The Idea of Southeast Asia: A Presentation by Chuong-Dai Vo
May 31, 2016
AAA in A, '09-'21
43 Remsen St. Brooklyn, NY
Jane DeBevoise (JD): Thank you all for coming. It’s lovely to see such a strong turnout tonight. My name is Jane DeBevoise and I am the Chair of Asia Art Archive. We have a small office, as you can see, here in New York, but we have a much larger base in Hong Kong. That is where our headquarters are. That is where our library is, and our research and archiving staff. We arrange programs both here and in Hong Kong. Our New York program is modest, but I hope interesting and we look forward to seeing you back again in the future.
Tonight I am pleased to introduce my colleague Chương-Đaì who is based in Hong Kong and is researching Southeast Asia. Her work at AAA is what she is going to talk about today. But Chương-Đaì is more than just our researcher, she is also a curator and is opening an exhibition on Saturday, June 4th at Topaz Arts in Woodside Queens. The details of the exhibition are on our website. She is also a poet, although she has never shown me her poetry, so this is just hearsay [laughter]. Tonight Chương-Đaì is going to give a 20-minute presentation – as is our standard format — followed a 20-35 minute Q&A. So here you go. We are very happy to have Chương-Đaì and all of you here tonight.
Chương-Đaì Võ (CDV): Thank you to my colleagues Jane, Ali, and Xiaofei for organizing this event. If you are interested in the exhibition, we have postcards that we will pass out afterwards. Since I only have 20 minutes, I am going to lay out the themes [of this talk] quickly. First, I will talk about AAA’s priorities in terms of our research and our collections, and then I will talk about two of our archival collections related to Southeast Asia. I’ll close with an artist project.
The name of my talk is ‘The Idea of Southeast Asia’ and the reason for that is we are approaching ‘Southeast Asia’ not as a given, not as a geopolitical area, but as a construction. We are thinking about Southeast Asia as an idea, a concept, which is a useful way for us to approach archives, which are themselves constructed spaces.
Asia Art Archive, now 15 years old, was formed out of the necessity for a comprehensive arts infrastructure in the region. It emerged from Hong Kong and over the years, our collections grew. Being close to China, our collections include a lot of work made there. But our collections also include work from South Asia and Southeast Asia. Our physical collections are mostly donations – about 85% are donations – and they include brochures, catalogues, and other material that we call grey matter. We also have an extensive digital collection. As we move forward we will make more of our digital collections accessible online. As you all know, one of the financial burdens involved in research is having to travel to archives and in our case to Asia. We want to minimize that burden so that eventually, no matter where you are, if you have Internet access, you will be able to use our collections. It is our priority to share what we have. AAA has a physical collection and a digital collection, and we activate them through research and programs. That is where researchers like me come in.
In terms of our priorities, we are interested in thinking beyond the borders of what we now know as Asia. For example, this summer we are organizing a symposium called London, Asia where we are looking at the history of work by South Asian artists in the UK. Another of our priorities is to look at art ecologies and art histories that have been marginalized, rendered invisible or illegible. The question we are asking is why are certain narratives written [and recorded] while other narratives are not? It is not just about what we have, but also what we don’t have in our collective memory.
Another priority is what we call innovation through tradition. The Modernist genealogy is a break with history. In much of Asia, contemporary art is still in conversation with traditional practices.
The fourth priority for us is [seeking out] [alternative] sites of construction, by looking not only at galleries and museums as sites of knowledge production. In some parts of Asia the museum and the gallery are themselves very recent concepts, so how do you think about art history or how do you trace these genealogies [in the absence of institutional platforms]? An alternative site of art historical construction could be the periodical [or magazine], which is a project that we are developing right now. It may be other types of physical spaces as well. The task for us is to think beyond these normative practices in writing art history.
The four points that I want to touch on tonight, and that I will return to throughout the talk are first, Southeast Asia as a geopolitical construction. The second point is the idea of mapping. Mapping not as something that is certain but [as something] that is also very much related to how we think about time, space, and reality. The third point I want to touch on is [thinking] about the archive as a form of collecting, organizing, and understanding reality.
The archive itself is a space in which we map knowledge. The archive is not a neutral space. It is a space of selection. We make certain decisions [about] what we collect and what we don’t collect. That is true of all archives.
