Artists select influential books concerning social change and justice


Under the Influence Activate
Image: Under the Influence at Art Basel.

This past March, Asia Art Archive presented Under the Influence: A Travelling Library of Books that Inspire Artists at Art Basel in Hong Kong.

For the project, we invited artists from around the world to choose a book that inspires their artistic practice. Each contributor shared personal stories related to their selection, thereby providing singular perspectives on these one hundred foundational texts from across genres and disciplines.

Since then, Under the Influence has been touring to schools around Hong Kong.

In this second installment of a seven-part series on Ideas, we share the books from the project alongside writing from the artists. We wondered, how do books or issues concerning social change and justice serve as a catalyst for artistic practice? Note that the thematic groupings reflect AAA's interpretations of these texts.

Part I: A Search for Truth

Part III: Artist to Artist

Part IV: Ecologies

Part V: On Form

Part VI: Space and Time Travel

Part VII: Ways of Seeing and Being


Angela Su on Angry Women edited by V. Vale

Image: <i>Cover of Angry Women</i> edited by V. Vale.
Image: Cover of Angry Women edited by V. Vale.

When I rewatch David Cronenberg films, I realise a lot of what I produce today is actually influenced by them. The same goes with the book Angry Women and other RE/Search Publications. In the 1990s, Tower Records in Toronto (where I did my studies) had a good selection of RE/Search Publications on topics ranging from underground films, body fluids, body modification, to J.G. Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition. It would be interesting to revisit these books and see if they are still relevant today.


Arin Rungjang on Children of the Dictatorship: Student Resistance, Cultural Politics, and the "Long 1960s" in Greece by Kostis Kornetis

Image: Cover of <i>Children of the Dictatorship</i> by Kostis Kornetis.
Image: Cover of Children of the Dictatorship by Kostis Kornetis.

On April 2016 I was invited to present my work among other artists in Athens, Greece. The event was organised for artists participating in documenta 14. The organisation invited artists to visit several places in Athens. One place was the anti-dictatorship memorial. When I first entered the place and was introduced to the story of the Polytechnic uprising, which happened on 17 November 1973, it reminded me of the uprising of Thammasat University in Bangkok on 14 October of the same year—only the uprising in Athens happened one month later. When I had to leave and say goodbye to an old man who had introduced the place, he asked me where am I from. I replied, "Thailand." Then he immediately gave me a tight hug and said Thammasat University inspired them to create the Polytechnic uprising in Athens. Several days later I went to the archive centre in Athens, and the director showed me a copy of a newspaper with the headline (in Greek, translated into English): "Tomorrow we will become Thailand."


Gum Cheng on Call to Arms: Na Han by Lu Xun

Image: Cover of <i>Call to Arms</i> by Lu Xun.
Image: Cover of Call to Arms by Lu Xun.

I don't remember many passages from my Chinese lessons in high school, except the few from this title. Lu Xun's stories and his writing style have affected me and the way I write until today.


Dilara Begum Jolly on Sultana's Dream by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain

Image: Cover of <i>Sultana's Dream</i> by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain.
Image: Cover of Sultana's Dream by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain.

The book that readily comes to mind that shaped my mindscape as an artist is Rokeya Rachanabali [Sultana's Dream] by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain. "If we do not think about our condition then no one else will, and if they did, that would not benefit our cause wholesale." Aligning my position with these words, I also strive to give women their voice and their gaze back through my works. This book, for me, is not representative of my singular geopolitical reality, but speaks for a universal condition by mapping the various ways women negotiate adversities and obstacles resulting from the gambit of identity politics.


Hajra Waheed on From A to X by John Berger

Image: Cover of <i>From A to X</i> by John Berger.
Image: Cover of From A to X by John Berger.


Mi Guapo,

The  last  darkness  of  the  night.  I  haven't  yet  slept.  I  was  thinking  about  the  future.  Not  any  future  anywhere. Not our future together. About the future here they're trying to abort. They wont succeed. The future, that they fear, will come. And in it, what will remain of us, is the confidence we maintained in the dark.

Your A'ida


Inder Salim on Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics by Jacques Rancière

Image: Cover of <i>Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics</i> by Jacques Rancière.
Image: Cover of Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics by Jacques Rancière.


