FX Harsono, Victim—Destruction I, 1997. Performance at the Alun-alun Selatan (Southern Square) during the openingfor the exhibition “Slot in the Box” at Cemeti Art House, 1997. Image courtesyof the Cemeti Art House.

NEW YORK, NY.- Asia Society Museum presents a timely exhibition exploring artistic practice as a response to social and political change through the works of seven contemporary artists and one artist group from three Southeast Asian countries: Indonesia, Myanmar, and Vietnam. 

After Darkness: Southeast Asian Art in the Wake of History comprises works of sculpture, photography, video, and mixed-media installation that reflect how each country’s political transition toward democracy forged vibrant, socially conscious contemporary art movements. 

The artists featured in the exhibition are: 

• FX Harsono (b. 1949 in Blitar, East Java, Indonesia. Lives and works in Jakarta.) 

• Htein Lin (b. 1966 in Ingapu, Myanmar. Lives and works in Yangon.) 

• Dinh Q. Lê (b. 1968 in Ha Tien, Vietnam. Lives and works in Ho Chi Minh City and Los Angeles.) 

• Nge Lay (b. 1979 in Pyin Oo Lwin, Myanmar. Lives and works in Yangon) 

• Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai (b. 1983 in Hanoi, Vietnam. Lives and works in Hue.) 

• The Propeller Group (est. in 2006. Based in Ho Chi Minh City and Los Angeles.) 

• Angki Purbandono (b. 1971 in Cepiring, Indonesia. Lives and works in Yogyakarta.) 

• Tintin Wulia (b. 1972 in Denpasar, Indonesia. Lives and works in Brisbane, Australia.)  

The work of each of these artists represents their unfiltered responses to political trauma and societal transition in their home countries,” says Boon Hui Tan, Vice President for Global Arts & Cultural Programs and Director of Asia Society Museum. “There is a documentary and sometimes activist quality to the works, which are connected across geography and cultural specificities by a common thread: artists creating a lasting impact by illuminating difficult and at times controversial topics during their countries’ periods of transition. While there is currently great interest in the role of the artist as activist, this exhibition asks the question of whether it is art that has changed the world, or the world that has changed art. In the present, when art and artists are called upon to address the fractures and challenges of our time, the exhibition looks at how artists from other, non-western polities have responded to similar issues.” 

The exhibition is cocurated by Tan and Michelle Yun, Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at Asia Society. An illustrated catalogue accompanies the exhibition and features critical essays by leading scholars of Asian contemporary art based in Southeast Asia: Aye Ko, Zoe Butt, Mella Jaarsma, and Alia Swastika. 


Contemporary Indonesian art was born out of political action during the authoritarian regime of President Suharto’s New Order government and the Reformasi period which saw the transition to a democratic government after Suharto’s fall in 1998. Indonesian artists FX Harsono and Tintin Wulia have each created powerful, politically charged commentaries on Reformasi and its aftereffects. In his long career, Harsono’s multidisciplinary works have mirrored the tensions and challenges faced by modern Indonesia in politics, society, and culture. In Blank Spot on My TV, 1998, Harsono presents television stills of political leaders with their faces covered by a white circle, signifying the lack of meaningful dialogue about the changes that took place during Reformasi. His more recent works address the unacknowledged history of the Indonesian Chinese community. Wulia’s video works provocatively explore migration and border control. 


FX Harsono (b. 1949 in Blitar, Indonesia; lives and works in Jakarta, Indonesia). The Voices are Controlled by the Powers, 1994. Wooden masks and cloth. Courtesy of the artist and Tyler Rollins Fine Art

The Voices are Controlled by the Powers comprises traditional Wayang masks meticulously arranged in four radiating squares. The jaws have been sawed off each mask and piled in the center of the configuration. The artwork serves as a metaphor for the Indonesian government’s censorship of free speech during Suharto’s New Order regime, which spanned from the 1960s to the late-1990s. FX Harsono’s performances and installations often feature violent undertones that illuminate the subjugation of the Indonesian people under Suharto’s authoritarian regime and serve as a protest against the political system on behalf of the oppressed. He often employs culturally specific references to cloak his political critique. This artwork was first shown in the United States in 1996 as part of the exhibition “Contemporary Art in Asia: Traditions/Tensions,” organized by Asia Society.  


