How are facets of Southeast Asian modern art imaginatively engaged in contemporary practices—by artists, by archivists, and by others? This presentation highlights two ongoing research projects, which draw on histories of modern art in this region with radically unlike methodologies: one is archival, yet innovative and unconventional in nature; the other is artistic, yet includes work from archives and involves other kinds of looking. The experimental curatorial juxtaposition of the two projects asks what resonances between them might surface, which may suggest unexpected connections across the region, and across times. Among these surprising synergies are the presences of spirituality and the Cold War, and the refiguring of past forms within differing developments of the modern.
The Buddhist Archive of Photography in Luang Prabang, Laos, has gathered over 35,000 photographs either taken or collected by monks since 1890. The photographs have recently been digitised and catalogued, using innovative methodologies attentive to climatic, cultural, and religious circumstances: this Archive is a fascinating instance of specifically 21st-century contemporary practice, as much as it is a unique collection of 19th- and 20th-century modern photographs. This is the first time that images from the Buddhist Archive of Photography have been publicly presented in Asia, outside of Luang Prabang. A series of bilingual English and Lao research volumes have also been published.
Within this vast repository of images, several tropes and questions recur. What is photography’s relationship to anicca (impermanence), dukkha (suffering), and anatta (non-self), the three marks of existence in Buddhist thought? What role did Buddhists and photographers play in the Southeast Asian theatre of the global Cold War? And what are the limits of architectural modernity? These questions are posed in three bodies of photographs selected for this presentation. The first is a series of portraits of the late Most Venerable Pha Khamchan Virachitta Maha Thera (1920–2007), co-founder of the Buddhist Archive, taken every year from the age of seven until his death. The second selection comprises photographs taken or collected by another senior photographer-monk, the late Pha Khamfan Silasangvaro (1901–1987), who in addition to chronicling rarely seen aspects of Buddhist life, such as women’s meditation retreats, also gathered images protesting the effects of civil war in Laos from 1959 to 1975. The third selection of images depicts the 1950s modernising renovations of Wat Saen Soukharam temple, under the direction of the late Most Venerable Pha Khamchan. These photographs, and the publications which accompany them, reward historical, spiritual, aesthetic, and other modes of attention and analysis.
Born in the Philippines, Ossorio left when only eight years old, and his visit to begin work on the “Angry Christ” mural was his very first return to the Philippines since then. In the intervening decades, Ossorio had eventually settled in New York, where he held his first exhibition at Betty Parsons’ celebrated Wakefield Gallery in 1941. He became close to with Jackson Pollock and other artists associated with Abstract Expressionism, a movement which was ideologically charged during the Cold War, due to its covert promotion by the United States. Ossorio described his “Angry Christ” mural as an “animated space,” explaining in a 1980 interview that he had attempted to “put as rich an iconography for those who knew and for those who didn’t know… The mural comes to life.” For Lien and Camacho, Ossorio’s mural is a “multivalent cipher,” linked not only to its religious function but also to its economic and environmental context, being located in Negros Occidental, the “sugar bowl of the Philippines,” which produces over half of the nation’s sugar. Lien and Camacho question whether the “Angry Christ” can be “radically reprogrammed” from the specific and highly privileged subjectivity of Ossorio, its maker, and the Ossorio family’s sugar dynasty, its commissioning patron. As well as making repeat visits to the chapel and Victorias over several years, Lien and Camacho have also conducted archival research in Ossorio’s alma mater, Harvard University, and at the Ossorio Foundation, New York. The artists are presenting fragmented glimpses of their research material and work-in-progress.
And in the Chapel and in the Temples: Buddhist Archive of Photography. Amy Lien and Enzo Camacho. is organised by Dr Roger Nelson (Australia/Singapore), an art historian and curator specialised in modern and contemporary art in Southeast Asia, and currently Postdoctoral Fellow at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. The presentation draws on Nelson’s ongoing art historical archival research in the Buddhist Archive and his ongoing curatorial dialogue with Lien and Camacho.
Image credit: (Top) Pha Oun Heuan Hasapanyo, main sim hall at Vat Nong Si Khun Meuang, Luang Prabang, 1950s. Hand-coloured silver gelatine DOP. Courtesy Buddhist Archive of Photography. (Bottom) Interior of St Joseph the Worker Chapel, Victorias, Philippines, 2017. Courtesy Amy Lien and Enzo Camacho.