Addressing notions of histories, stories and constructed narratives, the exhibition looks at Asia and its collective memories.
An exhibition primarily comprising film and video installations, Ghosts and Spectres – Shadows of History runs until 19 November 2017 at NTU Centre for Contemporary Art, Singapore. Featuring artists who have made their names in video and film art over the past years, the exhibition is set to uncover hidden histories and narratives, offering new ways of approaching the past as well as the present.
Addressing Asia and its contemporary histories, the works on show were born out of the exhibiting artists’ engagement with the everyday fabric that makes up the realities of the Post-War and Cold War Asia. According to the curators of the show, Professor Ute Meta Bauer and Khim Ong,
“Ghosts and Spectres – Shadows of History looks specifically at how the notion of ghost is used in artworks to represent histories within their respective cultures that were either obscured or not openly discussed. Spectres here is understood as an allusive concept referring not only to violent histories and trauma, but also a playfulness in communities that is not widely known.”
Exploring seemingly intangible yet pervasive and lingering systems of knowledge, the exhibition examines histories that appear lost, unnamed and unwritten in official sources. Yet, these histories are found in vernacular, everyday expression. Told through mythologies, tales, traditions and other folklores, these histories find themselves inscribed into a society’s culture and therefore continue to exist at the edges of society’s collective memory.
Bringing together four different artists, the exhibition engages extensively with film and media art. Apichatpong Weerasethakul (b. 1970, Thailand) is a distinctive figure in contemporary Southeast Asian cinema, and his thought-provoking films often explore personal narratives alongside wider political and social contexts. In Ghost and Spectres, Weerasethakul presents the installation Fireworks (Archives) (2014).
The hazy, dream-like film showcases Sala Keoku, a Buddhist-Hindu temple. As if leading the viewer through the grounds of the temple at night, the artist explores monumental sculptures of mythical creatures through his audiovisual work. To Weerasethakul, there is a relationship between these sculptures and the political regimes that have plagued Thailand, the country in which he was born. A visual expression of the popular revolution against corrupt political regimes and authorities, Weerasethakul addresses the wider context of Thai politics against the backdrop of common mythology and religion.
An interesting addition to the show is Ho Tzu Nyen’s The Nameless (2015). Addressing the fraught political history of Singapore, Ho’s work examines narratives of the communist struggle in Singapore’s pre- and post- independence years. With national, officially-sanctioned narratives of the struggle between the ruling party and the communist coalition often branded as the mainstream discourse of Singapore’s political development, Ho’s work investigates the often shrouded figure of Lai Teck, a triple agent whose name continues to exist along the margins of Singapore’s history.
Ho’s film pieces together edited and re-coloured parts of several Hong Kong films (with the result that actor Tony Leung Chiu-wai is inadvertently cast as the star in Ho’s film), as if he himself is piecing together the often fragmented stories of Lai Teck’s past. Combined with texts from the author of The Communist Struggle in Malaya (1954), Gene Z. Hanrahan, the video is an interesting blend of fact and fiction, woven together through the use of the film medium. Commissioned by the 2014 Shanghai Biennale, the work continues Ho’s examination of the political and ideological playing field of Singapore and the broader Southeast Asian region.
The focus on particular and, to a certain extent, peculiar histories is not at all coincidental in Ghosts and Spectres; curators Baeur and Ong put the exhibition together with an aim to identify the fragmented and fragmentary nature of history. “Similar to pieces of a puzzle,” Bauer and Ong write, “their accumulation gives shape to the image that we see and experience, which results in a multitude of narrations.”
This multitude of voices continues with Nguyen Trinh Thi’s work, Letters from Panduranga (2015), which shows the everyday life of Vietnam’s indigenous Hindu tribe, the Cham community. Living in Ninh Thuan province (which was known as Panduranga), the Cham community’s spiritual centre is currently under assault as its location is being earmarked for the siting of nuclear plants. Circling around an anonymous exchange of letters between a man and a woman, the film cycles between fiction and documentary narratives, challenging the viewer on multiple levels.
Another work by Nguyen in Ghosts and Spectres is the documentary Love Man Love Woman (2007), a work that offers a view into the Dao Mau religious community. With its worship of figures of Mothers Goddesses, the religious community does not reject the expression of all genders and sexuality, allowing its acceptance of gay Vietnamese men. The documentary offers a glimpse into the rituals, lives and practices of the Dao Mau’s followers, providing an interesting edge to a show primarily focused on histories.
The most recent work on show in the exhibition is that of South Korean artist Park Chan-kyong. Citizen’s Forest (2016) is an evocative film bridging two Korean tragedies, which are both still very much alive in the society’s collective memory. Collecting the victims of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising, which saw the brutal and unprecedented massacre of young students protesting against the then South Korean regime and the recent 2014 Sewol ferry disaster, the film records the victims trying to recover from the trauma of such events. Gathered in a forest, Ho and the victims conduct traditional shamanistic rituals in order to deal with grief, loss and anguish.
Bringing together artists that critically engage with narratives of the past, the exhibition addresses the possibilities of the audiovisual media in creating and re-creating interpretations of the memories that still make up much of the cultural fabric that holds Asian societies together. Highlighting the fact that the immersiveness of the cinematic – the possibilities in the audiovisual – has been applied in propaganda films and equally in today’s news media, the exhibition simultaneously looks at the fact that these artists also counter these narratives with strong visual imaging. Prompting the viewer to explore the notions that inform the way in which we view our world, the films raise questions about power, identity, authority and construction of perceptions of histories. Ghosts and Spectres encourages its viewers to never take anything for granted and reveals a hidden world behind our plain, ordinary everyday lives.
※ This article was originally published in Art Radar(http://artradarjournal.com/) and reprinted by their kind permission.
copyrightⓒ 2017 All rights reserved by the author and Art Radar.
Junni Chen is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Junni maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.