FX Harsono (b. 1949 in Blitar, Indonesia; lives and works in Jakarta, Indonesia). (Still) Destruction, 1997. Single-channel video with sound. Duration: 6 minutes, 28 seconds. Courtesy of the artist and Tyler Rollins Fine Art

Destruction, a video documenting a performance included in the 1997 group exhibition Slot in the Box at the Cemeti Art House in Yogyakarta, was created in response to accusations of voter fraud during the New Order period. In this work Harsono dons the persona of Ravana, the Demon King from the Ramayana—albeit in a western business suit—and proceeds to burn and destroy three wayang masks, each of which is placed on a chair, representing the three political parties vying for power. This act of resistance was performed in a public square just prior to elections when the assembly of more than five people was deemed illegal, and was publicly couched as a wayang, or traditional puppet theater performance.


FX Harsono (b. 1949 in Blitar, Indonesia; lives and works in Jakarta, Indonesia). Burned Victims, 1998. Burned wood, metal, shoes, and performance video with sound. Video duration: 8 minutes, 41 seconds. Singapore Art Museum Collection.

Burned Victims memorializes the casualties of a violent protest in 1998 against Suharto and the New Order when rioters locked innocent civilians in a Jakarta mall and set the building on fire. The charred, torso-shaped wooden forms serve as symbols of those who were sacrificed. A pair of burned shoes placed at the foot of each figure emphasizes the horror of the incident. In a performance of the same title that was realized in conjunction with the artist’s solo exhibition at the Cemeti Art House in 1998, FX Harsono affixed nine wooden torsos to stakes and doused them with gasoline. The torsos were accompanied by placards bearing slogans such as “Rusuh (Riot)” that were subsequently set on fire alongside the torsos. As the figures and placards burned, Harsono paced in front of the audience with a sign asking “Siapa Bertanggung Jawab? (Who is responsible?),” highlighting not only the senselessness of the carnage but also the fear that shadowy forces may have been behind the tragedy.


FX Harsono (b. 1949 in Blitar, Indonesia; lives and works in Jakarta, Indonesia). (Detial) Blank Spot on My TV, 2003. 20 digital prints. Courtesy of the artist and Tyler Rollins Fine Art

Blank Spot on My TV is a series of twenty photographs from 2003, created during the Reformasi period that followed the end of Suharto’s New Order government and led to the transition to a democratic government. Each photograph is an appropriated television still featuring various Indonesian politicians and media commentators with their faces covered by a white circle. These anonymous “talking heads,” obliterated by the white circles, suggest the lack of meaningful dialogue about the changes that came into effect during the Reformasi period and the tendency at the time for gratuitous rhetoric instead of thoughtful discourse as these figures exercised their new freedom of speech.


Tintin Wulia (b. 1972 in Denpasar, Indonesia; lives and works in Brisbane, Australia). (Still) Violence Against Fruits, 2000. Single-channel video with sound. Duration: 2 minutes, 56 seconds. Courtesy of the artist and Milani Gallery.


Tintin Wulia (b. 1972 in Denpasar, Indonesia; lives and works in Brisbane, Australia). (Still) Ketok, 2002. Single-channel video with sound. Duration: 5 minutes, 34 seconds. Courtesy of the artist and Milani Gallery.


Tintin Wulia (b. 1972 in Denpasar, Indonesia; lives and works in Brisbane, Australia). (Still) Everything’s OK, 2003. Single-channel video with sound. Duration: 4 minutes, 51 seconds. Courtesy of the artist and Milani Gallery.


Tintin Wulia (b. 1972 in Denpasar, Indonesia; lives and works in Brisbane, Australia). (Still) Proposal for a Film: Within the Leaves, a Sight of the Forest, 2016. Single-channel video with sound. Duration: 25 minutes, 30 seconds. Courtesy of the artist and Milani Gallery.

