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Sea-change: Reflections on Co-curating SUNSHOWER
Sea-change:有關參與《太陽雨》協同策展的思考
June 28th, 2019Type: Opinion
Author: Ong Jo-Lene Editor: Rikey Tenn
Quote From: 《藝術認證》No.85
Note: We agreed on the position that the region is an equivalent center of modern and contemporary art its own right, and not a separate locus nor a different ‘type’ to where ‘real’ art takes place. The diplomatic interests of Japan and Taiwan in Southeast Asia differ markedly, Taiwan desires a cultural affiliation with Southeast Asia. In fact, Taiwan can arguably be considered part of the region. On the map, Taiwan sits between Southeast Asia and Japan. Much of the critical readings of SUNSHOWER, including my own reflections here, are drawn around the historical and political dynamics between Japan and Southeast Asia. How will these coordinates shift when the exhibition moves to Taiwan?
SUNSHOWER: Contemporary Art from Southeast Asia 1980s to Now, Mori Art Museum, 2017 / Photo: Kioku Keizo

During a research trip to Phnom Penh, my colleagues and I encountered a strange sight at the National Museum of Cambodia. In the home of one of the largest collections of Khmer art and archeological findings, people were casually congregating around the sculptures on display. On mats laid out with offerings and joss sticks, some were kneeling in prayer while others were chatting. We would come to realise that the museum also serves a religious purpose, effectively functioning as a space of communal gathering and conviviality. Here geographically distant from global ‘art centers’ and outside of privileged western time, museological objects are not cast in a static identity but continue to be animated in everyday contemporary life.

This trip was part of the field research across all ten members countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for the exhibition SUNSHOWER: Contemporary Art from Southeast Asia 1980s — Now, jointly organised by the Japan Foundation, National Art Center, Tokyo, and Mori Art Museum. That we, Asian professionals tasked with making one of the largest surveys of contemporary art of the region found that encounter peculiar, is telling of the biases and exclusions of modernity.

A few months after SUNSHOWER opened in July 2017, I moved from Kuala Lumpur to Amsterdam to participate in De Appel Curatorial Programme. Southeast Asia’s marginalisation in relation to Japan is still within its hegemonic discourse, but here in Amsterdam, the alienation I felt was of illegibility and invisibility. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s words began to resonate with me, “I wasn’t black until I came to America. I became black in America”. I was unable to engage deeply in discussions because my knowledge and references were rooted in Southeast Asia perspectives, and while like every other non-western curator, I have to know about the western canon and ‘international’ developments, I did not know them as well as the artists and curators I was meeting in Europe. Introducing myself became an exercise in contextualizing — cramming into five sentences, my artistic and theoretical interests along with an introduction of the local conditions in which my work took place. I realised my references were located while those of European colleagues were generally more ‘universal’ or ‘autonomous’. It is from this position and the benefit of hindsight that I reflect on my experience of working on SUNSHOWER.

I was invited to join the SUNSHOWER team a few months after I curated the exhibition, Making Space: We Are Where We Aren’t. The exhibition was first motivated in my proposal for a programme ‘with the aim of supporting and training young curators from Southeast Asia’ by the Japan Foundation. The programme unfolded on a local level and a collaborative level in Japan. Several wining proposals/participants from each local workshop were awarded a place in the second phase of programme taking place in Japan, along with a production grant to realise our proposals back in our home country. The local workshops were conducted by a pair of facilitators consisting of one local and one Japanese curator – in Kuala Lumpur, the three-day workshop was conducted by Yap Sau Bin(葉紹斌), a well-respected Malaysian artist, mediator, and educator, and Mami Kataoka(片岡真實), Chief Curator of Mori Art Museum. Kataoka continued to facilitate the development of our proposals in the workshop in Japan.

SUNSHOWER: Contemporary Art from Southeast Asia 1980s to Now, Mori Art Museum, 2017 / Photo: Rikey Tenn

The level of freedom and the size of the grant allowed me to realise for the first time a project that was entirely my conception, without having to adapt or appeal to any theme in the open call – we could motivate any venue and form of exhibition and select artists from any country or discipline, as we stayed within the budget and kept the local Japan Foundation offices in the loop. The programme effectively brought to fore a snapshot of the current generation relate to contemporary art – as we presented our proposals and argued for our curatorial premise’s relevance and responsiveness to the conditions and relations of contemporary art in our respective context. This would offer a valuable (and controlled) survey of sorts for the SUNSHOWER organizers which includes the Japan Foundation. The initial curatorial team consisting only of institutional curators from Mori Art Museum and National Art Centre visited these exhibitions. A few months later, I received the invitation to join the curatorial team, along with three other Southeast Asian independent curators who had also previously participated in workshops lead by Kataoka. The curatorial team eventually grew to comprise of ten institutional curators from the two Japanese museums and four independent curators.

