Since its inception, Asia Art Archive has been dedicated to documenting and increasing access to information on recent histories of art in Asia, histories that continue to be difficult to research, where material and documentation are scattered and writings sparsely translated. On 5 June 2012, alongside the launch of the present issue of Field Notes, AAA inaugurates a re-constructed website which will over time provide online access to hundreds of thousands of digitised primary source materials and video recordings. This database will make available for the first time slides, photographs, correspondences, notebooks, interviews, and sketches; invaluable artifacts for research.
Bringing this substantial body of material into the public realm has led AAA to further consider its responsibility as not only disseminators of this material, but also its role in how the material will be interpreted and built upon. In line with this thinking, a decision was made to bid farewell to Diaaalogue, AAA’s long standing monthly newsletter.1 In its place, comes Field Notes, a tri-annual bi-lingual e-journal intended to provide the space for a more in-depth reflection of issues prevalent in the field, with Asia as a malleable anchoring point. As part of this process, the first issue of Field Notespresents an opportune platform for AAA to begin by addressing a theme that is central not only to AAA, but one of the most vexed topics of discussions and publication in recent years. And so in this issue, entitled "The And . . ." we address the notion of "the contemporary in art" with specificity to the contexts in Asia.
Considering the countless internal debates at AAA over the last decade on what it means for an archive to be documenting the contemporary, we felt it important to take the reins of this current first issue, despite our intention to invite co-editors for future editions of the journal. Aware of a "global" sense of unsettling, and what seems like a collective anxiety around "the contemporary" manifested through the proliferation of conferences and publications around the theme, our approach to this issue had to be carefully considered. As we revisited these discussions, it became clear that one of the most referenced documents on the topic was American art historian and critic Hal Foster’s questionnaire2 sent out in 2009 to critics and curators in North America and Europe. Considering the role of the non-Western world within this conversation, the deeply entrenched relationship of the contemporary to the global, it was an interesting proposition for the questionnaire to be resuscitated and addressed from alternate latitudes. While the premise for our questionnaire was to expand the original’s geographical remit and to further increase the participants around the table, as we developed its text, it became clear that the premise of AAA’s questionnaire deviated considerably from the Foster original. The AAA questionnaire’s set of questions sought to provide multiple entry points for the divergent support systems for contemporary art in the region, and while intended as triggers rather than overarching frameworks, the large majority of respondents followed them carefully, an indication to us of their consequence in relation to thinking about the contemporary. And so AAA’s questionnaire is in fact an expanded and mutated version of the original. In order to keep the downloadable version of the journal manageable we have selected responses which we found to most suitably represent the range of perspectives and positions. The complete set of 44 responses is available from the online version of the journal both in Chinese and in English.
Inevitably, when looking out the window, one’s view is going to be very different depending not only on geographic coordinates, but on many other factors, from altitude to the time of day or night. Where it would appear that as a result of the institutionalisation of contemporary art in museums and universities in the West, that when you talk of contemporary art you’re talking about the same thing from the same elevation, the same cannot be said for many countries in, for example, Asia. The division of contemporary art from above and contemporary art from below in David Teh’s response to the questionnaire perhaps best illustrates the diverse and uneven levels of interpretation, not only when comparing different countries in the region but within a single country. One thing’s for sure: it’s unlikely that when you speak about contemporary art in Asia you’re necessarily referring to the same thing. So generally speaking, there’s contemporary art from below, "whereby artists have devised strategies for mediating and sometimes transcending their local traditions and modernisms" and contemporary art from above whereby institutions, governments and the market "have [. . .] put themselves forward as champions and patrons of a local/regional 'contemporary art.'" And even when standing at the same altitude, contemporaneity might look very different; what’s up for auction