In an essay titled “The Ruin”, German philosopher Georg Simmel writes about how the sight of the ruins of a civilisation arouse feelings of fascination in the viewer because “the work of man appears to us entirely as a product of nature”, having succumbed to decay and deterioration due to being slowly colonised by the elements of nature. If human will is what leads to the creation of works of art like architecture, where nature is made to bend to an artistic vision, the ruin is an example of the will of nature reclaiming its hold over human will and creativity.

Meanwhile, in his groundbreaking book titled Orientalism (Pantheon Books, 1978), Edward Said studied the ideology that shaped Western European knowledge production about what they termed the “Orient”, and writes that, “Always there lurks the assumption that although the Western consumer belongs to a numerical minority, he is entitled either to own or to expend (or both) the majority of the world resources. Why? Because he, unlike the Oriental, is a true human being”.

This idea of the peoples of the Orient (and vast parts of Asia) as being somehow lesser than the ideal, universal Western European (male) human, and somehow closer to nature (and more savage), is seen throughout Sarah Tiffin’s engaging and wide-ranging book on British visual representation of South-East Asia titled Southeast Asia In Ruins: Art And Empire In The Early 19th Century.

Photo: NUS Press

Author Sarah Tiffin. Photo: NUS Press

The idea of a ruin in South-East Asia is complicated by these factors, of how Asian people and our landscape were seen by Western colonisers. The ruin came to stand for many of the orientalist ideas about Asian societies: barbaric, savage, mysterious, enigmatic, ferocious – in short, Asian people were seen to be as inscrutable as nature because we were perceived to be less human than Europeans.

Beautifully produced in a handsome hardback edition by Singapore’s NUS Press, Tiffin’s book looks at British artists, writers, and colonial administrators in the late 18th and early 19th century, and their engagement with the architectural remnants of South-East Asia’s rich civilisations of the past.

Opening with Thomas Stamford Raffles’ mammoth publication on Java, The History Of Java (1817), Tiffin explains how it “brought the topic of Java’s ruined candi (temples) to the attention of the British public”. Tiffin explains that her own study in the book hopes to consider how “images and descriptions of Southeast Asian ruins informed and were informed by British perceptions of the region’s cultural achievements, its economic and social development, and its patterns of political power”.

This book owes a debt to Said’s work, particularly in the context of British imperial interest in the region. As Said reminds us, “To say simply that Orientalism was a rationalization of colonial rule is to ignore the extent to which colonial rule was justified in advance by Orientalism, rather than after the fact”.

Although Tiffin attempts to be a balanced commentator, my impression upon reading her vast study and its numerous citations of primary sources is to conclude that British representation of the ruins of South-East Asia performed crucial ideological work in laying the grounds for British colonialism in the region.

Tiffin helps us understand, in her detailed study of various images produced by British and European artists of Java’s ruined candi, how these visual representations worked to represent the peoples and culture of South-East Asia in a certain vein; how “the contemporary Javanese were associated not so much with a progressive and dynamic present but more with a timeless, classical past. They were, the images implied, part of the landscape, part of the ruin: the citizens of a vanished, vanquished empire”.

Southeast Asia In Ruins: Art And Empire In The Early 19th Century by Sarah Tiffin

One can’t help but wonder if this representation of Javanese people would have been useful in justifying the British intention to further their trade and economic interests; a society whose heyday was in the past is more in need of “saving” and intervention by their Western masters than one that was recognised as being dynamic and thriving in its own right. It’s an interesting parallel to modern day Western-led “interventions” in other parts of the world like the Middle East and Africa.

Tiffin has organised her study into looking at how British commentators pointed out the many flaws of South-East Asian societies – blaming climactic conditions; citing Oriental “despots” and a frightened, subjugated population; pointing out deficiencies of our racial stock, and other pleasant forms of condemnation and insults in order to justify what was ultimately a capitalist project of imperial advancement.

A fascination with ruins and decaying architecture and the subsequent philosophising over past South-East Asian civilisations were part and parcel of establishing European superiority.

Tiffin cites Raffles as saying thus with regards to the favourable climate conditions that provide residents of the Malay archipelago with a bountiful harvest of fresh produce: “The peasantry of Java, easily procuring the necessaries of life, seldom aim at improvement of their condition”. It’s almost as if Raffles simply can’t bear to deal with any human who is not a rapacious property-owning capitalist hellbent on expanding an empire.

This is a richly-detailed academic study that is filled with original art but it’s not too dense or complex to be out of reach of the casual reader. For people interested in learning more about how colonisers in the West produced knowledge about South-East Asia in order to subdue, tame, and rule over it, as well as those interested in cultural criticism and art history, Southeast Asia In Ruins will like provide many hours of interesting reading.

Southeast Asia In Ruins: Art And Empire In The Early 19th Century

Author: Sarah Tiffin
Publisher: NUS Press, history