Comparative Contemporaries: A Presentation by Lee Weng Choy

June 20, 2013
AAA in A, '09-'21

43 Remsen St. Brooklyn, NY

Comparative Contemporaries is a collectively edited web anthology project that brings together art writing from across Asia.  Initiated by Singaporean independent critic Lee Weng Choy, the project began with a symposium and workshop that engaged a number of writers in the field to select and discuss contemporary art writing in Southeast Asia. Its continuation attempts a tactical approach to producing anthologies specific to the region, providing an alternative to definitive surveys, authoritative mapping, and outside perspectives.

The web anthology on Southeast Asia was launched in May 2013. Future anthologies to enrich this platform are currently under development. Please visit the Comparative Contemporaries website.

Lee Weng Choy (LWC): Thank you Jane DeBevoise for hosting me and thank you all for coming. It is really good to see friends in New York. This evening, I will talk about a project that I have been working on, as Jane says, for a very long time. It is called Comparative Contemporaries. It is a web anthology project. But before I get into it, I would like to start by talking about art. Rather than talking about ‘talking about art,’ it is always good to start with ‘art.’

Amanda Heng is one of my favorite artists from Singapore. This particular piece, called Let’s Chat, was very much about just meeting people and talking, but it has of course a background context. Singapore, as you may know, is a society that has undergone so much change in the last couple of generations. And so someone like Amanda’s mother, who would be in her 80s, has really experienced so much social change, so much urban development. Singapore is peculiar because the stories that people have don’t always find expression and Amanda has always been interested in these kinds of excavations.

But it is another project by Amanda that I want to highlight; this one represents some of the reasons why I am interested in the arts and interested in us talking about the arts: it is about the intersections between what artists do and public spaces. The piece is called, Walk with Amanda. It was done in 2000; the audience gathered at the theater space, which was presenting a program of experimental performance. From there, ushers took us to a nearby hawker center. We were walking in a group and knowing that the performance has something to do with walking, we walk and talk amongst ourselves, having this expectation that something is going to happen — eventually — and then we get to the hawker center. We see that Amanda has already been there for a while and she has been placing pink tablecloths on what are usually just plastic hardtops. We arrived as an art audience and we see that there is a crowd watching Amanda. What for me is most interesting about this performance is not so much Amanda, the artist’s body in action, but what how she brought together two groups of people: a crowd and an audience. An audience has a specific intention to look at art. But a crowd may just be wondering, ‘what is this crazy woman doing with all the pink tablecloths?’ I think it is at that moment that the performance actually begins, when we — the two different groups — look at each other, whether we recognize each other or not. It is art that brings together different perspectives that is interesting to me and that is one of the things that I wanted to talk about with regards to the Comparative Contemporaries project.

One of the ways Comparative Contemporaries got started was that in the 90s, there was an intensification of regional and global interest in contemporary art. I was attending and participating in lots of art conferences. What would typically happen was that someone from the Philippines would talk about the Philippines, someone from Malaysia would talk about Malaysia, and someone from Singapore would talk about Singapore — we’d just talk about our backyards. And it was very rare that we would talk about what other people were doing.

This of course is a map of South East Asia. It is always good to show a map and this is from the CIA.

Patrick Flores, the art historian, had co-convened a conference in 2002 in the Philippines and what I wanted to do as a participant was to talk about Patrick’s own work. This was before the Internet really kind of took off, so back in the day, I would go to the libraries and I couldn’t find stuff of Patrick’s in the Singapore library, but luckily since I know Patrick, I could just email him, he sent me some stuff. It was that kind of gesture that got me really thinking that we need to think about the material we have already done and pay closer attention to it. That was one of the impetuses of Comparative Contemporaries. The way that I thought to frame it — in being an anthology project — I wanted it to be profoundly open-ended. It couldn’t just be this book of all the important writers in South East Asia. I really thought that it lent itself to being a web project.

