Art and Social Activism in Southeast Asia: Stealing Public Space

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Iola Lenzi, Researcher, Author and Curator


In 1970s Hanoi, when artist Vu Dan Tan (1946-2009) insolently entertained the street with his piano-playing, he was defying communist ideological prescriptions with his bourgeois pastime. Through his living room’s wide-open window, he was also taking his bourgeois activity into densely-trafficked Hang Bong, one of Hanoi’s busiest commercial thoroughfares. In alliance with Bach, Vu Dan Tan was covertly infiltrating public space with art.    

From the 1970s onwards, and more markedly after the mid-1990s, Southeast Asian artistic practices have actively engaged plural audiences in discourses about social issues.1 To ensure viewership beyond the protected and exclusive confines of the art gallery, visual practitioners have employed specific tactics in the construction and location of their work. Artists have used art’s incursions into public space - via performance, installation, mural painting, sound and participative multimedia - to rally viewers around collective topics.

In this paper, I examine strategies of public engagement deployed by some Southeast Asian artists in their quests to address contentious social realities in their art. By scrutinizing Southeast Asian artworks, I establish regional commonalities among the methodologies selected by artists to make pieces that harness aesthetics and loci to further critical function. I first consider artists’ thematic interests, reviewing topics articulated by Southeast Asian art with a critical voice. I then spotlight the manner in which these artworks interfere with public space, offering alternate viewpoints to the official one and, in so doing, competing with state discourses. I finally expose methods of expressive construction that are adopted to draw audience response.

Themes of collective interest

The exercise of state power, freedom of speech and social justice are fractious topics in late twentieth-century, post-colonial Southeast Asia. In most Southeast Asian countries, the state monopolizes power, or grips authority, in alliance with a coalition of institutions including organized religion, the army, elites and, in Thailand, the monarchy. Though some countries have seen improved respect of citizen rights, greater freedom of expression and the expansion of civil society since the turn of the century, ordinary citizens seldom openly question power for fear of reaction. Describing the situation in 2014, Gomez and Ramcharan summarized political conditions in the region as follows: “Overall, what these classifications demonstrate is that in Southeast Asia, the facts ‘on the ground’ suggest a lack of shared democratic identity/values among the countries in the region no matter how analysts endeavor to label them.”2

The dearth of sanctioned conduits for speaking back to power has therefore instigated artists to use their work to further individual voice. Even artists without definitive critical ambition have sometimes felt compelled to interrogate social tension in their creative production, and their probing is awakening viewers’ sense of responsibility for the communal. Though a minority of artists have deployed their oeuvre in this way – others prefer formalist or self-referential approaches – it is apparent that however heterogeneous Southeast Asia is in terms of religion, political systems and economic development, artists from this vast and diverse region have been attracted to socially resonant themes.

Direct political critique is seldom visible in the region’s contemporary art.3 Rather, practitioners evade censorship or other more serious consequences attached to overt contestation by focusing on seemingly apolitical sources of social tension. In this way, they are able to obliquely challenge the interplay of power, institutions and people in the creation of loss and gain for opposing interest groups. Among various social phenomena examined through art – the erosion of tradition, corruption, poverty, abuse of power, modernization, capitalism, globalization and the authorship of history – two themes stand out as consistently pertinent around the region: “history and memory” and “rural-urban tensions.” Whatever a citizen’s social class, gender, age, level of education, ethnic identity, religion or political affiliation, these two questions, which pit individual against state and engage with the ownership and authorship of history and the pull between modernity and tradition, concern everyone.

In 1991-93, at the time of Bangkok’s building boom and Thailand’s accelerated rural exodus, Thai artist Montien Boonma (1953-2000) created his Venus of Bangkok. With its rough, building-site detritus; female-genitalia-suggesting, crumpled, gaping red metal bucket; and ironic title, Venus alludes to hopeful young girls who, arriving in the capital from rural backwaters, then become domestics or prostitutes. Montien is known for his formally poetic, multi-sensorial and immersive installations that convey spiritual lift. Yet Montien, who never identified as an activist or political provocateur, still integrated social discourse into his art.  

