Guggenheim’s No Country: Contemporary Art from South and South East Asia: A Review

Manjari Sihare reviews the Guggenheim’s latest exhibition – No Country: Contemporary Art from South and South East Asia 

New York:  The exhibition, No Country: Contemporary Art from South and South East Asia represents the diversity of contemporary artistic practice from the region by way of a selection of work by twenty-two cross-generational artists. “No Country” implies borderlessness and that is the very essence of this show. In recent years, we have seen American museums such as the Rubin Museum of Art and the Asia Society host surveys of art from specific regions, whether it is modern and contemporary Indian art or Pakistani art, but this is probably the first time an American museum is showcasing a collective survey of South and South East Asian art . It facilitates a new way of seeing South and South East Asian art as an important part of and within the larger international contemporary art scene.

The curator of the show, June Yap, in her introductory note stresses on the choice of title adapted from a W.B. Yeats poem, a phrase that reads “No Country for Old Men” the show’s purpose, “to propose an understanding of regions that transcends physical and political boundaries”, and its outcome, “…it confirms that South Asia’s contemporary art is multifarious and highly evocative.”

Its raining Asian Art at the Guggenheim New York

Its raining Asian Art at the Guggenheim New York

Untitled 1, Rustam Series, 2011–12. Watercolor, gouache, and ink on paper, 27 1/2 × 19 5/8 inches (69.9 × 49.8 cm). Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York Guggenheim UBS MAP Purchase Fund, 2012 2012.143. © Khadim Ali

Khadim Ali, Untitled 1, Rustam Series, 2011–12. Watercolor, gouache, and ink on paper, 27 1/2 × 19 5/8 inches (69.9 × 49.8 cm). Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York Guggenheim UBS MAP Purchase Fund, 2012 2012.143. © Khadim Ali

It is noteworthy that the works in the show are part of a larger body of work acquired by the museum through funds made available by the Swiss bank, UBS, the main sponsor of the MAP initiative. The museum itself is representing a strong pan-Asian focus with its Manhattan flagship currently peppered with exhibitions of artists from the region. Of a total of six shows currently on view, four center around Asia – a retrospective of Gutai, Japan’s most influential avant-garde post-war collective, a solo show of New York based artist of Indian origin, Zarina Hashmi, an installation by Danh Vo, a Vietnamese artist living in Denmark, and the No Country exhibit. More so, the museum has recently announced the inauguration of another initiative to further the discourse on contemporary Chinese art.  The Guggenheim is joined by other museums in New York to focus on contemporary art from Asia, most noteworthy among which are of course the Rubin Museum and the Asia Society and more recently the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met has roped in noted Pakistani contemporary artist, Imran Qureshi to create a site-specific work atop its Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Roof Garden (which has previously hosted works of international contemporary artists such as Tomas Saraceno). Such initiatives speak volumes about where the attention of the international art world is. Economics, of course has played a prominent role in defining this focus. But it is not limited to that. South and South East Asian Nation States have been challenging the western world’s monopoly in many disciplines, as is illustrated in the international art market in recent years.

What strikes most about the exhibition is the innovative selection of artists, more biennial regulars that art market favorites. It is a surprising selection but a very refreshing one. The twenty-two artists are from the length and breadth of the region including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam. The works largely address effects of colonization and globalization on national identity. Many of these nations have similar pasts, as a result of which, all the works speak to each other in a collective way.

Navin Rawanchaikul
Places of Rebirth, 2009
Acrylic on canvas, 220 x 720 cm
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Guggenheim UBS MAP Purchase Fund
© Navin Rawanchaikul and Navin Production Co. Ltd.
Photo: Courtesy the artist

Among the works that stood out for me were Navin Rawanchaikul’s 2009 canvas titled “Places of Rebirth” and Bani Abidi’s “The boy who got tired of posing”. Rawanchaikul is a Thai artist whose ancestral roots are in the Hindu-Punjabi communities of present day Pakistan. He holds a Japanese permanent resident status. In this iconic canvas rendered in quintessential Bollywood hand-painted hoarding style, the artist explores his personal identity. The canvas reads “A lonesome son of Hindu Punjabi diaspora and product of cross-cultural negotiation….From remote villages of Punjab to Northern Thailand…then a return after 60 years of wonder.” In the center, one sees the artist himself, with his Japanese wife and daughter riding the Tuk Tuk (ubiquitous Thai taxi and important symbol of the country’s tourism). The vehicle bears all three flags of the artist’s identity- India, Pakistan and Thailand. The Tuk-Tuk driver wears a cap “anywhere, anynavin” evocative of the impact of migration, colonization on individuals alike. This is a documentation of the artist’s first trip to Pakistan since his family moved out. The panoramic canvas is a humorous cinematic tale infused with symbolism from the history of India and Pakistan and the relationship of the two nations. You thus see pictorial anecdotes such as Khushwant’s Singh famous book on the partition of India, “Train to Pakistan”, a guard from the “lowering of the flags ceremony” at Wagah border, Pakistani truck art etc. At the center of most Rawanchaikul’s works is the notion of collaboration which we see here as well in the form of credits in the lower half of the canvas. The title points to the artist’s attempt to reconstruct the place where he is now as a site of rebirth.

