Challenges and Opportunities During the Pandemic：Perspectives of Southeast-Asian Creative Artists
Sharleen Su /photo bythe Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation /tr. byBrandon Yen
“When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.” These words provide an apposite description of the year 2020. Throughout this year, Covid-19 has caused economies across the world to shrink. Lockdowns, social distancing rules, canceled flights, and other anti-coronavirus measures have dealt a crushing blow to many industries, giving rise to a wave of job losses. Creative artists are bearing the brunt because of the cancellation of income-generating events and performances.
Out of concern for how Taiwan’s international friends are faring, Taiwan Panorama wished to understand the impact of Covid-19 on creative practitioners in the partner countries of Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy. To this end, we teamed up with the Taiwan‡Asia Exchange Foundation and Mekong Cultural Hub to launch this country’s first investigation into the state of the creative industries in Southeast Asia during the pandemic. Focusing on creative practitioners and organizations in Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, and four other countries, we wished not only to express solidarity but also to produce a well-informed report on their current conditions.
Pha Tad Ke, the botanic garden where Pat works, has been forced to close its doors because of Covid-19. Even after the pandemic eases, their working patterns will have to change. (photo by Cyril Eberle, courtesy of Tongchan Kamphart)
Lao landscape designer Tongchan Kamphart
Since the outbreak of the pandemic, Pha Tad Ke, the botanic garden where Lao landscape designer Tongchan Kamphart (Pat) works, has remained closed.
“We haven’t had any visitors. No tourists are able to come.” Sitting in the botanic garden, Pat talks with us online. Pha Tad Ke, situated in the city of Luang Prabang, is a popular tourist attraction. After the outbreak of the pandemic, Laos stopped issuing visas to tourists, forcing this botanic garden, which relies on visitors for its income, to close temporarily. In addition to designing landscapes, before the pandemic Pat was responsible for coordinating arts events, collaborating with talented young artists from various countries. They were trying to establish connections between traditional Buddhist rituals and the natural environment in order to create artworks with a modern edge. But Covid-19 has upset their plans.
“There are no international flights. We can’t discuss things in person. Meetings have had to be canceled. Everyone has to work from home.”
Pat says the impact of Covid has been immense. “Everything we’re planning now is conditioned by the pandemic, but no one knows for sure what will happen next month.”
Pat and his colleagues have endeavored to combine traditional Buddhist rituals with the natural environment to create artworks with a modern edge. (photo by Paul Wager, courtesy of Tongchan Kamphart)
Myanmar visual artist Zun Ei Phyu
Myanmar visual artist Zun Ei Phyu
Similar disruption is happening in Myanmar. The international projects that visual artist Zun Ei Phyu had planned have been postponed again and again.
“2020 was supposed to be my year of art,” says Zun Ei with some frustration. “I had plenty of plans, most of which were international collaborations, along with a few local projects. I even planned to visit Taiwan in April, but everything has been canceled because of Covid-19.”
Specializing in papercutting and installation art, Zun Ei also works as a medical doctor. Every Friday she offers free consultations at a community-run charity clinic.
Zun Ei’s free clinic was to have reopened in July, but the ongoing pandemic put that on hold. In the ten days before our interview, Covid had flared up again in Myanmar, with confirmed cases surging to more than 1000 per day. Once again, people had started to wear face coverings.
As a doctor, Zun Ei wants to work on the frontline taking care of patients, but this isn’t possible under current regulations. Myanmar has been hit hard by the pandemic. Most local creative artists have never enjoyed comfortable earnings, and Covid is making life even more difficult for them. Fortunately for Zun Ei, overseas collectors are continuing to buy her works during the pandemic.
During the pandemic, Zun Ei has devoted more attention to art therapy, seeking to tap into the healing and calming power of art.(courtesy of Zun Ei)
Artists in Thailand and other Southeast-Asian countries have never enjoyed adequate support from their governments. The pandemic has made life even more difficult for them, producing a long-term impact on Thailand’s art industry. (courtesy of Tanawat Asawaitthipond)
Thai producer Tanawat Asawaitthipond
Thai theatrical and performance art producer Tanawat Asawaitthipond has also been affected by Covid-19. Tanawat has many roles to play. As a performance artist, art consultant, and producer, he has forged collaborative relationships with internationally renowned artists, institutions, and foundations.
