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ETHICS AND POLITICS

OF CURATING IN SOUTHEAST ASIA / A DISCUSSION 'CURATED' BY TONY GODFREY

TONY GODFREY: You are some of the younger curators or critics working
in Southeast AsiaIndonesia, Malaysia, The Philippines, Singaporethe
area Sukarno saw as being a greater Indonesia or Malay world. What I
would like us to contemplate is the state of Art and what is changing in this
region, what is the future for Art? Is the most interesting art being shown,
and is there a regional identity? And what can the forthcoming Singapore
Biennale tell us about the current situation? One thing that struck me when
I moved here from London two years ago was the paucity of direct State
support to artists, the dominance of and the prevalence of speculation in the
art market. Working as curators or critics in this context how do you avoid
being compromised? Could you begin by addressing this latter question?
TESSA GUAZON: I am based in a university and that somehow affords a
certain distance from the bewildering art scene that Manila has developed in
recent years. Not being compromised means writing about artists I believe in
and whose practices are grounded in material realities, the market included.
For commissioned writing, this translates into consistently providing the
bigger picture, the contexts of artistic development. Yet, I think academics
too should be immersed in the panorama of activities that defines the
Manila art scene for us to intimately know its pulse. In my research for the
past six years or so, I have written largely about projects, and artists who
examine urban issues. Not being compromised in this sense, means my
being able to share my critique of their projects and their being open to
such. So artists expect that its not all praise about them or specific projects.
ALAN OEI: In Singapore our art market doesnt exist (completely), while
State funding for the arts is fairly extensive, but expressed in the dominance
of museum and government institutions, which are run for and by the
government. Whether it exists or not in practical and real terms, there isnt
even an ideological understanding that the art institutions need a certain
arms length and independence. Which curator would ever believe or admit
he/she is compromising oneself by being paid to write and plan exhibitions,
etc? So thats something Im less interested in. The most damning compromise
that needs to be examined occurs not on the level of individual curators and
critics but at the institutional level, which is also much more powerful in
influencing the art market. In Singapore, we have a pragmatist government
which does not even conceive that allowing commercial galleries to sponsor
national museum solo exhibitions is problematic. The question I think that
would be more fulfilling answered is where external pressures emerge from in
Southeast Asia, in what structural form and how that form is shaped by the
countrys culture and politics.
TONY GODFREY: You are expanding the issue beyond art market pressures
to the governmental and ideological. Before we move in that direction could
I have some feedback from Agung and Alia who work in Indonesia where
the pressure of the art market is clearly much more powerful, and insidious?
I believe two thirds of the art market in Southeast Asia is connected to
Indonesian art, yet it seems not to receive any State support. Agung, you work
for a private organisation; Alia you for commercial galleries as a freelance
curator. Does this present either of you with any ethical problems?
ALIA SWASTIKA: It is interesting to compare all different answers here.
For me, the question is difficult as I work as curator in commercial galleries.
I feel I have to define what compromise might be for me. As a freelance
curator, it is very difficult to be independent from market pressure. One of

