S.E.A. Focus 2024: Tradition and Technology in the Tapestry of Southeast Asian Art

As Singapore Art Week commences, immerse yourself in a multi-dimensional exploration of contemporary art at S.E.A. Focus 2024, set to captivate audiences from 20 to 28 January 2024. Now in its sixth edition, this leading showcase of Southeast Asian art promises an extraordinary display of large-scale artworks and installations, transforming the Tanjong Pagar Distripark into a vibrant hub for artistic appreciation and cultural exchange.

Under the curation of John Tung, S.E.A. Focus 2024 takes a bold step with the theme “Serial and Massively Parallel“, delving into the intricate interplay between humanity and technology in the digital age. The exhibition features works from 22 galleries and over 40 artists, presenting a thought-provoking exploration of human distinctiveness in creativity and artistic expression.

I was lucky enough to be invited down to preview the exhibitions and got to see a wonderful showcase of art, so let’s delve into the highlights that you can experience!

Highlights of S.E.A. Focus 2024

A Conversation with the Sun by Apichatpong Weerasethakul 

S.E.A. Focus 2024 - Api

In the era of smartphones and digital oversharing, where our lives are documented through a lens, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the acclaimed Thai artist and filmmaker, offers a profound and introspective look into the act of filming. While many of us capture moments to preserve memories or share on social media, Weerasethakul sees it as a means to engage in a dialogue with the present rather than a method of retention.

At the heart of Weerasethakul’s exploration is his mesmerising video installation, “A Conversation with the Sun“. Originally unveiled at BANGKOK CITYCITY GALLERY in 2022, this piece is an intimate journey inspired by the artist’s contemplative walks and interactions with the sun. Unlike conventional documentation, Weerasethakul’s work transcends the ordinary, delving into the realms of memory and perception.

The installation is a collection of self-documented video footage, a visual medley capturing landscapes, people, and objects observed by Weerasethakul over the span of several years. It serves as a personal memory archive, providing viewers with a unique glimpse into the artist’s mind and his nuanced reflections on the world around him.

My plus one, Zachary Yap, describes it more succinctly, elaborating that what sets “A Conversation with the Sun” apart is its innovative presentation. Thai visual design studio DuckUnit, renowned for its ingenuity, brings a dynamic element to the installation. The video footage is ingeniously displayed against a large, mobile curtain backdrop, mechanised with precision. This use of a fabric curtain as a backdrop is a recurring motif in Weerasethakul’s oeuvre, having been implemented in previous projects such as “Fever Room” (2015) and “Constellations” (2018). 

However, in this latest installation, the curtains transcend their static role, transforming into mobile elements that interact with the video, introducing a layer of theatricality and mystery to the viewing experience.

The marriage of Weerasethakul’s contemplative visuals and DuckUnit’s dynamic design creates a unique synergy, blurring the lines between the tangible and the ethereal. “A Conversation with the Sun” becomes more than just a visual spectacle; it evolves into an immersive exploration of time, memory, and the ever-shifting interplay between the artist, his art, and the enigmatic sun. 

Sea Anomaly by Goldie Poblador 

S.E.A. Focus 2024 - Goldie

Combining art and activism, Filipino artist Goldie Poblador uses delicate glasswork to amplify her voice on pressing environmental issues. Poblador’s “Sea Anomaly” series, a standout at S.E.A. Focus, serves as a poignant narrative that intertwines environmentalism, femininity, and postcolonial identity.

The exquisite blown-glass sculptures are a profound reflection on the fragile marine life affected by the catastrophic 2023 oil spills in the Verde Island Passage of the Philippines. Each sculpture captures the essence of the underwater ecosystem, embodying the vibrant and vulnerable marine life that faced the brunt of the oil spills.

Poblador’s meticulous craftsmanship serves as a call to action, urging us to confront the consequences of our actions on the planet. In the face of environmental peril, Poblador harnesses the resilience and power of the ocean. Her glass interpretations of marine life become vessels of both beauty and terror, symbolising the fragile equilibrium that humanity has disrupted. Poblador invokes Magwayen, the Bisayan goddess of death and the ocean, revealing sprawling anatomical forms and bioluminescence. The artist prompts us to ponder what lies beneath the surface of the ocean, a realm humanity has recklessly exploited and whose formidable and awe-inspiring beauty we will face once the tides inevitably turn. 