Proposal for a Film: Within the Leaves, a Sight of the Forest is part of Tintin Wulia’s larger multimedia project Trade/Trace/Transit created between 2014 and 2016. This video was begun in 2014 and is composed of six chapters. The work, mixing fact with fiction, documents the artist’s interventions in the course of tracing the movement of cardboard waste around Central in Hong Kong since 2014. It is startling to see how the route of this waste product of city life ends at a port where the bales of cardboard are shipped or trucked to China, and how the process involves people from a wide range of cultural backgrounds including Chinese, Filipino, and Punjabi. This narrative is juxtaposed with a fictional account of a future in which humans travel between Earth and Mars. Since 2000 the trajectory of Wulia’s work has expanded beyond her earlier focus on her own personal identity and that of her city, to a global community of individuals who are participants in the movement of people, goods, and ideas. 

Vietnam’s legacy of conflict has had long-reaching ramifications for the arts; contemporary Vietnamese artists are routinely subject to censorship. This exhibition focuses on artists whose work reflects the legacy of the American-Vietnam War. Dinh Q. Lê and Tuan Andrew Nguyen of The Propeller Group collective came to the United States as refugees in their youth and returned to Vietnam in recent years. In the process they have played pivotal roles in helping to rebuild the cultural infrastructure of Vietnam. Lê’s work in the exhibition includes works on paper by Viet Cong soldier artists that he collected after the war and which are shown alongside an animated video of interviews with some of the artists he was able to locate. 


Dinh Q. Lê (b. 1968 in Ha Tien, Vietnam; lives and works in Ho Chi Minh City and Los Angeles). Light and Belief: Sketches of Life from the Vietnam War, 2012. 70 drawings in pencil, watercolor, ink, and oil on paper, and single-channel video with sound. Video duration: 35 minutes. Courtesy of the artist, Shoshana Wayne Gallery, and 10 Chancery Lane Gallery.

Lê often merges traditional culture and individual experiences with official accounts of historical events to acknowledge the subjectivity of historical narratives and to memorialize the civilian casualties that result from complex international border wars and government actions. Light and Belief: Sketches of Life from the Vietnam War commemorates the experience of Vietnamese soldiers through the eyes of local artists who accompanied the military campaigns. This multimedia installation includes up to one hundred found drawings (seventy of which are on view here), made by soldiers from the North Vietnamese Army, that depict the humanity of war through the faces and everyday routines of the troops on the ground. Shown alongside these works on paper is a video of interviews Lê conducted with the artists to record their remembrances in relation to their drawings and includes animated sequences that punctuate the commentary. These personal stories amplify the individual hopes, anxieties, and sacrifices of those who believed they were serving their country. The installation also points toward the complex relationships among art, ideology, and propaganda requisitioned by government agencies during wartime activities. Through his retelling of the war, Lê not only questions the construction of history, but also attempts to initiate a meaningful dialogue about the United States’ role in the American-Vietnam War and other military conflicts. 


Dinh Q. Lê (b. 1968 in Ha Tien, Vietnam; lives and works in Ho Chi Minh City and Los Angeles). WTC from Four Perspectives, 2016. C-print scrolls. Courtesy of the artist and Shoshana Wayne Gallery.

Dinh Q. Lê’s use of photography as a material in his work has recently manifested in his focus on the mechanical process of creating photographs. In this artwork Lê has selected an image that captures the devastating moment when the World Trade Center Towers were attacked by terrorists in 2001. His use of digital technology to stretch and essentially obliterate any recognizable features within the image neutralizes the horror of the event, and this, coupled with the grand scale of the physical print, transforms the snapshot of a traumatic urban event into a lyrical abstract landscape evocative of a traditional Chinese handscroll. This series accompanies a four-channel video installation of the same name and alludes to the interrelationship of time, memory, and experience. 


The Propeller Group. (Still) The Dream, 2012. Single-channel HD video and motorbike frame with steel pallet. Video duration: 4 minutes, 20 seconds. The Burger Collection.

The Dream captures Vietnam’s great economic growth and urbanization since Doi Moi, and the country’s hunger for upward mobility at the expense of its ideological ideals. In this single-channel video a Honda Dream motorbike—long a symbol of quality and economic status in Vietnam—is left out overnight on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. The time-elapsed footage shows the motorbike being stripped of its parts until it is reduced to a useless skeleton. Accompanying the video is the actual carcass of the picked-over bike as a symbol of the fallen utopia of communism and the unsavory underside of capitalism. 


