At the Cross Roads: Looking Back Forward Looking

There will always be an element of serendipity to the degree to which a series of reviews produced within a fixed period of time can serve as an indicator of the state of things. Yet, the opportunity provided by such organizations as Asia Art Archive to write such ‘perspectives’ serves a critical function of not simply providing both information and reflection but a forum for exchange and advocacy.

Two dominant areas can be distinguished in the ‘Perspectives’ of 2008. The first provides focused discussions on the state of contemporary art and associated visual practices in various countries, notably Tibet, Pakistan, Laos, Vietnam and Mainland China. What is invaluable to the reader is the critical appraisal made by the contributors on the issues surrounding contemporary art in Pakistan, an argument for broadening the parameters of contemporary Tibetan art, the character of contemporary practices in Vietnam and the development of an organization in Laos that seeks to promote collaborations between local and international artists. These surveys are complemented by two articles that concern Mainland China and provide a focus around, on the one hand, recent significant video and film practice and, on the other, the dismal state of local critical writing on the visual arts today. The second area of focus in the published ‘Perspectives’ is more broad-ranging in regard to the region. It concerns, in particular, the growth and character of Biennales/Triennales, the present state of public and private art museums and their programming and the development of locally based alternative organizations dedicated to supporting contemporary art.

The first area – continuing ‘Perspectives’ specific discussions as to developing contemporary art practices – gives pause for optimism. Not only do these discussions broaden our appreciation through directing our attention to what is taking place but they also provide a valuable counterweight to the dominance Mainland China has exercised (as once did Japan) over our perspective on and evaluation of the contemporary scene. Moreover, rather than being the outcome of inflationary economies, the writers argue for seeing their subject as developing within the specific domain of aesthetic practices as much as their respective cultural and social conditions. And yet, while this is the good news, the tacit or explicit subject of those ‘Perspectives’ concerning either Mainland China or Pakistan should be of concern. In fact, what is impressive about these articles is the critical commitment to their subject, a sense of allegiance expressed even more strongly if only because of the severity of their judgment. Perhaps they are overstated or overly sweeping in their critique, but these views demand a response serving (if nothing else) to raise the level of local debate and criticality as opposed to an easy dismissal, a disabling pessimism or seeing ‘foreign’ interest as a sufficient mark of appraisal of what is going on. Beyond this, such commentaries suggest a more widespread risk facing the region. In both, the case of each country, the need to survive – together with the profound lack of support and social stability – has produced a climate conducive to being exploited or one where those ‘styles’ and artists successful in Western countries become unduly influential on those artists seeking to maintain their practice and means of livelihood.  Moreover, faced with little or no interest, support or means at a local level, who can dispute the appeal the ‘foreigner’ has, coming to see if not purchase or mediate the sale of work. And, while this challenge can only be, in the final analysis, addressed directly by the artist concerned, the challenge can also be redressed more broadly. For, as the contributors to ‘Perspectives’ remark, this concern reflects upon the need to develop an environment in which a productive evaluation can function in establishing a critical reception towards, if not within, the local scene as much as towards the international. This is precisely what is, in effect, the mandate of public museums and forums, as much as by research, scholarship and critical writing within the public domain. 
Drawing upon these reviews, the second area of focus within the ‘Perspectives’ of 2008 leads us to a broader consideration of some of these issues. Without doubt, there are gains to be remarked upon as suggested both by the writers of ‘Perspectives’ in 2008 and those who wrote in the preceding years. And while some of these successes appear to have happened in an unorthodox manner, other writers draw a portrait that is of greater concern if not uncertain as to recent developments. In this regard, the kinds of institutional and organizational practice advocated by both Tobias Berger and Christine Clark are critical to a sustained future of any cultural environment.  The instances noted in both articles suggest too the process of reciprocity of demand, articulated through dialogue between those with expertise and responsibility for the programmatic development of museums and that of both an audience and, more broadly, the public. This is specifically discussed by Lee Weng Choy who advocates that such a dialogue grounds the museum in the cultural and social environment while, equally, enabling museum expertise to develop an ambitious and challenging program of the highest quality. More than that, it is precisely such a sphere that can serve as a bulwark against the mediocracy to which Rasheed Araeen so candidly refers.

Offering broader overviews, the authors suggest that the gains made in 2008, if measured in terms of a firmly based art scene, have not quite measured up. Something has either not happened or gone askew. In short, the ‘Perspectives’ of 2008 reveal that, once read together, there is a degree of concern, if not urgency, that is contrary to a sense of optimism. This concern is to be found in the mistaken identity of the subject, the constant threat of mis-orientation or mis-direction in the kinds of models established. What is made clear is that a Western-oriented aesthetic, or that which fits into ‘Western’ paradigms of modernism etc., is not adequate to developing a local base of appreciation or supporting a creative practice that becomes a dynamic focus for both cultural organizations and its potential audiences. In part this has to do with the kind of attention contemporary art received, whether good or bad, within each of these countries and the region more generally. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the role of the market in fostering contemporary art practice across Asia. Certainly the market brought greater attention to the region from outside and strengthened if not stimulated a local base of collectors. Moreover, it inadvertently raised an acute awareness as to the need for public institutions and other forms by which to stimulate, critically support and sustain creative production. Equally, it has generated a critical reception intent on making some sense of the phenomena and character of practice.

