Art without History? Southeast Asian Artists and Their Communities in the Face of Geography

Article excerpt

The critic Lee Weng Choy once described Singapore as an "ahistorical society that seems to live only in the present tense, and claims no need for the past, let alone a sophisticated consciousness of history."1 In Lee's view, Singapore suffers from a case of postmodernity. But to deny it history is vaguely reminiscent of a time, during the period of colonialism, when all Southeast Asians were denied a history as well as a present. When colonial explorers came to the "lands below the winds," as they called the region between China and India in the late nineteenth century, they found Chinese writing systems and Indian religions, and concluded that the inhabitants of the lands lacked original culture, or that whatever culture they did possess was not theirs. The colonial explorers felt this gave them the right to patronize the locals and take possession of their artifacts.

With the colonial era long gone, where does the West stand a century later in relation to Southeast Asian culture? Singapore may not have a history, but it is one of two countries in Southeast Asia, along with Thailand, to have a pavilion at the Venice Biennale. It is also die home of the only art museum devoted exclusively to Southeast Asian art. Since the field of modern and contemporary Southeast Asian art history has developed in the postcolonial era, scholars have focused their atténuons on individua] countries within the area rather than the region as a whole. Studies of the evolution of modern art from colonialism to the 19905 in Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines, and, most recently, Myanmar have been published based on dissertations and intense in-country field research.2 Many of these texts argue for the recognition of "other modernities" and the abandonment of hegemonic notions of Western modernity. Artists, however, have begun to move beyond this opposition of East versus West and engage in an interregional conversation. While scholars at American universities may care whether these artists were recognized and accepted by Western institutions of modern art, it has become much more important for artists to participate in community projects that cross, and indeed eliminate altogether, the borders that colonial maps had so eagerly drawn. The creation of ASEAN, the Association of South East Asian Nations, in 1967 may have seemed like an artificial concept, one that defied the very essence of postcolonial nationalism, but over time, it appears, at least in terms of the development of modem and contemporary art in the region, that creating bridges between different Soumeast Asian nations is not only essential to the fostering of artistic creativity but also much more fitting to the nature of Southeast Asian culture and geography.

This is not everyone's opinion, hi a rather biting critique of the most recent installment of the Asia-Pacific Triennial in Brisbane, Australia, this past winter, the Ho Chi Min h City-based Australian writer, artist, and curator Sue Hajdu deplored the artificial grouping together of artists from the Mekong region.* Hajdu claimed that using the term "Mekong" was a curatorial strategy that did not reflect the way in which Southeast Asian artists perceive their own sense of place. She contends that no artist she met in Southeast Asia felt affinity with any place other than his or her own nation. This is not niy experience, however, hi my own research, I found quite the opposite. If anything characterizes Southeast Asian artists, it is their affinity with their dose neighbors. This is especially true in the twenty-first century as cross-border, transnational exchanges that defy categorization become more frequent. Southeast Asian artists, who are litde noticed by curators in Europe and America, do not need validation from the West, necessarily, nor do they need to be "mapped" onto the contemporary art world.

The idea that Southeast Asians lack "identity" dates to the colonial period and has been perpetuated by the art market. …