Eileen Legaspi-Ramirez considers the possibilities for subverting guarded speech in art discourse.
Let me begin this daunting task by summoning the hubris required to initiate a conversation with people strewn all over, with practices equally spread out, and with my own, possibly the most parochial, amidst it all. This exercise, of course, is an attempt at figuring out what pre-selected individuals in this particular part of the art world have been thinking and writing about in the past year. I know of, but have never met, more than half of the writers of the 'Perspectives' column from 2009. Working in relative isolation, by choice and as a consequence of recent illness, perhaps allows me to write from this tactical place, to attempt something on a doable scale rather than pushing my bodily frame into the taxing networking that passes off these days as engagement. Yet given that much has already been said about how scholars and cultural workers in and on Asia (precisely because that notion is so problematic) still need to find ways to speak to each other more frequently and earnestly, perhaps at the end of this there will be some redeeming sense to the gesture; fingers crossed.
The intent in calling this a speakeasy should be straightforward enough, notwithstanding my zero alcohol lifestyle. Tap rooms and saloons have long been mythically held up as the ultimate bare-all spaces where a patent tolerance for violations of normative politeness is supposedly operative. That these sites continue to remain hospitable to banal, deviant, and peripheral utterances, couching knowledge kept 'within the family' sustains the volatility and seductive pull. But in subverting guarded speech — either by keeping things under the breath or, alternatively, attenuated to the most accessible ears — do these pseudo conversations that may very imaginably never take place, owing to lapses in memory and the blaring of undecipherable chatter (offline and online), get absent-mindedly tucked into the ambient bar hum? That, we should see.
To my mind an exercise like this begs certain questions: just how constructively are we speaking to each other, given the undisguised cross-referencing that much of the texts demonstrate? How much deeper do we need to go, given that it seems the critical dialogue still cannot keep pace with the cacophonous market and other overly articulate state agents manoeuvring to swing the discourse towards their own ends? How can anyone even begin to make sense of such disparate threads when there is so much to be done back on home ground, where the heady buzz of intoxicating verbal exchange inevitably loses its hold?
At the outset, what appears to be blinking like kitschy neon in these columns is how prominently the notions of the public and public sphere(s) figure. In as many nuanced contexts from Hong Kong to South Korea, these constructions are seen as counterweight to the noisier and more openly self-interested, though non-exclusive, components of the art world. All the texts in one way or another make a case for the reclamation if not the birthing of public spheres, as these prove to be indispensable in spurring conditions for art of any significance to be produced and grappled with. It is, after all, within the public sphere that questions with no pat, one-time answers get asked: “what does art have to do with what appears to be happening outside its immediate orbit?”; “how do those doing art, still tactically removed from 'the world', attempt to deal with the social?”.
Independent curator Yeung Yang writes about “the public life of art” as she began 2009 invoking Patricia Phillips’s notion of public art as “public because of the kinds of questions it chooses to ask or address, and not because of its accessibility or volume of viewers”. On another personal note (and there are more to come), this underlined even more dramatically my own growing suspicion over the supposed social good proffered by clearly corporate PR endeavours, even as it kept me sceptical about the privileging of self-expression as the only way to keep artists/artists' collectives honest and untainted in terms of what motivates their work.
By February, art historian and curator Charles Merewether turned in a summing up of 2008. It is telling that Merewether asserts that the columns the year before stressed the “need to develop an environment in which a productive evaluation can function in establishing a critical reception towards, if not within, the local scene as much as towards the international”. Here we are, one year on, and there is an even more glaring need than ever for this, what with the art market voraciously and almost single-handedly weighing in on how and what art gets codified and circulated. Merewether poses reciprocity in the demand for dialogue as one antidote to the mediocrity that continues to raise the hackles of the few voices that have registered their worries over the lack of symbiosis in the region. Given the attention that Asia is indeed getting, there is no denying the hunger for information on it. Yet this constantly brings up the problem of what kind of information is in fact seeping through.
