Asian Art as Global Art: new Asia Society Museum Director Tan Boon Hui – interview

Art Radar speaks to new Asia Society Museum Director Tan Boon Hui.

From December 2015, former Singapore Art Museum Director Tan Boon Hui is taking the helm of Asia Society from its base in New York. In an interview with Art Radar, Tan talks about his career experience in Singapore, his plans for Asia Society and his insights into Asian art today.

Tan Boon Hui. Image courtesy National Heritage Board, Singapore.

Tan Boon Hui. Image courtesy National Heritage Board, Singapore.

On 24 August 2015, Asia Society announced the appointment of Tan Boon Hui as new Vice President for Global Arts and Cultural Programs and Director of Asia Society Museum in New York. “A trailblazer in the arts in Singapore for the last decade”, as Asia Society writes in the announcement press release, Tan Boon Hui will lead the global arts and cultural initiatives and programmes at Asia Society, as well as oversee Asia Society Museum’s collections.

Tan Boon Hui is Assistant Chief Executive for Museums and Programs under Singapore’s National Heritage Board, and has overseen exhibitions and programmes for a variety of institutions in Singapore, including National Museum of Singapore, Asian Civilizations Museum, Peranakan Museum and the Malay Heritage Center.

From 2009 to 2013, Tan was Director of the Singapore Art Museum (SAM), where he spearheaded the building of the largest public collection of contemporary art in Southeast Asia. He managed the Singapore Pavilion at the 50th Venice Biennale, and worked on a number international projects across the globe. Tan is Founding Board Member of the International Biennial Association, established in 2014 to expand knowledge and share practices pertaining to the curatorial and creative aspects of biennials around the world.

Tan succeeds Peggy Loar, who has served from 2014 to 2015 as Interim Vice President for Global Arts and Culture and Director of Asia Society Museum, after former VP and Director Melissa Chiu left her ten-year tenure to join the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington D.C. as its new Director in 2014.

Art Radar spoke with Tan Boon Hui to find out more about his career success and achievements, his plans for Asia Society and his insights into contemporary Asian art.

A view of the lobby/interior of Asia Society Museum in New York. Photo: Frank Oudeman. Image courtesy Asia Society.

A view of the lobby / interior of Asia Society Museum in New York. Photo: Frank Oudeman. Image courtesy Asia Society.

Mr Tan, you have been at the helm of three major museums in Singapore: the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM), the National Museum of Singapore (NMS) and the Singapore Art Museum (SAM). During your three-year tenure at SAM from 2009 to 2013, you were credited with radically improving the Museum. What innovations in particular did you focus on at SAM and why do you think they were so effective?

I certainly did not do it alone. SAM was emerging from a decade long period when it was the only public art museum in Singapore to – by the time I got there in 2009 – suddenly be finding itself the older but much smaller sibling of the new upcoming National Gallery Singapore, which was going to be gigantic! My mission was to carve out an indelible space for this small museum.

Contemporary art was to be the prime differentiator and I had this idea of focusing on living artistic practices and turning an unremitting gaze on the region around us. I was lucky to have assembled a group of talented and out-of-the-box curators and programmers including people like Khairuddin Hori, who is now Deputy Director of artistic programming at the Palais de Tokyo.

I pushed really hard for two things. Firstly, building a definitive collection of Southeast Asian and Asian contemporary art that could form the foundation of long term programming and research. I pushed the curators to write about the collection obsessively and the publication Tomorrow Today encapsulates our achievements in building this collection of over 400 works from scratch over three years.

Secondly, developing an ambitious exhibition programme around living artistic practices and introducing the work of exciting artists and art scenes that were unfamiliar to the Singapore public. The criteria for me were that any proposed programme had to be pioneering in terms of addressing a gap in the scene. We can be particularly proud of the extensive publications programme that we rolled out over the three years, deriving from but going beyond our exhibitions.

I approached the Singapore Biennale with the same attitude, that if the museum were to do it, it had to be courageous and really put us at the fulcrum of all the developments in the region. I was also extremely tired of the conventional imported artistic director model of a lot of biennales. How does one understand a region by just flying in and out over a few years for this thing called ‘field research’?

