Tracing (Un)certain Legacies: Conceptualism in Singapore and the Philippines

Author Bio

Isabel Ching complicates art historical narratives on conceptualism as a historiographic category


Image: Cheo Chai-Hiang, <i>Celebrating Little Thoughts (Singapore Sculpture Square)</i>, 2005, acrylic paint on Chapel Gallery facade.
Image: Cheo Chai-Hiang, Celebrating Little Thoughts (Singapore Sculpture Square), 2005, acrylic paint on Chapel Gallery facade. Courtesy of the artist.

Amongst the various art historical discourses in South East Asia, conceptualism remains one of the least explored. In the conceptual lineage, the approaches of Cheo Chai-Hiang (b. 1946) and Roberto Chabet (b. 1937), whose respective pioneering contributions in the 1970s to Singapore and Philippine art were little known outside these countries until the last decade or later, appear to feature prominently in the imaginations of some younger artists. These two artists, however, differ crucially in the tempo and quality of their contributions then and now. Chabet has exhibited, curated, and taught consistently since the early 1970s in Manila. He initiated generations of artists into alternative ways of thinking about and making art, and induced them into forming abiding interests in the working processes of artists around the world. Cheo, on the other hand, chose to live most of his life overseas after his studies in the UK, sojourning periodically to Singapore. Sporadically, though not infrequently, he wrote articles, submitted proposals, and exhibited his works there. Further, both continue to be active in their respective art practices. Though widely-differing in concerns, their works share in common a stubborn resistance to interpretations that are divorced from context.

Yet, the stakes of resuscitating their pasts as our pasts include the potential for dis-functionalising the tropes of identity and ideology as signifiers of difference in many mediation models. That these tropes can have unwarranted exclusionary effects is encountered in the exhibition catalogue for Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s–1980s where both artists were omitted from any mention.1 The essay contribution by Apinan Poshyananda titled "'Con Art' Seen from the Edge: The Meaning of Conceptual Art in South and South East Asia" was benign in its assertion that these artists "created different 'concepts' for a specific locality," and was angled to value the local mistranslations of the conceptual art practices of Euramerican artists that resulted from the ineptitude of or repression in local art schools.2 It discussed the indigenisation of contemporary art production by artists of the Baguio Arts Guild (formed in 1986) who went "in search of ethnicised forms to counter the abstraction fostered by art schools in Manila," and the pushing of legal limits by Singapore's Tang Dawu and The Artist Village in the late 1980s.

Image: View of Shop 6, Sining Kamalig, Pasay City. Photo by Roberto Chabet.
Image: View of Shop 6, Sining Kamalig, Pasay City. Photo by Roberto Chabet.

There are, in fact, varying symptoms of conceptualism in both countries—some of which, like Chabet's and Cheo's, throw into crisis any attempt to comfortably consume them via nationalist agendas or multi-culturalist projections of a globalised world. Such sociological interpretations of the artwork can be inhospitable to the conceptual approach. They also betray a lack of alternative framings that can arise from a more fully demarcated field of South East Asian modernity. Both of them had acquainted themselves with conceptual modes of art in America and the UK first-hand in the late 1960s/early 1970s and were pre-armed or acquired a formidable English language faculty. So, while varied and partial interpretations would inevitably exist, they should not be characterised as "mis-interpretations." The practices of Chabet and Cheo require developing more exacting methodologies for South East Asian art history and sophisticated tools for analysing works, without which their work continues to be accused of being opaque and inaccessible when shown at new sites. However, as responses to the local, they position themselves adroitly and, often, subversively. In Chabet's case, activities in art production/curating/teaching helped create a space for exploring functions different than the prevailing "international" style of modernist abstraction (and its dominant alternatives of social realism) and the range of figurative practices and beautiful landscape paintings still endemic in the Philippines. Within the premises of the ambitious edifice that is the Cultural Centre of the Philippines (CCP), which is ideologically implicated with Marcos authoritarianism's cultivation of the utopian myth of spiritual regeneration as cover-up of the growing socio-economic inequalities and political dissent, Chabet's mirrors, stage lights, drawings, rubber tyres, indigenous wood, maps, strings, envelopes, paper, plywood, and other locally easily available materials and readymades were time-based, spatially dispersed, and patently anti-monumental. He was also the driving force behind Shop 6, a loose grouping of artists/artist-students whose activities started after Chabet left his post as CCP's Museum Director and began teaching in the University of the Philippines. Its infamous stunts include a 1974 show in Lahi, Cubao, closed down for the politically-critical subtexts of many works, and exhibitions of readymades such as dirty pots and pans, a broken bed, and the likes in a small shop space of a shopping mall in Manila. [fig.] As he stated to former student Ringo Bunoan when asked about the times of Shop 6, "I was being alienated already by CCP at the time . . . I felt that maybe they should have an alternative to the alternative."4

