The Buddhist Bug: Imagining the other postcard

The Buddhist Bug: Imagining the Other Postcard
Dana Langlois, curator

The Buddhist Bug by Anida Yoeu Ali
Performance + Exhibition opening 7pm Saturday, December 20, 2014
At The 1961 Coworking and Art Space

The works of The Buddhist Bug simultaneously reference “postcard” perfection while systematically resisting its stereotyping idealism. Through carefully constructed vignettes, it reveals a complex narrative that follows the autobiographical journey of multi-disciplinary artist Anida Yoeu Ali. The Buddhist Bug is an on-going series of performances, captured as video, photography and installations that together explore issues of displacement and belonging. The fantastic saffron-colored creature can span the length of a 40-metre bridge or coil into a small orange ball—a purposeful design that reflects Ali’s transnationalism, reaching across oceans, cultures and generations whilst remaining agile and adaptive.

For this exhibition, the ubiquitous “postcard” provides a lens through which to consider the selection of works. Postcards, which saw a peak in popularity at the turn of the 20th century, is typically found in the Cambodian markets or sold by walking vendors, depicting idyllic country landscapes with emerald green rice fields, the spiritual beauty of an ancient temple, Buddhist monks in orange robes gliding casually by, children playing and smiling, or charming village life. It aims to capture a moment, a souvenir, hazed by nostalgia and that first infatuation that one feels when discovering a country for the first time. It then serves to carry that memory, that feeling, to a loved one who is perhaps eagerly waiting the return of the traveler. Ali investigates these romanticized notions of “postcard perfection” by performing the Bug at sites like those found in touristic images and that typify Cambodian identity and culture. Memory, nostalgia and idealism form a construct of beauty and the framework within which The Buddhist Bug explores everyday moments.

Beauty not only informs the conceptual framework but is also vigorously applied to the image itself. Each scene is carefully formulated with a tendency towards the cinematic. The artist’s emphasis on light, color and composition create a highly aestheticized moment, looking less like photo-documentation but more like surrealistic fiction. If we were to consider them postcards, perhaps they would have originated from a parallel universe—one where The Buddhist Bug rides on a cyclo, goes to the cinema or is ferried across the Mekong on a fisherwoman’s boat.

The absurdity of the Bug situated in a picturesque scene proposes a dichotomy between an externally applied value system, whether nostalgic or touristic, and that of internally locally-rooted narratives. Oxcart Grazing, in particular, emphasizes this point by its exaggeration of beauty and charm. The image of the Bug coiled on the ground with feet resting on an ox-drawn cart harken back to a different time, playfully referencing Cambodia’s rural exoticism.
It is at this particular intersection of inside and outside that Ali explores the “third space,” as identified by the noted critical theorist Homi Bhabha, being neither one nor the other but defined by both. Most obviously, the Bug embodies the artist’s own spiritual turmoil between Islam and Buddhism, bearing the religious symbols of the hijab (head covering worn by Muslim women) and saffron color (the same color worn by Buddhist monks). Ali presents the seeming contrasts of Islam/Buddhism, Cambodian/American, male/female, mobile/stationary as a way to explore the tension of being neither and both at the same time.

In Angkor Pride, Ali explores notions of nationalism and identity that refers to the temples as symbols of national pride, past glories and the legacy for today’s generation. Positioned firmly in the foreground, the Bug discovers the temple ruins while tourists seem oblivious to its presence, creating a moment of ambiguity. It presents narrative questions about the relationship between the tourists, the Bug and the temple. The tourists seem to be ignoring the Bug, or perhaps they are so preoccupied with Cambodia’s ancient history that they are not able to connect to the contemporary condition embodied by the Bug.

Ali employs the same ambiguity throughout The Buddhist Bug series. The “third space,” or “otherness,” is played against the specificity of Cambodian culture, history and aesthetics to create a sense of wonder and questioning. Ali is not interested in resolving the identity or dichotomies represented by the Bug, but instead the process of inquiry offers a space to expand notions of beauty, meaning and relevance.

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