Far-near: when the world becomes a picture
(Thanavi Chotpradit)

There is no hill in Ayutthaya. Johannes Vinckboons’ View of Judea, the Capital of Siam (c. 1662-1663) depicts the city of Ayutthaya (or Iudea, as he called it) as a Buddhist port town with tall prang (reliquary towers), temples and hills in the background. Vinckboons, a seventeenth-century Dutch carto- grapher and watercolourist who never travelled to this region, made this topographical painting based on reports and sketches drawn by masters, helmsmen and merchants during their voyages under the order of the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC, or Dutch East India Com- pany) and Geoctroyeerde West-Indische Compagnie (GWIC, or Dutch West India Company). While rightly described — this commercial centre of the European trade network — as a walled island city surrounded by rivers, the presence of distant hills implies Vinckboons’ imaginative dimension in making a pictorial representation of a faraway land — the East. This mis- representation and misunderstanding of Ayutthaya’s geography perfectly reflects the Dutch perception of this East as otherness. It constituted Ayut- thaya as dissimilar to and opposite to the Dutch Republic. In fact, it is a low land area and risks flooding just like the Dutch flat landscape.

In the second decade of the twenty-first century, the Thai curator and artist Arin Rungjang brings another version of Judea to the modern Netherlands. The group exhibition Judea: Arin Rungjang with Lee Kit, Pratchaya Phinthong, Maria Taniguchi, Rirkrit Tiravanija and Nguyen Trinh Thi derived from Vinckboons’ paint- ing of Ayutthaya and its capacity of being a conceptual framing of under- standing the East during the Dutch expansion and merchant colonialism. By referring to Vinckboons’ painting and the colonial section of the Rijksmu- seum in Amsterdam, the modern Judea establishes the connective histories between the past and present Europe and non-European world on artistic terrain. The video works by the five upcoming Asian-based artists and the internationally renowned Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija show different as- pects of the present-day Asian Society with a touch of localism, modern- isation as well as traces of Western expansion in the Far East. While the exhibition challenges past perception and attitude of the East with voices of the curator and artists, the absence of Indonesia, the largest former Dutch colony in the region, draws us to the metaphorical idiom ‘elephant in the room’. Whether intentionally or not, the invisibility of Indonesian artists in this exhibition becomes the void that shapes the difficulties of postcolonial power relations. However, the domination and violence of the Dutch colonial past cast a long shadow on the exhibition. Aside from the title of the exhibition, Arin Rungjang’s video documentation of artefacts in the colonial collection of the Rijksmuseum makes reference to the Dutch colonial past. As a curator of this group exhibition, Rungjang’s work, with the same title as the exhibi- tion, is not only a work of an artist but also a curatorial statement, a concept- ualization of collective colonial memory. His work reflects the gaze of the non-Western artist-curator towards the showcase of the Dutch colonial history. Yet his curatorial effort here is not solely to criticise the past of the Dutch Republic. History becomes a point of departure to a destination elsewhere. Rungjang’s selection of artists and artworks suggests a jump from a representation of colonial sensitivity in the Dutch museum to the traces of various colonisations in the present day Asia. Nguyen Trinh Thi’s Letters from Panduranga introduces to us how Panduranga (now Ninh Thuan), the last surviving territory of the ancient kingdom of Champa (192-1832), has experienced dominations from various powers including France, the Viet, the United States and contemporary Vietnam. Letters from Panduranga is an essay film that is composed of a letter exchange between a man and a woman and was inspired by the Vietnamese government’s plan to build the country’s first two nuclear power plants in the province by 2020. This poetical moving image grasps the voices of the Cham in Vietnam, whose opinions over the building of nuclear power plants have been silenced due to the strict government control. While portraying the slowly fading of the past splendour of Champa and the Cham community’s incapability to prevent this, Nguyen Trinh Thi’s work conveys a passage of time from the historical past to the present and the future.

