Coincidence and Re-collection; Lateness and Insight

Lee Weng Choy writes about memory; exhibitions histories; and the forms, practices, and practicalities of the biennale.

This essay was original published in Uncooperative Contemporaries, as part of Afterall's Exhibition Histories project, and is republished here with permission.


1. I was there.

For many a writer, memory is a source of primary material; it is the living archive of our selves. For the historian, it's documents that matter. But if memory is also a document of sorts, it is a uniquely limited and unreliable one, even with the indexical weight of saying "I was there"—and I was, in Shanghai, in 2000, at the Biennale. These days, Hou Hanru 侯瀚如 is the name we most associate with that exhibition, but, to give credit where it's due, Li Xu 李旭, Toshio Shimizu and Zhang Qing 張晴 were the other curators. During that trip, I also saw the infamous Fuck Off 不合作方式 show, organised by Feng Boyi 馮博一and Ai Weiwei 艾未未. Until recently, I was pretty sure that I didn't go and see Useful Life 有效期 as well. But, then, in London, at an open editorial meeting for the present publication,1 when I saw some images from the exhibition, which was organised by Xu Zhen 徐震, Yang Fudong 楊福東, and Yang Zhenzhong 楊振中, I got a pretty strong dose of déjà vu.


Image: Exhibition view of Huang Yong Ping, <i>Bank of Sand, Sand of Bank</i>, 2000, at Shanghai Biennale 2000. Fei Dawei Archive, Asia Art Archive Collection. Courtesy of Fei Dawei.
Image: Exhibition view of Huang Yong Ping, Bank of Sand, Sand of Bank, 2000, at Shanghai Biennale 2000. Fei Dawei Archive, Asia Art Archive Collection. Courtesy of Fei Dawei.


What, however, can this "being there" really mean? What can it mean to someone who's based in Southeast Asia and, say, writes art criticism? What can it mean to the people who happen to chance upon and read this text? Notice, I don’t ask myself, What do I remember? Because I know my own remembrances won't add up to much—even if aided by photographs, documents, or freshly dug up notes, which I didn't take, since I wasn't planning on writing anything. In any case, what about that moment when memory is not yet the stuff that one remembers, but is just the feeling of having been there? To have been at an exhibition, or two, or three.


Image: Exhibition view of <i>Fuck Off</i>, Shanghai, China, 2000. Documenting Contemporary Art of Northwest China (Lanzhou), Asia Art Archive Collection.
Image: Exhibition view of Fuck Off, Shanghai, China, 2000. Documenting Contemporary Art of Northwest China (Lanzhou), Asia Art Archive Collection.


A shift has occurred in the field of art history. One that I belatedly came to appreciate, in between the time when I was there in China, and now, here in Malaysia, when I am trying to write not about, but around Shanghai. There's a name for this shift: the set of approaches called "exhibition histories." To my understanding, those who write these histories do not seek to supersede but to complement other narratives about art, which may focus on artworks, artists, curators, art spaces and institutions, or the discursive, social, economic, or political conditions of cultural production and reception, and so on and so forth. There's a crucial difference, though, isn't there? To say I've seen an artwork in the flesh isn't quite the same as saying I've seen a particular exhibition. In most cases, there will be other chances to see an artwork again, later, in the future. There is only one window to see an exhibition—to have been there. Sure, exhibitions get re-staged sometimes, but then it's not the same thing anymore, since the historical moment is just as much a part of a show as the specific arrangement of artworks, architectures, wall texts, and other things. So: What might the relationship be between exhibition histories and, not the work of memory, that effort to re-collect and re-member, but this feeling—of the "there-ness" of memory?


