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Abstract

Preceded by a short disquisition on what is the "Asian" and the "Southeast Asian", I go on to examine the works of artists F.X. Harsono, Dacchi Dang and Dinh Q. Lê, historicising their work in relation to their predecessors including Sudjojono and Nguyen Tu Nghiem, as well as mentioning their peers Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook and Roberto Bulatao Feleo. I examine what unites these disparate practices in their nimble negotiation of personal and collective identities and histories, and discuss the insertion of a notion of resistance to political power or ideology into their artistic practice

Southeast Asian Regional Identity

This article considers the works of artists F.X. Harsono, Dacchi Dang and Dinh Q Lê, historicising their work in relation to their predecessors, including Sudjojono and Nguyen Tu Nghiem, as well as their peers. What unites these disparate practices, in my analysis, is their nimble negotiation of personal and collective identities and histories, and their insertion of a notion of resistance to political power or ideology, into their artistic practice.

To begin with, it is worth noting that the question of what is "Asian" and how it may be approached seems to have preoccupied earlier geo-biologists,2 [End Page 43] and also those seeking to disabuse Europeans of their projection that "Asia" had anything like the cultural and historical integration supposed of Europe itself.3 The former may now defer to scientific conceptual and technological changes which have allowed genome sequencing to show the interlinkage of population genealogies and the speciousness of the concept of "race". There have been several genome-sequencing studies that undermine the notion of singular "races" in any of the Southeast Asian cultures, since their populations have been so intermixed throughout history.4 Even in advanced and supposedly monolingual states like modern Thailand, there is no such thing as a "pure" language, and the resulting modern amalgam is inalienably hybridised.5 Genetic studies clearly demonstrate that populations themselves are mixed from very many components such as in peninsular Malaysia:

Malay populations shared four major components, e.g., East Asian, South Asian, Austronesian and aboriginal Southeast Asian. East Asians, which contribute 4%–16% of the Malay genomes, had interactions with Malays at very recent time (100–200 years ago, assuming a single generation time of 25 years was applied throughout this study).6

The cultural integration that is now imagined of "Southeast Asia" now appears to be a forlorn parallel of that Eurocentrism in the academy as it existed some ten years before the critiques of Said.7

But the further notion that Asia is regionally divided into East, Central, South, Southeastern and Western Asia is no less a problematic field of discourse. The reasons for identification of subregions may be based on propinquity, population links and cultural bases such as the diffusion of South Asian and West Asian religious beliefs into Southeast Asia over two millennia. And Southeast Asia cannot be something large and relatively interlinked like East Asia (that we all know about) which was drawn together by war, historical flows of cultural goods, religions, and the distribution and adaptation of the characters of the Chinese script system. Southeast Asia contains entities (cultural and state units) which are neither as large nor as interlinked, nor as putatively homogenous. Indeed, the notion of Southeast Asia, despite the common spread of Indic and Islamic beliefs from the West and Confucian familistic concepts from the North, is preeminently a modern one. Despite later interregional trading patterns,8 one would have to go back to the eighth-century kingdom of Srivijaya and its localised sites in what is now Sumatra, isthmus Thailand, littoral Cambodia and Vietnam, to find a previous interregional linkage which was comparable in extent. Southeast Asia arises because of Euro-American [End Page 44] colonialism, its defeat,9 and the rise of nationalism and new nation-states. The fictions of nationalism or the national are opposed and superimposed upon by the fictions of independence, the postcolonial and the underlying differentiation of the colonial; these notions are now allied with strong and, in some respects, apparently stable states. At least, these states are the units for international relations, for the holding and privileging of languages and beliefs, for organising economic systems which have been increasingly tied into global movements of goods and capital.

If art is now situated at the juncture of internal and external social forces which give it a negotiatory role, to be defined by the interactions shown in endogenous discourses (internally caused), as well as their play into exogenous discourses (externally caused), then the imbrication of the endogenous with the exogenous makes for a very complex set of negotiations across art cultures, and of them with all the other historical forces in play. But much as it may be attractive and even desirable to look for a general principle of means or modes of negotiating change, we must start this examination from particular artists in particular nation-state histories.

Despite the rootedness of current concepts of "negotiation" in the realities of business deals, where the final intent is to understand the terms for the exchange between artist and the primary dealer or the peripatetic "independent" curator among other mediators, there is also negotiation between exogenous and endogenous positions and processes, between the imposed amnesia of historical events and the costs of forgetting and remembering their truths, between the regional and the global, and so forth. The alternative trajectory of "negotiation" may be more fruitful. It suggests a movement towards agreement by discussion, as well as the establishment or acceptance of a shared interpretation of an artwork, and the getting around of obstacles to this achievement.

The Resistant Artist as Negotiating the National: S. Sudjojono

In Indonesia, I shall take up the case of F.X. Harsono (b. 1949), but his negotiation with local histories is by no means without close and distant precursors. A distant example can be found in the clear 19th-century cultural negotiations between Raden Saleh (c. 1811–80) and the Dutch colonial authorities to establish Saleh as a recognised painter within Dutch discourse, but depicting subjects and painting intentions which were not Dutch. In the 20th century, a close precursor is Sudjojono (1913–86) who bridges the colonial, post-independence and Orde Baru (New Order) post-national state consolidation eras. Indeed, Sudjojono might serve as something of a model for art negotiation, having mastered a modernism without declaring his full indebtedness to this mastery. [End Page 45] He instead proposed a notion of Jiwa Ketok (visible soul), which became one solution to the continuation of a non-indigenous art discourse, but was now rendered authentic under nationalist conditions (Figures 1 and2).

Figure 1. A Batavian newspaper reproduction of Marc Chagall, Portrait of My Wife, 1934–5. Published in Bataviaasch Nieuwsblad, 3 May 1938. The painting was shown in Java from the Regnault Collection in 1938
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Figure 1.

A Batavian newspaper reproduction of Marc Chagall, Portrait of My Wife, 1934–5. Published in Bataviaasch Nieuwsblad, 3 May 1938. The painting was shown in Java from the Regnault Collection in 1938

Figure 1. S. Sudjojono, Di Depan Kelambu Terbuka [Before the Open Mosquito net], 1939. Oil on canvas, 86 × 66 cm. From the Indonesian Presidential Palace Collection. Photographed by John Clark
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Figure 1.

S. Sudjojono, Di Depan Kelambu Terbuka [Before the Open Mosquito net], 1939. Oil on canvas, 86 × 66 cm. From the Indonesian Presidential Palace Collection. Photographed by John Clark

Sudjojono was able to change the emotional connotation of a relatively fixed subject matter in paintings such as Di Depan Kelambu Terbuka (Before the Open Mosquito Net, 1939). He also did this later with his images of the war for independence and the display of a proper concern for the people during his time as part of the communist art organisation LEKRA (Lembaga Kebudajaan Rakjat), which I will return to below.10

Later, he went to an inner landscape full of private dreaming and surrealist, crazy fantasising of himself as an eccentric wanderer (Figure 3).11

The Resistant Artist as Multiply Bifurcated: F.X. Harsono

F.X. Harsono was born in 1949, and belongs to one of the first cohorts of Indonesian artists for whom a direct experience of colonialism was absent, or its residues highly attenuated. For Harsono, the past was an ever-present, [End Page 46]

Figure 3. S. Sudjojono, Menunggu Kapal Berlabuh [Waiting for Ships to Dock], 1975. Oil on canvas, 132 × 242 cm. Museum Universitas Harappa Pelitan. Copyright S. Sudjojono Center, reproduced with kind permission. Photographed by John Clark
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Figure 3.

S. Sudjojono, Menunggu Kapal Berlabuh [Waiting for Ships to Dock], 1975. Oil on canvas, 132 × 242 cm. Museum Universitas Harappa Pelitan. Copyright S. Sudjojono Center, reproduced with kind permission. Photographed by John Clark

real but ghostly companion traduced in the historical present by its denials, particularly of the 1965–6 massacres Harsono himself had seen as an adolescent in 1965, and also those he learned of, such as the anti-Chinese massacres his father witnessed in 1947. In his father's files Harsono discovered the photographs he had taken when the bones of the victims were disinterred and reburied for a memorial in 1949–51. These he later used in the making of the work Darkroom (2009) (Figure 4).

Harsono attended the art school Akademi Seni Rupa Indonesia in 1969 in Yogyakarta, but was suspended in 1975 for signing a radical manifesto, and only continued his studies to graduation at a different art school, Institut Kesenian Jakarta, from 1987–91.