How I started was that I thought of five editors and I asked each of them to think about ten or so texts about South East Asia, or for South East Asia, and then we put the collection together. The framing device borrows from comparative literature. I am not an art historian; I am an art critic. And I very often think of my role as that of a fellow traveler to contemporary artists. I am very mindful and respectful of historians, so I am always thinking about art historiography, though I don’t do such extensive historical research myself. In this case, I was thinking of the model of comparative literature, where you could juxtapose things and feel less constrained. When I was talking about Comparative Contemporaries in Chicago, a friend of mine who’s an art historian had invited me, she said that often art historians look for similarities, whereas with comparative literature, there is an emphasis on differences. Historians try to find lineages and similarities — she qualified her remarks by saying that of course many historians today are far more sophisticated. Anyhow, so who are our contemporaries? What are our contemporaries? By ‘that’ I mean the ‘unit’ of comparison — rather than ‘countries’ or ‘histories’, but ‘contemporaries’, and how contemporaries are constructed. In many ways, I think of a contemporary as having some historical depth. It is not always just a flat ‘now.’

I just showed an image of James Elkins who is of course a well-know art historian based in Chicago. I just got to meet him this year even though I’ve been going to Chicago a lot. We had dinner recently and were just talking about global art history, which is one of his own research projects. Comparative Contemporaries also juxtaposes very interestingly with a lot of art historians now who are really thinking about the problem of how we do global art history.

So let me talk about the five appointed editors. First is Sue Acret. Sue Acret has been based in Hong Kong, although she is from Australia. She used to be in Sydney and was one of the editors of ArtAsiaPacific when it was based there. It moved to New York for a while and now it is in Hong Kong, and headed by Elaine Ng.

The image is of the twentieth anniversary, which I got from their website. The period of the 90s was very interesting. For Comparative Contemporaries, what Sue has done is pick ten essays from ArtAsiaPacific, most of which are from the 90s. That is how she was approaching my brief, which was basically ‘Do anything you like, but think about South East Asia.’

Ly Daravuth is one of the co-founders of Reyum, an art space that deals with everything from material culture — modern and traditional as well as contemporary — in Cambodia and is based in Phnom Penh. For me, someone like Daravuth is a very important part of the project. Especially, when we starting thinking about the project in the early 2000s, Cambodia wasn’t really part of the biennale circuit. Now of course, it is, but this transition was very interesting, and it was a time when he was thinking, ‘How do I fit into this project?’. His introduction essay is an interview, and he goes back and forth thinking about this issue. It’s important for me to have someone who was really challenging the relevance of these kind of regional and international art discourses and how a local community could speak to that.

Another editor, Keiko Sei didn’t want to have her picture included on the website, so she gave us this avatar. Keiko was working with documenta — not the most recent one — but the previous one with Roger Martin Beurgel, Ruth Noack, and Georg Schöllhammer. She was very involved in the documenta magazines project, as the South East Asia editor and involving her with Comparative Contemporaries was a way of intersecting with the documenta project. She is based in Bangkok mostly.

I wanted to make sure that there was an artist in the mix. Ho Tzu Nyen is a filmmaker and a visual artist. He is also one of the most well read artists that I know. One of his early works was a film about the founding of Singapore.

Sang Nila Utama is the mythical founder of Singapore and he gives Singapore its name, ‘Lion City.’ Of course, there are no lions in Singapore, but apparently, Sang Nila Utama saw a lion and as men do, he killed it. See something mysterious, and what’s the reflex reaction — let’s kill it [laughter]. The film is in Malay and Tzu Nyen has talked about how he love subtitles, so that is why his first movie had to have subtitles [laughter]. It is a lovely film that is so dense with theory, but the artist has such a light touch with all its complex issues. The work is about, among many things, the impossibility of origins. Which is a thread that goes into Tzu Nyen’s own selections for Comparative Contemporaries.

Here’s Patrick Flores, whom I mentioned earlier. Someone like Patrick Flores really does the serious art history stuff, and he focuses on people like Stanley O’Connor, Nora Taylor, and so on. Keiko has a more idiosyncratic approach in comparison with Patrick. Again, Daravuth is thinking about Cambodian texts and how they will speak to some of the larger issues regionally.