2. "can we be ironic"2

Why was I there? Simply: because I was invited by Hou Hanru to speak at the symposium. My presentation was titled "'Bad' art and Singapore." I began by acknowledging that "bad art" is a judgmental term, and then clarified that I wasn't actually going to discuss any examples of bad art from Singapore, as my purpose was to raise questions about how we—those of us from Asia who participate in the international art conference circuit—represent art and place, given that that is typically our expected role. I wanted to address the problem of representation by looking at the idea of bad art. I mentioned the late theatre-maker Kuo Pao Kun, one of Singapore's most well-regarded artist-intellectuals. Kuo endorsed a notion which his compatriot, architect Tay Kheng Soon, had put forward: What you have in Singapore is modernisation minus the modernity. As Kuo explained, "although Singapore has learnt to produce and enjoy the physical and economic infrastructure and development of modern times, it has never enjoyed the commensurate socio-political philosophy, mindsets and worldview."3 Singapore's rapid development is well known. Also well known is how its government has dominated almost every aspect of life in the country, privileging the economy above all else, from democracy to the arts. The implication is that without "modernity" as such, Singapore's culture is incomplete, although Kuo's criticisms were nuanced and did not just blame the authorities. While not entirely disagreeing with Kuo or Tay, cultural theorist C.J.W.-L. Wee has argued that instead of seeing Singapore as lacking modernity's critical and reflexive dimensions, one should read this as characteristic of Singaporean modernity itself.4

During my presentation, the interpreter had some difficulty. Apparently, me trying to be ironic wasn't easy to translate. If l recall correctly, someone in the audience misunderstood and thought I was saying that Chinese art was "bad." Eventually, Hou stepped in and continued the translation himself.

That I spoke at the symposium is, undoubtedly, a trivial fact. But from such coincidences, essays sometimes get written. To wit, an encounter at the 2018 Gwangju Biennale, where I met Lucy Steeds, senior editor with the Exhibition Histories project at Afterall.5 Steeds and I got to talking, and as a result she commissioned this text. To have been there—in Shanghai in 2000, but also Gwangju in 2018—seems both irrelevant and yet not entirely inconsequential.

Steeds emails me: "Late-night thought from London (and probably blinkered), but isn't a point about the Shanghai Biennale of 2000, and the satellite shows, that they made a national claim upon the global or universal?" Steeds notes that such claims were once performed by New York, USA, post-World War II, as the new vanguard of modern art, and earlier by Paris, France, in the nineteenth century, as its centre. Stepping back to the year 1989, she triangulates three major shows: Magiciens de la Terre in Paris, the third Bienal de La Habana, and The Other Story: Afro-Asian Artists in Post-war Britain in London. "For all their differences, these three exhibitions might be said to have transnationalised artistic practice. Didn't the notion of an artist being curated into a show on the basis of their individual cultural trajectory, rather than representing a nation, start there?" In what she acknowledges as a coarse-scale summary, she proposes that these moments from 1989 continued to define global contemporary art shows in the ensuing years. But then, she asks, does this period come to an end, and when? "Was it with exhibitions like the Shanghai Biennale and satellite shows in 2000?"6

For Southeast Asia, 1989 to 2000 was a time when its artists were becoming more widely recognised as part and parcel of the global contemporary art world. At the beginning of the 90s, access to the global was still largely mediated through the nation, and the nation also remained the framework for multiculturalism—this was true whether artists were shown at national or international platforms. Although, it was principally the latter that made contemporary art from the region significant globally. Exhibition programmes in Japan and Australia proved to be instrumental in this regard. To point to just one of these: the Queensland Art Gallery's Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT). At the first APT, in 1993, artists were grouped by nation in the catalogue. By 1999, through gestures such as the introduction of a "Crossing Borders" category, the third APT rook on a more deliberate transnational outlook, though it's arguable that APT3 continued to predominantly maintain, rather than challenge, categories of cultural identity.

But I wonder: By the time the Singapore Biennale came around, in 2006, sure, it was nice, important, to have such a major exhibition in Southeast Asia, but did "we" really need it to stake the claim that "our" contemporary art had arrived? Hadn't that already happened with the APT, and elsewhere? Did the Singapore Biennale come late in that regard? The APT also deserves credit for promoting China to the global art world—China was arguably the star of the second and third Triennials (whereas Japan was possibly the highlight of the first). But, as contributors to this book explain, the 2000 Shanghai Biennale did something for Chinese art that other, non-Chinese platforms, including the APT, could not do. The exhibition signalled a change of outlook: the Chinese state's embrace of contemporary art and its intent to promote Shanghai as a global, cosmopolitan centre—a re-envisioning of the city's position prior to the communist revolution. Whereas for Singapore art such milestones happened well before 2006.

