Architectural Landscapes: South East Asia in the Forefront, curated by Loredana Pazzini-Paracciani, was displayed at the Queens Museum in October 2015. As part of inToAsia: TBA Festival, organised by inCube Arts, the Time Based Arts Festival 2015, the group exhibit focused on four countries -- Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Singapore -- and how artists in these countries explore the relationship between architecture and landscape in their region.
Loredana Pazzini-Paracciani is an independent art curator, writer, and lecturer who focuses on contemporary South East Asian art. Loredana works extensively with commercial and public galleries and institutions in Singapore, Bangkok, London, and New York, with an academic and curatorial interest focused on championing awareness of critical issues in contemporary South East Asian culture through the works of young and emerging artists.
Interview by Anna Rowell.
Anna Rowell: What would you say are the main influences that led to you curating works from Southeast Asian artists?
Loredana Pazzini-Paracciani: Prior to moving to London a year ago, I lived in Southeast Asia for more than 15 years, mostly in Thailand and Singapore. I have traveled extensively throughout the region for my academic and curatorial research, and also to better understand Southeast Asia, that is, 11 distinct countries spreading over vast land and sea. Each country has a unique identity forged by specific historical legacies, yet as a whole the region offers a rich and complex culture. Through my research I have grown very fond of Southeast Asian artists and its cultures, and this has paved the way to all my curatorial projects in the last six years.
AR: Do you see common themes emerging in the work of artists from Southeast Asia today?
LP: As I mentioned each country is very specific in its own history. However, Southeast Asia is going through a time of great changes – geographical as the exhibition Architectural Landscapes addresses, as well as social, and in some instances political. Contemporary art practices in Southeast Asia reflect these changes through the lenses of strong cultural legacies. To this extent young and established artists alike seem to use a variety of visual methodologies by which they express their artistic interests. New media for instance is used alongside traditional mediums such as painting and sculpture. In these occasions the works often achieve a strong aesthetic component combined with sophisticated conceptual layering, which in many cases has been devised to overcome political constraints. The works from Southeast Asia are, loosely speaking, local in their concerns but they do speak a global language. For instance, the artists featured in this exhibition, hailing from four countries in the region, reflect the social and urban issues relevant to their countries, yet are able to communicate to a wider public, thus sharing their personal and communal concerns.
AR: What defined your selection criteria when you chose these particular artists for your exhibition, ‘'Architectural Landscapes: Southeast Asia in the Forefront'? Was there an overarching statement you hoped to make?
LP: The exhibition was conceived from my observations of the rapid urban transformation and changes in the natural landscape that are pervading Southeast Asia. So the aim of the exhibition was to observe these changes and to elaborate on their possible consequences. As urbanization reconfigures parts of Southeast Asia, natural landscapes have had to adapt to man-made architecture. Architectural Landscapes: SEA in the Forefront not only looks to natural landscapes that are transformed into urban spaces, but also focuses on local architectural landmarks that are slowly disappearing, leaving gaps in the cultural and social legacies of each country. These are complex tropes to unravel within the region, so the show started on a more manageable geographical viewpoint by focusing on four Southeast Asian countries – Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Singapore.
AR: Much of the work in your exhibition is a challenge to the developer-led urban growth we see happening within cities in Southeast Asia. How do you think this relates to, and impinges upon, the realm of nature and landscape, and to what extent was this expressed in the artwork?
LP: Each of the works presented in the show engages extensively with the issues of urban and natural transformation from different angles. For instance, 'Memory' by Sok Chanrado presents a compelling video-testimony given by Rada, the artist’s younger brother, who steps back in time in the building that was once their home in Phnom Penh, now dilapidated and slated for demolition. Nguyen Trinh Thi’s video work 'Landscapes' engages the viewer in Vietnam’s current urbanization by presenting a collection of Internet images of various people who are involved in land disputes – from industrial development to environmental pollution. At the same time, Le Brothers’ three-channel video installation 'Into the Sea' depicts the gradual transformation of the Vietnamese natural landscape as a price to pay for economic development. Shot along the coast of the South China Sea near Hue, 'Into the Sea' is a reminder of the quiet yet staggering beauty of [a] Vietnam afflicted with political and economic instability.
AR: Your exhibition is part of a dialogue on the future of Southeast Asia’s natural landscapes - how do you think art helps us to question these current challenges and future potentials?
LP: Art has always been the medium to foster further and deeper understanding of the reality around us, to challenge ideas and to provoke arguments. The Southeast Asian artists featured here are fully aware of what is happening in their societies and in their works they negotiate their histories into present times. These “artistic” negotiations have great impact on the surroundings. Art may not change the status quo but it does function as a pivot which mediates a better future and sustains an informed understanding of the present.
