taring padi/teeth of the rice plant; no worries/mai pen rai

Monash University Museum of Art, Melboume
30 April - I5 June 2002

Two timely exhibitions at the Monash University Museum of Art uncover what lies beyond the fields of Australia's engagement with it nearest neighbours. The first, Taring Padi/Teeth of the Rice Plant, curated by Stuart Koop and Heidi Arbuckle, focuses on the diverse creative practices of the Indonesian grass-roots artists' collective Taring Padi. Since its inception in 1998, six months after the decline of Suharto's New Order regime, the group has actively pushed towards democracy and social justice via a unique form of cultural intervention. This vibrant collection of parodic street puppets, subversive collective paintings, protest banners, 'zines and posters, spotlights the scope of the group's creative output, its collaboration with particular communities, and its success in propelling minority views onto the agenda. The insightful presentation of a 'people's culture ' foregrounds those Indonesian voices obscured by sensational media coverage which, in recent years, has focused narrowly on the decline of Suharto's regime, East Timorese independence, and Aceh and Ambon.

The curators are mindful of the potential dangers associated with displaying ephemeral, activist art in the neutralising context of the 'white cube'. The inclusion of explanatory captions, video footage of street performances, and the understated installation together frame the works as remnants of specific, collective, cultural interventions rather than reified art objects. The exhibition thereby brings forth Taring Padi's energy and commitment to social and political change, and grapples with the broader implications of the role of art and artists in cultural activism.

Taring Padi's dynamic fusion of local traditions with the aesthetics of cultural activism resonates with the fluid concerns of MUMA's second exhibition, No Worries!/Mai Pen Rai curated by Tessa Dwyer and Sarah Tutton. The result of the creative exchange between Australian artists Kale Beynon, Jane Trengove and Daniel von Sturmer, and contemporary Thai artists Sakarin Krue-On, Sutee Kanavichayanont and Michael Showanasai, this exhibition is a testament to the complexities and ambiguities which pervade cultural exchange in a rapidly globalising climate. The show's critical engagement with new media and technologies exceeds cliched claims to an 'international' aesthetic, and acknowledges the ambivalent role of technology in facilitating both cross-cultural contact and the often dislocating incursion of cheap, trash culture.

Although all of the works can, in one way or another, be seen as products of hybridisation, the real value of this exhibition lies in that which resists translation and homogenisation. 'No Worries' and 'Mai Pen Rai' articulate comparable colloquialisms which nonetheless defy interchangeability. Both the installation and catalogue essays encourage particular pairings of works around the themes of identity and dislocation (Beynon's funky, pop animations and Showanasai's performance based works); the natural environment (Sutee's whimsical inflatable baby elephants and Trengove's Field of tiny, floral painted blocks); and systems of belief (Krue-On's fragile, reverent installation and von Sturmer's humorous and confounding video experiments). However, far from foreclosing the fields of engagement, No Worries!!Mai Pen Rai highlights that the excesses which exist between these interactive dual isms foster alternative sites for creative intervention.

Beynon's fusion of traditional Chinese calligraphy and pictograms with kitsch, popular culture, problematises issues of belonging and dislocation in hybrid cultures. Hybridisation, that fashionable catchphrase of globalisation, is interrogated in Beynon's animated video 'Li Ji: Warrior Girl', 2000, and subsequently refigured as a profoundly fractured yet productive site. As she traverses contemporary multi-cultural Melbourne and China's literary and historical past, Beynon's sassy heroine (re)presents personal identity as the product of a constant and often troubling negotiation of conflicting discursive fields. The works in No Worries!!Mai Pen Rai variously inject notions of identity, nation, tradition, sexuality and environment with a sense of fluidity, and thereby reconcile the facts of globalisation and fragmentation with the social and political imperatives of collective identification.

Together, MUMA's two exhibitions reveal how contemporary artists are diversely addressing a rapidly changing world through a simultaneous engagement with the local and the global. Taring Padi!Teeth of the Rice Plant and No Worries!/Mai Pen Rai consequently demonstrate that small exhibitions can successfully engage with the big issues that are increasingly becoming the domain of large scale trans-cultural arts events.