The antecedent situations in the Indonesian art worlds were of some importance in Harsono's formation. Perhaps the first bifurcation behind his work was the split between a kind of academic, nationalistically sanctioned romantic realism in Yogyakarta, which continued a lyrical identification with Indonesian subjects, and pictorial mannerism carried on from the artist's exhibition group PERSAGI (Persatuan Ahli-Ahli Gambar Indonesia) in 1938 (as seen in Sudjojono above).12 The other branch of the art movement was largely concentrated in the art departments of the Institut Teknologi Bandung, from where some "modernist abstract" teachers, like Fadjar Sidik, would shift to Yogyakarta after 1965–6, and where Fadjar would be Harsono's teacher (Figures 5 and6). [End Page 47]

Figure 4. F.X. Harsono, Darkroom, 2009. Mixed media installation with C print on paper, acrylic sheet, steel, plywood, and lamp, dimensions variable. Photographed by John Clark
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Figure 4.

F.X. Harsono, Darkroom, 2009. Mixed media installation with C print on paper, acrylic sheet, steel, plywood, and lamp, dimensions variable. Photographed by John Clark

A second bifurcation underlying Harsono's work13 is between a generalised Indonesian identity and the possibilities within that of a Chinese expression, if only as a particular sensibility with an attributed ethnic background. This bifurcation was also activated and articulated by the targeting of those with

Figure 5. F.X. Harsono, Spatial Dimension 4, 1972. Etching, 20 × 15 cm
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Figure 5.

F.X. Harsono, Spatial Dimension 4, 1972. Etching, 20 × 15 cm

Figure 6. Fadjar Sidik, Bidang Biru & Jungga [Blue Field & Small Sundanese Guitar], 1973. Oil on canvas, 88 × 98 cm. Collection Budiman
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Figure 6.

Fadjar Sidik, Bidang Biru & Jungga [Blue Field & Small Sundanese Guitar], 1973. Oil on canvas, 88 × 98 cm. Collection Budiman

[End Page 48]

Figure 7. F.X. Harsono, photographed with Thy Kingdom Come, at Galeri Cemeti, 1998
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Figure 7.

F.X. Harsono, photographed with Thy Kingdom Come, at Galeri Cemeti, 1998

"Chinese" background during the Independence War of 1945–9, as traitors in the pay of the Dutch, the "anti-Communist" massacres of 1965–6, in which many Chinese-background Indonesians were claimed to be "communist", and the anti-Chinese outrages after the fall of Suharto in 1998.

A third bifurcation is between the ideological compliance ordained by the state and the search for an individual artistic expression allowing the constitution of an artistic "I". Here, I suppose the independence of sanggar (art workshops) found a collocation with academy-based art student opposition to authority, certainly in the 1970s to the 1990s.

There seem to be many possible parallels between small group formation among university students and the organisation of art sanggar. Both are small groups with a core of dedicated members who acknowledge a leader, or several prominent seniors, and both possess a specific technical discourse, and oppose external and usually academic hierarchical control structures. Sanggar ideological positions seem to depend more on the period and artists' cohort in which they originated, and on the background and charisma of leaders (Figure 7), rather than on closely thought through ideas or formal expressions.

Much of the PERSAGI declaration in 1938, or the various statements of Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru (New Art Movement) in the 1970s, would be unexceptional were it not for the residual colonial or presently hegemonic Indonesian situations in which they were made. How far the sanggar is simply the social site for transfer and dissemination into the visual arts of sensibilities and [End Page 49]

Figure 8. F.X. Harsono, Father's Photograph of a Disinterment, 1949–51, as shown at Langeng Foundation, 2010. Photographed by John Clark
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Figure 8.

F.X. Harsono, Father's Photograph of a Disinterment, 1949–51, as shown at Langeng Foundation, 2010. Photographed by John Clark

practices founded elsewhere, such as in the conceptual leaps of some radical poetry, or in the technical devices of some avant-gardist theatrical performance, remains to be investigated.14

Had it not been purged after 1965, the Indonesian Communist Party-affiliated art and literature group LEKRA would almost certainly have moved to further exclude "bourgeois individualism" or "reactionary traditionalism" from the art world with a sort of Soviet or Maoist socialist realism.

When later in the 1990s Harsono came to make one aim of his practice the re-excavation of buried pasts rather than just the examination of repressed structures within the present, the New Order exigencies made this ipso facto a political quest. Furthermore, after the fall of Suharto in 1998, Harsono was able, in 2009, to refer back to and incorporate in his installations the photographs which his father—the Blitar town photographer—had taken in 1949–51 when the dead of the 1947 anti-Chinese massacres were disinterred and reburied (Figure 8).

This fourth bifurcation functions as a temporal split that often anachronistically spaces and replicates buried or tabooed events by the exhibition and installation of photographic or other archived mementoes (Figures 9 and10). The deployment of material about one long-suppressed event moves into hints at the structure of historical forgetting about another, even more deadly [End Page 50]

Figure 9. F.X. Harsono, Chain, 1975, as reconstructed for Langeng exhibition, 2010. Photographed by John Clark
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Figure 9.

F.X. Harsono, Chain, 1975, as reconstructed for Langeng exhibition, 2010. Photographed by John Clark

Figure 10. F.X. Harsono, Chain, 1975, as exhibited in Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru [Movement of New Art], 1979. Image is from the exhibition catalogue
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Figure 10.

F.X. Harsono, Chain, 1975, as exhibited in Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru [Movement of New Art], 1979. Image is from the exhibition catalogue

[End Page 51]

Figure 11. Nyoman Nuarta, The Generals, 1976. Mixed media, 160 × 40 × 40 cm. With Jim Supangkat, Ken Dedes, 1975. Approximately 125 cm high. Image from Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru catalogue, 1979
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Figure 11.

Nyoman Nuarta, The Generals, 1976. Mixed media, 160 × 40 × 40 cm. With Jim Supangkat, Ken Dedes, 1975. Approximately 125 cm high. Image from Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru catalogue, 1979

and firmly repressed set of events. If in 2009 Harsono was able to articulate information about 1947 before his birth, what about the events he had actually experienced as a 16-year-old in 1965?

Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru (GSRB, New Art Movement) exhibited first in August 1975 after the expulsion of several members, including Harsono, for signing the Black December manifesto of December the previous year. The manifesto had protested blatant academic narrowness and self-seeking by the jury at the second Jakarta Biennale preparatory exhibition, then known as the Great Exhibition of Indonesian Paintings. The GSRB included many "impolite" or taboo-breaking works which criticised the morality of the elite and was largely lead by Jim Supangkat and Hardi (Figure 11, on right), the latter also being one [End Page 52]

Figure 12. Dede Eri Supria, Montir-montir [Mechanics], from Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru catalogue, 1979
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Figure 12.

Dede Eri Supria, Montir-montir [Mechanics], from Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru catalogue, 1979

of the artists expelled alongside Harsono in Yogyakarta. The group published an eponymous booklet in 1979, the last year of its group exhibitions, which included a particularly vigorous polemic between the art historian Sudarmadji and the curator Kusnadi, then employed by the Ministry of Culture, who had also been the curator long ago in 1955 of the survey exhibition of Indonesian arts shown during the Bandung Conference of Non-Aligned Countries.15

In fact, the argument was not so much about whether Indonesian "traditional" art or forms could be remobilised, but rather about how they could be recontextualised inside a new artwork which was relatively free of institutional control hierarchies. In New Order Indonesia, Supangkat and others came to understand "modernist" art to be an art which belonged to or was produced under the aegis of this hegemony, and which thereby reinforced its domination in the field of art. This hegemony was so forceful that Supangkat and his peers believed that the recontextualised display of physical objects from everyday life, the repositioning of "traditional" art objects or even the realisation of mimetically visualised fantasies such as in the paintings of Dede Eri Supria (Figure 12), Ivan Sagito and Lucia Hartini, could all effectively resist the government and its (putative) agents in art academia. [End Page 53]

Figure 13. F.X. Harsono and GugusGrafis, Teater Koma, 1986. Poster
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Figure 13.

F.X. Harsono and GugusGrafis, Teater Koma, 1986. Poster

At his first major turning point, Harsono left the field of academic art practice in Yogyakarta for about ten years, preferring to work as a commercial graphic designer in Jakarta (Figure 13), and also to become directly engaged with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) forcing particular agendas such as environmental concerns. It is only at the end of the 1980s that he re-entered academic art at a different institution in Jakarta, perhaps because he had much better intellectual collaborators there, such as the historian and critic Sanento Yuliman.

By 1973, Harsono felt the need for greater social development which might need expression outside the art school, and by the first Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru exhibition in August 1975 he had found it through contextual installations such as Paling Top [Top Most], a ready-made comprising a cage and a toy machine-gun (Figure 14).

In 1977 Harsono was not interested in the discursive implications of such a gesture, but rather in presenting new forms:

At the time it didn't cross my mind that these were ready-made or found objects. Neither was I thinking of Duchamp, although I knew of him. My focus at the time was how presenting new forms [can] raise social issues using visual elements from day-to-day life, with the idea that: 1. Daily objects (without changing their meaning) [End Page 54]

Figure 14. F.X. Harsono, Paling Top [Top Most], 1975 remade 2006. Plastic rifle, textile, wooden crate, wire mesh and LED tube. Collection of National Gallery Singapore
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Figure 14.

