Disavowing globalisation: Singaporean art critic and curator Weng Choy Lee in conversation – podcast


In a talk that was originally aired in January 2010 as a podcast on New York-based online radio station, ART on AIR, Singaporean art critic and curator Weng Choy Lee discusses his provocative take on the globalisation of the art world.

What does literature or the idea of friendship have to do with globalisation? Art Radar brings you a summary of Lee’s talk.

In the podcast, Lee suggests the modest, intimate notion of friendship as an alternative practice to the wholesale grasping that a global theorisation of art history entails, beginning with a meditation on the whale as an example of the largeness that is beyond our ability to apprehend:

The image of the whale that I’m able to offer is of that thing which inspires literature. I’m interested in the relation that literature has to something as large as a whale, as large as the world. Our efforts to grasp the meaning of things … are conditioned very much by the fact that taken together, it is all so big, so beyond our capacities to grasp. And yet we are those creatures who have defined ourselves by our acts of grasping. We are the animal with the opposable thumb.

Lee draws from his rich experience in the art world, particularly his time with The Substation where he was a artistic co-director from 2000 to 2009, and discusses the works of artists that he is interested in, such as Lucy Davis, Shannon Castleman and Lim Tzay-Chuen. He also contends with ideas and concepts from theorists and scholars, such as James Elkins, Sanjay Krishnan, Rex Butler, and Robert Leonard.

Click here to listen to the podcast on the ART on AIR website.

The Substation arts centre in Singapore. Image courtesy of Wikipedia user Sengkang, who allows anyone to use the image for any purpose including unrestricted redistribution, commercial use, and modification.

The Substation arts centre in Singapore. Image courtesy of en.wikipedia.org.

We list some excerpts below to give you an idea on why the 58-minute-long talk is worth listening to.

Weng Choy Lee on the purported decline in readers of art criticism:

Who reads art criticism? Today, 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 do we not talk about the decline of reading, the decline of university departments of literature? The decline of criticism? As a whole, the humanities have suffered. But perhaps art history departments from around the world are in better health than literature departments, I’m really not sure. However, I would think that the future of art criticism is better gauged by the study of literature than by the study of art. So long as there is art, there will be art writing, but what will its purpose be? Will it connect with the world? Deeply and intimately? Is reading in decline? Discussions of decline, whether it’s a painting, jazz, or culture at large, typically belie a nostalgia for something that never was. Was there ever an ideal reading public? A republic of readers?

Weng Choy Lee on globalisation and art history:

I’d like to proffer a strategic disavowal of the global. Now I’m not saying that there isn’t globalisation. There is change. But what I think we need to recognize are the perspectives that interrupt the global gaze, and to try to do the work of seeing the distances that get elided. So to share the practices of art history is not necessarily to bring together everything under a single unified perspective. It also can make possible … the more that you share, the more you become appreciative of differences or disparities … You can’t even begin to understand somebody else, but you can still stay in the same space.


Video (above): An excerpt from “Jurong West Street 81” a project by Shannon Castleman undertaken in Singapore, and discussed by Lee in his talk.

Weng Choy Lee on the job of the art critic:

A large part of the art critic’s job is to nominate good works of art. Critics write because we want to share what we believe is good. But I don’t believe you can articulate or define in advance the criteria for quality. All one can do is offer specific examples. These different artworks may not share the same qualities throughout, but again, like with Wittgenstein, you have these family resemblances. So if you believe an art work is good, you are wagering that its appeal is contagious. Give me a chance to share with you my thoughts and feelings on art artwork, and you may share these feelings too. But the point isn’t to arrive at an unquestioning universal agreement.

Weng Choy Lee on the importance of disagreement in art:

I like to tell my students that one of the worst things, if you are an artist, is when everybody hates your work. Even your mother. But even worse, is when everybody loves you, because then you don’t know. You have no connection with reality. So the best thing is when there are disagreements: some people like your work, while others not so much. And when it comes to art, the most interesting debates are the ones amongst friends. Then, the arguments are based on shared sympathies and can be nuanced—the criticisms, critiques.

Weng Choy Lee on the notion and practice of friendship:

In thinking about how to speak to a big world, the notion of friendship is helpful. One can make friends with almost anyone, and across several countries. It doesn’t matter if you come from disparate backgrounds. If you share something, you can build upon that and become friends. But even in the age of Facebook it matters what and how and why we share. There are limits to sharing, and you can’t simply “friend” everyone.

As practices of addressing, literature and friendship are both about learning how to locate and place oneself, how to be in the world, and to be with others not in the abstract, but in the particular. And in this context, the question of the outside universal perspective seems to dissolve. You don’t need the global.


Related Topics: globalisation of art, Southeast Asian artists, podcasts, critics, curators

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