So my condition for taking over the organisation of the 2013 Biennale was that it had to focus on the region and that we would draw strength from the combined decades of ground experience that curators based physically in the region had accumulated. What we achieved was a mapping of regional artistic diversity – a richness and freshness to the works with all the rough edges hanging out.

The enthusiastic audience response, with over 500,000 visitors to the show, was a big win. Within the two years time frame, however, there was no time to move beyond this ‘mapping’ level to interrogating the differences in curatorial interpretations between the 27 curators involved. It is certainly something that I hope future editions would pursue.

"Arts of Ancient Viet Nam: From River Plain to Open Sea", 2010, Asia Society Museum, New York. Photo: Davis Thompson-Moss. Image courtesy Asia Society.

“Arts of Ancient Viet Nam: From River Plain to Open Sea”, 2010, Asia Society Museum, New York. Photo: Davis Thompson-Moss. Image courtesy Asia Society.

Now, after a short hiatus as Artistic Director of Singapour en France, le Festival 2015 you are again taking up a role as Director of a major museum institution. What do you envision are going to be the biggest challenges in shifting from working in a Singaporean institution to a Western one, especially in New York?

Contemporary art is really a globalised scene, so where one is physically based is less important than the perspective that one brings. Singapore shares with New York a situation where many artists from outside the city pass through and spend some time. One of the few differences I think will be that New York has had a much longer history in terms of its encounter with art development.

The foundations for a broad understanding and appreciation of the value and complexities of artistic practice have been laid over a longer period of time. As such, it will enable a greater flexibility and freedom in terms of how I can conceive of programming and exhibitions. I am looking forward really to the expanded opportunities to look at the whole of Asia in all its diversity.

What are the main lessons you have gained from your previous work as museum director that you will bring to New York for the benefit of Asia Society?

That if one loves art deeply, it is always possible to be bold, to find new niches and ways of working that will unleash new publics that are thirsting for art and culture. It is always possible to make an impact beyond your physical footprint.

Michael Joo, 'Bodhi Obfuscatus (Space-Baby)', 2005, Asia Society Museum, New York. Michael Joo used contemporary technology to create an installation for Asia Society, using a standing 3rd century stone sculpture of a Gandharan Buddha from Asia Society’s permanent collection as a source of inspiration. Photo: Tom Powel. Image courtesy Asia Society.

Michael Joo, ‘Bodhi Obfuscatus (Space-Baby)’, 2005, Asia Society Museum, New York. Michael Joo used contemporary technology to create an installation for Asia Society, using a standing 3rd century stone sculpture of a Gandharan Buddha from Asia Society’s permanent collection as a source of inspiration. Photo: Tom Powel. Image courtesy Asia Society.

The New York Times quotes you as saying that you will be looking to identify projects and artists that show the “global shift in Asian art and how Asian artists are coming on to the world stage”. Could you expand on this claim?

The world that Mr. John D. Rockefeller 3rd envisaged 59 years ago when he founded Asia Society has come into being. Asia is rising and along with it, Asian art is entering the public imaginations and art institutions of the West. My feel is that museums should focus less on introducing Asian art as a new emerging art scene but more on how Asian art and artists are now part of the global manifestation of art. One of the questions I am interested in is how the introduction of Asian artists into the narrative of global (read Euro-American) art history disrupts and re-channels that narrative. Did our different artistic histories lead us to the same place or to different destinations?

In the same article, you also say that you hope to “go on to the next level where we are looking at how Asia can speak with its own voice”. In your view, at which point are we now? Where does Asia stand in the global art scene right now – and what do you think needs to be done in order for Asia to speak with its own voice?

We could try to move away from a monolithic impression of Asia but really start looking at differing Asian diversities. I like to speak of the concept that there are always ‘other Asias’ out there waiting to be discovered. Each local contemporary art scene developed in a specific historical and geographical context, which helped shape how artists and arts professionals responded to specific global forces that touch ground, so to speak.

