The Questionnaire
Rasheed Araeen
John Clark
Nora Taylor
Richard Streitmatter-Tran
Kurt Chan
Mella Jaarsma
Martina Köppel-Yang
Judy Freya Sibayan
David Clarke
Frank Vigneron
Patrick Flores

The Questionnaire

Dear ______,

Asia Art Archive is a non-profit organisation dedicated to documenting the recent history of contemporary art in Asia. The original parameters guiding the growth of AAA's collection, formed in 2000, were loosely constructed with the aim to collate material documenting contemporary art in Asia from as broad a perspective as possible.

As we pass into the organisation's second decade, we have the opportunity to better define our aims and in doing so to inform new thinking in the field. In 2009, Hal Foster sent a "Questionnaire on 'The Contemporary'" to friends and colleagues in Europe and North America questioning the state of "the contemporary." Acknowledging Foster, AAA wishes to respond to and enrich the "Questionnaire on 'The Contemporary'" with perspectives in and of Asia. With the launch of a digital collection of material on our website, and a new AAA journal, we take this opportunity to open up the discussion and engage the expertise of our friends and colleagues in addressing the shifting parameters of our organisation.

Please read the following questions only as triggers for a more elaborate short essay:

What role has the institution played in defining contemporary art? And where does individual practice locate itself in relation to institutional practice?

How does the discourse on contemporary art reside within the greater paradigm of visual culture, in the context of the region?

Are we trapped in a trope of "the contemporary"?

How are temporality and historicity prescribed based on territoriality? Or how is territoriality proscribed by temporality and historicity?

How are folk and traditional practices to be understood in relation to contemporary practices?

Can the rise of institutions and the growth of the art industry within Asia endanger, rather than benefit, politically engaged art, an expression of individual agency that has emerged in the region out of necessity?

Thank you very much in advance.

Kind regards,
The Editorial team


Mon 10/19/2011 3:31 PM
Rasheed Araeen, Editor of Third Text

Art Institutions, Visual Culture, and Territoriality, and their Roles in Defining and Legitimising the Contemporary

The art institution plays a fundamental role in defining what is contemporary art, but it is done in tandem or collaboration with the demands of the art market. This role of the institution, such as Tate in Britain, is such that it is often hidden behind the myth of institutional independence; but it can also be overtly visible such as in the case of Turner Prize. In fact, Turner Prize, which is tied to one's success at the market place—the criteria for nomination is the number of exhibitions one had in the previous year or years—is the main source of the global success of contemporary British art.

In fact the artist must follow, particularly in most of the West, the path prescribed institutionally if he/she wishes be successful professionally. The career seeking artist must go through the prescribed art school education and obtain the necessary qualification before he/she is considered eligible for entry into the art market and then into museum exhibitions and collections. The ambitious artist is fully aware of this trajectory, right from the beginning of his/her journey, and that there is no escape from this predetermination, which thus makes the individual practice part of institutional practice.

The totality of visual culture also predetermines what is recognised as art practice, and contemporary art is no exception. In fact, visual culture can be a resource for art. The richness of visual culture not only can act as an aspiration for art, but can also enable it to appropriate its forms. But with globalisation and the global expansion of the art market, and its demands for exotic goods in the name of cultural diversity, this appropriation has now become regional, particularly in Asia. The contemporary Chinese artist must display his/her Chinese origin, the work of the Indian artist must show its Indian roots, and so on, in order for the work to be recognised institutionally and by the art market. In fact, the success of artists from Asia today is very much dependent on their Asian identities which must be visible in their work.

However, there is no so such thing as the discipline of visual culture. If by visual culture is meant culture as a whole, produced by the collectivity of society, its creativity is free from what is understood by the "discipline." Recently there has been a tendency on the part of some historians to introduce the totality of visual culture as a replacement for the discipline of art history, with detrimental consequences for the understanding of art as a historically determined knowledge. By abandoning the discipline of art history, art has now been turned into any cultural commodity which can merely be sold and brought at the market place.

This change has particularly affected contemporary art practice. Its detachment from the history of ideas, not only from one's own regional history but what is universal, has turned art into what cannot respond to these ideas critically in a pursuit to take these ideas further in the advancement of humanity to create a better world. On the other hand, if the contemporary was a continuation of ideas within the trajectory of human history it could offer us a critical tool by which it would look at the past, and in doing so would separate the positive from the negative, the success from the failure, and make the ideas move further in such a way that they would enhance the human imagination necessary for the innovation or creation of something new not only for itself but for the good of humanity at large.     

However, there is a specific problem in Asia in this respect. Asia has been at the forefront particularly of postwar mainstream modernism or the avant-garde and its original contribution is tremendous. But the recognised histories of art in Asia do not fully recognise this contribution. This is largely due to the deliberate ignorance of one nation about the achievements of another. Consequently, the tropes of the contemporary are either trapped in nationalist discourses, which ignore the historical achievements of Asia as a whole, or they follow the path determined by histories written by/in the West.    

Globalisation has played the major role in this respect; it has created an illusion of trans-territoriality, a space within which all cultures can meet and interact. But the globalisation of art emerged with the globalisation of capital and its art market, institutionally operated and controlled by the West, particularly by its notion of difference that is now fundamental in maintaining human creativity within the boundaries of nation states, particularly in Asia.    

Also, when art becomes trapped within a nation state it tends to turn to folk and traditional practices, raising a question whose problematic complexity cannot be dealt with by dismissing the role of one’s own cultural tradition in art. As a matter of fact, traditions—folk or other—are important as they connect the contemporary with the past and provide it material for continuity. But in the prevailing system of contemporary art practice based on the privileged individualism, this material is appropriated, exploited and changed to something else entirely for the benefit of the alienated subject or individual, so that the traditions remain static repeating themselves without a forward movement within themselves. Moreover, if an artist’s contemporary practice is entirely dependent on tradition, claiming the authenticity of its continuity removed from the dynamic of the present, it is a dead body for the vultures of the culture industry. 

Folk traditions of course represent the inheritance of the bygone days of the collectivity of the masses, a creativity that was organically integrated with collective productivity. But within the prevailing system, or the bourgeois capitalist society, rural masses are disempowered in being deprived of creative productivity, which is as fundamental to what they create as folk art, and are thus subjected to producing only what is in the interest and pleasure of privileged urban inhabitants. The world today faces the destruction of all life, as the system continues to exploit and pollute the mother earth with all her natural resources and rural inhabitants, without recognition for the solution to the problems of climate change that lies in the return to what was the integrated collective productivity and creativity of the rural masses.             

The art industry within Asia now is the byproduct of and part of globalisation; and it cannot therefore function outside this development. Though it has produced tremendous innovative energy and creativity, its evaluation and legitimisation remains dependent on the metropolitan centers of the West. The rise of institutions in Asia is not really considerable with the exception of what’s happening in the Gulf region, but it is also connected to the institutions in the West, particularly to the power of its museums. The global expansion of the Guggenheim Museum of New York, particularly its ambition in Asia, is worth mentioning here.


Tue 10/25/2011 7:13 PM
John Clark, Professor in Art History at the University of Sydney

What role has the institution played in defining contemporary art? And where does individual practice locate itself in relation to institutional practice?

"Contemporary art" is an institutional definition of art prescribed by the nature and interests of the prescribing institutions and their agents. Individual practice is in its thrall so long as it wishes to recognised by that definition. There are also immanent costs if it is not so recognised.

Does the discipline of contemporary art reside within the greater paradigm of visual culture, in the context of the region? Is the discipline of visual culture and its manifestations (art and visual theory) detrimental to the disciplines of art history, and contemporary art criticism?

There is no such thing as the "discipline of contemporary art" or the "discipline of visual culture," unless these are hegemonic entities imposing their procedures on the materials of "contemporary art" or "visual culture." Disciplinary knowledge can produce hermeneutic procedures for defining or thereby elucidating "contemporary art" and "visual culture," and this knowledge can be broadly conceived as including art history and art criticism and their methods, old and new, or narrowly as excluding either or both. How free, how generative of new or just deeper interpretation is the exchange between them to be?

