Southeast Asia Stakes Its Claim in the Art World

The Dream,” another work by the Propeller Group, consists of a half-complete Honda Dream motorcycle, of the kind used to skip through Hanoi’s wild traffic. But its wheels, engine, seat, and even pedals are missing; the body stands denuded, an uncanny object more sculpture than vehicle. The parts were snatched, we see in an accompanying video, by thieves in just a single night. As in China, nominally communist Vietnam has embraced brakes-off turbocapitalism, and the old dream of society has been picked clean.


A still from the video “The Dream,” from 2012, by the Propeller Group.

The Propeller Group/James Cohan, New York

The Burmese artists here have an even more direct engagement with local political circumstances. Htein Lin, a dissident from Yangon, turned to art not while visiting some international exhibition — Myanmar is among the poorest countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and was essentially closed to foreign influence until the 2010s — but rather during a six-year spell in prison. His ghostly installation, “A Show of Hands,” features hundreds of white plaster casts of raised right hands, each one an index of a political prisoner like himself. What makes the work more than an easy ode to people power is the associated video, in which we watch Mr. Htein Lin cast the hands of monks, journalists, poets, and youth activists, each of whom recounts their past run-ins with the military dictatorship with surprising lightness.

A Show Of Hands project by Htein Lin Video by Htein Lin

F.X. Harsono, perhaps the most prominent artist in contemporary Indonesia, is represented here by both earlier sculptural installations that took direct aim at the Suharto regime, as well as a more recent video. “The Voices Are Controlled by the Powers,” from 1994, consists of more than a hundred carefully arrayed wooden masks, but they’ve been chopped in half; their mouths are cut off and piled in the center. From the title on, it’s about as direct a protest against free speech as you can make without just hoisting a placard.


The Dream,” by the Propeller Group, consists of a half-complete Honda Dream motorcycle, with its wheels, engine, seat and pedals missing.

Perry Hu/Asia Society

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