Building Asia Art Archive

Historical Context
Complex Geographies
Women in Art History
Field Notes: Archive as Method and Mapping Asia
Exhibition Histories
Art Writing
Innovation Through Tradition
Performance Art

Executive Director Claire Hsu and Head of Strategy Chantal Wong discuss AAA’s seven content priorities: art writing, complex geographies, exhibition histories, innovation through tradition, pedagogy, performance art, and women in art history.


Over the last year, Asia Art Archive has redefined its main areas of research and programming focus. These are called content priorities, and they help shape the organisation's direction. Claire Hsu and Chantal Wong sat down one morning in the Laboratory to illuminate these seven priorities by outlining AAA's organisational history and recent programmes.


Image: AAA Library.
Image: AAA Library. Photo: Kitmin Lee.


Historical Context

Claire Hsu: Let’s start by reflecting on why we’re having this conversation right now. When Asia Art Archive began, many people asked how we made decisions on what we research and collect. There were guiding principles, which relate to our content priorities today, though these were less well articulated then. Last year, as part of a bigger strategic exercise, and with sixteen years of work behind us, we sat down to more clearly define some key directions, which we call content priorities. These inform what we collect, how we programme, and who we connect to.

Chantal Wong: As we transition into an organisation that’s more structured, it’s important for the entire team, as well as for our users, that we articulate our priorities: why we do what we do. Once we articulate this, we make it easier for researchers and scholars to use our collection.

CH: These content priorities have naturally come up in terms of aligning with the mission of the organisation—to trace and open new sites of art history; to house ephemeral or less visible practices and materials; to positively complicate art’s lineages and definitions. Recently, we’ve been able to see the entire picture and understand what needs urgent attention and where we can shift the needle. Our content priorities direct our energies over the long-term, though we will review them annually. We also are mindful of not duplicating the efforts of other organisations, while working closely with likeminded initiatives and peer institutions to amplify these lines of enquiry.


Complex Geographies

CW: The content priorities include complex geographies, innovation through tradition, performance art, women in art history, and sites of knowledge production—and within this umbrella we specifically look at art writing, exhibitions, and pedagogy as sites where art history has been written.

Let’s begin with complex geographies. Our interest here is looking at the movements of ideas, languages, and knowledge across borders, as opposed to only through the lens of the nation.

CH: Most commonly, archives are national in focus. What we’re offering is not a comprehensive documentation of the history of recent art from Asia, but a set of entry points across sites, where we can read what was happening in parallel and next to one another. That’s something that Asia Art Archive can offer that’s quite different from an archive with a national focus.

While we cannot escape histories that have emerged within the framework of the nation, our interest is to simultaneously look at how ideas and knowledge are able to seep through borders, and also this idea that this knowledge goes back a long, long, long way, beyond the time that we’re actually focusing on. In many instances these connections have been simplified or forgotten. We speak of globalisation as a more recent phenomenon, but if you look at the Silk Road as an example, globalisation happened hundreds and hundreds of years ago. These early exchanges of knowledge, of ideas, of goods, of religious beliefs, of cultural practices, of medicine—you name it—are fundamental to understanding who we are today.

We are living in a world with over sixty million refugees and internally displaced people, with one billion people on the move. We are seeing a shift in population demographics where certain cities have become majority minority. In parallel, however, fundamentalism and populism are on the rise and it is now more urgent than ever to rethink citizenship and find grounds of communality, with clues buried and forgotten in the annals of history. We are interested in tracing the threads that bind us beyond this idea of the nation state, to offer alternative points of reference and more inclusive ways of knowledge making. One of the projects that we worked on to address this was Mapping Asia, which we will touch on later.

Image: Cover of <i>Mapping Asia</i>.
Image: Cover of Mapping Asia.


Women in Art History

CW: Another of our content priorities is to address the role of women in art and the making of art history. For example, we have this extensive collection around the 1980s and 1990s in China. When looking through the materials it becomes very evident, however, how few women are represented. The Joan Lebold Cohen Archive, which we launched earlier this year, has a section on women artists in China and this was the part of the archive we digitised first. We are doing research on this section to see how we can go back and include more women in the China archives.

Image: Photograph of He Chengyao and her work, circa 1993.
Image: Photograph of He Chengyao and her work, circa 1993. Courtesy of Joan Lebold Cohen.

CH: I don’t think one archive can solve this problem, though it is essential we openly acknowledge the issue and look at ways we might address these gaps. These gaps and tensions also shape our future focus. Fundamentally, the problem is inherent within the world and the systems we have built and live with. The underrepresentation of women, or women being written out of history, is something that obviously goes beyond the art world.

