A partnership to bring contemporary Asian art to Perth has opened with an “uncomfortable” exploration 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 dotted with rods on the ground floor of the Art Gallery of WA (AGWA), Bangkok-based artist Kawita Vatanajyankur wrapped herself in red yarn and use her body to “knit” the yarn around the rods in a live performance titled Mental Machine: Labor in the Self Economy.
“The work focuses on labor in the fast fashion industry [and] how garment workers are being treated as machines,” Vatanajyankur said.
“[In a previous work] I used myself as this machine to knit a fabric, a tube, and then what I realised was that when I do the production of knitting it’s like a form of creation and production.
During the performance Vatanajyankur faces a choice — if she unravels herself she is free, but also left with nothing, her work undone.
‘Creepy’ layer of artificial intelligence
Vatanajyankur says her performance at AGWA has an added layer that is “very creepy”.
She is guided by two on-screen AI-created versions of herself that will hold a conversation to direct her on stage.
Created in partnership with Pat Patarnutaporn from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab, both the AIs have been programmed to have her face and voice, and have been trained using her personal data.
Each AI has been 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 about the themes of tyranny and freedom, the importance of rules and orders,” Vatanajyankur said.
As well as commenting on the conditions experienced by low-paid workers in the fast fashion industry the piece also invites viewers to consider the extent to which they are also manipulated by algorithms and machine learning.
“Our decisions are pretty much based on the decisions that are given to us because they’re studying us, our activities, what we search for, our personal data.
“Our thoughts are being given to these algorithms.”
New direction for state gallery
Vatanajyankur’s dramatic performance on July 22 signaled the start of 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 the institute’s creative lead Rachel Ciesla.
It is part of AGWA’s vision to relaunch and update the state gallery to attract new audiences with fresh offerings since its renovation last year.
“We wanted to show art and artists and ideas that maybe people wouldn’t have access to usually, or maybe they would never have come across, saying, ‘Hi, this is for you,'” Ciesla said.
“[AGWA is] really looking to embrace all different art forms and perhaps areas which hasn’t necessarily been its strength before, but really pushing out to see, ‘Okay, what can we offer for all of our audiences?’
From solitary student to international star
In addition to Vatanajyankur’s work, the gallery foyer is displaying Puberty, 2022, a bold, highly colorful installation by Hong Kong-based multimedia artist Wong Ping.
Referencing the look of early computer games and commercial graphics, Wong’s work “talks about issues that we all experience and can really relate to,” Ciesla said.
While he is now known internationally and exhibits around the world, Wong got his start in Perth attending high school and then going on to do a then brand-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 got back to Hong Kong “he was just making small animations for his friends, local indie bands in Hong Kong, and other things just to upload online” Ciesla said.
“[He] gathered a little following there, and then caught the eyes of the contemporary art world.
“He’s now this jetsetting international artist who’s just shown in Berlin and New York. So this is a nice little homecoming for him.”
Over the course of the five-year partnership with the Simon Lee Foundation, the aim is to give AGWA solid connections to new contemporary artists as well as add works to the permanent collection, underpinning an ongoing connection to artists in the region.
“I’m really excited for people in Western Australia and for Perth,” Ciesla said at the project’s public launch.