F.X. Harsono, Paling Top [Top Most], 1975 remade 2006. Plastic rifle, textile, wooden crate, wire mesh and LED tube. Collection of National Gallery Singapore

would easily be understood by observers, so they would be more communicative: 2. Daily objects are visual elements that cannot be identified as a form of fine art; and 3. Daily objects can represent the spirit of experimenting and playing around.16

Painting everyday objects as a subversive reality curiously resembles LEKRA's type of mimetic realism, which "goes down among the people" and shows the "real" structure of their lives. Harsono returned to the everyday to alter existing discourses or subvert positions already arrived at, rather than via some grand art discursive understanding obtained by reading or conceptually referring to foreign masters. It was this originality, combined with a dislike for group leaders who would take his work away from the very critical originality he had just achieved, which caused Harsono to leave GSRB. He was able to preserve art's criticality and its social relevance through materialising the qualities of objects recontextualised through their visualisation. By the early 1980s he extended his conceptual criticality to a kind of direct social concern, in a 1982 [End Page 55]

Figure 15. F.X. Harsono, Pagar Tripleks dan Hutan Kita [Plywood Fence and Our Forest], 1982. Text screenprint installed at Parang Tritis Beach, near Yogyakarta. 120 × 15 cm × 600 m
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Figure 15.

F.X. Harsono, Pagar Tripleks dan Hutan Kita [Plywood Fence and Our Forest], 1982. Text screenprint installed at Parang Tritis Beach, near Yogyakarta. 120 × 15 cm × 600 m

installation at Parangkritis Beach near Yogyakarta, titled Pagar Tripleks dan Hutan Kita [Plywood Fence and Our Forest] (Figure 15). In it, he screen-printed one side of a piece of plywood with statistics about tropical forest destruction, on 50 panels totalling over 600 metres in length. This started a series of works with environmental concerns.

In Voice of the Dam Project I (1985), Harsono had realised that objects could function as conduits for personal stories which would otherwise be concealed. In parallel with his NGO-related engagements he was working in graphic design, and this field formed the basis for the works in the collective exhibition of 1987: Seni Rupa Baru Proyek 1: Pasaraya Dunia Fantasia [New Visual Arts Project No. 1: Fantasy World Supermarket]. In these, his hand can be traced in the posters (Figure 16). Harsono worked as a book and graphic designer on and off since December 1975. The exhibition presented a series of pop art reworking of everyday objects and images, although to what extent the exhibition actually created the simulacrum of a supermarket, rather than addressing consumer relations and the aestheticisation of consumer goods, is not clear.

Harsono's resistance to the political status quo had been part of his participation in the art school revolts of the 1970s, and in the Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru. After Harsono was expelled from the Institut Teknologi Bandung (ITB) art school with Hardi in 1975, there were also memorable works of resistance made by a later participant in this group, Semsar Siahaan (1950–2005). He burned the sculpture of his teacher Sunaryo in 1981, and was expelled from the ITB in 1983.17 Semsar also painted a memorable critique of the Suharto rule and its corruptions in Olympia, Identity with Mother and Child (1987) (Figure 17), [End Page 56]

Figure 16. F.X. Harsono, Pameran Seni Rupa Baru Proyek 1, Pasaraya Dunia Fantasi [New Visual Arts Project No.1: Fantasy World Supermarket], catalogue cover, 1987
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Figure 16.

F.X. Harsono, Pameran Seni Rupa Baru Proyek 1, Pasaraya Dunia Fantasi [New Visual Arts Project No.1: Fantasy World Supermarket], catalogue cover, 1987

Figure 17. Semsar Siahaan, Olympia, Identity with Mother and Child, 1987. Oil on canvas, 145 × 295 cm. Collection Robert Sumendap [photograph courtesy of the artist, 1998]
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Figure 17.

Semsar Siahaan, Olympia, Identity with Mother and Child, 1987. Oil on canvas, 145 × 295 cm. Collection Robert Sumendap [photograph courtesy of the artist, 1998]

[End Page 57]

Figure 18. F.X. Harsono, Power and the Oppressed, original 1992, 2010 replica. Installation of branches, textiles, soil, chair, barbed wire, dimensions variable
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Figure 18.

F.X. Harsono, Power and the Oppressed, original 1992, 2010 replica. Installation of branches, textiles, soil, chair, barbed wire, dimensions variable

the same year as Harsono had made his consumer critique.18 According to one critic, "The flood of parodies was a representation of daily goods that had been taboo to those of high artistic tastes, previously considered unfit to be exhibited in an art gallery."19

But international exposure through a South Australian residency, and then exhibition at ARX III in 1993 and at the first Asia Pacific Triennial (APT) of Contemporary Art, Brisbane, in the same year, may have suggested to him how installation, a form only relatively recently accepted in Indonesia, could be linked to the representation of state violence, and the situation of little people being trapped by its hegemonies (Figure 18).

In all his work, up to the fall of Suharto in 1998, Harsono is concerned with such violence, both of the state and as a wider social condition, and with the silencing of human voices of protest. In 1993, he wrote:

Killing and violence is still carried out by those with political power and in my society there is a continuing problem with the imbalance of power between those with power and those without. We are all part of a culture of violence. I am not against my culture but against the violence in my culture and the suffering it causes … As artists we research social problems with NGOs and local people before creating our works. This gives them validity and they are created from a base of involvement with villages and communities and the issues important to them. Installations are a good means to communicate about urban culture and the effect of development … [End Page 58] Involvement across cultures is also possible through the idea that the world is a theatrical pool in which stories are enacted and told. Installations have become a response to and a concern for the processes of globalization which remain outside the capitalization of art. They are a forum for expressing strong social concerns and yet still allow for some expressions of individuality.20

Figure 19. F.X. Harsono, Memory of a Name, Re-writing the Erased, 2009. Installation at Langeng Foundation, Yogyakarta, in 2010
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Figure 19.

F.X. Harsono, Memory of a Name, Re-writing the Erased, 2009. Installation at Langeng Foundation, Yogyakarta, in 2010

After the violence against the Chinese which accompanied the fall of Suharto in 1998, Harsono developed a preoccupation with questions of identity, and what might lie beyond identity. The anti-Chinese pogrom of 1998 was the moment in which Harsono felt he was made to intensely question what it meant to be an Indonesian of Chinese background, one who had very little knowledge of Chinese culture and could not write in the Chinese language, apart from his painfully mastered ability to write his own name. As seen in Memory of a Name, Re-writing the Erased (2009) (Figure 19), this preoccupation is found in several other works, and this recurrent interest meant that in practice he was both allowed to publicly acknowledge his Chinese background, and also internally compelled to do so because of the need to remember the other pasts suppressed under Suharto. Many of these he had hitherto only been able to fight against indirectly, or through symbolic allegory in his work. [End Page 59]

Figure 20. F.X. Harsono, Ndudah [Digging], 2009. Video documentary about 1948 Blitar massacre. Installation view at Langeng Foundation, Yogyakarta, 2010
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Figure 20.

F.X. Harsono, Ndudah [Digging], 2009. Video documentary about 1948 Blitar massacre. Installation view at Langeng Foundation, Yogyakarta, 2010

Harsono had sided against the Chinese in youthful demonstrations in Blitar, and had friends who were forced to execute suspected communists in 1965 when his own father had held him back from such groups and thus spared him the guilt of participation (Figure 20). Harsono must have known the wide range of anti-Chinese regulations passed by Suharto, not to mention the change of his own name to conceal a Chinese origin which nevertheless appeared on identity documents. Instead of asserting a "Chineseness" that he had never possessed, Harsono went to a more difficult place: negotiating his hybridity, as it had been produced by the Indonesian context in which he had grown up (Figure 21).

This may have led him away from a notion of cultural authenticity just at the point when many in Indonesia, freed of the hegemony of the New Order, were drawn to it. In following the full cultural complexity of his hybrid position, Harsono was displaying the same courage which he had frequently shown in the past, to experience himself as an "other" within his society. This was to produce a new social alienation of its own. In 2003, Harsono wrote:

After the Soeharto regime fell, a culture of violence became even more prevalent in our society. Witnessing the ambivalence towards the fate of the people on the one hand and the narrow-minded priority placed on each group's own needs sickened me at this time. My pessimism and revulsion pushed me into leaving behind the social themes in my work. I felt disoriented about morals, ethics, and even nationalism. I felt that whenever these were bandied about, [End Page 60] they were empty slogans without any meaning whatsoever. … Following this I felt that I no longer had a stance and I felt alienated amongst my own people. These were people I had once considered needed fighting for through art. I also felt alienated from the people who I had previously thought had the same vision for change. Amidst the nakedness and plainness that was revealed through their actions, I suddenly asked myself, who are they really?21

Figure 21. F.X. Harsono, Purification, 2013. Mixed media installation, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the artist
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Figure 21.