Image: Cheo Chai-Hiang, <i>5' x 5' (Ao Tou, Another Source)</i>, June 2005, Tong An, Fujian Province. Originally proposed as <i>5' x 5' (Singapore River)</i>, but rejected by Modern Art Society 1972.
Image: Cheo Chai-Hiang, 5' x 5' (Ao Tou, Another Source), June 2005, Tong An, Fujian Province. Originally proposed as 5' x 5' (Singapore River), but rejected by Modern Art Society 1972. Courtesy of the artist.

In turn, the sojourner Cheo is difficult to pin down geographically. An Australian citizen since 1982, his position is not one that avails itself easily to theorisations hybridising the Singaporean or Asian with the Australian or Western, but one that hovers rather unpredictably between these. Cheo maintained a congenial relationship with the Modern Art Society in Singapore whom he criticised, and also with Singapore—jealously guarding, it seems, an interstitial space available to the self-exiled. In this space, it availed one to intervene and be implicated, while remaining independent, critical, and able to extricate when needed, revealing a strategy of practice where the freedom of expression in a local environment is limited. His non-existent work is now seen as one of the earliest symptoms of conceptual art in Singapore: In 1972, after one year of study in England, Cheo mailed back instructions to draw a square measuring 5' by 5', partially on the floor and partially on the ground, as a submission of a work to be titled "Singapore River" for the Modern Art Society's annual exhibition—it was rejected. Sure enough, the proposal is in line with tendencies prevalent in art in Western Europe and America then, which blur the distinction between painting and sculpture, and undermine authorship and spectatorship. However, 5’x5’ should be placed in the context of the numerous formulaic representations of the Singapore River paintings exhibited in the annual shows of major art societies such as the Singapore Art Society and the Society of Chinese Artists—the Singapore River being a local subject matter of import to the founding myths of the nation and identity issues—and the dominance of a discourse that values the lyrical and the beautiful maintained by the Modern Art Society which saw itself as being at the forefront of artistic practices. Cheo's proposal precisely targets this, emptying out Singapore art—characterised as being a world of painting then—of representational content as well as the values of beauty and skill. [fig.] And it goes further than nullifying formal and technical criteria, replacing the fictive space of representation with the physical presences of wall and floor, thereby changing the materiality of painting.

Image: Roberto Chabet, <i>Untitled</i>, 2005. Private collection.
Image: Roberto Chabet, Untitled, 2005. Private collection.