There are different stages of urgencies. When we began nearly seventeen years ago, everything was urgent and almost everything needed to be documented, as none of these materials were available. Today, you may look at our China 1980s archives and think these are well-known artists and curators. This history, however, was written by a handful of individuals who were very close to the scene at the time. Their accounts are the ones that were translated and have become the main ones for how we talk about the development of Chinese art. Opening up their archives enables new research and readings of the materials—and one thing they reveal is how few women were written into this history, so quite a lot of detective work must be done to track them down. Jane DeBevoise and Anthony Yung will be elaborating on this and the development of our China collections in the next conversation in this series on content priorities.

There’s much work to be done but now we’re in a great place because we have a foundational collection that we can critically respond to and engage with.


Field Notes: Archive as Method and Mapping Asia

CW: On a practical level—how we do the work we do—part of the restructuring we went through last year was to decide how best to use our resources in light of the changing arts landscape.

For a while, there weren’t so many arts organisations in Hong Kong or in the region for that matter, and so we felt compelled to take on multiple roles. With new institutions having opened or soon to open, we can now be more focused. This process of distilling our content priorities and articulating them is a way for us to make sure we’re best using our resources in order to most thoughtfully serve the field.

CH: Exactly. One thing I would like to highlight in relation to the articulation of our content priorities is the launch of our publication Field Notes, which was a very important moment for us. We produced four issues, each with a thematic focus. These issues were a way to bring together some of the thinking the team had done around certain themes over many years. While Field Notes no longer exists in that form, this new Ideas section is a platform from which we can commission and share knowledge around our content priorities.

The first issue looked at the contemporary. What does it mean to be an archive that archives the contemporary, the recent history of art? Archives normally deal with the past and history. And at the same time what is this condition that we call the contemporary? Art critic Hal Foster came out with a questionnaire on the contemporary, which was a very important document often referred to within academic and curatorial circuits. Most of those respondents were based in Europe and America. And so we took the questionnaire and expanded it to include respondents in Asia. Of course, it can be expanded to encapsulate other geographies as well. So that issue of Field Notes looked to expand upon and open up who gets to participate—hence the title "The And" rather than "The End."

Image: <i>Field Notes</i> Issue 1.
Image: Field Notes Issue 1.

CW: In "The And" it was really important that we included the text on Ivan Peries by Senake Bandaranayake entitled "The Predicament of The Bourgeois Artist in the Societies of the Third World" [initially written in the 1960s and only published in May 2009 in Third Text]. Ivan Peries was a founding member of the ‘43 Group in Sri Lanka active in the 1940s. The essay showed that a profound inquiry into the genesis of contemporary art or art being made in the present isn’t a condition unique to our present, and definitely not unique to Europe and America. These questions are part of a continuous dialogue with the past and across geographies; and this text draws a line connecting this line of inquiry. Texts like these are still relevant and enrich the way we understand, experience, and locate ourselves in this history.

CH: The second issue of Field Notes was on the archive as method. While this is not one of our content priorities as such, it’s obviously a methodology ingrained in how we work. Asia Art Archive was born because of an urgent need to document and make accessible the recent history of art from Asia; we can make this possible even without huge private or state funding because of the digital tools and platforms available.

Image: Archive as Method.
Image: Archive as Method.

CW: In that issue, we looked at different ways individuals and organisations use the tools, forms, and methodologies of the archive. Some, like the Red Conceptualismos del Sur (Southern Conceptualists), arose organically from an urgency to ensure knowledge remain at its site of origin, whereas others, like the Van Abbemuseum, are bringing the archive from the basement into the exhibition space to pose critical questions.

CH: It was also an important platform for us to revisit issues that emerged from a conference on archiving we organised in 2005. 

CW: Then there was Mapping Asia, the third issue.

CH: We are often asked: “How do we define Asia? Where does it end? Where does it begin?” As discussed earlier around what we call complex geographies, this Field Notes issue and the programmes accompanying it were a way for us to share a more fluid and non-linear way to engage with thinking about the region. This idea of history and knowledge being deeply intertwined. But also, looking in places outside of where one normally looks for Asia. A recent example of this is our three-year collaboration with the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art entitled London, Asia, initiated by our former Head of Research Hammad Nasar. The project posits London as an underexplored site of South Asian art history, but also calls for a more inclusive British art history.

And one more thing to add about Mapping Asia—it was also a way to reflect on the social, political, and economic realities of what it means to live in Asia at this moment in time and how to make sense of the speed at which our realities are changing. The image we used on the cover is of Shenzhen taken from Hong Kong in the late 1970s, which clearly signals a different world to the one we see today, just thirty years later.

