Curatorial Connections, Southeast Asia: Three Panels, Two Books

Around the time I was asked to contribute an article focusing on the notion of connectivity, I was in the midst of working through some ideas about curatorial collaborations and I thought then that I would post a text that might hitch a ride on three panels occurring at about the same time, and two books on hand. These panels and books, as you might have guessed, involved curators and curating. My interest was (and is) in what emerged from these attempts at dialogue in relation to what seems to be the ‘hyper-critical introspection’ of curating today (quoting Annie Fletcher, further mentioned below), as much as about the sorts of problems and possibilities curators might face in Southeast Asia.

In his recent publication Past Peripheral, Filipino critic, curator and Professor of Art Studies at the University of Philippines, Patrick Flores, suggests that the curator in Southeast Asia has played a key role in the internationalisation of Southeast Asian art and artists. In particular, in relation to Thailand and Indonesia that he cites in his research, following the developments of the art scenes through the work of Apinan Poshyananda and Jim Supangkat respectively, both engaged in analysis of post-modernism and the contemporary in their own cities. Their curatorial roles in the midst of a paucity of critical positions and, as suggested, their resistance against easy formulaic accounts of the practices of artists and reductive framing of Southeast Asian art, would lead to their ‘representation’ of the contemporary art of their home countries to a Western, well-read international, audience. Today, the question of representation, of what defines Southeast Asia, and its constituent countries, continues to be a contested field. With most texts on curating emerging from outside Southeast Asia it would, in addition, be interesting to be see how texts about the processes and issues problematising the developments in Southeast Asia continue to develop alongside readings of its art. In unpacking some thoughts here I am, admittedly, using the term ‘curator’ rather loosely, conflating both the ‘western’ and the region’s experiences and practice; the term itself often seems to privilege the portrait of the international curator, curating by frequent flyer, as the role par excellence. The purpose of this, and I think the panels, was (I hope) an attempt to complicate the matter and tease out nuances from experiences and analyses.

Flores’ thesis surveys the various roles that a curator might play, and there are many; from mediating, legitimating, dictating, promoting, inventing, advocating, facilitating, networking, critiquing to the obligatory checklist cited today, at least within curatorial navel-gazing discussions that also includes, “medium, midwife, DJ, agent, manager, platform provider, self-promoter and scout, to the more ridiculous such as diviner, fairy godmother or even god” (Paul O’Neill, again also further mentioned below), basically everything and the kitchen sink. Not to be facetious, the roles point to the ambiguity of the curatorial position, as noted by Flores in his suggestion of the use of the more ‘reflexive’ term ‘curation’, coined “as it implies the activity rather than the position or convention that is ironically identified with the aura of the museum”. This is perhaps especially so in a Southeast Asian context with its variable states of cultural and political infrastructure. This uneasiness about the nature of the curatorial role is echoed in the panel that was organised in Hong Kong in late February, where Kate Chattiya from Thailand raised the point that in Bangkok the curatorial practice is confounded with administration. As Flores notes as well the Thai term for curator is pantarak referring to a keeper of things, which probably does not do much for what curators may wish to do, and how curation is recognised and acknowledged. Curating in Southeast Asia, as perhaps fellow curators in the region might agree, is at times really a dance that often goes one step forwards and two steps back.

While here I am generally referring to curating or curation of an independent nature, not necessarily affiliated to an institution, gallery, or space, it does not preclude efforts that emerge from these settings. As Agung Hujatnikajennong, curator in Bandung at the Selasar Sunaryo Art Space and the recent Jakarta Biennale, suggests, curatorial practice depends on networks, emphasising the other nebulous relationships that curating demands. This has also begun to grow problematic in Indonesia, in that “the network is much determined by arbitrary connections, that all kinds of interests may overlap, and some curators are not able to define their own positions so as to gain a level of autonomy and professionalism. Since the boom of the art market in Indonesia, the Indonesian curator has been identified with the extension of the commercial institution's interest, such as with galleries or auction houses.” The manner in which the commercial, cultural and political situations influence and affect the ability for curatorial practice to flourish is similarly felt in Singapore, where curating is largely subsumed under the practicalities of exhibition organisation and its poetic gestures too subtle to be heard above a bureaucratic clamour for spectacle. As Flores also notes, though in relation to how institutional curation is also challenged by the vast scope it is supposed to represent, curating in Southeast Asia is often rendered almost tactical.