If certain themes lend themselves to the inconspicuous probing of state power, what techniques do artists exhibit when they develop their work to ensure that it reaches audiences and has polemical bite? In the following sections we explore how particular formal and conceptual choices provide art with social agency. 

Stealing public space: activating audiences through siting

Contemporary Southeast Asian art’s definition and datelines of emergence – which range from 1970 to 1990 and vary according to country – are still debated.4 Few, however, deny that a prominent strand of Southeast Asian contemporary practice harbors critical engagement with social issues as a central characteristic, explained by the region’s fast-altering late twentieth-century economic, social and political landscape. The end of the Cold War, in conjunction with a rising educated middle-class and globalization’s opening effect in the 1990s, fostered a generation that could aspire for the first time to individual rights in opposition to power. Yet despite Southeast Asia’s material development in this period, freedom of expression and democratic institutions were not the norm.5 How, then, might regional artists produce an effective art of social conscience that addresses taboo political issues?

Art spurring critical thinking and thus empowering ordinary people to decide their place in the world demands accessibility to broad and diverse audiences. Siting in high-traffic public zones ensures visibility and viewer dialogue, but it also, as art enters public spaces controlled by authority, allows a discreet contestation of power. A stealthy penetration of public space, physical or metaphorical, is thus a vital tactic of artists speaking to authority. In 2000, Thai artist Sutee Kunavichayanont (b. 1965) installed his History Class (Thanon Ratchadamnoen) (see image below) on a busy Bangkok street curb, in view of the Democracy Monument. For several weeks, the 14-desk installation invited pedestrians to sit at old-fashioned wooden children’s school desks where they could participate in Sutee’s open-air history class. Though no teacher was present, a lesson was provided by desk-top engravings featuring scenes from modern Thai political history that had been erased from the official history books (for example, the state-instigated 1976 Thammasat University massacre of leftist students). Thus, the piece quite literally puts hidden pasts within the grasp of ordinary Thais who, supplied with paper and pencils by the artist, make rubbings of the engraved taboo scenes to take home and keep. Through the use of familiar school desks to simultaneously evoke a biased national curriculum and memories of daily life in childhood; the vernacular medium of engraving from which the public-cum-students produce a rubbed image; and, crucially, History Class’s siting in a densely-trafficked public area in the heart of Bangkok – rather than in an elite art gallery – Sutee’s participative piece conveys the idea that each of us is responsible for the future via our ownership of the past.6

People seated at school desks in an art gallery

Photo Credit: Sutee Kunavichayanont (Thailand)
History Class (Thanon Ratchadamnoen)
14-desk participative installation designed for street display and public usage

Among a plethora of noteworthy installations deliberately occupying high-visibility areas for the purpose of wide public involvement, Malaysia’s Wong Hoy Cheong’s (b. 1960) Minaret (2005) must be highlighted.7 Wong’s would-be minaret, prominently erected on the roof of the Guangdong Museum of Art, allusively reminded the local Chinese of the historic place of Muslim culture in Guangdong, China, a port city enriched through Arab trade. Wong, a member of Malaysia’s Chinese minority, interrogates nationalistic and exclusionary policies founded on ethnic identity in contemporary China and Malaysia through reference to history (these countries’ discriminatory bases being similar, if inversions of one another).8

A third public installation/performative piece deserving mention is Vu Dan Tan’s RienCarNation Cadillac Icarus (see image below). During a California residency, Tan transformed a vintage Cadillac by gilding it and giving it wings. He then repatriated the winged car to Hanoi with the goal of driving the work around the city as a means of confronting the Vietnamese public with the golden Cadillac – a playful embodiment of the American consumer culture that was imported to Vietnam after it opened to global trade during the 1990s. The performative piece’s circulation around the city in the form of an ordinary motor vehicle was intrinsic to its conceptual premise: the interrogation of Vietnamese cultural change in the wake of globalization.