the best practices I do is to select the gallery and help them to develop their
market, building a circle of collectors who will spend moneyalso on noncommercial projects. These are the people who can invest money to build
an art infrastructure, in lieu of government funding. The support needed
is not only financial, but also policy and education. I believe that being a
curator in Indonesia is therefore a big undertaking. There are no art history
departments or art management courses in Indonesia. We curators are best
positioned to be at least part of the source of reference, so that weat least
from my experiencealso educate and share experience and knowledge
with gallery owners, and with collectors. My compromise began when I
started to become part of this market circle. Before, I used to work in a
non-commercial art space (Cemeti Art House) where the pressure of the art
market was never a problem. Another step forward has been developing new
strategiesto arrange gallery programs and to support more young artists
and introduce them to the art market without pushing them to follow the
markets trends, and to introduce established artists into non-commercial
projects and to new collectors.
AGUNG HUJATNIKAJENNONG: I think Tonys first question also
deals with how art curatorship has been developed in the Southeast Asian
region, especially the relationship between the power of market and the State.
Im really interested in responding to this. In Indonesia, the relationship
between art market, the private sector and the State cannot be one of simple
binary opposition. In my experience the connection between the two can also
be analysed differentlyfor instance, looking at how the art market actually
operated under a certain ideology of the State. For example, during the height
of New Order era, especially in the 1980s, the State was involved in directing
the kind of art practice that was considered valid, by censoring and muffling
all arts that expressed a critical voice toward socio-political conditions in
Indonesia. This was presented through the commercial galleries practice of
showing non-political arts. Although the term curatorship did not exist at
the time, I tend to believe that the practice had already been developed by
gallerists or dealers who selected works, put them on display, and asked some
writers (mostly art critics who also wrote in newspapers or magazines) to
give a framework for the public to interpret and understand the exhibition.
This may be too loose a perspective to understand the term curatorship, but
it can be useful as an alternative to reflect upon the paucity of State support
stated by Tony.
The current situation in the Indonesian art sector has become more
complicated and problematic. True, we can still see the continual lack of
government support and the prevailing insidious market. Following the
honeymoon period of the 1990s with international and regional art events,
and the rise of Indonesian independent curator as a new actor on the art
stage, Indonesian art has undergone changes, especially with the new market
boom in the mid-2000s. But with an absence of a professional bond amongst
curatorswhere most have not emerged from the States art institutions or
the academic field, the notion of curatorial practice has always been freefloating. To use my own experience as an example, although I work in a
private and non-profit institution, I still have possibilities to work with other
galleries, artist-run-initiatives, individual artists and the city government,
both for commercial and non-commercial projects. This might also be the
situation for other Indonesian curators. Thus, the compromise cannot be
simply seen from the institution where the curators work, as indicated in
Alias comments; neither can it be examined from one, two, three typical
works/exhibitions that they did.

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SHARON CHIN: I wonder if this question of compromise is not a little


disingenous when applied to what we do in the art world. It seems to suggest
that theres an ideal state of intellectual and artistic integrity, a purer condition
divorced from self-interest or needing to maintain our rice bowls. I find myself
compromising on a daily basis. As an artist, I sell my work to make a living.
I choose not to be represented by any gallery, but I have shown work in them.
I also need to maintain professional relationships and networks, which is
another type of currency. I have worked with the Malaysian Federal and State
Governments, private collectors, commercial galleries, indepedant initiatives
and as Agung put it so well, the free-floating independent curators.
There is no formula, no safety. Every encounter means negotiating power,
agendas and personal vision in order to make something happen. I think
declaring our self-interests and weaving that transparency into the working
process is the most intellectually honest thing we can do, even if it does us no
favours, and from personal experience, it often doesnt! What really shifted
my convictions about this whole making love to your enemies business was
taking part in the Beyond Pressure performance art festival in Myanmar.
We artists had to explain our work to Myanmar government officials for
them to approve, reject or suggest improvements. At the end of the day,
the festival was government sanctioned, which meant it could be held in a
public space. We had collaborated with the leading tyrants of an oppressed
nation, but we got what we wanted, an opportunity for Myanmar people
to attend our event openly, without fear. At best, the art world is an open
playground to do whatever we want with the tools we have. At worst, its a
supervised nursery for institutionally approved experimentation, mutual ego
massage, and cold, hard commodity trading. The baffling complexities that
exist in Malaysia and the rest of Southeast Asia are to me an opportunity and
a gift. In between the corruption, the failed democracy and the numbing
consumerism are still many soft places where you can slip in, plant seeds
and create something incredible. Everything depends on how much we are
willing to give up of our ideas of how things are supposed to be.

interest or when relationships are not sustained, exchanges can become


convenient veneers. In a recent project with independent curators, we had
numerous difficulties with works that were put together in situ. Despite
adequate orientation on parameters and limits of museum space, there
was a constant tug-of-war during the installation. Constant negotiation is
demanded of cross-cultural exchanges, and parameters have to be clearly laid
down between host institution and curatorial partners. For this particular
project, I think sensitivity to material conditions such as space and logistical
needs, and understanding of local contexts were left wanting. The curators
felt the museum infringed on artistic expression and had been inflexible
somehow. Given the fact that adequate project briefs from visiting artists
were not provided, I felt the heavy hand of power when the visiting curator
took the liberty of dispensing advice on how a local museum, grappling
with conditions he did not have any idea about, should be run. Crosscultural exchanges should also be founded on considerations of power and if
projects are pursued without this initial recognition, I think they have slim
chance for success. I think a discussion venue is needed for these issues to be
addressed. Beyond printed exchanges, I dont think these had been discussed.
One other exhibition I was left to oversee had works that were strongly
political, addressing the plight of workers and migrant labourers.
Its questioning of the art market it seemed was not of immediate concern to
the project proponents, but it was something that the museum repeatedly
raised through the exhibition text, the opening program and tours with
artists. Some of these artists maintain a strong activist affiliation yet most of
them also do very well in the marketplace. How they negotiate this position is
of interest, and should be discussed not just among them but with exhibition
audiences as well. Being a university museum, we are fortunate to have a ready
(if not captive) audience for our exhibitions. And when conversation strands
are teased out through our exhibitions, we sustain discussion in our classes.
However, there is more to be done in terms of expanding our audience reach
and crafting exchanges that go beyond exhibition-making.