The Propeller Group. (Still) The Guerrillas of Cu Chi, 2012. Two-channel synchronized video installation with sound. Duration: 20 minutes, 4 seconds. Courtesy of the Propeller Group and James Cohan, New York.

The Guerrillas of Cu Chi is a two-channel video that takes as its subject the Cu Chi Tunnels, a series of underground passages outside Ho Chi Minh City that were used by the Viet Cong to combat U.S. troops during the American-Vietnam War. These tunnels, which helped to win the war against the Americans, have been repurposed as a tourist attraction replete with firing ranges where, for $1US, visitors can shoot targets with weapons that include old M-16s and AK-47s that were used during the war. On one video screen the camera documents giddy tourists, many of them from western countries, aiming and shooting the guns toward the viewer. The amusement park-like atmosphere trivializes the carnage and loss incurred during the war and stands in stark contrast to the second video which shows Cu Chi Guerrillas, a 1963 propaganda film developed by the Viet Cong. The Viet Cong were also known as the National Liberation Front, a part of the North Vietnamese government, which fought against the South Vietnamese government and the United States. By pairing the two videos the Propeller Group underscores how the harsh realities of war are sanitized, rationalized, and repackaged to reach very different audiences.

The field of contemporary art in Myanmar, where artists receive minimal institutional and commercial support, is one of the newest and most exciting in the region. A significant portion of contemporary art in Myanmar is performance art, which gives artists flexibility to work in alternative spaces at minimal cost. Htein Lin and Nge Lay’s intense and personal works reflect their responses to the dramatic transformation within the country as it undergoes gradual reform and political transition away from the authoritarian, military regimes that have controlled the country since 1962. Htein Lin’s installation A Show of Hands, comprises plaster of Paris molds of hundreds of former political prisoners’ hands.  


Htein Lin (b. 1966 in Ingapu, Ayeyarwady Division, Myanmar; lives and works in Yangon, Myanmar). A Show of Hands, 2013–present. Surgical plaster and multimedia installation. Courtesy of the artist.


Nge Lay (b. 1979 in Pyin Oo Lwin, Myanmar; lives and works in Yangon). Imagination Sphere, 2008–09. Photography installation with 45 light boxes. Singapore Art Museum Collection.

This early photographic installation composed of 45 light boxes illustrates the artist’s method of using simple materials to build a conceptually rich work that conceals its political critique in a seemingly innocuous form. In this work, Nge Lay creates a digital image from a glass plate negative that depicts a deceased relative. The negative, illuminated by a flashlight, produces distorted images that conjure associations with medical negatives and render the figure as a ghostly apparition. Unidentifiable in the final digital images, the mysterious “relative” evokes the haziness of lost memories but also the limits of human recollection.

Reflections of Experiences of the Icons is a series of photographs documenting the aged bodies of the artist’s mother and other elderly Myanmar women. The unflinching depiction of female bodies that bear the scars of life and time provides a counterpoint to the nubile bodies represented in fashion magazines and other forms of global popular culture that are often digitally altered and meant to represent the feminine ideal. The images on view here may be difficult for some viewers to see, as they are very realistic and direct. Nge Lay has commented that the creation of this work also gave her an opportunity to connect with and better understand her mother’s experiences, which were different from her own urban upbringing. The artist has used aspects of her personal biography as a lens through which a larger, more universal narrative is communicated—in this case the difficult life of women in Myanmar society. 


Nge Lay (b. 1979 in Pyin Oo Lwin, Myanmar; lives and works in Yangon). Relevancy of Restricted Things, 2010. Print on archival paper. Courtesy of the artist.

The photographic series Relevancy of Restricted Things pays tribute to the artist’s father, who passed away when she was a teenager. Donning her father’s clothing and wearing a mask that resembles his face, Nge Lay inserts herself into family portraits of households who have similarly lost a male figure—father, brother, son, or husband—through death, military service, economic migration, or for some other reason. This series highlights the central role of the father or male figure in the largely patriarchal system of modern Myanmar society. The artist likens the personal loss of her own father to the communal sense of loss and displacement felt throughout the country after the 1947 assassination of General Aung San who was widely acknowledged as the leader of post-independence Myanmar.  