However, in order to have positive and long-lasting effects at a local level, this influence must be calibrated by the presence of, if not collaboration with, local interests and commitment of engagement. For, while the market may appear to provide a sufficient model and system of support and patronage, there remains a critical distinction between aesthetic and economic value. As we know this gap predominantly closes over time, although other reasons also begin to inform this process such as scarcity, changing taste and historical judgment. Furthermore, the market interest is far more fickle than it may otherwise seem initially. Its level of engagement may diminish or disappear for reasons that are obvious. Recently this has been most evident in the manner by which globally-based markets have responded to the local. One may be easily lulled into a state of some satisfaction when they arrive, publishing collectible full-colour catalogues thereby giving tremendous visibility to the art. But we should never lose sight of the fact that their interest remains based in the final analysis on the ‘backroom boys’ whose principles of action are pragmatic or, having been built on speculation, respond as swiftly to the limits as to seizing hold of the possibilities of a new market. Equally, there is important distinction to be made between the function and value of galleries and those of the auction houses. One can understand the increasing incursion of auction houses into the ‘traditional’ domain of galleries. Yet such actions are to the detriment of the local galleries and the value they provide to building an ongoing and sustained local environment for artists, audiences, collectors and public institutions.  The effect is one in which the economy of scale is thrown out of alignment with the local context, leading to a scenario whereby important artists leave the country or much of the best of contemporary art is bought by private collectors who may have little or no interest in supporting their local public museum. One such consequence of this trend is the virtual impossibility of a museum to build a collection that represents the best work produced by artists of the region as well as provide a wider artistic context in which it can be viewed.  This is not an argument for collections that are ‘national’ but rather to recognize the challenge for public collections to be built in this kind of environment. Such issues raise other questions concerning the level of patronage in the region, and the role of foundations and the very real limits private museums have in achieving the kind of role a public museum plays within the community.

In short, while the development of international interest in local art scenes has brought with it broader recognition, if not respect, as much as a means of exchange, it has not necessarily enhanced the infrastructure necessary to sustain local development.  Certainly the increasing presence of Biennales/ Triennales has been invaluable as a means of exchange between and enhancing a common platform for the local and the international together. However, they are neither served well by being run by government ministries (albeit for some packaged as culture, education, entertainment or sport), nor are they a sufficient antidote to the lack of a strong museum base.

In this regard, we might well view the future of the museum or of a non-commercial space, dedicated to the modern or contemporary, as needing greater resolve and response as to its importance. The presence of such an organization remains especially imperative in the context of a strong contemporary scene. This imperative is in creating an ongoing and committed audience who, as such, provide the foundation for supporting the arts as integral to contemporary society. And, while there is doubtless a crisis in the museum world with regard to funding, the role the formation of a museum culture can play in creating an environment of cultural and aesthetic appreciation, critical discernment and historical value both locally and internationally, is irreplaceable.  The great art museums of the world are due evidence of this role and its recognition by virtue of the loyal local and international audiences they have created. They are neither commercial centers nor simply repositories of art, rather they help shape the values and aspirations of a people and their city.

Recognition of this opportunity has been seized upon by some both within and independent of government or the market. They have understood that the degree of awareness and cultural value presently given to the contemporary visual arts is an invaluable asset and therefore a present-day window of opportunity. From this perspective then, these issues suggest a sense of urgency as to the role government, the private sector and benefactors can play in finding the means of sponsoring public institutions and organizations.

Critical to succeeding in this initiative and advocacy is not only an internal discussion and debate, but the formation of a platform upon which to engage with all sectors of the community. We could debate amongst ourselves for a long time to come or quietly drift away dispirited or out of fatigue. Yet, the point has been reached in the articulation of issues and concerns that now need to be taken further, engaging with, if not contributing to, the constituent formation of a public sphere. Inherent to the concept of the public sphere is the fundamental support of the cultural and the arts as being of critical value to the well-being of a people. This would embrace museums, contemporary art centers, Biennales, independent organizations, college/university courses, research libraries and archives, Fellowships, residencies for artists, writers and others committed to the arts etc. Such an infrastructure would support all aspects of the arts, unhindered by the state or the necessity of commercial support, but, too, accountable to itself: a self-regulated practice.

And yet the creation of a public sphere remains, in whatever form it takes, one of the most urgent needs and challenges that faces many of these countries. More than any other single factor, its advent would require supporting an educational system whose graduates can assume, in time, a critical role in the development of cultural institutions and organizations that belong to the city and people. The advent this development requires is faith in those who have expertise and the ability to provide leadership in the field. This should be an aspiration of governments, recognizing the vital role cultural education and appreciation has, if only in serving the welfare of its communities and development of a civil society.


Charles Merewether is an art historian and curator. He is currently Research Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. He was Deputy Director of the Cultural District (Saadiyat Island) in Abu Dhabi in 2007-8, and Artistic Director and Curator of the Biennale of Sydney in 2006. He reviews the Perspectives contributions from 2008.


Sun, 1 Feb 2009

In light of the current COVID-19 situation, AAA Library will remain temporarily closed till 5 February.