Are we trapped in the trope of "the contemporary"?

The "contemporary" seems like another set of Euramerican tools for interpreting the world in a Euramerican way. Does contemporary Asian art not have its own sets of self-definitions, and does the use of Euramerican tools carry with it certain hermeneutic costs?

Are temporality and historicity prescribed by territoriality?

Since we can equally ask "Is territoriality prescribed by temporality and historicity?" we would have to investigate the relative utility of this tautology.

Do folk and traditional practices inform or burden contemporary practices, and if so how?

Since the "traditional" is the reciprocal pair of the "modern," the folk being a kind of historical sub-variation within the traditional, surely the real question is how is the contemporary to emerge from the modern, and with what benefit to both?

Can the rise of institutions and the growth of the art industry within Asia endanger, rather than benefit, politically engaged art which is an expression of individual agency that has emerged in the region out of necessity?

Of course institutions and "art industry" can damage politically engaged art, whether individual or from organisations, because the former are the critical subject of the latter or at least involved in its critical positions.


Wed 12/21/2011 8:50 AM
Nora Taylor, Professor of South and Southeast Asian Art in the Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism of School of the Art Institute of Chicago

When I started my PhD studies at Cornell University in Southeast Asian Art in 1989, art history was in a crisis. Southeast Asian art itself was seen as an old colonial relic, an off spring of archaeology at best, and at worst a sub-field of South Asian Art History. I had chosen to study Vietnam and Cambodia, intuitively probably, precisely because I wanted to take a critical look at the "margins" of art history. At that time, unlike anthropology that had undergone a period of self-reflectivity in light of world sociopolitical changes after the end of the Cold War, art history did not seem to be able to move beyond the Euro-American historical classificatory paradigm of tracing the evolution of art from the Classical era to the present. Even with the advent and popularity of postcolonial studies in academia and the era of multiculturalism in the 1990s, art history seemed to remain frozen in time and utterly incapable of critical revisionism. This led to the search for alternatives to art history such as visual studies, visual critical studies, and the anthropology of art.

These interdisciplinary fields filled a gap in offering new ways of looking at art. The problem was that these fields could not accommodate nor anticipate the changes that took place in the practice and subsequent reception of art from around the world. Whether thanks to the rise of a global economy, greater global communication networks, sociopolitical détentes, the proliferation of international biennales and markets or a combination of these, at the turn of the twnety-first century art worlds saw a rise in the presence of artists from around the globe in Europe and America that forever changed the course of art history. Why art history? While art criticism, curatorial practices, and the art market also benefitted from the contributions of these artists, I would argue that the field of art history was better equipped to account for them critically primarily because it forced art history to undergo a serious self-reflection, the first since the 1960s and the advent of feminism and psychoanalytic theory. I would add that Visual Studies failed because it could not take a historical look at itself.

This self-critical introspection has enabled art history to move beyond the Western modernist paradigm and finally account for artists from outside of the Western hemisphere. Furthermore, one could argue that a greater synergy between museums, artists and academia has taken place since the 1990s as museums have also undergone critical assessment of their role in the art world and listened to artists and curators who have critiqued their conservative approaches to art. The concept of relational aesthetics, new media and participatory art practices have also helped to create new platforms that engage artists, critics and historians in issues that are not focused solely on the "visual." By that, I mean ideas pertaining to identity, language, nation, and art as a cerebral, non-visual practice. Perhaps this accounts for the death of visual studies for it appeared reductive, focusing solely on theories of the image and pictures with no consideration for time. Visual anthropology has also failed to create a critical arena for art production because it over burdens art with ethno-cultural baggage.

In my own practice as an art historian, I have found that this "return" to history has been extremely beneficial to our understanding of Southeast Asian art and helped to generate greater dialogues across fields in one important aspect: the critique of modernism. Thanks to the work of scholars from Asia such pioneers as Geeta Kapur, John Clark, and Apinan Poshyananda, Asian art history was forced to take a critical stance on Asian Art's position in the field of modern art history and refute the concept of a universal modernism. Instead, they proposed to locate modernity in Asia within a framework of local history. Their critique of Western hegemonic notions of the "modern" have placed art history at the forefront of an intra-disciplinary debate.

Geography has played an increasingly important role in how artists define their selves and their work. That is, artists tend to locate their practice in nations, cities, and regions. They tend to engage in dialogue with where they are from, where they are situated in the present, where they are going, where they work and where they exhibit. The elements of time and place have become key factors for curatorial practices in the West as well. Critics of the hegemony of Western modernism see the proliferation of "centers" within the "periphery." Much of this debate, however, pertains to Western art history or, should I say, has impacted Western art history, and has little effect within Asia. That is, critical theory does not matter much to artists, for example, from Vietnam where the primary challenge to creativity is State control. This is not the case in a place like Singapore where museums have been collecting art of the region without a specifically nationalist agenda. That said, Singapore is also the only country in Southeast Asia that has built museums that showcase art from outside of its borders. Most countries in Southeast Asia are also too poor to collect art and artists from places such as Vietnam and Cambodia have had to rely on the international market to sell their work. That relationship of outside to inside and inside to outside is also what generates critical thinking about diversity and geo-politics.

The issues of the nation State versus individuals, global economy, and sociopolitical issues have now become the purview of art historical writing about the region simply because many artists exhibit these problems in their work. Academics also become interested in grassroot art movements, independent art spaces and non-governmental, non-commercial institutions.  Southeast Asian art has been theorised from a variety of disciplines from archaeology to ethnography, but I would argue that the field of art history is the only discipline to take artists' works seriously as "art" rather than the products of a visual culture.


Fri 12/30/2011 4:02 PM
Richard Streitmatter-Tran, artist and curator based in Ho Chi Minh City

What role has the institution played in defining contemporary art? And where does individual practice locate itself in relation to institutional practice?

I think this largely impacted by the state of the institutions in different communities. There are areas, for example, in Southeast Asia where institutional influence is very weak—lack of museums, proper curricula in higher education, government cultural organs, etc. In these particular cases, individuals largely operate outside of national institutions, and in some cases, form relationships with institutions of neighboring countries that have more developed institutional support, such as Singapore.

The individual practice for most the artists I work with rely on the institution in one way or another, even in positions such as "institutional critique." Many of the research methods in fact borrow from their education within or in orbit around institutional practices and for many, involved engagement with an institution is seen as a validation of success to some degree.

Recently, I was involved in an exhibition, Institutions for the Future, curated by Biljana Ciric, as a part of the Asia Triennial Manchester 2011. The curatorial premise was to investigate small independent spaces and their at times complicit and antagonistic relation to the institution and how they have effectively become para-institutions. Like a parasite, the relationships can be beneficial or pathogenic, and those relationships are always in a state of negotiation and flux.

Does the discipline of contemporary art reside within the greater paradigm of visual culture, in the context of the region? Are the discipline of visual culture and its manifestations (art and visual theory) detrimental to the disciplines of art history, and contemporary art criticism?

For me, increasing contemporary art is residing to a greater degree in the overall human enquiry. What I mean by this is that I am finding greater value in situating contemporary art practice along other fields of investigation, such as the sciences. They all have the potential to destroy existing paradigms and allow us to understand the universe to greater complexity or simplicity. Visual culture and the sciences go hand in hand, any art historian can attest to the development of optics, perspective, color theory, etc. Art and visual theory are certainly not detrimental to fields of art history or contemporary art criticism, anyone advocating that these fields can remain hermetically "pure" is delusional and in my opinion, cannibalistic—they are eating themselves to their own detriment. Laying blame externally is the symptom.

Are we trapped in a trope of "the contemporary"?

Yes, absolutely, and there is not a damn thing we can do about it.

Are temporality and historicity prescribed based on territoriality?

Yes, but this is a great starting question for a much longer investigation. Suffice to say here, do not restrict territoriality to physical space (i.e., Nation, geographic region, identity) but see territoriality as a conceptual space.