TESSA GUAZON: Practice has a lot to do with choices. Whether in


curating or criticism, what one chooses to exhibit or write about reflects
the changing conditions curators, academics and critics contend with.
The recent proliferation of curators in Manila raises issues of practice. What is not
strongly recognised is that curating has to be regarded as more than the
mounting of exhibitions; it has to concern itself with a range of other
engagements. I feel in Manila at least, there seems to be a strong divide
between those who practice independently and those who are affiliated
with institutions. Hence, the greater challenge of finding avenues for
collaborations. However, like Agung, there are the few who are able to curate
within a vast range of platforms. When one is able to do this, curating or art
writing becomes advocacy. I think it is important that one reveals choices and
elucidate them beyond the confines of an exhibition.

AGUNG HUJATNIKAJENNONG: In a situation where the public/State


art institution exists predominantly for itself, the difficulty for a curator is
how to position oneself as mediator between the artists and their artworks
and the audience. Since curatorship in Indonesia has not developed from the
museum tradition, there is a current tendency towards a curatorial practice
that merely serves the art crowd (you can now find the phrases art lovers
and art collectors appearing more than ever before in many Indonesian
catalogues). Thus, curating or exhibition-making becomes esoteric and selfcentered, and worse, stereotyped as a process that functions merely to validate
art practice for the sake of small number of people. I can also see an attitude
change among Indonesian curators since demands from galleries and the art
market tend to treat the curator as the servant of their clients or patrons (or
the gallery itself, or often the artist). Although I can assume that it may also
have happened elsewhere, I think with the lack of public institutional basis
and higher education for curators, the practice of curating in Indonesia is in
danger of being insensitive toward real public interest. Contemporary art
will become more of a commodity, adrift from public domain and alienated
from its silent majority. This may explain, for example, why a group of
Muslim fundamentalists could easily manage to stage a protest and urge the
curator of an international biennale in Jakarta in 2005 to close it down.
Another problem, that of an under-developed curatorial practice, has resulted
from a lack of an institutional platform that would facilitate experimentation
for curators. As mentioned earlier, I work in a private art institution situated
in Bandung, a middle-scale city which has a much quieter art market
platform compared to Jakarta, Yogyakarta and Bali. As a curator, my goal
is to increase public attendance over commercial aspects. Although it is not
a public institution, I had the experience of being in a perplexing position,
in which my personal desire to improve and experimentfor instance with
theoretical discourse or a new exhibition approachremained compromised
by the reality of the city, in which visiting an art exhibition is never considered
important or necessary. This has kept me thinking about how to slow down
the scale of experimentation, in order to serve the expectation of the general
public, and avoid the decrease of attendance.

TONY GODFREY: I want to go back what Alan Oei said earlier, that there
are a number of external pressures on art making and curating in Southeast
Asia. Some are presumably specific to particular countries, some more
regional. Which are the most problematic for you to deal with? Perhaps, so
we dont get too abstract in talking about this you can each give an example
of an exhibition you have been involved with that dealt with those pressures
forthrightly and successfully.
TESSA GUAZON: External pressures on art making and curation in
Manila? Success in auctions and awards for art competitions become
incentives for younger artists and Ive seen winning or more successful
styles replicated endlessly. I think this kind of pressure impacts upon the
kind of art being made, with little else new being said or more interesting
queries posed through art. So I feel there are more interesting projects
being done outside Manilas orbit. It is worth noting though that auction
purchases are mostly from Filipino collectors. Cross-cultural exchanges also
exert a certain amount of pressure. With little follow through done after
mounting exhibitions one is left wondering about what exactly constitutes
a collaboration. When exchanges are not invested with time and sincere

SHARON CHIN: I run an art website, Arteri (www.arterimalaysia.com).