Bani Abidi’s “The boy who got tired of posing” (see right)
Installation view: No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, February 22–May 22, 2013
Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

Bani Abidi’s “The boy who got tired of posing” is a three – part photo and video installation centered around an eighth century Arab war hero, Mohammad Bin Qasim, credited  to be the first colonial founder of Pakistan owing to his victorious invasion of Sind in 711 CE. The video has humorous undertones. Through three imagined narratives – a series of studio photographs of a young boy posing as Bin Qasim, a video clipping of a TV drama on in Qasim’s conquest of the Sindh telecast in 1993, and present day photographs of a young man believing himself to be Bin Qasim – Abidi presents her take on the ‘Arabization’ of religious and cultural identity in Pakistan. A Pakistani artist based in Karachi and Delhi, Abidi usually deals with the political and cultural tension between India and Pakistan in her work. In an interview with Nafas Art Magazine, Abidi explains, “by presenting exaggerated scenarios of a nation that takes refuge in a selected glorious past, I hope to engage viewers in questions about the need or the extent to which we limit our identities.”

Tayeba Begum Lipi Love Bed, 2012Stainless steel, 81.3 x 213.7 x 185.4 cmSolomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Guggenheim UBS MAP Purchase Fund© Tayeba Begum Lipi Photo: Kristopher McKay © Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Tayeba Begum Lipi
Love Bed, 2012
Stainless steel, 81.3 x 213.7 x 185.4 cm
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Guggenheim UBS MAP Purchase Fund
© Tayeba Begum Lipi
Photo: Kristopher McKay © Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Other interesting works included Bangladeshi artist, Tayeba Begum Lipi’s Love Bed, a stainless steel structure composed of razor blades and paper clips, exhibited last at the 2012 Dhaka Art Summit; Shilpa Gupta’s 1:14:9, a sculptural piece documenting the numerical data about the fenced border between India and Pakistan; and Filipino artist, Norberto Rolden’s diptych canvas showing an F-16 fighter jet flying over Afghanistan on one side, and a quote by former US president, William McKinley on the other. The work is a commentary on the politics around the colonization of Philippines.  Another notable inclusion is a group of three contemporary miniature paintings by Pakistani artist, Khadim Ali.

Norberto RoldanF-16, 2012Oil and acrylic on canvas, 182.9 x 365.8 cm overall, diptych Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Guggenheim UBS MAP Purchase Fund© Norberto Roldan Photo: Courtesy the artist and TAKSU, Singapore

Norberto Roldan
F-16, 2012
Oil and acrylic on canvas, 182.9 x 365.8 cm overall, diptych
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Guggenheim UBS MAP Purchase Fund
© Norberto Roldan
Photo: Courtesy the artist and TAKSU, Singapore

Complimenting the exhibition is a series of 5 videos/films which are on view on all days except Friday when the New Media Theatre plays host to a special educational film program. I missed this but will definitely go back for these works. Holland Cotter’s review in The New York Times also lists Amar Kanwar’s work as worth seeking out.

All the works in the show are juxtaposed with interpretative captions for the global audience which sometimes leave you asking for more, especially in the context of specific regional references, unknown to an American audience. The exhibition is scheduled to travel to Singapore and the Asia Society in Hong Kong wherein the Guggenheim team will collaborate with curators at these venues to adapt the display to the audiences there. It will be interesting to see how and whether the interpretive materials are transformed for the Asian venues, where the audience is most likely to be more familiar with the histories and references than their American counterparts.

The overall reception of the exhibit is best summarized in this reaction from an American woman viewing the show: “Thank God! No Al Qaeda!” The exhibition, though small, has moved beyond the cliches that have shadowed the region.

Zarina’s Contemplative Art

Guest blogger Bansie Vasvani visits Zarina: Paper like Skin at the Guggenheim, New York

New York: Zarina Hashmi’s long overdue retrospective, Zarina: Paper Like Skin, at the
Guggenheim, New York, opened to an audience struck by the work’s serenity, quiet
dignity, and artistic impact. Combining her evocation of language and place to chart her
personal, itinerant trajectory, Hashmi’s work explores the notion of home and identity
with enormous depth and perspicuity. An established printmaker, she is often considered the precursor to a generation of artists for whom transience and its impact has permeated
through their work.