How do folk and traditional practices inform or translate into contemporary practices?

Sometimes successfully, but very often in a kitschy manner. For me, looking at history and earlier practice is valuable, but really only if something can be recontextualised into a new meaning. We all know and have seen instances where the "updated traditional" has become farcical, clownish, or at times, downright insulting.  I think a successful translation requires some commitment and intimacy and not all of us, that is artists, have the will or desire to truly understand the traditional beyond the signifiers alone. But for those that do, something can be learned and better yet, informed.

Can the rise of institutions and the growth of the art industry within Asia endanger, rather than benefit, politically engaged art, an expression of individual agency that has emerged in the region out of necessity?

The rise of anything that has the potential to eclipse fair play, counter-opinion has the potential, and even expectation to endanger—whether the market, institution, regulatory organs, or even a bunch of solipsistic artists clawing for superior vantage. As with many issues dealing with culture, they are complex and dynamic systems, and the regulation is the interplay of competing forces and interests. Democracy is vacant without it, and so is art.


Sat 12/31/2011 12:21 PM
Kurt Chan, Professor in the Department of Fine Arts at the Chinese University of Hong Kong

What role has the institution played in defining contemporary art? And where does individual practice locate itself in relation to institutional practice?

Contemporary art is a process that constantly redefines and probes its own boundaries. This process is propelled by artists, curators, art critics, and intermediaries in the field; it cannot be defined by a unitary art institution. The flexibility and responsiveness of an individual is usually more acute and quicker than that of an institution, thus an individual's artistic activities can better interact with and respond to other ideological trends in the society. This interaction in turn generates the contemporary spirit. AAA's function is to record and archive "the process of becoming" in contemporary art—that which remains continuous in this domain. Sometimes she can initiate timely cooperation with other individuals or institutions, and actively "mold" our present time. Yet the paradox is this: the effectiveness of selecting and archiving artistic documents/documentation is a verdict that only history can cast—"who" uses the Archive, and "how" the Archive's collection would be utilised in the future are vital to the integrity and power of AAA's voice.

Most believe that artists' or researchers' activities in the arts are unpredictable because they conduct individualistic, unique, and creative work. On the contrary, the macro development of such activities is closely connected to and influenced by contemporary social conditions. For example, the operation of an "institution" must comply with certain historical conditions and professional codes of practice, such as scientific methods, and/or academic standards. The "institution's" mode of operation and "deliverables" must be credible and share the same language as other institutions; only then can institutions conduct exchanges and transfers. If we see the individual as sensitive, flexible and multi-faceted, then the institution must be slow, cautious, and authoritative . . .

If any individual wishes to enhance his/her personal practice and development, he/she must comply with the institution's criterion and identify common ground with it. Currently the distance between institution and individual is narrowing, as artistic practitioners and institutions both share a complicated, delicate relationship with the university. Universities are now the breeding ground of artistic practitioners; when artistic practice becomes increasingly intellectual, artistic institutions inevitably operate under the same knowledge system. Hence artistic practice and artistic mechanism share a certain kinship. Art practitioners' ability to adapt to institutions should not be a problem once the arts is well established in the university system as an academic discipline. Nowadays many of Hong Kong's young artists know how to not only find a platform that suits their practices, but also to waltz with related institutions.

In the past ten years, the tertiary level art curriculum has significantly configured itself to accommodate artistic trends and discourses. The pedagogical content of the discipline is no longer divided by medium, and critical theory is introduced as well. These changes allow for a different option in the interpretation of art, one that is alternative to traditional art history. These changes lead the reform of art education, and simultaneously influence the leanings of artistic institutions. The factors above illustrate the relationship between the individual and institution within art’s ecosystem, which is evolving from a subordinate to an interactive one. At least this seems to be the case in Hong Kong.

Does the discipline of contemporary art reside within the greater paradigm of visual culture, in the context of the region? Are the discipline of visual culture and its manifestations (art and visual theory) detrimental to the disciplines of art history, and contemporary art criticism?

In Hong Kong, contemporary art and visual culture, as with many other bodies of knowledge, are "transplanted" from the West. The result of such "transplant" is that we have lost/forgone the general cognition of that knowledge's historical development, as well as its relationship with other bodies of knowledge. When numerous fragments replace the whole and become the entirety, we can only rely on our imagination to fill in the gaps between the fragments. While creativity is involved in this process of filling the gaps, there exists even more "misinterpretation."

The popularisation of visual culture in Hong Kong occurred within the last ten years. Discourses around contemporary art in Hong Kong used to be anchored on the framework of art history. Before it developed to become today's discussion that centres on visual culture and theory of social participation, it was first influenced by literary theory and semantics in the 1980s, and critical theory in the 1990s. To a certain extent, contemporary art in Hong Kong has constantly referenced other academic theories as it develops and attempts to describe evolving contemporary methods and issues. Hong Kong contemporary art/contemporary art in Hong Kong stems from traditional, independent systems of knowledge, such as art history, and has since expanded more broadly to daily life, applying itself to politics and culture. As noted earlier, Hong Kong's art history is partly constituted by "horizontal transplant." Its axes are in reality a culmination of cross-sections borrowed from the West. Hence it would not be surprising if Hong Kong contemporary art/contemporary art in Hong Kong is included as a classic example/model of visual culture. After all, this is an international trend; what singles out one place from the other is how this trend is put into practice and the results it yields . . .

Art criticism in Hong Kong has traditionally been based on art history, as the origin and existence of artistic autonomy during modernism can only be derived from art's historical development. As art began to integrate with other disciplines and engage in dialogue with the society, it was necessary to borrow from other academic disciplines in order to develop methods and tools that describe and discuss contemporary art. At the same time, traditional art history began to lose its original position, and its effective voice in contemporary art. This has indirectly contributed to art history's opposition with critical theory.

Are we trapped in a trope of "the contemporary"?

"The contemporary" for me refers to the collective consciousness of an entire generation; it is an acknowledgement of contemporary life. In this informational age, being "contemporary" is even a recognition and pursuit of globalisation; it makes us feel as if we are standing at the forefront of global culture. "The contemporary" in art consists of two perplexing aspects. On one hand it establishes itself in the hopes of surpassing "the immediate past" of "the contemporary"; it situates between the past and the future, illustrating not only progress but also the courage required for new discoveries. On the other hand, "the contemporary" loses its charm and individuality when it becomes an artistic consensus and is celebrated by everyone.

For many art practitioners nowadays, being "contemporary" is a responsibility. It is something one must do in order to prove how one is positively facing the challenges of his/her own time. Being "contemporary" can of course be simply a trend, something one does in order to feel up to date.

Are temporality and historicity prescribed based on territoriality?

If I understood this premise correctly, the Internet has blurred geographical boundaries and barriers. Our understanding of the world is very easily influenced by regions with high levels of communication freedoms and technology. On the contrary, traditional culture holds more sway on individuals in areas where information is more restricted. In any case, our cognition of brief events or history is more broadly conditioned and affected by the hybrid influence of geographical location and informational flow. If we include the Internet as a factor that affects geographical boundaries, then our understanding of time and history boils down to the question of how quickly information travels.

How do folk and traditional practices inform or translate into contemporary practices?

The practice of "contemporary art" has spread to every corner of the world. In order to boost their "regional characteristics," and hence their competitiveness and attractiveness, some regions have to rely on local cultural symbols and traditional craftsmanship. In today's world, technology is an essential part of our daily lives, and art practitioners of cosmopolitan cities are all using similar methods and techniques to express themselves. It is only natural when the audience becomes tired of a certain type of content and form, their gaze shifts to the up-and-coming nations/countries, where local artists would adjust their practices to gain access into the international art scene. In a certain way artists from these burgeoning nations/countries and the international art scene are "co-conspirators."

