Looking at the title of the symposium Our Modernities: Positioning Asian Art Now, I couldn't help but think: what a bold project! How can Asian Art be positioned when we cannot agree what "Asian" is in the first place? How can 'our modernities' be defined when what 'contemporary' or 'modern' is remains a topic of heated debate even on the most microscopic level? How could, in general, any constructive discussion of all these issues come about when the majority of academic debates in this field are concerned with - and most often stop at - deconstructing existing systems of analysis? The short description that ARI (Asian Research Institute, Singapore), the event's main organizer, posted on its website was less ambitious: "this will be a multi-tiered, multi-thematic conference, which systematically presents platforms for modern art history and contemporary art critique." So, basically, anything goes.
The majority of the papers presented either floated about on the theoretical plane or dealt with art production in a specific country, thus rarely catering to this particular symposium. One of the few exceptions was an intriguing paper presented by Michelle Antoinette (Humanities Research Centre, Australian National University) entitled "Drawing New Maps of Identification: Shifting Cartographies of Southeast Asian Art". Antoinette analyzed the prevailing occupation with cultural 'locating,' both on the part of the international curators and exhibitions, as well as on the part of the art practitioners. Concurrently, the paper addressed the nuances between being mapped and self-mapping, between being essentialized and using cultural essentialism as an artistic tool, and the leakage or falling-in-between of those artists who work across their native borders. Although one may disagree with her proposition, Antoinette's paper did not stop at taking apart the structures that inform the production, exhibition, and understanding of Southeast Asian art, but actually offered a revitalizing suggestion.
Most of the other papers that remained at the macro-level took deconstruction as their key approach. Keen to distance themselves from the dominant Western - or as Professor John Clark (University of Sydney, Australia) emphatically begged to correct, 'American' - hegemony, some papers quite readily established an equally questionable form of essentialism; a sort of 'Asian art world axis of evil'. Demonizing international curators and their practice was a definite favorite, closely followed by the deprecation of international exhibition endeavors such as the Asia Pacific Triennials. Clearly, there are a number of questionable exhibition projects, as well as ill-informed - often Western - curators. But after years of dissecting all that cannot and should not be done, isn't it time we focus our efforts on finding out what can and should be done?! The Philippine art historian Patrick Flores put forward one of the few constructive proposals. He felt that if more attention could be paid to the modes of engagement in curatorship, as well as the individual biographies and the multiple roles of curators, that more reflexive parameters for curatorship could be found.
Mainland China was, without doubt, the country whose contemporary art received the most attention among the country-specific papers. The aspects covered were wide-ranging, starting from the early avant-garde endeavors by Gu Wenda to more recent performance art, from the Communist government's latest appropriation of the avant-garde to art production in China's southern urban centers. The more general approximations of contemporary Chinese art broke only little new ground. On the other hand, the propositions for analyzing performance art in the region, presented by Thomas Berghuis, were very thought-provoking. Similarly, Charles Merewether's exposition of the permanently shifting imaginary of 'the modern' as it is reflected in the art production from China's southern urban centers offered a fresh view in the somewhat repetitive discourse on urbanism in China's contemporary art.
The majority of theoretical essays were based on conspicuously binary thought structures - tradition versus modernity, center versus periphery, Western versus Asian, and colonialism versus post-colonialism to name but a few. As a result, each distinct construct and its related issues found definition in opposition to the other. The Indian art historian Yashodhara Dalmia observed in the symposium's closing session that 'modernity' functioned as the central reference point to which all other issues were related, whilst at the same time defying definition. Following another comment, John Clark pointed out that colonialism could not have been a hegemonic force since it allowed for the coexistence of both systems. I wonder if it is exactly this that set up the binary analysis structures that seem to continue to haunt the debates in the field.
Certain important issues such as gender - only indirectly touched on by the famous Pakistani artist Salima Hashmi in her paper on the revival of miniature tradition - were conspicuously missing from the discussions in this symposium. The organizers seemed to make a concerted effort to break open the often self-referential and opaque system of art historical practice. However, papers based on other methodological approaches such as cultural studies or urban studies were few and far between. Not only were most of them scheduled for the fourth and last day of the symposium, but some of the more staunch art historians also seemed to dismiss them as not much more than quaint and diverting endeavors.
By choosing Singapore, which is making a determined effort to establish itself as the regional hub for contemporary art from Southeast Asia, the organizers - willfully or not - engaged in their own politics of positioning 'Asian Art Now'. Both the symposium's title and its paper call aimed to incite new, constructive, and encompassing approaches to contemporary art from the region. Some such propositions were indeed made. But, as the symposium's unfolding showed, it is hard to break old habits, especially when they appear to have become the building blocks of the field.
(Papers available at the AAA for reference only)