So with Tzu Nyen, his own list is very very deliberately un-South East Asian and he is thinking about the question of influence: ‘Is this region sort of influenced by Western modernism and how does one deal with that?’. He has people like Harold Bloom on his list, George Kubler, Leo Steinberg, Jacques Derrida and so on. He does have some South East Asianists: T K Sabapathy, Marian Pastor Roces, some very important writers. By the way, Marian is from the Philippines and Sabapathy, from Singapore.

From the onset Comparative Contemporaries was designed to include more regions than South East Asia, or more sub-regions. If you look at the Asia Art Archive website, it says ‘Beta Version’ up in the top left hand corner. In our website, we say ‘Very Beta’ because we still don’t have everything — I am still chasing permissions on all the texts. We’ve got some content up. We don’t have all the features working either; a very important feature will be a discussions forum. The first exchange was with Hammad Nasar, who is Head of Research at the Archive. Hammad really wants us to have some juxtapositions between texts from South East Asia and those from other parts of Asia. And I agree with him.

But what I want to do first, apart from getting all the content and all the functionality on the website is then to bring in some more editors from within South East Asia. I’ve already approached Nguyen Nhu Huy from Zero Station in Ho Chi Minh City. Huy is a writer, a curator, and also a translator. He has been translating some James Elkins, and he also translated John Berger’s Ways of Seeing into Vietnamese, and I really want to get a copy of that. What I’ve asked him to do for us is to pick about three texts from the existing web-anthology and translate those into Vietnamese. The select three texts in Vietnamese that should be in English, and translate those. Lastly, he’ll select three or four texts that are not on the existing web-anthology, which he thinks are especially pertinent to how Vietnam is dealing with international contemporary art. After Huy, I’ve also approached Kevin Chua, he’s an art historian from Singapore, based in Texas, and he deals mostly with 18th and 19th Century European painting; although he does also write on contemporary art, and art from Asia. Joan Kee is a Korean American who teaches at Ann Arbor Michigan and her field is modern and contemporary Asian art. I did a series of talks in Singapore earlier this year and one of the platforms for the talks was called ‘Friends with Disagreements.’ Joan and Kevin were part of those talks. The idea is that disagreements among friends are some of the most important ways that ideas develop. I’ve asked Joan and Kevin to do a little mini-anthology and they are going to do it in the format of ‘Friends with Disagreements.’

In terms of thinking about South East Asia as a region — well, I think Asia is impossible to define. Usually one says that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but for me it’s the obverse. I would say that Asia as a whole is lesser than its many messy parts. The messy parts, the messy sub-regions, I think are much more interesting, because there you are not really trying to have a view from above, claiming that you can really see all of Asia, where you have a theory for Asia, and you try to force every messy part into that framework. I am more interested at this stage in much more contingent comparisons. So, as with Ho Tzu Nyen, who are our contemporaries? Who are our neighbors? It’s a way of thinking about South East Asia, or any region, without policing the borders. As Hammad was saying in our discussion, what is important for him is how we are going to think the next sub-region. We’ve been talking to a researcher in Korea and thinking about Korea not as a country but maybe as a sub-region. That might be an interesting way of thinking about the next sub-region. Some people have also talked about the Pearl River Delta as a sub-region to focus on.

Shall I stop here and take some question?

Audience member: What is the difference between a sub-region and a nation in your definition?

LWC: Let me add some other words. We have sub-region. We have region. We have country and we have nation. ‘Nation’ is very often the most policed, because you have national governments and you have cultural nationalism. A country is something that is more fluid in my view. I think that New York City can consider itself a country.

