Note from the Editors
Change, or impending change, can often inspire the creation of myth, for it both threatens and promises. It threatens security of the established, while providing hope to the disestablished.
The title of the third issue of Field Notes, Mapping Asia, should be enough to induce an immediate state of dizziness at the sheer impossibility of such a proposition. Or perhaps generate a certain amount of curiosity at what AAA's map of Asia looks like. How we define "Asia" at Asia Art Archive is the question we are most frequently asked. And out of the three A's that make up our name, "Asia" is the one we most consistently debate, deliberate, and tussle with.
We realize that there is something about the positioning of Asia, Art, and Archive next to each other that presupposes a mapping process. Acknowledging both the value and limitations of the map as a tool, AAA has attempted to trace the phenomena, practices, discourses, and developments in contemporary art in Asia by building up a collection based on breadth (via a widespread network of researchers, advisors, collaborators, and friends) and depth (through focused thematic archival projects). As such, we are practicing a mapping of Asia that no longer depends on the map as artifact, but as something that lives and continues to unfold. And while we believe that AAA's collection allows for a comparison of cross-regional histories and ideological networks, we must stress the importance of reading its material in conjunction with other mapping and archival initiatives.
In our most field note-like issue to date, we interweave artist work, an email exchange, literary extracts, a film plot, exhibition reviews, newspaper clippings, comics, and archival photos. If we were to list some of the entry points for the selections they would include (in no particular order) Guangzhou as site, speculative geographies, Hong Kong, seaborne histories, territory and myth, island disputes, language, migration, and sites of knowledge production and distribution. The journal is in no way intended to survey or comprehensively cover any of these, but to point to the entanglements between them, and provide an additional space, alongside our other projects, to construct reference points and connections across time, sites and geographies. We share with you some of the enquiries, threads, and (to borrow a geological term) hot spots that are currently shaping our notion of Asia. Echoing MAP Office's Atlas of Asia Art Archive, which is imagined as an archipelagic configuration, like a series of islands that are independent, yet intricately connected by their relationship to one another and the ocean, we invite you to ignore the pagination and draw your own connections as you navigate the journal.
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We are imagining a space in which the objects of identification can be multiplied and alternative frames of reference constructed so that societies in Asia (and those situated in the "Global South") may also become each other's points of reference . . . to provide alternative horizons and perspectives from those well-travelled.
It is believed that the term "Asia" was adopted in Asia in the sixteenth century after being introduced by Jesuit missionaries under Matteo Ricci. However, as discussed in the introduction to Pan-Asianism: A Documentary History,3 it was not until the eighteenth century that Asia ceased to represent something beyond a technical term used by cartographers. In reaction to the threat of Western colonialism, "Asia" became a distinctive geopolitical space with common histories, diplomatic ties, trading links, religions, and now, a shared destiny.
While the justifications for, and definitions of an Asian solidarity throughout the first half of the twentieth century were numerous, and often highly contentious considering Japan's role as a major exponent in its legitimization leading up to World War II, the variations of a "Pan-Asianism" discourse created the space from which concepts of the nation and nationalism, the region and regionalism, were formed and still live with us today. At the same time this anti-colonial movement forged what might otherwise have been unlikely transnational alliances from Turkey to India to Japan.
In this issue of Field Notes, we trace what might be read as a contemporary lineage to these earlier debates between intellectuals and revolutionaries in the region with a recent email conversation between artist and Third Text4 founder Rasheed Araeen and Professor Chen Kuanhsing, inspired by Chen's book Asia as Method.5 In their exchange they move away from the idea of Asia as a site "in opposition to," and instead deliberate Asia and art as "active"; as possibilities upon and through which a process of de-colonialisation and deimperialisation can take place. We simultaneously draw a thread to the work of Bagyi Aung Soe (1924–1990), who upon returning to Burma from a year of study at the university in Santiniketan in 1951, created an artistic language that was able to challenge accepted notions of modernity as shaped by European perspectives. Bagyi Aung Soe's work was clearly influenced by the school's curriculum which combined traditional Indian theories of aesthetics, universalist ideals, and pan-asianist theories. Concerned with the linguistic rationale and the communicative functions of art, Aung Soe's work was able to transcend the simplistic binaries of tradition and modern, and East and West, by drawing on multiple reference points. And yet for this very reason, his work was labelled psychotic or mad painting by the art community and the very people who had supported his scholarship and passage to Santiniketan in the first place.
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My memory is again in the way of your history . . .
Your memory keeps getting in the way of my history . . .
—Agha Shahid Ali6
"You can see the nice view of China from here," is a travel photo taken in the late 1970s, 20 years before the handover of British-colonial Hong Kong to Mainland China. The sign in the photo, hand-painted in English and Japanese text, leads one's gaze to an underdeveloped piece of land that is now the city of Shenzhen with a sprawling and rapidly growing population of over ten million. As we look back, the photo stands in stark contrast to the image of geo-economic power that we have of China today. On the one hand it calls us to watch this rapid transformation unfold from the birth place of Deng Xiaoping's open door reforms, and on the other, it reminds us that we can do so but only from a distance. Looking across the border, 16 years after the handover, the significance of the sign as a delineation between two distinct territories remains—Mainland Chinese require a special visa to travel to Hong Kong, while a child born from Mainland and Hong Kong parents has right of abode the Mainland parent does not, and there is a growing xenophobia of Mainland Chinese, who are often referred to as "locusts" in the city.
