By Tan Ying-Yan
A pile of pinkish pistol-shaped rice crackers, a notebook waiting to be filled, and a pointed question in Bahasa Indonesia asking: What would you do if these crackers were real pistols?
These elements make up a piece of installation art, and it is easy to see it sitting in a gallery somewhere in the United States today, with an exhibit label citing the recent gun control debate as inspiration. But it was on the other side of the world that this work was made, and almost half a century earlier. Titled Apa yang anda lakukan jika krupuk ini adalah pistol beneran?, which is the question it poses, it was also one of the first works of participatory art in Southeast Asia. Members of the audience are invited to pen their responses to the question in the notebook.
The work, by Indonesian artist FX Harsono, was recommissioned in 2013, 26 years after it was first made, for a show at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre. There was just one problem: the original rice cracker pistols had long disintegrated. As the story goes, Harsono went to the market, bought a toy gun, had a mould cast in its likeness, and out popped several hundred new rice cracker pistols.
Now, a handful of these fragile rice cracker pistols, along with the cast-iron moulds used to make them, will be on show at Moving Pledges: Art And Action In Southeast Asia. The exhibition, which opens at LASALLE College of the Arts’ Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore this week, features works by Southeast Asian artists which probe social and political power structures, among other systems of authority.
Although no longer presented as a mound of pistols, the experience of Harsono’s work and the incisive question it poses endure: What would you do if these crackers were real pistols?
That the work can evolve over time and space, and still be resonant and relevant to new audiences, is what defines it for the curator of Moving Pledges, Southeast Asian contemporary art specialist Iola Lenzi. “The work is the question; it’s the concept, not the thing itself,” she says.
This is a thread that runs through the works in Moving Pledges. It is art born of and made for the collective, and it poses questions anchored in timeless social constructs such as violence, ethnic conflict and pieces of history occluded from history books.
Also in the exhibition is an installation by Thai artist Sutee Kunavichayanont, similarly modified from an everyday object – the school desk. This time, the question asked of the audience is implicit: which parts of history do you acknowledge, and which do you disavow?
Titled History Class, an iteration of the work from 2016 features rows of wooden desks, which on closer look are engraved with contentious scenes of Indonesian history from 1965 to 1966. As with Harsono’s installation, viewers are encouraged to participate with the work by making their own history textbooks with crayon rubbings of the engraved scenes. In doing so, they question, acknowledge and own these bits of history.
Indeed, much of the art in the show is meant to be chewed over and experienced physically. Other examples include Jakkai Siributr’s military jackets in the 2017 work, Changing room, which viewers are encouraged to change into, and Josephine Turalba’s slippers in Scandals (2013), hand-stitched from spent bullet cartridges, which viewers can slip on.
Regardless of how one chooses to respond to the questions posed by the art, there is no right or wrong answer.
Moving Pledges opens 20 October 2018 at LASALLE College of the Arts’ Institute of Contemporary Arts. Details on the show here.