In the nations of South East Asia, there is a history of contestations over the values of art that pit the expression of local flavour against the transmission of Western styles. By the 1960s and 1970s in Singapore and the Philippines, these debates were renewed with accusations of the co-optation of art by politics in social realism, which pursues a nationalist agenda, versus the slavish imitation of Western modernist styles divorced from local realities—an art for art's sake complicit with an internationalist agenda. These occurred amidst a climate of student radicalism in both countries.5 The conceptualisms of Chabet and Cheo worked to displace the painterly paradigms upon which these debates are ultimately reliant, to critique the local politics of modernism and advance current possibilities of reformulating the relationship between art and reality in the local context beyond pictorial discourses. They are fecund mining grounds for creative and current responses to traditions of the local. Yet, their conceptualist modes are, in turn, displaced by the anxiety over their perceived Western influences, and further, by international audiences of contemporary art, who are ill equipped to decode the strategies of these modes without useful art historical discourses. The tendency of new audiences to categorise Chabet's practice under formalism or minimalism indicates an interface informed by Western art history but lacking in critical local contextualisation, while the art discourses that avail his practice to continued stigmatisation as "stylistic conceptualism" or "high modernism" probably cannot be divorced from the anxiety over origins and identity that drove the earlier debates.

The continued displacement of conceptualism indicates that the task of demarcating South East Asian modernity remains incomplete, and a catch-up game has to be played in exhibitionary, publication, and scholarly circuits, which cannot be achieved overnight. Meanwhile, younger artists try to negotiate the positioning and formation of meaning over the local conceptualisms that they reference. It falls upon these artists, who recognise the operation of globalised networks in the contemporary art system, to recuperate the suppressed legacies common to them at both local and international sites—often by assuming curatorial or research functions, or by exploring mediums of dissemination beyond the exhibition. These work to undermine, rupture, or sidestep art narratives that have become dominant with the repetitions and canonisations by gate-keeping institutional, scholarly, and curatorial formations, as well as prevailing market criteria, the rise of which have become increasingly palpable in recent years, especially in the case of Philippine painting.

Image: View of Elaine Navas, <i>MM's Sofa</i>, oil on canvas.
Image: View of Elaine Navas, MM's Sofa, oil on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

The exhibition Things Said Amongst Us (2009), presented by Valentine Willie Fine Art and Nadi Gallery in the latter's space in Jakarta, showcased diverse painting-centred practices in the Philippines. These include the painterly abstractions of Jonathan Olazo and the socially-potent iconography of Alfredo Esquillio that may be said to be representative of two major directions in painting in the 1980s to early 1990s, namely conceptualism and social realism respectively, as well as the later conceptual conceits of Jayson Oliveria, the comic inversions of local populist imagery by Louie Cordero, and the photo-based paintings of Elaine Navas, Geraldine Javier, and Yasmin Sison. The fact is that Chabet advocated students to paint from found images and collage exercises, hence sparking off the grid-based, photo-realistic painting practices such as Javier's and Sison's that are enjoying market ascendency, as well as the more textural, viscous, and emotionally-resonant paintings of Navas. [fig.] The catalogue's essay, co-authored by curator Adeline Ooi and Lena Cobangbang (formerly also Chabet's student), chose to underscore how six of the seven exhibiting artists were taught by Chabet and shared in common "a preference for intellectual engagement in place of direct expression."6 Notably, the exhibition theme and essay attempt to bring forth the sense of a vibrant inter-generational community nurtured by Chabet. Activating the notion of a close-knit community underscores a certain insularity and factionalism, as well as the operation of dialogue beneath the spectacularity of the exhibition format: of responses to each other's works through words and works, and further works that respond to responses. This invariably points to the importance of dynamics of deference/difference/displacement/replacement to the ouevre of delineating Philippine conceptualism and the difficulties facing the external researcher. Nevertheless, the exhibition indicates the way forward which contemporary Philippine painting may be discussed in an extra-national context—avoiding reliance on signifiers of identity and installing in its place threads of dialogue and conceptual engagement that are not antagonistic to painterly and intuitive modes. It installs Chabet's legacy as inspiring emulations and contestations not easily transparent to "outsiders," and leading to heterogeneous ends; hence making it more appropriate to speak of legacies of conceptualism.

Image: View of exhibition <i>Untitled (Other Drawings)</i>, 2008.
Image: View of exhibition Untitled (Other Drawings), 2008. Courtesy of MO_Space.

