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Five Minutes with Southeast of Now March 24, 2017 11:00

This month marks the official launch of Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia, a new journal devoted to art in Southeast Asia (and the wider region). The journal's inaugural issue has been launched at several events across Southeast Asia, engaging scholarly as well as artistic and curatorial publics.

In January, the journal had a soft launch that coincided with the Singapore Biennale Symposium at the National Museum of Singapore, and an informal launch was held earlier this month at the Jim Thompson Art Center in Bangkok to coincide with the exhibition People, Money, Ghosts (Movement as Metaphor).  

In this edition of Five Minutes with …, we caught up with the editorial collective—Isabel Ching, Thanavi Chotpradit, Brigitta Isabella, Eileen Legaspi-Ramirez, Yvonne Low, Vera Mey, Roger Nelson, Simon Soon, and Vuth Lyno—to discuss the complexities of an exisiting “gap” about contemporary art in Southeast Asia, the decision to have a thematic focus of “discomfort”, and what readers can expect in future issues of Southeast of Now.

In the editorial to this inaugural issue of Southeast of Now, you express a desire to address a gap in current scholarship about contemporary art in Southeast Asia. Could you briefly account for the nature and complexities of this gap? Why aren’t enough people writing about contemporary art in the region and, even so, why aren’t writers framing their research “historically”?

Yvonne Low: Saying that there is a gap in current scholarship about contemporary art in Southeast Asia does not mean that there aren’t any writings on and about the contemporary; on the contrary, there are a lot. Such writings however are frequently curatorially driven or biennially-driven (if such a term maybe used). In some instances, such as in Indonesia, writings on contemporary art are commissioned by collectors. For all these reasons, research and writing on contemporary art in Southeast Asia are often skewed toward particular collections, personal or public; they may be responding to particular themes or have had to meet particular objectives. With the exception of the rare few publications (for example,T. K Sabapathy's Intersecting Histories: Contemporary Turns in Southeast Asian Art) that make a serious attempt to look at the region’s contemporary art historically, mapping commonalities and shared pasts, and identifying intersections and inter-/intra-regional developments, the far more common approach taken of contemporary is to view it as ahistorical, an artistic phenomenon that does not have any precedence, when this is clearly not true. And especially not when conditions that led to the rise of contemporary art in the region was traceable to as early as the seventies.

The First Southeast Asia Art Competition Exhibition, Manila, 12 May 1957. 
(Courtesy of Vanessa Ban. Original Source can be found in the MoMA Archives, New York IC/IP I.A.408)

You settled on “Discomfort” as the theme for the first Call For Papers. What sort of provocations did you hope to invite?

Editorial Collective: To adapt the words used in the Call For Papers and the editorial from the inaugural issue, the provocations that the Southeast of Now editorial collective wanted to invite were pieces that reflect on the burdens and future possibility of wielding “regionalism” as a framework. The playful disquiet evoked by the title of the journal, which troubles linear notions of space-time and destablises any certainty of an imagined temporal centre, gave rise to the first theme. “Discomfort” locates this source of tension and anxiety as a productive register to explore various discursive stakes, propelled by new urgencies, orientations, and motivations; and perhaps discover therein some comfort, even if merely within shared discomfort.

Image from Sharmini Pereira with P. Kirubalini, “Searching for Discomfort” (an essay from the inaugural issue of Southeast of Now).

Alongside traditional academic writing, the Artists’ Projects section in this issue features fascinating work by artists such as Shooshie Sulaiman, who is based in Kuala Lumpur, and a transcribed conversation between artist Tom Nicholson, curator Grace Samboh and the late Edhi Sunarso, who was supposedly “Sukarno’s most trusted sculptor”. How do you see this section evolving as a space for creating discourses about contemporary Southeast Asian art? What, in your opinion, are the curatorial possibilities here?

Vera Mey: It was important for us to create an open platform within the journal where we could pair artistic responses to the various journal themes we have planned. We also wanted to have the possibility for an artistic response which could be purely visual alongside more scholarly articles and written work. A lot of contemporary artists are engaged in artistic research and have different ways of demonstrating this beyond writing an article, essay or review. In the case of the transcript in the video work by Tom Nicholson with Grace Samboh we also wanted a place where this kind of research material, in this case generated from an interview of a video work, could travel beyond the site of the physical exhibition in which it was originally viewed, which was the Jakarta Biennale. Within the context of the journal it is not only an artwork to be experienced; it is also a primary source of research material about an aspect of Indonesia's art history. 

There are endless curatorial possibilities here. The artists' pages could be a space for a specifically curated space of images or texts either by a member of the editorial collective, a guest curator, or someone with a desire to respond to our call for proposals. This follows new approaches to publishing where printed matter is considered equally an exhibitionary format in two-dimensional form. In future issues we will also alternate between archival pages from various archives within and beyond the region and the artists’ pages. 

