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24 Aug 2023 / by Magdalena Magiera

Fluid Borders: Place and Belonging in Contemporary Art

Aerial view of the Mekong River flowing across a territory. The water is brown with sediment and the two banks, which occupy the top and bottom of the image, are lined with small, rectangular settlements or wells that are either white or brown in colour. Further from the river, the land is sparse with green vegetation.

Mekong River is a river in East Asia and Southeast Asia crossing several countries. Its environmental and sociopolitical significance encourages countries to forge cooperative frameworks. Photo by SW Photography via Getty Images

As the Sigg Prize commences its second edition, Magdalena Magiera, a nominator for the award, writes about how art can make space for communal sharing and experiences.

What do we mean when we speak about ‘identity’ or ‘belonging’? When we think about art in relation to these terms, they may not necessarily mean national belonging or follow inscribed systems of behaviour and beliefs. Temporality, accelerated in the post-internet condition, is more erratically stacked. We are heading ever deeper into this temporal condition through the digital realm of social media, which enables somewhat unrestricted, though unevenly distributed, freedom of speech. In these spaces, we witness the real-time production of languages and syntaxes. The ‘other’ has gained a voice but only to continuously explain, qualify, and make sense of itself. There is no such thing as an isolated conversation: we are all experiencing the interrelatedness of our cultural and ecological diversities.

Our reflections and debates are focused on crises we are facing as humans, be it unrestrained economic development and the climate emergency, structural racism and colonial legacies, forced migration and rampant urbanisation, and recently the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath. We may come from vastly different backgrounds, but still we share common concerns—personal, local, regional, global—affecting us in similar ways. Often the answers lie in small things, in soft, intangible, and hidden ways.

Installation shot of a three-channel video, screens arranged in a row, of one of Singapore’s waterways built amid greenery. The still on the screens shows a cross section of the waterway, with a few people dressed in white standing above and around the structure. Flanking the screens are two sagging columns of dry leaves in nets that hang from the ceiling.

Installation view of In Search of Southeast Asia through the M+ Collections at M+ Pavilion, 2018. Photo: © M+, Hong Kong. Featuring works from the fields of design and architecture, moving image, and visual art, the exhibition sheds light on the wide-ranging cultural practices within the region over the last half-century. Pictured here is Charles Lim’s All Lines Flow Out (2011), a film and installation work on Singapore’s waterways that expunge seawater from view and keep the city’s streets pristine.

I see national borders becoming porous and disappearing amid our collective issues. Take for example the Mekong River, which originates from the Tibetan Plateau and runs through Southwest China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and southern Vietnam. The river flows through several countries, connecting communities and bypassing state boundaries, carrying with it the issues of environmental crisis, such as pollution and access to water. Artists from these countries touch on greener living and economic exploitation in their practices to address concerns over the loss of local culture, connection to ancestral voices, and collective identity. Interconnected spaces are created, offering fruitful sites for exploration and dialogue.

Biennales, with their adaptive format and wide-ranging themes, have the potential to become sites of communal experience in which to speak about our common concerns. Curated by Christina Lee, Ghost 2565: Live Without Dead Time, the second edition of the Bangkok-based video and performance art festival, explored tensions of contemporary life. Taking Bangkok as a palimpsest, participating artists attempt to define this city by dealing with ideas, figures, and stories made invisible by the homogenising force of progress. Similarly, the thirteenth Shanghai Biennale Bodies of Water, overseen by chief curator Andrés Jaque, was conceived as an eight-month collective undertaking by artists, activists, and institutions advocating for modes of planetary re-alliance based on trans-species collectivism. Artists were encouraged to think beyond humans and nations and tie discussions about the human and non-human with those of the environment. The eleventh Taipei Biennale Nature—A Museum as Ecosystem by Mali Wu and Francesco Manacorda also engaged with different ecosystemic models, focusing on the significance of reciprocal dependency and how this form of functioning tends towards a holistic common good.

The installation shot shows three rectangular fish tanks placed on top of three white pedestals. Inside the tanks are different species of fish, aquatic plants, and rocks. The middle tank looks blue with its lighting and is displayed in frontal view, while the tanks on the left and right are in three-quarter view.