An interesting counterpoint to the focus on painting in the former show is a smallish group exhibition also staged in 2009: Tears, Cuts & Ruptures: A Philippine Collage Review, presented by Silverlens gallery in Metro-Manila. Curated by Philippine artist and former student of Chabet, Gary-Ross Pastrana, it attempts to trace contemporary collage in the Philippines to the collages of Chabet in the 1970s7 [fig.], "to realise a modest history of its own . . . as a technique invariably taking the backseat from painting."8 The presentation develops tentatively from the single originating point of Chabet's approach and aesthetics in collage to the two different trajectories of Gerardo Tan and Nilo Ilarde, spinning off to the proliferating forms and strategies of the later generations. While targeting the marginalisation of the contemporary practice of paper collage by the market, the show's investigation can also be seen from the perspective of artist-curator Pastrana trying to work out questions regarding his own contemporary collage practice in the face of the silence of historical discourse on conceptualism in the Philippines. By beginning with Chabet, the presentation of alternatives gains force in the jostling to "secure a significant frame within which it can place all its pieces to determine where it stands among the rest of contemporary art in the Philippines"9—in the same vein as how one might argue for the importance of Philippine painting by beginning with Juan Luna. Untitled (Other Drawings) (2008), an earlier show curated by artist-curator and former student Nilo Ilarde, and including artists taught by Chabet from the 1970s to 2000s, is symptomatic of another trajectory to Chabet's process-oriented approach. Featuring texts, video work, and rough-hewn or almost accidental sculptures and installations opened up by the practice of drawing, [fig.] its insistence on works that are still difficult for the current market to absorb speaks of how the project of valuing process over finished product remains an unfinished one, and crucially finds new relevance in the context of an overheating market for Philippine art. More recently, artist-researcher Ringo Bunoan's exhibition Archiving Roberto Chabet (2009) at the UP Vargas Museum in Metro-Manila "invites reflection on how we can represent the fractured and ephemeral nature of conceptual art from the point of view of now, nearly 50 years since it began."10 Unburying, selecting, and (re-)constructing some of her former teacher's unrealised or undocumented projects, the roles of artist/curator/archivist are assumed fluidly. Problematising the nature of her archival work with Asia Art Archive surrounding Chabet and the suitability of subjecting the conceptual to historical categorisation and reification, the show activates the ambiguities of desire, memory, and authorship, which are often invisible to more empirical and academic methods.

The idea of a common ground that sets the stage for dialogue and empathies in practice, however, need not be restricted to the Philippine community of Chabet's ex-students. Minimum Yields Maximum (2010), curated by LA-based American artist Gina Osterloh (whose mother is Filipino), included a few artists from LA and Vietnam and more than a handful of Chabet's former students from the Philippines. Staged in an artist-run space in LA Monte Vista, the brief curatorial write-up substantially spotlighted Chabet's legacy, highlighting Chabet's alternative positioning in the 1970s and the setting up of Shop 6 as reference and inspiration for subsequent alternative art spaces in the Philippines run by his ex-students, some of whom featured in Osterloh's exhibition. The show is a sign of the changed times from the fledgling days of Chabet's ouevres in the 1970s, where the curator with localised power selects the artists he deems worthy to showcase in his locality. Instead, the notion of artist-communities internationally engaged in systems of reciprocities that bypass dominant exhibition circuits is important for Osterloh arguing for a more inclusive art model from her position in America: "(This exhibition) is also an appeal to shift art history, to consider a conceptual and political art model that includes the Pacific Rim." She emphasises what has hereto been one of the greatest criticisms of Chabet's art and teaching as the basis for the lineup of artists: "[A]s an artist I have felt a strong resonance between the selected works from Manila and those from the United States. The works in this exhibition refuse to be easily identified or placed geographically." It is noteworthy that Osterloh explains the contemporaneity of the works of American and Philippine artists by denying any specific identity, or "otherness," to the works ("the Philippines has never hailed a singular geographical identity")—a position close to Chabet's. The curatorial logic clings instead onto the ungraspable—"structures of loss, humor, rupture, trauma, and obliteration"—for connection and meaningful readings. Today, as network-savvy artists and curators eke out pathways for going beyond identity politics and multi-culturalist frameworks in international exhibitions, the elusiveness of Chabet, his unknown-ness and unknowability, is an important position to think through.11