F.X. Harsono, Purification, 2013. Mixed media installation, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the artist

A version of his 2013 work, The Raining Bed (Figure 22), was shown first at the Yogyakarta Biennial in 2010, and then three years later at the 20th Biennale of Sydney. In Sydney, the Indonesian text of his poem in white letters rained on the bed, and an English translation in red letters crawled across an eye-level scroller behind the bed.

For Harsono, the bed is a place of rest and contemplation, but ignorance about Chinese contributions to Indonesian development causes restlessness, turning the bed into "a place that made [people] anxious, a dark and bitter place".22 The mixture of Chinese, local and European elements in the ornaments of the bed marks it as a site of hybrid culture, that of the Peranakan (Straits Chinese whose language is a fusion of Penang Hokkien and Malay). But Harsono does not resolve the ebb and flow of different cultural elements. His work is a melancholic site for the possibilities of a hybrid culture which are unrecognised or have been lost. Harsono so firmly sites himself in Indonesia, and so strongly worries about the ignorance or misidentification of Chinese [End Page 61]

Figure 22. F.X. Harsono, The Raining Bed, 2013. Wood, bed, stainless steel pump, water, ceramics, fabric & LED with running text, 200 × 200 × 200 cm
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Figure 22.

F.X. Harsono, The Raining Bed, 2013. Wood, bed, stainless steel pump, water, ceramics, fabric & LED with running text, 200 × 200 × 200 cm

contributions to his culture, that he refuses both the Marxist universalism of novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer's literary realism23 and the surrealist and cosmopolitan imaginary flights of Heri Dono.24 The situation is unresolved. Harsono is clearly more interested in listening to the echoes of conflicts, or making cool appraisal of the potential for allowing a new self-consciousness as "Indonesian", than in opposing or resisting prevailing constraints on "Chineseness".

Harsono's exploration of cultural and "ethnic" hybridity implies that the notion of resistance against a regime or a personal situation can transform into a greater awareness of multiple layers of culture and types of expression. Another possible factor is that Harsono is a practising Roman Catholic, so he may have wanted to link with a more universal sense of humankind, rather than a narrow state or religion-based notion.25

Resistant Vietnamese Artists: Nguyễn Tư Nghiêm, Dacchi Dang, Dinh Q. Lê

Linking the layers of cultural affiliation or past histories is a particularly acute question for artists who sojourn overseas, or become full emigrants after a period of diasporic identification from which they may temporarily or [End Page 62] permanently return "home". In this section, I compare Vietnamese artists who have left "home", looking at the work and strategies of Dacchi Dang (Đặng Đắc Chí, born 1966), who as a child was a boat-borne refugee and still lives in Australia, and Dinh Q. Lê (Lê Quang Đỉnh, born 1968), who left Vietnam as a child and later returned from the USA to live in Ho Chi Minh City.26

It may be art-historically prudent, as with Sudjojono and Harsono, to briefly look for prior examples of artistic negotiations in this context. Artists had initially been positive in their interactions with the rulers of the new Vietnamese state after 1945, but this was followed by resistance, and difficult attempts to negotiate artistic autonomy during the cultural and political transition in Vietnam following 1945. Here the case of Nguyễn Tư Nghiêm briefly springs to mind.27

Nguyễn Tư Nghiêm

Nguyễn Tư Nghiêm was born in 1918, and studied at the École des Beaux-Arts de L'Indochine in Hanoi from 1941, formally graduating after wartime disruptions in 1950.28 Like many artists in north Vietnam in the early-mid 1950s, he was a participant in the political campaigns associated with the Communist Party's policies of land reform. The land reform campaigns involved the redistribution of land—and other agricultural goods, including farm animals—following a process of class-based classification.29 Nghiêm's experiences in a land reform team in 1955 informed the work Con nghé (Buffalo Calf) dated to 1957, now in the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum, Hanoi (Figure 23).30 While the museum currently presents the work under the title of Buffalo Calf, other sources give the title as Con nghé quả thực, which has been translated as The Buffalo Calf: The Gains of Land Reform, giving a more specific indication of the political context in which the work was originally made.31

The focal point of the artwork is a newly born buffalo calf, which is being observed by a group of villagers, of different ages and types. According to the Vietnamese art historian Phan Cẩm Thượng, the work represents the aftermath of a land reform process, in which the buffalo calf is the redistributed property. He concludes that the work shows the complexities of the land reform process—both its positive and negative aspects—as the figure in the lower right represents the child of a landholding family, whose buffalo had been confiscated for redistribution.32 The work was awarded the National Exhibition Prize in 1957. At that time, the excesses of land reform, which had "wreaked havoc" on village life in north Vietnam, had been publicly acknowledged, including in August 1956 by Hồ Chí Minh himself, and a rectification programme to unwind the errors of the earlier campaigns had begun.33 It is not clear whether the work's [End Page 63]

Figure 23. Nguyễn Tư Nghiêm, Con Nghé (Buffalo Calf), dated to 1957. Lacquer, 45.5 × 63 cm. Collection of Vietnam Fine Arts Museum, Hanoi
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Figure 23.

Nguyễn Tư Nghiêm, Con Nghé (Buffalo Calf), dated to 1957. Lacquer, 45.5 × 63 cm. Collection of Vietnam Fine Arts Museum, Hanoi

ambivalence towards land reform, as indicated by the different emotions of the represented figures, was appreciated at the time or not. Despite the work's success, Nghiêm has stated that he dislikes it.34 This work shows how an artist could nominally complete a work that was ideologically correct according to the conditions of the time, whilst implying ambivalence about it.

In 1960, Nghiêm requested permission to leave the Communist Party.35 He was resisting the national institutions which had privileged him and, after 1960, he withdrew almost completely from public life and public activities. While the reasons for this are not completely clear, it has been linked to the strain he suffered as a result of the land reform campaigns, which had touched even his own family.36 Nghiêm maintained his position in the Artist's Association which paid him a stipend, but he rarely exhibited, instead painting at home, developing new directions in his work. Between 1960 and the early 1980s, Nghiêm developed subjects and stylistic elements in his paintings that were the fruit of his encounters with folk art and communal house sculpture, principally the motif of the "ancient dance", as well as images of the 12 animals associated with lunar astrology, the mythological hero Saint Gióng, and the characters of a Vietnamese epic poem. [End Page 64]

The use of geometric abbreviations and multiple spatial perspectives compressed into a single image has often led Nghiêm's work to be compared with Picasso's.37

For some art historians in Vietnam, the comparison with Picasso is frustrating, because it underplays Nghiêm's sustained engagement with communal house sculpture and village art.38 Nghiêm has commented that he had very little exposure to the work of Picasso: he first knew of Picasso during the Resistance period.39 He notes, however, that he admired Picasso's "working methods".40

While Nghiêm was working on forms of folkloric modernism in relative isolation in the 1960s, the Artist's Association was also discussing the idea of "national character" (tính dân tộc). This was a new emphasis in the public discourse of visual art, which otherwise emphasised Socialist Realism and, specifically, images of workers, peasants, soldiers and revolutionary heroes. In 1962, a pamphlet submitted by the Communist Party to the Second Artist's Association Congress stipulated that Vietnamese art should reflect national character.41 According to Nora A. Taylor, it was only at this time that the first attempt to systematically define "national character" within the visual arts took place, where "it exemplified the spirit of the Vietnamese culture in their struggle for independence, their daily work, and their ancient historical culture".42 There was a strong emphasis on imagery that was explicitly positive, while nudes and abstracts were considered decadent and were not permitted to be publicly displayed.43 Despite the sense of "national character" evident in Nghiêm's work, it is clear that, in the 1960s, his work diverged significantly from what was generally understood by this term.

Nghiêm was also an innovator with "national form" not merely or simply of "national subjects". This was via his development of what had formerly been the craft practice of lacquer painting. This was unusual, since the academically trained artist, as the restorer of an idea of the national, generally deployed "superior" technical fields of oil or gouache painting. Moreover, Nghiêm was definitely the inheritor of the Vietnamese scholar-bureaucrat tradition, his father having been among the last generation to take the Vietnamese imperial civil service examinations.

Common aspects can be found in the work of both Nguyễn Tư Nghiêm and S. Sudjojono. These include: war as a mediating or necessitating experience, and artistic ideology as a field of debate. Both Nghiêm and Sudjojono regarded art as a private pursuit, rather than a public representation, and both thought art was coded or determined by non-art values: those of the individual artist as the bearer of the spirit of the times which formed their new nation. In a sense, these artists and many like them embody an experience of their societies as being beyond the colonial. That is, in their work, there is an expression of [End Page 65]

Figure 24. Vietnamese refugees on a boat, photographed by David Tanner. Published in West Australian, September 1981. © West Australian Newspapers Limited
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Figure 24.

Vietnamese refugees on a boat, photographed by David Tanner. Published in West Australian, September 1981. © West Australian Newspapers Limited

something which had existed before colonialism, something that had now been given another place after its end.44 In its intensity, the experience of violent anti-colonial struggle that both Nghiêm and Sudjojono had lived through seems to have enabled and probably induced them to criticize the narrow views of a formal realism that purported to "serve the people".45 They were thus induced to ask that if realism was a domain of practice which suited their national expression, then under what terms it was to do so.