Its major goal is to encourage more dialogue within the Malaysian art
community, and one of the biggest challenges I face is language. Malaysian
society is intensely communalised. This inheritance from the divide and rule
policy of British colonialisation has today morphed into the powerful myth
of 1Malaysia, a country where Malays, Chinese, Indians and Others live
in harmony while (paradoxically) identifying most strongly with their own
communities politically, racially, religiously, economically and above all,
linguistically. The art scene is a micro version of this larger environment.
We have to try very hard to publish material that is relevant to a healthy crosssection of the Malaysian art world. Its about stepping out of our communal
comfort zonesin my case, English-speaking middle to upper middle class.
I force myself to write in Bahasa Malaysia, even though it takes me twice as
long. Intellectually, I grapple with the idea that going wide is just as urgent as
going deep. Arteris strategy is to reach out to these various communities and
get them to write in their own voice, about their own concerns. In the process,
it may be possible to identify common issues that affect us all, resulting in
a deeper solidarity that can help bridge language barriers. Genuine dialogue
also helps to break down unspoken power cartels that exist within more or
less closed networks. Another strategy is to focus on what is happening with
our neighbours in Southeast Asia. It is necessary to expand our world view
so that we can mentally train ourselves to think beyond the communal box.
ALAN OEI: I present an annual project called Open House, which stages
artworks and interventions inside domestic spaces in Singapore. For this
project, its less about pressure. What I most often have to contend with is
bureaucracy. Sometimes its understandable, sometimes it almost takes on a
Kafkaesque character. In running an artist project space (Evil Empire), Ive
worked with Valentine Willie Fine Art Gallery several times. Valentine is
super cool and doesnt interfere in the curatorial process. I do things the best
way I know, and he does the selling and dealing, and helps me out when I
need contacts and logistics. So Ive been lucky that way, and Im grateful.
ALIA SWASTIKA: I think because Indonesia is the largest country in the
region in term of its geography and population, there is therefore always
pressure upon us as curators to be the biggest in what we do. Of course, if
we talk just about the notion of market economies, then the Indonesian art
market is by far the largest in the region. Having worked both in commercial
galleries and alternative spaces, I feel the demands of the art market have
influenced my relationship to and connection with the concepts and
discourses of artistic practices. I feel somehow we lack discourse compared to
other countries in Southeast Asia. Recently, there has been more interest from
the international art world in Indonesian art. But most of these exhibitions
have been driven by market forces and interests. I think it is important to
present exhibitions with other artistic influences that open up discussion
and connect with the current issues, both aesthetic and political. I curated
an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, in October
2010. My aim was to present Indonesian artists who were working with the
idea of art as a project rather than a product. Seven artists were involved, and
most are still unknown in the Southeast Asia marketplace. I received many
responses from the public that they had seen and learned something new.
This project presented a development of artistic and aesthetic discourse, in
the socio-political context of current Indonesian society. In the 1990s these
kinds of projects attracted international exposure. We now need to reclaim
that.
TONY GODFREY: Lets get back to the intersection of dealers and
freelance curators. I saw all of you except Sharon Chin at Art Stage (January,
2011), the big new swishy art fair in Singapore. We heard of big sales
Murakami (Japan) for $2,200,000; Geraldine Javier (Philippines) for
$55,000; Jane Lee (Singapore) for $22,000; and so on. Is this new art fair
going to change the art world of Southeast Asia in any positive way?
ALAN OEI: Asias art market is driven by auctions and speculation. Will a
new art fair change this? It will probably only make this situation even more
pronounced. Itll be more again about highlight salesMurakami for this
much, Picasso for that much. If anything, it will further solidify the notion of

