic groups including Orang Gelam, Orang Seletar and Orang Biduanda Kallang. Today, due to modern geographical and political markers, the remaining Orang Laut mostly traverse the Riau area of Indonesia, prohibited from travelling into ancestral borders.
As you enter Welcome to the Jungle at Yokohama Museum of Art, flags of various bright colours, collaged with texts spelt in jawi greet you. This is an artwork titled Crossing Point (2011), simultaneously a relic from a performance outside the Singapore Art Museum by Indonesian artist Arahmaiani. With the help of both fans and volunteers, Arahmaiani marched along Bras Basah Road, waving the flags and the Arabic inspired jawi letters to activate positive energies for the museum, not unlike shamanistic rituals or a Sufi’s distinctive dance. Each script on each flag spells a word and these words come in various languages. There are words such as jujur – Indonesian and Malay meaning honesty, omah – Javanese meaning home, talay – Thai meaning erosion, jnana – Sanskrit meaning wisdom and knowledge, akal – Malay meaning mind and intellect, maut – Arabic meaning death, and katarungan – Tagalog meaning justice. These words were specially selected by Arahmaiani to relate to the challenges, mission and personality that befit a contemporary art museum. The performance was a symbolic act to conjure the good and to remind us to erase all evil intents in our existence as a public institution or face maut or an eventual ‘death’ (of character). In the context of today’s global climate, one that is filled with many terrors and phobias, the flags typically evoke an uneasy disquiet, even if only at the onset of the encounter with the work. Crossing Point leads you to Where is Navin? (2007) a self-portrait, life-sized sculpture by Thai artist of Indian heritage Navin Rawanchaikul.
Where is Navin? (2007)
Navin Rawanchaikul (Thailand)
Painted fibreglass, cloth, wood, edition 3 of 3
176 x 67 x 45 cm
Singapore Art Museum collection
Navin in the sculpture wears a traditional Indian garb, the kurta, and holding up a sign spelling his own name in a different language each time as if looking out to receive an ‘other’ of the same name. ‘Unused’ signages spelt in languages such as Thai, English, Japanese, Burmese, Russian, Mandarin and Hindi saying only one thing, Navin, are scattered on the floor around the feet of the sculpture as if waiting for the right context for its use. In 2006, Rawanchaikul collaborated with Naren Mojidra, a young Bollywood film director to present the film Navins of Bollywood at Nuit Blanche festival in Paris, France. As part of his research and within the film, Rawanchaikul embarks on a personal journey, looking for other Navins of the world. Here, he discovered that ‘Navin’ meant ‘new’ in Sanskrit and is a name that can be considered household in predominantly Hindu India and is given to both genders and not just men alone as he had initially assumed. Rawanchaikul also discovered that Navins existed everywhere, from parts of Asia to the United States and even in distant Scotland.
The question of both personal and collective identities in an ever-globalised world as experienced by Rawanchaikul has heightened and received renewed interest recently in Southeast Asia. In Singapore, about 4000 citizens came together in a landmark public event to speak against the Population White Paper endorsed by a vote of 77 to 13 in its parliament in January 2013. The issue at stake was the potential disruption to the livelihoods, identity and culture of ‘true’ Singaporeans by the government’s need to propel the economy by inviting an additional 1.5 million foreigners by the year 2030 to reside and work on the island state. This ‘true’ Singaporean identity has been a scorching point of debate amongst the citizens of Singapore where Singapore residents from Mainland China are identified and singled out as being culturally and economically dissimilar from Singaporean Chinese although they share the same roots and language. The same is thought of the Indians hailing from India vis-a-vis Singaporean Indians as well as affluent Singapore residents from Europe, America and other parts of Asia. Meanwhile in Myanmar, Buddhist monks in the city of Mandalay marched on 2 September 2012 to support a plan to oust the Rohingya minority by President Sein Thein. Led by a monk named Wirathu, the march, according to him is to "let the world know that Rohingyas are not among Myanmar's ethnic groups at all", even as the United Nations refers to Rohingyas as the ‘most prosecuted people on earth’ in dire need of humanitarian assistance. Many Myanmese prefers to view Rohingyas as Muslim refugees from Bangladesh who entered and lived illegally in Myanmar for generations, whose population have exploded exponentially and are a violent people but yet is demanding citizenship.
In recent years in Malaysia, ethnic issues have also raised political and social tensions when its citizens, particularly the minority Indian and Chinese Malaysian ethnic groups questioned the validity in conferring the special bumiputra (son of the soil or native son) status almost exclusively to the Malay majority based on a policy that was drafted in the 1950s even today. Such protests are at times read with a positive light and is seen as proof of allegiance and unity within the early migrant populace derived from an adaptation and amalgamation of local cultures, recognising Malaysia as the ‘fatherland’ where their forefathers played pivotal roles in, contributing to its progress and modernisation. Malaysian artists such as Liew Teck Leong, Chong Kim Chiew and Yee I-Lann for example, often revisit this question of rights and identity through their works.
