The US artist on his exhibition “Many Rivers” and breathing new life into ancient myths.
Most civilisations were born out of great rivers such as the Nile, the Ganges, and the Yangtze. Along with their ebbs and flows, histories were chronicled as well as myths, legends, and literature. Spellbound by Southeast Asian folklores such as Kuhn Chang Kuhn Paen, Bruce Gundersen, an interdisciplinary artist, has produced many series on them and recently exhibited his latest Many Rivers in Bangkok.
Originally from Illinois, Bruce studied and graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago where he met his wife, Ellen Fisher. They currently live in Brooklyn, New York. At first, he was a performance artist in the art duo Gundersen/Clark and performed in several festivals and contemporary museums in the US and Europe. He also makes furniture and miniature sets, and collaborates in video works for FISHGUN Films, documenting dance rituals of Southeast and South Asia.
Two decades ago Ellen travelled and worked Sri Lanka. Bruce came to visit, and his fascination with Asian stories began. Bruce recalls, “My interest in Southeast and South Asia has grown as I have researched how these cultures frame human events within a larger cosmology of Hinduism, Buddhism and folklore through their arts. I find my inspiration in the belief systems and vernacular art from the ancient and modern cultures, regenerating them through the modernity of digital arts.”
Bruce’s interest in universal cultural legends and myths is an on-going creative investigation. He states, “My visual artwork explores complex visual ambiguities, perceptually bridging painting and photography. I’m fascinated by the interplay between supernatural and corporeal world. So my work is filled with characters vividly depicted through art. It reflects a contemporary approach to an ancient codified language of gesture and storytelling, similar to that of Buddhist monks travelling with silk paintings narrating the life of the Buddha.”
On his methods, Bruce explains, “After intensive research, I travel to Asia with a storyboard of scenes to be depicted. I photograph local actors, dancers and lay people in key postures to represent characters from the tales. I also photograph architecture, landscapes and other objects essential to the story. Then I add textures with photos of a variety of objects such as cloth, paper, mould, or bits of paintings to create depth to the final project. I use these elements as digital building blocks to be layered into painterly photomontages. They soften bits of the images to bring a sense of impermanence and create an image-based palimpsest. The final presentation is dye-sublimation prints on silk or poly pongee with handkerchief-rolled edges. The overall effect is somewhere between photography and painting, paying homage to the indigenous visual folk vernacular.”
Bruce adds, “The audience views these images not as static ‘canvasses’ on the wall, but as ephemeral, floating figures that move and shift as the air moves through the rooms in which they are viewed. The choice of silk as the prime material was conceptually chosen as its historical use started in the Far East.” As time and tide wait for no man,Bruce’s creations emanate evanescence.
On ‘Many Rivers,’ Bruce muses, “For the past 14 years, my artistic endeavours have involved photographing and digitally narrating the folklores of Southeast Asia. I have worked extensively in Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia. I received funding from Asian Cultural Council New York (ACCNY) for the work created in Laos. I have immersed myself in fairytales from these countries—the Lands of Naga or the Water Serpent.’ They havestoried rivers whose myths celebrate the people’s close bond with nature spirits and supernatural forces. These stories and sacred initiations have comedown to us from Southeast Asian prehistory, filtered through Animist, Hindu and Buddhist cosmology and repeatedly revealed over the ages through literature,song, dance and visual art. Here the line is blurry between the visible and invisible.
Where do ‘reality’ end and ‘fantasy’ begin? It invokes the psychic creatures of Southeast Asia that dredged up from the collective unconscious—the magnetic of a hooded cobra with a woman’s wistful face; a young maiden in a Sabai (one-shoulder sash) alone beside a jungle stream, a place and time where magic, terrible or otherwise, happens.”
Bruce continues, “The cultural exchanges between Asian artists, lay people and me help create artistic interpretations that breathe new life into ancient myths through poetry, painting, performing arts and new media, embracing the subject of mortal life,myth and divine intervention. These issues remain relevant to society today and tomorrow.” Despite his roots on the Hudson, Bruce genuinely belongs to theMekong.