One thing I will not forget but quickly grew tired of was people taking a piss at the title with references to golden showers. A more interesting observation came from an artist in the exhibition who asked whether the choice of ‘sunshower’ was due to a subconscious Japanese predilection for the word ‘sun’ since to the country’s sobriquet is ‘land of the rising sun’, its flag is officially known as ‘sun marked flag’ and commonly known as ‘circle of the sun.’ Concomitantly, because it is relatively recent history that many Southeast Asian countries were under the Rising Sun Flag during World War II, one could extend this line of questioning to reading of ‘sunshower’ as the land of the rising sun no longer shining with radial force but gently raining down on Southeast Asia. The SUNSHOWER curatorial team was conscious of the asymmetry in power of a wealthy former imperialist nation funding and staging an exhibition that tells the story of Southeast Asia, through the Japan Foundation which is an organization under its Foreign Ministry. These coordinates of positions of power were not the only ones at play, shifting in a matrix of institutional and the extra-institutional, private and public institutions, foreign and local, etc.

In all matters within the full purview of the curatorial team (which is admittedly limited in the scheme of a multi-institutional state-backed project), the working dynamics was diplomatic and flat in hierarchy. Kataoka who is obviously the most experienced curator in the team, played the role of facilitator. Throughout curatorial discussions, the institutional curators from Japan often gave up space by listening to the independent curators from Southeast Asia. It is not because of a lack of knowledge or interest but rather of behaving ‘hospitably’ – not asserting what one knows before hearing out other voices at the table and recognising that there are nuances that can only come from lived experience and may escape formal knowledge. This is something glaringly missing from many of the group discussions I have participated in or witnessed in the Netherlands. Here, post-colonial discourse is much more present in the arts but many well-meaning individuals still fail to recognise that the space that they have has historically been at the expense of others. Talk of decolonising must be accompanied by a decolonial practice that includes notions of holding space and giving up space, and sometimes even power. It is easy to discount this difference I just described to the Japanese pattern of communication being more indirect and far less verbose than the Dutch. Cultural etiquette may well have been what initiated this mode of group communication but it took a shared sensitivity of the multiple structures of power relations by the entire team to see through a collective curatorial process while conscious of not being compromised by consensus.

However hierarchy and rank would come into play in matters pertaining to bureaucratic relations. In such matters, the flow of information was on a to-need-to-know basis. There would also be only two curators from the entire team, Kataoka and Yoneda as the most senior curator from each museum, who would be included in all the research trips. While this was practical in terms of budget spending given the size of the curatorial team and reports generated from each trip were shared and discussed, it did result in only two members of the team having a particular affective overview of the entire on-site research. I am often asked which countries I was in charge of, but the only time tasks were divided by country was in formulating these research trip itineraries, with Japan Foundation and its local offices doing much of the organising leg work. For example, I took on the itinerary for Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, and assisted Vera Mey with Phnom Penh and Vientiane. Even so, all of us could put forth suggestions as to the artists, curators, collectives, and spaces to look into for every trip.

Multiple tracks of broad research interests were pursued simultaneously, so as to allow the research to reveal potential conceptual frameworks – from key artists to overlooked artists, from artistic turns to development related to socio-political changes, as well as intra-regional exchanges, and the region’s exhibition histories including those mounted by Fukuoka Art Museum and the Japan Foundation. Initially, I was overwhelmed as I had previously only worked on projects of a much smaller scale that was driven by first identifying a particular theme, movement, or taking a historical moment as foil. The broad scope and open-ended approach are reflected in the working title, SEA PROJECT, which was used to share the research and public events leading up to the exhibition. However, two things were intent from early on — not to interpret Southeast Asia through the framework of individual nations and to address gaps in earlier efforts by Japanese institutions.

