Many people in the West seem to be looking eastwards these days, with senior curators at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum being no exception.
Last week, representatives of that august New York institution plus art academics from around this region were in town for a panel discussion to launch "Map: Regarding South And Southeast Asia", a public education programme which is being run in conjunction with the Guggenheim's UBS Map Global Art Initiative.
The programme represents an attempt by the Guggenheim to reach out to art practices in this part of the world through seminars, talks and online discussions. One of the highlights promises to be an exhibition, scheduled to open next February in its New York HQ. Entitled "No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia", it will feature works from Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India.
After the Bangkok gathering, which was hosted by the Jim Thompson Art Centre, Life put a few questions to Alexandra Munroe, Samsung senior curator of Asian art at the Guggenheim.
Could you fill us in on the background to the UBS Map Global Art Initiative?
Munroe: As a senior curator at the Guggenheim, I came to lead what we called an "Asian Art Initiative". I have worked with a curatorial team to help develop a kind of theoretical approach to how the Guggenheim, which traditionally focuses on European modernism and contemporary American art, could expand those boundaries of vision _ how to question our own institutional history and our own history of modernism and contemporary art through the vantage point of Asian art.
So, the UBS Map Initiative is the result of that?
I can't say it's the direct result, but it springs from it. In another words, the thinking that we have done in Asian Art Initiative has led and has informed us in this UBS Map Initiative.
I think another thing that has fed the UBS Map Initiative is our work in Abu Dhabi. We have been developing a curatorial platform and institutional identity for the future Guggenheim Museum in Abu Dhabi. The thinking that has gone on for that institution has also informed our needs for a wider, expansive view of art history. I think the third element that has inspired this is the recognition by our director, Richard Armstrong, that the Guggenheim defines itself as a global institution. We have museums in Berlin, Bilbao, Venice and, soon, in Abu Dhabi.
Why choose Abu Dhabi instead of, say, a city in Japan or China?
For a very simple and a very practical reason: Abu Dhabi came forward to us and they agreed to our terms to basically license our name to their project and for us to provide them with curatorial content and supervise the development and strategy for their museum. It is their museum. It is owned and run by the government of Abu Dhabi.
Historically, in the Western discourse, "Asia" often referred only to China, Japan or India. The Guggenheim is going to open another outlet in Abu Dhabi, which is also in Asia, but a different Asia from, say, Thailand or Indonesia. So how do you define "Asia"?
I think the definition of Asia is impossible. But this question of how to define Asia was the first thing we tried to resolve when we constructed the Asian Art Initiative.
We know what the geographic expanse is, but we are also looking at Asian-born artists who are working outside of that geographic boundary, who might be living and working in London or Brooklyn or Africa. And I think I would have pushed it even further to say that we are also looking for a set of ideas, a kind of criticality. We're looking for certain philosophical, existential identities that have for a long time already influenced and permeated contemporary art practices around the world. I don't think you can necessarily locate Asian art and thoughts as being contained by and represented only by Asians.
I think Asia, for us, is a concept, bigger than a place. It's bigger than a person representing it. It's the set of ideas.
At this juncture June Yap, curator of the UBS Map Global Art Initiative, joined the exchange.
Ms Yap, you have been appointed curator for the forthcoming "No Country" exhibition at the Guggenheim. Could you give us the background to this particular project?
Yap: The Guggenheim UBS Map Global Art Initiative is a five-year project with three cycles. The first one is South and Southeast Asia, the second is Latin America and the last one is the Middle East and North Africa. And for each of these cycles there will be a curatorial residency and exhibition in New York and it will then go on tour.
So I'm working on the first part of this whole five-year project; that is, looking at South and Southeast Asia. The exhibition, "No Country", which will open on Feb 22 next year, will showcase works from this region. It is a pretty large area, a lot of countries, a lot of different cultures and different civilisation histories as well.
In Thailand, you are familiar with Ayutthaya, and during this early empire of this Kingdom, they were not confined by what we see today as borders. Even though Thailand was never colonised it was dealing with a lot of European expansion at the time. At some point, for instance, the border between Thailand and Malaysia changed. So, that [area] was part of the previous Thailand. That's the sort of thing that inspired us and perhaps references in this exhibition.
Have you picked the works for the exhibition yet?
Yap: We are kind of working through the exhibition process right now. We'll let you all know soon.
What exactly are you looking for in works, for example, by Thai artists?
Yap: For each country, there is a question for things that puzzle me or challenge me and make me curious, because the region is very heterogenous. Each country has different infrastructural, discursive, aesthetic production. Given that these are very different countries, my approach is that I have a particular question for each one, and one thing I do know, at least for Thailand, is the fact that it was internationalised very early, compared to other Southeast Asian countries, while Indonesia is next, in terms of visibility of its art internationally.
So, when it comes to Thailand, the challenge is double compared to somewhere like Cambodia, because there is such a history of aesthetic experimentation. There are so many good artists. There is so much good artwork. That is very tough.
The project also has an online platform; how will that work?
Yap: The idea is that the exhibition will have these artworks and through the artworks you will understand certain aspects of the region, the countries, the issues, the conditions; but that's not enough.
We created this platform where artists, curators, writers and academics can contribute their texts, images or videos. They can be about life or the experiences of life. For example, we have one by an artist from Myanmar; she writes about her ordinary life in Myanmar. And another one is a young Indonesian sound artist who has been doing a residency in Japan; so we had a conversation between him and the curator in Japan. These few elements provide us ways to understand the region.
So this initiative is not just trying to send ideas from the art scene in this region to the West; it is rather more two-way?
Yap: It is definitely two-way, simply because the exhibition comes back to Asia. So, immediately the challenge is not what the show would mean for the New York audience, but what it means for Asian audiences. That is why the whole notion of the region, in terms of relationship, becomes important. We may live one hour away from each other, but we're not having the conversation that we need to have. So, this kind of occasion provides us with an opportunity to talk to each other.
Munroe: Network is a really a key part of this project. We realised that we can't just be a closed repository of these objects that are coming to our collection, but that each object, in itself, is the opportunity and a threshold for a conversation to build the network of ideas around the object, around that artist, around the country it comes from.
About the author
- Writer: Yanapon Musiket
Position: Life Writer