Nge Lay (b. 1979 in Pyin Oo Lwin, Myanmar; lives and works in Yangon). Observing of Self Being Dead, 2011. Color photograph. Courtesy of the artist.

The series Observing of Self Being Dead employs a strategy similar to Relevancy of Restricted Things in that Nge Lay creates an empathetic connection between the personal and the political. These macabre and dramatic self-portraits depict the artist as an abandoned, bloodied corpse, most often staged on the banks of the Irrawaddy River. The images refer both to traumatic experiences within the artist’s own life—her father’s passing, the loss of a child due to miscarriage, and the death of many friends—and to her childhood memories of political protestors being attacked. Nge Lay stages her own death as a cathartic action and as a means of dispelling fear and uncertainty in the face of death by symbolically taking control of her own destiny.  

Alongside these established artists, the exhibition includes work by two emerging artists: Angki Purbandono and Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai, from Indonesia and Vietnam respectively, who became active long after the moment of political transition in their home countries. The work of these two artists continues the long tradition of socially engaged art that marks much contemporary art from the Southeast Asian region. 


Angki Purbandono (b. 1971 in Cepiring, Indonesia; lives and works in Yogyakarta, Indonesia). (Detail) Beyond Versace, 2005–10. Two artist books: C-prints on metallic paper. Dr. Wiyu Wahono Collection.


Nguyên Thi Thanh Mai (b. 1983 in Hanoi, Vietnam; lives and works in Hue). Travels, 2014. Eucalyptus, coconut leaves, 12 digital C-prints of digital collages. Courtesy of the artist.

For this project she embedded herself within migrant Vietnamese communities in both a fishing village of about four hundred refugees near Tonle Sap Lake in Siem Reap province, Cambodia, and a nearby fishing village in Long An, Vietnam, in order to reveal the troubling realities for a marginalized community without legal rights or official status. As with many countries, official government-distributed identity cards provide legitimacy and protection, and without them, the Vietnamese refugees of Tonle Sap and Long An are rendered stateless—neither Vietnamese nor Cambodian. This leads to political, social, and economic repercussions resulting in corruption, illiteracy, and poverty. These people thus live an uncertain existence “day by day.”

This hut constructed from eucalyptus and coconut leaves is representative of the dwellings inhabited by members of these transient communities. The work includes a series of twelve photographs that the artist commissioned from a traveling photographer. The portraits feature the face of a local refugee digitally pasted onto a body within a stock photograph selected by the client, so it appears that the refugees are posing in an idyllic scene or holding status objects. The final images, which are installed on the walls of the hut, allude to dreams of a better life—one that is most likely unattainable.


Nguyên Thi Thanh Mai (b. 1983 in Hanoi, Vietnam; lives and works in Hue). (Detail) ID Card, 2014. 340 heat transfer prints on recycled fabric on a table. Courtesy of the artist.

ID Card is an installation that consists of hundreds of unofficial identity cards printed on fabric sourced from the possessions of villagers, as a surrogate for the official government-issued identification that these individuals lack, and placed on a table for physical examination by the viewer. This work considers the importance of a government-issued identity to secure employment, establish residence, and attend school, and how this status affects a person’s education, socioeconomic status, and quality of life. Shadow is a series of eleven hand-colored digital photographs taken around Tonle Sap Lake, in which the figures have been blacked out, rendering them shadows within society, but also protecting their identity from government persecution. 


Nguyên Thi Thanh Mai (b. 1983 in Hanoi, Vietnam; lives and works in Hue). Shadow, 2014. Ink on digital C-prints mounted on aluminum. Courtesy of the artist.


Nguyên Thi Thanh Mai (b. 1983 in Hanoi, Vietnam; lives and works in Hue). (Still) Day by Day, 2014–15. Single-channel digital video with sound. Duration: 58 minutes. Courtesy of the artist.