Dacchi Dang46

I will now turn to the work of Australian Vietnamese artist Dacchi Dang, in whose life and work at least three circles of events and experience overlap: the War in Vietnam (Figure 24); the survival of a child refugee following his move to and acceptance in Australia (Figure 25); and, finally, the development of a mature discourse to realise Dacchi Dang's more formal awareness as an artist (Figure 26).

Dacchi Dang (Đặng Đắc Chí) was born in 1966 in Saigon as a Chinese Vietnamese (Việt gốc Hoa, Vietnamese of Chinese heritage), and although the war ended in 1975 when he was nine, he did not leave by boat until 1982, when [End Page 66]

Figure 25. Dacchi Dang, Phoenix, 2011. Three channel video. Image courtesy of the artist
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Figure 25.

Dacchi Dang, Phoenix, 2011. Three channel video. Image courtesy of the artist

Figure 26. Dacchi Dang Spectacle I, 1994
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Figure 26.

Dacchi Dang Spectacle I, 1994

[End Page 67] he was 16. Thus, he passed his childhood and much of his adolescence during the war and its immediate aftermath. The first chapter of Dang's 2013 doctoral dissertation details his personal experience as a "refugee", and explains carefully the relation between that experience, and his family structure and familial expectations in Australia.47

This is such a frequent topic in Australian Vietnamese reminiscences, fictional reconstructions of their experience of leaving Vietnam, and of their initial reception in and adjustment to Australia, that we may assume it was determinative for their later character formation and life choices.48

Because the war was so traumatic, reactions to it so polarised, and the fact that many of the refugee children had fathers who served in (or whose families were closely linked to) the South Vietnamese forces, these children's later cultural and political understandings of the war and its savageries cannot be divorced from their family situations. Nor can their understanding be cut away from the need, as perceived by parents, to leave as refugees, bearing all the risks that dangerous illegal exile carried in most cases.

Another leitmotif of recollections is the abjectness of the child refugee, subjected to parental as well as external social domination, even before they encountered the resistance and often hostility of sections of the receiving culture in the country where they sought refuge.49 In many ways, these children were not allowed to become persons, even in the sometimes restricted manner of a "traditional" Vietnamese family. After all, their early life had been subject to all the upheaval of civil war and murderous foreign intervention, in which Australia was a willing partner. One goal of an artist is to become a person with autonomous understanding and individually articulated issues and subjects: it seems that many artists had to face this dilemma overseas in a worldwide diaspora.50 Those who succeeded, like Dang and some other Australian Vietnamese, may be exceptions. All faced this great hurdle, and I can only wonder how many were unable to found their own personalities through their creative work, be it in art, writing, theatrical comedy or even cuisine. We are left with double survivors: those who both passed through the hell of the boats and the pain of readjustment, and who also successfully learned to find a métier, a means to express themselves in life.

Dang reminds us that even in Vietnam he felt an outsider, because he was of Chinese background, which also excluded him from identifying as "Vietnamese". Deep beyond his presence for others in Australia as a "Vietnamese boat person" was his distance from being Vietnamese. Contributing to this was the fact that his mother tongue was Cantonese, and not the putonghua which Catholic Chinese Vietnamese refugees had brought to South Vietnam when he was a child, nor Vietnamese, articulated in many regional variations, [End Page 68] and also by minority peoples who had lived as separate linguistic and cultural groups within Vietnam.

Although Dang had begun working in photography around 1994, he actually considers that he began his truly expressive photographic work by looking for a "home" around 2008. It was a place to which he could securely return to or safely inhabit without the application of external criteria of belonging. He wrote in 2013, actually describing his earlier experiences in Japan, another foreign place, in 2009: "Most of photographic work seemed to depict homes of the people whose lands I was exploring, and in particular homes and temporary shelters of the dislocated and disenfranchised."51

Dang recognised early on that Vietnamese present their diasporic experience through unrecorded oral stories, because they do not express themselves in writing well, and could be captured in the expression of their emotion through photography. For him the diasporic has two faces, "one looking forward and one looking back",52 and as he came to mull on acceptance by the culture to which his refugee status had given him access, he began to question the patterns of adjustment which the Vietnamese made, using a set of concepts derived for Vietnamese in North America.53 This distinguished three patterns: an old linear pattern in which values were traced back to a pre-communist, pre-Vietnam War set of traditions; an assimilation pattern in which the values of the accepting society were accepted and provided the field of social action; and a bicultural pattern in which the Vietnamese lived between two imperfectly coordinated worlds, which were perceived as separate but inter-communicating cultures.

What is remarkable about Dang's own writings is his careful identification of different notions of "home", chiefly varying between the two poles of home as centre which is outward-looking, and home as identity which is inward-looking. Refugees detach home from specific spatial locations, and they create a notion of being, for a given culture of reception: "The Other can choose to re-present who they are or how they conduct themselves within the wider society. Subject matter can thus be re-framed within culturally specific means, in this way determining new possibilities for interpretation by the viewer."54

Many of these issues of identity and how to express it were worked out by Dang in his early piece, The Boat (2000–1) (Figures 27 and28). These identifications resurfaced in works such as Phoenix (2011) (Figure 25), a three-channel video, one channel of which shows a white wax refabrication of a Đông Sơn drum melting, but with red wax flowing from inside. Clearly, during his postgraduate research of 2009–13, he began to make pieces which worked directly on a subject matter which was his own, even as it could be positioned by viewers who were external, and emplaced in other cultures. [End Page 69]

Figure 27. Dacchi Dang, The Boat (2000–2001). Installation, 13 m in length. Image courtesy of the artist
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Figure 27.

Dacchi Dang, The Boat (2000–2001). Installation, 13 m in length. Image courtesy of the artist

Figure 28. Dacchi Dang, The Boat (2000–2001). Installation, 13 m in length. Image courtesy of the artist
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Figure 28.

Dacchi Dang, The Boat (2000–2001). Installation, 13 m in length. Image courtesy of the artist

[End Page 70]

But Dang's growth as an artist and the maturation of his discourse was not a linear progression of stages, but more a series of moments in a complex spiral only partially denoted by time. Clearly the collages, or, more properly speaking, overlaid and resynthesised photographs he did after his first return to Vietnam in 1994 with Spectacle I (1994), were an anticipation of his future ability to handle multiple levels and contents of discourse in the same work. I am not quite sure how he transferred this maturation in photo media to work with video, but video often allows itself to be a series of moving but interlocuted and visually static tableaux, and may have formed the basis for his later work with camera obscura or pinhole cameras.

The use of video to show simultaneous but parallel imagined worlds marked a new and exploratory confidence. This may be seen first in Phoenix (2011) (Figure 25), and in Captain Van Dang in the Great South Land (2012) (Figures 29 and30). The latter is a single-channel video animation of a Vietnamese explorer greeting people of different origins arriving on Cronulla Beach. Somewhat humorously—perhaps a gallows humour—he deploys the symbol of the famous 19th-century Australian bushranger and folk hero Ned Kelly meeting an Arabian woman.

Figure 29. Dacchi Dang, Captain Van Dang in the Great South Land, 2012. Single channel animation, 3 minutes. Image courtesy of the artist
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Figure 29.

Dacchi Dang, Captain Van Dang in the Great South Land, 2012. Single channel animation, 3 minutes. Image courtesy of the artist

[End Page 71]

Figure 30. Dacchi Dang, Captain Van Dang in the Great South Land, 2012. Single channel animation, 3 minutes. Image courtesy of the artist
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Figure 30.

Dacchi Dang, Captain Van Dang in the Great South Land, 2012. Single channel animation, 3 minutes. Image courtesy of the artist

Dang has written that he has been searching for a tool that:

allows me to negotiate these spaces and cultures [it] signifies displacement and the search for belonging and identity by members of the Vietnamese diaspora in Australia. … The pinhole camera produces infinite depth of field on the same projection plane. Pinhole camera images have a soft focus and distort reality in a similar way to how we see things in dreams.55

He believed the pinhole camera satisfied these requirements and used it for the Full Circle series (2009–10) (Figures 31 and32). This was part of a project at an island off the Queensland coast which had once been a leper colony. In Dang's mind this island was associated with Pulau Bintong in Malaysia, where he had been kept for a year before his transfer to Australia, under conditions of privation he compared with those of the former leper colony inhabitants.

Dang had meanwhile acquired a very sophisticated knowledge of art theory. He deploys various thinkers to situate his photographic practice in a broader theoretical frame, such as Michel De Certeau's notion that in a photograph "what can be seen designates what is no longer there".56 He also cites Jill Bennett on memory, as a site in which "the poetics of sense memory involves not so much speaking of but speaking out of a particular memory or experience".57

Dang is not interested in a singularity of vision, and he somewhat paradoxically thinks the pinhole camera can overcome this: "The idea of single-point perspective seems to suggest a refraction of a very specific point of view, a point, or instant in space-time, it can also function as a site of enmeshment, or a source of multiplicity."58 [End Page 72]

Figure 31. Dacchi Dang, Self-Portrait, from the series Full Circle, 2009. Pigment on photo rag
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Figure 31.

