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07.12.2020

Spectrosynthesis, Exposing Tolerance: LGBTQ Art in South-East Asia

Invoking the spectrum of the rainbow, curator Chatvichai Prommadhattavedi reflects on the exhibition “Spectrosynthesis II – Exposure of Tolerance: LGBTQ in Southeast Asia” as part of a genealogy in the field of art that recognizes sex-gender diversity as an inherent part and always present of making community before authoritarianism.

Is it art, or a dialogue? If I had to choose, I’d say both for contemporary art could perhaps play some role within the context of the contemporary society. A dialogue implies not so much art objects to be viewed, as how these objects initiate conversations between themselves and their audience. With that in mind, the exhibition Spectrosynthesis II—Exposure of Tolerance: LGBTQ in Southeast Asia in Bangkok aims to generate a discussion that its visitors will find relatable and relevant, seeking a way to engage them on the theme of sexual diversity and gender difference within the LGBTQ spectrum.

The exhibition further expands upon the curatorial work of the show Spectrosynthesis—Asian LGBTQ Issues and Art Now, the first LGBTQ art survey at a major public museum in Asia, held in 2017 at Taipei’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Taiwan. It was a significant show, and in some sense it was a torchbearer, a battle won for the recognition of the cause of sex/gender diversity, even though Taiwan is already considered to be LGBTQ tolerant and is the first and only country in Asia to have passed gay marriage legislation. The exhibition contained some 50 works by 22 artists, all of whom were of Chinese descent, but who came from around the world. The show engaged important topics within the Sinosphere,[1] including Chinese cultural traditions; the fight against the hegemony of a patriarchal family system and for the recognition of the LGBTQ community in society at large, themes which were intermingled with the individual stories and visual images of the artists. The collector Patrick Sun, whose collection of LGBTQ works form the mainstay of the exhibition, was an important force behind the project, using his collection to spearhead important issues in the LGBTQ community.

The title of the exhibition conveys its purpose—that out of the rainbow range of the color spectrum should emerge a greater sense of understanding and acceptance. The color spectrum as a symbol for diversity forms the point of departure for the exhibition’s concept, and its seven-colored scheme provides the logo for the show.

As Spectrosynthesis moves to Bangkok, as if spreading the fire of dissent to another city, it encountered a population with a somewhat nonchalant attitude about the show’s intended conceptual thrust, and, if anything, it rather welcomed the fire. That could have been the end of the pioneering story had it not been for the fact that the rest of Southeast Asia is somewhat different from gay-friendly Thailand. In the second Spectrosynthesis exhibition, the majority of the works (although some are also from the first show) were contributed by artists from various Southeast Asian nations with some very different stories to tell, and Bangkok only serves as a platform for the dialogue exchange.

Southeast Asia, the home of these artists, has been buffeted by the winds of change for millennia. Early Indian colonies in the first century BC, trade routes to China and the spice islands in Indonesia, and European colonization from the sixteenth century onward brought different cultures and religions—namely Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity—to the region, setting the stage for a host of different contextual constraints with which sexual minorities have had to contend with. Herein lies the curatorial potential of the exhibition’s content: the artists’ works do not merely communicate each artist’s individuality, but rather reflect the communities in which these artists were brought up. Works along with artist statements raise questions about the artists’ singular experiences—how they experience themselves in relation to being part of a sex/gender dissenting minority. In turn, the stories are underpinned by the differences in their culturally diverse backgrounds. The Bangkok show reflects on the social backdrops using a curatorial schema that seeks to contrast singular experiences with broader societies. Such was the initial hypothesis that determined the invitation of 5 dozen artists from 15 countries to participate in the show, each of them coming forward with their stories in more than 130 works. In order to deal with such diverse and complex issues, it was decided to organize works into sections to guide the audience and encourage involvement in the viewing process.

The exhibition was divided into sub-sections, including Youth: Fresh from Experience; Rainbow Diversity; Perspective through Generations; Perception of Identity; Normality; Real and Illusory; The Backdrop of Beliefs; Transcending Issues; and The Mortal Coil. Young visitors, between the ages of 15 and 25, made up some 80 percent of the audience, and the majority of visitors were not from the LGBTQ community. It is possible to see from these subtitles that the issues organized into semantic fields are broadly applicable to most people’s life experiences. As visitors move through sections and look at the works, are they able to put themselves in the shoes of the minority?
The Backdrop of Beliefs section peeled away the layers of history from contemporary civilizations, which have been generally not been tolerant or inclusive of minorities. Such is the case in India, where the British colonial rule introduced harsh punishments for homosexual acts, such as Section 377 of the penal code, which caused many people’s lives to be plunged into tragedy. One of these people is artist Balbir Krishan, whose works tell the story of the despair the acts caused and the joy when India finally scrapped Section 377 in 2018. The figures in his painting are god-like, in the spirit of India’s ancient philosophy, the Vedic’s Kama (Pleasure) and Moksha (Liberation). Another Indian artist, Sunil Gupta, deals with the colonial imposition by confronting and re-envisioning popular Victorian Pre-Raphaelite[2] religious depictions as gay and lesbian scenes to disrupt the representation of heteronormativity. The Indian subcontinent—a well of inclusive and liberal cultures—is home to the Tantra figures at Khajuraho, representations of diverse sexual orientations, enjoyed a great deal more openness centuries before British colonial rule came along. These values of openness spread to Southeast Asia as India’s cultural influences expanded throughout the region and became alternative references for the local populations.