The fourth point I want to touch on is how we think about alternative interpretations of the past. How [can] we can make material available so that other types of art histories can be written? How [can] archives themselves be starting points for imagining other types of futures? Archives are not static collections; they are active. They evolve in a relationship with the researcher, the curator, the artist, or whoever is visiting the collection. It is through that interaction that archives become active.
The first point is the idea of Southeast Asia as a geopolitical construction. We know that what we now understand as Southeast Asia first appeared in Cold War narratives taught to us by U.S. academies. These narratives define Southeast Asia as a group of 11 countries. It is a construct that comes out of a certain historical specificity and out of certain geopolitical alignments. We can see this by looking back in history and at the types of maps that have been made.
In this slide we can see that areas that now are grouped as Southeast Asia were once defined as East India. They were seen as an extension of India. This is a map from 1729.
The second point I want to make is that mapping isn’t just about geography; it is also about our relationship to reality. This slide shows a Buddhist map. Before the 1800s, Thai rulers did not understand the domains over which they ruled in terms of geographic boundaries. Thongchai Winichakul in Siam Mapped talks about this. What they understood was that power was in relation to vassal states. There weren’t physical boundaries to delineate areas of control. Rather you understood your domain as it was governed by your relationship to other vassal states. Maps themselves were not graphic in the way we understand them now. Rather they showed human life and the ruler’s domain in relationship to the Buddha’s life. There was a connection between the physical world and the spiritual world.
Archives — what we choose to put in them, what we choose not to put in them – are often dictated by many factors. It may be nationalist historiographies. It may be personal collections, but there is always value that is attributed to what gets put into archives. We have to think about not only what is there but also what is not there, what is absent. What is absent is something that we at AAA are interested in and that pertains to [our research on] Southeast Asia. Art histories in the U.S. rarely ever touch on Southeast Asia, and if they do, they usually refer to antiquity. We know about Angkor Wat, for example. But in terms of contemporary art, we know little to nothing. That is not something that is ‘natural.’ That is something that comes out of a certain history, in terms of the art that we value and the histories that we validate.
What can archives do? Archives can point us in new directions. Archives can give us material that no one is looking at. That is one of the tasks that we are interested in at Asia Art Archive.
One of the projects that I’ll be talking about later is the Ray Langenbach Archive on Performance Art. This archive contains documentation of performance art in many parts of Southeast Asia. Some people ask us, ‘why would you archive performance art?’ because they think that by archiving it, you are fossilizing it, you are freezing it in time. One way to think about the relationship between archives and performance art is that the archive itself is set in motion when you interact with the performance; that is the event itself. Performance art is inherently an archive. The performer’s body is the archive. Memory is embedded in the performer’s body, through muscle memory, the memory of the social, political events that they are reacting to, that they are performing. It is the body itself. That is another way to think of the archive, and that is especially important in Southeast Asia where there is a lack of physical archives because of war and decades of destruction. How can you trace these [absent] genealogies? One way you do that is through interviewing the people who went through these times. Performance art is another way in which that history is activated. In the same way, we are interested in activating the archives through research and programs.
The first archive that I’d like to touch on is Salon Natasha. Salon Natasha was a multi-faceted space. The daughter of the founders of Salon Natasha is here with us, Nhusha. Salon Natasha was started by Vũ Dân Tân and Natasha Kraevskaia. Vũ Dân Tân is a well-known artist from North Vietnam. Before this space became a salon, it was his studio. It was a place where writers, artists, and musicians gathered and had conversations. In the 1980s, the couple lived in Russia for almost four years. By the time they came back [to Hanoi in 1989], they had experienced perestroika. They were very interested in the artistic vibrancy that they witnessed in Russia and wanted to bring it back [with them to Vietnam]. In 1990 they opened their home to the public to make it into a salon. It wasn’t a drastic rupture from the past; they were transforming something that was already happening in private into more of a public space. Salon Natasha was their home, it was a salon, it was an exhibition space. It was a place where Vũ Dân Tân made his work. It was a place where artists who were going to exhibit made their work. It was a place where he gave workshops for children. It was a place that was vibrant and unique because at that time there weren’t any galleries besides a couple of state-run spaces. This was an independent space where people could have conversations and make the type of art that they wanted [to make] — the type of space that nurtured experimental art. That was important because experimental art wasn’t allowed in the state-run spaces. This also took place at a time when even talking to foreigners required government permission. But [Salon Natasha] ignored those rules and welcomed foreigners into their space. This was a space in which collaborations between Vietnamese people and foreigners happened, and that was rare in those days.