According to my own observation, contemporary artists are often interested in traditional crafts out of utilitarian purposes. They may not share a symbiotic relationship with traditional crafts. Traditional crafts are often just one other option amidst a range of artistic methods. Craftsmen who are seriously committed to the craft, on the other hand, may not be able to follow or agree with contemporary art. The possibility of their appearances in contemporary art occasions may depend on the cooperation with artists or the mediation of curators.

The manifestation of regional traditional crafts in contemporary art can be seen as a kind of "re-creation"; it is a strategy that both resists and integrates the phenomenon of globalisation.

Can the rise of institutions and the growth of the art industry within Asia endanger, rather than benefit, politically engaged art, an expression of individual agency that has emerged in the region out of necessity?

Creative industries or artistic institutions and "political participatory art" are all hot spots of development in contemporary art. However, they take on different paths and do not openly clash with each other yet. This is because they do not need to encounter each other at the same occasion. In Hong Kong, they have their own piece of centre stage. Contemporary art forms are diversified to an extent such that traditional venues and technical support are not necessary; thus the robustness of artistic institutions do not definitively affect practitioners who assume the streets and fluid art forms as their performative platform.

Creative industry is a form of commercial activity, in which the definition of a work of art is relaxed to accommodate commercial strategies in a more comprehensive and flexible manner. This expansion of capitalism would undoubtedly stir up a lot of confusion and dissatisfaction amongst artists. But amongst the examples we are aware of, even in occasions where concepts are in conflict, both parties illustrate their points of view via, and through, the appearance of the other party. To view the issue from another perspective, politically engaged art and commercial activities are each other's necessary "enemy." Hong Kong is a society that is accustomed to capitalism and various kinds of social struggle; it usually would not seek to suppress the minority who practices "social participatory art."


Thu 1/5/2012 10:12 AM
Mella Jaarsma, Director of Cemeti Art House in Yogyakarta

What role has the institution played in defining contemporary art?

With the fast changes and developments in the visual art in Indonesia over the last five years which was dominated by the art market I think that it is important for the institutions to re-question the relevance of art and what is the function of art in a society like Indonesia.

In last decades all Asian countries have proven that the visuals art played a significant role in their national developments. Visual arts created awareness on social, political, and education issues and contributed on identity and democratic reflections. Is art still an alternative way to look differently at the things, which questions and can change perspectives?

Under the Suharto regime till 1998 art was politics, running Cemeti Art House was politics, art was an independent critical statement. During the reformation period till beginning 2000, art was educational, community based, enriching, capacity building, digging history, reflective, and searching content to personal, local, and global reflections.

And where does individual practice locate itself in relation to institutional practice?

In the Indonesian art scene up till today, everything lies in the hands of private initiators. These are the artists, curators, collectors, but also the art workers at galleries, private museums, auction houses, and foundations. They are defining the nature and pace of art, developments and discourses, which are flourishing as never before. Unfortunately, the Indonesian government doesn't see the importance yet of strengthening the Indonesian identity and pride by collecting modern and contemporary art and creating public access. Government supported museums with modern/contemporary art collections in the charge of academic curators, which conserve as well as establish quality, do not exist yet. There is no established national art infrastructure that supports artists, art institutions, contemporary art museums, or initiatives.

Does the discipline of contemporary art reside within the greater paradigm of visual culture, in the context of the region?

Yes, contemporary art reside within the greater paradigm of visual culture, but this is specific for urban settings. The differences between city and village life is still very much separating contemporary and traditional art practices. In urban art developments, we see that the increased attention to art from a small elite has brought art to a wider audience. I visited the opening night of the last ART/JOG July 2011, an artists' art fair in Yogyakarta, and it was attended by more than a thousand people on the opening night. Alongside the regular local and international art public, the space was filled with youngsters.

Contemporary art is hot, and it is super cool to be photographed in front of an artwork, and later share the photo on Facebook. This amazingly broad local support is promising.

Is the discipline of visual culture and its manifestations (art and visual theory) detrimental to the disciplines of art history, and contemporary art criticism?

I don't think so, they will feed each other, because they are all very young disciplines and there doesn't exist specific frameworks for art theory and art history.

Are we trapped in the trope of "the contemporary"?

I don't think so, in the context of Indonesia, many discussions took place about the contemporary and "tradition." While tradition is not a stagnant thing of the past, but a reality in current life in Indonesia, it is part of the contemporary discourse and playing an important role in art developments.

Is temporality and historicity prescribed based on territoriality?

How do folk and traditional practices inform or burden contemporary practices?

Can the rise of institutions and the growth of the art industry within Asia endanger, rather than benefit, politically engaged art, an expression of individual agency that has emerged in the region out of necessity?

The largest challenge facing the Indonesian art world at the hands of market forces is how to ensure the continued support to strengthen foundation for a potent and relevant art movement in the future. Up until recently, Indonesia, as a developing country, has attracted international funding for NGOs to support social and cultural programs. For example, HIVOS, Prince Claus Fund, Asia Cultural Council, and The Ford Foundation, supported institutions such as Ruang Rupa, The Indonesian Visual Art Archive, Kelola and Cemeti Art House, that have contributed to artists' exchange programs, archiving, networking, art management programs, publications, traveling exhibitions, research, etc. I see this as support to the "cooking" that has resulted in the developments of the art world that we enjoy today.

Recently, however, the foreign funding tabs are slowly closing, and with little government support for art initiatives and research, how can we create a sense of public responsibility for art development? Do we have to depend on funding from companies and philanthropies? And if so, how can we ensure that attention and support is given to the "cooking" that ensures what we eat in the future? We need support of creative stimulation to keep different art forms alive, and to influence critical discourse and perspectives. To respond to this, around 20 art organisations from various disciplines, such as dance, theater, film, and art management, have bundled their strengths and founded the Indonesian Art Coalition (Koalisi Seni Indonesia). The aim of the foundation is to establish a national supporting body for the arts that can advocate for the importance of art in our lives and in society at large, and to support high quality, non-commercial art.


Mon 1/16/2012 1:06 AM
Martina Köppel-Yang, Independent scholar and curator

What role has the institution played in defining contemporary art? And where does individual practice locate itself in relation to institutional practice?

The institution has always played an important role in the development of contemporary Chinese art, and official guidelines set the framework in which contemporary art is allowed to develop still today. The reasons for this extremely close and complicated relationship between individual practice and institution are not only to find in the structure of the communist art bureaucracy itself. We have to search much earlier. We can find origins of this relationship in the May Fourth Movement and the reform of the Chinese education system through Cai Yuanpei in 1917. Cai claimed to replace Confucian teaching through aesthetic and artistic education to enhance the modernisation of Republican China. Art was considered an instrument educating the individual and had to play a crucial role in reforming society. Hence, individual artistic practice was naturally embedded in and closely intertwined with institutional practice and establishment. The close relationship between institution and individual practice can thus be considered as characteristic of Chinese modernity. (This is fundamentally different from the Western tradition.) As the project of a Chinese modernity was revived after the Cultural Revolution, this basic relationship did not change.

In the first decade after the Cultural Revolution the Chinese avant-garde developed in ideological and institutional gaps within the official art bureaucracy. Institutions, such as art academies or art magazines, were first to promote contemporary art, for example through reforms in teaching methods or through publications and the organisation of conferences. The museum as an institution played a minor role in the 1980s. Today, of course, museums are part of the so-called cultural industries, a sector created under the guideline of the Three Represents. With the guideline of the Three Represents that officially recognises contemporary art and culture as part of the culture of the progressive China the overall assimilation of individual and alternative practice in the official discourse has further been enhanced. Often described as normalisation in the Western sense, meaning the modeling of an art scene following Western standards, this development nevertheless puts artists and individual practice in a difficult position.

How does the discourse on contemporary art reside within the greater paradigm of visual culture, in the context of the region?

Asian cultures are young cultures and therefore the position of youth culture with all its manifestations, if visual or other, plays an important role also in the contemporary art of this region. Further, the influence or interaction with everyday life plays an important role in contemporary art from Asia. To be honest, I do not understand the second part of your question.

Are we trapped in a trope of "the contemporary"?