AR: Was it difficult as a curator to strike a balance in the content between being merely a politically charged critique or an unrealistically optimistic provocation, in order to create what one of the featured artists, Nguyen Trinh Thi, termed “a quiet protest”?
LP: As a curator you have to strike that balance continuously. Unique to each curatorial project, the topics may be more or less politically charged as in this case or perhaps socially or historically framed. For instance, as Architectural Landscapes was showing at the Queens Museum, I was curating another Southeast Asian show at Sundaram Tagore Gallery for its Chelsea and Madison locations in Manhattan. The exhibition, 'REV|ACTION: Contemporary art from Southeast Asia', offers a strong historical approach, which then reverberates into the current social and political context of each featured country. My aim for both shows has been to select works that are aesthetically pleasing to create an entry point to the artists and works, which were new to the New York audience. Once the viewer is enticed into the works, he or she will hopefully start unpacking the cultural depth that informs each art piece.
AR: How successful do you think the artists were in starting a conversation about art and its role in urban transformation? Can art influence the way man-made architecture reconfigures Southeast Asia’s natural landscapes?
LP: I think each artist in the show has been very successful in terms of negotiating the urban and social transformation of their society through art, thus I have chosen each work as an expression of this urban-rural dichotomy. One may hope that art can influence the way architecture or urban planning reconfigures Southeast Asia. Certainly globalization and urban transformation will continue, but what art will do, I am confident of this, is to inform our understanding towards the consequences of this transformation.
AR: Your exhibition incorporates artwork in a range of medium, from digital works to physical installations; how do the different art forms utilized here help the viewers relate to the underlying ideas about landscape and the built environment, and give the artists freedom to express themselves?
LP: To answer your question I have to clarify that this show was in the context of inToAsia: Time-Based Art Festival running in New York for its second edition. Being a time-based festival I had to incorporate works that had a time element, hence mostly video installations, projections, light boxes and one “physical” installation that complements the two video works of Donna Ong’s 'The Forest Speaks Back', for example, a very accomplished piece which the artist has shown at various locations. For the Queens Museum, the artist and I decided to adapt the installation to the space given to us, hence the trees are presented as half trees semi-standing on the walls. Those fragile yet sturdy, mesmerizing man-made trees – made of green bottles and other common objects – resonate very well with the manicured urban landscape of Singapore where the artist is from. Singapore has become an impressive cultural and financial hub in Southeast Asia, and since its independence in 1965 it has redefined its identity as a glamorous and sleek city-state. The lavish tropical forests are in Donna Ong’s work, as much as in the city-state, in the form of manicured tropical gardens.
AR: Exhibited at the Queens Museum in New York, how do you feel this exhibition has been received by New York’s culturally diverse audience? What was your curatorial approach to presenting the social, political, and religious dynamics of Southeast Asia in a Western context?
LP: It was a real honor for me to show in such a prominent museum and also a great discovery as I got to better understand the museum’s role within the Queens community. Queens is an incredibly varied neighborhood, with diverse ethnicities, languages, cultures, and religions. In this context, the exhibition could not have been shown at a better place. During the installation days preceding the opening, we had several visitors stopping by the works and enquiring gingerly. There were Asian and Latin American visitors among the audience that felt particularly close to the topic at hand, in addition to a Western public in general. I was really glad to see the engagement of the audience, being unfamiliar with Southeast Asia yet very keen in learning about each work. Judging by this initial reaction I think the show was well received and, most importantly, it played the role I was hoping for, that is, of opening the door to a land perhaps unfamiliar geographically but with similar issues just like the Western world.
AR: From your extensive experience curating and writing on critical issues of contemporary Southeast Asian culture, how do you personally think landscape art and architecture will respond to this region’s critical social and environmental demands, particularly through the works of emerging artists from the region?
LP: The fact that more and more young artists are engaging with social issues in Southeast Asia through their art practices is very encouraging. These artists are very vocal and committed to their cultures; they want to make a difference. If art can make a difference, this is a conundrum argued by many theorists, I believe the energy from this young generation of art players is certainly helping to shape our awareness and expectations of our natural, urban, and socio-cultural environments. Ultimately, Architectural Landscapes: SEA in the Forefront makes us ponder and reflect on the meaning of change and transformation. With urban development is the cultural identity of a city (or a country) forged by the people or its buildings?
For more information on the show, click here.