Rivers as lymph vessels, nurturing the Earth, giving life to flora and fauna, shaping wondrous landscapes. Perhaps more than in other parts of the world, in South East Asia they are essential lifelines, transport lanes, harvesting basins, commerce routes, vital and unique ecosystems securing food and energy supplies for local communities and a sizeable part of the whole region. But that delicate balance is under threat and local artists are raising their voices in alarm.
In the last decades, the economic exploitation of South East Asian rivers, spurred by an accelerated economic development often driven by callous concerns, has been causing long term damages. Floods, which have always been a problem for the region in the rainy season, have turned into a recurrent state of crisis, threatening the survival of those who live along the rivers, because of the shifts in water flow caused by dams and construction projects along the banks.
What has happened in the areas touched by the Mekong and its tributaries clearly mirrors the overall situation on a larger scale. And while the construction of dam systems along most of the waterways of the region has forced thousands of people to abandon their villages, the exploitation of the rivers for mining and industrial purposes has affected dramatically the quality of life of thousands more, polluting drinking water and fish farms. From the spurs of the Tibetan Plateau to the coasts of the South East Asian seas, the ecosystem around mountain streams, canals, estuaries and deltas is being altered drastically. The environmental frame and the very ways of life of millions of people are endangered by the effects of such changes, which are badly affecting the climate, disfiguring unique cultural heritages and even redrawing the geographical profile of some countries.
This is why non-profit groups, national government agencies, NGO’s and social activists are trying to raise their voices to make the world aware of the already unfolding tragedy. Through programs focused on helping local people to safeguard their ways of life, they are trying to improve their chances of a future. Inspired by such initiatives, the Goethe Institute in Hanoi, together with six curators and seventeen South East Asian artists, decided to present a new perspective on this ecological issue through the arts, setting up the “Riverscapes IN FLUX” exhibition. This features works reflecting the ecological, socio economic and cultural changes that major river basins are currently undergoing in several countries. The aim, simply put, is to plant a seed in the people’s conscience.
Can art deal with problems of global import?
“To raise artists’ awareness of rivers problems will help to raise people’s awareness. Art hits not only minds but emotions and hearts,” says the Goethe’s Director, Dr. Almuth Meyer-Zollitsch. “After watching the Red River from Long Bien Bridge, a symbol of the Vietnamese resistance, I realized how the change in the river landscape can influence the life of thousands. From this view started the idea of the project,” Meyer-Zollitsch points out. The undertaking is a travelling exhibition, which opened in Hanoi last April and, after moving to Ho Chi Min City, Bangkok, Phnom Penh and Jakarta, will close in Manila in March 2013.
“Whereas I tend to be critical of exhibitions for which artists are invited to service broad themes such as climate change, it was the terrible reality of the floods and the specificity of the project to river life that made me reconsider the meaningful role that such exhibitions can have for artists and audiences alike,” says Erin Gleeson, co-founder of SA SA BASSAC, a gallery and resource center in Phnom Penh and Art-Director of the three Cambodian artists participating in the exhibit.
The three Cambodian artists chose not to reflect on the Mekong, their country’s main body of water, which also cuts through Laos and Vietnam, but interestingly all of them, independently from each other, decided to focus on a watercourse that is unique to Cambodia, the Tonle Sap–a combined lake and river system of major importance. The Tonlé Sap is an unusual waterway indeed: its flow changes direction twice a year—it happens because during the monsoon the Mekong pushes the Tonle Sap backwards–and the portion that forms the lake expands and shrinks dramatically with the seasons.
The work presented by 25-year-old Prey Veng is likely the one that attracted the most attention, leaving the audience puzzled. His pictures of ice chunks floating in the waters of a subtropical climate did strike a note. The arresting photographs were staged with help from the communities living in each of the locations portrayed by Veng, providing and carrying the ice blocks used for the shootings.