In the last decades, Singapore has spent a lot of money on the arts because the government thinks art is important. They think you can make money from art and that is why they think it is important. [laughter] So there is a national agenda to invest a lot in the arts. But one of the problems is that the local audience is relatively small, so the audience for Singapore art should also include the audience from our closest neighbor, Malaysia. That is one of the reasons that I think a project like this is important — we need a much stronger sense of shared references. Our discourse needs to have more density. We are producing a lot of discourse; we have volume but we need density as well.

When I think of a sub-region, I am thinking of countries that consider their audiences shared. Europe was a sub-region in the 1800s, in the 1700s. There was a real sense that something that was happening in Paris, in France, was something that people in London had to know about. Of course, it would take longer because of the slower speed of letters and things like that, but now, for all our connectivity, our audiences don’t necessarily have the kind of dense entanglement. You go to biennales and you see people, you have a drink and you schmooze, but you don’t necessarily have very deep and strong connections. These connections I want to deepen. This has everything to do with who your neighbors are, who your contemporaries are. That is how I think of a sub-region. As opposed to regions, like when the CIA thinks of South East Asia as a region because it had specific geo-political agenda.

Audience member: I was interested in the part of your project that involves the same texts in different languages. Can you elaborate?

LWC: Well one of the things that we are going to do also is translate some of the first group of texts into Chinese. Translation is a really important thing. I would like it if there were some research center in the region that had pretty deep pockets and would just invest in translation.

What I think is so important for Chinese contemporary culture is reading not just French in translation, but, say, Indonesian in translation. They don’t need to know only what Alain Badiou or Giorgio Agamben is talking about. But also Jim Supangkat, for instance.

A couple of months ago, I was at the Ullens Center in Beijing looking at the show ‘On and Off’, an exhibition of young artists. And you read the wall labels and it is just all the buzzwords of theory; and you ask yourself, ‘is that what the art is about?’. Of course, this happens across the region, this anxiety about theory, as if theory were some kind of elite brand.

But the better writing from everywhere in Asia needs to engage a wider audience — not just local readers. The Indonesians are becoming more mindful of being bilingual. But to be honest, this project can only superficially engage with translation. Translation will be an important theme, but Comparative Contemporaries can’t really do that kind of work. We’ve got maybe ten texts already translated into Chinese and that is the next phase that we’ll build into the website, where if you want, you can click on a PDF of the Chinese version.

This is also why I thought about Vietnam and Huy. In his own introduction essay for his selection, it will be interesting to find out why he choses the essays that he feels should be translated in Vietnamese, and why certain Vietnamese texts should be translated into English. I am really looking forward to that. He is presently one of the co-curators of the Singapore Biennale, and he is really busy now, but as soon as he has gotten over his exhaustion, then I am going to pester him to get involved.

Jane DeBevoise (JD): In terms of some of the mechanics of this, when you were asking the various editors to come up with their suggestions, were there issues with overlap?

LWC: Marian Pastor Roces from the Philippines was selected by three editors, for instance. But there wasn’t that much overlap.

JD: Which is interesting … do you list her work three times?

LWC: Her essay is listed separately for each editor, but of course when you click the link, you will be directed to the same essay. We are still working on the searchability of all of the essays. The one thing I haven’t gotten my head around yet is how we might engage social media.

Audience member: I was wondering about the discussion section. Would that be just curated discussions between the editors or would it involve the general reader?

LWC: It is curated, but if you are interested in participating in the discussion, what you do is you email us. Commenting on posts will be a little more open. What you will have to do is just register and you can comment. But I thought it would be better to have curated discussions, and also because we will be better able to handle it.

Audience member: Is the audience for this mainly academic?

LWC: With someone like the art historian, Nora Taylor, well, her previous research focused on Vietnam but now she is looking at South East Asia as a region. She knows this material very well already, but now she can use it as a teaching tool for her students, through the website. So that is one application for it. But I am also thinking about the various art communities in the region. Artists need to read more too. And your core art audiences.

In Hong Kong, just last May, I was part of the Asia Art Archive Open Platform booth at Art Basel HK, and we had a discussion about this. Someone brought up the issue about the ‘narrow cast’ of the art world in the region and wondered how we might widen it. For me, with Comparative Contemporaries, one tactic would be choosing an editor who really thinks about this problem.

