Protocol 101

Censorship is a contemporary issue. It is mitigated by a new set of protocols that we are negotiating globally. Goenawan Mohamad’s recent piece on Kakiseni speaks about the recent reactions to Prophet Muhammed’s cartoon representation in the popular press and I raised it recently in relation to biennales. I also discovered, cruising the art magazines this month at Borders, the current issues of Art Forum (January 2006) and Modern Painters (February 2006) are both sealed with a sticker plastered across their covers stating: “Pages Has Been Censored by KDN (Internal Affairs Department)”. It is not a new topic, but it’s a current one.

Recently, Open Letter, a touring exhibition from Australia’s Asialink began its run at the National Art Gallery (Balai Seni Lukis). What seems to have gone unspoken since the opening (16 February 2006), is that the work of one of the artists has been significant altered – one may even use the word compromised – by censorship.

There seems to be a big bulge under the carpet where an embarrassing problem has been quietly swept, hoping that no one would notice this ugly faux pas – in Australia and locally. I am talking about the removal of Vienna Parreno and Krzysztop Osinski collaborative pieces, “Self (Mark 1)”, “Self (Mark 2)”, and also a panel from Vienna’s installation “Shelter (Fragments)”, without any declaration of the edit.

The exhibition catalogue states: “Featuring twelve artists, ten of who are first or second generation Australians of South East Asian descent, this exhibition asks us to consider cultural origins and their importance to creative practice.”

Sunday’s StarMag correctly reports the discrepancy, “The exhibition showcases the works of 11 artists …” (26 February 2006, pg 15), however what StarMag‘s article by Rubin Khoo fails to mention is that the twelfth artist’s work was withdrawn from the exhibition (by removing the collaborative pieces of “Self (Mark 1)” and “Self (Mark 2), they have essentially removed Krzysztop’s contribution to the exhibition). There is not the slightest hint or acknowledgment of what has occurred or why it has occurred. Interestingly, all three ‘censored’ images are reproduced in the show’s catalogue.

Who’s staring at whom?

It was in fact Asialink who took the initiative with this project and approached Binghui Huangfu, Director of the Asia-Australian Arts Centre proposing the idea of curating an exhibition aimed to highlight ASEAN’s cultural connections with Australia by touring works by Australian artists of South East Asian descent. Binghui, previously with LaSalle in Singapore, has put together a show that tells the “unique stories of migration, dislocation and belonging”. She explains the title in the exhibition catalogue, “An open letter is normally a public document, traditionally published in a newspaper or maybe these days on a web site…  The artists participating in this exhibition… have been invited to write their open letter visually. The letter is addressed to audiences in South East Asia as an expression of their experience in Australia.”

Somewhat ironic isn’t it, that this ‘open’ visual dialogue with South East Asia has been denied in part by Malaysia’s national arts institution.

If we look at the exhibition, the work is as disparate as the cultures represented. The opening line in the catalogue states, “The relationship between Australia and South East Asia is complex” – Sarah Tutton. However, the catalogue’s Forward reads more like an ‘ever-so-politically-correct-exercise-in-protocol’ than a celebration of the vitality and strength that these individual artists have in the unforgiving Australian art scene.

The show line-up includes: Dadang Christanto (Indonesian), Emil Goh (Malaysian), George Poonkhin Khut (Australian with Chinese-Malaysian father) with John Tonkin (Australian), Selina Ou (Malaysian), Veienna Parreno (Filipina) with Krzysztof Osinski (a political refugee in Australia), Melissa Ramos (Filipina), Koky Saly (Cambodian), Phaptawann Suwannakudt (Thai), My Le Thi (Vietnamese) and Suzann Victor (Singaporean). The individual works are strong; their placement within the exhibition space at the Balai is perhaps less considered and leaves the viewer rather disappointed. It is a pigeon-holed hanging within partitions which compromises the exhibition’s dynamic premise of open dialogue. The letter has been torn to pieces and parts.

However a few works that struck me with their layered meaning and engagement, playing with the ideas of voyeurism (who’s staring at whom?), are Selina Ou and Koky Saly’s photographs. Vienna Parreno’s work, if represented correctly, would also have played a part in this conversational dynamics.

Selina Ou’s (b. Malaysia and moved to Australia age 2) photographs are an “identification with being from Malaysia… Her photographs deal with people who put on uniforms that express their role in life. These uniforms can be seen as metaphor, as skins we wear supposedly badging our place in society. One could even take Selina’s photos a step further and consider the uniforms of contemporary Malaysian society – the baju Melayu and baju kurung, tudung, turban, ketayap and songkok, sari, punjabi suit, and cheongsam. How strongly does Malaysia rely on these uniforms as a definition of its tri-cultural society?

Koky Saly (b. Cambodia and went to Australia age 4) like Ou, presents an image with veiled meaning. Their circular format harks back to Chinese gates and symbols, European miniatures, or voyeuristic keyholes – is it vulnerability or heroism in the pose? Born in the temples of Angkor Wat during Pol Pot’s era, Koky went to Australia as a refugee. His work deals with the experience of feeling like an outsider, and of notions of what it is to be gay and Asian in Australia.

George Poonkhin Khut (b. Australia / Father: Chinese-Malaysian) is the piece you are quickly drawn to, with its lightening organism, an interactive installation with breath-activated video and sound. George “sees himself as the product of an upbringing that did not dwell on cultural memory. As such his work deals more with the exploration of his identity as a person rather than that of placing himself culturally. He deliberately places veils over direct cultural content.” George’s response is perhaps most akin to a Malaysian’s separation from a cultural past.