We are only trapped if we want to be trapped.

Are temporality and historicity prescribed based on territoriality?

I think temporality and historicity are expressions of a certain culture, concepts related to a specific worldview. They are therefore not only based on territoriality but also related to a specific time.

How do folk and traditional practices inform or translate into contemporary practices?

This is a complex question that could be the subject of a PhD thesis. I here can only give a very concise answer. There are different approaches of translating the traditional and vernacular into contemporary practices. To simplify, I wish to name several kinds: there is translation on a formal, a symbolic and a discursive level, using different strategies, from assimilation to deconstruction and appropriation. The apparently most successful formula of translating the vernacular and the traditional into the contemporary seems to be the use of symbols from the traditional and vernacular pool and to insert them into a contemporary language environment. Artists, like for example Cai Guoqiang and Zhang Huan, gained their international recognition by using this kind of appropriative method. This method, even though successful in the sense of being welcomed by a large public, does not provide innovative concepts. Other artists, like for example Huang Yongping, employed a deconstructive method in the 1980s and early 1990s and successfully intervened on a discursive level. Zheng Guogu again mixes elements of traditional, vernacular, popular, and contemporary culture, creating strong artistic statements that are rooted in his local environment and gain a large recognition on an international level. Yang Jiechang then approaches contemporary concepts and context by using traditional techniques and formal language. One thing is sure, traditional and vernacular practices are a vital source for contemporary artists from Asia.

Can the rise of institutions and the growth of the art industry within Asia endanger, rather than benefit, politically engaged art, an expression of individual agency that has emerged in the region out of necessity?

This is a question to be asked not only in the context of Asian art, but of art and any intellectual expression as such. If we consider language an institution, then the very act of speaking makes us enter an institutional system. Yet, in order to express ourselves, we have to make use of some kind of language. Enhancing the diversity of language, of the institutional system, should be considered beneficial. However, we have to decide how, with whom and in what context to speak. Important is to be aware of the respective situation and to intervene correspondingly. Politically engaged art has always existed in the PR China, even during the Cultural Revolution. With a clear adversary it seems easier to find a strong and pure position. The rise of institutions, the growing importance of the art market, hence the pluralisation of the scene and not to forget globalisation, and in particular the globalisation of the art market, make the situation more complicated and blurry. This means the methods of intervention have to be adjusted correspondingly. Today individual agency has to intervene more intelligently, with more subtlety and complexity to be efficient. The artist who disguises himself into a dissident and engages in mediatised performances and events is certainly not the most interesting and true political artist. We are living in an era where the search for new paradigms and models is crucial. Contemporary Asian art with its specific cultural background here can contribute interesting and far-reaching positions.


Mon 1/16/2012 6:32 PM
Judy Freya Sibayan, artist and Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at De La Salle University, Manila

Institutional Critique, the Contemporary and Beyond

My thoughts on the contemporary necessarily issue from the perspective of my praxis of Institutional Critique (IC). Parodic performances of the sites of art production (sites of production of symbolic value), my works are enacted critiques of the institution of art to which I belong. Thus, as an auto-critical practice, Institutional Critique is the work of the "ex-centric" (the inside-outsider). It is work that necessitates the institution to be accountable to the imperatives of the present. It is work that results in the institution being inevitably contemporary. But first a clarification of the object of this critique—what is now considered the institution of art—is necessary. I cite here the description given by Andrea Fraser, one of the most articulate third generation IC practitioners:

From 1969 on, a conception of the "institution of art" begins to emerge that includes not just themuseum, nor even only the sites of production, distribution, and reception of art, but the entire field of art as a social universe. In works of artists associated with Institutional Critique, it came to encompass all the sites in which art is shown—from museums and galleries to corporate offices and collector's homes, and even public space when art is installed there. It also includes the sites of the production of art discourse: art magazines, catalogues, art columns in the popular press, symposia, and lectures. And it also includes the sites of the production of producers of art and art discourse: studio-art, art-history, and now curatorial-studies program . . . and finally it also includes all the "lookers, buyers, dealers and makers" themselves. (Welchman 128–129)

And even art and artists that "generally figure as antagonistically opposed to an institution that incorporates, co-opts, commodifies, and otherwise misappropriates once radical—and uninstitutionalized—practices," (Fraser, in Welchman 127) are all part of the institution of art. For according to artist/theorist Victor Burgin, artists are handed down roles "by a particular history, through particular institutions, and whether we choose to work within or without these given history or institutions, for or against them, our relationship to them is inescapable" (Burgin 158). Institutional Critique therefore, requires incisive analysis of its object. This art practice, Fraser claims,

can only be defined by a methodology of critically reflexive site specificity… Institutional Critique can be distinguished first of all from site-specific practice that deal primarily with the physical, formal, and architectural aspects of places and spaces. Institutional Critique engages sites above all as social sites, structured sets of 2 relations that are fundamentally social relations. To say that Institutional Critique engages such sites reflexively is to specify that included among the relations that define any site are both our relations to that site and the social conditions of those relations. (Welchman 305–306)

Fraser, a great enthusiast of Pierre Bourdieu's ideas of the hierarchies and conflicts of the art world, has openly credited reflexivity, one of the major tenets of Bourdieu's sociological practice, as having convinced her of "the fallacy of any attempts to think of art outside or opposed to its institutions" (Malone 13). In The Field of Cultural Production, Bourdieu's most comprehensive text on the subject, he depicts the artworld as 

a field of struggles where agents—artists, critics, curators, dealers, collectors, academics—engage in competition for control of interests and resources, and where belief of the value of the work is part of the reality of the work. Bourdieu understood the work of art as a manifestation of the cultural field as a whole, in which all the powers of the field, and all the determinisms inherent in its structure and functioning are concentrated. (Malone 12)

Consequently, the value of the work of art must be understood as "socially constituted" since according to Bourdieu rather than an instance of individual creativity, the very existence of the work of art is

radically contingent on a very complex and constantly changing set of circumstances involving multiple social and institutional factors . . . art and [its] respective producers do not exist independently of a complex institutional framework which authorizes, enables, empowers and legitimizes them. This framework must be incorporated into any analysis that pretends to provide a thorough understanding of cultural goods and practices. (Bourdieu 10)


Failure to objectify and analyse the relationship between the analyser and his or her object of analysis can result in the analyzer (read: artist, curator, art historian, critic) assuming a privileged position and effacing relations of power that may be inherent in the relationship. (Malone 13)

Thus, as believers of the value of art, as members of the institution of art, all who work in the artworld contribute to the production of the value of art—making the production of art intersubjective. Institutional Critique requires that we be reflexive of our part in this process of value production. And to be reflexive is to be critical of the institution which is to say we do not affirm, expand, or reinforce our relationship to it. To be critical is to problematise and change the institution, and at the same time change our relationship to it (Welchman 306).

The field of cultural production is thus a self-perpetuating sphere of belief where the symbolic power of the products of the art institution is sustained by an extensive social apparatus incorporating museums, art galleries, art histories, publishing houses, art and cultural studies programs, cultural centers, art schools, auction houses, libraries and so forth. Further, "Symbolic power is closely intertwined with—but not reducible to—economic and political power, and thus serves a legitimating function" (Bourdieu 2). It is precisely the structure of the institution of art and particularly what is hierarchical in this structure producing "forms of power and domination, symbolic and material violence that Institutional Critique aims to transform in its immediate field of activity," (Welchman 306) specially with regard to the encroachment of other fields such as the economic field and its instrumentalisation of art. Art's condition as having symbolic value renders it exploitable for economic and symbolic profit no matter how autonomous its makers deem their work to be and exploitable “often not in spite of but because of their autonomy, an autonomy that determines their existence not only as objects or ideas but as material or even immaterial commodities” (Welchman 306–307). Institutional Critique like many other radical practices of the 1960s, emerged with the realisation of artists that this is the condition of all works of art.

