Five Minutes with David Teh August 16, 2017 10:00
Earlier this year, David Teh published Thai Art: Currencies of the
Contemporary, which examines the transition of Thai contemporary art from a nationalist subjectivity to a postnational one. His analysis is set against the backdrop of the Thai monarchy’s waning sovereignty amidst political and economic turmoil.
In this edition of Five Minutes with…, Teh, an independent curator and Assistant Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at the National University of Singapore, reveals how he first became involved in Thai contemporary art. He also shares how his curatorial experiences and intellectual inclinations have influenced his work, and the importance for Art History as a discipline to ‘decolonise’ itself.
What are the qualities of Thai contemporary art that drew you to study it, over other Southeast Asian nations with their own contemporary art?
I got to know about Thai contemporary art while living and working as a writer and curator in Bangkok. The book reflects that—I didn't go there looking to do academic research. That said, I already knew the Thai art scene was strong. Several Thais had built high profiles on the international exhibition circuit. But I was more curious about what was going on locally. As I got to know people, I learned about the burst of exciting, independent activity in the late 1990s—artists of my own generation were beneficiaries of that—but by the time I showed up, things had stagnated. The indie scene had run out of puff. The government was beginning to promote contemporary art but it was very tough for artists to make the work they wanted to make. So, I found I was most useful as an independent curator.
Tang Chang, Untitled, 1969, oil on canvas, 98 x 103 cm (Courtesy: Thip Sae-Tang/ Installation view. Image credit: Laura Fiorio / HKW)
It was never a choice between Thailand and other countries. I hadn't studied Southeast Asia or its history, and I got to know the region through the lens of Thailand, a place which—like Singapore—both belongs in the region and doesn't quite belong. Apart from their successes abroad, several things were distinctive about Thailand's artists. First, many were working confidently in non-traditional modes (eg. installation, video, conceptual art) even though those forms were not well supported by institutions or galleries. Second, there was often nothing very 'Thai' about their work, at least not visibly. This was in stark contrast with the art of the '90s, the bread and butter of the biennials sprouting in so many places. For me, national identity was a boring, hackneyed subject. And here was a generation of artists who weren't interested in national branding, yet who knew their cultural background would determine how their work was interpreted and valued. I found this tension fascinating, and it became a central concern of the book.
In the central chapters, you examine various forms of indigenous “currencies”—an agricultural symbology, a Siamese poetics of distance and itinerancy, and Hindu-Buddhist conceptions of charismatic power—and how contemporary art has converted them into other currencies. Why have you chosen to write about these particular forms of currency? Or, more specifically, what makes these very currencies the “national currencies” of Thai art?
The term 'currencies' is unorthodox in an art historical context. That discipline's habitual methods are failing: traditional, biographical approaches ended up in the bogus mythology of the singular creative genius; iconography charts the visible resemblances between one artist and another but in our networked, image-saturated environment, those patterns are unraveling; formalism imposes boundaries between various media that artists themselves no longer observe. In distilling some salient themes and concerns from Thai contemporary art, I was led by the artists I found most interesting. The challenge lay in figuring out how to historicise their work, and the 'currencies' I identified were a provisional solution, a way of tying artists and artworks into much larger social and cultural histories, while bypassing some of the pigeonholes of conventional art history. So, when contemporary artists adopt the theme of agriculture, for example, one might look back through eighty years of Thai modern art and find a few precedents. But agricultural imagery belongs to an ancient vocabulary of power in this part of the world, and it's more than just visual. That deeper, wider history illuminates today's art far more than recent art history can.
Similarly, Thai artists have attained social and intellectual cachet thanks to the patronage of the modern state and other institutions, but if you trace this 'charisma' within that institutional sphere, you only get half the story. For fifty years, the dominant 'national school'—the state academy (now Silpakorn University) set up in the 1930s—was the nerve centre through which all aesthetic traffic was routed, controlling access to resources and training, awarding coveted prizes and commissions, and setting artistic standards. Patronised by state and palace, Silpakorn was the main clearing house for artistic currencies, especially those stemming from the three institutional 'pillars' of Thai nationalism—religion, monarchy and nation. But since the 1980s ,its monopoly has crumbled: competing schools have been established, while globalisation has brought artists new sources of prestige and opportunity.
