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Southeast Asian artists reflect on ecological and cultural changes in local riverscapes

(Left) Sound installation "˜Rise and Fall' by Vuth Lyno from Cambodia is a small wooden house modeled on traditional stilted homes in a small Cambodian floating village. It is accompanied by a soundtrack created largely from the sounds of the floating village community.
(Top right) Interactive installation "˜The Vestiges' by Vietnamese artist Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai includes 60 wooden boxes with objects footwear, sandals, and slippers found along the Huong (Perfume) River in Hue to remember the victims of the dramatic flood in the former feudal capital in 1999. (Bottom right) Aung Ko, the project's only artist from Myanmar, presents an installation entitled "˜The Sights Viewed from Boats.' It focuses on the artist's native village on the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River, its environment and socio-ecological changes.

Thao, a third-year journalism student at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities, was not too keen on public art projects, especially those that are focused on causes like protecting the ecosystem.

She felt attempts to reflect "topical, dry issues tend to ignore the high quality of art."

But she has changed her mind after attending after a talk by artists participating in a project called "Riverscapes in Flux," which presents the work of six curators and 17 artists from the Southeast Asian nations of Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.

The talk was held in the city on May 14, part of the International Eco-Cultural Art Project on River Landscapes in Southeast Asia, organized by the Goethe Institute in Vietnam.

"I found this project meaningful and interesting, though at first, without the explanation of the participating artists, it is difficult to comprehend the idea and get the messages presented in each artwork."

The art works are diverse in form and materials, including multimedia installations, videos and photography.

Vietnamese artist Tran Luong, one of the project's six curators, said the works were created from November to December last year by the short-listed artists from deltas in the area, such as Red River and the Mekong, the Irrawaddy and the Chaopraya.

The project seeks to draw attention to the changes, socioeconomic and cultural, that the riverscapes of Southeast Asia are experiencing, and to promote action that will protect their invaluable ecological and cultural heritage.

"Such public art projects, a kind of propaganda, to promote environment is not something new in the world," said 52-year-old Luong, whose works have been exhibited at the Goethe Institute in Hanoi, the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, Netherlands, the Liverpool Biennial 2002, Britain's largest international contemporary art festival, and the Asian Triennale 2002 in Fukuoka, Japan in 2002.

It is a major challenge for artists to reflect the subject and maintain high artistic quality at the same time, he said.

"However, because these environmental issues are long-term battles, such artworks with their message will surely last for a long time," he added.

The "Riverscapes in Flux" exhibition, which was shown in Hanoi last month, will remain open until May 26 in Ho Chi Minh City's Cactus Contemporary Art gallery at 17/12 Nguyen Huy Tuong Street, Ward 6, Binh Thanh District. It will later be displayed in Bangkok (June 22-July 22), Phnom Penh (September 6-27), Jakarta (November 9-23), and Manila (December 23, 2012 January 8, 2013).

More details about the artists and their works can be found at: http://blog.goethe.de/riverscapes/.

American curator Erin Gleeson, who chose the works of Cambodian artists, said the project brought in voices from recent natural disasters, including the floods in Thailand last year.

"On the one hand, the project is a way for the artists to work on social issues as responsible citizens, and on the other, art is a more approachable way to touch the feelings, the hearts of people on issues like environmental protection or sustainable development," said Luong.

Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai from Hue is one of the project's four Vietnamese participants. She remembers victims of the historic 1999 floods in her home city with an installation of 60 wooden boxes that display objects found along the Huong River in the flooding's aftermath, like footwear and sandals. It is an interactive installation. Visitors to the exhibition from other countries that have been struck by disasters can add objects in memory of their victims.

"I have been asked if I was sad or happy when my partners and I found so much footwear, indeed, I felt nothing for we were always in hurry to collect the objects, afraid that they would be taken away. It was a hard job," Mai said.

Mai said that the footwear, most of them light and made of foam and light, cheap materials, belonged to poor people before the flood. "They are part of my memory as a teen girl and others in Hue during the time about the disaster," said the 29-year-old artist, who is a lecturer at the Hue University of Arts and has exhibited several contemporary art shows in both Vietnam and abroad.

"Everyone has their own memory and river. And so do I. The project in general and my artworks in particular aim to present what is happening to the rivers while evoking memories of people about their rivers," Mai said.

Nguyen The Son of Hanoi, who has created a photo series about particularly sensitive areas of the Red River, says the river is endangered.

He hopes that the disturbing images he has captured, "which stand in stark contrast to the way people usually imagine and remember the river, will prove thought-provoking."

Luong Hue Trinh's sound and text installation deals with the ecological consequences of the intensive economic exploitation of the Mekong River. "Tai tu", originally from Hue Royal ritual music from the late 19th century, is used to witness the change.

In a blog entry on the project website, she writes: "I'm thinking about a river which flows through forests and cities. People seem to be growing increasingly greedy, and the prospect of profit is tempting enough for companies to risk the disruption of the river's ecosystem by disposing of their factories' waste waters in the rivers.

"Even those who in their daily life rely on the river are unaware of the fact that they are destroying their own lives this way.

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