Now comes the difficult part. Although we’re halfway through the samurai exhibition, still discussing whether to prefer the films of Gosha to Shinoda, autumn approaches with the treasures of Southeast Asia. We’re trying desperately to finish bibliographies for Burma and Thailand, re-reading Orwell’s Burmese Days and getting disgusted with imperialism. It’s enough to make me miss the over-long samurai epics I was reading earlier this year.
Even with the knowledge of the dazzling object list that is Emerald Cities (gold sculpture! gold furniture! gold gold!), putting together a collection of books for an exhibition is about more than sourcing pretty picture books. And sometimes, while getting distracted, tangents offer the unexpected.
Created for the Singapore Biennale, their imposing September Sweetness (2008) trumps the sugarcube edifices that I attempted as a wee architect. With the aid of architects and structural engineers, the artists and their assistants boiled nearly six tons of sugar into stable building material and molded the compound into a Burmese-style structure. Erected in the open air, the pagoda-like sculpture was unprotected from insects and elements, and as it inevitably crumbled, it called attention to the deterioration of the hopes of the Burmese who had just endured the ruling junta’s most recent retaliation.
All very dramatic and sticky, and quite ambitious; what I admire is that the artists were willing to keep working toward the culmination of the project even though they didn’t know if the structure could withstand its own weight. In some way the possibility that it might not work charmed me–hadn’t I heard stories of how the Burmese were, despite their government, among the friendliest of people? And what does empire do to change a people? How different might Thailand be if it had been colonized?
Although we’re a museum of art, and although Emerald Cities largely focuses on Doris Duke’s enormous gift to the museum, it’s important to consider what Southeast Asia looks like now, and where it’s headed.
Next on my list of readings, some of the many re-issued and updated works by Aung San Suu Kyi. Any recommendations on where to start?
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