Adjacent to George’s installation, was a collection of interviews with the artists about their experiences – a kind of open letter – produced by Australian filmmaker Rhian Hinkley. It was a shame, however, that the exhibition installation placed these works too close so that the sound bleed from George’s piece prevented the viewer from listening to these dialogues. Given the scale of the Balai’s exhibition spaces a more sensitive placement should have been considered.

Sadly, Suzann Victor’s “Expense of Spirit in a Waste of Shame’ (1997) was not included in this leg of the exhibition tour, but it was not censored like Vienna and Krzysztofs work. So that brings us back to what it means to ‘erase’ an artist’s participation in an exhibition without public notice, or staggeringly, notification to the artist.

Building and sustaining partnerships

I asked Asialink’s Sarah Bond, who flew to Kuala Lumpur to oversee the installation of the exhibition, why the artist was not informed immediately. After all, that would be the role of an Exhibition Manager – to negotiate issues as they arise between the artist and the host venue – such as the damage of a work, inappropriate presentation, censorship – and to ensure the integrity of the exhibition’s presentation. Ms. Bond’s answer was lengthy and bureaucratic, starting with, ‘The aim of the Asialink Visual Arts and Craft touring exhibition program… ” – a kind of 101 lesson for me in protocol. Her affirmative comment on behalf of Asialink regarding the censorship was dismissive of Asialink’s role placing all discretion with the Balai.

“… Space constraints and cultural sensitivities may require us to modify exhibitions and exclude works… The exclusion of exhibition works, while regrettable has happened on occasion as it did in the display of Open Letter in Kuala Lumpur. No decision is taken lightly as removing works from any exhibition can alter the audience experience. As the exhibition manager, Asialink is always a part of the discussions related to the removal of works which are undertaken between a liaison party and the host venue, however the final decision is up to the discretion of our host venues. The decision is always made with the overall aim of the program in mind – that of building and sustaining partnerships, profiling and creating future opportunities for Australian artists and organisations.”

I asked the Australian High Commission here in Kuala Lumpur, who is the diplomatic conduit bringing together Asialink and the National Art Gallery, what their reaction was. Surely, the Balai had seen a copy of the exhibition catalogue prior to the works being uncrated? After all, the exhibition had already successfully been shown in Sydney (March 2005), the National Gallery Bangkok (August 2005) and the Metropolitan Museum Manila (October 2005).

“In the High Commission’s role as one of the supporting organisations to the Open Letter exhibition, we were present at negotiations between the National Art Gallery and Asialink, the organisation responsible for touring the exhibition, as to whether to include part of Vienna Parreno’s work. However, the prerogative remained with the National Art Gallery, as the host organisation, to make the final decision.” – Rahel Joseph, Australian High Commission.

That Asialink failed to include the artist in this ‘negotiation’ and failed to inform the censored artist for more than a week after the exhibition opened is not addressed in these comments and is not acceptable. The official response seems to be a finger quickly pointed in another’s direction. It leads me to question the motives of Asialink – are such projects solely politically driven? But the greater question is: what are the repercussions of the concealment of censorship?

I received a very interesting email from Vienna Parreno, the artist censored, that I would like to share with Kakiseni readers – it questions concepts such as the integrity of an artwork, authorship and censorship.

“Thank you so much for letting me know about what happened there at the Balai. You would think I would be the first person everyone would have contacted. It is an artist right isn’t it? To know if their work is being altered in anyway? By the time Asialink called – after finding out not from them but from you both – I was so upset. Not only was the two portraits cut from the installation but also the first panel from the 4 leaning pieces which also had some nudity (more allusions than anything else) – once you take so many elements out from an artists’ work – it is definitely not the same work – there is a point where you take so many elements out you might as well just not show the piece at all…

“I don’t know how I would have reacted to Malaysia’s censorship in the first instance – my older sister is half Maranao and my mother was originally from Mindanao so I am not completely unfamiliar with Muslim culture (albeit in the Philippines not elsewhere). This show was about a conversation with our neighbours in Asia – so let us have the conversation – let us discuss the issue – our differences and see whether we can reconcile them or agree to disagree – but let us have the discussion – not cower in one corner because one side is wielding a stick. And I don’t think they were even wielding a stick anyway – just posing an opposing point of view – and here comes Australia with not even a whimper to protect and stand up for its artists – but just hoping that it would go away if they agree to a Malaysian Bureaucrat’s decision and keep it quiet…

“I can only speak of what I know though and as an Asian-Australian, my problem is less with Malaysia at the moment than with Australia – the way this have been handled – from the fact that Krzysztof and I were left out of the decision making process and that we WERE NOT EVEN TOLD until quite late to begin with – and not till after several pieces from the installation was already pulled out from the piece and someone else having already informed me. It was a full week after the opening did I even find out. I think it is an artists’ right to be able to keep the integrity of their work intact – to be given the choice what to do in situations like this – any gallery or institution should not take it upon themselves to start pulling things off an artwork – cutting a painting in half or sawing the limbs of a sculpture to make it fit some kind of box – physical or mental.” – Vienna

And the National Art Gallery – well, after repeated requests they failed to deliver a comment.

Open Letter will remain on show at the National Art Gallery until Sunday 16 April 2006. The exhibition will subsequently open in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam later in 2006 and other ASEAN countries in 2007.

Further reading: Interview with Binqhui Huangfu


Gina Fairley is an Australian art writer, but she is not affiliated with the Australian High Commission. She is presently in Malaysia with her husband, the artist Tony Twigg, who was in residency at Rimbun Dahan.

First Published: 15.03.2006 on Kakiseni

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