Recognising the partial and ideological character of artistic autonomy, Institutional Critique developed not as a further attack on that autonomy, but rather as a defense of art (and art institution) against such exploitation, either through reflection on the discursive and systematic mechanisms of reification and instrumentalisation . . . or through the development of rigorously transitory . . . practices that resisted commodification (Welchman 307).

And necessary and essential in accomplishing this critique is the enactment of the critique itself. Fraser points out that

the methodology of critically reflexive site-specificity may have first emerged as a practical principle. If you want to change something, a relation, particularly a relation of power, the best, if not the only way to accomplish such change is by intervening in the enactment of that  relation…artistic interventions can only work effectively on relations made “actual manifest” in a given situation…And this is what makes Institutional Critique so profoundly difficult, because to intervene in relations in their enactment also always means as you yourself participate in their enactment, however self-consciously. (Welchman 307)

What better way then for me to enact self-consciously the problematisation, transformation, and the changing of my relationship to the institution of art as a social site than through performance art which as a "nonreproductive" art according to Peggy Phelan in Unmarked, the Politics of Performance, is able to clog "the smooth machinery or reproductive representation necessary to the circulation of capital . . . giving performance art its oppositional edge" (148). First a performance of a moving away from a literal center—the Cultural Center of the Philippines, then eventually a practice that moved away from a dependency on the resources and valuation of art establishments, my work stemmed from my unhappiness, my "dis-ease" with this Center for burdening its workforce with work for the purpose of

institutional legitimacy through the power of privileging a few artists at the cost of disenfranchising those who labored outside the modernist tenets of "progress, continuity, totality, mastery and the universal claim to history accepted as true." (Tucker 11)

Parodying the institution of art by appropriating key institutional roles that produce symbolic value and roles that socially constitute art; and eventually becoming an exhibition site myself,1 the work performed within the scale of my everyday life and resources, took the form of de-centering—the work of "the off-center, the ex-centric." A term Linda Hutcheon coins in her book The Poetics of Postmodernism, the ex-centric "In place of faith in the great centered designs" substitutes "the concreteness of small circumstantiated struggles with its precise objectives capable of having a great effect because they change systems of relation" (60). A postmodernist subject, the ex-centric questions, contests, and problematises but does not destroy "centralized, totalized, hierarchized, closed systems . . . part of its questioning involves an energizing and rethinking of margins and edges, of what does not fit the humanly constructed notion of the center" (Hutcheon 41–42)—a stance that positions the ex-centric paradoxically both inside and outside. Given this position as an inside-outsider, the excentric expediently uses parody as its mode of critique precisely for the genre's "essential reflexivity, its capacity to reflect critically back upon itself, not merely upon its target" (Hanoosh 113). If we were to do a critique of the institution of which we are members, to be inside yet outside is the most prudent and tenable place to locate ourselves. This implies, we eschew the notion of critical distance which is, to end with Fraser,

also the basis for the ambivalence of Institutional Critique because while these relations may be fundamentally social, they are never only "out there," in sites and situations, much less institutions, that are discrete and separable from ourselves. We are the institution of art: the object of our critiques, our attacks, is always also inside ourselves. (Welchman 307)

If in my parodic performances "the very walls of the traditional museum and the very definition of a work of art come under fire" (Hutcheon 60), from a larger perspective, the very struggle of what it means for us to be change agents in the field of cultural production—all our utterances and actions in this social matrix enacted as our struggle over the production, circulation, consumption and ultimately over the social value of art—must be called constantly into crisis. Therefore, necessitating artists to be accountable to the imperatives of the present, Institutional Critique logically calls art to be contemporary.

But, beyond the term and the practice of Institutional Critique, there still remains the crucial project of ceaselessly problematising ourselves as the institution; of problematising our part in the production of symbolic power and our partaking of this power. How do we produce symbolic value so as not to be exploited for economic profit? What should be our objects of study and praxis unto which we will confer value, status and legitimacy? How to wield this power so as not to be the source of domination? How to maintain critical agency so as to keep transforming thus renewing the institution now and in the future?

1. My first major parodic work was Scapular Gallery Nomad, where I wore/peformed a gallery daily for five years exhibiting 34 one-person exhibitions by other artists. I performed as curator, publisher, PR officer, dealer, designer, "builder" of several galleries, critic, and archivist. The Museum of Mental Objects (MoMO), a performance for life, is my other major work where I am now the museum itself. Works are whispered to MoMO so as to have no palpable objects to be collected, installed, exhibited, and commodified by and in the museum.

Bourdieu, Pierre. The Field of Cultural Production, ed., Randal Johnson. Columbia University Press, 1993.

Burgin, Victor. The End of Art Theory. London: McMillan Education, Ltd., 1986.
Fraser, Andrea. "What is Institutional Critique?" in Institutional Critique and After, ed., John C. Welchman. Centralweg: SoCCCAs and JRP/Ringier Kunstverlag AG, 2006.
———. "Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique" in Institutional Critique and After, ed., John C. Welchman. Centralweg: SoCCCAs and JRP/Ringier
Kunstverlag AG, 2006.
Hanoosh, Michelle. "The Reflexive Function of Parody." Comparative Literature, Spring, 1989: 113–127.
Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism. London: Routledge, 1989.
Malone, Meredith. Andrea Fraser, What do I as an artist provide? St. Louis, Washington: Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, 2007.
Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked, the Politics of Performance. London: Routledge, 1996.
Tucker, Marcia. "Whose on first, issues of cultural equity in today's museums." In Different Voices: A Social, Cultural and Historical Framework for Change in the American Art Museum, ed., M. Mitchell. New York: Association of Art Museum Directors, 1992.


Thu 1/19/2012 4:21 PM
David Clarke, Professor of Fine Arts at the University of Hong Kong

Art Now: Beyond the Contemporary

The notion of the modern, used within artistic discourse, can function analytically since one can relate modernity in culture to larger historical patterns, such as the rise of capitalism. For me the term "contemporary" is not embedded in this way in a larger explanatory analysis, and thus I don't find it useful as an analytical category. I use the term out of convenience (it has become so widespread as to be more or less unavoidable at present), but don’t expect it to be load-bearing, to help explain things in any deeper way. Used to describe art in a situational manner, to refer to art made in times adjacent to the present moment, its referent is something of a moving target and it doesn't really help us much when we want to take the more external perspective on time which historical explanation requires.

Being concerned with the present moment is of course a good thing—we need to live in the now, even if we don't always want to be living for the now—but accepting some ideology of the contemporary doesn’t really help with this. The"moving target" nature of the contemporary leads to many cases where academic fieldwork which was done in what was then the present moment is (because of the time taken by the process of scholarly production) published and read as comment on the art of an arbitrarily-defined moment in the recent past, but without the value of historical contextualisation which the study of such art needs. Art made in any given present moment is often deeply engaged with art made in past moments—many works by Picasso or De Chirico, for instance, sprang from a dialogue with the art of other times. Ai Weiwei's Forever Bicycles installation of 2011 cannot be comprehended in any meaningful way without reference to Duchamp's Bicycle Wheel, first made almost exactly a hundred years earlier in 1913. Instead of valorising certain things being made now as "contemporary," why not treat the whole field of visual production surviving into the present moment as a potential source of inspiration for now (whether we are a maker or a spectator of art)? The very old can be just as paradigm-busting for our present-day consciousness as the very recent—can be radically new to us even if not newly made—so why bracket it off from consideration? As Francis Picabia once said, "there is no antiquity"—to think that there is "antiquity" is perhaps to suffer from a lack of empathy with humans from other times and places.

In my writing on Chinese art I have tended to avoid a focus on the "contemporary" period alone, wishing to deal with it alongside earlier modern moments as part of a continuum. I put modern and contemporary Chinese art together in my most recent book Chinese Art and its Encounter with the World, for instance, as well as in my immediately previous book-length study, Water and Art. This refusal of an artificial distinction between modern and contemporary is particularly important in the case of non-Western art, since it has become easy for Western institutions to incorporate art from other parts of the world within decontextualised presentations of the contemporary without any serious threat to Western cultural hegemony. Some contemporary Chinese artists are now widely known in the West, yet Chinese modernism remains an almost unexplored territory. Western museums of modern art seem unlikely to move their Matisses and Mondrians to make wall space for it any time soon, since to do so would threaten Western-centred cultural narratives in a more fundamental way than can currently be accommodated.