Image: Still frame from Ho Tzu Nyen, <i>4x4 Episodes of Singapore Art, Episode 2: Cheo Chai Hiang: A Thousand Singapore Rivers</i>, 2005, HD video.
Image: Still frame from Ho Tzu Nyen, 4x4 Episodes of Singapore Art, Episode 2: Cheo Chai Hiang: A Thousand Singapore Rivers, 2005, HD video. Courtesy of the artist.

The existence of a stable and close-knit community that supports the testing and realisation of alternative ideas in the legacy of conceptualism in the Philippines is perhaps missing in Singapore. Rather, the avant-garde seems to be resuscitated through solo, episodic acts of brilliance marked by time lags in-between, as artist-filmmaker Ho Tzu Nyen's 4x4 (2005) indicates. The four short films created as a series for a local TV channel manoeuvres through pioneer artist Cheong Soo Pieng's painting Tropical Life (as signaling brewing discontent with the illusionism of Singapore modern art) (1959), Cheo's rejected Singapore River (1972), Tang Da Wu's performance Give Money To The Arts (1995), and Lim Tzay Chuen's unrealised project Alter #11 (2002). [fig.] It has been noted before that Ho's re-enactment of Singapore art history tends towards demonstrating the strong local concerns of the artists that ground these cerebral, anti-aesthetic phenomena to the specificities of Singapore art paradigms. Ho is one of many artists who have returned from art education overseas in the nineties and the new millennium, mainly from the UK and Australia. They tend to be well-informed about international art trends, post-structuralist theories and 1960s–1970s conceptual art practices in Western Europe and America, as well as undertaking a research and process-oriented approach to developing artwork. Crucially, the lack of institutional support for alternative, provocative art practices is not merely taken at face value, but viewed as a network of educating, censoring, funding, and exhibiting agencies that manage and channel artistic development, often to the detriment of its political and cultural potency. Hence, Ho's attempt to discuss Singapore art as "discursive events" rather than completed objects, and its conceptual lineage, gain especial currency.

Perhaps the struggle of conceptual art in Singapore to install idea and process as foundational to art practices should be viewed in connection with the curtailment of the artist's intellectual functions in society since the crackdown on leftist movements in the sixties. In fact, Cheo's repeated invocation of the figure of Lu Xun [fig.] hints on some level that the suppression of the project of conceptual art is linked to the repression of the intellectual and critical functions of the artist, which is exacerbated by censorship pressures. The dilemma of how an artist in Singapore can argue for and engage in a critical art practice that has something potent to say about current realities continues to haunt. In a magazine article written in the same year as 4x4 was completed, Ho reviews Cheo's 5’ x 5’ by focusing on the dismissal of the proposal, tracing it historically to the rejection of Duchamp's urinal by the Society of Independent Artists in New York. Ho's interpretation is revealing: Cheo's proposal represents the first significant "work" in Singapore art that could be connected to the Euro-American neo-avant-garde legacy. Further, this and Cheo's other works/events were more of the nature of "episodic interventions" that were ephemeral but left traumatic marks; their existences arise and gain renewed potency only with the act of recounting or remembering. Here, Ho is subtly dealing with another persistent problem in contemporary art practice in Singapore—how to be informed by a valid and usable history of critical Singapore art. Belying these attempts at commemorating those "barely there" incidents or plans is the struggle of the Singapore artist to forge a relevant practice in the face of what many of us have grown up believing—that there is little history and culture to Singapore, and little space for socio-political engagement. The reasons for this perceived lack run deep and spread over a large territory. They include state control of discourse, flaws in educational content and structures, the threats to curtailment of civil liberties, and institutional coercions. The problem is in fact a circular one: To negotiate and subvert the interlocking barriers and pressures, art practices fall back on ephemeral strategies and ambitious statement-making proposals that are doomed to failure. In turn, these non-existent works form the very sort of history that Singapore artists find necessary to re-visit for their potential critical power and reflexive strategies.