artworks as brands and stocks. Thats bad news for the art purists. You can see
the effect in the regional auctions that are crammed with so many facsimiles
and derivative artworks. The good news is that more artists just might get a
slice of the action. Theres no guarantee that Art Stage will thrive and/or find
its own niche against Art HK (Hong Kong).
ALIA SWASTIKA: It is interesting for me to see how Art Stage brought
together so many Asian artists in one place. This art fair has become one of the
new important events for the Asian art scene, compared to Art HK its more
broadly international. While focusing on the region, Art Stage could open
opportunities for a more intense interaction and collaboration with Asian art
practitioners, something that is usually blurred by the tendency to go to the
Europe and American art markets. I curated a small exhibition at Art Stage
for Ark Galerie, that gained quite positive responses from Asian and even
American galleries and museums/curators etc. While the distance between
Southeast Asia and America/Europe remains large, this kind of art fair, in a
way, could be a step forward in opening up opportunities for Southeast Asian
artists to present their artistic uniqueness to a broader public, and to develop
a healthy competition and somehow, exchange.
AGUNG HUJATNIKAJENNONG: I dont think an art fair or even a
biennale can change the art world in the region just by having them occur
once or twice. What I can hope from the fair, or from the role of Singapore
in general, is to provide an infrastructural model that at least can trigger
more vibrant art practices in the region, and more robust competition among
the art scenes in the various countries. Singapore may be the only country
in Southeast Asia that has the power and money to follow through with
government art institutions that can develop more extensive collections,
research and publications, as found in more established art scenes in the
West. For the next ten years, such a model is still important to maintain
a better mechanism of validation through curating and exhibition making,
since it can hardly exist in a country like Indonesia.
ALAN OEI: This is interesting. I think both Agung (and Tessa, earlier on)
in some ways posit the institutional/State support as a kind of mediation to
the market and how it inhibits both curatorial and artistic experimentation.
Whereas, I am so tired of government institutions stultifying the market and
artists. I dont think this is necessarily a grass-is-greener symptom though.
TONY GODFREY: We have an odd situation: a lot of State support in
Singapore and not enough private gallery/collector action; the exact opposite
in Indonesia and Malaysia where government support is negligible or
incompetent. Maybe that gives Singapore a potentially important role as
meeting place and arts hub.
AGUNG HUJATNIKAJENNONG: Its also interesting to compare that
situation with the Galeri Nasional Indonesia in Jakarta. Until now, most of
their programs rely on proposals from commercial galleries, which makes
the Galeri Nasional a luxurious space for rent. At its worst, the relationship
between the art market and government institutions is susceptible to nepotism.
This persistent lack of government autonomy has also made me wonder, does
it mean that Indonesian art has submitted to the neo-liberal economic system
since its early inception? You may take my question as sarcasm.
TONY GODFREY: Is it not then significantly appropriate that the next
big overseas exhibition of Indonesian art will apparently be at the LVMH
Foundation (Vuitton Museum )in Paris? Can alternative spaces like your
space, Sankring, Cemeti or Platform compensate for this to any extent?
AGUNG HUJATNIKAJENNONG: As Alan Oei has said, as well as making
art works even more blatantly brand products, in this kind of event (Art Stage)
speculation is highly celebrated; repetition and derivatives are so rampant.
I can see the obvious hierarchy or ranking of an artist by their sale price.
In the Southeast Asian art market, Indonesia is undoubtedly the biggest
player, in terms of speculation. Apart from relying on the auction, with the
new fair the speculators now have a new field of play and it is even closer
than Hong Kong.

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ALIA SWASTIKA: To compare Agungs, Tessas and Alans responses, it


is interesting to see how there is a longing for government support of art.
Singapore places itself as the art centre for the region, thus presenting
interesting and more complex power relations within Southeast Asia.
For example, many Indonesian artists desire to be exhibited at or having
their works collected by the Singapore Art Museum. The international
exhibitions that have recently been presenting Indonesian art (including the
upcoming Vuitton Museum as mentioned) have been positively appreciated
by the artists since they need that so-called leap into the international forum
to measure their achievement from other than just Indonesian commercial
galleries. The latter is something that is too easy and thats why most of these
international exhibitions are under-curated. I think local institutions must be
strengthened to provide a better overall infrastructure for future generations.
While perhaps the idea of established museums might be considered as failed
in the West, in Indonesia, somehow we still need these as the symbolic power
countering the market. While we have submitted to a neo-liberal economic
system, can we use the market as a tool to develop philanthropic action that
will help this institutional development?
SHARON CHIN: I find this conversation seems to present a consistent
binary between government/institutional support and art market forces. In
my experience the relationship between the two is very slipperythey buttress
and reinforce each others agendas, and the curator often plays a power broker
or mediator role between them, the art, the artist and the public. Last year,
National Art Gallery of Malaysia hosted the exhibition 15 Malaysian Art
Friends, featuring works not only from the collections of private collectors,
but also selected by them. The whole endeavour was in collaboration with a
local boutique art consultancy which has more than ten years experience in
the art market. There was no critique on the conflicts of interest that arise
with such blurring of boundaries between public institutions and private
enterprise. The rhetoric here is of curators/gallerists/collectors wishing to
advocate on behalf of artists, i.e. ensuring deserving artists get their chance in
the spotlight or are given sufficient support. I wonder where artist autonomy

