Southeast Asia has a long and colourful history of performance that includes music, dance, drama and theatre. But Political Acts: Pioneers of Performance Art in Southeast Asia presents post-traditional performance practice. Traditionally performance was used to connect and celebrate community values, but contemporary performance art has evolved into radical acts of introspection, protest and dissent.

The lifespan of performance art often extends beyond the initial staging, preserved by video or photography. The seven artists featured in this exhibition make use of this to their advantage. They discuss their individual places in the world, touching on topics like race, politics, gender, the environment, war, mortality, individual and national identity, and memory in their unique practices. But placed in an exhibition together, their work becomes a collective documentation of the state of affairs in a constantly evolving part of the world.

… placed in an exhibition together, their work becomes a collective documentation of the state of affairs in a constantly evolving part of the world.

Although renowned Indonesian artist Dadang Christanto has lived in Australia since 1999, much of his work is influenced by the 1965 anti-Communist purge in his home country. His father was a victim, and the trauma of the event has fuelled his practice. His work is often visceral and raw, and Slaughter Tunnel, 2015–2017, an immersive work created for this exhibition, is no exception. It invites viewers to participate and walk through a claustrophobic tunnel covered in tiny paintings of heads and smears of red paint, symbolising victims of the 1965 genocide.

Cambodian artist Khvay Samnang sheds light on the environmental and cultural impact of rapid commercial development in his country at the hands of the government and foreign investors. The conflict between tradition and development is at the forefront of Samnang’s practice. Through his photographs, Untitled (Sand), 2011, he lambasts the displacement of villagers in Phnom Penh to make way for luxury apartment building sites.

3 Political Acts - Moe Satt 'F 'n' F (Face and Fingers),' 2008-9. Courtesy the artist
Khvay Samnang, Rubber Man #3, 2014. Courtesy the artist and SA SA BASSAC, Phnom Penh.

Melati Suryodarmo’s work is often durational, which isn’t surprising considering she trained under, and later assisted, Marina Abramović. We get a taste of her physicality and determination through documentation of her work I’m a Ghost in My Own House, originally a 12-hour long performance in 2012, in which she crushes and grinds charcoal briquettes into dust, testing the limits of her strength. It’s an embodiment of loss, despair and hopelessness in everyday life.

Throughout his career, Lee Wen has focused on issues of identity and ethnicity as he evaluates his place in the world. Widely known for Journey of a Yellow Man from the 1990s, this exhibition shows more recent work, including Strange Fruit, 2003, in which he simultaneously celebrates his ethnicity and challenges Singapore’s censorship laws and ban on public performance art. Shown as a series of photographs, in this performance Lee Wen carried a dome made out of red Chinese lanterns that obscure his head and neck while walking the streets of Singapore. Passers-by gawk at his bare body as he walks past them, unsure how to react.

Other works are more overtly political, including Tran Luong’s Cọc Cạch, 2013–2016: a montage of Communist propaganda images, iconic wartime photographs, images of the  Tiananmen Square Massacre, and footage of the artist dressed as a Communist worker hitting a hammer against metal surfaces in various locations worldwide. You walk away feeling the weight of history and the futility of the worker’s efforts.

Crossing over to Malaysia, Liew Teck Leong mourns the state of democracy in #1 Black Malaysia #001, 2011 and 2012. The artist faces the camera as his head and upper body are stamped with the ‘1Malaysia’ symbol, gradually becoming illegible and meaningless, much like the Malaysian government’s eponymous ongoing program for national unity, ethnic harmony and progress.

Southeast Asia may be on Australia’s doorstep, but the complex history and current affairs of the region aren’t as widely discussed as they should be. This exhibition gives us a chance to remedy this situation, as we try to understand the complexities of each country through these strong voices in contemporary art.

Political Acts: Pioneers of Performance Art in Southeast Asia is part of the Asia-Pacific Triennial of Performing Arts: ASIATOPA.


Political Acts: Pioneers of Performance Art in Southeast Asia
Arts Centre Melbourne
11 February – 21 May



Nadiah Abdulrahim