Dacchi Dang, Self-Portrait, from the series Full Circle, 2009. Pigment on photo rag

Figure 32. Dacchi Dang, Self-Portrait, from the series Full Circle, 2009. Pigment on photo rag
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Figure 32.

Dacchi Dang, Self-Portrait, from the series Full Circle, 2009. Pigment on photo rag

[End Page 73]

But elsewhere, and in conclusion, he adumbrates an abjection that is sometimes despairing, sometimes a cool, self-confident knowing. "My society does not know how to cope with the layered otherness it has applied to me," he asserts.59

Dinh Q. Lê

Turning now to the work of Dinh Q. Lê,60 we can see that some artists chose to return to Vietnam rather than go on living a diasporic existence overseas. Therefore, a hybrid analysis like Dang's of a multilayered response to an existing reception culture does not apply, and artists on their return "home" are in contact with a culture they want to regard as their own, and to whose "authenticity" this desire awards some sovereignty.

Dinh Q. Lê was born in 1968 near the Cambodian border and, after the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1978 when he was ten, his family emigrated to Los Angeles. Thereafter Lê received both his BFA in 1989 and MFA in 1992 in the USA. He claims Vietnamese woven grass mat folk art as the motivation—via his aunt—for the woven photographs by which he first became well known.61 It was curator Francesco Bonami who exhibited him at the Italian Pavilion in the Venice Biennale in 2003, and it was this same biennale which brought the Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija to prominence. Bonami had earlier commented on Rirkrit's first group exhibition in Flash Art for which he was US editor.62 One may see this selection and placement as evidence of a pattern of promoting Asian artists at the international level who had graduated from US art schools by critics who were US-based from the early 2000s.

Dinh Q. Lê problematises memory and the way this is constructed as well as the way in which major social issues are ignored by state policies. His exhibition at the 5th Asia Pacific Triennial in 2006, which I saw, combined two series of works, including Lotusland (1999), which indirectly referred to the congenital deformities caused by Agent Orange though the use of small sculptures the size of children's toys. Lotusland, in effect, memorialises the conjoined twins worshipped in some rural communities Lê visited.

Lê had earlier, in 1998, addressed the state-suppressed discourse on the genetic effects of Agent Orange by exhibiting for a month in a Vietnamese market a range of clothing and pacifiers made for conjoined twins. Lê had branded these with names of those US corporations that had produced the dioxins scattered over Vietnam.

At the triennial in Brisbane, the toys were shown with an imitation helicopter made by a farmer named Tran Quoc Hai, who was interviewed by Lê in person in Brisbane as part of a related video installation. I remember the combination [End Page 74] of small handmade objects, video and a tinplate helicopter as being distinctly uncoordinated and difficult to accept as one piece, but clearly the curators and artist thought the combination would have a cumulative effect.

Lê's interest in memory is that for him it can never be direct. Unlike Dacchi Dang, who was 16 when he left Vietnam, Lê had been only ten years old. The Triennial catalogue cites Lê as having stated in 2001:

I am interested in the way nature actively erases both physical evidence as well as our memory of the event. We cannot keep all memories because not all memories are meant for us to keep. The question then is what memories to keep and what to let go of as the way of nature intended.63

Of course, Lê is aware of the role various media play in encoding memories which a person later believes to have been his or her own experience. Remembering occurs via representations, and in the late 20th century these representations were often visual, or reinforced by media such as film and television. This is a phenomenon which diasporic refugees in highly mediated societies like the US might have particularly focused on. One critic writes of Lê: "He quickly remembered … that there had been no helicopters in their region of Vietnam. What Lê remembered from life was, in fact, a scene in the film Apocalypse Now."64 Lê's many works include Erasure (2011), a complex video and photographic installation exhibited at and commissioned by the then Sherman Art Galleries in Sydney, which I saw.

This was both an interactive piece involving the movement of the audience through the installation, and a collection of images which could also be downloaded and printed from a photographic database in the exhibition, then to be erased one by one. They were then to be uploaded to a dedicated website.65

The video work merged a soundtrack which was operative but without music—consisting of the sound of burning timber, crashing waves and a howling gale66—with a very large video image of a burning "western" sailing ship, actually not real-size, but a filmed wooden model blown-up on the screen. The viewer passed along an intimate walkway through photo memorials of lost souls, hidden because the photographs were turned face down, and seen from a walkway which resembled a a yatsuhashi (eight bridges, a wooden plank zigzag pictured in some Japanese scrolls, and seen in some gardens made of stone).

This would appeal to a wanderer through memories of a history which was not quite the artist's, via the conscious reference to the recent contemporary loss of "boat people" sunk on their way to Australia. An operatic and therefore [End Page 75] melodramatic mise-en-scène, the work sentimentalises a drama which was all too tragic for those who had experienced it, but which might also function as a distanciation due to the artistic license required in order to treat it. Certainly, the tenor of the artist's previous work had led the Prince Claus Fund to award the artist a prize a year before the Sherman commission.67 Comparison with prior examples treating this sort of material links it to Géricault's Raft of the Medusa (1818–19) and Turner's Slave Ship (1840), works whose compositional pictorial qualities and imagined cries rather than heard operatic sounds also produce a distance from the sheer horror of what is shown. Erasure is a profound and grandiose, but necessarily provocative work.

The rhetoric of identification with the displaced and despoiled of the earth appeals to a certain sympathy which privileged audiences can indulge. This response may also affect an increased international willingness to accept the art of emigré artists if they can convincingly refer to real historical experiences, preferably ones they have undergone themselves to add "authenticity".68 There is a tendency for chiefly North American exhibitions or international art curators to privilege artists who are already privileged by virtue of possessing art education from the USA, Europe or Australia, as well as speaking English. This can sometimes also fall into a privileging of the abject: is the art or the artist deprived enough for the privileged and distanced audience to show sympathy? It is as if the work provides the artist's conscience a place to express itself that it might not have had in its "home" country. This conscience constitutes a howling, engulfing audience-memorial to pain which can barely be called art, because the horror engulfs any distance from it.

Coda

As of a kind of coda which points to other possible explorations, one can ask if the Indonesian and Vietnamese examples discussed here handle Euro-American issues that curators might, for their own ideological reasons, want to see taken up, such as gender or class. When these artists are selected, the curatorial inclination may be to treat various literary or gender issues as political, even when the artists themselves, for good reasons including self-preservation, do not directly concern themselves with politics.

This may be seen also in the work of Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook (born in Thailand, 1957), where she makes small "p" political statements about daily living and dying, without confronting other political forces she knows would emasculate or destroy her statement (Figure 33).

It is also the case with the Filipino artist Roberto Bulatao Feleo, whose work treats colonialism and the heritage of precolonial beliefs and ritual customs, [End Page 76]

Figure 33. Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook , In Reinterpreting Old Landscape We May Have to Endure Repetitions of the Same Old Karma, 2009. Photographic still from a video. Image courtesy of the artist
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Figure 33.

Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook , In Reinterpreting Old Landscape We May Have to Endure Repetitions of the Same Old Karma, 2009. Photographic still from a video. Image courtesy of the artist

but avoids explicit left-wing positions, even from an ostensibly non-political or mythologising position. The artist's grandfather was a founder of the Philippines' Communist Party, and was presumed murdered by the Military Police in 1946. His father was imprisoned by the Marcos regime. Roberto Bulatao Feleo criticises local power and stakeholders, those of a disunified and often morally questionable oligarchy which still rules. In the Philippines, there is no unified party of opposition, despite centres of cultural and political resistance, so Bulatao's recourse, short of direct political struggle, is to materialise the suppressed mythological figures of a precolonial past, or of a present vibrant with the Rabelaisian discord in the streets (Figures 34 and35).

If these artists are negotiating, they are doing so carefully between notions of their self, and of the state and art institutional structures which allow or negate this self. Their positions are implicitly political in that the artists may not want to live within the domain of power, or wish to acquire its hegemony for themselves, but nonetheless cannot live outside this domain. Partially this resistance is due to freedom from tension and its partner, blind forgetting, which they seek, partially it is due the enormous semantic freedom they enjoy when they go back into personal situations (Araya) or areas of historical loss (Harsono) which the state or its residues in surviving colonial hegemonies [End Page 77]

Figure 34. Roberto Feleo, Tau Tao, 1994. Mixed media in chalk, molded sawdust and white glue, 240 × 150 × 1080 cm. Photographed by John Clark
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Figure 34.