Bags of Stories by Tan Zi Hao

S.E.A. Focus 2024 - BoS

With his adept skill of macro photography, Malaysian artist Tan Zi Hao sheds light on the often-overlooked plaster bagworms, captivatingly revealing their hidden significance in his artwork, “Bags of Stories“. These tiny larvae, typically dismissed as household pests, take the spotlight in Tan’s exploration, showcasing a remarkable fusion of art, science, and ecological awareness.

Utilising UV printing on fabric and presented within a luminous lightbox, Tan’s photographs transform the seemingly mundane larval cases into a kaleidoscopic explosion of colour and pattern. What appears grey and monochromatic from a distance unveils a vibrant mosaic when examined up close. The artist’s lens captures the intricate details of these cases, each woven from everyday remnants such as hair or carpet fibres, unravelling a narrative that transcends their humble origin.

“Bags of Stories” goes beyond the visual allure of the macro world; it delves into a profound exploration of the interconnectedness between human life and nature. Tan draws a poetic parallel between humans and the moths, scientifically known as Phereoeca, a name that aptly translates to “bearer of house.” The artwork reveals how these larvae craft their cases from household detritus, symbolising the symbiotic relationship between humans and the natural world.

These household casebearers, a genus of moths, construct their spindle-shaped cases using a fascinating array of materials, from textile fibres to deceased insect parts. Thriving in domestic spaces in tropical climates, they are often perceived as pests, yet Tan challenges anthropocentric perspectives by highlighting our limited understanding of these creatures. While we may be well-versed in their potential for damage, Tan invites us to appreciate the intricate creations that arise from their material and ecological entanglements.

The macro photography artwork becomes an invitation to observe and appreciate the delicate intricacies of these tiny architects of nature. As Tan captures the transformation of household casebearers rebuilding their dwellings from the remnants of ours, “Bags of Stories” urges us to reevaluate our cohabitation with these seemingly insignificant creatures. The home, through Tan’s lens, becomes a wilderness where art and ecology intertwine, encouraging viewers to adopt a new perspective on the beauty within the overlooked corners of our shared spaces.

Beyond the Exhibitions of S.E.A. Focus 2024

S.E.A. Focus 2024 goes beyond the main exhibition, introducing SEAspotlight Talks — a series of engaging panel discussions led by art industry professionals and notable figures like Yee I-Lann and Heri Dono. These enlightening talks unfold over the weekend, on 27 to 28 January 2024, offering valuable insights into the region’s art scene. The curated sessions delve into the creation, critique, curation, and collection of art, providing a comprehensive understanding of Southeast Asia’s vibrant art ecosystem.

S.E.A. Focus 2024 - Screening Room
Enjoy short films curated by various Southeast Asian artists in an intimate and meditative setting.

In collaboration with Artsy, S.E.A. Focus leverages a strategic partnership to offer exhibiting galleries a global online platform. This allows collectors to seamlessly explore and purchase artworks, transforming S.E.A. Focus 2024 into not only a local spectacle but a worldwide celebration of Southeast Asian art.

As a focal point of Singapore Art Week, S.E.A. Focus, commissioned by the National Arts Council, stands as a testament to the rich cultural heritage and artistic diversity of Southeast Asia. If you are keen to explore the creative escapades of our S.E.A. artists, come check out S.E.A. Focus 2024!

S.E.A. Focus 2024

Date: 20 to 28 January 2024
Location: Tanjong Pagar Distripark, 39 Keppel Rd, Singapore 089065
Price: From S$10 (each ticket is valid for multiple entries)
Opening Hours: 1pm to 8pm

Learn more about the programmes, artists and ticketing at the S.E.A. Focus 2024 website.

Visuals courtesy of S.E.A. Focus.

Jeffrey Lee

A Singaporean raised abroad, you might want to see Jeffrey's different take on things — especially if you frequently find yourself swinging around a climbing gym or with a crossword in hand.

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