A partnership to bring contemporary Asian art to Perth has begun with an “awkward” investigation into the treatment of textile workers.
It also explores the extent to which artificial intelligence (AI) is shaping our lives.
On July 22, Bangkok-based artist Kawita Vatanajyankur wrapped herself in red yarn on a large wand-strewn stage on the first floor of the Art Gallery of WA (AGWA) and used her body to “knit” the yarn around the wands. a live performance entitled Mental Machine: Labor in the Self Economy.
“The work focuses on working in the fast fashion industry [and] how textile workers are treated like machines,” Vatanajyankur said.
“[In a previous work] I used myself as this machine to knit a fabric, a tube, and then I realized that making knits is like a form of creation and production.
During the performance, Vatanajyankur is faced with a choice – if she unravels herself, she is free, but there is nothing either, her work is nullified.
“Scary” level of artificial intelligence
Vatanajyankur says her appearance on AGWA has an extra layer that is “very scary”.
She is guided by two AI-created versions of herself on screen engaging in conversation to lead her onto the stage.
Both AIs, developed in collaboration with Pat Pataranutaporn of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab, were programmed to have their face and voice and were trained with their personal data.
Each AI has been programmed to believe in a different philosophy – one in the value of total freedom, another in that oppression can be a source of creativity.
“[They have] Conversations on the issues of oppression and freedom, the importance of rules and orders,” Vatanajyankur said.
The piece not only comments on the conditions of low-wage workers in the fast fashion industry, but also invites viewers to reflect on the extent to which they are also being manipulated by algorithms and machine learning.
“Our decisions are pretty much based on the decisions we are given because they study us, our activities, what we search for, our personal data.
“Our thoughts are dedicated to these algorithms.”
New orientation of the State Gallery
Vatanajyankur’s dramatic performance on July 22 signaled the start of a new initiative at AGWA, a private partnership that established an institute for contemporary Asian art.
The institute is a five-year initiative supported by the charitable foundation of Perth businessman Simon Lee. The aim of the institute is to support the careers of currently practicing artists and to introduce the work to WA audiences.
“We are truly here to showcase contemporary Asian art and ideas and to enhance AGWA’s ability to collaborate with Asian artists to have a collection that is representative of the region,” said the institute’s creative director, Rachel Ciesla .
It is part of AGWA’s vision to relaunch and update the Staatsgalerie to appeal to new audiences with fresh offerings since its renovation last year.
“We wanted to show art and artists and ideas that people wouldn’t normally have access to, or maybe never would have come across and said, ‘Hi, this is for you,'” Ciesla said.
“[AGWA is] really trying to encompass all the different art forms and maybe areas, which wasn’t necessarily his forte before, but really challenging to see, ‘okay, what can we offer to all of our audiences?'”
From single student to international star
In addition to Vatanajyankur’s work, the gallery’s foyer features Puberty, 2022, a bold, colorful installation by Hong Kong-based multimedia artist Wong Ping.
Wong’s work references the looks of early computer games and commercial graphics, and “talks about issues that we all experience and can really relate to,” Ciesla said.
Now internationally known and exhibiting all over the world, Wong began attending high school in Perth and then attended a then brand new course in multimedia design at Curtin University.
“He said he had no idea what the course was, he only 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 Hong Kong indie bands and other things just to upload online,” Ciesla said.
“[He] garnered a small following there and then attracted the attention of the contemporary art world.
“He’s now this international jet set artist who just exhibited in Berlin and New York. So this is a nice little homecoming for him.”
The five-year partnership with the Simon Lee Foundation aims to provide AGWA with strong connections to emerging contemporary artists and to add works to the permanent collection to underpin an ongoing connection with artists in the region.
“I’m really looking forward to the people of Western Australia and Perth,” said Ciesla at the public launch of the project.