Near the entrance of Silapkorn University, which has served as the bastion of artistic pursuits in Thailand since the 1930s
(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons).
What I call a 'currency' is a value an artist might intentionally rehearse—sometimes it's as simple as a visual cue, a choice of colours, a well-known symbol, a sign of the past or 'tradition'. But sometimes it's more abstract, or a projection onto their work by others. Some currencies are not visible, but are generated in the performance of being a modern artist. For instance, what does it mean to locate yourself in the provinces and address the orang kampung, using everyday materials and references, rather than the recognised idiom of 'fine art' from the national-institutional centre? This is a question that can be asked all over Southeast Asia. As we look beyond the obvious centres of production, there will be dozens of different answers, but also some overlaps and resonances.
I should stress that this book is by no means a comprehensive account—there are many currencies I haven't dealt with. I focused on the ones that have secured art's contemporaneity in Thailand, that is, those that qualify certain modern art as no longer simply modern, but 'contemporary'. International mobility was obviously a key currency, as it became more and more a fact of everyday professional life. But it also opens up new critical possibilities: when a work is shown in different places, it can carry different meanings and values. Artists are not naive about these differences; they exploit them, and the critic can examine this as a kind of arbitrage. It's no accident that the acceleration of Asian art's transnational exchange coincided with a regional financial crisis, sparked by the failure of the Thai baht in 1997.
How has your work as a critic and curator shaped how you approached your research for this book?
This is a crucial dimension of the book. From a traditional disciplinary standpoint it will seem methodologically unresolved, for it brings together all sorts of knowledge: plenty of historical (but not exactly 'art historical') context; critical responses to seeing exhibitions; and lengthy conversations with artists and curators that might be called 'ethnographic', though again, collected in somewhat heuristic and undisciplined ways. These are exactly the data sets of curatorial work, and Art History has been slow to take advantage of them. Making exhibitions, one develops a great reservoir of trust with artists and others who know and care about art. There's an intimacy you don't get from looking at catalogues—you learn things that can't be learned any other way.
In the West, Art History has ceded a lot of ground to various kinds of 'visual studies', and there's a burgeoning literature on histories of exhibition and curatorship. But in Southeast Asia, Art History is still getting clumsily on its feet. Universities have largely failed to seize an obvious opportunity. Meanwhile museums are going up with breathtaking speed, but without the necessary software to make them relevant. Until recently, research wasn't part of the curatorial skill set in Singapore, which is clearly the region's institutional centre of gravity. I think I'm very lucky that I found publishers who understood this patchy landscape, and that independent curators have been a crucial link in the knowledge chain. It's an imperfect science, to be sure, but ten or twenty years from now I think the book's idiosyncrasies, and its deficiencies, will tell us something about this moment.
Pratchaya Phinthong, Who Will Guard the Guards Themselves?, 2015. Lightbox, duratrans, and steel frame; 161 × 200 × 9 cm. Collection of Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (Courtesy of the artist and gb agency, Paris).
In the book, you challenged Singapore-born artist Jay Koh’s condescending response to Thai-born artist Rirkrit Tiravanija’s simulacrum of his New York apartment—titled “Tomorrow Is Another Day”—at the Kölnischer Museum, and contended with the view that representing one’s national polity of origin lies at the heart of the artistic enterprise. In your opinion, why is there a prevalence of this biased attitude towards national identification in the transnational sphere?