People gathered near a flatbed truck carrying a large car

Photo Credit: Vu Dan Tan (Vietnam)
RienCarNation - Cadillac Icarus
Transformed, fully-functioning 1961 Cadillac Fleetwood Sedan; live performance
Oakland, California, 1999; Hanoi, Vietnam, 2000 

Murals occupying shared urban space also transcend art school and gallery boundaries. Prolific Southeast Asian muralists include the Javanese collective Apotik Komik (formed in 1997) – and especially key member Popok Tri Wahyudi (b. 1972), who operated in late-1990s Jogjakarta – and Vietnamese multimedia artist Nguyen Van Cuong (b. 1972), whose guerrilla-style murals suggest a penetration of urban space that in communist Vietnam is exclusively the domain of authority. Interestingly, Cuong’s murals borrow and then subvert the visual language of the communist party propaganda posters that are still omnipresent today in Vietnam’s public zones. Thus, Nguyen Van Cuong, in his choice of idiom, can be seen as competing with power on power’s own turf.

Performance, developed in Southeast Asia from the 1980s onwards, is frequently sited impromptu in public zones such as streets, parks, shopping malls and markets. Singapore’s Tang Da Wu (b. 1943), the founder of the city-state’s The Artists Village and an early exponent of a socially-engaged artistic practice in Singapore, is known for his performances in public spaces. Such works have a wide impact due to their implantation in collective zones; yet, being ephemeral, they are not easily challenged by authority. Finally, artists who borrow and transform emblems of public institutions of power – such as paper money, flags, banners, maps, national anthems and school desks – through the appropriation of these symbols of state surreptitiously contest power.9

Participative practices and calling audiences to action

Part three of this presentation is a consideration of artists’ construction methodologies – in particular, the development of participative and interactive genres that elicit critical perspectives through exchange and physical experience.

As we have seen, beginning in the 1980s, the city became an art-making and exhibition arena for Southeast Asian artists who incorporated critical function into their practices. As ideas relating to art’s physical presentation evolved, ways of building works of art also changed. Artworks located in high-traffic spaces were designed to pull the public into dialogue in direct and intuitive ways. As discussed above, Sutee Kunavichayanont’s History Class installation, via its appropriation of school desks, though referencing complex notions of obfuscated histories, speaks a widely accessible visual and semantic language. History Class’ aesthetic derives from viewers’ usage – sitting at a desk, producing a rubbing and taking the rubbing away. Audiences’ participation is crucial to the piece’s ability to impart concepts, and it is through viewers’ physical responses to the work that critical ideas are transmitted.

Numerous works of Southeast Asian art communicate complex, abstract notions by inviting audiences to touch and experience them. Saigon artist Dinh Q. Le’s white-on-white, thread-on-textile portrait series of Khmer Rouge victims, The Texture of Memory (2000), calls on viewers’ stroking gestures to make images slowly appear as the white threads become sullied; the victims’ faces coming metaphorically alive. Filipino Alwin Reamillo’s piano cycle beckons viewers to play a piano and thus discover unexplored tensions in Filipino history engraved on the instrument.

Clothing, intimate and accessible, is frequently used in Southeast Asian art involving audience exchange: costume works including masks, armors, jackets, footwear and headgear are designed to involve audiences in try-on sessions that convey ideas. Filipina artist Josephine Turalba’s Scandals (2013) is one example: uncomfortable slippers made with spent bullet cartridges inflict pain on wearers, experientially and metaphorically connecting local history and violence. Indonesia’s Mella Jaarsma’s hijab works, worn by members of the public, provide a new perspective from inside the burqa: the objectified veiled woman transformed into an active voyeur of indeterminate gender (see image below). Writing, too, is commonly used as an invitation: FX Harsono’s Voice Without a Voice/Sign (1993-94), for example, enlisted viewers to respond in writing to the paintings, which spelled democracy in sign language.

