Rosalia Sciortino, better known as Lia, is a cultural anthropologist and development sociologist by training who is currently working in Thailand as Associate Professor at the Institute for Population and Social Research, Mahidol University, and Visiting Professor at the Masters in International Development at Chulalongkorn University. Before that, she was Regional Director of the Rockefeller Foundation Office for South-east Asia in Bangkok, overseeing grant-making activities in the Greater Mekong Sub-region. Previously, she was with the Ford Foundation in Indonesia and the Philippines. She has published widely on development issues. A native of Italy, she has lived in Asia for nearly two decades.
BANGKOK, Mar 3 - Policymakers and development planners in the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) may not think of artists as partners in their development efforts. Many may quickly dismiss the suggestion that artists have a role to play in envisioning development models, promoting understanding about the needs of different populations, and identifying solutions to development problems. There is also little appreciation for the social and cultural dimensions that they add to an otherwise technical and economic model of development.
More often than not, art is seen as a mere luxury that countries can afford only when they have reached a certain level of welfare. In the technocratic view of development, it is as if poor people in poor countries somehow differ from their richer counterparts in that they do not need non-material fulfillment in their lives. This in spite of abundant evidence across the region that art has been produced in resource-poor settings, and that poor communities have a holistic view of development that includes the enrichment of quality of life besides the attainment of greater wealth.
Even if official documents never fail to refer to the richness of cultures and art forms in the region, no efforts are made to integrate art into development efforts or to involve artists’ communities in the development process. Were it not that GMS governments, in their eager effort to promote tourism as a source of economic growth, conceive of art -- mainly its "traditional" forms -- as a commodity to be exploited to attract foreign currency, art would be totally ignored in development circles.
The ongoing exhibit here of contemporary art works by Mekong visual artists should, however, provoke some rethinking on the role of art --in particular "modern" art-- for development. The exhibit, one of the activities of the Mekong Art and Culture Project led by the Faculty of Painting, Sculpture and Graphics, Silapakorn University and the College of Arts, Hue University, does not only establish links that are sorely lacking in the region by bringing together eight art institutes in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam to enhance institutional and individual capacity in the arts. It also shows that art can be a reflective and transformative force in development. Art can uncover the impacts of historical legacies and development efforts, foster debate on those, and provide alternative visions of development.
Even more, art can call attention to the intangible processes that lie at the root of current events and go unnoticed by less sensitive observers, and are thus easily overlooked by policies and programmes catering to the tangible manifestations of development. As the title of the exhibit – ‘Underlying’ -- indicates, beneath the surface lie many underlying facets that are crucial to expose and address.
In the Midst of Change
One of the exhibit's four curators, Le Ngoc Than, explains his approach by quoting the Vietnamese saying that "the tree has a root, and people have an origin". Countries, as well as people, have histories that still impinge on their present, and acknowledging the origin, or the root, of that history can lead to a broader understanding of contemporary social surroundings. Not only do artists and their artwork tell their personal histories, but together they offer a broader reflection of social transformations in their countries or, as in this case, in their region. In the same way that many confluent tributaries form the Mekong River, a blending of visions by regional artists can paint a general picture of development in the GMS.
The very personalised, yet collective, process of creation revealed in the exhibit discloses that people in the region are caught in the midst of pervasive change and are struggling to cope with an unstable present. A question lingers when one looks at the paintings at the exhibit, no matter how diverse they are: Does development imply leaving behind an ideal past for an uncertain future, or overcoming a difficult past to access a promising future?
Idyllic portrayals of traditional lifestyles untouched in their vivid colours express a longing for a past that no longer exists or, more probably, never really existed. It is a past of remoteness and distance from modernisation, in which the fundamental values of motherly love (in the words of Lao artist Marisa Darasavath "a love that asks nothing in return"), peace, and goodness were upheld, and contentment was found in detachment from worldly preoccupations. The incessant spread of materialism promoted in the name of development has undermined this golden past, and now threatens the existence of its last remnants -- ethnic communities.
