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We all know that data, rendered effectively, can be art. Art is usually less empirical, so what it tells you about a person or place can’t always be measured. No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia, which ended its run at the Guggenheim this week, attempts to convey information about those regions beyond the sheer numbers of its history.
In the Guggenheim’s first UBS MAP Global Art Initiative exhibition, artists from Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Pakistan, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam deliver nuanced approaches to their complicated histories and contemporary realities.
Shilpa Gupta’s “1:14.9″ perhaps best illustrates the strange joining of data and art. The work is a hand-wound ball made of 79.55 miles of thread, which represents, in a 1:14.9 ratio, the 1185-mile fenced border between India and Pakistan. It’s an abstracted number wound into something meaningful: a reminder of the families split and borders created after British rule, as well as the continual divisiveness of a line.
Having been colonized by both the United States and Spain, as well as tracing ancestry from around the region, The Philippines have a varied population with complicated identities. “Counter Acts,” by Poklong Anading, highlights Filipinos’ search for identity amid varied backgrounds and allegiances by having his subjects obscure their identities with circular mirrors placed in front of their faces. The viewer is less sure than the viewed, making identity severely personal.
Navin Rawanchaikul investigates Pakistan, the birthplace of the Thai artist’s ancestors, in “Places of Rebirth,” a mural that looks Bollywood-type movie poster. It humorously examines about the politics that made his family leave as well as the historical and present relationship between the Pakistan and Thailand.
The Propeller Group Television Commercial for Communism, 2011-12 Color video, with sound, 1 min., edition 1/5 Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York Guggenheim UBS MAP Purchase Fund © The Propeller Group
In a fanciful, yet believable, take on how communism could look, The Propeller Group had an advertising company create a TV commercial to rebrand communism among the remaining five communist nations. It’s an idealic view of a much-maligned governance and certainly a departure from old perceptions.
The entire exhibition, through its very personal and divergent expressions by South and Southeast Asian artists, is a reminder that there is much more to history than its numbers. Data tells a story, but it’s only a vehicle to understanding a more human one. Behind every statistic is a person affected, and every border, a person who has to cross.
The exhibition will show again in Hong Kong this fall.
No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia
Asia Society Hong Kong Center
October 2013-February 2014
Rani Molla has a digital media master’s degree from Columbia Journalism School. She’s a journalism reader, writer, photographer, videographer, data visualizer and general doer. Follow her on Twitter.