IMMATERIAL FRONTIERS presents the work of five leading media artists from Southeast Asia: Charles Lim, Cheo Chai-Hiang, Tad Ermitaño, Tintin Wulia, and Dinh Q. Lê. Representing three generations of artists and using a broad definition of media art, the exhibition includes lo-tech DIY constructions, digital video, sculptural installations and interactive sound works. The exhibition addresses the concept of the ‘frontier’ as a physical, conceptual or ideological ground that defines the edge and beyond.
The works in Immaterial Frontiers consider the notion of boundaries as both expansive and limiting. For some artists this is framed by the tension between the ‘local’ and the ‘transnational’, while others raise questions of identity through the use of language in daily and official forms. In other works, artists have repurposed discarded materials in conjunction with open source technology, to bypass the limits of the dominant consumer culture and map out their own DIY culture. Sound installations in the exhibition explore conventional physical, political and geographical conceptions of the border.
As a region these people have always been closely linked through tradition, trade and immigration and great cultural, political and economic interplay. As an example, Singapore was discovered three times across its history. First it was ‘Temasek’ when the Sumatrans came, then ‘Singapura’ as it became part of the Sultanate of Johor (now part of Malaysia), and finally the present name ‘Singapore’, given by the British colonials.
The artists in Immaterial Frontiers reflect the transnational and transcultural aspect of Southeast Asia. This is expressed in the frequent collaborative nature of their art practice often rooted in their use of technological media. A theme that runs through these artists’ works addresses the socio-economic fallout from the rush to modernization. Today, the countries that define the Southeast Asian region span the range from fully economically developed nations, like Singapore, to nations such as Indonesia and the Philippines that are part of the new economic growth of Asia.
In Immaterial Frontiers some of the artists repurpose found objects and discarded materials as a form of commentary on the growing social and economic inequality found in their homelands due to rapid economic development. For instance, Tad Ermitaño created Bell from common building materials, including roofing steel, cabling and turnbuckles. While Dinh Q. Lê looks to the popular media of Hollywood movies about the Vietnam War for the found object. Without its lens the camera is a useless technological object to be thrown out. Yet Charles Lim creates his work despite the lack of a camera lens, literally converting the artist’s hand into the technology.
At a time when China and East Asian countries are a focus in the art world, great artistic advances are being made in the Southeast Asian region. The artists and their works from this unique region need to be understood in their own context, outside of the looming shadow of both China and the legacy of a colonial past. Where China and the other East Asian nations have national arts that are conscious of their unique political and cultural histories, many of the countries of Southeast Asia are still creating national identities. As an example, countries like Indonesia and Singapore attempt to cast a single identity over a population made of a variety of ethnic groups without casting off the previous cultural heritages.
This struggle with language and culture is reflected in the work of several artists, including Cheo Chai-Hiang who looks at how language is used as part of creating cultural dominance within the multicultural and multi-linguistic nation of Singapore. Dinh Q. Lê’s work presents an outside culture trying to make sense of its own imperialist experience through the language of cinema. In both cases the cultures observed are defined by exclusion as much as inclusion. Tintin Wulia uses the passport as the symbolic object that signifies the difference between identity and nationhood. By possessing a passport we are defined as being part of a particular nation. Yet it contains only legal status, citizenship, and cannot give one entry into the culture of a region. By presenting various passports en masse, she also reminds us that the legal status of citizenship is malleable.
The artists presented have exhibited internationally; they are well aware of the latest trends in the galleries and museums of the West. Many have gained recognition from the major museums, festivals and journals. Yet for these artists the West is not the goal. They are not creating a body of work in the hope of being able to move to the US or Europe. No matter how much they exhibit internationally they have consciously chosen to remain part of their communities. None of these artists are interested in creating works that play into the West’s desire for exoticism. They are aware of the theoretical issues surrounding current media practice, the traditions of the exotic ‘Other’ in Western art and the effects of globalization, yet their works are firmly rooted in their communities. Together they create a unique voice from a region that has traditionally been the borderland between the East and West.