Just recently, on 9 February 2013, armed militants from the Philippines stormed and took the Sabahan village of Tanduo by surprise. These insurgents apparently came on the orders of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III to reclaim the ancestral land they see belonging to the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo. This territorial dispute can be traced all the way back to 1658 when the Sultan of Brunei gave away an area to the Sultan of Sulu (present day Sabah). According to the Sulu Sultanate, Malaysia today is servicing a yearly ‘cession’ payment of RM5300 to the Sultanate of Sulu, a continuance of the 5300 Mexican Pesos to be paid yearly as agreed in 1878 between the British North Borneo Company and Sulu as part of the permanent cessation of North Borneo. The irony it seems today is the fact that the Sulu Sultanate appears confused by the ‘cessation’ arrangement and claims that the yearly monies paid to them is ‘rent’, hence their daring ask for the return of Sabah to Sulu.
In Sulu Stories (2005) by Yee I-Lann, the political, cultural and historical relationships and borders between Sabah and the Filipino-Sulu region are depicted being as wide and fluid as the expanse of the seawaters around them. One frame in this series of constructed photographic images features Tun Datu Mustapha, who is of Suluk-Bajau descendant and was the first governor of modern Sabah, standing in an old wooden boat next to the Sultan of Sulu. Another image, lining up ‘natives’ on an otherwise pristine beach littered with modern-day, human generated waste, suggests the ‘selling off’ of the region and its peoples to tourism and exotica.
In his lifetime, Tun Datu Mustapha was criticised for amassing a large amount of wealth through suspicious means and was rumoured to have customised two Boeing jets belonging to the state owned Sabah Air for personal use seem. Yet this accusations pale in comparison to former Philippines first lady Imelda Marcos, infamous for her multi-million dollar shopping trips to Europe and America, acquisition of expensive buildings in Manhattan and masterpieces such as those by Michelangelo and Boticelli. In his Imelda Collection (2006) series, Filipino artist Steve Tirona features Marcos as the central image to a line of fashion accessories from Marcos’ own brand. Endorsed by Marcos herself, depicting a kind of material ‘madness’ and ‘self-referencing satire’ as advertisements, these images were peculiarly commissioned by her own grandson to Tirona whose background lies as a commercial photographer. Despite her tumultuous and controversial public image, the commissioning, approval and use of these photographs as advertisements suggest that there is actually a perceived public ‘value’ and attractiveness for them in a land where in more than one region, 45% of the populace can be considered poor.
Poklong Anading documents some of these ‘ordinary poor’ urban areas in the Philippines with the series Anonymity (2005-2008). Everyday figures are depicted here, with identities obliterated by mirrors held up against their faces to reflect the sun. These are people glossed by on a daily basis in what was described earlier by Lee as ‘blighted urban landscape’. They include unidentified balloon sellers, street sweepers, food vendors and urban urchins, some whom were friends of the artist. The reflections from the mirrors create a kind of angelic ‘halo’ often associated with messiahs who sacrifice their being for greater good and service. A different urbanity is demonstrated in Hong Sek Chern’s Constructing Old and New (2010). This ink painting, borrowing techniques from traditional Chinese painting, personifies the famed and highly prized Singapore public housing apartments (HDB). These apartments are not mere concrete buildings but are also excellent exercises in space management and social engineering. Each neighbourhood and cluster of apartments are designed to contain a prescribed ratio of families from various ethnic groups, obliterating village models where people of the same ethnicity cluster together as a means of support, at the same time preserving traditional culture and language. This is the price we pay in the chase to become ’world class’ as performed by Lee Wen in his work World Class Society (1999). This modern day, urban, living arrangement shrouded by an ‘electric city’ (Electricity, 2010, :phunk), a city bathed in multi-colour and glowing artificial neon light in place of moon and stars as night comes.
There is no disputing the fact that the jungle today in most of Southeast Asia has turned largely either into concrete or well-managed and manicured gardens and plantations, all commonly connected to the chase for economic progress and alleged betterment. Some of us could be lost or struggling in this new unnatural jungle, caught in a perpetual chase merely to sustain our mortality and our art and artists often reflect this reality with unrestrained truths and sometimes, harsher reminders; it is however still one’s personal choice should one choose to shield oneself from this reality and view the more spectacular art presented at ‘markets’. The contemporary art practice of Southeast Asia, although generally borrowing the strategies, materials and methodologies introduced by Europe and America, does not exist to replicate or pursue the rhetoric of art within itself. It is a practice that excavates and investigates the embellishments embedded deep within the polities and spiritual and cultural roots that sways societal progress. Its aesthetics are borrowed equally from its own ancient histories and sub cultures and both in the same light. This is a region of more than 1000 languages of Austronesian heritage, belonging to hundreds of ancestral tribes whose bloodline still runs deep in the veins of its modern day descendants. Its natural jungles might be fast diminishing, but its urban and proverbial one is expansive and just as challenging if not treacherous to tread in.
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First published in the exhibition catalogue of Welcome to the jungle : contemporary art in Southeast Asia from the collection of Singapore Art Museum in April 2013 by Yokohama Museum of Contemporary Art, Japan and The Contemporary Art Museum, Kumamoto, Japan.