and self-representation comes into play, if at all. Regarding Art Stage: the
very name itself suggested a theatrical platform where entertaining and the
powerful performances of contemporary art are played out by major actors
artists, curators, the market, the State, etc. There was an artificiality to the
proceedings which was then disseminated as concrete reality. Its like a news
cycle that reports and comments constantly on its own news, trading on
hype and visibility. I have no doubt some amazing art was shown and seen,
but the structure itself had its own interests at heart. As artists, curators and
intellectuals, we should ask for more. Its interesting that many Malaysian
galleries took part in Art Stage but not in last years Malaysian art fair,
Art Expo. The idea of Art Stage or Singapore as an exchange hub for
contemporary art in the region is great as long as we remember only a very
specific facet in the development of any local art scene will be represented.
Its the gap between the hype and complex realities that interests me in this
art gameI think curators live, breathe and manipulate that gap.
ALIA SWASTIKA: When I offered my thoughts regarding Art Stage, I
was also aware of the artificiality this event presents. So I wouldnt see it as
something that we should believe in. It is part of the glamour of the global art
market economy that plays a more intense role these days. Artists and curators
of course cant see the art fair as a platform where they achieve everything
they wanted, but how do we engage it strategically in terms of the penetrating
global market? Its not about taking this need of market exchange for granted,
but of requestioning artistic practices in the region. What subversive ideas we
can offer to the market?
SHARON CHIN: I agree, but I question the effectiveness of injecting the
market economy with subversive ideas. I would like more transparency in
curatorial practice such as calling attention to its process of legitimisation
and promotion and how this links directly to economic value. It neednt
be a whole mea culpa thingit can be honest but still be strategic.
The uncovering itself is radical and subversive.

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TESSA GUAZON: Art Stage helped pool audiences, not just for itself but
also for exhibitions that opened during the week of its run. But beyond that,
I am skeptical as to its gains. When we have mammoth events like this, effort
should be given to organising parallel events that do not replicate art market
goals. So it was good to view the Roberto Chabet exhibition at the Instiute
of Contemporary Arts Singapore, and attend Alan Oeis Open House during
this time. I think it is possible to have a parallel State supported event or
exhibition that casts a critical eye on patronage and the art market, less
spectacular and more reflexive. So I expected more from the Collectors
Stage exhibitions both at Singapore Art Museum and Helutrans. (This was an
exhibition of over thirty masterworks of contemporary Asian art borrowed
from leading private collection. Tony Godfrey.) While Art Stage illustrates the
reach of the international art market, it should also be seen as imperative for
organising events from a different perspective; those that promote dialogue,
invite questions, and encourage diverse audiences. These can feed off the art
fair promotion, as parasitic as they are they should not end within the big
event duration. Parallel events should be sustained until such time the next
big state supported event comes along.

made in the future, we can reflect and analyse the personal experience, put it
into a social context and engage political statements. I believe that this social
and political engagement is still part of the value of artistic practices within
what we have discussed. While the tendency to question the intervention of
Western art history and the notion of contemporary art is becoming stronger
these days, there is always some other artistic approach that refers to the
local aesthetic tradition. This leads to some experimental works that differ
from purely Western artistic practices. The question of originality is not very
relevant anymore, but still every artist needs to develop ones own identity.
In this world where we are swamped with visual media, artists are challenged
more to find their own visual language. Interaction with other artistic
practices and languages becomes very important, not only for references and
comparison, but also as a part of building identity. Some of the artists from
Southeast Asia, I note, gather originality from both their personal issues and
unique artistic languages and these become their strength and cultural capital.
Their distance from Western notions of (contemporary) art are contributing
more to their uniqueness, and suggest a new way to present art as a cultural
project.

TONY GODFREY: At the beginning of this discussion I said we should


think about art in the region, whether there are new developments or shifts
in the making of the actual objects, installations or events. But we have
mainly talked about the institutional and commercial framework that we
work within. You are all involved in your respective art worlds, are you seeing
something new and particular emerging, are younger artists just making
work for the market or exploring concepts and situations for a wider public?

