At the National Museum last Friday, Vietnamese artist Phan Thao Nguyen was announced as the winner of the Grand Prize for the the fourth edition of the triennial Asia Pacific Breweries (APB) Foundation Signature Art Prize.
Started in 2008 by the APB Foundation and Singapore Art Museum, the APB Foundation Signature Art Prize seeks to champion regional contemporary art and recognise the most outstanding work produced over the previous three years across Asia Pacific. This is the first year that artists from Central Asia have been included in the lineup, comprising of 15 artworks, each one pushing the boundaries of artistry as they explored the multiplicity and intertwining of political, social and economic histories and realities in the region.
Phan won for her work Tropical Siesta, a 2-channel video work with six oil paintings on x-ray film backing. Set in an imaginary agricultural community in rural Vietnam populated only by children, the work then seeks to reenact the observations recorded by French Jesuit missionary Alexandre de Rhodes (considered the father of the romanised Vietnamese script) as he travelled through Vietnam in the 17th century. Tropical Siesta forms a part of her larger project, ‘Poetic Amnesia’, which is based on the artist’s research into de Rhodes’ life and work.
To determine the winner, the works were assessed by a jury panel comprising well-known international art experts and practitioners in the field of contemporary art. The final selections were made based on the strength of the idea and concept, creative use of medium, material and technique, artistic insight and interpretation, and originality of artwork. Says Signature Art Prize juror and Singapore Art Museum Head of Content and Senior Curator Joyce Toh (Singapore): “Tropical Siesta is a quiet, deeply poetic work. Sensuously visual, the film pulls the viewer into its enigmatic world – a world governed entirely by children. Even as it explores a number of complex issues in Vietnamese history, the work feels fresh and very much alive. The artist, Phan Thao Nguyen, is a powerful, poignant storyteller.”
For her win, Phan was awarded a cash prize of S$60,000. Says Phan, who spent a year in Singapore completing an artist residency: “Winning the Grand Prize is extremely significant to me. The artwork is not just about historical events, but also how an artist feels and sees a particular narrative, and develops it into the language of painting and video.”
Other winners at the awards ceremony were Jurors’ Choice Award winners Shubigi Rao (Singapore) and Thasnai Sethaseree (Thailand). Shubigi Rao produced Pulp: A Short Biography of the Banished Book. Vol I: Written in the Margins (2014–2016), a mixed-media installation that is a part of her 10-year project on the history of destruction of books and libraries, comprising audio, video, paintings and collected books.
In Thasnai Sethaseree’s Untitled (Hua Lamphong), the Thai artist created a massive collage on a canvas of Thai Buddhist monks’ robes, using prints of the new Thai constitution and a 17th Century poem amidst a colourful, festival-like background, making commentary on the media, modern architecture and political violence in Thailand. Both winners walked away with a cash prize of S$15,000 each.
Finally, Indonesian artist Gede Mahendra Yasa’s acrylic painting After Paradise Lost #1 was awarded the People’s Choice Award for receiving the most on-site votes by members of the public at the exhibition, and the artist received a S$10,000 cash prize. The work is done in the popular Batuan style of painting, and depicts an dizzying array of figures and incidents on the canvas, depicting political figures and everymen, while paying homage to Western and Indonesian artists such as Raden Saleh and Nicolaas Pineman, making for a work that one is forced to observe for lengthy periods of time to fully appreciate and take in all the details. (We personally voted for Japanese artist Yuichiro Tamura’s immersive, mixed media installation Milky Bay, which takes inspiration from the life of Japanese author Yukio Mishima and his obsession with bodybuilding, alongside images of dismembered bodies washed ashore from a 2009 murder case and male beauty as a representation of national prowess.)
Says juror, artist and independent curator Wong Hoy Cheong (Malaysia): “It is uncanny how the winning artworks, as well as the majority of the other finalists, have engaged with history and marginal narratives in nuanced and visceral ways – from Phan Thao Nguyen’s work, which poetically reimagines the convergence of myth and history in Vietnam, to Shubigi Rao’s work, which problematises meaning-making and knowledge and challenges you to think, and Thasnai Sethaseree’s work, which layers historical and current political and religious undercurrents in Thai society in a visually stunning manner.”
The APB Foundation Signature Art Prize exhibition runs at the National Museum till 2nd September 2018. For more details, visit their website here