Zarina Hashmi
Homes I Made/ A Life in Nine Lines, 1997
Portfolio of 9 etchings and one cover plate printed in black on Arches Cover white paper, Chine Colle on handmade Nepalese paper; Image credit: Luhring Augustine, New York

In the front room, a portfolio of nine etchings titled Home I made/A life in Nine Lives, (1997) line the walls in geometric resplendence. Made on Arches Cover handmade Nepalese paper this series of simple, two-dimensional grids capture the structure of a basic dwelling. Zarina’s bare bone depiction can be best described by art critic John Berger’s definition of home as the center of the universe in an ontological rather than a geographical sense. Letters written by her sister Rani, that often described the passing of family members in Pakistan, become grist for her etchings and woodcuts. Her reductive images distill the sentiments of home to architectural forms and capture her nostalgia without being maudlin or dramatic. For Zarina, home becomes the place from which the world can be founded and it is the heart of the real. In these etchings, the original Urdu script of the letters is cut in metal for the prints, and the remainder of each image is rendered in woodcut. Zarina’s work underscores the sculptural aspect of her printmaking process acquired from the renowned British printmaker Stanley William Hayter while living in Paris in the 60’s. The painstakingly delicate renditions of Home I Made/A life in Nine Lives are steeped in a worldview inspired by the Minimalist tradition.

Zarina Hashmi, Cage, 1970. Relief print from collaged wood blocks.   Printed by the artist. Image credit: Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Zarina Hashmi, Cage, 1970. Relief print from collaged wood blocks. Printed by the artist. Image credit: Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Untitled (1970), Cage (1970), and Kiss (1968) are a series of relief print collages made by inking assembled pieces of wood. Each work is constructed on handmade paper distributed by an organization founded by Mahatma Gandhi to promote Indian
handicrafts. The varying tones of the papers obtained from different regional workshops impart a particular character to each print emphasizing the quality of the material as much as the concept behind her creation. Using bits of wood assembled together, she
ingeniously creates a corral, a home, and a shelter suggestive of a protective surrounding.
The fragments and wood pulp produce dense fields that highlight the material properties
and spatial presence of an object in the convention of European Constructivism. Reminiscent of Carl Andre, her work appeals at a very basic, emotional level. Even in Kiss, inspired by Constantin Brancusi’s stone sculpture, the two pieces of wood placed side-by-side capture the primitive, folkloric precedents that Brancusi’s work expresses.

Zarina. Kiss, 1968. Relief Print From Collaged Wood, Printed In Black And Burnt Umber On Bfk White Paper
Image credit: Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

Perhaps one of the most riveting series in the exhibit is her Untitled (Pin
drawings), 1977. Here a sequence of works on pure white paper creates a meditative,
trance like effect on the viewer. Grid formations are devised through columns of
perforations from pinpricks. These three-dimensional mounds that rise above the paper
give the composition texture without disrupting its immensely soothing quality. Very
much in the vein of Agnes Martin’s biomorphic spiritual effect, and the visual impact of
Robert Ryman’s white on white paintings, Zarina’s personal, highly individualized art
stands out for the quality of its conception and the reductive feel of the cosmos on paper.

Zarina Hashmi, Home is a Foreign Place, 1999
Portfolio of 36 woodcuts with Urdu text printed in black on Kozo paper, mounted on Somerset paper
Image credit: Luhring Augustine, New York

Zarina’s most well known piece, Home is a Foreign Place (1999), examines the larger issue of identity by implying that a home is what you make of it. From her residence in many countries as a diplomat’s wife, the artist believes that the idea of home and identity comes from an amalgamation of diverse cultures and experiences without
attributing any one single influence. In this woodcut portfolio of 36 basic architectural
lines, the drawings reveal how evocative a simple gesture can be. Triggered by Urdu
words like door, threshold, warm etc. that are etched into the drawings, the geometric
abstractions of crisscrossing lines and circles evoke the actual experience of entering such
spaces. Deeply nostalgic of both the loss of moving away from her homeland, and the
gradual extinction of Urdu, her mother tongue, the artist is able to revive her memories
through the deliberation of her deft craftsmanship.

Zarina Hashmi
Blinding Light, 2009
22 carat gold leaf on Okawara paper
Irregular vertical and horizontal slits
Image credit: Luhring Augustine, New York

In Zarina’s art beauty and aesthetics push the viewer towards new modes of
enlightenment. Her gold leaf piece that she initially felt might turn out to be garish,
connotes a sense of purity and sublimity that relays the quality of the metal itself. In
Blinding Light (2010) a 6 foot by 3 foot sheet consisting of layers of fine gold leaf
Japanese paper hangs from a bar. Vertical slits in a grid like pattern allow light to enter
and create shadows against the shimmering reflective surface. Imbued by Sufi
philosophy, the work resonates with the poetry of her imagination. Ultimately, Zarina’s
brilliant machination of paper that she believes is as malleable as skin compels us more
than ever towards a fulfilling experience.

This exhibition traveled to the Guggenheim , New York from the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles and will be on view until April 21, 2013.

Bansie Vasvani is an independent art critic based in New York City.  She has a Masters Degree in Modern and Contemporary Art, and has traveled extensively to art fairs all over the world.

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