These are [Vũ Dân Tân’s] Venus sculptures that are made of cardboard. He is well-known for recycling. He would recycle cardboard, cigarette boxes, anything at hand. The Venus corset-looking sculptures have become a trademark of his.
This is one among the exhibition invitations that Vũ Dân Tân would make himself or other artists would make. It was very much a collaborative space in which he invited artists to make work.
This was one of the collaborations between Eric Leroux, who was a foreigner, and two Vietnamese artists, Mai Chí Thanh and Đỗ Minh Tâm.
As you can see, the space grew out of various genealogies,, and that is why Salon Natasha as an archive is interesting to us. It is not just about one artist; it is about the whole community that the couple created and nurtured. It points us to other artists. A lot of the well known artists to come out of Vietnam got their start here, and we see their early exhibitions in this archive.
Here are two portraits, one by Vũ Dân Tân and one by Bùi Xuân Phái of Natasha. Bùi Xuân Phái was well-known for his images of the old quarter in Hanoi.
This is a painting by his son Buì Thanh Phương.
What is interesting about this space is that is wasn’t something that they set out systematically to create. Rather it was organic, a lifestyle, an extension of the people[themselves]. This archive of material gives us insight into how an art community forms and how it can sustain itself.
I want to end this part of the talk by returning to why Salon Natasha was important. It was an independent space when there were no independent spaces in Vietnam. It was a place that fostered collaboration. It was a space that allowed Vietnamese artists to work with foreign artists. It was a space that protected them and allowed their practices to develop in conversation with one another. It was a space that allowed experimental art as long as it didn’t involve violence. And it was a space that allows us to think outside the institution, to think outside the gallery. It really wasn’t a formal gallery, so when we look at these spaces, it reminds us that there are always other points of reference from which we can think about art histories and through which we can tie what is going on now with the past.
We organize programming around a lot of our archives. This was a workshop that we put together where we invited Natasha to come and talk about the archive. We also invited other people from artist-run spaces in Asia to come talk about how their spaces develop, and what are some of the issues that they have to deal with as they grow.
The second project I want to talk about is the Ray Langenbach Archive of Performance Art. This archive contains more than 1000 hours of video footage. Ray Langenbach had been recording performance art [for] more than 20 years when we acquired his archive. He recorded performance art throughout Southeast Asia, mostly in Singapore, Burma, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. And also a lot of performance art in the US and Europe. He thinks of performance art in a wider scope, not a strict understanding of performance art. He thinks about performance in the context of theater, street protests, demonstrations, and elections, in terms of daily life. At AAA, we have collected the videos of performances that fall into the Euro-American definition of performance art and theater. The other footage from Ray’s collection, the footage of elections, demonstrations, and riots is in Amsterdam at the International Institute of Social History. It is important for us to remember that Langenbach thought about performance art not strictly in an aesthetic sense; he thought about it in all the ways in which it figures in our daily life. When he talks about performance art, he uses the term interchangeably with ‘live art’ even though it has different genealogies, which he understands.
In 2006, Ray Langenbach co-organized with Lieu Kungyu the Satu Kali International Performance Art Symposium in Kuala Lumpur. There were some controversial performances and one of the audience members complained to the police. After the symposium, Langenbach’s lawyer contacted [him] to give him a heads-up that the police may visit him because they wanted to see documentation of the symposium. Upon hearing that, Ray hid his archive because he understood in that moment that his recordings were in danger and that he could lose them. He hid them at a friend’s place and only eventually was he able to take them with him. That is a very important reason why we have this archive. [His recordings] could have been lost, confiscated by the police. This archive provides insight into a lot of activities that led to crackdowns on performance art in some countries, most notably Singapore. For those of you who are familiar with the history of performance art in Singapore, you will know that from 1994 – 2004, there was an unofficial cessation on funding for performance art. This cessation was due to a project by Joseph Ng that I will talk about briefly.
Joseph Ng’s project is called Brother Cane. He developed that project shortly after an incident in Singapore where the police raided a bar, arrested some men, and charged them with homosexual acts. To protest that, he created a performance art piece called Brother Cane. In the aftermath of the performance, the press condemned it as base and vile and the police arrested and charged him. At first, he pled ‘not guilty’ but the judge advised him to plead guilty because at that time he was doing military service, so he was in danger of double prosecution both in civil court and in military court.