Also, right now the website is very text heavy, and researcher oriented. I was just talking with Jane about getting permissions for images. We are not going to try to get images of the original articles, but we will try to solicit artists to do artist pages for this project specifically, so that may be another point of access for readers.

JD: In terms of your concerns about ‘Friends with Disagreements’, in terms of creating these kinds of intimacies, so that people can actually talk productively or substantially with one another, are we thinking about doing some kind of workshop/symposium/something where we can bring the people physically together?

LWC: We are thinking about that. There are so many options and we are thinking about what is the best one to pursue. I think that after the big conference at Asia Art Archive in October, ‘Sites of Construction – Exhibitions and the Making of Recent Art History in Asia,’ then it would be timely to have something that resonates with that conference and with the Comparative Contemporaries project as well.

JD: Do these key words that you have listed on the right side of the webpage click into the various essays and are they representative of the various issues in the essays

LWC: Yes, that’s the plan, but, unfortunately, the tagging cloud is one of the things that is ‘very beta.’ I really have to go and start adding tags. I have many more terms I want to include.

Audience member: It is my understanding that in this region, Indonesia is the economic giant and maybe even an artistic giant in some ways. When I look at the people you have pulled up as your editorial discussion panelists, I didn’t see anybody from Indonesia.

LWC: Yes. You’re right. [laughter]

Audience member: So I am just curious about your choice.

LWC: I don’t feel like I need to include anyone from Indonesia at this point. Since the project is open-ended, that will certainly change. We are building step by step. Of course Indonesia is important.

Speaking of Indonesia, one of the things that is interesting is an analysis of the art market for Indonesian work. I read an article comparing the art market in China and the art market in Indonesia and the argument was that collectors tended to buy art of their own generation.

JD: Interesting idea, although I am not so sure about that. I think it would make a very interesting comparison — looking at collecting in the larger Asian market vs. the Indonesian market. There are certain similar drivers, cultural and national motivations, but I think there is a lot of multi-generational interest in Indonesia.

LWC: And international interest –

JD: Could we say that the collector generation in China is younger because the money is younger, so it could be the reverse.

LWC: Yes, yes, yes. But the point was, because of the market, you even have greater interest, so it is not just from the biennale circuit, which has had a deep interest in contemporary art from Indonesia. One of the things that happens with the market is that you have more and more writing about stuff, more and more noise. It will be very important to have an Indonesian editor who will have the perspective to really think about these various tensions — between the art market, the biennale circuit, and so on.

When I was first thinking about Comparative Contemporaries, I chose Sue Acret because I thought ArtAsiaPacific was very important and I wanted to acknowledge that. I think Patrick Flores is one of the most important art historians working in and on South East Asia and he does his writing in English. Tzu Nyen is an artist, and so on. I could have included Indonesia, but when you think about five editors, it is ultimately arbitrary; it cannot be all inclusive. Speaking to your question, if I was doing a printed book, then I would really have to confront that question and defend the final selection. But something like this web-anthology recognizes these issues and the answers will come a little bit later. But I agree that Indonesia is a very important component that is under-represented for now.

Audience member: I have a question. What are you hoping to accomplish here? Other than the documentation part of it, in terms of complicating your critical practice, your curatorial practice, even artistic practice? Is there a role that institutions could play in creating access and creating audience that you talk about, like an art magazine, a school, a museum, alternative spaces? How can we be using this and shaping our work around some of this anthologized primary source material? How can we take it to the next level and expand upon the work. So you’ve democratized and archived these primary sources but how can we work with this material and continue to shape it?