With the opening of National Gallery Singapore in 2015 and the upcoming opening of Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nusantara (Museum MCAN) in Jakarta, it appears as if substantial investments, whether from public institutions or private individuals, are being channeled to the area of contemporary art. Where do you think a journal of critical scholarship such as Southeast of Now might fit, given its context?

Brigitta Isabella: The infrastructure of public and private institutions in Southeast Asia cannot be generalized as having similar nature and agendas. Its characters are contingent on the context of relationship between artists, curators, the state and the market inside the local art scene. Within this context, there are different power plays shaped by politics of nationalism, commercialization of art and commodification of culture, as well as narratives of resilience from minor artists and alternative spaces that also greatly contribute to the practice of contemporary art. Framing an apt critique of art institution in the region certainly cannot follow the discourse of institutional critique within the Western art system and here the journal is trying to present a necessarily historical perspective to understand the shifting cultural context in Southeast Asia. Another fact to consider is the lack of educational infrastructure of art history in most countries in Southeast Asia, so, in a way, the journal serves as a trans-local container and a discursive space for creating encounters between critical scholarships of contemporary and modern art produced in, from and around the region. 

What other conversations do you foresee happening within the pages of future volumes of Southeast of Now

Roger Nelson: The categories of “contemporary and modern art,” indeed of “art” in general, are obviously terms we consider to be open for debate just as much as the category of “Southeast Asia” itself. Given this, we anticipate continuing to trouble and denaturalise these categories, including through looking at aspects of culture that don't usually qualify as “art,” and also through treating the region's borders as fluid, and looking at research that transcend these borders. 

But in all this, we remain committed to the importance of an historical approach, however interwoven with methodologies from other disciplines and practices that historical approach might also be. We would be delighted if future issues of the journal can look further back in time, to the 19th century (and before), and perhaps can place this historical research in dialogue with issues of today (and the future). 

Sala Chaloemthai, Bangkok.
(Source: Khana ratsadon chalong ratthathammanun: Prawatsat kan mueang lung 2475 phan sathapattayakam amnat [Khana Ratsadon Celebrating the Constitution: History and Power of Thai Politics after 1932 in Architecture] Bangkok: Matichon, 2005, p. 96).
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To find out more about submission guidelines and subscription information, visit www.southeastofnow.com or the NUS Press Southeast of Now page.


Five Minutes with Sarah Tiffin February 10, 2017 09:00

When Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles published his landmark book The History of Java in 1817, ruins were far more than the architectural detritus of a former age. Images of ruins reminded people of the transience of human achievements, and stimulated broader philosophical enquiries into the rise and decline of entire empires. In this edition of Five Minutes with ..., we speak with Sarah Tiffin, author of Southeast Asia in Ruins: Art and Empire in the Early 19th Century, who shares with us how art history has become a useful source to understanding colonialism and why portrayals of the "Other" will continue to pique public imaginations.

Colonial art seems undervalued/understudied as a resource that could potentially yield insights into colonial perspectives and preoccupations; why do you think this is so?

Actually, I think a great deal of really interesting and thought provoking work has been done on colonial art, particularly by art historians responding to the ideas initially raised by Edward Said and the ensuing debates surrounding his work. Certainly, their work has had an influence on my own. But I think that in the area I am interested in the work of British artists in Southeast Asiathere is room for a great deal more scholarship. So often in discussions of British art and empire, the work of British artists in Southeast Asia is overlooked. I think the dominance of India in British imperial thinking and experience has had a big part in this, and it is understandable given the huge quantity of materials that were produced as a result of British rule in India. But there is also a wealth of fascinating material relating to the British in Southeast Asia that could generate some really interesting new scholarship.

A painting by William Daniell titled, ‘The large temple at Brambánan’, from T.S. Raffles, The History of Java, Vol. 2 (London: 1817)
(Image courtesy of The Fryer Library, University of Queensland Library)

Your previous book was about the depiction of Chinese poets by a Japanese artist in the seventeenth century. Have you always been intrigued by the politics of representation behind the portrayals of a culture by others?

Do you know, I hadn’t really thought about that connection before as the starting points for my books were very different. My first book was produced for a small art exhibition that was based around a pair of Japanese screens—it explored the iconography of the screens within the context of 17th century Japan. Southeast Asia in Ruins, on the other hand, grew out of a doctoral dissertation and my studies in Southeast Asian history as well as my interest in British art. What I am particularly interested in is socio-political context, in how art reflects the society in which it is created and at the same time, it also influences that society. 

In Southeast Asia in Ruins, you explore how the British saw the ruined candi as evidence of a cultural, and indeed civilisational, decline of Southeast Asian peoples. Did the British apply this line of thinking to their other colonies, or were such notions particular to the Southeast Asian region?

