52 ARTISTS 52 ACTIONS began as a year-long project that was conceptualised and curated by Artspace, Sydney, to respond to contemporary social, political, economic and ecological issues confronting us. Whether it is the global rise of terrorism, the climate change crises, the increasing socio-economic inequality or the convoluted democratic structures across the world, recent events have triggered xenophobic behaviours and conservatism in many parts of the world, and simultaneously contributed to the increasing number of protests and activism, to fight against what some might call ‘non-progressive’ power structures.
The project attempted to create a common platform for artists to respond to such events and express their concerns in a world which is increasingly being divided by the divergent forces of increasing social media-led expression on one hand and political pressures to curb freedom of expression on the other.
Highlighting artistic practice across Asia, and taking place simultaneously online and offline, it is the first project of its kind staged in the region to date. Invited artists represented a wide spectrum of ethnicities and cultural backgrounds across Asia and the Pacific – everywhere from Bangladesh to Korea, Cambodia to Turkey, the Autonomous Region of Bougainville to the breadth of Australian communities.
52 ARTISTS 52 ACTIONS began with a year-long online component running from January 2018 to January 2019, and as the title suggests, engaged 52 artists and collectives to stage actions in unique, physical locations throughout the region and share them with global audiences on Instagram and online.
Each week for a year, a different artist drove the project, generating a continuously unfolding archive of creative responses to political and social issues central to each unique context. An action could be anything and everything used to express, communicate and build awareness and the 52 participants created a wide variety; from performances and protests to collaborative workshops and experimental art-making. They had total freedom in what they chose to address and create as their action, and each had a unique approach – from the idea of an action to methods of adapting their practice to the Instagram format. These individual projects finally culminated in an exhibition at Artspace, Sydney.
For Korean artist Kyungah Ham, the encounter with an embroidered Mona Lisa made in North Korea, a country which is not pro-Western culture to say the least, evoked questions about how the Korean people would respond to her image, despite it being different from the original. What resulted was a series of interviews revealing facets of the people’s lives in the country as well as their perceptions and experiences of living in a foreign context.
Nepalese artist Hitman Gurung’s work Revolutionary Dreams also edged on this rift between the internal and the external. The series of performative photographs revealed the political instability of the country, which along with global capitalist forces have adversely affected the social fabric of many developing countries, Nepal just being one among many. Many works in the exhibition then addressed this internal conflict and changing structure of a nation which falls prey to both internal and external political and economic influences. Chinese artist Echo Morgan’s works then resonated with the demolition caused by the cultural revolution of China, which while it lies in the past, but an ongoing change in the cultural structures and landscape of the country makes her wonder what shall finally remain un-demolished?
The exhibition 52 ARTISTS 52 ACTIONS served, therefore, as a living, accumulative archive of collective artistic action from across the region to expand on issues including activism, censorship, migration, gender politics and labour.