Image: <i>Field Notes</i> Issue 3
Image: Field Notes Issue 3


Exhibition Histories

CW: Field Notes was a starting point for us to articulate who we are, where we are looking, and what some of our areas of focus are. The fourth issue looked at exhibitions as sites where art history has been written in the absence of museums and universities doing this work for the region. It was a continuation of a conference we organised in 2013 entitled Sites of Construction, which is available online and in a special version of Yishu.

For the follow-up issue to the conference, we invited scholars, artists, and visual designers to look at how certain exhibitions were game changers in defining art history and what art is now.

Sites of Construction: Exhibitions and the Making of Recent Art History in Asia
Image: Sites of Construction: Exhibitions and the Making of Recent Art History in Asia.

CH: Exhibitions are one of the sites we are interested in exploring regarding where knowledge around art in the region has been created. It is a growing field. There are still many questions around methodology. For us, however, we are most interested not in exhibitions as something fixed, but as a space from which to inquire into that history.


Art Writing

CH: This year we are focusing on art writing as another site from which art in the region has been historicised. We are convening a symposium in January 2018 with Hong Kong University to look at periodicals as key sites from which ideas were exchanged, ideas formulated, and affiliations claimed.

We are also bringing out a three-part series of publications looking at the role of fiction in formulating the figure of the artist, artist travel writing, and manifestos. These publications stem from a multi-year research programme, which resulted in a bibliography of twentieth century art writing in fourteen different Indian languages. Though language and translation are not articulated within the content priorities, they are important threads that run through our work. The Bibliography of Modern and Contemporary Art Writing of South Asia reveals that the sources of the histories of Indian art we most commonly refer to come from English and Hindi texts. By highlighting other languages we hope to expand the points of reference. While translation will always be a challenge, I think it is important to constantly be aware of the fact that art history is always language-centric. My colleagues Sabih Ahmed and Sneha Ragavan will elaborate on this project in another conversation in this series on content priorities. 

Bibliography of Modern and Contemporary Art Writing of South Asia
Image: Bibliography of Modern and Contemporary Art Writing of South Asia.



CH: Sabih and Sneha will also touch on pedagogy as the third site under the sites of knowledge umbrella. Artist-teachers have played a key role in formulating curriculum in many postcolonial countries. An example of this is The Baroda Archives, where we digitised the archives of Gulammohammed Sheikh, Jyoti Bhatt, K. G. Subramanyan, and Ratan Parimoo. It’s interesting to look at the kinds of artistic practice that have come from different pedagogic lineages; this is something we wish to trace. At the same time, we are currently researching alternative educational projects and platforms: where artists have set up schools outside the system to address oftentimes marginalised communities, and to expand what is taught and how.


Innovation Through Tradition

CH: As we touched on Baroda, which pioneered Living Traditions as a valid form of modernity, this might be a nice place to segue into one of the content priorities that we call innovation through tradition. Here we are looking at tradition as a living and valid space for contemporary practice. In 2014, we held a workshop led by Iftikhar Dadi, our Scholar-in-Residence at the time, looking at parallels between calligraphy, the miniature, and ink across Asia. We are also interested in the questions this poses regarding how we define art. The separation between what design is, what craft is, what performance is, and what visual art is are legacies from colonial definitions imposed upon art, and globally prevalent today.


Performance Art

CW: We haven’t touched on performance art yet, which is the last of our content priorities. Of all the practices, performance art has emerged over the years as one that needs our attention. It has been an important alternative for artists working in countries with strict censorship—such as China, Singapore, and Vietnam—over the last decades. It is fertile ground for us to work with because of its ephemeral nature, relative obscurity within the market, and the challenges that go with documenting it. At the same time, it poses questions around what defines performance art in, say, South East Asia, where artists have been working with traditional forms of dance.

CH: As we consider these directions or content priorities, we must also always balance this with geography. While we can’t cover every country, we are always mindful of balancing the amount of resources focused on China, which does tend to be the country where funding is most available. That’s why we regularly review where we are researching, digitising collections, and programming.

As this conversation comes to a close, it’s important to highlight the fact that these content priorities have been developed over many years with many people both within and outside AAA. Unfortunately Hammad Nasar, our former Head of Research, couldn’t make the conversation today. He was part of the core team that articulated the content priorities. In the coming weeks, we will be publishing a number of other conversations around content priorities and specific countries as part of this behind the scenes series. And finally, this building process would not be possible without collaborating with a much wider community—comprised of individuals and organisations—with whom we work to circulate ideas and materials, and to ask questions.  


Relevant content

AAA Project Space, Archiving Materials
Ideas is AAA's New Online Journal

Ideas is AAA's New Online Journal

Asia Art Archive publishes new essays, interviews, and curated journeys through the research collections

Artist-in-Residence | Iftikhar Dadi
Programmes | Residency Programme

Artist-in-Residence | Iftikhar Dadi

Jul–Sep 2014