Truong Tan, Diplomat-Group / Berlin (in cooperation with Nguyen Minh Thanh and Nguyen Quang Huy), 1999, VHS Sony, approx. 14 min. Courtesy of the artist.


You and I, We Have Never Been So Far Apart – Art from South and South East Asia

January 18, 2013
AAA in A, '09-'21

43 Remsen St. Brooklyn, NY

A presentation by June Yap.

Jane DeBevoise (JD): Welcome everyone. Tonight we have a special situation; June Yap will be speaking for about 20 minutes, followed by a Q and A, and then after dinner Bea Camacho, an artist from the Philippines who is now based in Boston, will be present her work.

I don’t think June needs any introduction from me because I think everybody here knows her, but we are delighted to have you back for your second round. June was here a couple of months ago with the artist Arin Rungjang from Thailand. June is from Singapore, but has been based for the last several months in New York for a curatorial residency at the Guggenheim Museum where she has been developing an exhibition called ‘No Country’ which opens soon. I am not sure if June is going to discuss the works in that show tonight, but we are excited to have the opportunity to talk about an area of the world that is important to all of us. So June, I will let you take it from here… This is very informal, as you can tell from the seating arrangements [laughter].

June Yap (JY): First and foremost, thank you Jane for inviting me. It is always a pleasure to be part of your dinners. As Jane mentioned, today it is not just myself, it is also Bea here who is going to talk about her work. I think that will be an important introduction for those of you not so familiar with the region, particularly the Philippines and what is happening in terms of contemporary practices there. Tonight I am not going to talk about of the upcoming exhibition at the Guggenheim, which opens on the 21st of February. But do come to see it, and then tell me what you really think.

Today I am going to talk about Southeast Asia more generally, and a bit about South Asia. This is not meant to be formal presentation. It’s a bit fragmented, but what I want to do is to introduce some ideas about what is happening in the region and perhaps get you thinking about the kinds of issues that are pertinent, and maybe we can continue the conversation after that…

So, coming from the region, I think one of the things that one tends to get asked is how to frame or how to represent the region, and of course we end up as curators, as artists, as arts professionals, looking at it in a few different ways. We look at [the region’s] cultural production. We look at its political conditions, we also look at the social conditions, and I guess we attempt to find some sort of cultural originary to explain what the region is about. And it is these originaries that we use to define and attempt to defend when we talk about the region. It is something that I think is almost inevitable. It happens especially when I am producing exhibitions outside of Asia, outside of my own country, when you are faced with a need to explain.

This situation is a particularly complicated one because suddenly you are looking at [Asia] from another perspective and you are trying to assume that other perspective with certain pre-conceived assumptions of what that ‘other’ perspective even means. For me it is an interesting conundrum. It’s an interesting problem because you are not really ‘within’ the region, not really within yourself, and neither are you actually within the other perspective because you can’t really be viewing Asia, in that sense, from there. So this is a pre-occupation I have been finding myself concerned with for a couple of exhibitions, and I think that extends to the exhibition project I am currently part of.

The image that I want to start with is actually of the Mekong. It is a region known as the Golden Triangle and here you see the confluence of the Ruak River and the Mekong. On the left is Myanmar. On the right is Laos. The image is taken from Thailand. For me this represents an interesting space, an interesting place to look at these three contemporary nations as we understand them to be, imagining them as completely apart. But through this convergence, you notice the proximity of these countries and what they represent is a lot more than we imagine. I also wanted to bring this image up, to have this image conjure in our minds the ideas of how culture and practices kind of flow through the region, the kinds of passages that exist.

It is in these convergences that we talk about what it means to be Asian and how we constitute what Asian-ness means, which I think is extremely problematic. One of the questions that I find myself confronted with, in doing what I do, is how we use art to declare what ‘Asian-ness’ is about and I think that for the most part we are not too conscious of it nor [do we] feel it is problematic, but I think it is necessary at least for myself to be sensitive to how we produce it, how we represent it, how we read it, and how we propagate this sort of idea.

‘You and I, We Have Never Been So Far Apart’ is a title that I have been using for several talks and an exhibition as well: The emphasis, depending on how you read it, is really about distance and proximity at the same time. One of the ways in which we attempt to present ourselves is in a certain kind of exoticized representation where we look for cultural differences as what will define our representation.