My hope is that this multitude of voices be allowed to grow, and contest each other. We in Asia often tend to define ourselves in relation to the West. Art students often know more about impressionism and minimalism than we do about our regional art scenes. An important project for Asian curators and art historians is really to build that larger interpretive canvas or framework to help the world understand how our different ‘Asias’ relate to each other over time.

"Buddhist Art of Myanmar", 2015, Asia Society Museum, New York. Photo: David Allison. Image courtesy Asia Society.

“Buddhist Art of Myanmar”, 2015, Asia Society Museum, New York. Photo: David Allison. Image courtesy Asia Society.

In terms of museums in Asia, there are an ever-increasing number of institutions all over the continent, many of which are in China, but a great number still lack the appropriate professionalism to really be recognised as ‘proper’ museums. What is your view on the growth of museums in Asia?

It’s a creative move on the part of Asians who love art, at heart that’s one of the reason many individuals set up private museums. What is often not appreciated by people outside the region is that it is also a source of national pride, that Asians are taking hold of their own cultural heritage, rather than leaving it to others.

If we look at it objectively, it is a good response to an environment where broad based institutional support for art making is absent. What I hope for now is that moving forward, many of these private museums will start to plan for long term sustainability.

As Vice President for Global Arts and Cultural Programs, and Director of Asia Society Museum, you will be leading Asia Society’s global arts and cultural activities and oversee Asia Society Museum’s acclaimed collections. Could you reveal to us three Asian artists that you would like to show at Asia Society and / or add to the Museum’s collections? 

It’s a little early to talk about exhibitions or acquisitions. However there are some artists whose practice I find interesting at this moment in time. Artists who are responding in a layered but honest way to the constraints of their social/political milieu particularly fascinate me.

The charcoal and collage works of the Malaysian artist Nadiah Bamadhaj have an intense emotional kick, the incredible technical skills she deploys to build up her portraits and architectural images are mind-boggling. In the midst of a sea of abstract, conceptual work, her dark images return us to the mythic and elemental heart of art and its connection to our inner struggles to exist in the physical world.

At the other end of the spectrum, Minouk Lim from South Korea is probably taking performance and its expression in video to new heights of complexity. Her investigations of traumatic historical episodes in works such as FireCliff 2 allows her work to reveal the truth to power and the layers of historical image making that obscure.

Akram Zaatari from Lebanon has also been creating a rich body of work using the photographic archive, along with other visual documents, which enable him to explore the awareness of history in Lebanon and other Arab communities. I think his work is important in terms of how it demonstrates the disproportionate role that media spectacle has had in how we understand the world beyond our doorsteps.

"Altered States: Zhang Huan", 2007-2008, Asia Society Museum, New York. Photo: Eileen Costa. Image courtesy Asia Society.

“Altered States: Zhang Huan”, 2007-2008, Asia Society Museum, New York. Photo: Eileen Costa. Image courtesy Asia Society.

Although you took quite an indirect route in your career, first graduating with an MA in Geography, the fact that you did not initially study art or art history did not hinder your growth and success in the field. What advice would you give to those who want to pursue a similar career? 

A career in art is about passion and seizing all opportunities to develop that passion. I would suggest that anyone who wants to join the field try to have exposure in all forms of artistic expression, both historical material, as well as modern and contemporary.

Since Catherine David’s documenta X, I think we all also need to embrace the idea that to understand art making today, we should look beyond art per se into allied fields such as sociology, architecture, cinema, among others. These are some of the realms of knowledge that have inspired and enriched contemporary artistic thinking. The fact that I came from these allied fields certainly shaped my thinking about art personally.

Lastly, could you give us an insight on the view and meaning of “Asia” (and “Asian art”) in the 21st century?

Asian art equals Global art.

C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia

843

Related Topics: new directors, museums, interviews, contemporary art in Singapore, New York’s art scene

Related Posts:

Subscribe to Art Radar for more interviews with influential art professionals

Comments are closed.