or taught in school is not necessarily being shown in museums and vice versa; the work of an artist being shown on the international biennial circuit may not necessarily be part of the exhibition circuit at home. Or as artist Naiza Khan observes in Pakistan, for example, "despite the lack of critical apparatus of engaged voices within" or the absence of the development of local knowledge around contemporary art practice in institutions, art practice continues at a dynamic pace. Responses from the questionnaire not only map the multiple and often disjunctive layers in which one must consider contemporary art in Asia, but make apparent the urgency to go a step further and consider the origins and usages of the very word ‘contemporary’ in the art histories of the region. As observed by Joan Kee, "There is a surfeit of terms, all of which are deeply embedded in highly specific historical trajectories. The words used to produce the phrase 'contemporary art' could be the same, but meanings vary considerably as do their approaches." For some countries, as in China, as Karen Smith notes, it’s a lack of alternatives; "contemporary has become the most convenient term for art being produced in this present age . . . but 'contemporary' has little relation to a specific attitude of mind or philosophy vis-à-vis a Euro-American concept." The responses also consider the possibilities of finding new approaches to the word. Reiko Tomii calls for the contemporary to be liberated from its imminent and all-encompassing form, preferring instead "contemporarity" which may unleash us from the indefiniteness of its grasp. Or can we imagine, as Hu Fang does, a time of hierographs, finding ways to unload words of their meaning, seeking new graphic communication prototypes.
The problem with the current usage of the contemporary in incorporating art from other parts of the world following modernity, as David Clarke among others point out, is that it does so without any serious threat to Western hegemony. The temporal bracketing of contemporary art history is what Atreyee Gupta describes as being "merely symptomatic of a larger tendency to frame the contemporary through signs that are fully legible only within a European and American context." When we consider that the words modern and contemporary were synonymously being used in academic art discourse in the mid-twentieth century in Thailand, that modernism was firmly entrenched in Indian art discourse well through the 70s, or that the usage of dangdai yishu (contemporary art) in China in the 1980s was born from a very different trajectory to gendai bijitsu (contemporary art) in Japan in the 1960s, the danger of the prevalent usage of the word is to reduce these specificities to simply mean art being produced now, in the footsteps of modernity and within the rubric of globalisation.
The need to develop sets of keywords and glossaries in the field that consider the origins, evolution, and nuances of words currently in usage in local contexts is an essential step in freeing the "contemporary" from these confines. With the expansion of AAA's Collection online, for example, the urgency to develop a keyword system to annotate the material has become evident. It is exactly this history of specifics or "scholarship of specifics" that a large number of respondents call for. Eileen Legaspi-Ramirez envisions a rooted stream of contemporaneity as a way of foiling Foster’s reference to contemporary art practice as non-orbit. Yet, Legaspi, like other respondents warn of the fraught nature of many of these attempts. The danger lies on the one hand in producing yet another set of canons and on the other, as flagged by Joan Kee, considering the basic lack of art historical documentation, in a system that offers few incentives to art historians, where the power of the market/government institution can become a "gate keeper syndrome" where power is in the hands of a few dominant mediators in the region.
Yet, within the writing of a history of specifics also lies the possibilities of expanding art history’s methodologies and approaches. While a number of respondents, like Lee Weng Choy pick up on the dangers in relegating art history to studies of the visual, lest it should be "subsumed by that larger field of enquiry," Lee at the same time faults art history for being far too conservative an enterprise. As succinctly put by David Teh, "to ghetto-ise 'fine art' or 'contemporary art' in the region, to pretend it’s not imbedded in, and richly informed by a host of other less exclusive cultural fields, would be to repeat the dumbest mistake of art history’s history." This is reiterated in Iola Lenzi’s response, who insists on the study of the history of South East Asian art beyond any temporal chronology, and views contemporary art as being predominantly shaped by local conditions as opposed to an "off-shoot" of practices elsewhere. She insists on a thorough look at regional culture, history, and geography as well as aesthetics in any consideration of contemporary art in Asia.
