Take Me to the River: In Southeast Asia, Art Turns an Eye to the Water

By Roberto Tofani 19 December 2012

They nurture the earth, shape wondrous landscapes, and give life to flora and fauna. In Southeast Asia, major rivers such as the Mekong are also essential lifelines in Burma and neighboring countries, serving as transport lanes, harvesting basins, commerce routes and unique ecosystems to secure food and energy supplies for communities. But this delicate balance is under threat, and local artists throughout the region are raising their voices in alarm.

In recent decades, the exploitation of Southeast Asian rivers for economic development has caused long-term damage. As countries develop dams and other construction projects along major rivers, water flows have shifted and frequent flooding, which has always been a problem for the region during the rainy season, has created a recurrent state of crisis for residents on the banks.

While construction of dam systems along most waterways in the region has forced thousands of people to abandon their villages, the exploitation of rivers for mining and industrial purposes has dramatically affected the quality of life for thousands more by polluting drinking water and fish farms. From spurs of the Tibetan Plateau to coasts of Southeast Asian seas, the ecosystems around mountain streams, canals, estuaries and deltas are being altered, which has in turn changed the surrounding climate, disfigured cultural heritages and even redrawn the geographical profile of some countries.

Social activists have long tried to raise awareness about the unfolding tragedy, often through programs that help local people safeguard their ways of life. And now, inspired by such initiatives, Goethe-Institut in Vietnam is using art as a tool to reflect on the ecological, socioeconomic and cultural changes around river basins in the region. At a new exhibition, called “RiverScapes in Flux,” the German cultural center is teaming up with 17 Southeast Asian artists, including from Burma, to plant a seed in the public consciousness.

Can art deal with problems of global import?

In the realm of social activism, the Goethe-Institut believes art can play an important role.

“To raise artists’ awareness of river problems will help raise people’s awareness,” said the cultural center’s director, Almuth Meyer-Zollitsch, adding that the transformation of a local waterway in Vietnam inspired her to organize the new exhibit.

“After watching the Red River from Long Bien Bridge, a symbol of the Vietnamese resistance, I realized how the change in the river landscape can influence the life of thousands,” she said. “From this view, the idea for the [exhibition] project was born.”

The undertaking, which opened in Hanoi last April, is a traveling exhibition that will stop in Ho Chi Minh City, Bangkok, Phnom Penh, Jakarta and finally Manila, where it will close in March 2013.

“Although I tend to be critical of exhibitions that invite artists to comment on broad themes such as climate change, the terrible reality of flooding and the specific focus on river life made me reconsider the meaningful role that such exhibitions can have for artists and audiences alike,” says Erin Gleeson, who co-founded SA SA BASSAC, a gallery and resource center in Phnom Penh, and serves as the art director for three Cambodian artists participating in the exhibit.

The Cambodian artists chose not to reflect on the Mekong, their country’s main body of water, which also cuts through Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, China and Burma. Instead they each decided to focus on a waterway unique to Cambodia, the Tonle Sap, which is a combined river and lake system. The Tonle Sap is unusual because the flow of its river changes direction twice a year, as the Mekong pushes it backward during monsoon season, while its lake also expands and shrinks dramatically with the seasons. In depicting the waterway, one photography display shows ice chunks floating through a subtropical climate, striking a sense of alarm.

Other installations appeal to all five senses, such as Filipino artist Goldie Poblador’s perfume project, which is meant to express the condition of river dwellings along the Marikina River. The 23-year-old artist stuns her audience with pungent smells, rather than delicate scents, that waft from tiny glass bottles she made herself. “The fragility of the glass is intended to sensitize people to the fragility of the river,” said the show’s curator, Claro Ramirez Jr.

Other projects have drawn on the power of audio, including an opera featuring sounds of the river by artist Jon Romero. “From the sound, there is a dialogue,” said Ramirez, “and a call to attention to what is happening.”

Some displays highlight social changes in riverside communities, including in Indonesia.

“Because of bad water quality, the people here have changed their professions and are collecting metal and plastic waste,” Indonesian artist Mahardika Yudha writes on his blog. His installation presents a bounty of objects retrieved from the rivers, as a glimpse into the lives of local people.

Similarly, a group of Vietnamese artists focused on the story behind small objects. “A pair of lonely slippers carried away by the flood, a pair of tattered, torn and worn-out slippers … they bear the mark of time; inside of us they evoke memories and feelings of loss and pain, the feeling of drowning,” said one of the artists, Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai.

Burma Joins the Movement

The exhibition organizers were also pleased to include the work of a Burmese artist. Due to political realities in Burma, ruled for decades by an oppressive military regime, artists in Southeast Asia’s poorest country have long struggled to openly display their work.

“It’s very challenging working with them [Burmese artists] from outside the country” because poor Internet and phone lines in Burma pose problems for communication,” said Iola Renzi, a Singapore-based curator, lecturer and critic of Southeast Asian art. “And even within Burma, they have a lot of constraints,” like getting around the country, having free access to research material or just speaking their minds.

“It’s true that Burma is changing,” Renzi added, noting recent reforms in the country since President Thein Sein took over in March last year. “But it’s not so simple to get on with this kind of activity.”

Overcoming some of these challenges, the traveling art exhibition will include the work of Burmese artist, Aung Ko, who worked with children from his village on the Irrawaddy River to create an installation of three cloth boats and several wooden boats.

Like the reality the exhibition is meant to address, “RiverScapes in Flux” has been the result of a long process. The six art directors and 17 artists have tried to highlight the importance of waterways in a region that seems to pursue economic growth at any cost, regardless of the price paid by local communities.

Should you happen to see the show, pause and open your senses. Don’t just look– try to experience the stream of life ensuing from the works. From Indonesia’s Angke River to the Red River in north Vietnam, the exhibition opens a window to the region’s diverse geographic and human landscapes. If you take it all in, you may discover not only the importance of caring for the environment, but also the ways in which respect for nature can translate into a greater respect for people and communities.