In the past decade, contemporary art has become one of art history's most urgent questions. The question has special urgency in light of art's globalisation, a phenomenon that might be usefully analysed through the works identified as ‘Contemporary Southeast Asian art’. Compared with its East Asian counterparts, Southeast Asian art has been relatively invisible in discussions of contemporaneity, yet the circumstances of this lack of visibility have much to say about contemporary art. Moreover, the sheer complexity of art in this region possesses the capacity to complicate, and even to trouble how contemporary art is generally understood. Finally, this article defends the use of terms like ‘Southeast Asian art’, contending that the ideals embodied within contemporary art's ‘global turn’ can be effectively advanced through modes of regionalism that recognise the contingency of things.
This article explores the techniques through which art in Southeast Asia is crafted as a historical narrative. It argues that many of these are informed by the ethnographic, which is mediated in a range of ways as a method and a sensibility, broadly conceived as a reflexive framework. Deployed as a tangent to the art historical, the ethnographic is seen to be able to move away from the ‘Western’ perspective, reference locality and aspire to a possible postcolonial representation. Through a review of key texts in the history of art in Southeast Asia and case studies that reveal aporias of appropriation, it initiates discussion on how an increasingly global contemporary artworld demonstrates an interest in Southeast Asia and the impasse this interest creates as it renders its subject coherent through modalities of presence, from art history to the spectacles of exhibitions.
The world of contemporary art is crossing an important junction, leading to the urgent need to foster an art historical awareness capable of producing a real, alternative future for contemporary art in places such as Indonesia. For contemporary art to confront the essential unpredictability of its future, the proposition of contemporaneity, as ‘art to come’, will essentially need to transcend any type of historical validation or historicity. This article draws on the need to provide renewed attention to the actual practices of art in relation to culture, society, politics and experiences of everyday life; to the ‘eventful truthfulness’ of art-making. It does so by looking at the Jakarta-based artists' collective ruangrupa, which between December 2010 and January 2011 celebrated its tenth anniversary under the theme ‘Expanding the Space and the Public’ (Merentang ruang dan publik).
If the contemporary is a practice located within horizontal-synchronic references to the present and social contexts, and the vertical-diachronic autonomy of artistic discourse as it unfolds over time, the 1970s might be a productive point from which to begin discussion. This article highlights the critical practices taking place in Southeast Asia during the 1970s, a time when the idea of a Southeast Asia was rising amidst prevailing discourses of international politics, in particular with Cold War ideologies and the project of decolonisation after World War II, which emphasised the rhetoric of the independent nation-state. Increased access to Euro-American artistic models and the eventual shift towards ‘internationalism’ in the 1950s and 1960s played an equally important role in this process, acting both as examples of what a universal, cross-national artistic idiom might look like, and as forms of expression subject to the objectives of the state.
This article contemplates four Thai contemporary art works as signs of deforming Thai politics. The author's readings of Porntaweesak Rimsakul's RGB's War (2006), Navin Rawanchaikul's Lost in the City (Long Krung, 2006), Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook's Manet's Luncheon on the Grass and Thai Villagers (2009), and Apichatpong Weerasethakul's ‘Primitive’ project (2009) relate these artworks to the ways in which artists portray the Thai socio-political situation and the rupture between urban and rural Thais. Thais have been divided into two political movements: the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) and the National Front of Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD). The two movements share an idea of democratisation but represent different practices as shown in Rasdjarmrearnsook's work, which poses questions of aesthetic distinction between Thais and the West. Rawanchaikul's Lost in the City brings out the complexity of political conflict in Bangkok. Weerasethakul's Primitive project draws on his experience in a rural area where the ghosts of Communists are still haunting democracy.
Artists living in Myanmar practise under isolating conditions arising from continued state restrictions, prevailing market dictates, as well as a failure to appreciate the realities of Myanmar in contemporary artistic spheres. Their isolation not only operates at the level of global politics but is compounded by the lack of information, discourse and critical apparatus, and the desire of international audiences for politically or socially charged subject matter. The question of how issues of belatedness, provinciality and irrelevance may be resolved continues to plague some Myanma artists and the reception of their works outside the country. This article argues for the need for a more complex and fine-grained approach to how contemporaneity is conceived, with reference made to the writer's (co)curation of the 2010 exhibition ‘plAy: Art in Myanmar Today’ that focuses on works in non-traditional media. Select practices and works are also examined in an attempt to understand artists' responses to isolation, which necessitated the negotiation of practice through gaps and their formations of selfhood.
In this article, the author discusses art criticism, literature, theory and global art history. For a few years now, there has been much discussion of ‘global art history’, but the author wonders if one can ever really understand how big the world is. As a way of addressing the sheer vastness of the world, he attempts to consider the relationship between literature and art writing. In the past, critics from Charles Baudelaire to Clement Greenberg wrote about both literature and art. Today's art critics seem less literary. Is it because they are more enamoured of theory? Who reads art criticism any more – especially in the context of the emerging arts discourses within Southeast Asia? Today, everywhere, there is more and more art – more biennales, more art fairs. There is even more art writing: reviews, catalogue essays, art books of all shapes and sizes. Yet there is also more talk about the decline of reading, the decline of university departments of literatures, and the decline of criticism. There is an impression that, as a whole, all over the world, the humanities are suffering. But so long as there is art, there will be art writing. However, the question is, what will its purpose be?
This article surveys contemporary Southeast Asian art through the lens of the market and, in particular, the role of auction houses and their symbiotic relationship to primary markets. It pays special attention to developments taking place within the past five years and how the auction itself has played an integral role in reifying the idea of a discrete body of contemporary Southeast Asian art. A secondary issue concerns the role and growing relevance of private collectors and collections. Lacking the kind of extensive public artistic infrastructure found in other countries, many Southeast Asian countries tacitly depend on the activities of private collectors to promote the visibility of works which have only recently emerged as a key force within a contemporary art market whose appetite for expansion seems limitless.
This article reflects on the author's experience of teaching a course on Modern and Contemporary Southeast Asian art at Sotheby's Institute, Singapore, in the summer of 2010. The author uses pedagogy to engage methodological issues of the field – or finds methodological questions emerging in the teaching of this art. Key pedagogical and methodological problems discussed include: teaching modern and contemporary Southeast Asian art via modern and contemporary Euro-American art; dealing with the rift in teaching modern as opposed to contemporary Southeast Asian art (for instance, can one avoid teaching contemporary art in terms of the artist-as-brand?); and the critical value of using aesthetic judgement in the teaching of modern and contemporary Southeast Asian art. The demarcation of ‘modern’ and ‘contemporary’, and the origin and composition of ‘Southeast Asian’ art are also discussed. In offering possible solutions to these pedagogical/methodological problems, the essay advocates a theory-plus-practice, historical-and-contemporary approach to the teaching of the art of this region.
This article examines the contributions of anthropology to the study of modern and contemporary Southeast Asian art history. In looking at a number of studies of Southeast Asian artists by anthropologists, it aims to ask questions about the nature of contemporary art in Southeast Asia in relation to the discipline of anthropology. In particular, it questions the relevance of ethnographic texts in the study of images and how the reliance of ethnography on notions of cultural difference and the ‘other’ impacts on interpretations of living artists' work. Taking Vietnamese performance artists as an example, the article looks at a case where ethnography may act as a substitute for the lack of written art historical sources. The question then is not only of the appropriateness of applying ethnographic methods to Southeast Asian art but also of the appropriateness of Southeast Asian art to the study of ethnography and art history.
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