LWC: The Asia Art Archive is an ideal partner for this project because when it started out, Comparative Contemporaries was about a lack of access to material. But Asia Art Archive is not just a library. You have to be dynamic in terms of creating ways that people will access this material. The thing that will be very important will be to start talking to teachers and museums. When Jane asked if we were thinking about doing workshops, a lot of that will be documented, and new editors will come up with new configurations and the discussion forums will be a way of rethinking and reshaping the material. So you have a series of smaller discussions occurring around these issues. The project may still end up being mostly a readerly-writerly kind of thing. I am not going to try to everything with this. As someone who is very interested in increasing the distribution of reading about art, for instance, one of the publishing projects that I want to do in Singapore is one that will focus specifically on developing the local readership, reaching out to a wider public.

For the Guggenheim, I did a little blog entry for the MAP project and I talked about public intellectuals. An important intellectual in Singapore is Chua Beng Huat. A long time ago, he joked about the ‘two jumbo jet theory’ of Singapore. The ruling class fits into one jumbo jet, 400 hundred people. And there are only 400 intellectuals so they fit into the other one. I said, ‘no, Beng Huat, there must be more than 400 intellectuals.’ It is much a larger group than those people who might turn up at The Substation for one of our art events. So how do we reach out to that group? On the one hand, I’m interested in producing new art writing to reach that group, but on the other hand, I want to reach the more academically-inclined audiences, and get them to pay closer attention to existing material which deserves more discussion.

Audience member: What is the percentage of English vs. non-English essays in those texts that were selected by the non-English five?

LWC: Daravuth has some non-English texts but the others are all in English.

JD: Just to follow up on that, in terms of the region, how much is being written in local languages, other than English? As you know, AAA is working on an anthology project in India and one of the things we are trying to do is work with 11 local languages, which in the end may be winnowed down to five or six languages. In certain regions of India, there seems to be strong local language discourses. I just don’t know what the situation is in South East Asia.

LWC: One of the things that the upcoming Singapore Biennale is trying to do is work with artists outside of the capital cities. For instance, with Filipino artists who are not just based in Manila. In the Philippines a lot of the art world is at least bilingual. They might speak Tagalog, but they also speak English, and often write in English. But there are still many other Filipino languages besides Tagalog. I’m not sure if the Biennale co-curators are engaging with those local languages. And I am not sure how much research is done in any of those languages. In Indonesia, you have a lot of people writing in Indonesian, but they increasingly want to publish in bilingual platforms, so as to reach out to the wider art world through English. Within the Comparative Contemporaries project, it is Daravuth who addresses this problem of how to deal with discourses other than in English.

Audience member: We haven’t really talked about Thailand at all, but we know that a lot of writing has been done on Thailand, and it’s one of the countries in South East Asia with the longest history of modern art? Even though a lot of people are bilingual now, perhaps one or two decades ago, most of this writing was done in Thai. And I would imagine that it is the same case with Vietnam. As you are continuing to do this project and as more people get involved and they work backwards in time, then wouldn’t dealing with the issue of what were the critical texts for the previous two generations be of value? It is also important to consider a certain skewd-ness that happens, because many of the writers were also reading translations of English texts that were quite selective and sometimes even at random. Maybe tracing these things would be quite important. I understand that this is where you have chosen to start, but it seems there is this issue of multiple languages that are really the definition of this region of South East Asia, which as you said in the beginning it really is an impossibility to define the region as a category. It seems that it really comes down to a linguistic problem.

LWC: That is why, if you were to get a group of people together and say, let’s do a printed book, you can see how frustrating and problematic that would be. But with a project like this you can always acknowledge the fault and then prioritize when you want to address it. You can see how very, very quickly I wanted to deal with Vietnam and some of the questions of translation there, but I am not dealing with the topic of your question, which is actually about that sense of the multiplicity within the region and how writers are dealing with that. That will have to come later.

JD: Well, on that note, let’s stop here. Thank you very much for this introduction and we will continue the conversation downstairs.

Lee Weng Choy, the managing editor for Comparative Contemporaries, was the artistic co-director of The Substation from 2000 to 2009. He is on the academic advisory board of the Asia Art Archive, and is president of the Singapore Section of the International Association of Art Crit.

Transcribed and edited by Daisley Kramer.