What about the regional impact of the 2000 Shanghai and 2006 Singapore biennales? Indeed, what did the former mean for Southeast Asia, not only then but now? Would it have meant more to "us" at the time if more artists than Montien Boonma, Heri Dono, and Chatchai Puipia were there to "represent"? Should "we" also count Lani Maestro and Fiona Tan? Both were born in the region, but no longer live here. How should such premises of representation be re-evaluated today? And what about the effects of those two events globally? Following Steeds's point about the exhibitions of 1989 vis-a-vis those of 2000, I would suggest that Shanghai's assertion of China onto the global stage—and China as a metonym for Asia—set a precedent that Singapore followed in its claim to be the hub for Southeast Asian contemporary art.

Another thing happened in the 90s for Southeast Asia: the Asian financial crisis, which was triggered by the devaluation of the Thai baht in July 1997. C.J.W.-L. Wee notes that the crisis coincided with the first presentation, in Vienna, of the travelling exhibition Cities on the Move (1997–99), which looked at East Asia's rapid urban development through its art, architecture, and film, and was curated by Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Hou Hanru. As Wee suggests, the crisis—not the exhibition—may have, at the time, "punctured the impression of a confident New Asia rising," or at least suggested that "the very idea of an emerging Asia was volatile rather than certain." However, Wee also argues that if the grand narrative of thriving East and Southeast Asian economies experienced something of a setback, "the curatorial capacity to represent was a compelling issue," and for many in the region "there could be no turning back" in their belief in their own cultural arrival.7

So: How can one make sense of what happened in contemporary art after the events of Shanghai in 2000—not only for China, but for Southeast Asia, other regions, and the "art world as a whole"?


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Images: Artwork by Navin Rawanchaikul and Rirkrit Tiravanija, exhibited in Cities on the Move in different locations including Bangkok, Thailand; Bordeaux, France; and Vienna, Austria, 1997–99. Cities on the Move Exhibition Archive, Asia Art Archive Collection.


3. Are we adjacent yet?

Like many postcolonial states, Singapore became a nation with a set of aspirations and a sense of urgency. Was there ever a country whose arrival was accomplished so efficiently and effectively? Once relatively poor, within two generations its GDP per capita had exceeded that of the UK, its former coloniser. Moreover, Singapore once maintained that it could be the model, of capitalism and authoritarianism combined, for the economic development of China.8 That fantasy has not played out, as constitutive as it may have been for the island city state (population: less than 6 million), if not for the much larger mainland (population: over 1.3 billion). And, like many of the postcolonial cities that host them, a good number of biennales also manifest the rhetoric of visionary ambitions as well as of urgency and crisis. These large-scale international art exhibitions often seem to operate with the utopian presumption that they can help audiences re-imagine the world, or, at least, the interrelations between different and diverse peoples and places, countries, and continents.

Describing her own interests in exhibition histories, Steeds proposes that the "practice of exhibition histories does not focus so much on the isolated, intact artwork but, rather, approaches it in conjunction and puts it into question. How does art develop dialogues with adjacent art—and non-art—with a host environment, institutional ideologies and among geopolitically and historically particular publics?"9 For me, the word "adjacent" stands out here. "Adjacency" could be understood as a state of mutual coexistence between two or more proximate entities, whether creature, community, or country. To elaborate, let me contrast the notion with "contemporaneity." In his essay "Every Other Year Is Always This Year – Contemporaneity and the Biennial Form" (2015), Peter Osborne contends that art today lives in the "age of the biennial." He advances a critique of the biennale as symptomatic of neoliberal capitalism, explicating the relations between contemporaneity, the biennale, and globalisation. For the first time in human history, capitalism and globalisation have produced the "new and distinctive temporality of 'contemporaneity'—a disjunctive coming together of different social times" across the world.10

While I agree with much of what Osborne says, I think he overprivileges the biennale form and overlooks the multiplicities and specificities of biennale practices and practicalities. In the same publication that includes his essay, another, by Anthony Gardner and Charles Green, offers what I believe is something of a corrective. In "South as Method? Biennials Past and Present," Gardner and Green give evidence of a history of biennale practice that is irreducibly heterogenous; various projects in the "South" were important for how they enabled conversations, collaborations, and networks that were less about becoming part of the global contemporaneity than attending to regional adjacencies.11 I would argue that thinking through these adjacencies requires us to think through the multiple practices and practicalities of biennales, and vice versa.