Mella Jaarsma, My Name is Michaella Jarawiri, 2007. Courtesy of the artist.

This work is by Indonesian artist Mella Jaarsma. She is Dutch-born but moved to Indonesia in the mid-eighties and has remained there since. The work itself is entitled My Name is Michaella Jarawiri, which is a humorous, satirical take on contemporary art and culture. The title of this work is a play on her name transformed into an Indonesianized form and recalls how the Chinese, in their assimilation in Indonesia in the 1960s, had to change their names so that they could have access to citizenship services. So here, she presents an installation and a video of images and footage that she took in a province in Papua, which is East Indonesia or post-Dutch colonized New Guinea, where in the 1970s the Indonesian government attempted to modernize the province through discouraging the use of a form of male native dress called the koteka, or penis sheath. In this video, she creates a fictional autobiography of a woman who is in the midst of this transformation of the province, and how through the process of modernization where the government was discouraging the use of the koteka, this loss has affected them. In the video you have what looks like an exotic native dance with symbols and objects and even dress which are from a contemporary time. In this video you have her posing as this fictional character who wants to become a contemporary artist for the purpose of being able to create sculptures. Their [own] sculptures or what they ordinarily see as their cultural objects cannot be used [in day-to-day life] anymore so she has to become a contemporary artist in order to return to making these things again.

For [South East] Asians to look at work [in] this way and to watch the video is actually kind of humorous, but if you were watching it from the perspective of the West it is actually a bit politically incorrect. So for me that is something interesting to think about, especially when we talk about how we represent Asian-ness in what we do.

Another thing I wanted to bring up was the question of how the politics of identity play out, and also the forms of legitimacy that we assume, when we talk about contemporary practice.

Bui Cong Khanh, images and stone took at Musee Guimet-Paris-France. Courtesy of the artist.

This is a work by the Vietnamese artist Bui Cong Khanh in which he questions the authority of cultural value from the position of the other. Here, he was traveling through Europe and he started to pick up objects, which he would ‘steal’ [or remove] from these European countries. He then started to take images of them [in the places] where he found them. He intends to bring these objects back and create a little museum of objects [or artifacts] and therefore lay claim to cultural production [or cultural significance] from [what is usually] a position of ‘otherness.’ It is also [an] interesting look at this asymmetrical relationship of authority and power within the art world and within culture.

Sopheap Pich (Cambodia), Morning Glory, 2011, rattan, bamboo, wire, plywood, steel bolts. Courtesy of the artist.

Another work I wanted to add to this [presentation] was a work by Sopheap Pich. I am not sure if you are familiar with his practice. He is from Cambodia. The material he uses is rattan, which is a very basic material in Cambodia; it is something that you find everywhere. The multiple ways his work gets read is the reason I bring him up. While the work he did for Documenta consists of more abstract sorts of forms and shapes which like look canvases, this is where he really started. He worked [initially] with biomorphic forms. The tendency is that, when it comes to reading works from a place like Cambodia, the practice [of the artist] is seen as a historical subject. The works get read through the history of the period of the Khmer Rouge, in terms of instability, in terms of violence… But for Sopheap, the work doesn’t represent the same thing. For him the work is really about survival. In this case, the Morning Glory is a plant. It’s a pest. It’s a weed really for most people. But for the people in Cambodia at that time, it was a staple. It was something that they could consume, and they could use it to make objects. It was life. I found it interesting to observe how these different readings would layer upon a work like this, on [his] practice, and actually upon the representation of a lot of works coming from a country like Cambodia which we do not understand yet in a nuanced fashion.