Atreyee Gupta calls for a reintroduction of a "politics of place" in to the conceptualisation of contemporary art and contemporaneity, on the one hand to replace the obscurity of the global, of the "no-history, no-nation, no-place," and on the other to consider "a new ethics for transformational art practices that has emerged through the politics of locality." If contemporary art’s characteristics, are as Patrick Flores describes, a sense on the one hand that art being made all over the world "is coordinated by some mega-structure of neo-liberal persuasion," and at the same time, the ground from which resistance to totality can be fought, then it would seem that it is in the ways that we connect history to place wherein lie the potential to mobilise this resistance.
Miwon Kwon, in the original questionnaire suggests that the writing of contemporary art history is different to art history in the way it deals with the present as it provides the opportunity to "keep its eye on the living life of the artwork in the present, no matter how old, no matter when it was originally made."3 In this issue, we therefore delve in to the Archive with an article on artist Ivan Peries (1921–1988) and his practice by art historian Senake Bandaranayake originally published in Third Text in 1987/88.45 Around the time of the artist’s death, Bandaranayake critically looks at the work of Peries, one of the leading members of the 43 Group, by firmly arguing for their grounding within historical and social frameworks, stating "If these paintings are to be understood at all in any significant way, they must be understood in terms of the contribution they make to the cultural experience and traditions of society in which they exist." Bandaranayake traces the way in which Peries’ works move from an external and public plane, in his employment of traditional national signifiers in his work (even after moving to England in 1946), to an internal and private plane as he sought to imbue these forms with "inner feelings." It is these factors, he contends, that situate Peries’ work in a social and therefore cultural vacuum despite their formal artistic merit—illegible in their contexts of origin (Ceylon), illegible by the art centres of the world (UK).
This is probably a natural juncture at which to bring in readings of Peries with notions of the untimely; that being contemporary would suggest being out of joint with the present; or that being contemporary is in fact one’s attitude to the present: a perception of darkness. There’s no need to rehash here Ravi Sundaram’s skillful journey through Nietzsche and Agamben’s account of contemporaneity for the Raqs Media Collective panel,6 "Has the moment of the contemporary come and gone?" the transcripts of which are included in this issue. Instead we'd like to highlight the discussion that happens at the point at which Sundaram considers the potentialities of a new public realm brought about by technological advances; a world where the power of the archive or the writing of history no longer resides in the hands of the state or the coloniser. This becomes even more powerful when combined in Asia where the contemporary has never been read uniquely through its relationship to the before or after, to a linear history. As pointed out in the Raqs panel through Kal, the word for both yesterday and tomorrow in Hidustani, Urdu and Bengali, time’s relationship to the present and past not only differs depending on where in the world you are, but what you do with it.
And so we must also be careful not to take for granted any single concept of the contemporary, whether it’s being "in time together," "comrades of time," or "of the time." In the panel, Shuddhabrata invokes the philosophy of samay, the Sanskrit word for time, which alludes to the "ability to perceive that someone is standing with you." He describes thinking through samay to suggest that "the frame that you are in is already filled with the presence of others and what they bring to life." Hence by recognising that space is by its very nature co-habited, one already assumes that alongside oneself is the presence and the temporalities and velocities of others. If we are to take for example, Apichatpong Weerasathul’s Uncle Boonmee from his 2010 film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,7 according to one logic he "revisits" his past lives, travelling into the times and spaces of his prior selves. Yet seen through another, Uncle Boonmee has perhaps always existed through and alongside his other forms. His manifestation(s), way(s) of being and non-being, and temporalit(ies) are hence conflated and cannot be thought of as separate at all.
As our eyes wander out of AAA’s 11th floor window, over the decaying rooftops, bursts of jungle, and on to the adjacent high rise residential blocks of Sheung Wan, we are reminded of Hong Kong architect, Gary Chang’s description of the city; "everything overlaps in space and time . . . the idea of permanent and temporary, there is no such hierarchy."