A similar desire to refuse the ideology of the contemporary lay behind a decision of the Museums Advisory Group, which came up with the conceptual plan for the projected institution M+ on Hong Kong's West Kowloon Cultural District waterfront site. The group chose to make "now" the temporal focus of M+ instead of using the loaded term "contemporary" (it also broadened the focus from "art" to "visual culture" as a whole, and chose "here"—i.e., Hong Kong—as its spatial focus rather than—say—"China"). By not proposing a contemporary art museum for West Kowloon the intention was to further open up the range of objects that could potentially be displayed—not only would all kinds of visual culture be included but potentially that culture could come from any time period. Relevance to "now"—something open in nature and subject to constant curatorial redefinition and justification—would be the only given temporal frame. Undoubtedly there will be a pressure to normalise M+ as the conceptual plan is actualised (already Hong Kong Government officials frequently refer to it as a "museum," when the whole point of the "+" sign is to indicate that it is conceived as more than that), and it will be interesting to see if as a result it comes to be more like a standard model for a contemporary art museum.

Of course, we can see that the whole of consumer culture has an economically necessary orientation towards the newly-produced product, and a valorisation of the contemporary helps art to sit happily within this field. But to the extent that thinking about art has some autonomy from the marketplace surely we would want to consciously move away from this undue emphasis on the newly produced. The important thing is to place new and not so new art within the same frame, not to denigrate the former in favour of the latter (or vice versa). Such a phenomenon of denigration seems to occur in the field of classical music, where most orchestras tend to serve up a diet of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century music to a twenty-first century audience, but rarely risk the presentation of recently-composed music. Although there are those in the contemporary art world who seem happy to ignore earlier art the reverse is also true—art historians can often be allergic to the contemporary. I met this for instance when I submitted an article on recent Chinese art for consideration by a leading Western academic art history journal. Although that journal claims to publish on all areas of art history the editor at that time refused to send my article out for peer review because it dealt with living artists (as if history was a time period rather than a method). If such barriers as this could be broken down then the discourse on recently-created art could benefit more from insights derived from historical methodologies and knowledge bases, while art history in its turn could benefit from the lively perspectives that art critical writing is capable of, and from its clear desire to engage with the present day.


Wed 1/25/2012 5:00 PM
Frank Vigneron, Professor in the Department of Fine Arts of Chinese University of Hong Kong

Doxa and Episteme of the Contemporary

It is apparently very difficult to come to a consensus on what constitutes the contemporary, if only because it seems to float in different niches in different parts of the world, but also because most people do not talk about the same things when they refer to that term. A French humorist once said that it was possible to joke about everything but not with everybody, it seems the same applies to the use of the expression "contemporary art" and, depending on whom one is talking to and where, the contemporary takes on a multitude of different forms in conversations. If I wanted to be more academic, I would remind the reader that Aristotle considered that specialist knowledge was "episteme" while the realm of opinion was "doxa"—a concept that became essential to Pierre Bourdieu—and that "contemporary" takes on very different values in both the doxa and the episteme.

For instance, I recently tried to define for MA students the domain of postmodern art, an expression that I still find acceptable because it clearly establishes the limits between the modern (unfortunately itself an oftentimes vague notion, although seeing it as a tension between art for art's sake and avant-garde art usually comes in pretty handy) and what was different from it. The postmodern has obviously come out of fashion because too many people have tried to apply it to everything in its heyday, a habit that has thankfully disappeared, but it has been given a very clear domain in art quite a long time ago by Craig Owens (the characteristics of postmodern art are "Appropriation, site-specificity, impermanence, accumulation, discursivity, hybridization").1 I generally conclude such a series of lectures by reiterating the fall from grace of the expression "postmodern art" and how it is safer nowadays to refer to it as "contemporary art," trying—desperately—to give as firm a footing as I could to such notions.2

In spite of all my precautions, when the time came to write a term paper about a contemporary artist, she chose a 70 year-old local Chinese painter (not a famous name either, it was her own Chinese painting teacher whose style was closely related to that of Lin Fengmian, an artist everyone agrees on calling modernist today) and called him a postmodern painter without once justifying this choice. As a teacher, I obviously expected her to use the concepts introduced during the lectures but apparently, just living and painting today was enough to give him this title. I now realised she would never have dared call him a contemporary artist, but postmodern was fine since it somehow related to modern, something of the past now, and seemed to somehow come after it, which would put his work in the present apparently.

The other reason why this student was happy to use—wrongly—the expression "postmodern art" was because it did not rely on the usual dichotomy, strongly polarised in Hong Kong as in Mainland China, of traditional/contemporary. If what constitutes the contemporary is obviously terribly unclear in the doxa of art in Hong Kong (but vagueness and contradictions are the foundations of doxa, so there is nothing unexpected here), unfortunately, the idea of the contemporary is not much clearer in the episteme of art criticism and even academia seems at a loss to clearly define the limits of the contemporary. Episteme should be the domain of the institutions but it is also clear that none of them—be it museums, publications, university art departments, and cultural studies departments, etc.—will ever be able to establish durable limits to the concept of contemporary, because institutions too cannot avoid the pressures of the doxa and because their ideology is after all formulated and manipulated by people who cannot be excepted from social interactions where various habitus need to take shape.

Being myself part of the institutions that have to manipulate these notions, I am constantly running into walls, walls establish by students (as I have just mentioned) and by other colleagues. I was asked a few times by studio art colleagues what they should answer to students and other persons (once a journalist) when they require a definition of terms like "experimental art," and I sometimes answered that the best way to avoid being hopelessly vague is to rely on social sciences and take the problem by the other end: instead of defining the contemporary from inside institutional practices, try to see what everyone has to say about that through surveys and questionnaires . . . All right, I admit now that this was a way to avoid the issue as I knew perfectly well no one would ever deal with this problem in such a complex fashion.

These walls we constantly run into when dealing with the contemporary in the classroom and in academic papers are actually beneficial because they constantly reshape—and hopefully each time get us a little closer to—a proper understanding of what constitutes the contemporary. Not being able, in this shifting conceptual landscape, to give it a positive definition, I see no reason to avoid the relational model to define the limits of the contemporary (for instance, I tried to use a Piaget group, the famous relational model used by structuralism, to define the various art practices present in Hong Kong, in an article that will be published in the next issue of the Hong Kong Art Yearbook published by the Fine Arts Department, CUHK,3 but it does not solve everything and forces the reader to accept from the start that there is no ontology, no a priori of the contemporary, a notion that will make many people fairly uncomfortable.

I was once again faced with the many inconsistencies inherent in this discourse when, a couple of years ago, I had to write outcomes for my lectures at CUHK. In one of the outcomes written for the course on Hong Kong art, there was a mention of art practices being "more contemporary" than others. I was very much aware of the grammatical difficulties involved in this statement, but thought they were making sense because I intended to define these practices within this relational model: something looks traditional when confronted with something that looks contemporary, one domain needing the other to establish boundaries. In any case, I had to change it into something that sounded like it was possible to define in positive terms the contemporary, because the proof reader of these course outcomes (then a very high ranking academic in the university hierarchy who did not take contradiction lightly) could not accept this grammatical inconsistency. Don't think I acted spinelessly during that little episode though, I just believed spending too much effort on changing a course description was not worth it, I would always address the issue in the classroom anyway.

The relational model I have in mind to define the contemporary (and every other art practice in the process), can in fact be extraordinarily complex because it involves many other "Others" to start making sense. It does not rely entirely on art history methodology to function and requires a great deal of other points of view (the most important being Bourdieusian sociology and notions like cultural capital and habitus) to start painting vivid enough portraits of all the art practices in a place like Hong Kong. In the end, the complexities of such an endeavor also emphasise the fact that such a methodology can only be applied to fairly narrow geographical and cultural domains: tying the same kind of relational model to a country the size of China would be so complex, would have to include so many different art practices in so many different contexts, that it would require a large team of researchers a fairly long time to be consistent and exhaustive.