Ng’s performance led the national council in Singapore to crack down on performance art, making [funding policies] very strict. Those restrictions stayed in place for 10 years. We have recordings of Brother Cane. The archive has recordings of performances that are rare or little known.
One of the programs that AAA has organized is ‘Performance: To Be Reviewed.’ It was a conversation about the archive itself, where we invited Ray Langenbach, Nora Taylor, who is a scholar in Chicago, and Loo Zihan one of Nora’s former students. For his MA thesis, Loo re-performed Brother Cane. He did it in three parts. The first part was in Chicago, the second part was in Singapore, and [for] the third part, he created an exhibition and, as part of it, he performed the role of the archivist, wherein he is a character who is documenting this history. The project brought together the performance of a performance and the performance of the character of the archivist.
Before I talk about the last project, [I’d like to come back to the question of]: why are performance art archives important to us? They are important because they are a way to map a different type of genealogy — a way to map the body. Instead of thinking of a map as a geographical delineation, we can think about how the body moves in space. A lot of artists meet each other at residencies, at symposia, at exhibitions. There they exchange ideas. [These exchanges are similar to] border crossings, performances, that lead to other projects. In a way, [performance] is a vehicle or a metaphor to think about alternative ways of mapping. The body itself is a repository; it is a site of knowledge, a site of memory, and a site from which we can activate memory itself.
The last project I want to touch on very briefly is [by] Ho Tzu Nyen, a Singaporean artist. The Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia will be audio, visual, and textual. For each letter of the Roman alphabet, Tzu is creating a text. Here, he wrote a text for W. Each text is a mix of mythology, history, geography, and socio-political commentary. He crosses genres as a way to question geopolitical borders. He will download every documentary about Southeast Asia, take freeze-frames, and from there make a visual archive. We are very excited about this project.
Thank you very much.
JD: Thank you very much Chương-Đaì. What I’d like to do now is to open the floor up to questions. But as you all gather your thoughts, I wonder whether you could talk a little bit about how we acquired the Salon Natasha Archive? Who did we work with for that? How did it come to be?
CDV: One of our advisors, Nora Taylor, a professor of South and Southeast Asian art at School of the Art Institute of Chicago, introduced us. Nora has written an ethnography of artists from Hanoi; it is through her long-term fieldwork that she knew Natasha.
JD: And that space no longer exists?
CDV: Not as a public space. It exists as a private home. Nora has done an extensive interview with Natasha and we are in the process of editing that. That video gives contextual information [about] the archive.
JD: Any other questions here?
Audience Member: W is for Weretiger… but what does that mean? What is this image? Is it the end of the earth? Is this Armageddon?
JD: How many people here know Ho Tzu Nyen’s work? [Only 2-3 people raise their hands.] He is a very interesting filmmaker from Singapore and represented Singapore in the Venice Biennale two cycles ago. This image comes from a video installation called Pythagoras, I believe. This is a very eerie work, and very beautiful at the same time. At first it looks like an inert pile of detritus, a garbage dump, but when it starts to move you realize that there are people in the pile, who slowly move and emerge.
CDV: Based in Singapore, he spends time in Berlin. He is interested in mythology and thinking about national identities as constructions born out of myth. His work is well researched. He moves through different genres.
JD: The piece he produced for the 2011 Venice Biennale was called The Cloud of Unknowing; it’s also a poetic, layered work. Please look him up. I think you will be entranced.
Audience Member: What is a weretiger?
CDV: He made it up.
Audience Member: Like a combination of a werewolf and a tiger?
Audience Member: As you mentioned, in Southeast Asia there are 11 countries, so how is Asia Art Archive going to archive these individual countries? How will you avoid the issue of [allowing] one artist or a small group of artists to represent a whole country or region? A lot of times some of the smaller countries are shortchanged, because they have developed along different trajectories, or didn’t progress as quickly.
CDV: We recognize that we can’t be comprehensive. No institution or organization can be. As a researcher, I am involved in certain specific projects. For example right now, I am looking at periodicals from the 1950s in Hanoi and Saigon after the Geneva Accords. I am looking at art writing after the split of the country. Another of my research projects involves comparing various archives in terms of their methodologies. There is no way you can have a comprehensive knowledge of every country. What we try to do is identify experts on the ground whom we can work with. For example, our work with Salon Natasha was spearheaded by Nora Taylor. [Nora] was the one who went through the material and talked to Natasha and decided what would be archived, in consultation with AAA staff. That is a good example of how we work. In deciding what projects to take on, we select those that align with our priorities.
