Loud Silences within MAIIAM’s New Exhibit “Diaspora: Exit, Exile, and Exodus of Southeast Asia”

 |  March 9, 2018

Upon entering the exhibit, I heard a slow trot echoing throughout the first floor of the gallery. Footsteps and faint breaths were pattering around the perimeter of the exhibit floor, but I could not find their source. As it turned out, this eerie echo was emerging from the work Signal, an installation by Thai filmmaker Nipan Oranniwesna. A simple video of a Burmese labourer jogging in a circle around a large bleak room, Signal appears on 4 different monitors, which are placed around the perimeter of the Diaspora exhibit. Throughout the gallery, one always hears the distant fade or approach of this man’s steps. Even without historical context, Signal has an unsettling phantasmal quality. Why is he running, or from whom? Is he fleeing, or is he seeking?

This image is from a documentary by Thai filmmaker Prapat Jiwarangsan. The film depicts Thai peoples’ efforts to find work in South Korea, and the history which connects these two nations. Prapat provides history of Thailand’s involvement in the Korean war, along with current immigration difficulties.

Signal appears within the new MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum‘s exhibit Diaspora, an impressive archive of works that represent various features of Southeast Asian history. As with almost every work Diaspora, Signal becomes all the more compelling when one learns of the fraught history that it evokes. Through Signal’s wraith-like quality, Nipan hopes to shed light upon the injustices that currently face the growing population of Burmese migrant labourers within Thailand. This Burmese population is a significant source of labour within the kingdom, but they are denied any official pathway to citizenship. Although their plight may often be obscured, Signal alerts us to the fact that, as Nipan suggests, “They are all around us.” Ghostly yet loud, abstract yet firmly rooted in an urgent social issue, Signal serves as an excellent frame for the Diaspora exhibit.

By representing that which has been overlooked, forgotten, or erased from these particular histories, Diaspora also meditates upon the nature of memory and historical erasure itself. The pieces emphasise absence and loss, and in doing so, force one to consider why these absences exist. And yet, if Diaspora does contain some abstract meditations on historical memory, these themes are always balanced with urgent political messages. For instance, “I, Svay Sareth, Eat Rubber Sandals” depicts Cambodian artist Sareth as he strains to chew a pair of tough rubber sandals. Over this 9-minute piece, hot blood rises to his contorted face, and teeth click against teeth as he gnashes at the rubber straps. For Sareth, these sandals symbolise the Khmer Rogue Communist rule, a violent Cambodian regime, under which Sareth was forced to live in a refugee camp for 17 years.

Of course the experience of diaspora is not singular, and the exhibit does not suggest otherwise. Diaspora is a textured web, holding together some of the many faces and stories of diasporic past and its present manifestations across the borders of Southeast Asia. It is rare to find an exhibit with this balance of intriguing aesthetic beauty and historical breadth. Whether you are already interested in the history of Southeast Asia or not, this exhibit is a must.

Diaspora: Exit, Exodus, and Exile will be open until October 2018.