Maria Taniguchi’s Untitled (Celestial Motors) presents another aspect in deal- ing with the legacy of Western expansion in the region. When the American troops left the Philippines at the end of the Second World War, they sold or gave hundreds of military jeeps to the Filipinos, who modified them into a local vehicle called ‘jeepney’. With their kitschy appearance, this local adap- tation of American military jeeps quickly rose to become the most popular means of public transportation in the country. Taniguchi’s video shows an unadorned and unpainted stainless-steel body of jeepney from the Celestial Motors Factory in San Pablo. Each part of the jeepney is brought up-close against a white backdrop. Without seeing the whole body or kitschy decoration, Taniguchi’s Untitled (Celestial Motors) becomes a puzzle that invites us to put pieces together to form a jeepney in our minds. This reconstruction process may draw one to think of the transformation of the American mili- tary jeep into a Filipino public vehicle. By representing the local adaptation of the American colonial heritage in the Philippines, Taniguchi’s work with jeepney inserts another dimension into the colonial resistance of the exhi- bition.

The other works from Lee Kit, Rirkrit Tiravanija and Pratchaya Phinthong represent another face of Asia. The selection of these works adds contrast to the tone of the exhibition as they do not refer to colonisation but tackle Asian life from different angles. Lee Kit’s highly minimalist video You (you) goes beyond the colonial-postcolonial issues by sharing no cultural or eth- nical features. It is an image of modern and universal life represented by everyday materials and household items one can find anywhere on the globe. On the contrary, Tiravanija and Phinthong engage with Asian local- ity. Tiravanija’s Lung Neaw Visits His Neighbours depicts a daily routine of Lung Neaw (Lung means uncle), a 60-year-old retired rice farmer who lives in a small village in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Without screenplay or story line, this 21⁄2-hour film follows his simple daily routine in the rural environment with his fellow villagers. The question in the film synopsis ‘What more can one want when one is already living in Paradise?’ suggests that happiness lies in the simplicity of the local life. On the other hand, Phinthong’s Rehearsal no.1 presents ‘release life’ of captive birds as a grey area of Buddhism. In Buddhist communities across Asia, release life is a practice of freeing cap- tive animals such as birds, fish and turtles to generate good karma: an act of kindness and compassion which will result in good health and longevity merits. However, the practice leads to a cycle of capturing-freeing birds, increasing demand for animals in cages. Phinthong captures a paradox of the merit making cycle in a video loop that symbolised the endless animal torture in Buddhist ritual and business.

In Judea: Arin Rungjang with Lee Kit, Pratchaya Phinthong, Maria Taniguchi, Rirkrit Tira- vanija and Nguyen Trinh Thi, Judea appears alongside other stories of contem- porary Asia. Sometimes realistic, sometimes poetic, these works represent complexity and different realities of the East. Yet, the East is always a con- structed discourse, even by the hands of the local...

 Between the past Judea painting and the modern Judea exhibition are the gaps that have arisen from imagination and creativity. The presence of the hills and the absence of the former colony suggest that reality always escapes from art. Art has never been a perfect tool to record reality with pre- cision. Yet artistic inaccuracy allows us to go beyond the physical world and factual information.No need to be a history lesson, nor a politically correct attempt, the dynamics of art lie in its fluidity and flexibility of re-presenting things. Here, art leads us to explore and problematize discourses around colonialism, post-colonialism, contemporary art practice and culture of curating non-Western contemporary art for an international audience. Is it still necessary to project the stereotypical image of the East as the exotic other? Like the floating title ‘Iudea’ in Vinckboons’ painting that arouses our imagination of the land he referred to, the questions of representation, projection and narration are floating, metaphorically, in the air of the exhi- bition and stimulate us to consider and perhaps re-consider the East.

Thanavi Chotpradit is a lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Thai art history at the Depart- ment of Art History, Faculty of Archaeology at Silpakorn University in Thailand and a member of the editorial collectives of southeast of now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art, a refereed journal due to launch in 2016. She completed her PhD in Art History at Birkbeck, University of London under a Royal Thai Government Scholarship on the Project of Human Resource Development in the Humanities and Social Sciences. In 2015-2016, Thanavi partici- pates in the cross-regional research program Ambitious Alignment: New Histories of Southeast Asian Art, developed by the Power Institute Foundation for Art & Visual Culture, University of Sydney and funded by the Getty Foundation’s Connective Art Histories Initiative. She has also contri- buted essays for the Thai journals, Aan Journal and Fa Diew Kan. Her areas of interest include Modern and Thai contemporary art in relation to memory studies, war commemoration, and the Thai politics.