Critical art is an art that aims to produce a new perception of the world, and therefore to create a commitment to its transformation. This schema, very simple in appearance, is actually the conjunc-tion of three processes: first, the production of a sensory form of "strangeness"; second, the development of an awareness of the reason for that strangeness; and third, a mobilisation of individuals as a result of that awareness.


sleep with me tonight (2013)
By Inder Salim

Sleep with me tonight.
Come as I come to you,
both in silence and in sound,
both in stone and in colour.
Come, sing with me tonight.
The song is written by a fish and a peacock.
The language is air, water and light.
So, come here, here which is neither a temple nor a bedroom.
Come, forget gender, I am both earth and idea in one.
Come, two eyes are following you: one is
Life and other is Death.
Come to me, to "distribute the sensible",
to benumb the corrupt,
to halt those who contaminate.
Come, it is getting late . . .

"distribution of the sensible" (phrase by Jacques Rancière)


Michael Leung on To Our Friends by The Invisible Committee


The epoch must be sought deep within each situation and deep within each person. That is where "we" meet up, where real friends are found, scattered over the globe, but walking the road together.

My creative practice focuses on notions of community, mutual aid, and reciprocal empowerment. These collaborative projects exist on a quiet neighbourhood street in Yau Ma Tei (Kai Fong Pai Dong) to expansive networks (my research into "Insurrectionary Agriculture Milieux").

The English translation of To Our Friends came at a unique time, adding solidarity whilst atomising each one of us to (creatively) respond to things we care about.


Samson Young on Listening to War: Sound, Music, Trauma, and Survival in Wartime Iraq by J. Martin Daughtry

Image: Cover of <i>Listening to War</i> by J. Martin Daughtry.
Image: Cover of Listening to War by J. Martin Daughtry.

This book really opened my mind to the possibility of historicising through the sense of hearing, especially when it comes to documenting and representing political conflicts.


Shilpa Gupta on Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

Image: Cover of <i>Nineteen Eighty-Four</i> by George Orwell.
Image: Cover of Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell.


There was never any evidence. Just once in his life he had held in his hands unmistakable documentary proof of the falsification of a historical fact. And on that occasion—


Stephanie Choi on The Project of Autonomy: Politics and Architecture Within and Against Capitalism by Pier Vittorio Aureli

Image: Cover of <i>The Project of Autonomy: Politics and Architecture Within and Against Capitalism</i> by Pier Vittorio Aureli.
Image: Cover of The Project of Autonomy: Politics and Architecture Within and Against Capitalism by Pier Vittorio Aureli.

"Against from within." Pier Vittorio Aureli’s analysis of the Autonomia and Operaism workers’ movements in juxtaposition with the "radical architecture" movements in 1960s/70s Italy is a provocation to architects to reclaim a political stance. "Autonomy was not the creation of politics and poetics ex nihilo but rather an audacious effort to appropriate the political realm in order to construct an alternative to capitalist domination." Negating preoccupation with image and proliferation of styles, the project of autonomy for Aureli asks us to examine the apparatus of the city to create spaces other than from within. In our post-everything era, these potential "wild realities" are more critical than ever.


Sunday Lai on The Nightmare of Participation by Markus Miessen

Image: Cover of <i>The Nightmare of Participation</i> by Markus Miessen.
Image: Cover of The Nightmare of Participation by Markus Miessen.

Quoting a short paragraph from this book for a person who is prone to forgetfulness:

Jeremy Till argues, "The word participation has recently become as overused as that other catchphrase of contemporary politics, sustainability. The two meet in the notion of 'sustainable communities,' which, according to the rhetoric, are founded on the principles of democratic participation in their own formation process. The trouble is that, in their overuse, 'participation,' 'community,' and 'sustainability' have become more or less meaningless. These words create a veneer of worthiness; but if you scratch the surface, critical interrogations of what is at stake are strikingly absent. Participation too often becomes an expedient method of placation rather than a real process of transformation."*

*Citing Jeremy Till, "The Architect and the Other" (openDemocracy, 2006).


Sutthirat Supaparinya on Angkor: An Essay on Art and Imperialism by Jan Myrdal and Gun Kessle

Image: Cover of <i>Angkor: An Essay on Art and Imperialism</i> by Jan Myrdal and Gun Kessle.
Image: Cover of Angkor: An Essay on Art and Imperialism by Jan Myrdal and Gun Kessle.