Roberto Feleo, Tau Tao, 1994. Mixed media in chalk, molded sawdust and white glue, 240 × 150 × 1080 cm. Photographed by John Clark

Figure 35. Roberto Feleo with Tao-tao and Aklasang Basi-Ang Hanay ng Ñ [Tao-Tao of Basi Revolt—The Ranks of the Ñ], 2015. Lacquer over acrylic on sawdust and eggshell mix over paper on aluminum expander, dimensions variable. (Note: The letter 'Ñ' had been introduced to the Philippines by the Spanish.) Photograph by Jose Zulueta
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Figure 35.

Roberto Feleo with Tao-tao and Aklasang Basi-Ang Hanay ng Ñ [Tao-Tao of Basi Revolt—The Ranks of the Ñ], 2015. Lacquer over acrylic on sawdust and eggshell mix over paper on aluminum expander, dimensions variable. (Note: The letter 'Ñ' had been introduced to the Philippines by the Spanish.) Photograph by Jose Zulueta

[End Page 78] (Feleo) has suppressed. The cultural condition of a certain inevitable hybridity in Southeast Asia perhaps does not allow a single state hegemon or a single globalised market and its capital flows to hold sway, and this situation, vulnerable as it may make the artists to political or economic misappropriation or misprision of their work, is also a source of their strength to resist.

Figure 36. Roberto Feleo, Tao-tao and Aklasang Basi-Ang Hanay ng Ñ [Tao-Tao of Basi Revolt—The Ranks of the Ñ], 2015. Lacquer over acrylic on sawdust and eggshell mix over paper on aluminum expander, dimensions variable. The letter 'Ñ' had been introduced to the Philippines by the Spanish. Image courtesy of University of the Philippines Vargas Museum
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Figure 36.

Roberto Feleo, Tao-tao and Aklasang Basi-Ang Hanay ng Ñ [Tao-Tao of Basi Revolt—The Ranks of the Ñ], 2015. Lacquer over acrylic on sawdust and eggshell mix over paper on aluminum expander, dimensions variable. The letter 'Ñ' had been introduced to the Philippines by the Spanish. Image courtesy of University of the Philippines Vargas Museum

[End Page 79]

John Clark

John Clark is Professor Emeritus in Art History at the University of Sydney where he taught for 20 years. His Asian Modernities: Chinese and Thai Art Compared, 1980 to 1999 (Sydney: Power Publications, 2010), won the Best Art Book Prize of the Art Association of Australia and New Zealand in 2011. Modernities of Chinese Art and Modernities of Japanese Art came out from Brill in 2010 and 2013. Contemporary Asian Art at Biennials is forthcoming from NUS Press, and the two-volume The Asian Modern, 1850s–1990s with 25 Asian artists in five generations, is scheduled to appear from the National Gallery of Singapore in 2019.

NOTES

1. This text is expanded and revised from a lecture given at the Asia Society, New York, on 20 Oct. 2017. I would like to express my thanks to the Asia Society for the opportunity to present these views in a symposium for their exhibition, After Darkness: Southeast Asian Art in the Wake of History. For the work on which this article was based, I am grateful to the Australian Research Council for a professorial fellowship from 2007–12. Parts of this material will be found in a two-volume book, The Asian Modern, to be published by the National Gallery Singapore in early 2019, and I am indebted to them for permission to present this, as also to their curator Phoebe Scott who researched and co-wrote one chapter in Volume II on the Vietnamese artist Nguyễn Tư Nghiêm. The text on Dacchi Dang is substantially that of my article in Art Monthly Australia, issue 301, Sept. 2017, pp. 32–5.

2. See Gordon T. Bowles, The People of Asia (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977). At that time, Bowles used many kinds of comparative historical data as well as distributive classifications of blood types.

3. See John M. Steadman, The Myth of Asia (London: Macmillan, 1969), with a foreword by noted British reactionary literary historian A.L. Rowse.

5. For a discussion in the context of Thai history see Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit, A History of Ayutthaya: Siam in the Early Modern World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), pp. 78–80. My review of this text is also included in this issue of Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia.

7. Edward W. Said, Orientalism (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978 and London: Peregrine Books, 1985). There are many critiques of Said, mostly ignored by his supporters, including Chapter 9 of Robert Irwin, For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and their Enemies (London: Allen Lane, 2006). My own critique is "On Two Books by Edward W. Said", Bicitra Seni, Jilid 2, 1996 (from Pusat Seni, Universiti Sains Malaysia), pp. 20–47; and Chapter 11 of John Clark, Modern Asian Art (Sydney: Craftsman House and Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai'i Press, 1998). A most interesting articulation of Said's method including analysis of its critiques is Robert C. Young, Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2001), pp. 385–92. Young refers back to Foucault's original concepts of discourse [End Page 80] where "A discursive practice establishes an interactive relation between otherwise heterogenous material elements", and discourse may be determining without its determinations being fixed. Ibid., p. 406.

10. Sudjojono wrote on 25 Dec. 1942 in a letter to H.B. Jassin on the character of the artist:

What he requires at the base itself is truth and a character which pushes him to act in conformity with his desire (the love of truth), [these] are indispensable [attributes] in an artist. All works must be born spontaneously and each line (if he is a painter) which he traces on a canvas has to be an honest image which issues directly from his heart without being dulled by any other considerations.

Hadiwardoyo, Sanento Yuliman, Genèse de la Peinture Indonésienne Contemporaine: Le rôle de S. Sudjojono [Genesis of Contemporary Indonesian Painting: The Role of S. Sudjojono], Doctorat de 3e cycle (Paris: École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, 1981), p. 153, my translation.

11. On the one hand this is a lot he happily accepts, like the cigarette butt collector, on which depiction the poem reads, in Amir Sidharta's translation:

Ah, so beautiful a countryClear skies, blue seas,Collecting cigarette butts while smoking,On top of my bottle people are happy, [End Page 81] Who is able to handle this?Only me?No problem in any kind of weather.

Amir Sidharta, S. Sudjojono, Visible Soul (Jakarta: Museum S. Sudjojono & Canna Gallery, 2006), p. 109.

12. PERSAGI stands for Persatuan Ahli-Ahli Gambar Indonesia [Association of Indonesian Drawing Specialists], with Agus Djaya as President; Sudjojono as Secretary; and L. Setijoso, Treasurer, founded in 1938 and exhibiting until 1942.

14. Some details of recent small art groups in Yogyakarta in particular relating to Cemeti are found in Melia Jaarsma, "The Search for Stable Ground in Indonesia's Art Scene", in Iola Lenzi, ed. and curator, Concept, Context, Contestation: Art and the Collective in Southeast Asia (Bangkok: Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, 2014).

15. For a summary see Brita Maklai, "New Streams, New Visions: Contemporary Art Since 1966", in Culture and Society in New Order Indonesia, ed. Virginia Hooker (Kuala Lumpur and Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 73:

In reply to established painter Kusnadi's charge that it was a form of plagiarism to combine the head of an ancient Javanese Queen [in Supangkat's 1975 work, Ken Dedes ] with a cartoon-style body [displaying pubic hair]. Sudarmadji said that it was surely better to borrow the image than to steal the original (which at that time was in a Dutch museum). Thus underlying the point that ancient Javanese culture was, therefore, a valid element to draw on in constructing an image of Indonesian society. This heated exchange between Kusnadi and Sudarmadji continued in the newspapers for some time, showing that there were already several conflicting value systems with which to evaluate Indonesian art.

17. Semsar Siahaan briefly joined Gerakan Senirupa Baru after its inception in 1978.

20. Harsono from Inside Indonesia, 1993, as given in Wiyanto, 2010, p. 114.

21. Harsono, 'Transisi', 2003, in Wiyanto, 2010, 156-7.

22. From notes provided by the artist with the 2016 Biennale of Sydney installation. [End Page 82]

The poem reads:

'In my sleep the past unfoldsAt the tip of the pen history is inventedAt the tip of the rifle history is fooledBy the end of the falls history is swept away.'

23. In early Jan. 1963, the writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer delivered a 70-page seminar paper at the University of Indonesia, Realisme Sosialis dan Sastra Indonesia-Sebuah tinjauan social [Socialist Realism and Indonesian Literature—A Social Review] but it is unclear how much impact this literary analysis had on the visual arts. See Keith Foulcher, Social Commitment in Literature and the Arts: the Indonesian 'Institute of People's Culture', 1950–1965 (Clayton: Southeast Asian Studies, Monash University, 1986), p. 120.

25. I have not discussed Harsono's religious beliefs with him.

27. Nguyễn Tư Nghiêm is an artist whose work I have seen in Hanoi, but of whom my knowledge and the text here is particularly indebted to research and writing by Phoebe Scott, from whom I commissioned a research report on Nguyễn Tư Nghiêm in 2010–11. The text on Nghiêm appearing in this article is adapted, with permission, from her unpublished report. All Vietnamese-language sources cited here were provided to me by Scott, and the translations to English are hers, with the assistance of Van Tran. The interpretation is my own, and any remaining errors are mine.