These practices and practicalities also ask us to think through considerations of scale. Contemporaneity and adjacency are of different scales: for the former, scale is global, whereas for the latter, think of a neighbourhood, or, at most, a region. Scale, of course, is not about size, but proportion and perspective: how one fits into one's world. Joan Kee argues that the scale of contemporary art has shifted from the international to the global. One suggests a series of lateral multi- or transnational engagements, whereas the other implies the total view from above. And when it comes to contemporary Asian art in particular, Kee notes that the field emerged largely influenced and framed by 'Western' discourses from the late 1980s through the 1990s, which provided "the institutional acknowledgement of non-Western art in Europe and the debates over the idea of multiculturalism in the North American art world." Kee suggests that "'contemporary Asian art' is now more convincing as a term used to refer to a system of institutions, images, and discourses, rather than artworks or artists," and in good part because of exhibitions such as Cities on the Move. That show "asked whether a global art world was only possible if we let go of close looking much in the same way that the idea of world literature only makes sense when one doesn't read texts so closely. Does one scale of operation exist only when another disappears? The great lesson of Cities on the Move, then, was to show how entities (human or otherwise) mattered less than their circulation in a network over which they as individuals have little, if no control."12



With regards to adjacency, for me, a useful model—though certainly not the model—is the companion relationships that humans and cats have with each other. With dogs—another useful model—we look face to face. Alas, for the cat, the direct gaze is a threat. Better to sit next to her, and pretend to mind your own business, unlike the orange tabby, who is actually ignoring you. Then, eventually, when she glances at you and slowly blinks, do what she does. The cat is a figure of intimate familiarity and radical difference at the same time.

My own role in this book could be considered as one of adjacent reflection (or blinking). I neither research exhibition histories nor write on Chinese art; I’m an outsider to both fields, as it were. But, as Anthony Yung emphasised at our London editorial meeting, this book is framed by a set of adjacencies: the Shanghai Biennale triangulated with the satellite shows Fuck Off and Useful Life. And, given the thesis that these events are important not just for Chinese art history, but they have instead larger regional and global significance, a "by-the-side" perspective is warranted and timely. My hope is to provide that here.

Of course, the notion of adjacency as a happy coexistence amongst neighbours is an idealisation. If only political realities would ever come close. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has long had a policy of non-intervention amongst member nations, but is it justifiable to do virtually nothing when a humanitarian disaster or an environmental emergency unfolds? For instance, the Rohingya in Myanmar, or the haze emanating from forests burning in Indonesia? For Southeast Asia, China looms large and, sometimes, threateningly. Writing this essay over the course of 2019, it was impossible to think about the prospects of living adjacently with China without also thinking about the protests in Hong Kong. As The Guardian reported in June 2019, "The protests were initially focused on a bill that would make it easier to extradite people to China from the semi-autonomous city. But the authorities' harsh policing of the protests, coupled with a refusal by Hong Kong's leader to completely withdraw the bill, mean protesters have returned to the streets time and again."13 Ai Weiwei, in an opinion piece for The New York Times in July, tried to be sanguine. Since Fuck Off he has become, arguably, China's most visible global art star, even as he has taken on the role of dissident and now lives in exile. "Some are asking: Can the Hong Kong protesters win? My answer is that if they persist, they cannot lose. This is a struggle over human values—freedom, justice, dignity—and in that realm the Hong Kong people have already won."14

