Sunday, November 16, 2014

What would go into Deco Lao?

Over the weekend, I've been giving a bit of thought to what the characteristics of a Deco Lao movement might be. This comes in part from looking at the current trend of many Lao artists, including myself, to look at the ideas the artists and writers of the early 20th century were exploring, where it often feels like we had unfinished conversations. For example, many of our visual artists are looking intensely at the work of Picasso, while I've been regularly looking at what could have been done with pulp fiction.

If we took a cue from Art Deco, we might ask how Lao might address the ideas of the Futurists and the Cubists, or the Constructivists and Modernists, among others. At the heart of Art Deco was a sense that the Machine Age could engage with the motifs of traditional crafts. We could embrace geometry and the ornate in an elegant response to industrialism. Art Deco wasn't afraid of technology and inorganic motifs. In the Internet Age, this is an idea that is still timely.

With Art Deco, we saw humans trying to discuss ways to express and create a visual vocabulary that conveyed opulence and optimism, glamor and luxury, wrapped up with a sense of confidence that humanity would march forward and progress socially and technologically. The possibility of regression was absurd. When the style was criticized, the chief arguments were that it was gaudy, decadent and hedonistic in a time of contraction.

If we were to bring forward a sense of Deco Lao today, the same concerns would likely emerge. What would be an appropriate way for everyday Lao to explore the idea of technology, art, science and the spirit mingling without giving way to crass commercialism and commodification? It's easy to see where some ideologues would find an embrace of Art Deco in conflict with many Lao values regarding modesty and humility, but I don't know if this would be insurmountable.

The Asian Art Museum in Seattle recently had an exhibit looking at the sculpture, painting, prints, ceramics, lacquerware, jewelry, textiles, furniture, and graphic ephemera from the Japanese response to Art Deco. Kendall Brown, professor at CSU-Long Beach, curated the exhibition, which is drawn from the collection of Robert and Mary Levenson who carefully preserved the pieces. These are drawn from approximately 1920-1945, giving us a look at the movement over some 25 years, captured in approximately 200 objects.

I'm intrigued by one of the points Dr. Brown mentions in his interview with Salon: "For the Japanese, even as deco is a European, cosmopolitan, up-to-date, forward-looking style, it’s also a style that connects with, and in a sense utilizes, the Japanese past. It’s familiar and unfamiliar, forward-looking and backward-looking simultaneously for the Japanese."

This is interesting because we could look at the 20th anniversary of the SatJaDham Lao Literary project and see what has been made within a similar range of time. Many would say the SatJaDham Lao Literary project went into decline shortly after 2001 as far as direct overall artistic output went, so the SatJaDham influence is a little nebulous to define today. But I think it was a very important starting point that led to the work of many of the contemporary Lao artists in their early years.

One question I wish we'd explored more as artists over the last 20 years is what the "cultured" Lao household looks like. What objects would we see in such a space in the high society homes, the middle class homes, and even the lower class homes of the Lao community. What are common items, and what are the rare objects that would be highly sought after? Where are our conversations on what a good example of such a piece would include, and what would they exclude?

In planning a Lao arts retrospective, there's an element where we have to ask: What would not have been possible to exhibit back in 1990 for our culture and community? One might easily point to connections between the Lao community and Japan due to heavy anti-Japanese sentiment of the times, and interaction with some governments still remains a touchy subject in many enclaves.

It's important to look at what we fear. Perhaps such displays will reinforce those fears or make them seem quaint. We don't really know yet, because we haven't approached this honestly. How might we confront issues of propaganda, nationalism, colonialism and imperialism as it has cropped up in various form of Lao expression over the decades?

In the Deco Japan exhibit, one of the interesting concepts they explored was the concept of the MOGA, or "modern girl" who listened to jazz, adopted Western-style haircuts, smoked or went to dance halls while doing her makeup in a loud fashion. It doesn't take a big leap of the imagination to see what our modern day counterparts would be in the Lao community, although they've usually been depicted artlessly.
One of the other interesting parts of Dr. Brown's interview in Salon were his remarks that "In the late ’20s/early ’30s, there is a brief florescence — a little cultural moment in Japanese cities that Japanese at the time called “erotic grotesque nonsense.” It’s erotic; it’s a little edgy; it’s strange; and it’s kind of comical. Even with this cosmopolitan international jazz age, there’s growing political repression. Assassinations, laws, Communist Party outlaws, a move towards ultra-nationalism … And sort of as a backlash against that, there’s an erotic, edgy, subversive quality to a lot of art. But at the other end — also appropriate for deco, and showing the style — is this growing ultra-nationalism and even militarism. This real tension of ’30s culture comes through in deco, and this exhibition, we hope."

For a Deco Lao movement, these are ideas that are likely to show up in our own efforts as well. But what other directions might we go? The final answers remain to be seen.

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