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Arin Rungjang: They Beat Your Father

Source: ArtAsiaPacific Author: Marcus Yee Nov,2019

Arin Rungjang's solo exhibition "They Beat Your Father" featured three of the artist's audio-visual installations that shed light on Asia's sans-papiers, or undocumented migrants, in sentimental yet unassuming ways. The show's curatorial structure was haunted by doubles. Within the gallery, a line of connection was threaded between the testimony of the artist's mother on her husband's passing, and the lives of migrant workers in Singapore in Prayong (Aglaia odorata): Dedicated to my Father (Southeast Asia Edition) (2019). This work comprises cinematic portraits of 12 migrant workers, whose penetrating gazes exude a quiet dignity. These portraits render them as breathing, unique subjects, refusing generalization into social types. Yet information about these workers is sparse. On the one hand, the work's reticence potentially invited critique of a lack of sociological depth, but on the other hand, this vagueness protected the artist's collaborators, considering the quandaries surrounding representation of marginalized communities.

The autobiographical strand picked up where factual information about the migrants ended. In the adjacent space, the sound installation They Beat Your Father (2019) followed Rungjang's aesthetic of evasion. The setup was minimal: bound transcripts of his mother recounting her husband's death at the hands of neo-Nazis were placed on benches for visitors to peruse. The soundtrack of domestic noises, such as the ambient whirr of an electric fan, was muted. While the racist assault acted as the show's fulcrum, the full extent of the violence is never portrayed in the work. Instead, the trauma of They Beat Your Father is covert, mediated through the mother's testimony and affinities with other narratives in the show.It is not coincidental that the artist's interviews with the migrant workers render them as uprooted kin: brothers, sons, husbands, and fathers. This doubling has less to do with the commensurability of their suffering than the sense of empathy sparked by the friction of stories coming into contact.

Doubling occurred again in the ten-channel installation Shooting an Elephant and The Leader (2018), displayed in a pop-up space in Gillman Barracks. The work juxtaposes the narratives of a pitiful elephant—alluding to George Orwell's 1936 essay "Shooting an Elephant"—and of Wanduze Ali, a Bengali Muslim born in Myanmar and trafficked into Thailand. The work's soundscape unravels the intertwinement of their struggles as the elephant's cries are interspersed with Ali's devotional singing of the Quranic Surah Ya-Sin.

Close-ups of the elephant depict an exhausted beast, staring blankly into the camera. Likewise, Orwell's elephant, having rampaged through a village, is reduced to tortured gasps after it is shot by the writer, then a police officer in Mawlamyine, Burma. In the essay, Orwell kills the pacified animal for no reason other than to save face before a crowd of Burmese, displacing colonial responsibility onto the "natives" who invest expectations onto "the white man." Working against the essay's colonial gaze, where the creature becomes a function of colonial legitimacy and a form of property, Rungjang's intimate camerawork diverts our attention back to the misunderstood elephant, whose running amok could be perceived anew as a brief struggle for freedom.

The animal could also be seen as a parallel for Wanduze Ali, who tells of a life freighted with cruelties via text on a screen in the middle of the exhibition space. Yet it is Ali's refusal to surrender, as illustrated by his multiple escapes from domestic abusers and sex traffickers, that reveals his extraordinary fortitude. Both Ali and the elephant are figures of fungibility and fugitivity, where escape becomes their only means to reclaim agency in a world that reduces them to deviants and commodities.

Rungjang's laconic testimonies are pockmarked by gaps that are, at the same time. invitations to seek connections. In these works, autobiography is not limited to the first-person singular, but draws upon an affinitive community of shared experiences surrounding xenophobic violence, dispossession, and border-crossing. Indeed, the exhibition's title, "They Beat Your Father," held onto the promise of community by interpellating its audience—these stories also belong to you.


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