Merewether also points to the relationship between patronage and validation and the “virtual impossibility of a museum to build a collection that represents the best work produced by artists of the region as well as provide a wider artistic context in which it can be viewed”. His arguing on behalf of building the infrastructure for audience development and the enabling of an engaged public logically segues into critic-curator and art historian Patrick Flores's self-reflexive exercise on a mammoth project of the Philippines' first National Artist for Visual Arts, Fernando Amorsolo. Flores brings up the debilitating dilemma posed by the elite sway over discourse, notwithstanding gestures in resistance. In what Flores calls an “overkill homage”, he points to how institutions complicit in the crafting of art history were effectively made subservient to the interests of collectors masquerading as philanthropists, and how the vacuum in discourse is being filled with much flair by those who can splurge on the collaterals and attendant mileage.
That this points to how the artist is arguably the most dispensable cog in the weaving of hype plays into independent curator June Yap's reflections on the “predicaments of curation, its dilemmas and contradictions”. Yap explicitly argues for a much more openly dialogic mode of curation, for instance one that could prevent 'easy' readings and defies the singularity of the curatorial voice, lording it over as if it were the sole authority over art. Here she points to the case of Kelompok Seni Rupa Jendela, whose recent show in Singapore she describes thus: “The artwork by the group tends to attract a polarity of views, from producing easy aesthetics to actively confronting tendencies for political and social readings to the detriment of other possibilities, views that emerge in part due to expectations of politically charged expressions familiar with Yogyakarta art.” Yap's recourse to keeping practices conversant rather than isolated from context finds resonance as well with Arthub director Davide Quadrio. Working out of Shanghai, he speaks of the need for a disengagement from polarities towards a new mapping of discourse that takes into account the diasporic and cross-border. Appropriately so, Quadrio argues against the flattened simplicity that insists on the isolation of the market from discourse, whereas the need is for an intellectual infrastructure borne on various fronts particularly within contexts that are rooted in the civil and social.
Still attendant to issues relating to art and its public/s, scholar-curator Reiko Tomii queries the representation of multiplicity of non-Western contemporary art (specifically of Japan's indigenous avant-garde) in Western sites. In asserting an arguably fraught position still hinged upon paradigms of exclusion-inclusion within institutional narratives, Reiko submits that such collection displays ought to make present 1960s/post war objects, poetically staking as she does the “value of the valueless”. This insistence on upending the grasp of singularity is also expectedly present in the essays that came upon 'Perspectives' in the second half of the year. Sydney-based Gallery 4A director Aaron Seeto's piece on the “politics of locality”, vis-a-vis Asian contemporary art for instance, raised the case of Phaptawan Suwannakudt in as much as her trans-national practice grapples with issues of reception and production. Seeto candidly relates how Suwannakudt reckoned with settling into Australia from Thailand in the mid-'90s. It is also in Seeto's text that we find reference to another ‘Speakeasy’ (indigenous Brisbane-based artist Vernon Ah Kee's exhibit of the same title), mentioned by Seeto in his discussion on curating around slippery notions of geography and cultural space.
The third quarter of 2009 brought yet another Sydney-based author-scholar, Carolyn Cartier, into the fray with a piece placing discourse on China in trans-historicity, particularly in relation to south China's Pearl River Delta. Cartier astutely brings up the idea of the region as a brand while she traces how ideational trends, averring to multiplicity in the interpretation of theory and the making of art, inform the contestations surrounding such seminal exercises as the planning of the West Kowloon Cultural District.
By the end of the third quarter, Karachi based artist-researcher Naiza Khan's ‘Reading Through the Lens of the Political’ was asking “what does it mean to be political in Pakistan?”. Posing as she does the specificity of art as language, and invoking the power of image circulation in the perpetuation of truth, Khan gave a sense of what gets overlooked in the process of insisting that there is one way to engage with social order as opposed to an earnest appreciation of nuance and difficulty.