Countless works of art employ inventive strategies of direct engagement with the public to bring real experience to viewers as a means of allusively translating critical concepts and triggering responses.

Performer wearing a brightly colored hijab covered with embroidered badges

Photo Credit: Mella Jaarsma (Indonesia)
The Follower
Embroidered badges sewn into a hijab form, participatory installation
Started in 2002; ongoing


Beginning in the 1970s in some parts of Southeast Asia, and then more generally in the 1990s across the region, new ways of thinking about the form and function of art emerged. Space and audiences were enlisted as building blocks of art that allowed artists to create critical discourse outside institutional contexts, freeing visual languages which became fluid, multimedia, multi-disciplinary and site-/time-/audience-specific. Southeast Asian artists not only see public zones in terms of their physical attributes; they also understand the value of shared social areas as exhibition sites because these loci provide their work with additional meaning, enriching and supporting artworks’ social function. Public siting speaks to art’s evolving vocation as a voice that champions civil society. Simultaneously, the widening of artistic expression’s arena of production influences its content, permitting oblique political commentary. Such art adopts an active attitude, inviting viewers’ thinking responses rather than mere contemplation. In Southeast Asian contemporary art, loci and publics have therefore become inexorably intertwined, revealing how art spaces are as much about people and exchange as they are about physical structures and institutional walls.

Through this brief analysis, we have seen how Southeast Asian contemporary art prompts audiences’ critical reflexes towards the status quo, empowering viewers in societies that lack channels of democratic expression. Vu Dan Tan playing Bach in the 1970s was not ostensibly producing contemporary art. Yet in his covert infiltration of the street with forbidden bourgeois sound and his insistence on public notice, Tan was already testing the methodologies of Southeast Asian contemporary art that would serve him and his artist colleagues three decades later.

[1] In this paper I consider visual art from six Southeast Asian countries: Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

[2] James Gomez and Robin Ramcharan, “Introduction: Democracy and Human Rights in Southeast Asia,” in Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs 33.3 (2014): pp. 3-17, accessed 15 June, 2016,

[3] The often politically provocative art of Vasan Sitthiket of Thailand is an exception.

[4] Little scholarship is devoted exclusively to Southeast Asian contemporary art – a field circumscribed through exhibitions, associated curatorial essays, art historical studies of broader Asia and nationally-focused texts, among others. Michelle Antoinette, in Reworlding Art History Encounters with Contemporary Southeast Asian Art after 1990 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2014), covers the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, but not Thailand or Vietnam. See Iola Lenzi, “Negotiating Home, History and Nation,” in Negotiating Home, History and Nation: Two Decades of Contemporary Art in Southeast Asia 1991-2011, edited by Iola Lenzi (Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, 2011), pp. 13-27, on defining and dating Southeast Asian contemporary art from the 1970s onwards.

[5] Artists engaging power critically in their work in the 1990s include FX Harsono, Vasan Sitthiket, Dadang Christanto, Heri Dono, Arahmaiani, Nguyen Van Cuong, Truong Tan, Lee Wen, Amanda Heng, Briccio Santos, Tang Da Wu, Zulkidli Yusoff, Jose Tence Ruiz, Roberto Feleo and others.

[6] This version of History Class, originally exhibited and used in the street, is now in the Singapore Art Museum’s collection.

[7] Minaret was produced for the Second Guangzhou Triennale, 2005.

[8] In the context of Malaysia, Wong references bumiputra, a government policy, in place since the 1970s, that favors the ethnic Malay majority in the civil service and state education system. 

[9] Artists producing works appropriating such symbols:

  • ·          Money and currency: in Vietnam, Vu Dan Tan, Nguyen Van Cuong and Bui Cong Khanh; in Singapore, Green Zeng and Vincent Leow; and in Thailand, Kamin Lertchaiprasert.
  • ·          Flags and maps: in Thailand, Jakkai Siributr, Sutee Kunavichayanont, Vasan Sitthiket and Natee Utarit; in Vietnam, Vu Dan Tan; and in Malaysia, Redza Piyadasa and others