Indonesia, for example, embraced Hinduism, spirituality that had no problem with the freedom of the body that naturalizes the nude of Indonesian women before later Islamic influence encouraged them to cover up. More recently, more tolerant versions of Islam have had to give way with the recent influx of conservative Islamic interpretations from the Middle East. This body-constraining shift was reflected in the closing of a special Islamic school for trans* students in Yogyakarta, which artist Yoppy Pieter lamented in his installation of photos accompanied by the sound of prayers. In Backdrop of Beliefs, artists contend with their societies, even more traditional in the region, how they react and adapt to them, and how history is an inescapable part of the contemporary dialogue on sex/gender diversity.

In the period of Western colonial expansion from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, Thailand, or Siam as it was formally called, was able to elude colonial rule,[3] possibly the reason it has retained, for better or for worse, its myriad traditional ways, especially those relating to its main religion, Buddhism. One of the more controversial works in the show is Portrait of Man in Habit #1, by Michael Shaowanasai. The piece is the artist’s response to a Buddhist myth which excludes gay and trans* people from becoming ordained as monks and whose validity the artist questions. His challenge raises the issue of why a Buddhist, as a seeker of truth, may not make free inquiry of the myths in the spirit of one of the Buddhist discourses, the Kalama Sutta, named after the village Buddha first delivered the sermon 25 centuries ago. Rather unusually for a belief system, this discourse suggests that one should not believe in anything until it has been examined and proven. For instance, it advises against believing in what is stated in scripture, traditional sayings, rumor, philosophical dogma, and expert views, among others.

So, the discourse seems to support the artist’s line of argument after all, and the piece opens up a debate that is both contemporary and yet so essentially ancient. This echoes what Jeff Carney, an artist from the Philippines, points out in his re-envisioned representations of iconic images of Mary and Joseph as same-sex parents, raising questions of equality within the context of the Catholic church. Another Thai artist, Adisak Phupa, reveals the double standards and restrictions on the freedom of expression within his narrow-minded community, which objects to some explicit content even while sex objects and symbols associated with folkloric beliefs appear all around. In his northeastern area of Thailand, Isaan—phallic forms associated with the fertility cult and the penile Shiva Lingam—in the Khmer temples are sights that, growing up, one cannot avoid. By neatly quoting the folkloric tradition, his installation of a fornicating couple is able to make its point. The Isaan area, located far from Bangkok with its Westernized ways, is able to retain its more relaxed local culture, and the city of Surin is known for its trans* cabaret dancers. In the countryside, family wealth passes through females in a matriarchal system, and there tends to be a more balanced approach to the question of gender equality. Perhaps some of these cultural practices have roots with the most ancient cultures of the area, the speakers of Tai-Kadai in the north and Mon-Khmer in the south. The former group shares its ancestry with the people who crossed the Bering Land Bridge and beyond. The area of present-day Thailand has experienced waves of immigration from the north for millennia. Thai-Chinese are now very much part of the fabric of the population and perhaps no stranger to the messages in the works by Chinese artists in the exhibition. Xiyadie’s large-format, traditional paper cutouts attest to the life of a gay man, married and in the closet, living in the depth of the Chinese countryside. A gay first-born son in a Thai-Chinese family in Bangkok would be all too familiar with this pressure. He may be in denial, as reflected in the Thai artist Ohm Phanpiroj’s film about a young man who verbally refuses, but physically yields to a contrary experience.

The Spectrosynthesis exhibition has not been conceived just for or about the LGBTQ crowd. It is sexually explicit, but not pornographic. It isn’t angry, shocking, or narcissistic. It may not even be necessary for Bangkok, given the city’s open attitude. However, it is about respecting human values, as expressed by the artists, and the experience of being part of a minority that, however small in number, must be included and honored.

The exhibition is about human rights, equality, and respect for sex/gender diversity. The artists share their battles and pain—some of them, overtaken by tragedy, didn’t make it out—and their triumph.

