An ambitious art exhibition that challenges colonial influences in the region is now on show at Para Site in Hong Kong, but the show overwhelms the senses rather than clarifying the themes, says Arianna Mercado
History is undeniably complicated, no less so in the South and Southeast Asia than in other parts of the world. Countries in this region have gone through centuries of explicit and implicit imperialist efforts by the West. Historically, Western powers arbitrarily drew boundaries between territories, introducing both their language and religious beliefs to their constituents, and even as they depart from the South and Southeast Asia, they continue to influence ways of governance.
But the suspicion of the South and Southeast Asia towards Western power and ideologies has been widening as time goes on, and such complexities are explored in Para Site’s ongoing travelling exhibition A beast, a god, and a line. This show is an ambitious take on the state of Asia-Pacific nations in the 21st century featuring 60 artists from the region.
A beast, a god, and a line aims to take a holistic approach to understanding and depicting the ideological shifts that occur in the Asia-Pacific region. With a focus towards textile as an artistic practice and language, this exhibition unpacks structures, politicised religious practices, and concerns regarding indigenous representation and history.
The show is a politically charged exhibition filled to the brim with prolific artists from the region. It’s interesting to see each work and artist effortlessly woven into a general narrative of distrust and scepticism. Perhaps for foreign visitors, it is even more interesting to realise that Western influence is not as idealistic as its proponents claimed and that it would take even more centuries to “decolonise” a region than it did to colonise it.
One can still see pervasive whispers of Western influence in the Asia-Pacific through language, architecture, and day-to-day living. It is very common to find Western-style buildings throughout the region — in the south of the Philippines, people continue to speak Chabakano, a Philippine Spanish creole language. In Vietnam, street vendors sell French-inspired baguettes.
Each work in this show talks critically about these pervasive hegemonic influences. Malala Andrialavidrazana collages 19th-century European maps with banknote designs, highlighting hegemonic colonial power as well as reflecting its aftermath. In a different context, Norberto Roldan embroiders themes of the historical uprising in the Philippines onto priestly vestments.
As the West continues to have a powerful influence on the region, people gradually become more suspicious of the ideologies they attempt to promote. How can one region attempt to convince another of what should be the “correct” ideology when they live almost two worlds apart, vastly separated by culture, tradition, and geography?
While ambitious, perhaps A beast, a god, and a line is too big of a show and with too wide and complex of a scope to be translated into only two floors of an industrial building. Each wall is so packed with visuals and meaning that it, at times, overwhelms. History is complicated but is even more difficult to understand if there is too much to process. With 60 artists on their roster, Para Site’s two floors were filled, with hardly any room to breathe.
Packing it so tightly and compactly with walls that shrink the space makes it difficult to appreciate the show as a whole rather than in pieces. There are hardly any silent moments in this exhibition and in a way, the space begins to homogenise the works and narratives as they sit too close to each other, rather than highlighting the differences among them. The individual works on display speak of specific concerns Asia-Pacific artists face, yet this exhibition, unfortunately, fails to bring to light a vast multiplicity of narratives by lumping these issues under an umbrella.
A beast, a god, and a line attempts to understand the loaded history of the Asia-Pacific region, but its cramped exhibition space transforms the show into a museum of curiosities and historical objects, that in turn, exotifies their concerns rather than empathizes with them.
A beast, a god, and a line is on view at Para Site 22/F, Wing Wah Industrial Building 677 King’s Road, Quarry Bay, Hong Kong until May 20, 2018. For more information, visit http://www.para-site.org.hk/
This review is published as part of CJC Fellowship 2018 with the support from Swire Properties’ ArtisTree at Taikoo Place and MG Interactive.