Image: View of <i>Aversions</i>, selected and edited by Tan Guo-Liang, with book opened to drawings by Ian Woo.
Image: View of Aversions, selected and edited by Tan Guo-Liang, with book opened to drawings by Ian Woo. Courtesy of Tan Guo-Liang.

The problem of contemporary representation however gains new urgency in the context of a rapidly changing Singapore landscape. One may read such endeavours as Aversions, Tan Guo-Liang's artist book published in 2009, as manifesting a desire to draw out the invisible legacy of conceptual art and the possible answers it could provide to the crisis of art's relevance in Singapore. The issues investigated are fundamental ones: Why make art, why draw, why paint? This is the sort of project that sees the importance of process over finished product. Tan asks how one may attempt to represent the phantom, the fleeting, the disappearing, exploring the importance of drawing to a conceptual approach as well as more intuitive processes. It attempts to grant insights into the problem of representation, at the heart of which is an irretrievable loss, by selecting past works of art practitioners from Cheo's 5’ x 5’ and a number of his other subsequent works, down to the projects of artists Tang Da Wu, Matthew Ngui, Ian Woo, [fig.] Khiew Huey Chian, Charles Lim, Shubigi Rao, Erika Tan, Cheong Kah Kit, and Ang Soo Koon. Arguably, both the more stringently conceptual approaches of Cheo and Ngui (b. 1962), and the intuitive processes of Tang's (b. 1943) paintings, are being negotiated together in the practices of younger artists, or at least read in ways where they are not incompatible to each other, to propose new possibilities for contemporary creation. What is also interesting is that the practices of the artists featured in the book cannot be easily typified as Singaporean, nor as not Singaporean. Most pursued at least part of their art education outside Singapore; some like Cheo, Ngui, and Rao are not Singapore citizens; others like Ang, Tan, and Tang (as well as Cheo and Ngui) spend a large proportion of their time overseas. Again, one can perceive a search for pathways out of the stranglehold of Singapore art's identity crisis.

Image: <i>I Have Been Skying</i>, 2011. View of John Low's studio work space.
Image: I Have Been Skying, 2011. View of John Low's studio work space. Courtesy of the artist.

For artists in Singapore mining for more profound conceptions of identity, the Singapore River continues to be a fecund subject. The anxiety to produce Singapore art and Singapore painting after what has been couched as an unwilling independence from Malaysia in 1965 is not simply a natural result of a young nation trying to define itself intra-regionally and internationally against its larger neighbours in South East Asia. It should be seen against the intellectual and nationalist currents in Singapore that artists were caught up with just some decades ago, which were concerned about building a Malayan (not Singaporean) identity. To contemporary practitioners such as John Low, the bedeviling questions of what is Singapore painting and the identity of Singapore art cannot be dealt with without the modes of enquiry prefigured by Cheo's 5’ x 5’ and advanced by conceptual art. Known as a conceptual artist, Low recently created a research-archival setting at the Singapore Biennale titled "I Have Been Skying" (2011) [fig.] comprising various books organised and intervened into by the artist, and a selection of his and other artists' artworks and objects revolving around the subject of artistic expressions of the Singapore River. He hence assumes the indivisible roles of artist/curator/historian/researcher. At some level, "I Have Been Skying" operates as an homage to 5’ x 5’—working ideas included soliciting Cheo's contribution to the archival materials, and the installation at the Singapore Biennale displayed Ho's script for 4x4 in a book-form, opened to the page where the episode dedicated Cheo's 5’ x 5’ begins. The installation proposes a rhizomatic archive that takes the deterritorialisation of the said book as the initiating moment, with no beginning nor end and having multiple entry points, and a way of constructing histories hospitable to constantly changing realities and reflexive to the fluidity of subjectivities. At the same time, one detects the attempt to kill off the looming spectre of the nullifying critique performed by 5’ x 5’ in art history that hangs over contemporary painting production in Singapore. In place of the blankness of Cheo's 5’ x 5’ and its stark exposé of framing devices, Low attempts to activate a dense multi-layering of cultures as archival resources to generate infinite permutations for art/history writing and painting practices.