1. In The Allegorical Impulse: Towards a Theory of Postmodernism, Craig Owens follows the philosopher Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) and notes that modernist critical theory rejected allegory as a mode of conveying meaning. He then claims that it was the re-emergence of allegorical modes in the art of the nineteen fifties and sixties which made that art incomprehensible according to the modernist canons of artistic quality. For Owens, allegory occurs when one text is doubled by another and he next shows that it appears everywhere in the new art of his time but on strictly visual grounds. Since allegory consists in doubling an image with a secondary meaning, he shows that it can be found in the work of Sherie Levine (born 1947); the artist widely acknowledged to be the creator of the concept of "appropriation." This process of appropriation, which can be found also in the work of major artists like Robert Longo (born 1953) and Gerard Richter (born 1932), is therefore called "postmodern" because it does not fit within any of the concepts of modernism. Postmodern art uses the whole spectrum of possibilities allegory offers. After considering the effects of this return of allegory in the art of the 1950s and 1960s, Owens treats us to one of the most concise definitions of the characteristics of postmodern art: "Appropriation, site-specificity, impermanence, accumulation, discursivity, hybridization—these diverse strategies characterize much of the art of the present and distinguish it from its modernist predecessors." Harrison, C., Wood, P. and Gaiger, J., eds., Art in Theory: 1900–1990. An Anthology of Changing Ideas (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000), 1051–1060.
2. Although I do not mention it in my lectures, my own feeble efforts to come up with a notion to define such practices takes the shape of the expression "plastician art" (Wu Hung, for instance, tried "experimental art" in the 1990s). To avoid the problems attached to the use of a word that was already in existence at a time art was something so entirely different, I propose to use the name coined in France in the 1990s: instead of artist, I use the term "plasticien," and even Anglicise it by writing it plastician. The use of this Gallicism will also have the advantage of allowing us to avoid the term "contemporary." Strictly speaking, "contemporary art" would be all the present cultural activities called "art"’ by their practitioners, but in reality "contemporary art" is an expression only used for certain types of art like installation, performance, video art, and a very narrow range of paintings.
3. To put it simply, I have described in this forthcoming article some of the conflicts generated by the ideas of "traditional" and "contemporary" in the art field of Hong Kong, these two habitus take on very specific forms in the SAR. The "traditional" generally takes the shape of a "native" Chinese art and the idea of "art made by the hand" and "painting as art." The "contemporary" generally takes the form of other variations on the idea of the traditional (sometimes simply called "Ink art" although not everything in that category is actually made with ink), all the practices that the French prefer to call "art plasticien" and, finally, all the practices involving some sort of interactivity and relational aesthetics.


Sat 1/28/2012 9:07 AM
Patrick Flores, Professor in the Art Studies Department of University of the Philippines Diliman

Errant in Form

In thinking about the contemporary, a drawing by the Spanish painter Francisco Goya titled For Being Born Elsewhere (Por Haber Nacido en Otra Parte, 1814–1823) initiates a frisson. It is taken from a series of sketches depicting persons prosecuted by the Inquisition. The esteemed art historian Albert Boime describes the victims as wearing "the long conical cap known as the coroza and the tunic known as the sanbenito, which fit over the chest and upon which were inscribed the reasons for condemnation" primarily stemming from faith. It occurred to me that while in another time, to be born elsewhere meant fate worthy of death, an exclusion by virtue of a different genesis, in the ecology of the contemporary, to be birthed elsewhere might be a privilege, in fact an exception by virtue of a genetic, that is natural, difference. For a body to emerge in another place is to affirm a vast worldliness that enables equivalent histories and humanities to reciprocate, to demonstrate the index of belonging and the attendant violence and promise this belonging entails in the process of by turns being conquered and being in the world with others. "Being born elsewhere" is a condition and at the same time, in light of the word "for," the basis for a decision to claim to have originated locally, to be native and folk not as heritage but as entitlement, and to be self-conscious about this lineage and the modernity of this self-consciousness, just like the feeling of others who have been verisimilarly born elsewhere in their own province and in a world within. It is this locality of origin, this autonomy of emergence eccentrically, that ensures the disposition to move beyond it, to explore the finitude of difference and the infinity of the new. It is this freedom to emerge elsewhere that guarantees the subject of contemporary means to properly participate in the project of emancipation or transcendence—to be free, at last. The "contemporary" is, therefore, radical to the degree that it motivates us to at once internalise the totality of the self and of the universe and to transcend it. It is difficult to grasp this in language, but I think the "global" is nuanced enough a term to probe the "contemporary art" that we so diligently, if not vexingly, contemplate. It insinuates the constraint of the "all"; it prefigures "all" possibility in what a thinker so felicitously conceives as the "sudden vicinity of things." On the one hand, there is the belief that global art or art that is made contemporaneously all over the world in the present is coordinated by some meta-structure of neoliberal persuasion. On the other, there is the always-already resolute desire to resist this totality, an everyday hope that resistance would actually inhere in the truly worldly. In this vein, the "global contemporary" because it lives in the same time but in different places, at discrepant rhythms, through a gamut of vectors, is by nature, to borrow a phrase from the philosopher of the Baroque José Lezama Lima, "errant in form, but firmly rooted in its essences." It is this errant form and essential rootedness that is quite elusive, too nimble to be caught by any instrumentalist impulse. But it is also neither eternally inchoate nor aleatory; it is errant, and therefore conscious of norm, aware of translation, decisively political; it is rooted, and therefore sensitive to origin and the future. It invests in the procedures of communication, dialogue, collaboration, reciprocity; it is determinate at the same time that it is chastened by the "commonality of finitude," and so open to chance and precarity, and the dreams of lastingness. This construction site, this laboratory, this emergent place of making and unmaking, is an effort to create a situation of this play, speculation, critique, bricolage, going out on a limb for art that must outlive certain contexts that oftentimes refuse it, from an earth in near exhaustion to a multitude in unimaginable poverty and persecution. This reflection on the contemporary is derived in large part from my engagement as a member of the advisory committee of the project of the Zenter für Kunst und Medientechnologie in Karlsruhe, Germany called The Global Contemporary: Art Worlds After 1989 in 2011. The initiative was bound to be a fraught one, threading the needle of the attempt to mark the co-incidents of the contemporary and to intimate its restless globality, thus the aspiration to create a sense of incompleteness, an on-going-ness that is generative and like ornament or patterns in textile, "open-endedly social." But seen alongside an exhibitionary complex or any situation of historicisation of the present, from the naming of art in the market and its belaboured critique to its remembrance in the history of art in whatever critical way this is enacted, a modality of a contingent contemporary in an art world still mainly beholden to "presentation" and the production of "event" may seem inevitably aberrant. The exhibition is fully formed, a collection of objects prone to becoming commodities, curated with authority, explained through a pedagogy, cued by themes, confined in space. It should appear then that the exhibition, regardless how it postures to be complete and sufficient, is ultimately incommensurate, always suffering from the lack that is not intuited: how it is made, how the public receives it, how its afterlife would transpire. It should appear, furthermore, that the exhibitionary, alongside the capture in discourse, does not overdetermine the contemporary. While it ensures the "sensible" and the "present," it does not reduce the art to a thing that merely "makes sense" and that is "there." The exhibitionary, this ostensivity or ostensibility, is an instance of a performance of a longer duration, a node in a network of past and prospective contexts. It is not terminus; rather it is a mere part of a playing out, of work, memories of facture. And since, it belongs to a broader conversation, a wider sympathy of revelations and comparisons, it is necessarily inclined to persist, to go on. It is "time consuming" and hence actually existing and tentative, historicised, and contemporary, archival and arriving, always "born elsewhere."


Part II | Part III | Part IV

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