Essay: A Task for Southeast Asian Contemporary Art – Introduction

What is Southeast Asian Contemporary Art? To answer this question, we have to answer a more fundamental question; what is ‘contemporary art’?  Where did it come from? How does it matter to artists? Why does it matter to artists? Does it  matter at all?

Contemporary, as defined by Oxford dictionary, simply means ‘living or occurring at the same time’ or ‘dating from the same time.’ Contemporary art thus logically denote art that emerges from issues and practices that dates from the same time. If contemporary art is just that; an art practice that engages with a ‘present’ time, does that solve the question of what is Southeast Asian Contemporary Art?

Unfortunately, the answer is no. The definition merely clarifies the meaning of the word itself but it does not lead to a critical understanding of the ‘thing’ called Southeast Asian Contemporary Art or for that matter the term Contemporary Art.

So what does it mean for Art to deal with the ‘present’ or ‘recent’ time? Does it mean a certain kind of technique? Perhaps a certain kind of content o theme? Or does it mean a certain kind of attitude towards art? Is technology involved? In fact, what is or is not considered contemporary? To be sure, is it not the fact that all art are contemporary the moment they are produced in time?

These are not easy or comfortable questions. In fact for some people, they may be redundant, pointless and even offensive. They are so because it should rightly be in the domain of experts and connoisseurs, and rightly it should be for it takes years of learning, studying and focus to master a discipline. Some would even argue that it is a matter only for ‘experts’. Why open up something that has already been settled by the market and its army of literary critics, reviewers, curators, and evaluators? Why discuss Southeast Asian contemporary art without such experience and knowledge?

I accept all of these criticisms but I think the question is not settled yet. While these questions cannot be easily answered or reconciled in a single essay or even in a short amount of time, they are nontheless necessary questions to ask about the condition of S.E.A art.

If we, as people who are non-experts, allow experts to decide the task for S.E.A conart, then I fear it may be an unsatisfactory  process. Why?  That is because of six assumptions. The first assumption is to see contemporary art as neutral; that is to say that it is somehow sui generis; a mode of thought that is disconnected with phenomena and apperception of everyday life. The second assumption is to disconnect the process of art history with art theory; in the sense that theory and technique are discrete processes that do not overlap and influence each other. The third assumption is to take out the reflective process of art making; whereby art operates outside of the economy and market interactions. The fourth assumption is to underestimate the reflexive process of contemporary art; that the goal of contemporary art is to merely develop visual non sequitur and non-relational visuals. The fifth assumption is to assume that art, as with most cultural facts, do not evolve and develop but more importantly Southeast Asian art has to develop its own unique constellation of ideas and thoughts. The sixth assumption is the idea of universalism; that every artists begins from the same opportunities, environment and makeup, and aiming for uniformity and identity, and reaching a conclusion of unanimity and solidarity.

If the above lie the answers to the question of S.E.A conart, then they are problematic ones. They are problematic answers precisely because they are rooted within European and the Western notions of artistic production.

So who really decides? To borrow a Bushism, the ‘deciders’ are for the most part based in highly developed European and Western countries. From Paris to New York, London to Berlin, the rules of contemporary art are primarily dictated from this position. Thus any discourses that start from this position will only revert back to it. It makes sense because just as Brenton Wood financial institutions continue to dominate the global economy; European and Western aesthetics continue to dominate Southeast Asian notions of art. But this perspective severely limits the discourse of contemporary art; particular from the perspective of South East Asia.

But unlike Edward Said’s notion of cultural imperialism and the way in which the other is imagined in cultural and literary texts, I refrain from adopting this position because it relinquish responsibility to other parties. Instead I adopt an optimistic and constructive perspective in addressing the issue of S.E.A conart.

Indeed I see the issue as an opportunity for artists and art-makers to reclaim or in the words of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze to deterritorialize and reterritorialize the discourse of S.E.A conart.  

To be clear, my process of deterritorialization and reterritorialisation follows the idea of disassembling the idea of contemporary art from Western and European concepts of contemporary art. This is then followed by separating the concepts of Art Production, Southeast Asian Contemporary Art and Western-Based notions of modernity, modernism and postmodernity.

It is rather ironic that I am adapting the ideas of Western (French) philosophy to re-appropriate S.E.A conart for it may seem to others that I contradict myself; on the one hand I am advocating a critical examination of European and Western notions of art, on the other I am using those very ideas to treat this matter. I am guilty in that regard but I do not think that it is a contradiction. In fact, we have much to learn from the West as much as the West have much to learn from other regions of the world. And that means that we do not throw the baby with the bath water, so to speak.

Deterritorialization and reterritorialisation is a method of conceptual occupation of the idea regarding Southeast Asian contemporary art. In fact, it is a temporary occupation and thought experimentation with different sets of ideas; that it is a mode that follows repetition and difference instead of conformity and uniformity. In other words, the realm of art is not necessarily a realm that produces identical thought but a conceptual space that allows for the linkage of diversification and indeed opposing ways of visualising the world.

Indeed, I will briefly map out the differences between these two discrete regions in terms of social & civil changes, economic prosperity and military and social dominance. By doing so, I will demonstrate the obvious differences between Western societies with Southeast Asian nations and how each side respond differently to different stages of time-specific events and aesthetical thought. By looking at these difference, it makes clear that any discourse regarding conart have to be founded on them including subject matter, stylistic differences  and cultural beliefs.

But it is not necessarily a negative rejection of all things Western. Instead it is a wide-eye view on the realities and conditions of S.E.A conart. Therefore it acknowledges the past but it also speculate on how the present and future can be shaped by actors on the ground. The limits of discourse can thus be expanded from going around in circles but jump out of it by embracing an expansive and interconnected perspective.

To be sure, my perspective focuses on seeing art as a cultural and social act rather than economic one.  Indeed there are compelling reasons why economic considerations should be prioritized but that would be the task for economists and policy makers.

Despite putting S.E.A countries into a bloc, it is obvious that the region is as diverse as it is different. Indeed S.E.A is anything but homogenous and interchangeable for each of the ten countries have their own unique histories, culture norms, social structures and religious beliefs. Thus the following discussion is anticipatory rather than prescriptive.

As a result, my position is that S.E.A  contemporary art should rightly be seen as an opportunity but in terms of developing critically the region’s cultural identities rather than being a pale imitation of Western notions of contemporary art. Indeed it is an idealistic position. But it is also an aspirational rather than a functional view of Southeast Contemporary Art.

To be continued: Part One coming next....

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3 thoughts on “Essay: A Task for Southeast Asian Contemporary Art – Introduction

  1. I concur heavily on your approach towards Asian aesthetics. However, while challenging the assumptions of the western thought on divorcing art from the spacio-socio-temporal existence of the society, you go on hypothesise another assumption that says that art shall always reflect the cultural or social signifiers of the artist. I would love to know about your response on this.

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    1. Hi Karan, thank you for your reply. I am currently in the midst of developing a series regarding this topic; to give a hint on further postings; in short I do admit that artist ‘should’ reflect the cultural and social milieu of the artist, especially for S.E.A artists; but that does not necessarily mean that one abandons Western received-heritage but ultimately to critically think on the issues that affect Asian-based societies and histories. However this requires networks of supportive structures, including writers and critics including fellow Asian artists. (*Not something that can be done in a short amount of time.) But I will foolishly ‘attempt’ these issues in upcoming posts.

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