Mark Rappolt encounters an exhibition balancing complexity and accessibility
What’s the purpose of art exhibitions? What, if anything, do we expect them to do in the current time? These, and questions like them, are ones that plough through your mind when you leave Spectrosynthesis II. ‘Plough through’ in a good way.
Spectrosynthesis II is the second iteration of a touring exhibition based around the collection of LGBTQ art currently being amassed by the Sunpride Foundation (a Hong Kong-based private organisation led by Patrick Sun). The first, featuring work by 22 artists, took place at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei, in 2017, shortly after a Constitutional Court ruling paved the way for Taiwan to become, two years later, the first Asian country to legalise same-sex marriage. The current exhibition features work by more than 50 artists and takes place in a country in which same-sex sexual activity is legal (while Spectrosynthesis was on show in Taipei, Bangkok was named the second most gay-friendly city in Asia, after Tel Aviv), but in which same-sex couples and households are not accorded the same legal protections as opposite-sex couples (legislation regarding civil partnerships is currently being discussed in parliament), and change of legal gender is not recognised. Both the Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei and the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC) are government-run institutions. Context is important here, because Spectrosynthesis II, like its predecessor, is a show that attempts to balance an awareness-raising intent with a more traditional framing as a display of works of artistic and art-historical merit. Ultimately, while there’s no doubt that the message of tolerance and acceptance is shouted out loud (in no small part as a result of the differences in geopolitical context in which the artworks were created), you enter wondering whether or not the LGBTQ theme of the exhibition will narrow the frame for the interpretation of individual artworks.
The exhibition opening was certainly marked by a celebratory mood, with a carnivalesque drag performance (worthy of one of Bangkok’s celebrated queer nightclubs) by the Dicklomacy Queers Spicey(est) Sisters (Ming Wong, Bradd, Radha, Tamarra, Josh Serafin and Amadiva), titled Land of a Thousand Rainbows (2019), that paraded through the crowded walkways of the BACC’s main atrium, ending on a stage at the entrance to the exhibition with (naturally) a pumped-up rendition of I Will Survive. But within the context of the mixed bag of works that make up the exhibition itself, it is those which allow a darker mood to enter that shine.
In this vein, Thai photographer Ohm Phanphiroj’s short videowork Underage (2010), which surveys the lives of eight male child sexworkers (the youngest only eleven years old) in Thailand, particularly stands out. Phanphiroj’s subjects talk to camera while viewed in a car wingmirror, in one of its seats or in nighttime streets and alleyways, about their dreams of going to America, about having a boyfriend or about their girlfriends. They talk about the realities of how they began to work in prostitution (Tao, sixteen, was asked to do so by his father), how they encountered their first customers. A picture develops that abstracts their sex lives from sexuality and links it to issues of poverty, desperation and necessity. The questioning is remorseless; some of the subjects are moved to tears.
Arin Rungjang’s five-channel video installation Welcome to My World (Tee) (2019) explores his childhood fascination with the female transsexual daughter of his babysitter, who mesmerised the artist-to-be with her beauty, but killed herself while Rungjang was still a child. We learn that her mother called her E-Tee – in Thai slang, the E is used before the proper name of a woman and Tee indicates an ethnically Chinese boy; but everyone can get the reference to an alien in a bicycle basket too. In the installation itself, a black-and-white video lingeringly documents the beautiful naked body of a transgender migrant-worker prostitute, whom the artist met while on a recent residency in Germany. It’s an unadorned means of making things visible. But the work goes beyond just that. In a lengthy text pinned on a wall outside the installation, the artist (who is himself gay) links his encounters with E- Tee to his own early confusions about fitting into a binary world and the suicidal thoughts (partly inspired by E-Tee) that came with it, which are then further linked via an interview to the life of the trans prostitute in Germany. The ultimate result is that the beautiful, idealised images in the gallery setting are connected to the broader, rougher, more brutal reality of a life lived outside it.
And yet this is a moving tale of sympathy, solidarity, suffering and pain, elements of which are picked up in many other works on show. The first two appear most obviously in David Medalla’s interactive work A Stitch in Time (this version from 2017, but work that has gone through a variety of iterations since 1967), for example, in which visitors are invited to stitch words and objects onto a sheet of fabric. The last two are evident in a series of five papercut works by Xiyadie, which, although exuberant and colourful in form, document the artist’s internal battles, which include an attempt to mutilate his own genitals and the experience of a forced heterosexual marriage.
Elsewhere, the blatant eroticism of works such as Yan Xing’s slick video-homage to Robert Mapplethorpe (The History of the Fugue, 2012), Lionel Wendt’s homoerotic photographic portraits or the priapic sexual symbolism of the late Martin Wong’s paintings and Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran’s earthenware sculptures (given the spread of sexualities it purports to represent, the exhibition is, visually, rather cock-heavy) might lead you to think that all art is defined by sexuality. Whereas the latest in Maria Taniguchi’s ongoing series of delicate ‘brick’ paintings (Untitled, 2019) and a chunk of Danh Vo’s atomised Statue of Liberty (We The People, 2011–16) suggest that reflections on that kind of identity are simply one of many things going on. Within this vast assemblage, the former type of work outweighs the latter, however, leading you to wonder whether or not an exhibition such as this one has lost a degree of complexity as much as it has gained in its broader message of tolerance. Although that criticism might be one of the many kinds of intolerance this exhibition seeks to overcome.
Spectrosynthesis II – Exposure of Tolerance: LGBTQ in Southeast Asia, Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, 23 November 2019 – 1 March 2020
From the Spring 2020 issue of ArtReview Asia