SHARON CHIN: In Malaysia weve seen a definite bloom in community


art projects. For example, Pudu Community Art Project (2010) and Chow
Kit Kita (Our Chow Kit, 2011) dealt with social groups and issues in two
distinct urban sites in downtown Kuala Lumpur. Let Arts Move You (2007)
was an interactive festival that placed live art in commuter trains and stations.
The graffiti scene is also buzzing and very public-minded, creating large
events that go far beyond fly-by-night tagging. There have been many more.
Whats interesting is that these ambitious projects are artist-ledpractitioners
themselves put on the hats of curators, fund-raisers, marketers and producers.
They negotiate directly with government bureaucracy, corporate sponsors
and their target public. I dont see this development as artists going against
existing institutional and commercial frameworks at all. In fact they operate
fluidly (you could say indiscriminately) across the board to pool whatever
resources they need. A really interesting initiative called Art Triangle connects
artists in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippinesthey organise a yearly sale
of artworks and the proceeds go into a fund that gives grants for community
art projects. I love this as an example of going beyond subverting the market
economy and instead using it transparently for specific outcomes that benefit
the vitality of art production. I think the idea of the public is becoming an
important concern for young Malaysian artists. Even in commercial galleries
you see a lot of work that deals with social issues, though too often in a
poor, superficial way. Over here, the idea of art as big business or a creative
industry is still in its nascent stagesthe State is slowly catching on and major
initiatives such a Malaysian Pavilion in the upcoming Venice Biennale are
under the purview of all things, the Trade Ministry. So the Malaysian publics
awareness of art is still very low (landscape paintings, portraits etc). Artistled community projects are building new audiences for art in a very grass
roots, direct way. It remains to be seen how art develops in the consciousness
of the peopleanother State-sponsored economic development vehicle or
something deeper in the heart, the mind, the culture. Itll probably be a bit
of both.

TESSA GUAZON: I would like to mention that in the context of Manila,


State or institutional support is not the sole mediator for the market. In more
successful projects (of course, the rubrics of success have to be constantly
rethought), we have a lot more parties going on boardNGOs and artists
collectives, especially. While they receive project support from the State
(these are not artists grants, by the way), they are given room to manoeuvre.
Of course, there is always the threat of being co-opted and embracing State
rhetoric. Here lies the role of scholarship and criticism and of critics doing
groundwork. This is not a grass-is-greener option, though. Art fairs, State
infrastructure and biennales alert us to what needs to be done and how to
be more creative in carving more publics for art. I agree with Agung that
the biennale cannot foster dramatic change in how art from/in the region is
seen. While Singapore may be seen as a model of infrastructure in the region,
its positioning itself as an arts hub also presents numerous problems,
discursively and in all matters geographic (locationally and metaphorically).
All centres carry the weight of powerwhat it chooses to disclose, what
it leaves out, and the mechanisms it deploys. How are we going to work
through the hubs systems? What manners of exchange will it promote?
Or censor perhaps? Do we favour a strong centre or multiple ones, like nodes
connected by networks of various kinds? What excites me more are ongoing
initiatives that involve artists working with partners other than those from
the market and the State. Some of our artists are involved in collectives,
in projects conceived with partner NGOs, and they do work in regions
outside Manila. Some of them receive funding from local governments and
the State and have successfully organised projects alongside local festivals.
However, constant feedback is needed for them to stay the course and not
be overwhelmed by demands of individual careers or the market. And here
criticism and its venues should be fostered. I feel it is important that critics
should be in constant discussion with these collectives, evaluating initiatives
of this kind and looking for ways to make them thrive amidst the more
powerful mechanisms of the market and the State.
ALIA SWASTIKA: Aside of this chaotic infrastructure in almost all the
region, except Singapore, I am happy that I also experience a very interesting
creative environment that reflects a very unique perspective of contemporary
society. The rapid changing of societies and the lessening dominance of the
Western grand narrative have made it possible for artists to work within
subjectivite and interpersonal interpretations. There is a never-ending
dialectic between the personal and the social. Some younger artists are less
conscious about this, but with a better forum of dialogue that we hope can be

TONY GODFREY: Lets close there. Curation in the region, like art itself, is
clearly in a dynamic state. There are real problems, difficult issues, but there
are a lot of possibilitiesand clearly a lot of energy and commitment.

Page 63: Sopheap Pich, Compound (work in progress), 2011


Photo courtesy the artist
Opposite: Koh Nguang How, Artists in the News (work in progress), 2011
Photo courtesy the artist