The linking ruins, or images of ruins, with ideas about cultural decline was an essential part of late 18th and early 19th century ruin appreciation. The remains of the past allowed people to derive a melancholic pleasure from contemplating the transience of even the most grandiose of humankind’s deeds and designs, including the demise of entire empires. For British ruin enthusiasts, the fall of civilisation was most throughly associated with Rome—most famously in Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire—but this thinking was also extended to the remains of past civilisations in other parts of the world. The British response to Southeast Asia’s ruins, then, was not a unique one, but part of a wider expression of ruin sentiment.

A painting by William Daniell titled ‘Prome, from the heights occupied by His Majesty’s 13th Light Infantry’, from James Kershaw, Views in the Burman Empire (London, 1831)
(Image courtesy of The Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection)

What piqued your interest in images of Southeast Asian ruins that were idealised popular colonial British imagination?

When I first looked at Raffles’ The History of Java, I was struck by the beauty of Daniell’s aquatint ruin plates. I was familiar with the images of Indian architecture he and his uncle Thomas had created for the superb Oriental Scenery, but I had not seen his images of the Javanese remains before and I felt they really deserved more attention. Similarly, the engraved vignettes by a number of British printmakers that are scattered throughout Raffles’s text are really lovely and very fascinating, yet I found very little had been published on them, or on the wealth of archaeological drawings now held in the collections of the British Library, the British Museum and the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. It has been something of a labour of love, and I hope it might encourage other people to look at these wonderful collections for their own research projects. 

William Daniell, A Javan in the court dress (plate from The History of Java by Thomas Stamford Raffles, London : 1817, vol. 1), coloured antiquint
(Image courtesy of the Fryer Library, University of Queensland Library)

What is your next project? Will you return to the museum/gallery scene?

I am currently working on a study of Southeast Asia in 17th century English poetry, prose, pageantry and drama, looking at how authors responded to the aspirations and experiences of English merchants then active in the region, and the changing political and economic imperatives at home and abroad. I’m keen to keep working on this project over the next couple of years, but apart from that, I’m not sure what the future holds! 

Sarah Tiffin
(Image provided by Dr Tiffin)


Soft Launch of Southeast of Now at the National Museum of Singapore January 26, 2017 09:00

In conjunction with the Singapore Biennale 2016 Symposium, NUS Press’s newest journal dedicated to art history in the region—Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia—was launched at the National Museum of Singapore’s Gallery Theatre last Sunday (22 January).

(Image credit: Pallavi Narayan)

A panel that included renowned art historians John Clark, Patrick D. Flores and T.K. Sabapathy, NUS Press Director Peter Schoppert, as well as two members of the Southeast of Now editorial collective Simon Soon and Yvonne Low, discussed the significance of producing an academic journal dedicated to contemporary art in the region. 

Left to right: Yvonne Low, Simon Soon, T.K. Sabapathy, John Clark, Patrick D. Flores
and Peter Schoppert
(Image credit: Sebastian Song) 

John Clark, Emeritus Professor in the Department of Art History at the University of Sydney, opened the session with remarks about the role of journals in forming and sustaining epistemic communities. He spoke on Southeast of Now’s potential to engage “laterally” with other clusters of research within the general field of art history and contemporary arts scholarship, and praised the “chutzpah of young art historians in the field,” citing this as evidence of a thriving community of researchers. 

(Image credit: Sebastian Song)

Thereafter, T.K. Sabapathy, a leading authority on art history in Singapore and Malaysia, considered the role of publishers and university presses in fostering an environment conducive to research: “NUS Press,” he rejoined half-jokingly, “has woken up.”

Patrick D. Flores, Curator of the Vargas Museum, Manila, and a professor with the Department of Art Studies at the University of the Philippines, suggested that the journal represents a new development in the professionalization of arts research. He added that the journal also provides young arts researchers invaluable opportunities for acknowledging the “different system of knowledge-making in the region.”

(Image credit: Sebastian Song)

Peter Schoppert elaborated on the series of decisions that led to NUS Press’s acquisition of the journal. According to him, the editorial collective’s energy levels, commitment and openness were “impressive,” and, interestingly, their proposals were also accompanied by “rumours” of their ambition and ability spread by their teachers, supervisors and mentors. To end the panel, he quoted extensively from an interview—included in the first issue of the journal—with Stanley J. O’Connor, on the idea that in the face of global upheaval and changes in the production and practice of art, “nothing can be more important than the decentering of the art world,” a process which is “by no means automatic.”

(Image credit: Sebastian Song) 

Southeast of Now will be published twice a year (March and October). Register with Project MUSE to enjoy free previews of Vol. 1, No. 1 (March 2017) and Vol. 2, No. 2 (October 2017). For editorial enquiries, contact the editors at southeastofnow@gmail.com. Click here to find out more subscription rates and to subscribe to the journal.