The writer-academic Adele Tan's accounting of “the true arrival of the east” shared her tempered belief in the art bubble deflating to the point that it prepares for a “return to the more serious study and critique of art making”. In foretelling this more critical tracking of the trajectory of production and circulation amidst what she cites as, and Stephen Greenblatt calls, “self-fashioning”, Tan also pointedly expresses her criticism over the effacing of “in-between narratives” in light of “the contemporary bias” in much of present discourse.
It was upon the heels of such gravitas that KL based independent curator Eva McGovern's piece on artistic agency came through 'Perspectives' in its penultimate column for 2009. McGovern argues that “the art of play” continues to serve as counterpoint to the prescriptive, socially engaged art that dominated much of the public platforms for Asian art in the ’80s and ’90s. While acknowledging that this is not exclusive to Malaysia, she deftly illustrates how particular Malaysian practices invoke “playful rebellion” as a mode of articulation, openly evocative of self rather than 'big-picture' discourse. McGovern accounts for how these artists recourse to personal stands as logical curative for a cynicism over systems that simultaneously pine for a globality anchored on the daily lives of individuals who refuse the messianic burden handed down by earlier generations of artists.
Finally, and in apparent full circle (particularly with regard to Merewether's piece), Seoul's Alternative Space Pool director, Heejin Kim, weighs in with what she describes as Korea's “impoverished public art infrastructure”. One could easily ask, of course, where it is on this planet that the public is positionally superior to that which is private anyway? Yet in Kim's correlation of the rise of “autonomous public platforms” as contrapuntal agential forces, she folds art into larger movements for democracy where shrewd “intrusion”, despite the dangers of institutionalization, is looked upon as inescapably pragmatic. Parallel developments in the Philippines would demonstrate that the debacle has been about wrestling art away from the grip of elite politics, even while maintaining a covert instrumentalist stance to it.
As naysayers would have it Asia is cocktail fodder of the moment, but the fickle, trendy tides are bound to shift at a whim. Then, perhaps, more teetotal, or at least sober voices can break past the din to talk about how creative ideas play into how we live and how art need not always be of the monetized sort to capture our imagination.
But coming back to the matter in hand. One of the built-in dangers of turning out an assignment such as this is falling into the trap of finding confluences, even when they are threaded through with the slightest of affinities. Having read and re-read these columns, however, brings me to an even more discomfiting impasse: for a speakeasy too much of the banter on these pages remains suspiciously chummy. Hardly ever is anyone out of tune or speaking out of turn. There is but a sliver of any brawling brewing under the surface, hardly a trace of any verbal fistfights about to erupt. So the nagging question on my mind is this: if we speak in such heady unanimity, why are we still in such obvious distress? Coming to this juncture necessarily brings more questions to the fore: Is the tussling happening elsewhere, away from this specific platform and thus less incriminatingly permanent, deliberately kept intractable as off-the-record discourse? How far off are the tangents posited in these texts, and how can each of us imagined takers hold our own in finding those hopefully lingering moments of connection? How do we keep from getting too soused in our own agenda or recklessly tipping over specificities into some murky slush of harmonized difference? Suddenly boozing as antidote to dulled senses doesn't seem so indulgent at this point. But there are, inevitably, mornings after to deal with. And there is the housekeeping that needs to get done, in between prolonged sips, washed down ribbings, and pounding hang-overs.
Eileen Legaspi-Ramirez is a curatorial consultant for the Lopez Museum and a faculty member of the University of the Philippines Department of Art Studies. Her writing has appeared in numerous international publications including Transit: A Quarterly of Art Discussion, Fine Art Forum, Forum on Contemporary Art and Society, ArtIT, Metropolis M, C-Arts: Asian Contemporary Art and Culture and Journal of Contemporary Art. She is a 2009 fellow of the United States of America National Endowment for the Arts International Arts Journalism Institute in the Visual Arts and is the current editor of Pananaw, Philippine Journal of Visual Arts. She reviews the 'Perspectives' contributions from 2009.