Image: View of exhibition <i>To Be Continued . . .</i>, 2011. Photo by At Maculangan.
Image: View of exhibition To Be Continued . . ., 2011. Photo by At Maculangan.

Efforts that subject the conceptual legacy to (re-)tracings, (re-)constructions, and (re-)placements in the metropolitan centres of Singapore and Metro-Manila demonstrate diverse narratives and interpretations of its influences that defeat any claims on conceptualism's "purity" or "orthodoxy." Instead, these suggest the stakes that contemporary art has in conceptualism as a historiographic category. The conceptual practices of Chabet and Cheo cannot simply be couched as responding to international trends, but are always strategic to the local and concerned with the viability of local art practices. The interpretative difficulties that sometimes engender complaints of the "belatedness" of Chabet's (de-)constructions of modernist lexicon [fig.] and Cheo's "obtuse" semiotic games—too late, too difficult, uncommunicative, irrelevant—continue to plague the reception of the works of these two still active artists. They are not just indicative of the distance that these works set up to the easy access to meaning (and current modalities of art/history writing on art from South East Asia), but also of the misunderstandings of conceptualism due to the uneven arrival of a South East Asian modern art discourse. Their agile, reflexive, and subversive tactics for coalescing alternative and critical positions find relevance with younger generations grappling with a different set of conflicting pressures on art practice today. Tracing out a conceptualist legacy through curating/writing/research is, further, valuable for locating references that could be mined for solutions for contemporary art practice. While the almost imperceptible early stirrings of conceptualism in Singapore tend to be associated with criticism of the painting medium, failure and repression, the displacement of retrograde criteria for beauty and skill, the resuscitation of the artistic function of intellectual engagement, and involvement with identity politics, amongst others, its beginnings in the Philippines are tied to a sense of the everyday, the valuing of process over form and style, anti-commodification, and art practices marked by an "unapologetic interiority," "wary of being subsumed by ideology and developmentalism," and "refus(ing) to tangle with questions of identity and origin"13—what some perceive as a politically-alienated and elitist stance. Such characteristics of conceptual art are, of course, not mutually exclusive to their localities. At the same time, these contemporary interpretations are historically implicated, tied as they are to past specific painterly paradigms and their mechanisms reigning over the respective localities that allow one to map conceptualism relationally. For conceptually-oriented artists, the conceptual legacy is an important, though sometimes burdensome thing. In the urgent task of (re-)writing modern art history in South East Asia, it signals a field of differentiated, and also often competing, claims that complicate and resist tendencies towards singularisation and current methods of historical accounting. 



