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‘Voice Against Reason’ challenges us to rise up with tiny fists

By SCOTT GARCEAU, The Philippine STAR Published Dec 11, 2023 5:00 am

Careful: you are being hypnotized. You may not realize it, but the video installation by Japanese artist Meiro Koizumi “Good Machine Bad Machine” is doing its work: we see a series of video screens in a black room, each with an actor being prompted to repeat a phrase under hypnosis; meanwhile a robotic arm wrapped in a black cloth fishes around the room, gesturing, as we sit down on bean bags and trance out in the lazy art arc of the afternoon.

Koizumi’s work brings to mind notions of authoritarian control—repetition, obedience, sleepwalking—with another video panel in an adjacent room showing people filing past in slo-mo, sheep-like, during an earthquake evacuation in 2011. “BE A GOOD HUMAN… RESURRECT,” reads the caption. It’s a good entry to the current group exhibit at Jakarta’s Museum Macan, “Voice Against Reason,” which asks the question: why do artists or people in society speak up and speak out, when it will surely bring them harm or punishment?

You are getting very sleepy: Meiro Koizumi’s “Good Machine Bad Machine” examines how our consciousness is shaped by authoritarian control, and how the future might look under A.I.

Questioning the status quo seems like an endangered practice in this day and age. With authoritarianism on the rise practically everywhere, “Just shut up and follow orders” seems to be the only thing left on the menu. “Voice Against Reason” says no, there are still pathways to challenging hierarchy. At least through art.

Broken down into three main themes—“Mother Father Fortress“ (examining comfort, control, matriarchies, patriarchies), “#everystupidlittlething” (cataloguing ways to storm the stronghold by cataloguing its absurdity), and “Obsolesence/Extinctions” (looking at the rise of mechanical reproduction and how it challenges artists to point out their own fading narratives)—many of the rooms tend to intersect. Themes commingle, and you when you pop out at the back end, you come out feeling this exhibit needs deeper exploration.

Khadim Ali’s tapestries (“Fragments of Memory”) welcome you into “Voice Against Reason” at Museum Macan

Pakistan artist Khadim Ali’s massive woven tapestries invite you inside, depicting images from the epic Persian poetic work “Shahnama (Book of Kings).” Ali recovered Persian rugs from his grandparents’ destroyed home after a suicide bomber struck. He ventured to reconstruct a personalized journey through the memories of these poems told to him by his grandfather as a boy; “Fragments of Memory” is both a resurrection of memory and patriarchy, and a surmounting of it: Ali’s tapestries contain multitudes of dualities, challenging the accepted stories.

Father and son narratives are paired in the side-by-side work of I Wayan Jana, whose sculpture “Bisma” depicts a fabled male warrior saved from touching the ground by arrows piercing his body; nearby, “Rwa Bhineda” by his sculptor father I Ketut Muja is an intricate study of duality in man that itself deviates from traditional Balinese styles and subjects and could rival the body horror of John Carpenter’s The Thing.

Edhi Sunarso’s 1946 dioramas are reimagined in “When the flood is over”—a path to preserving history.

We wander through a striking diorama of human figures. It’s “When the flood is over,” a modern attempt to resurrect a series of historical dioramas created by famed Indonesian sculptor Edhi Sunarso back in the ‘40s, now in disrepair. The artist knew his figurines—such as “Diorama No. 32,” showing the proclamation of Indonesia’s independence in 1945—would at some point break down and disintegrate; maybe their retelling, shown here in careful recreations by modern artists, can help carry the narrative into the future. Sometimes retelling the truth saves it from evaporating.

Shell casing mobiles from Tuan Andrew Nguyen’s “The Unburied Sounds of a Troubled Horizon”

A low drone permeates the space where Tuan Andrew Nguyen’s Calder-like mobiles dangle in “The Unburied Sounds of a Troubled Horizon.” Crafted from shell casings recovered from Vietnam War sites, they’re a reminder that such random fragments of metal are still repurposed for economic survival. Here, they’re set to vibrate at a particular megahertz hum that is supposed to promote tranquility.

With works by 24 artists from Australia, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam, “Voice Against Reason” is a mammoth tour through the contemporary psyche of Southeast Asia: how narratives are lifted from the muck, warped and reformed in amazing new ways. All against reason, driven by the necessity of telling and preserving our histories. 

“And That Ocean Too, is a Fiction” by Thai artist Sikarnt Skoolisariyaporn challenges the notion of cultural museums and appropriation.

Disintegration of the old forms may be necessary for this to happen. Thai artist Sikarnt Skoolisariyaporn’s video installation “And That Ocean Too, is a Fiction” is made up of videos cataloguing traditional Korean theater masks, but it’s fronted by a spillage of debris—broken bricks, rocks and rubble. The artist takes the perspective of the earth trying to write the history of mankind—us. The display points to the death of museums, and their imperialist, colonial collections.

Indian artist Shilpa’s “THREAT” attempts to help us dissolve our anxieties away.

Another room highlights a pile of bricks. Or rather, a diminishing stack of 4,500 brick-like soaps, each flesh-colored and bearing the word “THREAT.” Indian artist Shilpa Gupta playfully invites each visitor to grab a bar and take it home, use it; thus we may collectively dismantle threats—whether realm, imagined, or manufactured—that plague our modern world. And it is our collective action of defiance that may lead us there.

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“Voice Against Reason” runs at Museum Macan, Jakarta until April 14, 2024.