This essay turns on two questions. The first follows from the argument that 1989 ushered in a form of pluralism in contemporary art exhibitions, and asks if the events in Shanghai in 2000 were signs of a further evolution of the very terms of pluralism, across global, regional, and adjacent scales. My contention is that those events, and others like them, signal that we are now in a period where it has become untenable to deny the irreducible plurality of contemporary art. The transnationalism and multiculturalism of the post-1989 period, for example, are inadequate frameworks. Even today's critique of neoliberal contemporaneity overlooks the specificities happening on the ground. If no singular vantage point or theoretical position can encompass the entire diversity and disparity of the pluralities "out there"—with a Euro-American centre not quite holding, but not yet entirely dispersed either—then what we have is an expanding range of stories that may sometimes be incommensurable with each other. These stories may be wide-reaching, competing, contemporaneous, and adjacent—and they cannot all fit together. Ludwig Wittgenstein offers a wonderful image about incommensurability: the famous rabbit-duck drawing, where you can flip between seeing the ears of a rabbit or the beak of a duck. But it's not as if those who are partial to the "duck narrative" cannot also see the "rabbit narrative"—it's not that we are destined to be stuck in our own particular world views; rather, it is that you cannot see both duck and rabbit at the same time. Yet, today, our capitalist world order still teaches us to believe that scale is wholly continuous—you can always scale up, all the way to the global, total view. I believe Kee is correct when she says that sometimes one scale operates only when another disappears. Scale is also where we experience incommensurability—where we experience irreducible difference and plurality.


4. Travelling and unpacking...

My second question concerns the "there-ness" of memory and the writing of exhibition histories. One goes to a few shows in Shanghai, then, after nearly twenty years, wonders, not so much what it was all about, but what it can mean. In today's platforms for international art, geography and ethnicity are privileged, so much so that one could describe this mode of exhibition-making and knowledge production as "ethno-geographic." In these instances, to be curated is to be mapped. Modern society's appetite for consuming cultural difference is overdetermined by many desires, but one of them—to command the view from above—is about the power to see diversity and render it and distance as abstract. However, maps are designed not to be comprehensive. A chart annotated with everything in a neighbourhood, from each bush and tree to the names of every cat, dog, and companion animal, might be of interest to an artist, curator, or writer, but less useful to someone just wanting to navigate the roads. Maps may be necessary for navigation, but navigation is insufficient for representation.

There is more to being curated than ethno-geography. One of the functions of art and its public display is to offer other possibilities and forms for the representations of culture and place: different modes of territory-telling, with or without maps. The problem is that many presentations of contemporary art are not the most informative vehicles about the journeys that curators and the curated make. The "distances between," for instance, are often compressed or elided. And yet, sometimes, as Maria Lind would say, we can experience the "curatorial," which gives us a situation, not a survey; it does not map a "there and then," but performs a "here and now."15 And, I would add, a "now and there" as well as "here and then," bridging places and histories. We audiences can share in the ways that each artwork inhabits its own contexts, and the curating takes us from the place of art to the space of exhibition, and back again. More than just offering us a chance to "have been there," exhibitions have the potential to produce a feeling of being transported. Perhaps this is one way to think about what the there-ness of a memory of Shanghai can mean. Decades later, even if you don’t remember much else, you still hang on to that particular feeling.

At the start of the essay, I contrasted writers with historians. Let us consider (and perhaps caricature) the work of the former in terms of its centripetal force, and the latter, its centrifugal. The historian's research is outward looking: gathering data, searching for evidence, and so on. The writer's process turns inward: less a kind of "introspection" than a pulling together of anecdotes, recollections, analyses, arguments, themes, citations, jokes, and speculation, as if these thoughts, emotions, and sensations were reflecting upon themselves. While this essay may appear as a mess of binaries—from the writer versus the historian, to memory and documentation, contemporaneity and adjacency, and so on—I would like to think that what is at stake instead are doublings. And what's especially interesting about doubles is that they can lead to multiples. I am interested not in simply adding to the story, but in re-writing the story again and again, through anecdotes, interruptions, asides, detours, repetitions, permutations, multiplications—all in service, with both irony and sincerity, of thinking through and about pluralism. There is one more double I would like to mention, which sits at the core of this essay: the plural and the personal.