Audience Member: My concern is artists like me often get short-changed. I am an artist from Malaysia of Chinese descent, but when the Guggenheim, for example, obtains a grant for Chinese art, it excludes Malaysia. The grant includes only artists from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and maybe Macao.
JD: That raises an excellent question and that is something that we all struggle with. How to define Asia? How to define China? Are there more productive ways to study, display, and understand art that develops along flows of information and exchange? Our upcoming project that Chương-Đaì mentioned earlier, called London, Asia, attempts to explore some possibilities.
Audience Member: Finally you guys are doing something that focuses on Southeast Asia. That’s good. But from the perspective of the U.S., people often equate Southeast Asia with Vietnam, or perhaps Singapore. Singapore has so much money, but many artists in Singapore are Malaysian, and they get left out there. Rarely are artists of Malaysian origin considered the same as Singaporean artists.
CDV: Archives that cross borders are important to AAA. Take for example Ray Langenbach’s archive. And John Clark’s archive of 200+ interviews. For us, what is valuable is the potential of an archive for researchers, artists, [and] curators to make connections, to see how certain issues resonate across regions. If we go way back in history, we can remember Orientalism, which stemmed from the idea that you could have comprehensive knowledge, that you could be the authority on a region, whether it was India or Southeast Asia. We are not interested in doing that; we don’t want to reproduce that kind of history. We do not have any pretensions to [become] comprehensive or authoritative, because we can’t. Every organization has its limits. What we can offer, however, is a variety of collections. Some of them will be specific to a certain geography, but others, and a lot of them, which I didn’t have time to cover today, will move across borders and across genres. The other thing that we emphasize is collaborations. When we don’t have a certain expertise, we are very interested in [reaching out] to other organizations that have this expertise and are doing this kind of work. There is no point in us going out there and doing everything. There are lots of organizations that [work in this space] and part of our mission is to work in a collaborative way. We learn from others, and hopefully we offer them something in return, by opening up our archives and projects through collaborative possibilities, to foster new knowledge and research.
JD: A question in the back?
Audience Member: That image that you have up there – Ho Tzu Nyen’s collage — I think it is really useful because, there was an emphasis in your talk about the body as a site of history or memory, and this image really decenters the body or human as the site of memory. I have been thinking a lot about landscape as memory or history, landscape as pollution, excess, accumulation. What you are suggesting really resonates with how I am thinking and working in Java [the location of my research]. I am thinking about landscape as memory. This is just a comment.
CDV: That is a great comment… Ho Tzu Nyen is very much engaged with the history of Singapore and how Singapore has positioned itself as the art capital of Southeast Asia. But Singapore also has a very difficult history in terms of its splits from the region… and out of that, every nation creates a certain ‘myth of origins.’ A lot of his work deals with that. To your point, this is a constructed landscape, one that is apocalyptic [in] the shattering of the body. You see that in his other projects as well.
JD: Unfortunately we are going to have to say goodbye now. So thank you very much for coming, but before you leave, I would like Chương-Đaì to say something about her project on Saturday.
CDV: There is a show on June 4th at Topaz in Queens. Frederic Dialynas Sanchez and I exchanged thoughts over a year and a half about the works, which altogether present an experimental travelogue of his time in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. He collaborated with eight other artists who are also to varying degrees foreigners to these countries; some traveled for art projects and some have made these places home. The exhibition is about the experience of being in a foreign place. Please take a postcard if you are interested. We are going to have a talk with Jane and the artist at 3pm on June 4th, followed by a reception.
JD: Thank you all again for coming, and we look forward to staying in touch.
Image credit: All images courtesy of Chương-Đaì Võ, Salon Natasha, and Asia Art Archive.
Transcribed by Daisley Kramer and edited by Jane DeBevoise.
Chương-Đài Võ is a Researcher at Asia Art Archive. She was a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Massachusetts Institute of Technology; in addition, she has received fellowships and grants from Asian Cultural Council, Fulbright Program, National Endowment for the Humanities, and University of California Pacific Rim Research Program. Her curatorial work has been supported by apexart, Dorsky Gallery Curatorial Programs, and the Boston-area New Art Center. She has a PhD from University of California, San Diego, and a BA from Johns Hopkins University.
This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council.