28. Nguyễn Tư Nghiêm's date of birth is often recorded as 1922, but Nghiêm has clarified in an interview that his actual year of birth was 1918. See Quang Việt, "210 phút với Nguyễn Tư Nghiêm" ["210 Minutes with Nguyễn Tư Nghiêm"], Tạp Chí Mỹ Thuật (Fine Arts Magazine), no. 96, 61 (Jan. 2004), p. 35.

30. Nguyễn Tư Nghiêm noted in an interview that this work was prepared during his participation in a land reform team. See Thuận Thiên, "Xuân muộn của họa sĩ Nguyễn Tư Nghiêm" ["The Late Spring of Artist Nguyễn Tư Nghiêm"], Lao Đòng 1–20 (1996): 13. A brief discussion of this work within the broader context of land reform also appears in Phoebe Scott, "Forming and Reforming the Artist: Modernity, Agency and the Discourse of Art in North Vietnam, 1925–1954", unpublished PhD dissertation (Sydney: University of Sydney, 2012), p. 259. With the assistance of Phoebe Scott, this has been corrected and expanded here for this article. [End Page 83]

31. The translation of the title as The Buffalo Calf: The Gains of Land Reform appears in Nguyễn Quân, introduction to Tranh Nguyễn Tư Nghiêm trong sưu tập Nguyễn Thu Giang [Nguyễn Tư Nghiêm Paintings in the Nguyễn Thu Giang Collection], (Hanoi: Nhà xuất bản Mỹ thuật, 1994), p. 10. An alternative translation of the title as The Buffalo Trophy of the Struggle in the Agrarian Reform appears in Quang Phòng and Quang Việt, Mỹ thuật thủ đô Hà Nội thế kỷ 20 [Art of Hanoi in the Twentieth Century] (Hanoi: The Fine Arts Publishers, 2000), p. 416. Both of these translations clearly show the original context in which the work would have been understood.

34. Quang Việt, "210 phút với Nguyễn Tư Nghiêm", p. 38.

35. Interview by Phoebe Scott with Quang Việt, Feb. 2011; Quang Việt, "210 phút", p. 41.

36. That the land reform was the reason for Nghiêm's withdrawal from mainstream society is suggested in Phan Cẩm Thượng. "Nguyễn Tư Nghiêm", p. 93. This view was also repeated in an interview by Phoebe Scott with Quang Việt, Feb. 2011 and an interview with Phan Cẩm Thượng, Feb. 2011.

37. This aspect of Nghiêm's practice was explicitly explored in the exhibition Reframing Modernism: Painting from Southeast Asia, Europe and Beyond, where Nghiêm's work was displayed with an example by Picasso, as well as bodies of work by two other artists whose cubistic styles were informed by symbols and imagery derived from local culture, namely Latiff Mohidin and Jean-Michel Atlan. For discussion of this issue, see Phoebe Scott, "Nguyễn Tư Nghiêm" in Reframing Modernism: Painting from Southeast Asia, Europe and Beyond, ed. Sarah Lee & Sara Siew (Singapore: National Gallery Singapore, 2016), pp. 208–10.

40. Ibid.

42. Ibid., p. 114. [End Page 84]

43. Taylor, "Framing the National Spirit", p. 115.

44. It may be, as pointed by Aijaz Ahmad and others, that the notion of "postcolonial" over-emphasises "… the significance of the impact of colonialism on the societies that were colonized". See Young, Postcolonialism, p. 60.

46. The section on Dacchi Dang is drawn from my opening remarks for an exhibition by Dacchi Dang at Gallery 4A Sydney on 28 June 2017, and an edited version was published in Art Monthly Australia 301 (Sept. 2017), pp. 32–5. My writing is indebted to a conversation with Dacchi Dang, 18 May 2017, and sources cited below.

48. In particular, the role of the father present or absent from the family, and of the mother as the subject of the husband's affection and sometimes physical abuse also functions as a centre of "Vietnamese" values in both Vietnam and Australia. See Mandy Thomas, Dreams in the Shadows: Vietnamese Australian Lives in Transition (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1999); Nam Le, The Boat (Melbourne: Penguin Books, 2008); Pauline Nguyen, "Born in Vietnam, Made in Australia", The Griffith REVIEW 27 (2010); Anh Do, The Happiest Refugee: A Memoir (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2010).

On Vietnamese and other Southeast Asian refugees in Australia see also Jacob Hickey, Sue Clothier and Craig Graham, producers, Once Upon a Time in Cabramatta, three-episode documentary, SBS, 2012 [available from SBS on demand in 2017]; Carina Hoang, ed., Boat People: Personal Stories from the Vietnamese Exodus 1975–1992 (Cloverdale, WA: Carina Hoang, Communications, 2010); Andrew Jakubowicz, "Vietnamese in Australia: A Quintessential Collision" (May 2004), https://andrewjakubowicz.com/publications/vietnamese-in-australia-aquintessential-collision/ [accessed Jan. 2018] (Jakubowicz also appears in the Hickey et al. SBS documentary, 2012); Pauline Nguyen, Secrets of the Red Lantern: Stories and Recipes from the Heart (Sydney, Miller's Point: Murdoch Books, 2007); [End Page 85] Alice Pung, ed., Growing up Asian in Australia (Collingwood: Black Inc., 2008); Nancy Viviani, The Long Journey: Vietnamese Migration and Settlement in Australia (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1984); Nancy Viviani, The Indochinese in Australia, 1975–1995, from Burnt Boats to Barbecues (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1996).

Standard histories of Vietnam include Christopher Goscha, The Penguin History of Modern Vietnam (London: Allen Lane, 2016 and Penguin, 2017); Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History (New York, NY: The Viking Press, 1983 and London: Penguin Books, 1997). Two great war novels which treat experience from the Vietnamese side are Duong Thu Hong, Novel without a Name, tr. Phan Huy Dong and Nina McPherson (London: Picador, 1995) and Bao Ninh, The Sorrow of War, English by Frank Palmos after tr. Phan Thanh Hao (London: Martin Secker and Warburg, 1994 and London: Vintage Books, 1998). The latter structures the experienced and recollected narratives via reference to a third and distanced narrator level which resonates with other refugee recollections. Both books are banned in Vietnam.

49. Senator Pauline Hanson [Pauline Hanson's One Nation] still sits in Parliament and, as the now somewhat notorious Senator Dastiari [Labor] recently pointed out in the talk show Q&A on Australian ABC, has merely shifted the target of extreme right-wing discourse from indigenous Australians to Vietnamese to Asians in general, and now to Muslims. Et in arcadia ego.

50. It is a situation found across many artists from South America in Europe who escaped one set of cultural and family constraints, frequently articulated through local corruption and military rule, to reach a Europe which was ignorant of and wilfully indifferent to their need to establish an autonomous artistic identity. See Marius Kociejowski, God's Zoo: Artists, Exiles, Londoners (Manchester: Carcanet, 2014), particularly the chapter on a diasporic Brazilian artist, "Ana Maria Pacheco's Journey to the Underworld. Or Misfortunes of a Sardine", pp. 146–76.

52. Ibid., p. 28.

55. Ibid., p. 140.

56. Ibid., citing Michel de Certeau via Francis Marravillas, p. 149.

57. Ibid., citing Jill Bennett, p. 150.

58. Ibid., p. 151.

59. Ibid., p 174. Dacchi Dang also repeated this view in my interview with him of 18 May 2017. [End Page 86]

62. See Flash Art 25, 170 (May–June, 2003), exhibition advertisement and review by Francesco Bonami.

64. José da Silva, 2006, citing Karen Irvin, Stages of Memory: the War in Vietnam (Chicago, IL: Museum of Contemporary Photography, 2005).

65. Unfortunately, by Sept. 2017, this was only accessible with a hacking warning. See www.erasurearchive.net. [accessed Sept. 2017]

68. See, inter alia Caroline Turner and Jen Webb, Art and Human Rights: Contemporary Asian Contexts (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016). On "refugee" artists in Australia see Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore, "Refugee Art: A Way to Face Up to Ugly Truths—and Possibly Change Minds", The Guardian, 30 July 2016. Khadim Ali mentioned by Sebag-Montefiore, an Afghan refugee artist in Australia is interviewed [End Page 87] by Arjmand Aziz and Ann Proctor, "An Interview with Khadim Ali", TAASA Review 26, 3 (Sept. 2017), pp. 18–9.

Fictional works directly dealing with Stalinist and Nazi exterminations are quite well known in Eastern Europe, including Andrej Wajda's film about the slaughter by the Soviet NKVD of Polish officers and intellectuals, Katyn, 2007. The victims included Wajda's father. A literary fiction of the Holocaust by a Polish survivor of Auschwitz but deliberately written from the viewpoint of the perpetrators is Zofia Posmysz's The Passenger from Cabin 45, a radio play in 1959, published as a novella, The Passenger, in 1962. The opera by Mieczyslaw Weinberg is from 1967–8. Its DVD recording has an introduction by Weinberg's teacher Shostakovitch, from a Bregenz Festival performance in 2010. As of 2017, I have found no direct English translation apart from the libretto included in this opera box.

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Launched on MUSE
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