CONTEMPORARY ART CURATING IN ASIA
Inside shopping malls and hotel tearooms, even on boats, art exhibitions in Asia pop up in surprising places. The Asian Curatorial Network Forum, held in Hong Kong in May 2011, highlighted alternatives to traditional museum display.
Apart from Japan, most Asian countries lack adequate permanent space for exhibitions and government funding is weak or misallocated. This is bad news, but there is a positive side: a generation of artists and curators have risen to the challenge and produced a smorgasbord of occasionally astonishing, always resourceful experiments showing us inspiring alternatives to the traditional museum display.
But now things are changing. Following the arrival and splashy success of the art market in Asia in the first decade of this century, public bodies and institutions are scrambling to develop the infrastructure needed to support more independent non-commercial art activity. But as Forum commentator David Elliott pointed out, it is “all too easy to get it wrong.”
Asian Curatorial Network Forum
Ambitious exhibitions are being launched and vast museum projects planned: at this critical juncture for curatorial practice in Asia, the Asian Curatorial Network supported by the Asian Cultural Council, has been formed for the dissemination of ideas and experiences.
Curatorial Critique: An Asian Context is the inaugural forum of the Network and it brought together eight of the leading curators and commentators from Japan, the Philippines, Cambodia, Taiwan, Indonesia and Hong Kong.
Alternative curatorial practice
Below we summarise some of the alternative curatorial practices discussed by Forum panel members:
Social curating in Hong Kong – Siu King Chung
Siu King Chung, who works in a collective with three others – Howard Chan, Pak Chai Tse and Phoebe Wong, introduced the concept of “social curatorship”. At first the term brought to mind public programming, perhaps this was just a glorified form of traditional education and outreach or perhaps he was taking art into the community, taking it into the neighbourhood, but within Chung’s concept social curatorship is much more intriguing – and amusing – than that.
His project began as a documentation of art in the street, the street as a museum, as a repository of visual social culture. He took photographs of the objects and practices, created from other more everyday objects, that expressed Hong Kong’s irrepressible space-saving multi-functional resourcefulness:
- a commode from a plastic garden chair with a hole cut in;
- a toilet roll holder nailed to the wall at a dai pai dong (café) table dispensing toilet paper in place of napkins;
- a line of stones as place holders for people or cars – a form of virtual queuing;
- a dog sleeping in a kennel made from a plastic carton;
- a pipe from a tap to a bucket made from a plastic water bottle;
- a carpenter’s ingenious and intricate platform.
The documentation evolved as he noticed that these practices and objects were so common that variations had started to appear in different locales. So he documented the variations between the pipe water bottles and the home-made nets on the ubiquitous Hong Kong hand trolleys.
This art project led to an appreciation of the handiness of local residents, and the work of Hong Kong-born craftspeople, such as paper flower makers and metal workers, was recorded in a directory with contact details. At this point “curatorship” had become a truly social phenomenon evolving beyond the participatory and into a generative form. The directory created interactions: the craftspeople began to get commissions for their work.
The artists in the project ran with this energy and, with the help of Community Museum Project, began to seek out designers to introduce to the craftspeople. This evolved again into an “upcycling” project involving the tools, materials (mostly domestic, industrial and retail waste), craftspeople and designers. One of the hoped-for outcomes was that the designers would learn to design in a different way, drafting products that are easy to repurpose rather than modelling for the dump. Funds are now being sought to turn this into a sustainable project.
Chiu sees social curating as an act of co-creation with society rather than creation and display for society.
Documentary and activist curating in Taiwan – Yao Jui Chung
Yao Jui Chung became interested in documenting abandoned public buildings in Taipei, known in the city as “mosquito halls”. He was surprised to find that there were so many of these buildings that he had to enlist art students to help with his project. Often the buildings, such as the Taipei Rainbow Bridge public lavatory and the Kinmen Cultural Park, had been built less than ten years ago but were abandoned because the structure was of poor quality (cement was mixed with Styrofoam) or was poorly planned (the toilet door faced residential houses causing feng shui anger).
He documented the results of his work in a book (available in traditional Chinese only). Many curators would have stopped at this point, but Yao took things a step further and distributed the book and the story to the media who publicised it for him. As Yao said with a laugh, this is a curatorial project “to be continued…”
Alternative to traditional Philippine artist retrospective – Ringo Bunoan
In contrast to the traditional single museum retrospective show of a great artist, Ringo Bunoan has chosen an alternative curatorial practice to mark the fifty-year career of Filipino artist Roberto Chabet: a travelling exhibition with editions in Manila, Singapore and Hong Kong. Bunoan sees this as a more appropriate form of exhibition, in tune with the nature of this grand master installation artist whose works are not static but are assembled and disassembled according to the surrounding environment.
Curatorial landscape in Cambodia – Erin Gleeson
Erin Gleeson, who has lived in Cambodia for ten years, has recently opened the very first “white cube” art space in Phnomh Penh, Cambodia.
Acutely aware of the poverty in the region, it took her a long time to feel comfortable that the time was right to enter such a project. Though Gleeson calls the white-walled, concrete-floored space a gallery, it does not make sales because there are virtually no buyers. There is no local art market to support artists, and only two of the artists she represents have so far found an international market.
Cambodia has a fifteen million strong population but the arts are in crisis; only eight students study modern art. She organises a provision of resources for artists including materials, small stipends and studio space in which artists can live, up to fourteen people to a room. There is no government support for the arts and most exhibitions in Cambodia are organised by foreigners who perhaps “mean well” but in some cases there is an accompanying agenda, which is not helpful for the development of a healthy practice.
Gleeson described the following categories of exhibition as currently operating in Cambodia:
- “Display of tradition” – documenting historical traditions rather than encouraging artists to be free to look to the future.
- “The genocide show” – a proliferation of artwork created to meet a demand for exhibitions about this subject. She believes there are only two artists, both survivors and one now deceased, who work with this subject respectfully.
- “The good governance program” – artists create for charity, good causes and fund-raising exhibitions rather than following their own self-generated artistic calling.
- “The exclusive five star experience” – Hotel lobbies and diplomatic residences, which are too exclusive for most local artists.
Healthier forms of exhibition include the inclusive “public festival” and the “solo exhibition.”
Another issue affecting curatorial practice in the region is language. If documentation is in English it is safe from the government censors but this is not the case with the local Khmer language. This raises the question of whether or not to document in Khmer.
In 2009, we published a three-part post series on a Hong Kong exhibition curated by Gleeson, which brought fourteen Modern and contemporary Cambodian artists to the city.
No room for debate
A marathon bottom-numbing four hours later, six intriguing talks had been presented and some of the current state of practice around the region had been documented, but, disappointingly, there was insufficient time for substantive debate amongst the panel or with the audience. A great start, though. Perhaps next year…
- Modern Mumbai art spaces show up New Delhi “house conversions” – CNNGo – April 2011 – Mumbai is trumping New Dehli with its unique developing art scene
- Young Japanese curators bankrolled by Takashi Murakami – Japan Times – February 2011 – cutting-edge exhibitions organised by Japanese curator group 0000
- 3 new Shanghai art spaces point at flourishing art scene – February 2011 – three new art spaces, including two art museums and a “warehouse-style museum”
- Clarissa Chikiamco on Philippine independent art spaces funding challenge: Phillippine Star – July 2010 – parallels similar issues that arose in the Philippines fifty years ago
- Leading non-profit institutions gathered by Tate Modern for art event: Art Radar Asia lists Asian participants – July 2010 – thirteen Asian art institutions were invited to join global arts festival No Soul For Sale: A Festival of Independents
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