Trevor Yeung's Live in Hong Kong, Born in Dongguan (2015) uses different species of fish as a metaphor to explore issues of identity in Hong Kong, a city of immigrants. The work features fish tanks arranged in a circular formation. The fish come from various parts of the world, including the Macropodus (black paradisefish/Chinese betta), Mikrogeophagus ramirezi (German blue ram), Scleropages formosus (Asian arowana), Cyphotilapia frontosa (frontosa), Carassius auratus (Ranchu, goldfish), and Paracheirodon innesi (neon tetra). © Trevor Yeung. Photo: Eddie Cheung

In all of these cases, artists and art practitioners reflect on society, taking alternative points of view on common issues as our current, posthuman, moment rapidly engulfs our sociopolitical life. These perspectives look beyond human constructs to consider non-human forces—plants, animals, objects, and other materials—shaping our world. Through the process of care, life emerges with creative intensity in spite of cultural destruction and ecological damage. By pushing geographical boundaries, art practitioners can speak about matters often difficult to discuss in their own countries, creating spaces to share their histories and experiences.

As society expands and evolves, old structures of identity and belonging are being reconsidered. I tend to think that communities are united rather than separated by what shapes them politically and socially, including questions of identity. The same applies to artistic practice. In recent years, the art world has begun to break different boundaries, bypassing the imposing limits of nation and geography. In this context, art can help explore various disciplines, histories, and epistemologies. Through reorganising practices of resistance, remediation, and mutual care, art can generate reparative and transformative processes for damaged ecologies and communities.

The installation shot shows a shaky wooden table situated inside a room with rough wooden and concrete flooring as well as bare white walls and glass windows. The table resembles an L-shape and has legs that arch slightly towards the top. Scattered across the table surface are several irregularly shaped sculptural pieces made of cement and glasses filled with coloured liquid. A tall potted plant is placed behind the table. On the floor are several smaller and darker sculptural pieces, also irregularly shaped.

Yu Ji held her solo exhibition Forager at Avenue Apartments on Tongren Road, Shanghai in 2020. The location is an evacuated residence, and Yu retains traces left behind by its tenants while creating an imaginary space that extends beyond the everyday. Featured in the photo is the installation Forager – lunch (2020). Scattered across an shaky table are sculptures moulded from food as well as coral the artist had collected from different seasides, suggesting a life deviated from the ordinary during the pandemic. © Yu Ji. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Zhang Hong

Artists who address concepts of ‘belonging’ reframe familiar issues of identity, such as the ‘immigrant experience’, through their individual perspectives and stories. In this year’s Sigg Prize, Trevor Yeung’s work gestures towards the emancipation of everyday aspirations and deploys the non-human as a metaphor for human relationships. Drawing inspiration from personal and intimate experience, Yeung embraces authenticity as a framework for being in the world. He pairs his observations on immigration and belonging with reflections on aspects crucial to our understanding of the self. In her artistic practice, Yu Ji conducts ongoing investigation into situations charged with geographical and historical narratives. She is the storyteller of complex relationships between people and things, life and the ‘spirit’ of simultaneous presents and contested pasts.

Artistic engagement and the display or discussion of art, sometimes within the specificity of local contexts, can be impactful acts changing communities and their narratives.

One doesn’t need to be based in a foreign country or labelled with stereotypes of national identity to feel alien(ated), ‘Asian’, or in the case of both artists, ‘Chinese’. Artists living in the West do not engage with identity politics solely because these qualities—who we are, where we come from, how we look—mark them as different. The same applies to European artists working in the Greater China region. Rather, both the outsider gazing inwards at society and the insider conscientiously administering artistic remarks draw their reflections from their own experiences, autobiographical narratives, and social constructs. Artists think about life envisioned and make observations on belonging based on their identities as they question authenticity and its performance. Crucial to one’s understanding of the self are gender, ethnicity, social class, style, and desire, shaped amid a complex cultural context and set of social relationships that create nodes of belonging and community. Artistic engagement and the display or discussion of art, sometimes within the specificity of local contexts, can be impactful acts changing communities and their narratives.

There is no doubt that art can engage with difficult questions of identity. I would argue that there are commonalities, in this day and age, that bring people together in deeper and stronger ways than ethnicity or nationality. More urgent questions to ask: What can art bring to the conversation? What are the most pressing issues that we should discuss? Can art demonstrate a sustainable model of coexistence? Will art continue to have a place in the future where our own survival, in the most capacious sense, is at stake?

Magdalena Magiera
Magdalena Magiera
Magdalena Magiera

Magdalena Magiera is Curator and Research Associate at the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore. Her practice and expertise encompasses a wide range of disciplines, including exhibition-making and venue building; developing process-based research; organising lectures and conferences; and staging events and performances. She has worked with institutions throughout Europe, North America, and Asia, including biennales, museums, and artist-run spaces. She developed projects with Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai; dOCUMENTA(13); KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin; e-flux in Berlin, Mexico City, and New York City; and frieze d/e. She is currently Editor of mono.kultur, a Berlin-based interview magazine, which profiles leading figures in contemporary art and culture. Photo: Alfonse Chiu

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