The role then for curation, in my reading of Flores’ text, is to be at the periphery, a periphery that is also to be resisted. He describes the response when Jim Supangkat ascribed the role to himself in 1993, of the disconcertment that followed, that “at its inception, contemporary curation instilled in the art community both the awe of authority (the museum) and the indeterminacy of the foreign and the external (the independent curator), who is pictured as an unknown quantity, an interloper who interferes and usurps artistic prerogatives, indeed, a peripheral visionary.” Which brings us to the title of his text Past Peripheral, referring to “a peripheral that no longer holds because of efforts to centralise Southeast Asia partly through curation” and “a political position to overcome peripherality.”

With regards to the desire for a change or to assuage certain apprehensions about present conditions, I would like to move on to the issue of anxieties, anxieties of, about and in curating, which also implies a certain level of reflexivity. Recently, I was part of a panel discussion organised by Hong Kong’s Osage Gallery in Kwun Tong as part of an exhibition where I was one of six co-curators, titled ‘Some Rooms’. The first sign that things were perhaps a little uncanny was that just within the panel alone, four of the co-curators (including myself) owned the same book, Curating Subjects, a publication by the De Appel in Amsterdam and Open Editions about, well, curating today. The book edited by Paul O’Neill, cited earlier, includes texts with Annie Fletcher, and by Dave Beech and Mark Hutchinson, whom I will mention again later, amongst others. This book is interesting not only in terms of the texts it organises together but also in the manner it evolved – O’Neill commissioned the contributions one by one, inviting each new contributor to take a different approach from what was already in the book. Yoking anthologies to exhibitions, he says, “they are testing sites that evolve through variable degrees of dialogue, semi-autonomous participation and self-determined modes of resistance”, a description that positions exhibitions as laboratories rather than public education, and a book which I then liberally sampled for my presentation at the panel.

The exhibition, ‘Some Rooms’, involved curators working with artists they had not worked with before, and whom they had not selected, which resulted in a curious discussion at the panel largely consisting of the revelations of anxieties that this brought about, and the strategies to limit these misgivings. Chattiya’s presentation made mention of the notion of faith, that the curator while unfamiliar perhaps with the work had somehow ‘to be a believer’. This level of intimacy that faith demands, in this case where the curators had to work closely with the artists to create something new, meant that a relationship, if not the work, had to be developed. Furthermore if we do desire for curation to engage with the assumptions and concerns of curatorial practice, such intimacy is necessary, which leads to the point that Eva McGovern from Malaysia, another of the co-curators, raised, that trust became essential. She says, “working remotely from a space as in the case of ‘Some Rooms’, where neither party has seen creates a certain type of anxiety for both the artist and curator especially for installation work. If there is trust on both sides, then challenging conversations that push the boundaries of practice and curatorial thinking emerge, disagreements, confusions can be openly voiced which mean that ultimately agreements and clarity become much easier to extract in this framework of trust. It is a dual role where both parties (hopefully) help the other to develop and provide support for one another.”

That success necessitates a quick route to familiarity is perhaps one of the lesser-mentioned curatorial skills one needs to possess, but one which underlies many of the roles listed that a curator has to play. However, this sense of rapport that ‘contemporary curation’ as tactical aesthetic exegesis relies on, I would suggest, gets compromised when one moves away from being at the ‘periphery’, and perhaps more so in Southeast Asia. That same day in Hong Kong another lecture was being held. It was organised by Para/Site Art Space, who had invited Jens Hoffmann, Director of the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art and senior lecturer at the Curatorial Practice Program of the California College of the Arts, to give a talk titled ‘Curating and Creating’. In his lecture, Hoffman was to speak of the blurring of the space between curating, creating, and staging an exhibition, given his background in theatre is invariably mentioned even though I believe he has been curating for a much longer time. In his lecture, he traced a few exhibition projects that he curated at the ICA in London and other venues, highlighting his negotiations with curatorial practice that, despite their non-Asian reference, in their attempt at addressing assumptions of exhibitionary systems are thought-provoking for regional efforts. What I would like to note from his lecture in relation to curatorial anxieties is the exhibition he developed for Cristina Guerra Contemporary Art in Lisbon in 2007. As it was a commercial gallery, Hoffman decided to use this opportunity to analyse the role that curators play in the art market. Creating the gallery space and the entire exhibition of artworks as the object that was for sale (the title of the exhibition being ‘For Sale’), he says, “I was interested in two points, on the one hand I was thinking about how far can I push it, the limit of the art market, how far can it go, and how far would a collector go in order to buy artworks. But on the other hand what I was also interested in was to think of the possibility of keeping shows together. One of the things you always struggles with as a curator is that once a show is over the experience of the exhibition is gone.”