I had this book on my bookshelf for over ten years, but I had no chance to read it. In 2016, I brought it along and read it when I traveled to Cambodia, while visiting Siem Reap for the first time. It became a very important  book for me to understand how power constructed hierarchy in the name of religion, the God-king, and wisdom. It features Angkor, but reveals how invisible power in Thailand formed—something we cannot discuss in public. It is not a book for tourists to learn about the past, but for those questioning what structure of power influences us today.


Tomoko Yoneda on Neither Victims Nor Executioners by Albert Camus

Image: Cover of <i>Neither Victims Nor Executioners</i> by Albert Camus.
Image: Cover of Neither Victims Nor Executioners by Albert Camus.

This book is always by my side. Camus questions the legitimacy of violence in pursuit of peace throughout this world's perpetual war. Neither Victims Nor Executioners is the basic question of humanity everyone must address. It is written in 1946, right after WWII and the beginning of the Atomic Age. He opens, "Our 20th century is the century of fear," and ends, "The words are more powerful than munitions"—something which I firmly believe in art.


Tyler Coburn on Sincerity and Authenticity by Lionel Trilling

Image: Cover of <i>Sincerity and Authenticity</i> by Lionel Trilling.
Image: Cover of Sincerity and Authenticity by Lionel Trilling.

Oscar Wilde wrote that "man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth." This claim, quoted in Lionel Trilling’s 1972 book, Sincerity and Authenticity, cuts to the heart of an enduring social paradox, where the demand for authenticity makes us "perform" to measure, no matter the sincerity of our effort. From Shakespeare to Rabelais, Hegel to Gide, Trilling traces the shifting conceptions of these terms, which are as relevant to his age as they are to our own.


Wei Leng Tay on Nightwood by Djuna Barnes

Image: Cover of <i>Nightwood</i> by Djuna Barnes.
Image: Cover of Nightwood by Djuna Barnes.


Robin's absence, as the night drew on, became a physical removal, insupportable and irreparable. As an amputated hand cannot be disowned because it is experiencing a futurity, of which the victim is its forebear, so Robin was an amputation that Nora could not renounce. As the wrist longs, so her heart longed, and dressing she would go out into the night that she might be "beside herself," skirting the cafe in which she could catch a glimpse of Robin.


Wen Yau on Surpassing the Spectacle: Global Transformations and the Changing Politics of Art by Carol Becker

Image: Cover of <i>Surpassing the Spectacle: Global Transformations and the Changing Politics of Art</i> by Carol Becker.
Image: Cover of Surpassing the Spectacle: Global Transformations and the Changing Politics of Art by Carol Becker.


Artists stand at the edge of society. Although many do try, few ever dare to hope they might create an image or representation like Picasso's, one that actually affects or changes society. This is because the task of artists, which is to pull what is personal into the public sphere, is very difficult to do and is rarely valued. Artists must find this social motivation and sense of purpose within themselves. Few artists would describe themselves as attempting to enter political life through their work; however, Said quotes Genet as having said, "The moment you publish essays in a society you have entered political life; so if you want not to be political do not write essays or speak out." This is also true of artists.


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Angela SU, 徐世琪

Arin RUNGJANG, อริญชย์ รุ่งแจ้ง

CHENG Yeeman Gum, 鄭怡敏




Michael LEUNG, 梁志剛

Samson YOUNG, 楊嘉輝

Shilpa GUPTA

Sutthirat SUPAPARINYA, สุทธิรัตน์ ศุภปริญญา

Tomoko YONEDA, 米田知子


Weileng TAY, 鄭瑋玲

wenyau, 魂游

LAI Longsang, 黎朗生

Stephanie CHOI

Research Notes
Mon, 24 Jul 2017
Cite as
Angela SU, 徐世琪, Arin RUNGJANG, อริญชย์ รุ่งแจ้ง, CHENG Yeeman Gum, 鄭怡敏, Dilara BEGUM JOLLY, Hajra WAHEED, Inder SALIM, Michael LEUNG, 梁志剛, Samson YOUNG, 楊嘉輝, Shilpa GUPTA, Sutthirat SUPAPARINYA, สุทธิรัตน์ ศุภปริญญา, Tomoko YONEDA, 米田知子, Tyler COBURN, Weileng TAY, 鄭瑋玲, wenyau, 魂游, LAI Longsang, 黎朗生 and Stephanie CHOI, Book Recommendations | Activate/Agitate, Mon, 24 Jul 2017

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Each Monday, Asia Art Archive publishes new essays, interviews, and curated journeys through the research collections