After mapping out trajectories of shared interest across the region since the 1980s, the curators arrived at nine thematic sections that are loosely chronological, to contain the unevenness in how they unfolded across the region and to allow for a circular exhibition flow with no ostensible start or finish looping around the two venues: (in NACT) ‘Fluid World’, ‘Passion and Revolution’, ‘Archiving’, ‘Diverse Identities’, ‘Day by Day’, (in MAM) ‘Growth and Loss’, ‘What Is Art? Why Do It?’, ‘Medium as Meditation’, ‘Dialogue with History.’ The complex of considerations in devising the exhibition framework and its sections is detailed in the catalogue’s main essay by Kataoka.

Ismal Muntaha, "Bakar Berjamaah"; SUNSHOWER, 2017 / Photo: Rikey Tenn

SEA PROJECT was used as the working title up till the eleventh hour. The challenge of naming this exhibition encapsulates the challenges faced by the curators in putting together this exhibition – the ambitious scope, its large scale, multi-institutional organisers and funders, as well as the discrepancies between curatorial integrity, state-backed mandate, and promotional language. Even the sub-title of the exhibition ‘Contemporary Art from Southeast Asia 1980s to Now’ was arrived at after intense discussions. It was an easy choice over permutations such as ‘Southeast Asian Contemporary Art 1980s to Now’ since we unanimously agreed on the position that the region is an equivalent center of modern and contemporary art its own right, and not a separate locus nor a different ‘type’ to where ‘real’ art takes place. The questions of which term to use to denote the region, ‘Southeast Asia’ or ‘ASEAN’, was more contested. Some proposed using ‘ASEAN’ to be transparent about the exhibition mandate and parameter which covers only the ASEAN member states. It was also argued that ‘ASEAN’ could echo an attitude of self-determination and of regionality in the ASEAN arts and cultural initiatives of the 80s and 90s. For me, a generic use of ASEAN in the title is indefensible unless the exhibition delves into the problems surrounding it, for example, its founding on a common a fear of communism, questions of capitulating to American and capitalist new world order, and its policy of non-interference which has allowed human rights violations member states to go uncriticised by member states.

Yoneda’s catalog essay notes that “Meanwhile the Japanese curators stated the opinion that ‘ASEAN’ is a regional intergovernmental organisation that has strong political implications, while Southeast Asia is a more neutral term. Finally, it was decided that ‘Southeast Asia’ would be adopted as a term that is generally more familiar in Japan.” But of course neither is the term ‘Southeast Asia’ neutral, with its early use by colonial powers. In any case, both terms would appear in collaterals with the addition of the promotional tagline ‘Celebrating 50 Years of ASEAN’ appearing under the title. The press kit and website also lists participating artists by country, complete with an image of the respective national flags. The promotional language of the exhibition was sometimes contradictory to the curatorial process and outcomes that worked away from the framework of individual nations. The way something is communicated ostensibly influences the way it is talked about — most of the questions I received were about representation of artists and narratives on a country by country basis. Or as some of my peers have argued, the regional attributes presented in the show were too generalized or presented a contrived cohesiveness (eg: urbanization and rapid economic development in ‘Growth and Loss’ section, resistance ‘Passion and Revolution’ section). Chanon Kenji Praepipatmongkol succinctly describes our quandary in his Art Forum review, “Like many sprawling contemporary art exhibitions, SUNSHOWER is caught in a double-bind, attempting to extricate artists and artworks from identitarian frameworks while still operating within the rigid politics of international relations.

The process of coming up with the main title, SUNSHOWER, was also centred around reception by a largely Japanese speaking audience. But conceiving of how to communicate to our main audience would differ across promotional, diplomatic, and curatorial exigencies. The title had to either translate well into Japanese or if it remained untranslated, it would have to embody similar nuances and connotations for Japanese speakers using English. Both the title and the exhibition had to be accessible to our largely Japanese audience, who are largely unfamiliar with the setting in which the stories of the development of contemporary art in Southeast Asia take place. Translation is a political act. In translating for a particular audience, one has to be mindful not to compromise complexity of what is being translated and pander to prevailing modes of seeing that are crude or exoticized. Nonetheless, thinking about one’s audience, accessibility, and context are core concerns to the curatorial. Lately, something I have been thinking about is to mediate less by translation and more by thinking through the transnational and transcultural. Here, ‘trans’ suggests a continual movement, one that changes as it crosses cultural contexts, transcending context specificity as it brings different worlds into relation, instead of translating one world ‘into’ another. The sections ‘Day by Day’, ‘Medium As Meditation’, and ‘Dialogue With History’ were informed by this thinking.