Its prevalence today may be put down to laziness, to certain ingrained habits of artists, writers and exhibition-makers. But there are clear historical reasons for it. In the late 1980s, contemporary art began to circulate transnationally with a new intensity, a whole new scale of exchange. There's a pair of excellent books on this moment, put out by Afterall under the title Making Art Global. One can pin this to the thaw of the Cold War and a certain narrative of globalisation, though upon close examination in a given place, one finds very complex processes at work. Nevertheless, this circuit became the basis of the transnational art system we see today. With this burst of circulation, audiences—particularly professional ones—came face to face with art from other worlds, from social, historical and aesthetic contexts about which they were often perfectly ignorant. Identity (and not exclusively national identity) was the primary interpretive crutch, providing a way in, some starting point for the uninitiated viewer confronted with Vietnamese, Peruvian, or Congolese contemporary art for the first time.
Southeast Asia's artists are still subject to the gravity of nation, much more than their counterparts in the Euro-American sphere whose institutions still dominate the art economy. In fact, when I travel in that post-national milieu, I'm the one insisting that the nation still matters! But as an interpretive support, it can only be one amongst many. Some artists still make art about national identity and belonging, either because those things are still material to their lives, or because they're on auto-pilot—it's what Southeast Asian art has done for twenty years; it's what made their mentors famous. But for most young artists in the region, national heritage and national problems are no longer front-of-mind. We have to find other ways of understanding their work and what it has to tell us, including what it might say about the place where it was made.
You recently curated an exhibition in Berlin, titled "Misfits". Are there any overarching ideas that you always try to put into your work, be it in curation or in writing?
David Teh introducing “‘Misfits’: Pages from a loose-leaf modernity” to visitors at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (Photo credits: Laura Fiorio / HKW).
I'm a card-carrying anti-essentialist. Most of my work is about unpicking and sabotaging big, overarching ideas. "‘Misfits’: Pages from a loose-leaf modernity" is about the process of canon formation that has been accelerated by the museum boom, and the recent discovery of Southeast Asia by first-world collecting institutions. I chose three modern artists on the cusp of canonisation, whose legacies haven't been mediated by national institutions, either because they deliberately kept their distance from the latter, or because the latter's narratives simply couldn't accommodate them. Two of them died in 1990: the Burmese artist and illustrator, Bagyi Aung Soe, and the Sino-Thai modernist Tang Chang. The third was Rox Lee, a Filipino filmmaker who is still very much alive and kicking. This grouping is unorthodox, but I liked how it opened up the question of what distinguishes 'modern' from 'contemporary'. (This is also a preoccupation of my book.) A growing curatorial workforce is busily constructing an overarching idea of 'Southeast Asian modern art'. It's important that we complicate the picture, and to that end, these 'misfits' are important circuit-breakers.
What sort of future conversations do you hope that this book will inspire?
In the broader (global) context, I think Art History is an ossified discipline, badly in need of renewal. Its academic mainstream is still cloistered, in Europe and North America; its conceptual toolkit is inadequate for the task of decentering and decolonising the history of modern art. Serious efforts are being made to adopt a more inclusive outlook—sometimes framed as 'world art history'—but encyclopaedic surveys only get you so far, and they don't make for compelling reading. To make Art History relevant again, its methods need to be deconstructed, its vocabularies need to be hacked. And we have to devise interdisciplinary but historically rigorous ways of furnishing context.
Closer to home, I hope the book's strengths and weaknesses will be picked apart and will provoke more critical discussion. It's a very charged environment in Thailand at the moment. The generals have their fingers in the dyke but the tide of history is pressing in. Managing a sensitive royal succession, the dictatorship has shut down the system of political expression; there's no public sphere, and criticism has become more and more dangerous. But at the same time, the country is gradually awakening from a long bout of historical naivety; people are reading more and debating more than they have for decades, largely thanks to the advent of social media. Thai artists are not known for taking strident political positions, yet the art world can be a relatively accommodating place for public discourse and argument, often flying beneath the radar of officialdom. I hope the book will be a conversation starter. Each chapter, each theme, is intended to open new ways of understanding contemporary art, and the social realities and histories it reflects.