Norberto Roldan, F-16, 2012, oil and acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

Related to the past two works, I wanted [then] also to show this work by Norberto Roldan. He is from the Philippines and in his work what you have is the artist attempting to extend the work of (someone like) Bui Cong Khanh where he was looking at how he could take a position of authority to the actual critique itself. On the right [of this slide] is a page of text, which came from an interview with the 25th president of the United States William McKinley on the benevolent assimilation of the Philippines. This was a moment fraught with great anxiety for [McKinley]. It was a great burden to be occupying the Philippines. So you have the text on one side and [on the other side you have] an image taken from a public database [image archive] of an F-16 [fighter] jet flying over Afghanistan, post-9/11. For me, the artist’s practice through this work [represents] the forms of critique that can be assumed by artists from the region, [which] for me is quite interesting. On the one hand you can see this work as having a particular relation to global politics but also it’s about the forms colonization currently taking [place]. For me it’s not just about critique, but [it] raises the possibility of opening up a dialogue about this [analysis of exchange], coming from a region where you may not have been expecting it. The easiest reading [would be] just [a] ‘post-colonial critique’ but I think it is a lot more than that.

Sheela Gowda, Loss, 2008, ink-jet prints on paper and watercolor (set of 6 works). Courtesy of the artist.

The next work is by Indian artist Sheela Gowda. Another thing that I find of critical importance when trying to look at works from Asia is to try to understand their internal dynamics. It is easy, as in the first image of the Mekong River, to imagine that these countries are separate, to view them in isolation, but [I find it interesting] that on international platforms the relationships between these countries are not really raised. Sheela Gowda’s work consists of photographs taken in Kashmir, which is the area that is bordered by India, Pakistan, China, and Afghanistan. It is a region that previously was a center of Buddhism and Hinduism but right now it is a violent and uncertain space. Here you have two images. It is part of a larger series but I will only show you the first and the last [work in the series]. On the left it is the kind of idyllic representation of rural Kashmir that people like to imagine and on the right is an entrance to a cemetery. These photographs were taken by a Kashmiri that the artist had encountered whose grandfather was recording the deaths of every youth in the village that he was living in. He would take photographs documenting the path of the deceased youth’s body to its burial. At the same time, because these images are generally under-populated, they look like beautiful landscapes. [That is a reading that] reveals a failure to understand the conditions, the situation that is happening in the place itself.

Abhishek Hazra, An Inexhaustible Energy Source Derived from the Ionic Gradient in the Pocosphere (after N-S polar reversal), 2012. Courtesy of the artist.

Another aspect of the region that I want to bring up is the notion of the production of knowledge and here you have a work by Abhishek Hazra from India. The work is actually a fictional narrative, a counter-factual reading of [the history of science]. It is of a legendary Indian astrophysicist named M N Saha whom the artist embellished to be the first person to recognize Einstein’s genius. So what you have here is the translation of [one of] Einstein’s papers into Bengali; the work is presented with all of these equations and his findings. The story behind this work is that when Einstein could not get his papers published, he approached this Indian astrophysicist to be his mouthpiece for his important scientific findings and that is how it came to [be recognized in] the rest of the world.

For me, I find his work interesting on two levels. Firstly, the sense of where knowledge originates and how we can begin to talk about that when we look at works. As in quite a few of the works here, we are looking at reversals of position. Also, for me this work is interesting because it represents a certain abstract conceptual practice that we do not think of when we look at a place like India. These are the practices that I find we really need to pay attention to [in order to] have a comprehensive sense of what is going on but also to prevent limiting the production of such works to certain the spaces.

The last artist I wanted to talk about is Truong Tan from Vietnam. His practice is largely performance art. He paints, he draws, he makes videos sometimes, but what he is known for is largely his performance art practice and rather controversial ways. The subjects of [some of] his works center around homosexuality and he is often written about as if he was the only openly gay person in Vietnam, which he is not [laughter]. But that tends to be the first thing that people talk about when they look at his work. Most exhibitions actually do not show his performances; they tend to go towards his paintings, which are also fairly explicit but perhaps not as explicit as his videos [or performances].

Truong Tan, Dreaming Center, 1999. Gặp Việt Nam exhibition (March – May, 1999), Haus Der Kulturen Der Welt, Berlin. Courtesy of the artist.

