Social art practices – lessons to be learnt from Southeast Asia

Lee Wen. Strange Fruit, photography

Lee Wen. Strange Fruit, photography

A New York Times article Outside the Citadel, Social Practice Art is Intended to Nurture speaks to the limited awareness of Southeast Asian art practices, which for centuries have focused on performance in social spaces.

Social Art Practice practitioners, “freely blur the lines among object making, performance, political activism, community organising, environmentalism and investigative journalism, creating a deeply participatory art that often flourishes outside the gallery and museum system…. Leading [US] museums have largely ignored it. Many smaller institutions see it as a new frontier for a movement whose roots stretch back to the 1960s, but has picked up fervour through Occupy Wall Street and the rise of social activism among young artists” according to Randy Kennedy.

In Southeast Asia, social art practices such as performance art have flourished for decades and should not be seen as new frontier for art, but rather a continuation of long-established practices and art forms.  Set against a backdrop of limited museum funding, artists across Southeast Asia have sought to engage directly with their audience rather than through the intermediary of a museum. Some artists have responded to the need to communicate to the public by taking art from its traditional location such as a temple to the street in the form of mural work.  An example of this artistic trend is Panya Vijinthanasarn a traditionally trained artist, famous for his neo-traditional Thai murals; he does not produce art for himself, ‘but for the public and society.’

Arguably social art practices have parallels with Asian artistic practices such as puppetry.   In the south of Thailand, where the local community based theatre tradition of shadow puppets – known as the Nang –  recites tales of the gods and contemporary people through love, current events, and tradition is still popular.

According to Nualmorakot Taweethong, Ph.D. Candidate (Historical Archaeology), Faculty of Archaeology Silpakorn, University,  “The History of Nang Talung :‘Shadow Play’ from Asia“,  shadow puppetry has a style of performing similar to the Ngao ‘Shadow play’, which spread to every region of the world over 1,000 years ago in China, India, Europe, Java Islands, and Southeast Asian countries by narrating a story through local music incorporating chanting or dialogues together with movement of puppets.

Looking to the future, we may see social art practices converging across cultures. We may very well ask whether the continuing focus on social art practices in Asia and the rise of community art practices in the United States mean that museums like the Museum of Modern Art are, in the future, considered anachronistic.  Perhaps the Tate Modern may no longer be considered contemporary?   If we look to the declining growth rates and the challenges faced by populations living in debt stricken countries such as Spain, Italy, Greece and Crete we can observe the re-emergence of artists wishing to communicate an easily understood political message in their works.

Detail from Panya Vijinthanasarn - Rebirth of Buddha, 2012, Bronze

Detail from Panya Vijinthanasarn – Rebirth of Buddha, 2012, Bronze

Today we are already witnessing art communities in the United States envisaging art more broadly.   Randy Kennedy quotes Maureen Mullarkey, a New York painter, “art is not about art at all’.  Instead she argued, “it is fast becoming a variant of community organising by promoters of their own notions of the common good.”  Perhaps we are seeing a convergence towards Asian social art practices. Melissa Chu in Contemporary Asian Art writes, ‘In Asia, social, economic and political inequities are realities of existence, where millions of people continue to live in poverty.  From this context has emerged a widespread belief among contemporary artists that art practice in Asia carries with it a moral responsibility for social criticism, at times political dissent’. The emergence of social art practices can only be a good thing for communities in the United States.

A personal hope for the future is that communities learn to share their experience, aspirations and expertise with one another be they based in Chiang Mai or New York.

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