But the pieces and installations shown at the exhibition do not fall exclusively in the visual arts field. Some are meant to be experienced with the five senses.
Filipino artist Goldie Poblado created three perfumes to express the condition of the people who live along the Marikina River. “This project is an attempt to use the olfactory sense of perception as a medium in fine art combined with my study of the art of glass blowing in order to create vessels for the perfumes,” explains the 23-year-old female artist in the RIVER Influx blog. And quite in line with the issues that inspired the show, Poblado did manage to stun the audience with pungent smells, rather than delicate or fine scents, wafting from the tiny glass bottles she made herself. “The fragility of the glass is intended to sensitise people to the fragility of the river,” stresses the show curator, Claro Jr. Ramirez. While some people are engaged with smells, others try to listen to the sounds of the river thanks to Jon Romero’s opera, “a sound installation of circuit-bent sound devices created from low voltage electronic devices that are connected to a bridge or a platform with railings to afford passage across a waterway.” “From the sound there is a dialogue … call to attention to what is happening,” explains Ramirez.
The participation of one Burmese artist—Aung Koo–with an installation made up of three cloth boats and several wooden ones built by children from his village on the Irrawaddy river, underlines the objective of the show to propose as wide as possible a view of the regional art panorama. For Burmese artists it has always been difficult to show openly their works and it “is very challenging working with them from outside the country;” when internet and phone lines, for instance, do not work properly. “And even within Burma they have a lot of constraints,” like getting around the country, having free access to research material or just speaking their minds freely, because of restrictions imposed by the government. Artists “are considered and perceived by the authorities as potentially subversive. It’s true that Burma is changing but it’s not so simple to get on with this kind of activity,” explains Iola Renzi, a Singapore curator, lecturer and critic of Southeast Asian art. These kinds of restrictions and barriers have not stopped artists and curators from working on an exhibition that has been able to overcome physical and invisible borders and barriers.
From the Indonesian Angke River, one of thirteen rivers flowing through Jakarta, to the Red River in north Vietnam, to the Mekong Delta in the south, the exhibition opens a window on a variety of geographical and human landscapes.
Indonesian artist Mahardika Yudha decided to focus on the social changes in the lives of people living along the waterways. “Because of the bad water quality, the people here have changed their profession and are collecting metal and plastic waste,” writes in the blog Yudha, whose installation presents a bounty of objects retrieved from the rivers, symbolizing snippets and faces of people’s lives. Lives influenced by an economic development insensitive towardsnature and people. A concept expressed also by a group of female Vietnamese artists–Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai, Luong Hue Trinh, Phan Thao Nguyen–who try to describe shattering changes through small, every-day objects and events. “A pair of lonely slippers, carried away by the flood, a pair of tattered, torn and worn out slippers…they bear the mark of time; inside of us they evoke memories and feelings of loss and pain, the feeling of drowning,” explains Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai.
Metaphors aside, drowning is a real danger when rivers overflow. In the months leading to the opening of “Riverscapes IN FLUX,” Bangkok was severely affected by floods. And the Thai artists’ work, directed by curator Apisak Sanjod, makes a point of shedding a light on the effects of dams in the north of Thailand and on the simple lives of rural people in the north-east of the country, to remind us of the significance of paying due respect to mother nature.
Like the reality the show is meant to deal with, the exhibition has been the result of a long process involving many subjects. The six art directors involved and the seventeen artists contributing their works, along with the paramount social function of art as a means of expression, have demonstrated the vital importance of the rivers and their surrounding areas. This in a region that seems to pursue economic growth at any cost, regardless of the price paid by local communities, which all too often end up displaced, impoverished, dispossessed of their lands and deprived of their culture.
Should you happen to see the show, pause and let your senses draw it in. Don’t just look, try to experience the stream of life ensuing from the works exhibited with all of your senses. You may discover not only how important it is to respect nature, but also how that respect translates into respect for all.
Photo credit: courtesy Goethe-Institut 2012