1. This seminal, perspective-changing 1999 exhibition organised by the Queens Museum of Art traveled in America and included works from North America/Europe, Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, Latin America, Africa, Australia/New Zealand, and Asia, but excluded those from South and South East Asia. The curators conceded in the catalogue that they were not able to provide a definitive account of the global phenomenon of conceptualism, and therefore commissioned Apinan Poshyananda to pen an essay on the region.
2. Apinan: "As for conceptualism, we were taught that 'concept art' was peculiar to the West, along with happenings, performance, lettrism, documentation, earthworks, and body art. This practice of defining conceptual art through textbooks and lumping it with all kinds of other 'isms' has often led to confusion and misinterpretation, and conceptual art was translated by Asian teachers and passed on to students in variable ways. At times, the concept behind works such as Joseph Kosuth's One and Three Chairs (1965) was deemed irrelevant for art practices in Asia emphasizing technical virtuosity, indigenous elements, and draftsmanship. Then again, many art schools and academies actively discouraged the exploration of conceptualism for fear that it would incite students to challenge institutional authority. . . . In South East Asia, conceptualism for a long time was considered less important than critical realism, surrealism, and abstraction." From Luis Camnitzer; Jane Farver; Rachel Weiss; László Beke; Queens Museum of Art, et al., Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s–1980s, [exh. catalogue] New York: Queens Museum of Art, available through D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, 1999, 143.
3. Chabet was the first Curatorial Director of the CCP (whose then-patron was First Lady Imelda Marcos) and awarded a grant to observe museum practices in America and Europe from 1968–1969. He quit the post in 1970, only one year after the CCP's inauguration and before Ferdinand Marcos installed martial law in 1972. 
4. Interview with Roberto Chabet by Ringo Bunoan. Dasmarinas Village, Makati. 3 July 2008: "I was being alienated already by the CCP at the time. Ray Albano had taken over really and you know . . . I felt that maybe they should have an alternative to the alternative."
5. In 1972, Chabet started teaching in the University of the Philippines, a premier tertiary institution in the nation and a hotbed for student radicalism. The political suppression of radical leftist tendencies rife amongst Chinese-educated university students, with which social realism in Singapore was aligned, was experienced by Cheo as well when he was a modern languages and literature student in Nanyang University in the mid-1960s before he embarked on his fine arts education in England.
6. Adeline Ooi and Lena Cobangbang, curatorial essay for Things Said Amongst Us.
7. Though Chabet had already begun producing collage work since the 1960s.
8. Cocoy Lumbao,, accessed 24 June 2011.
9. Ibid.
10., accessed 28 June 2011.
11. As well, how the figure of Chabet polarises opinions and communities suggests that there are certain local divisions at work affecting his international reception (or lack thereof). These are often inaccessible to the casual observer, and should not go unexamined in critical historical writing.
12. For instance, Twardzik Ching Chong Ling's partially-failed project Lifeblood (2009), nominated for the President's Young Talents awards in 2009, proposing to channel water from the Singapore River into the Singapore Art Museum 8Q. As stated in the awards' press release, the immediacy of the physical qualities of the water is meant to provoke audiences "to reconsider the significance of the Singapore River in history, as well as in our lives today."
13. Eileen Legaspi-Ramirez, "Truth in the Telling," in Thrice Upon A Time: A Century of Story in the Art of the Philippines, [exh. cat.] Singapore Art Museum, 2009, 33–34. In this large survey exhibition, six out of ten of the artists born 1970 or after were former students of Chabet. It should be additionally noted that one of the key notions in Chabet's artwork is that of the "no place" and the "elsewhere."


Isabel Ching is a Singaporean independent curator and art writer. She holds an MA in Art History and Theory from the University of Sydney, Australia, and also lectures part-time in the Asian Art Histories programme at the LASALLE College of the Arts. Her research interests include contemporary art in Myanmar, the Philippines, and Singapore. She is the co-curator of the Roberto Chabet solo and group exhibitions To Be Continued and Complete & Unabridged, Parts I & II in Singapore and Hong Kong earlier this year, both of which are part of year-long events celebrating 50 years of Chabet's art practice.



Isabel CHING, 莊蔚姍

Fri, 1 Jul 2011
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Apinan POSHYANANDA, อภินันท์ โปษยานนท์, GAO Minglu, 高名潞, Reiko TOMII, 富井玲子, SUNG Wankyung, 성완경

Things Said Amongst Us
Things Said Amongst Us
Exhibition Catalogue

Things Said Amongst Us


Thrice Upon A Time: A Century of Story in the Art of the Philippines
Thrice Upon A Time: A Century of Story in the Art of the Philippines
Exhibition Catalogue

Thrice Upon A Time: A Century of Story in the Art of the Philippines

Eileen LEGASPI-RAMIREZ, Joyce TOH, 杜慧珊, Patrick D. FLORES