Although what I've asked myself from the start is not what does it mean for me personally to have been there in Shanghai, but what can it mean, and for someone like me, who is interested in contemporary art from Southeast Asia. Though maybe it would have been better to ask the question not in terms of any "me"—any writer, historian, or audience member—but, after W. J. T. Mitchell,16 to have shifted the point of view to ask: What can it mean for the exhibitions themselves? What did, or do these exhibitions want? Besides what they may want from us, what do exhibitions want from each other? What did the Shanghai Biennale of 2000 want from Fuck Off or Useful Life? And what did Fuck Off and Useful Life want? It may be tempting to answer that the former was something official and the other two were forms of protest, or the alternative. However, the essays in this book argue against such diametric interpretations; instead, they discuss the nuances of their different and particular interventions into the Chinese scene.


Image: Exhibition view of Zhang Peili, <i>Broadcast at the Same Time</i>, at Shanghai Biennale 2000. Zhang Peili Archive, Asia Art Archive Collection. Courtesy of Zhang Peili.
Image: Exhibition view of Zhang Peili, Broadcast at the Same Time, at Shanghai Biennale 2000. Zhang Peili Archive, Asia Art Archive Collection. Courtesy of Zhang Peili.
Image: Yang Zhichao, <i>Planting Grass</i>, 2000. Performed at <i>Fuck Off</i>, Shanghai, China, 2000. Documenting Contemporary Art of Northwest China (Lanzhou), Asia Art Archive Collection.
Image: Yang Zhichao, Planting Grass, 2000. Performed at Fuck Off, Shanghai, China, 2000. Documenting Contemporary Art of Northwest China (Lanzhou), Asia Art Archive Collection.


In the essay "Biennale Demand" (2008),17 I start off by rehearsing humanity's seemingly incessant demand for more biennales, then turn to speculating on what is it that biennales demand of us. My suggestion is that what these projects want is not just our attention, time, or emotional response, but also our understanding, that is, that we see them within history—exhibition histories (though I did not use the term at the time). If exhibitions want exhibition histories, then what do exhibition histories want? Do they also want, like the exhibitions themselves, to transport their readers? I pose the question in all earnestness. I am quite sure that what we have is a wide range of answers: for some researchers, the aim may indeed be to transport the reader back in time and space, to reproduce a sense of what "being there" would have been like. Whereas for others, the emphasis may be more on providing historical context, and less on creating an experiential dimension. While a survey of responses and the various motivations behind each is beyond the scope of these modest reflections, I did ask Steeds and David Morris (another Exhibition Histories editor at Afterall)18 for their thoughts, and this is what they had to say:

Steeds: "For me, exhibition histories are driven by questions in the present, and the way in which we return to these past durational fields is determined by what sorts of answers we seek. Working as an editor for Exhibition Histories at Afterall, I would concur that the plurality of that seeking 'we'—and the diversity of the concomitant motivations and methodologies—is very important."

Morris: "It might sound strange, but I've never felt entirely at ease in exhibitions. I wonder if 'being there' need be a natural or comfortable state, and whether it is something we would want to recreate, even if we could. Certainly part of exhibition history for me is to question what special demand exhibitions might have on our attention or study. And following your idea of 'transportation,' to me the point of any study is that it has to take us somewhere—not reconstructing the past 'as it was,' but to plot coordinates or move in a different way."

Let me bring this to a close by recounting a more recent journey to "China." In September 2019, I went on a short trip to Hong Kong. The protests were still ongoing, of course. I was invited to participate in a couple of talks, and I also convened a workshop with a few close associates. These past few years, in addition to the many writing workshops I've facilitated, friends and I have come together for a series of more intimate sessions. Friendship is a topic I've written about a number of times, even comparing it with writing. Both are practices of address: they are about learning how to locate and place oneself, and how to be in the world, and to speak, listen, and live with others. At that Hong Kong session, Özge Ersoy, who leads public programmes at Asia Art Archive, shared a text that not only reflects on the current situation in the city, but also asks how to reflect on it. A pivotal moment in her essay turns on a citation from her friend, Karen Cheung, who, like Ai Wei Wei, wrote in The New York Times about the protests.