But have we ever, or will we ever, be able to live in perfection? Nupat Arjika seems to say that this was not the case in the past, and it will not be in the future. Nowadays, we may simply get the illusion of a more perfect, developed world, the same way digital cameras create faultless representations by allowing us to delete, and thus not to record, poorly taken pictures. The imperfect camera shots in the exhibit are a reminder that shortcomings are indeed there and, at some point in time, will need to be reckoned with.
In the same way, countries with a tormented past need to overcome their historical legacies in order to develop. Cambodian artist Sopheap Pich's bamboo striped turtle longing for the sky signifies triumph over the sufferings of the past and an invitation to the public to reconcile with it. The use of material from the forest is an expression of the "pristine" in the human being that remains intact even amid the most cruel circumstances. It is from there that strength can be found to move forward.
The theme of overcoming the past is likewise highlighted in the paintings of Vietnamese Nguyen Manh Hung. This time, however, it is not nature but technology that symbolises it. Powerful aircraft roaring across a luminous blue sky refer no longer to past wars, but to accomplishments in high technology and to Vietnam’s future as a "developed" country.
In parallel tones, for the Cambodian curator Vollak Song, infrastructural progress is a crucial sign of transformation from the past: The improvement of road systems damaged by years of conflict have become the government's first development priority, and thus the ultimate emblem of development. In the three-painting series of Vannara Soeung, roads can break the country’s decades-long isolation by linking people and places within the country and beyond, allowing for exchange and development to occur. Peace is, however, a precondition for infrastructural progress to occur. The portrayal by Sodavy Sous of a red road amidst a green field, tainted with what could be blood, makes clear that roads should remain peaceful, surrounded by nature and no longer by (the blood of) war.
This trust in harmonised development is questioned by the Lao artist Kongphat Luangrath, who sees industry evolving at the cost of nature. The powerful realism of his painting screams to the public that by embracing industrial development, they are forgetting their roots embedded in nature, and destroying their very essence.
The risk of such unbalanced development is brought to mind by the fascinating ceramics of the Streptococcus Suis virus by Thai artist Pim Sudhikam. They educate the public about the emergence of zoonotic diseases from the increased commercialisation and industrialisation of livestock, in this case pigs. Recently, an outbreak of S Suis, first reported in China, quickly spread to other Mekong countries, an epidemiological pattern also followed by SARS and avian influenza.
There are concerns too that technological and infrastructural development can misfire if not carefully planned. The photographic work of Rattana Vandiy points out that the direction of roads may become unclear and disjointed, making travellers feel lost. In the artist's words, disjointed roads are like politicians whose inability to find solutions results in political disconnect and conflict and thus leave their constituencies with a sense of being lost.
In their own way, Mekong artists are trying to grasp and manage the "sense of being lost" felt by many in the region in the face of development. Laotian Mongkham Bualavanh worries about how to limit the abrupt changes in values and cultures as life becomes increasingly materialistic (and Westernised?) now that Laos has entered the modernisation path. The same concerns appear in the works from Thailand and Vietnam --countries in a more advanced stage of consumerism-- with suggestions to seek answers in spirituality and detachment. In the video art of Thai Pramote Sangsorn, a monk taking to the road as a form of merit-making has to "adapt to living in a civilisation that is seemingly about to collapse", an invitation to human beings "to keep rediscovering themselves" and their inner strength in the face of change. In similar tones, Vietnamese Ly Tran Quynh Yang proposes with her paintings on plywood a state of being empty, a long slumber to reflect on what is happening.
In this, Mekong artists are part of a growing global movement to advocate an integrated development approach that aligns the "outward" requirements of sustainable development such as economic growth, to the "inner" human needs for happiness, life satisfaction and respect of their basic rights. The exhibit’s failure to emphasise human rights says, by itself, something about the political context of the region, its glaring absence pointing to another underlying element in the development discussion.
For those in search of more revelations, the exhibit will be at the Tadu Contemporary Gallery in Bangkok until March 5, before moving to Phnom Penh, Vientiane and Hanoi.
(For this article material has been used, with thanks, from the Mekong Art and Culture Project (www.mekongart.org). The author retains sole responsibility for the views expressed.)