Facing the unrelenting pandemic and Thailand’s civil unrest, Tanawat is surprisingly optimistic. “I’m not saying that I haven’t felt the impact. It’s just that I see this pandemic as a new opportunity.” Even though much of the world in which he works has changed for the worse, Tanawat endeavors to slow down and reevaluate his resources carefully in order to find the best way forward. “As a producer, I always have to see things from different perspectives.”
There have long been systemic fault lines in Thailand’s arts policies. Most creative practitioners do not receive support from the government and rely on second jobs to make ends meet. Tanawat says: “Even if this pandemic hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t get much help from the government.”
As a producer, Tanawat continues to carry out his projects, and his international collaborations have gained more impetus. However, he worries that the pandemic may aggravate existing inequalities in the distribution of resources for art. (courtesy of Tanawat Asawaitthipond)
Founder of Bamboo Curtain Studio
Taiwan’s creative industries have also seen events being canceled due to the coronavirus. Margaret Shiu, founder of the Bamboo Curtain Studio in Taiwan, says that Covid has cast a long shadow on her plans for 2020. “All of our exchange projects have been put on hold. We’re supposed to be running residency programs, but our studio is completely empty now.”
Shiu, who has long believed that cultural exchanges have to involve contacts in person, arranges for international artists to visit Taiwan every year, as well as sending Taiwanese artists abroad. Shiu tells us vividly: “We’ve got a big zero this year: no one has come.”
The pandemic has severely hindered international exchanges and residential programs. Margaret Shiu recommends that artists should adapt sooner rather than later in order to give their artistic talents a social relevance. (courtesy of Bamboo Curtain Studio)
Learning life lessons
Not only has the pandemic caused widespread financial problems, but the uncertainties surrounding life and work have also plunged artists into fear and anxiety.
For example, in early 2020 Zun Ei had invitations for various residencies, but could not take them up because there were no international flights. Nevertheless, she has decided to respond to the pandemic through arts activities. In April and May, she devoted herself to her own mental peace, refraining from physical action and even temporarily ceasing to create art. As a Buddhist, she sought to focus on meditation, learning from the scriptures. Being a qualified art therapist, she even subjected herself to a course of therapy. “I know I have to look on the bright side. Life has to go on.”
“Death can happen to anyone anytime. It’s just that we all neglected this fact until Covid broke out.” The pandemic served as a timely reminder. Inspired by it, she decided to run three workshops on “fear,” where participants will be invited to explore what that feeling means.
As for Pat, he’s regaining his sense of balance through Buddhist teachings. “During a pandemic like this, you would expect people to go and find new jobs or other sources of income, but we Buddhists seek to reconcile ourselves to adverse circumstances.” Pat thinks that we may as well return to a simpler life. “Farming is also a way of life, and in the current crisis this has brought families together to enjoy each other’s company.”
For her part, Shiu is making her studio function in a different way. “My colleagues and I are currently planning virtual exchange programs.” This project, in which Shiu describes her role as that of a matchmaker, aims to turn the studio into an online platform that helps to connect Taiwanese and international artists, encouraging them to exchange ideas and experiences, with a view to facilitating further collaborations.
Shiu believes that the “abnormal” phenomena brought about by the pandemic may become the new normal. Creative practitioners, she thinks, have to adapt to these changes soon and find their own ways forward.
“Artists are by no means useless, but they need to change with the times and bring service to society and educational activities within their compass.” Shiu thinks that in times of crisis, artists can unleash tremendous creative power, turning art into a kind of service, or transforming arts spaces into online platforms. In doing so, we’re likely to spot a silver lining to this global pandemic.
Retrieve from Taiwan Panorama