Of course it is arguable that the more ethereal discursivity of the exhibition is captured in the “ubiquitous promise of the publication”, even if the experience itself is lost, quoting Mick Wilson, still from the same book, where he talks about contemporary curatorial practice as existing within a reputational economy and the role of discursivity in brokering reputational transfer. The currency of curatorial discursivity in the form of the mobility of texts, while necessary, perhaps also needs to be layered with... what I am reluctant to call ‘local context’ for its repeated use, but maybe something more akin to a local intimacy or familiarity... for it to represent the conditions of Southeast Asia. Such an enterprise in Southeast Asia already under strain within the growing celebrity culture in curation of art as “part of the global entertainment industry” (O’Neill), and stretched between the desire to escape peripherality and at the same time resist the over-determination of reductionistic tendencies, is further undermined by the market and political exercises capitalising on culture.

In a time when institutionalised curatorial programmes are now offered abroad, arguably seeming to provide an answer to Southeast Asia’s apparent lack of curatorial specialisation, while whitewashing the other conditions specific to the region that lend to the appearance of a lack, and while the ink of texts written on Southeast Asia is still drying and pronouncements still being forged, I wanted then to consider what might be a possible alternative to the predicaments of curation, its contradictions and dilemmas here, at least in terms of the efforts of curation that are aware of their effects as much as they are affected. As with anti-art, anti-curation “implies that there is something in curation (in the social relations of curation) that is worth transforming: that it is worthwhile for the curator to be something else.” Mark Hutchinson (same book) continues, “the problem with curation is not that it mediates the reception of art (how could the reception of art not be mediated?) but that it so often adopts a position of expertise in a way that implicitly asserts an authority over art. This is the assigned position of curation within the dominant modes of distribution for art: a practice that deals with cultural capital. But it is not the only possibility for curation... A critically self-aware curation would have to enter into a mutual and dialogical relationship with artists. It might not even be clear that such a practice was curation at all. Such a practice would have to live with doubt and conflict.”

The third panel I wish to make mention of was organised by the National University of Singapore (NUS) Museum, on the occasion of their exhibition of the popular Indonesian art group Kelompok Seni Rupa Jendela (KSRJ), also known as the Jendela Art Group. The panel brought to the fore curatorial anxieties of the exhibition that seem to recur each time the group is exhibited. The artwork by the group tends to attract a polarity of views, from producing easy aesthetics to actively confronting tendencies for political and social readings to the detriment of other possibilities, views that emerge in part due to expectations of politically charged expressions familiar with Yogyakarta art. These conflicting views unpacked in the exhibition texts, and perhaps discerned more subtly within the exhibition, and that become revealed through the curatorial strategies and positions undertaken are arguably critical to gaining insight to the actual state of developments, rather than publicity-friendly truisms proclaiming the group’s market-success as a measure of where Southeast Asian art might be headed.

As Dave Beech, in conversation with Hutchinson on anti-curation, suggests, “as we learn from anti-art, resistance to complicity (to complicities) does not derive from isolating one’s practice from the social world, but from interrupting and infecting art with social contexts that are suppressed or excluded by art’s official discourses.” The question I really wanted to ask was about collaboration in curating, its possibilities beyond happenstance collaborations, and the sorts of outcomes it might generate. That is the first question - looking at the sorts of collaborative experiments and groupings that might be engendered. Then in trying to arrive at what ‘Southeast Asian’ representation(s) might be, given that we do, incidentally, already have doubt and conflict to begin with, how might the curatorial role or curation evolve? Here I am suggesting the possibility of ‘anti-curation’ as a strategy to examine the situation with an intimacy that we already have the good fortune to have being where we are. I’m afraid these two questions remain unanswered in this text.

A final note to round off this remix of discussions, from O’Neil, “a curatorial strategy should provide a useful opening-out of potentialities and enable multiple responses to the same question, while incorporating failure as a disruptive ingredient within the overall structure and conceptual framework of the project.” Perhaps therein lies the beginnings of an answer, that where success is read in rudimentary terms and circumstances set individual in opposition to institution, market and industry, failure, at least in these terms, might then be a necessary option.

Thanks to Kate Chattiya (Independent Curator, Bangkok), Patrick Flores (Professor of Art Studies, University of Philippines), Eva McGovern (Independent Curator, Malaysia) and Agung Hujatnikajennong (Curator, Selasar Sunaryo Art Space).

Publications referenced:
Past Peripheral: Curation in Southeast Asia, Patrick D. Flores, National University of Singapore (NUS) Museum, Singapore: 2008
Curating Subjects, Paul O’Neill (ed.), De Appel Centre for Contemporary Art, Amsterdam and Open Editions: 2007


June Yap is an independent curator based in Singapore.


Wed, 1 Apr 2009

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