Thus we end the journal with documentation of two artworks by Pak Sheung Chuen, an artist based in Hong Kong. The first entitled "Waiting for a Friend" and the second, "Inexistent Time." His work, which often documents the unfolding of process, side steps the systems of everyday life by probing and testing their very potentiality. It is within the technologies of the quotidien, structures that many of us have been conditioned to take for granted, that Pak evokes the potential for humanisation and spiritual revelation. In "Waiting for a Friend," Pak sets himself in a Hong Kong underground station, where he awaits an imminent encounter with "a friend." As public space, the subway station characterises the exaggerated range of velocities and transient encounters of the city above. Pak enters this shared space, embracing its co-habitation, especially with the guest whom he anticipates the arrival of four hours later. He embodies the relativity of time, on the one hand enveloped by the speeds of the urban city thus contrasting his own temporal state, as he waits: a paused moment in time.
In the installation "Inexistent Time," Pak exposes the apparatus of the film reel and its inherent temporality. Taking a 35mm film reel, where 24 images create the illusion of one narrative second, Pak removes the stills to create a second film out of the in-between spaces of each frame. By extracting the focal point of the film, Pak reveals the technology out of which a sense of linear time has been constructed. He severs the deception of progress, asking his audience to pay attention rather to the liminal, the void that is omnipresent throughout the film, and the matrix upon which the film is woven. Is there a possibility of reading time through darkness, as perhaps Pak is suggesting? Or is time ultimately inextricable from the apparatus out of which it is defined?
As we end on this note with the image of a flickering "black film" reel, where the imminence of time appears to be put on hold, we return to the question of "the contemporary." But now our minds are set at ease, having confronted this amorphism. We can move beyond it: forward, backward or in unexpected directions. And that in fact the contemporary in art resides in and is informed by in-between space, beyond the footlights. From above, from below, in individual practice and even from within the institution, the contemporary is variable and unbinding, continuously evolving. And this is perhaps where Eileen Legaspi’s call for a "re-imagining of history" is most poignant. Within the region, the countless histories and narratives, visions and positions have yet to be uncovered to make possible their ongoing trajectories.
We take this opportunity to ask that you, the reader, please take a moment to visit AAA’s Collection online. Rummage through the wealth of material from photographs to letters, testaments to ideas, conversations, events, possibilities, and crossings, contributed by artists, initiators, critics, thinkers, writers, obsessive archivists, etc. Perhaps this will recall a conversation, bound to a place, with a friend. And hopefully it can inspire a life beyond. Because it is only through working together to "reimagine," as Eileen so gracefully puts it, that we can begin to understand what it truly means to be together, in this time.
1. Diaaalogue, AAA’s former monthly newsletter, launched in 2003 with a regular column on contemporary art activities in Asia contributed by writers, critics, curators, and experts.
2. Hal Foster et al, eds, "Questionnaire on 'The Contemporary,'" October 130, Fall 2009. http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1162/octo.2009.130.1.3
3. Miwon Kwon in Hal Foster et al, eds, "Questionnaire on 'The Contemporary,'" October 130, Fall 2009, 14.
4. Senake Bandaranayake, "Ivan Peries: (painting 1939–1969) The Predicament of the bourgeois artist in the societies of the Third World," Third Text no. 2 (Winter 1987/1988): 77–92; Third Text Asia no. 3 (Autumn 2009).
5. For personal reasons, Senake Bandaranayake did not contribute to AAA’s questionnaire proposing instead a reprint of his 1987 essay on artist Ivan Peries. The core of the article was written in the 1960s. Since then, Bandaranayake’s perceptions of Ivan Peries' practice has greatly evolved. We therefore also include an afterword by the author written in 2009.
6. 'Has the moment of the contemporary come and gone?' was a panel discussion hosted by Raqs Media Collection with panelists Daniela Zyman and Ravi Sundaram for the Speakers Forum at India Art Fair 2011.
7. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Uncle Boonmee who can recall his past lives, 2010, film, 114 min.
- Sun, 1 Apr 2012