Cheung: "My 'real' life—the one where I show up to work every morning, have a drink in the evening with friends, hide underneath the covers reading a book at night or call a handyman for odd jobs—exists in a parallel universe, one in which the city isn't burning."19

Ersoy: "Every day I keep thinking about the quotation marks she used around the word 'real.'"20

Cheung ends her Times piece by imagining another parallel universe, one that she longs and hopes for, "where kids spend their summers at the malls, singing karaoke and complaining about holiday homework—not organising rallies or worrying about where to stash their gear so their parents can't find it. It's the one where everyone in the city can be out in the streets, and no one has to guess who their allies are." What are the many scales of protest in Hong Kong? What is the scale that you experience, when, standing in the street, you recognise the person next to you as an ally? Perhaps more than just being there, what's at stake is also being present, for each other. This is a form of public intimacy. The thing about public intimacy, though, is that it is between strangers, not friends. It is about caring for another who is unknown to you, but whom you feel connected to because you both share the experience of an adjacency created by circumstance and common cause. This observation is not mine, but Simon Leung's. He is an old colleague whom I happened to bump into during my Hong Kong visit.21 Naturally, conversation turned to our thoughts and observations of what was unfolding in front of us. At one point during his visit, Leung found himself in the middle of a protest, with young girls chanting anti-police songs. He was surprised by how moving and joyous it was.

Upon my return home to Kuala Lumpur, as I was unpacking my bag, I tried to come up with an image to encapsulate the feeling of what it meant to have just been there, during the most dramatic period in Hong Kong's history. Nothing came to mind. I didn't have any encounters like Lung's. What I did recall were some of the ordinary signs that are to me distinctive of every visit to the Special Administrative Region; like the sounds and voices on the CB radio in the taxi as I travelled, alone, from the Airport Express station to my hotel.



Lee Weng Choy is an independent art critic and consultant based in Kuala Lumpur, and is President of the Singapore Section of the International Association of Art Critics. Previously, Lee was Artistic Co-Director of The Substation in Singapore. He has taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and the Sotheby’s Institute of Art — Singapore. Lee writes on contemporary art and culture in Southeast Asia, and his essays have appeared in journals such as Afterall, and anthologies such as Modern and Contemporary Southeast Asian Art (2012), Over Here: International Perspectives on Art and Culture (2005), and Theory in Contemporary Art since 1985 (2005), amongst others. He is currently working on a collection of essays on artists, to be titled The Address of Art and the Scale of Other Places.




1. The meeting was open to students, colleagues, and invited guests, and held at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London, on 14 October 2019.

2. The header of this section, "can we be ironic," refers to a gift from the artist Simryn Gill, circa 1996. The phrase could be a motto for her practice. On a plain sheet of paper, with a mechanical typewriter, she repeated the question, albeit without the mark, four times, in four rows, with no spaces between the words or the lines. In the first row, "can" is typed in red ink, with the rest in black; in the second row, "we" is in red; in the third, it's "be"; and the last, "ironic." The piece is on display in National Gallery Singapore's permanent exhibition Siapa Nama Kamu? Art in Singapore since the 19th Century.

3. Kuo Pao Kun, "Knowledge Structure and Play—A Side View of Civil Society in Singapore," in Gillian Koh and Ooi Giok Ling (ed.), State-Society Relations in Singapore, Singapore: Institute of Policy Studies, 2000, 210–18.

4. For further analysis of Singapore modernity, see C.J.W.-L. Wee, The Asian Modern: Culture: Capitalist Development, Singapore, Singapore: NUS Press, 2007. I also cited Wee in my Shanghai Biennale symposium presentation in 2000, which is unpublished.

5. Lucy Steeds was invited to moderate the symposium "The Goldfish Remembers" (8 September 2018), convened by curator David Teh. For his project in the 2018 edition of the Gwangju Biennale, titled Returns, Teh wanted to investigate the institutional memory of the Biennale as a whole. Teh also organised a series of less formal conversations, which I was tasked to facilitate during the exhibition's opening and closing (6–8 September and 9–11 November 2018).