The work [I have chosen to show] was part of a group exhibition in Berlin in 1999. He wanted to produce this work where he had this image of himself in profile on these pillows as if asleep and slightly injured. The profile is a motif that he uses for his paintings and his drawings. There is supposed to be a video that was part of the work and the video is of a homosexual act but it is not – I guess the idea of it sounds very explicit, but if you watch the video, you realize it’s not really so, because it is pretty much a close [up] shot. You see bodies moving but you can’t quite see sexual organs – but it was a work that did not manage to get shown in Germany. And so, while censorship within Vietnam was expected, he didn’t quite expect [censorship] in a situation like this. In the end what he did was he produced a couple other videos where he had a conversation with a few friends and they called themselves the Diplomat Group / Berlin. He made another video with text on his own body, really about how art is about producing how one feels but at the same time you are [responsible for protecting] it, how fragile art production really is, and what does it take to nurture, to protect, to encourage art production.

Truong Tan, Diplomat-Group / Berlin (in cooperation with Nguyen Minh Thanh and Nguyen Quang Huy), 1999, VHS Sony, approx. 14 min. Courtesy of the artist.

In this video you have this group of people speaking to each other very politely about art and about how they look at art. What I found interesting about this conversation was that Truong Tan says he would like to make the kind of art that people can look at without any glasses. I think some things got lost in translation because in this video they are speaking in English which is not their native language, so parts get a bit awkward, but for him it was important to be able to look at his practice without these other framing devices. But, ironically, this was the situation he found himself in outside of his own country.

That’s my talk for tonight. I look forward to your questions.

JD: Thank you June. That was very interesting and I am looking forward to the exhibition. The first question that I have is about the exhibition that you are curating for the Guggenheim Museum. You have talked about framing devices, about the different positions, inside and outside, that the curator finds him or herself. If this exhibition travels to Asia, and I am not sure that it will, how would it change? Do you think it would be the same exhibition? Would you change its framing, including its explanatory text for example?

JY: The scope of the project [includes] a tour to Asia and it will be pretty much the same exhibition. It was something that I was thinking about from the beginning of the project already. One of the challenges was to put together something that would be meaningful back in Asia and in a place such as New York, where a lot of these artists are not so well-known, where it is a bit more of an introduction to what’s happening in the region and [these artist’s] practices. But then I also had to think in terms of how these works raise certain questions for us in Asia as well. That is how I approached it, although it now seems [an impossible task]. Text-wise, in terms of its description, its framing, I don’t think it will change a whole lot because I was thinking about [the way the works functioned in both places] from the start. There are different ways to approach it…the title itself is extremely ambiguous. But I am not here to talk about this exhibition…

JD: I think June is under some kind of gag order [laughter] so we are very lucky to have her here talking at all [laughter].

Audience member: I am interested in your discussion of the Abhishek Hazra work which I am sure is about the Bose theorems. For those who don’t know, Bose was a scientist from Bangladesh before partition. When he tried to publish his paper, it was rejected until he sent it to Einstein. Then Einstein essentially got it published but that meant that some of the theories were under Einstein’s name and it has taken many years for it to now be called Einstein-Bose. There is the Bose-Einstein particle also. So there was this whole controversy about knowledge production and who gets credit.

But I want to make a comment. When I see all these works, to my mind they are very clearly Asian art, Asian in its context.

There is a certain text that……is circulating [that] questions why it is that whenever we refer to a European philosopher, it is a philosopher or thinker, but when we speak of an Asian, it is always Asian philosophy and Asian thinking. Classical music is music, but when it’s from Africa, its ‘ethno-musicology.’ That debate also comes from the academy but it is important also to think about when there is so much work [from the US traveling to China] for example, it doesn’t come with an ethnic moniker, but when work from Asia comes here to the US, it needs to be framed. Maybe you could talk more about that…

JY: Yes, it is extremely problematic to have to assume an Asian role, as if it was something that I knew, that I actually understood, that I could define, even though [in reality] I can’t. I encounter the same problem when I write. A lot of my education, although I grew up in Singapore, came from reading British and European literature and watching American television. A lot of my courses of study were of European philosophers. Art history is the same, so when we start to talk about work…let’s say Abhishek’s work and his conceptual practices, we end up deferring to what from Asia we think of as the other. It is [however] something [that is] for me a lot more inter-woven. It is not quite so distinct. I think that the whole East/West binary is a very modernist thing as well. It is something that we need to get over. But I know that the moment we remove that distinction, we are faced with a different kind of problem. The question will be raised: how do you talk about the Asian aspect of it? Something that I am getting from the title of the exhibition itself is the fact that, on the one hand, there is an aspect of the removal of these walls and the ability to talk about how culture fluidly travels across East and West and everywhere else. But at the same time it is provocative to have taken away our identity as well. I don’t really have an answer to that. Artists face [this problem] as well and that is why it is important to be sensitive to [readings of art], because it affects production, it affects circulation.