Some still live with constraints; for example, an artist from Brunai, Adam Hague, does not use his real name when exhibiting abroad; Mayasian Anne Samat spends most of her time in the West as do a few other artists in the show. Growing up sexually different has always been an issue, one that is now beginning to be addressed in the space of this exhibition in the works of the young artists. Whether or not their works measure up to the internationally renowned artists, they must be present and heard. Their voice is relevant to their peers for they speak directly to a new generation in the audience. These young artists are taking part in the effort to assure that LGBTQ experiences are recognized as natural parts of life, that they have the option of staying put in their communities and continuing to contribute without having to hide. Gender difference is not by any means the only form of persecution. The Thai artist Arin Rungjang’s video installation is about the triumph of the trans* community. However, the accompanying document tells the story of two juxtaposing traumas in his life: the demise of an admired trans* friend during his youth and that of the artist’s father in Germany for being a foreigner. There is a cruel, tribal trait among humans—so hideous and senseless—that impels people to reject minorities and discriminate against people who don’t seem to belong.

Of course, humanity also holds an undeniable tenet of tolerance. Empires and city-states have risen and fallen in Southeast Asia and its diverse peoples have moved about as part of the process. In a defeat, a whole community might be gathered up and transferred to a victor’s city, becoming assets in the economy of the new place. Thai people were displaced to Myanmar at the end of the eighteenth century after the defeat of Ayuthaya, the capital of the kingdom, and Muslims moved to Bangkok from the south. However, a pragmatic coping mechanism was instituted that ensured that ethnic groups are state-protected (Barom-Bodhisomphan) and that guaranteed the freedom to practice different religions (Sassanu-Pathumpok). The latter is a tradition that has been attributed to the Indian Emperor Ashoka, who ruled in the third century BC. It was first applied to Buddhist subjects then in Thailand and then extended to protect all the other religions in the realm. Such cumulative developments over the course of history helped to create the more tolerant attitude that exists in Thailand today. Ashoka’s edicts, which were inscribed on thirty pillars erected throughout the Indian subcontinent, are tangible evidence of the Indo-European cultural link that reaches all the way to Southeast Asia. The exhibition’s title in Thai, a transposition of the English through Indo-European languages, traces back to and reflects this link, giving credence to humanity and cultural connection across the centuries.

With the recent upsurge of far right and nationalist movements in various parts of the world, the tribal instinct seems stronger than ever. The imposition of authoritarian rules and the urge to conform is never far away and is destructive of the LGBTQ community. An artistic dialogue on the issue of diversity introduces an alternative and richer trend, counterbalancing officially-sanctioned cultures. It allows people to take part in the critical discussion on inclusivity, a process that is in some ways a measure of the standard of democracy in the country. And because it tends to exist on the fringes of society, the existence of diversity—with regards to sex, gender, or other—actually defines society.

What has been the impact of the Spectrosynthesis exhibition? Has the issue of sex/gender diversity become part of the mainstream social conversation to the extent that it no longer needs a special label? Not just one exhibition can make this happen of course, but it can add to the general trend. Young visitors to this exhibition have shown a measure of maturity in their reaction to and appreciation of it, as if this generation of youth had grown up under the conservative radar through social media. It takes only a few in attentive people to pick up the message and run with it to make the difference. There are signs that this is already happening; the more contemporary art reflects on and introduces social issues, the more people are taking notice. Take the recent run of demonstrations for democratic reform in Thailand (September-October 2020), for example. Crowds gathered to listen to speeches and around art performances and installations in the streets. The people have actually taken up communication through art as a means of making points. The inclusiveness of the political movement is also apparent; members of the LGBTQ community are well represented: trans* personalities and a prominent, young gay couple form part of the leadership. But is this enough?

Always putting art in proximity with people, Spectrosynthesis is among the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre Gallery exhibitions that have taken on agenda-based themes, and the question of diversity—whether ethnic, gender-related, or cultural—has always been part of its mandate. In the region’s context, it is a way of finding alternatives to one-directional conformist culture. Oftentimes, contemporary culture tends to reject the past, but sometimes it is useful to pick, glean, and peer into the layers of history. Not least the history of art that records plenty of social and cultural liberation led by artists.

Notes

  1. The Sinosphere, East Asian cultural sphere, or Chinese cultural sphere encompasses the countries within East and Southeast Asia that were historically influenced by Chinese culture.

  2. Colonial India adopted Victorian culture wholesale. The Pre-Raphaelite School of Painting was prominent in British colonial culture at the time. The artist subverts works such as William Dyce’s The Meeting of Jacob and Rachel, replacing Rachel with a male figure and thus turning it on its head.

  3. Indeed, Siam enacted its own sort of colonial policy with regards to the minor states under its influence in the name of political unification. Under British and French colonial pressure, Siam amalgamated these states in the mid-nineteenth century, introducing a strong central rule from the capital Bangkok.

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