Intersecting Histories. Contemporary Turns in Southeast Asian Art, Curated by T K Sabapathy. 27 September - 24 November, 2012 @ School of Art, Design and Media Gallery, Singapore.
Cheo Chai Hiang, And Miles to Go Before I Sleep (1976)
T K Sabapathy giving the curator's tour of the exhibition, 20 October 2012
In his introduction to the catalogue, T. K. Sabapathy sets out the thesis. “This exhibition and the publication are propelled by abiding interests in seeing, thinking about and interpreting contemporary art historically, or with historical intentions. On first hearing of such an engagement one may well shrug it off as implausible or regressive or as of negligible substance and importance. After all, contemporary art is repeatedly and routinely written about as art of and in the present, with scant or no recognition of the pertinence of history. Such tendencies lead to views that this art is, therefore, free from and resistant to historical reckoning or that it is historically untouched and untouchable. These permutations erupt from anxious attempts to distinguish, disengage the contemporary from the modern in which instances modernist art’s history is conceived as yoked to a progressive trajectory that unravels deterministically….the contemporary and history are encountered as intersecting in manifold ways, generating varied, shifting, fluid networks that may be apprehended historically.”
Here, 37 artworks by 27 artists spanning forty years point to precise moments in history where changes in consciousness, thinking and attitudes towards the contemporary that we know today were demonstrated -- through artworks, movements, artists’ proclamations and collectives. Interestingly, they happened concurrently in the seventies, in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines (the geographical scope nominated for this exhibition), each appeared to have come from unique, culturally and historically-specific sources of origin. They also require specific knowledge of history.
This is precisely why I regard this exhibition as seminal -- not just because it is curated by T. K. Sabapathy, one of the most qualified scholars on the subject. It is also because the thesis, material and scope is one that has yet been as extensively advanced, thoroughly researched and thoughtfully demonstrated as in this presentation and accompanying publication.
I went away thinking about the superficiality and carelessness that sometimes greets the presentation and curation of contemporary works coming from this region; in contextual framing and attitudes, the assumption that just because it is new and present, that the understanding of historical contexts, connections and engagements with the past need not be made.
In a separate conversation, one experienced Asian curator commented that the more she digs into the contemporary in Asia, the farther back in history she is compelled to also engage; that despite her education in western art history (at Master's level), she has to "un-learn" in order to "re-learn". That honest confession from a practitioner got me thinking as the attitude is not broadly shared by many curators of Asian art, including foreign ones. Many assume that the knowledge of Western art and history is absolute and universal in its application and curate as if it is and this is most evident in their writings and the paradigms they engage in their comparative analyses. As a result, they flatten out geographies, distill and reduce contextual references via stereotypical Western lenses of Asia they employ, presenting their views in bite sizes of 'culture' they can understand -- often to an unquestioning public.
I am interested to know curators' response to the show- whether such a proposition provoke any specific reactions. As for me, it forces me to recalibrate my bearing as i confront contemporary art histories of different genealogies, across multiple geographies. Even "where do i begin?", however humbling, may not be a bad parting thought and may well be points of awakening of and re-entry into the understanding of the contemporary in Southeast Asia.
The exhibition inaugurates the Art, Design and Media Gallery at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. This exhibition has opened and will close on 24 November, 2012.
 Supangkat, J.(1996), “Contemporary Art : What/ When/Where”, The Second Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, pp. 26-28.
 T.K.Sabapathy is an art historian who has published extensively on art and artists in Southeast Asia. His writing has inaugurated important art historical trajectories for appreciating the modern in the region and especially in Malaysia and Singapore. His monographic studies of artists such as Latiff Mohidin, Ng Eng Teng, Piyadasa and Nyoman Masriadi have established benchmarks in developing critical literature on Southeast Asian artists. He is currently an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Architecture in the National University of Singapore and a part-time lecturer in the School of Art, Design and Media in the Nanyang Technological University where he teaches the history of art.