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Exhibition Review: Afterimage: Contemporary Photography from Southeast Asia

Updated: Mar 9, 2020

Reviewed by Kimberly Shen

Published in Trans Asia Photography Review

Volume 5, Issue 2: Vital Signs: Photography and Eco-Activism in Asia, Spring 2015

Afterimage: Contemporary Photography from Southeast Asia, presented by the Singapore Art Museum in partnership with the Singapore International Photography Festival, is one of the three co-curated exhibitions under Still Moving: A Triple Bill on the Image. Exploring the photographic practices of thirteen Southeast Asian artists, Afterimage, curated by Sam I-shan and Alexander Supartono, focuses on how the image transitions from the before, between, and after, and how it is summoned into being through the materialisation of memory and imagination. While the three exhibitions under the Still Moving curatorial framework concluded on 8 February 2015, the paradoxical notion of “still moving” is further analysed through a boxed set of three catalogues that act as points of departure, allowing issues that arise from the exhibited images to be discussed in depth.

In her catalogue essay, The Image as a Medium of Revelation, Sam refers to ‘afterimage’ as the ‘moment of retention that approximates, yet it is not original’, highlighting that the encounter we have with the image after it is created is not only visual but engages the other senses as well. The term ‘afterimage’ suggests a residual, lingering quality – a trace that endures and persists beyond physicality. Susan Sontag famously said that all photographs are memento mori. In the creation of the image, the object/subjects represented in the frame are witnesses to reality. Sam takes reference from art historian Rosalind Krauss, who describes the image’s relationship with the real as ‘indexical,’ meaning that the image does not possess meaning on its own but only acquires significance when framed or placed within the intended context. Sam proposes that the works in the exhibition utilise the medium of photography not only to show or present, but to emphasise modes of alterity. Through symbols, recognisable forms, and cultural imagery, these artists reconsider ways of making and looking at the image.

The relevance of studying contemporary photography in Southeast Asia could not come at a more appropriate time. The study of Southeast Asia has often been limited and prescribed, and its definition varies due to geographical discrepancies. A region conventionally defined by the sovereign states of Brunei, Cambodia, East Timor, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam, Southeast Asia also includes dependent territories such as the Australia-governed Christmas Islands and Cocos (Keeling) Islands, and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands of India. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which aims to cultivate relations and boost socio-economic progress among its members, includes all the states except East Timor. As photography historian Supartono pointed out in his catalogue essay Afterimage: Is There Such a Thing as Southeast Asian Photography?, “Southeast Asia’ was birthed from colonial partitioning, and this prompted an urgency and desire to claim regional identity.” Soon after the introduction of the camera in the 1840s, Singapore–as the epicentre of trading and transit in Southeast Asia–became the meeting point for photographers in Southeast Asia. These photography enthusiasts would pass through the island–rich in photographic supplies–before embarking on to their final destinations. The region gradually grew into a dynamic photographic community and scene, as photographers clearly took advantage of the political and social conditions determined by colonial relations. As the region began to undergo changes triggered by the end of World War II, followed by the birth of new nations through independence, the identity of Southeast Asian photography began to evolve. This paved the way for a new generation of photographers who became concerned about issues of national identity and cultural resonance. It became apparent that there was not one aesthetic that predetermines the style of Southeast Asian photography, and that a thriving interest in the medium benefits from the conceptual commonalities and synergies that surpass traditional genres (portraits of royals and dignitaries, photographs of landscapes and government buildings) that were previously significant to the region.

Through the curatorial framework of Afterimage, the exhibition addresses the materialities and possibilities of photography, and inquires into the diversity of practices that subsist and transcend geographical boundaries in Southeast Asia. Singapore-born artist John Clang’s images from his Time (2009) series details the urbanscape of major cities, but, more importantly, explores the most fundamental aspects of photography: space and time. Clang composes single images from torn fragments of non-event moments in busy urban spaces such as Chinatown and Wall Street in New York. A new perspective of the city emerges, of an in-between space. One loses the notion of the ‘there’ and ‘now’ as the passersby and streets seamlessly flow through the image, captured in different scenarios but fused to form a singular narrative.