Audience member: It affects distribution…

JY: Yes.

Audience member: It sounds like what I am saying is let’s remove the Asian distinction, but I also know that in the last fifteen years, for almost everybody among my peer group, our opportunities here have partially happened because there is this category that has been recognized as separate. Without that, maybe the doors wouldn’t have opened at all. So that is the other problem. You can say all this, but without this problematic grouping, there may be nothing left.

JY: Which is something I am interested to see happen for South Asia because I guess we’ve had a group of artists open those doors already with a certain sort of aesthetics that was understood from outside of the region. Now, I am waiting for the next transformation and who the next group of artists is going to be and how it is going to define the region itself.

JD: Alexandra, do you have thoughts because you work in this [cross-cultural] field?

Alexandra Chang (AC): I was just also thinking about Hong Kong artists and how they are dealing with this idea of trans-nationalism in China. I was thinking about the work of a group of artists, a collective called Tomato Grey, who just had an exhibition about how they’re viewed as part of China. In New York they are seen as Chinese Diaspora rather than Hong Kong artists. In response to this, they are in an interesting position because they want to re-inscribe this idea of nationalism and prevent it at the same time from [becoming] their identity. And they understand that their culture is amorphous, always changing, so what is traditional Hong Kong art? What is traditional Chinese art? One informs the other and they understand that, but at the same time they are still seeking an identity; they are still seeking the difference.

Audience member: I have a question for June…I found it very interesting that you talked about your background in European and American culture and art history, a background we all kind of share. My question is now that you have spent several months here and you have produced this exhibition here has your curatorial perspective changed? I am just curious whether there is any transformation or change in you through these interactions with the New York curators here, or are we now so globalized that changes are not necessarily happening?

JY: First thing, even though I have been here eight months, I was back in Asia for three months so the works are very much from the region itself. I was, on the one hand, looking for works that would be able to have certain traction here, with the kinds of issues, the kinds of visual aesthetics and the kind of discourses that are current here, but also very much come from the region. It has not been so much an interactive a process and I will admit that I am producing some form of Asian-ness through it, however benevolently or subtly I end up doing it. It is very hard for me to resist or to prevent myself from doing it.

Audience member: Would there be any point in taking the ‘Asian-ness’ out? [laughter]

JY: I don’t know how we would go about doing it. Maybe everyone else is very cosmopolitan around here but I find that a bit difficult. The project itself is structured in terms of looking at regions and therefore it assumes that difference, which I have to work with and to work around. Even though I imagine that it could be possible to have an Asian exhibition that was a bit more internationalist… For example, there’s someone like Sopheap, whose work very comfortably slips into an international kind of shape… I am trying to find other ways to read his work, trying to understand how he himself reads his work, which I think is important, even though it’s perhaps difficult to get out of standing on either side of this fence.

Audience member: Could you have found artists who would not translate? How do you show that?

JY: Yes. Let’s take something like [the work of] Mella Jaarsma, that work with the koteka, the penis sheath. That work is a lot harder to translate. Or even Abhishek Hazra’s work. It actually would take a lot more effort to trace what his intention was, what the artist’s purpose was, what its historical background is. Whether audiences would go through that journey with you is a question.

Maybe then I am looking at how we can draw out some of these issues through some of these works without making it too reductive, but then we are talking about art performing a kind of role and that is in itself problematic. What is art supposed to do? What sort of experiences do we expect people to have?

JD: On that note, I want to thank you June for the talk and to thank you all for your questions. We will go down now and have some food. And for those of you who can stay through dessert, we will also have an opportunity to talk about the work of Bea Camacho.

JY: And she has videos [to show]! Thank you.

Transcribed by Daisley Kramer, edited by Jane DeBevoise.