No Country: An Introduction

7:54 | Published on March 25, 2013 | 4,833 Views

Curator June Yap explains the concept for the No Country exhibition and discusses a selection of the featured artworks. Truong Tan talks about his work What Do We Want in relation to communism; Wah Nu and Tun Win Aung deconstruct their work Four Pieces (of White) and its examination of the idea of the hero, and Arin Dwihartanto Sunaryo elaborates on how his work Volcanic Ash Series #4 is linked to the Gunung Merapi eruption.

For more information, please visit the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative.

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June Yap: Why is the exhibition titled No Country? I was basically looking for a topic that would have relevance to Asia, and also to an international audience, and then to an American audience.

So the exhibition, No Country, is really about looking at some of the relationships, some of the issues, and the challenges of the region. We would like to shift away from reductive representations of the region, which is generally understood as the nation-states that we know of today, many of which were established as nations in the past century. So the idea was to be able to look beyond that, and in so doing, find some other ways in which to constitute the region.

Looking at a country, let’s say like Vietnam, it is not such a singular understanding that’s possible. In observing its history, this country was very much divided. How do you start to think about the effects of that division? 

Truong Tan: [Vietnamese with English subtitles] When Communism was in high tide in Vietnam, I think that they didn’t have a concept of individualism, only collectivism. They used the term “we” for the Communist Party, and a separate “we” for the people. 

June Yap: Truong Tan’s work What Do We Want is a work that was produced in the 1990s in Vietnam. This work reflects the context of Vietnamese society during a time when there had been economic reforms that were changing the society. Aesthetic practices were kind of left behind in this period of change. 

Truong Tan: [Vietnamese with English subtitles] Other artists present the front of the face, or the “good side” of society, which I have a hard time seeing, but they hide the “dark side” of society.

June Yap: Here you have him incorporating a male nude that references the artist’s refusal to be censured. In looking at the work then, we’re not just looking at the artist coming out himself, in terms of his own sexuality, but understanding and being able to observe Vietnamese society at that point in time too.  

Truong Tan: [Vietnamese with English subtitles] About that painting, why did I paint a person who was rope-bound? At that time, Communism destroyed religion, morality, and tradition, and secondly, they did not allow art to flourish.

June Yap: The two artists who come from Myanmar—Wah Nu and Tun Win Aung—their work Four Pieces of White comes from a larger project, which is A Thousand Pieces of White. The work includes an image that they found in a journal that they had highlighted—a figure, which is General Aung San—and then painted out the context of the figure. 

It also includes a shelf that contains forty sculptural busts of General Aung San that have their faces averted. So you do not actually see the figure immediately; you are not able to recognize who it is. You would have to actually peer around the side of this shelf in order to catch a glimpse, and even then, you may not be very sure who exactly you are seeing. And I think that is an effect that they were looking for.

Wah Nu: When we are young, my parents—also my grandparents—they were taking about General Aung San. So, in our minds, this is a memory of . . .

Tun Win Aung: A hero.

Wah Nu: A hero.

June Yap: And, so in this project, Wah Nu and Tun Win are recovering elements of personal and political histories, and I think that’s one thing that is very important in trying to understand the histories of these countries, that we’re not just looking at all these narratives that have no connection with the individual. And I think that comes up very powerfully in their work, because it is very much a personal story of their own families.

Tun Win Aung: In my background, my father, he is a craftsman, a sculptor. So when we were young, our family produced a lot of plaster sculptures as souvenirs for selling. In 1998, our country was changing, politically. So immediately, in this kind of sculpture, statue, painting, or photograph, the image had to be hidden. So, also for our family, we kept them by ourselves at home, we hid them. So, when we were thinking about these pieces, we wanted to show these statues on the shelf. For our people, even we hide all of these statues, or photographs, or images. But we recognize his form. So, that’s why we decided to face these statues to the wall.

June Yap: So we have the work by Arin Dwihartanto Sunaryo, Volcanic Ash Series Number 4. This work is quite abstract in a formal sense, but yet there are these layers that he’s created because of the multiple coats of resin that he has applied, and so the work actually has a certain depth within it as well.

Arin Dwihartanto Sunaryo: If we look further, closer to my work, there’s a specific narrative about the works, because I use a very specific material. It’s Merapi.

June Yap: What he has done is, he has combined ash from the volcanic eruption of Gunung Merapi, an active volcano in Indonesia that had a very explosive eruption in 2010. 

Arin Dwihartanto Sunaryo: The Merapi eruption was the first time I had experienced catastrophe in my life. When I decided to use volcanic ash, it was actually when my friends came to my studio, and brought the ashes to me.

June Yap: So, in incorporating the volcanic ash into the resin, in a way the work becomes a bit of a landscape as well, in a very literal sort of way. And so you have here, instead of just simply an abstract image, also a three-dimensional landscape that has captured historical and material presence into the work.

Within the region there are numerous significant practices and artworks, and artists as well, so there was no way that an exhibition could possibly encompass all that’s happening there, or convey a very comprehensive understanding of the region. However, given that this project is also about introducing these works into the museum’s collection, there’s a lot of potential as well to build upon the collection in the future, to expand knowledge of and engagement with the region.