Interview "MUTUAL UNKNOWN": Experimental Exhibition Challenges Artists and Audience

Exhibition; Mutual Unknown - Jakarta
Exhibition; Mutual Unknown - Jakarta | © Goethe-Institut Indonesien

From June 2 to 17, 2017 nine artists from across Southeast Asia presented their works as part of the experimental exhibition “Mutual Unknown”, a project by curators of CuratorsLAB, in Jakarta. Over the course of three weeks prior to the exhibition, they developed ideas, which they then finalized in front of an audience. The idea behind the project: In “Mutual Unknown”, curators, artists and audience saw themselves confronted with one another, initially as strangers. By continuing to work on their art pieces and through the open feedback, they eventually got to know each other. Four participating artists talk about their expectations, influences and experiences:

How would you describe the project “Mutual Unkown” in your own words?
Nuttapon: It’s a very interactive project. Every day, we learn something from the people, from the visitors. I change my work and my thought process every day because I have new ideas thanks to the activities around me as well as my conversations with the audience.
Tan Vatey: The project is a space that brings together artists, curators and audience. It is special because we interact with the audience and are able to meet them.

Leonard Yang: It is a fast-paced project that has opened our eyes. It is challenging, but at the same time also rewarding. We didn’t have much time to develop something or to follow a certain idea. In Singapore, I usually don’t work this fast. That’s why it was enriching to create a new artwork or series in only three weeks time.
How has “Mutual Unknown” changed your perception of Southeast Asia and Southeast Asian art?
Tan Vatey: There is another form of art here. The way I perceive it, it is all about building a network and interaction with the audience. I don’t work alone: I work with other artists and with the audience. The movement around me is inspiring and keeps my art alive.

Thuy Thien Nguyen: I actually don’t label art as “art from Southeast Asia”. It is nice that I don’t see so many differences between the artists. I don’t think: this is Renz Lee from the Philippines, this is Fajar Abadi from Indonesia, and I am from Vietnam. The collaborative atmosphere is exciting. But this form of work also changes me. I used to work with identities, but this time, my interest is different. My main themes now are time, past and present. These are very new topics for me, and I can learn a lot from the other artists.

Nuttapon:I don’t know much about Southeast Asia, except for Thailand and Indonesia. In my opinion, the visitors and artists here are different. The work of many artists in Thailand, including myself, is about political statements. Here, however, everything is much more relaxed. We can talk about anything, and the audience seems to understand it. During my conversations, I realized that we belong to the same generation and have a similar mindset.
What kind of expectations did you have prior to the project?
Leonard Yang: I expected to work individually - which actually happened, in a way. Many of the artists here work individually in a sense that they focus on their own ideas and pieces. Nevertheless, I had the chance to get to know them better, not through collaboration or a project, but through working together in the same environment every day.

Tan Vatey: Personally, I expected an exchange between Southeast Asian artists and curators. I was hoping to learn more about the Indonesian and Southeast Asian culture, that the artists find their own way to express themselves, and that we would visit some galleries together. Luckily, all of this happened, and we learned a lot.
What kind of challenges did you face during the project?
Thuy Tien Nguyen: Our own preparation time was really very short, it was less than one week. Therefore, it was difficult to develop a new point of view, because we didn’t understand enough to actually have a point of view. Everything I do and think is like an outline. First I thought that this would be a disadvantage, but now I believe that it makes sense – extensive time forces you to make decisions: what is important? What do I show, what do I conceal? You have to repeatedly ask yourself: Why am I interested in the development of my project? The tight schedule made us tired at first because we were on the move a lot, but it was also challenging in a good way. 

What kind of opportunities do you think does the exhibition offer to yourselves and the audience?
Leonard Yang: The visitors have the chance to really get to know the artists and learn firsthand what they want to present. That’s important, because it’s not every day that we have the opportunity to talk to those who we want to show our works to. They are often exhibited in a gallery or another institution, by someone else for us, in our name. For me, and I think also for some of the visitors, it is interesting to talk to each other and to find out more about my work and what I would like to do and express through my art.

Nuttapon: Many visitors come and take photos, but they don’t say anything. I actually would like to encourage them to become more active. They shouldn’t just take a look at the project, but talk to me about its concept. That way, they would be able to take something away from the exhibition.

Thuy Tien Nguyen: For the audience, this kind of exhibition is less intimidating. When they visit a museum and see the artworks, it always happens from a distance. But if they are able to observe the process, this barrier is slowly disappearing.


Leonard Yang © Leonard Yang Leonard Yang aus Singapur addresses the daily change of landscapes, the absence of unused land in the cityscape, as well as the estranged relationship to cultural heritage in his works. Leonard already presented his works in the “ASEAN-Korean Multimedia Competition Exhibition” in 2014. In 2016, he was a finalist of the art award exhibition of “Harper’s Bazaar” magazine.

Nuttapon © Nuttapon Nuttapon: The political unrest in Thailand in 2006 led Nuttapon to focus on the topic of politics – inspired by Phumsiak’s idea of art and culture as tool for social involvement. Nuttapon believes that every subject of study contains different learning curves and expositions. According to him, learning, experimenting, ideas and common practice are closely connected in the world of art.

Tan Vatey © Tan Vatey Tan Vatey studied at Sa Sa Art Projects and worked on a voluntary basis as art teacher and designer for various NGOs in Phnom Penh. Vatey ranked third in the competition “Art on Aids”, which took place on the 11th International AIDS Congress in Asia and the Pacific in 2013 in Bangkok. She has already participated in several live painting events in Phnom Penh and group exhibitions in Siem Reap.

Thuy Tien Nguyen © Thuy Tien Nguyen Thuy Tien Nguyen: Vietnamese artist Thuy Tien Nguyen experiments with different media, such as photography, video, text, installations and performance, revealing her deepest and most vulnerable sides of her self, her body, her psyche and her existence.