Exploring the idea of materiality, Filipino artist Gary Ross Pastrana’s multimedia installations On (or before) Photography / The silver + gelatin works (2013) are reminiscent of science experiments based on analytic logic and exploration of material. Using ground-up jewellery and gelatin from a local confectioner, he composes images and prints with light refracted through lenses and plexiglass, documenting his processes in a series of field notes. The use of text, images, and objects creates a layered narrative and examines the relationship between matter and meaning, and the nature of object and representation.

Whether as reaction to the industrialisation and growth of cities, or defining collective or personal memories, many of the works featured in Afterimage are reactions driven by an understanding and acknowledgement of the region's challenges and specificities. Vietnamese artist Dinh Q Le's Scroll (2013) series comprises digital composites of images that are paradigmatic of the Vietnam War – of the burning monk, Thich Quang Duc; the napalm girl; and the victims of the Mai Lai massacre. These three images were stretched and printed on 50-metre long scrolls of photographic paper and draped as folds from wall to floor. Instead of experiencing an unfurling of historicity, the viewer is unable to identify where each image begins or ends, or identify the particular moments of history. This could be understood as an attempt to nullify the atrocities and horrors of these images, in which the content of each photo is lost and achieves a status of neutrality through erasure. In many ways, Dinh’s work also raises questions about technology and its ability to alter personal and collective memories.

During a visit to an abandoned police station in Malaysia, Malaysian artist Eiffel Chong found several old passport-sized photographs of police officers and criminals, each caked in dirt and mould, worn and weathered over the years. By photographing each image, Chong creates objects, each one a metaphor for the corruptibility of principles and ethics supposedly upheld by the law. The disintegration of each image also questions our reliance on the photograph’s ability to determine and authenticate identity, as the law enforcer and unlawful relationships become obsolete. Artist Agan Harahap similarly explores the world of politics and the contradictions found within government policies through his digitally manipulated images. In Post Cards for Jokowi (2014), Harahap digitally imposes Indonesian President Joko Widodo into social gatherings such as with art world heavyweights, Chinese artists Ai Wei Wei and Cai Guo-Qiang, or with pop stars Jennifer Lopez and Jay Z. My Politician Friends (2012) is an amusing commentary about the awkward encounters between politicians, while Visit Indonesia 2014 (2012 - 2013) which features international celebrities caught in unsavoury settings – public toilets, brothels or alcohol raids—-is Harahap’s response to the Indonesian government’s tourism campaign.

Although the concept of identity varies throughout Southeast Asia, traditional values and an understanding of sexuality and gender run through all the cultures. Through Portrait of a Man in Habits (2000), Thai artist Michael Shaowanasai examines what it means to exist in a singular body as both a gay man and a practicing Buddhist. Thai culture holds that when a young man enters monkhood he earns merit for his family, in particular for his mother who is unable to make merit because she is female. Only after answering a series of questions – which include “Are you male?” and “Are you human” – and providing acceptable answers, is one ordained. Portrait of a Man in Habits 1 features Shaowanasai in a face full of make-up holding a pink handkerchief, which contrasts with the saffron robes of monkhood that he also was wearing. Although homosexuality is legal and widely accepted in Thailand, the kathoey, or ‘lady boy’, the effeminate and flamboyant transgender individual, is perceived as an in-between gender and sexual non-conformist. The artist’s combining both of these identities into a single image stirred major controversy during the work’s first showing in Bangkok, so that Shaowanasai had the work replaced with a different, smaller photograph. Titled Portrait of a Man in Habits 2, the replacement image depicted the artist dressed in white portraying a tid, or a person who has left Buddhist monkhood.

With works that stretch their geopolitical boundaries and narratives of cultural specificities, Afterimage does not define contemporary Southeast Asian photography but, instead, questions what it means to construct an image and on what plane an image exists as an “afterimage” – does it lose inertia and remain static, or does it keep moving to create new meaning? As curator Sam concludes, by focusing on the image as an object we should acknowledge the excess of meaning that arises through its creation. Through understanding the image’s relationship with space and time, the viewer is engaged in a dimensionality depicting alternate realities and visual metaphors. By leading viewers away from and beyond how the image is framed and represented, the afterimage transcends the physical form and persists in memory and imagination.

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