WHEN the organisers of the Southeast Asia Press Alliance journalism fellowship gave us the choice earlier this month between spending a day taking a tour with the UN Environment Program or visiting an art exhibition titled “Riverscapes in Flux”, I did not hesitate to choose the latter.
It was definitely my passion for the arts that led me to go there, boosted by the fact that the theme of the exhibition was the river landscapes of Southeast Asia, including the Mekong, Ayeyarwady and Chao Phraya.
The exhibition, coordinated by the Goethe Institute Hanoi, brings together six curators and 17 artists from Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Indonesia and the Philippines.
The show opened in Hanoi from April 12 to 29, then moved to Ho Chi Min City from May 12 to 26. I caught it during its tenure in Bangkok from June 22 to July 22, and from there it will move to Phnom Penh, Jakarta and Manila.
The artists used installations, photographs, video and sound pieces to tackle the subject of ecological and cultural changes to major river landscapes in Southeast Asia.
“Southeast Asia is characterised by major river landscapes like no other region in the world,” according to the exhibition website (blog.goethe.de/riverscapes/).
“They are lifelines and transport routes, economic roads and vital ecosystems. The waterways secure food production and energy supply not only for the local population but often for the vast region. The resulting artworks are varied as the problems faced by the people along their respective rivers,” the website continued.
I was very interested to see how Southeast Asian artists would approach these issues.
We were lucky to enjoy a tour of the exhibition with Mr Apisak Sonjod, director of Tandu Contemporary Art Gallery in Bangkok, who explained the meaning behind some of the artwork. Sometimes I understood, and other times it all seemed a bit over my head.
Among the more visually striking pieces was The Sights Viewed from Boats by Aung Ko from Myanmar, which consisted of three large boats hanging from the ceiling made from canvas and bearing painted designs, while on the floor sat a collection of small wooden boats decorated by children from the artist’s native village along the Ayeyarwady River.
The piece Rising Tonle Sap, a series of photographs by Lim Sokchanlina that explored how the concept of climate change is understood by people living along Tonle Sap River in Cambodia, set off a debate among me and my fellow journalists about whether the ice blocks pictured floating in muddy waterways were real or were the result of digital enhancement of the images.
I had mixed feelings about some of the multimedia installations. With their piece Loi Krathong, Anothai Nitibhon and Jean David Ciallouet set out to explore changing attitudes towards the Chao Phraya River in Thailand. They created an eerie, dimly lit environment with toilet fixtures and strange sounds, which admittedly I had trouble appreciating.
But Sutthirat Supaparinya’s video installation My Grandpa’s Route Has Been Forever Blocked brought a smile to my face, as it explored her grandparents’ changing relationship with Thailand’s Ping River, whose course has been obstructed by the Bhumibol dam.
Jedsada Tangtrakulwong, meanwhile, used traditional fishing tools and sound to explore changing ways of life and the fading of traditional culture along the Chi River in northeastern Thailand.
Although there was plenty to see at the exhibition, I didn’t get tired of looking at the artwork. The show made me think about commerce, transport, livelihoods and ecology along the rivers of Southeast Asia, and how these waterways can flow across borders just as good artists can create works that break down barriers and increase understanding between cultures.
“Riverscapes in Flux” will visit Phnom Penh from October 5 to 28; Jakarta from December 13 to January 23, 2013; and Manila from March 2 to 24, 2013.
This article was written under the SEAPA Annual Journalism Fellowship 2012 Program.