To Seem and to Be

IN 2015, Alasdair Foster was invited by the organisers of GuatePhoto festival to create an exhibition introducing some examples of Asian art photography to the country. The resulting exhibition, ‘To Seem and to Be’ was an exploration of the challenges of how photography, as an art of surfaces, might lead viewers to seek deeper insights into the underlying nature of events.


To Seem and To Be

WE ARE SENSUAL CREATURES. Our experience of the world is wholly mediated by our perceptions of the way things seem to be. We must interrogate the world in terms of surface – the way it looks, feels, sounds, smells, tastes… but we aspire to understand not simply the surface but the essence. We seek to understand the nature of being.

Photography is a classic example of the way in which we integrate ‘what seems to be’ in order to explore ‘what might fundamentally be’. Photography is an art of surfaces, but as viewers of photography we are creatures seeking deeper insights.

Such questions are the subject of philosophy in both Western cultures and in those of the East, but there is a particular emphasis and a different approach to this question in many Asian cultures, which draw a distinction between the world of appearances and the true nature of existence.

Taking this dichotomy as its starting point, this exhibition explores the work of eight photographic artists, each from a different country and culture within the vast and diverse continent of Asia.

Atta Kim (Republic of Korea)

In The Museum Project, Atta Kim depicts people curated and exhibited within display cases; specimens presented in a diversity of settings. Influenced by the Zen Buddhist concepts of interconnectedness and transience, he questions whether what we see can be the sum of who these figures are.

Vandy Rattana (Cambodia)

In his series ‘Bomb Ponds’, Vandy Rattana reveals the physical and psychological scars left by the now largely unremembered US carpet bombing of Cambodia between 1965 and 1973. The bomb craters have since become overgrown and have filled with water, evoking serenity at odds with their violent past.

Manit Sriwanichpoom (Thailand)

Enslaved by shopping and reduced to uniformity the Pink Man is a symbol of the alienated consumer in modern Thai life. Here he visits the Indonesian holiday island of Bali, where, in 2002, a terrorist bomb exploded in a nightclub killing 202 people, shattering, for a moment at least, the consumer fantasy of paradise.

Jannatul Mawa (Bangladesh)

Middle-class housewives sitting with their ‘domestic help’ or maid: even though these two women spend their days in the same domestic space, class and role divide them. They effectively exist in different universes. In asking them to sit together, the photographer is highlighting the invisible divide that is daily maintained.

Wilfred Lim (Malaysia)

In 2011, work on an oil refinery began, requiring demolition of the small fishing village where Wilfred Lim grew up and the relocation of villagers to new residential estates. This fundamental change made clear to him how much the complex nature of our ‘being’ is rooted in our sense of place and our relation to the natural environment.

Maika Elan (Vietnam)

Although homosexuality is legal in Vietnam, there remains a stigma and a set of cliché characterisations associated with gay men and women. Maika Elan’s photographic series captures the naturalness of everyday life for a wide variety of gay Vietnamese couples: the reality behind the cliché.

Maleonn Ma (China)

Maleonn Ma took a travelling studio full of crazy props around China and invited people he met to choose how they would like to be photographed. The result is a kaleidoscope of fantasy, desire and the realisation that who we are inside is not always how we appear to an observer.

Sohrab Hura (India)

Sohrab Hura believes he must eschew authorship because, if he were to become a self-conscious creator, his image-maker’s ego would inevitably seek to appropriate his subject. Consequently, he rarely agrees to exhibit and his images were, at his request, shown here as the interaction of light and shade in this historic space – a conversation between shadows.


Images (from the top):
© Wilfred Lim ‘New House #01’ 2014
© Atta Kim ‘The Museum Project No. 01’ 1995
© Vandy Rattana ‘Bomb Pond’ 2009
© Manit Sriwanichpoom ‘Pink Man in Paradise No.7 (Taman Tirta Gangga)’ 2003
© Jannatul Mawa ‘35-year-old Santa Isla (right) is a middle-class housewife, living in the Mohammadpur district of Dhaka. Asma Khatun (left) is a 50-year-old housemaid who has been working in the city for last 2 years to sustain her family. Employing a housemaid is a common practice for the both the middle and upper classes in Dhaka.’ 2011
© Wilfred Lim ‘New House #03’ 2014
© Maika Elan and the VII Agency ‘Ho Chi Minh city: Van Hung (1987) selects music to listen to with his boyfriend Quoc Ngan (1989) while they relax at the end of the day. They are both office workers and have been together for seven years.’ 28 May 2012
© Maleonn Ma ‘A female model and her painter friend. In Shanghai.’ 2012
© Sohrab Hura from the series ‘Sweet Life’

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  • The majority of the texts on this site are by Alasdair Foster and represent his opinions. However, in order to facilitate a useful diversity of views, some texts have been invited from artists and colleagues around the world, while others appear as independent comments. These opinions and comments are not necessarily those of Alasdair Foster or Cultural Development Consulting (CDC). All data and information on this site is provided on an as-is basis. While every effort is made to be as thorough as possible, neither Alasdair Foster nor CDC make representations as to accuracy, completeness, currency, suitability or validity of any information on this site and will not be liable for any errors, omissions or delays in this information or any losses, injuries or damages arising from its display or use.
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