The artworks by Korakrit Arunanondchai, Roslisham Ismail a.k.a Ise, and Simryn Gill also come to mind. Arunanondchai’s ‘Painting with history in a room filled with people with funny names 3’ is a story of an artist’s coming to be, in the form of a music video, narrated through the artist’s conversation with Chantri, an invisible nebulous figure that seems to be at once a drone, a higher being, and an incarnation of the artist’s consciousness. In a room lit blue like a cross between a nightclub and new-age meditation chamber with drones gnarling over the ceiling and tie-die denim bean bags on the floor, audiences are taken through a universe where machine and human consciousness reincarnate in a confluence of technological singularity and spiritual omnipresence punctuated by social realities of Thailand. Presented in the section ‘Medium As Meditation’, the work wrested discussions on ‘craft’ versus ‘art’, and ‘tradition’ versus ‘modern’ out of a binary opposition. Instead, it hinted on ways in which our understanding of ‘tradition’ is one that is mediated by modernity. The section’s framing worked through Naoki Sakai’s argument that even though the categories of premodern and modern suggests a chronological order, they are not disassociated from the geopolitical configuration of the world.

'ARCHIVING' section; SUNSHOWER, 2017 / Photo: Rikey Tenn

As attested in Kataoka’s catalog essay, “SUNSHOWER was curated chiefly to focus on major movements and tendencies in Southeast Asia, it was not possible to include conceptual artists that deal with more universal themes, and who are not circumscribed or limited by regional attributes.” At the time of curating SUNSHOWER, I was of the opinion that such a focus is necessary given that in places that had to overcome colonialism, art and politics are intertwined. During the early phases of development, there were times I debated against the Japanese curators’ suggestions of artworks more formal or ‘universal’ in nature. Later, my views would change as I started speaking to non-Euro-American artists based in the Netherlands; some of them lamented of being excluded from group shows because their works did not perform an identity. Many exhibitions that aim to introduce the art of a particular geo-political configuration to a European audience have a tendency for an over determination of reading artworks through a primarily social and political lens as well as privileging artworks that lends itself easily to such readings. I began to question whether this is also driven by a desire to know everything about the Other, a subtle legacy of colonial cataloging of the natural world and human inhabitants of their conquests.

Touring to other museums are configurations of SUNSHOWER. Several months after the Tokyo exhibition closed, it traveled to Fukuoka Asian Art Museum. Soon, it will travel to Taiwan through a collaborative effort between Mori Art Museum and Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Art. The diplomatic interests of Japan and Taiwan in Southeast Asia differ markedly, Taiwan desires a cultural affiliation with Southeast Asia. In fact, Taiwan can arguably be considered part of the region. I myself am of Hokkien heritage, a language widely spoken in Taiwan. But the Hokkien I learnt from my grandparents in Malaysia has adopted many loan words from the Malay language, and I speak the dialect without knowing how read or write the Chinese script. On the map, Taiwan sits between Southeast Asia and Japan. Much of the critical readings of SUNSHOWER, including my own reflections here, are drawn around the historical and political dynamics between Japan and Southeast Asia. How will these coordinates shift when the exhibition moves to Taiwan?

I would like to see a discussion around cultural authority include questions around the institutional powers and the extra-institutional. In commenting about the section on grassroots initiatives and social practices, Kataoka in her essay remarks,

Although some of these spaces are introduced at this exhibition with the aid of documentation in the ‘What Is Art? Why Do It?’ section in SUNSHOWER, what the framework of an exhibition can convey is extremely limited, compared with the actual scope of these activities that unfold outside museums and other institutions.

The SUNSHOWER exhibitions are institutional projects while it is apprehending art from a region where institutional infrastructure is nascent. Can our museums be transfigured by extra-institutional practices and knowledge(s)?

SUNSHOWER was a formative experience for me. It has changed my trajectory but I don’t think I would take the same risks if I were to work on such a project today. The questions arising from working it and from the feedback received continue to guide my curatorial practice. One thing that been answered is that the generosity, tenacity, and solidarity from two generations of artists and curators that I met in the two and a half years working on this exhibition, have informed me on the kind of person I want to be.

See Also
Sea-change: Reflections on co-curating SUNSHOWER ,Ong Jo-Lene
Mata Nusantara: On the Retreat of Southbound Taiwan ,Rikey Tenn