A cluster of kites float lazily in the evening sky: a classic red diamond, a black dragonfly with a long tail, a painted orange fish with no eyes. Hand-made and taped together by children’s hands with a mix of plastic bags, tissue paper, and wooden sticks. It is my first evening in Padang Bai, a small fishing village on the East coast of Bali. I am standing on the third floor terrace of the Dharma Guesthouse looking out at a lush green mountainside and tracing the line connecting each kite back to its rooftop owner. I ask the guesthouse’s manager where I might obtain a kite, eager to float my own paper creation upwards so that it can anonymously join the others. The response is a confused “Why would you want to do that? Kite flying is what village boys do.” He then asks if I would like to hire a private boat for snorkeling tomorrow.
A white curtain hangs from the ceiling, directly in front of the text. A hazy read, even the artist’s name is covered. The information is there, just slightly obscured. Intentional, the gallery assistant points out.
While consulting a map with a taxi driver in Siem Reap, I point to a large lake just to the west of the main temples and ask to be taken there. “Why would you want to go there? That is where Cambodians go to picnic and play chess.” Instead, he suggests another temple, after having taken me to four already. “But this one is designed by a woman,” he says.
Swirls of black and white paint float across a floor-to-ceiling canvas, like the traces of a boisterous fire, distinguished moments prior. Light and dark clash, yin and yang liquefied into a misty gray. It beckons for an intimate examination, a feverish yet eloquent call to come near, to see every detail. But attempts at a closer gaze are denied, the canvas is imprisoned behind a set of steel bars. The best that can be done is to peer between each column of metal, to experience each expressive gesture from a deliberate distance.
In Bali, women walk with large baskets of food on their head, men in straw hats and wellies wade into the ocean at low tide to fish, children make puppets out of cardboard and sticks perform on the street.
As a tourist, you are expected to only see these real signs of life from a detached distance, because why would you want to get closer? The locals buy their food on the street from these women with baskets, but you are expected to eat at a fancy restaurant. The men wading in the ocean are fishing for the fancy restaurants, but you are expected to ignore them as you sit sunbathing on the sand. The kids playing in an alleyway put on a lively puppet show, but you are expected to buy tickets to see a traditional performance instead.
With each attempt to experience a facet of this real, everyday life, my gaze is turned away and shifted towards a cursory structure of tourism. It is pointed at a constructed façade of what one has come to expect when arriving in a tropically foreign land: a flower wreath at the airport, a sarong at the temple, a coconut at the beach. These same repeating patterns become a constant reminder of the neo-colonial lens through which these countries are seen.
This is what they think we want to see and it is the only thing we are given.
The pulses of actual life become shrouded. These fragments of authenticity can be visible if you choose to look for them, but they are more readily dismissed and rendered nearly invisible—replaced by a superficial performance staged for the Western gaze. It is a confusing scuffle between the genuine and the artificial, between the visible and the invisible.
In the space between real daily life and tourism in Southeast Asia, I found Tang Da Wu.
The work of conceptual Singapore artist Tang Da Wu opened an understanding of the paradoxical tension that permeated my travels through Southeast Asia. Art schooled in the UK, Tang is widely seen as the godfather of contemporary art in Singapore, though a reluctant spokesperson at best in this wealthy and conservative city-state. (A performance artist amongst other things in a place where performance art was unofficially outlawed for a decade after a 1993 action where one of his colleagues, Josef Ng, clipped his pubic hair in public as part of a protest against entrapment of gay men by Singapore police.) As both an activist and artist, Tang consistently criticizes the state of things in his homeland while referencing the Westernized gaze that is placed upon Asia, with all the self-consciousness that comes with it.
I saw Southeast Asia: Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Cambodia, through Tang Da Wu’s translucent curtain, through the space between his Caged Painting’s metal pillars. I realized that the dueling tension between real and unreal was merely masked by these see-through emblems. I was trying to gaze beneath and beyond them, but they were never fully there in the first place. It was a hazy read, available but obscured, and wholly intentional.
Contemporary culture comprises both the local daily life and tourism. Both sides rely on each other and together they form an idiosyncratic balance. All that can be done then is to direct one’s gaze with a heightened awareness in all directions, towards both baskets and temples, kites and curtains.
(Image on top: Ding Ren, Kites in Padang Bai, Bali; courtesy the artist.)