A partnership to bring contemporary Asian art to Perth began with an “uncomfortable” study of the treatment of textile workers.
It also explores the extent to which artificial intelligence (AI) rules our lives.
On July 22, on a large stage strewn with sticks on the ground floor of the Art Gallery of WA (AGWA), Bangkok-based artist Kavita Watanajyankur wrapped herself in red yarn and used her body to “weave” the yarn around the sticks in a performance of live, entitled Mental Machine: Labor in the Self Economy.
“The work focuses on labor in the fast fashion industry [and] how garment workers are treated like machines,” Vatanadjiankur said.
“[In a previous work] I used myself as this machine to knit a cloth, a tube, and then what I realized is that when I do the production of knitting, it is like a form of creation and production.
During the performance, Vatanayankur is faced with a choice – if she unravels, she is free, but also left with nothing, her work undone.
A “creepy” layer of artificial intelligence
Vatanajyankur says her performance at AGWA has an added layer that is “very creepy.”
She is guided by two AI-created on-screen versions of herself that will hold a conversation to guide her on stage.
Created in partnership with Pat Pattaranutaporn of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab, both AIs are programmed to have her face and voice and are trained using her personal data.
Each AI is programmed to believe in a different philosophy – one in the value of total freedom, the other that oppression can be a source of creativity.
“[They have] conversations on the topics of oppression and freedom, the meaning of rules and orders,” Vatanadjiankur said.
As well as commenting on the conditions faced by low-paid workers in the fast fashion industry, the material also invites viewers to consider the extent to which they too are manipulated by algorithms and machine learning.
“Our decisions are largely based on the decisions that are given to us because they study us, our activities, what we look for, our personal data.
“Our thoughts are devoted to these algorithms.”
A new direction for a state gallery
Vatanajyankur’s dramatic performance on July 22 launched a new initiative at AGWA, a private partnership creating an Institute of Contemporary Asian Art.
A five-year initiative supported by Perth businessman Simon Lee’s charitable foundation, the institute aims to support the careers of and expose WA audiences to the work of currently practicing artists.
“We’re really here to present contemporary Asian art and ideas and to strengthen AGWA’s ability to work with Asian artists to have a collection that’s representative of the region,” said Institute Creative Director Rachel Ciesla.
This is part of AGWA’s vision to renew and update the State Gallery to attract new audiences with new offerings following its renovation last year.
“We wanted to showcase art and artists and ideas that maybe people wouldn’t normally have access to or maybe would never come across, saying, ‘Hi, this is for you,'” Ciesla said.
“[AGWA is] he really wants to embrace all the different art forms and maybe areas that weren’t necessarily his forte before, but he’s really looking to see, “Okay, what can we offer to all of our audiences?”
From lonely student to international star
In addition to Vatanajyankur’s work, the gallery lobby displays Puberty, 2022, a bold, highly colorful installation by Hong Kong-based multimedia artist Wong Ping.
Referring to the look of early computer games and commercial graphics, Wong’s work “speaks to issues that we all experience and can really relate to,” Sisla said.
Although already internationally known and exhibiting worldwide, Wong started out in Perth by attending high school and then going on to study a then new course at Curtin University in Multimedia Design.
“He said he had no idea what the course was, he just took it because there was no exam,” Ciesla said.
When Wong returned to Hong Kong, “he was just making little animations for his friends, local indie bands in Hong Kong and stuff, just to upload them online,” Sisla said.
“[He] gathered a small following there and then attracted the attention of the contemporary art world.
“Now he is this attractive international artist who has just been shown in Berlin and New York. So it’s a nice homecoming for him.”
Over the course of the five-year partnership with the Simon Lee Foundation, the aim is to provide AGWA with solid connections with new contemporary artists, as well as adding works to the permanent collection, supporting the ongoing relationship with artists in the region.
“I’m really excited for the people of Western Australia and for Perth,” Sisla said at the public launch of the project.