Last year, hundreds of thousands gathered outside government quarters to protest the introduction of a mandatory national curriculum aimed at developing a sense of national identity and pride. Denounced as a brain-washing exercise by swathes of the public in Hong Kong because of its advocacy of China's one party system, it invoked widespread demonstration, leading to its eventual withdrawal. Images of the protests echoed the since-forgotten 1967 riots in the city, a leftist uprising against the colonial government originating from a minor labour dispute. Who gets to write the history of Hong Kong, and what that history will look like is a debate that will continue to play out in multiple arenas, especially as Hong Kong deliberates its course to universal suffrage as laid out in the Basic Law. At the same time, we might ask, what is it that Hong Kong can offer, with its recent colonial history, Chinese immigrant population, and status as one country/two systems as a site for reconsidering alternative constructs around the nation? And what do these major historical ruptures and shifts in alliance do to the distortion of history and memory?
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All places are misplaces, and all misplaces are misreadings,
The prerequisite for the setting of boundaries on maps is possession of the power to create fiction.
—Dung Kai Cheung7
Maps and cartography have long been imperative to understanding how civilisations have navigated, rationalised, conquered, and shaped territories. Through a mimicry of objective reality, maps visualise nations and spatial limitations and create illusions of finitude. They erase the layering of movements, migrations over time, and the entanglements of connected histories and produce in their place identities, traditions, and models of existences based primarily on invented boundaries. The practice of mapping is one that is fundamentally flawed, in that it is inevitably skewed by the agenda of the map-maker and excludes everything that falls outside its borders. What forms of objective knowledge are ruptured when new islands suddenly make themselves apparent in the world?
Returning to our image of Shenzhen; this city's transformation from a fishing village to a metropolis with one of China's largest ports in just three decades has become synonymous with China's economic miracle. Remarkably familiar from a twenty-first century vantage point is Guangzhou in the nineteenth century, home to a mixture of traders and travelers, a world where long distance travel was commonplace. It is representative of other geographical nodes around the globe that because of their location and relationship to, for example, the sea, have become sites for convergence and crossover, migration, hybrid language, shared histories, and myths. It is these sites of layered pasts, these rich culturally-entangled histories that we are particularly interested in activating, especially with regards to enriching our often binary understanding of current global geo-political relations and economies. We point to these layers through the site of Guangzhou at three distinct points in time: the Ming dynasty voyages of Zheng He, the nineteenth-century opium trade, and today's China–Africa trade axis.
We are interested in exploring the necessity of myth and liminal spaces in constructing notions of territory and history. As such, we are pleased to include W for Weretiger, the first entry in Ho Tzu Nyen's Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia, a project being developed as part of his residency at AAA investigating the formation of the notion of South East Asia. The dictionary echoes the necessary negotiation between inherited maps, borders, and systems (nation, history, politics, economy) and terrain that is often slippery and unstable (myth, histories, memory, fiction) yet an essential component for considering the formation of territory. By continuously opening up our mapping process at Asia Art Archive to interventions, enquiries, and debate, we hope to continuously expand and extend the notion of Asia. By activating less visible and/or dormant sites of knowledge and offering new reference points, how might we positively de-stablilise the often debilitating notions of territories that we have inherited?
1. Michael A Aung-Thwin, Myth and History in the Historiography of Early Burma: Paradigms, Primary Sources and Prejudices, BRILL, Leiden, 2001.
2. Kuan-hsing Chen, Asia as Method: Toward Deimperialization, Duke University Press, London & Durham, 2010.
3. Sven Saaler and Christopher W A Szpilma, Pan-Asianism: A Documentary History, 1850–1920, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Maryland, 2011.
4. Third Text: Critical Perspectives on Contemporary Art & Culture, published by Kala Press, London until 2011 thereafter published by Taylor & Francis, London.
5. Chen, Asia as Method: Toward Deimperialization.
6. Agha Shahid Ali, Farewell, The Country Without a Post Office: Poems 1991–1995, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
7. Dung Kai Cheung, Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City, Dung Kai Cheung, Anders Hansson, and Bonnie S McDougall, trans., Columbia University Press, New York, 2012.
Editors Claire Hsu, Chantal Wong
Editorial support Jeannie Wu, Sabih Ahmed, Hammad Nasar, Michelle Wong
Editorial Coordinator Jeannie Wu
Translators Tsui Cheong-ming, Cao Shuying, Chan Wai-fong, Doris Lau Parry, Sunny Kam Yiu-pang, Ada Poon
Copy editors Daisley Kramer, Phoebe Wong, Janet Chan
With thanks to Agha Shahid Ali, Steven Apotheker, Rasheed Araeen, Francisco Camacho, Oscar Campomanes, Rachel Chamberlain, Chen Kuan-hsing, Chun Wa Chan, Teboho Edkins, Amitav Ghosh, Ho Tzu Nyen, Joan Kee, Yin Ker, Tina Le, David McClure, MAP Office (Valerie Portefaix and Laurent Gutierrez), Gerui Wang, Robert Wessing, Phoebe Wong
Support from Mondriaan Foundation for A Parallel Narrative
Cover image courtesy Arlind Schmidt