6. Lucy Steeds, correspondence with the author, 26 April–2 August 2019.

7. See C.J.W.-L. Wee, "Asian Contemporary Art and the Question of Contemporary Asia: The Japan Foundation Asia Centre Symposia on Asian Contemporary Art, 1997–2002," paper presented at Beyond the New Media: Deep Time of Networks and Infrastructural Memory in Asia, at the conference InterAsian Connections VI: Hanoi, Social Science Research Council InterAsia Programme, Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences, Hanoi, 4–7 December 2018.

8. See, for instance, "Has China outgrown its need for Singapore as a role model?," South China Morning Post, 24 May 2017, (last accessed on 11 August 2019); and Stephan Ortmann and Mark R. Thompson, "China and the 'Singapore Model,'" Journal of Democracy, vol.27, no.1, 2016, 39–48.

9. Lucy Steeds, contribution to "Why Exhibition Studies?," British Art Studies, issue 13, 2019, (last accessed on 20 October 2019).

10. Peter Osborne, "Every Other Year Is Always This Year – Contemporaneity and the Biennial Form," in Galit Eilat, Nuria Enguita Mayo, Charles Esche, Pablo Lafuente, Luiza Proença, Oren Sagiv and Benjamin Seroussi (ed.), Making Biennials in Contemporary Times: Essays from the World Biennial Forum No 2, Amsterdam and Sao Paulo: Biennial Foundation, Fundação Bienal de São Paulo and ICCo  – Instituto de Cultura Contemporánea, 2015, 23–35.

11. See Anthony Gardner and Charles Green, "South as Method? Biennials Past and Present," in G. Eilat et al., Making Biennials in Contemporary Times, op. cit., pp.37–45. I discuss both Osborne’s and Gardner and Green’s texts in my essay "The Neglected Object of Curation," in Brad Buckley and John Conomos (ed.), A Companion to Curation, Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2019, 306–22.

12. Joan Kee, "The Scale Question in Contemporary Asian Art," in Puruichi Yasuko and Hoashi Aki (ed.), The Japan Foundation Asia Center: Art Studies, Vol.2, The 1990s: The Making of Art with Contemporaries, Tokyo: Japan Foundation Asia Center, 2016, 34–41.

13. "What are the Hong Kong protests about?," The Guardian, 10 June 2019, (last accessed on 11 August 2019).

14. Ai Weiwei, "Can Hong Kong's Resistance Win?," The New York Times, 12 July 2019, (last accessed on 11 August 2019).

15. Maria Lind, "The Curatorial," Selected Maria Lind Writing (ed. Brian Kuan Wood), Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2010, 57–66. See also my essays "On Being Curated," in Petra Reichensperger (ed.), Terms of Exhibiting (from A to Z), Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2013, 61–65; and "Metonym and Metaphor, Islands and Continents: Reflections on Curating Contemporary Art from Southeast Asia," in Low Sze Wee and Patrick D. Flores (ed.), Charting Thoughts: Essays on Art in Southeast Asia, Singapore: National Gallery Singapore, 2017, 336–47. In those texts, I discuss being curated, and Lind’s notion of the curatorial.

16. W. J. T. Mitchell, What do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

17. Lee Weng Choy, "Biennale Demand" (reprint), in Melissa Chiu and Benjamin Genocchio (ed.), Contemporary Art in Asia: A Critical Reader, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011, pp.211–222.

18. L. Steeds and David Morris, correspondence with the author, 21 December 2019.

19. Karen Cheung, "The Mask I Wear on the Weekends," The New York Times, 30 August 2019, (last accessed on 18 September 2019).

20. Özge Ersoy’s essay was written specifically for the small workshop and not intended for publication; quoted with permission. The series of workshops, or "writing intensives," which I have facilitated or co-facilitated, were initiated by Ben Valentine, who was not present at the Hong Kong session in September 2019. In addition to Ersoy and yours truly, the participants were Zoe Butt, Paul C. Fermin, and Michelle Wong.

21. Conversation with Simon Leung, 13 September 2019. Leung is an artist and a professor of art at the University of California, Irvine. His family is originally from Hong Kong.



LEE Wengchoy, 李永財

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