M+ presents “In Search of Southeast Asia through the M+ Collections”, the museum’s first geographically focused exhibition with a multidisciplinary touch in Hong Kong.
The recently opened exhibition at the M+ Pavilion offers an ambitious look at 70 works by 28 artists, architects and designers from Southeast Asian countries and more to the public, providing a glimpse at its growing collections of works from Southeast Asia since 2014. Art Radar also spoke to the curator to find out more.
While the M+ museum’s construction is still underway, M+ continues to present to the public what it has to offer in anticipation of its opening. This time, it is an ambitious, unique and multidisciplinary exhibition that takes a first look at the complexities of the Southeast Asian region by displaying some of the most pioneering and unique works from its collections. Co-curated by Pauline J. Yao, Lead Curator, Visual Art and Shirley Surya, Associate Curator, Design and Architecture, the exhibition “In Search of Southeast Asia through the M+ Collections” showcases 70 works by 28 artists, architects and designers from nine Southeast Asian countries in addition to Hong Kong, the Netherlands, Sri Lanka and the United States.
Participating artists include anothermountainman (Stanley Wong), Architects Team 3 (formerly Malayan Architects Co-partnership) / Lim Chong Keat, Geoffrey Bawa, BEP Akitek (formerly Booty, Edwards &Partners) / Kington Loo, Chun Kaifeng, Kiri Dalena, Simryn Gill, Sumet Jumsai, Zai Kuning, Charles Lim, Midi Z, Eko Nugroho, the Office indochinois du tourisme, the Official Tourist Information Bureau of the Dutch East Indies, Pratchaya Phinthong, Sopheap Pich, Bas Princen, The Propeller Group, Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, Paul Rudolph, Wilson Shieh Ka-ho, T. R. Hamzah & Yeang / Ken Yeang, Hans Tan, Maria Taniguchi, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Vo Trong Nghia Architects, WOHA Architects and WORK / Theseus Chan.
The works included in the exhibition are drawn from the fields of design and architecture, moving images and visual arts. Contemporary works of art and design as well as historical, archival materials and architectural models are put side by side or in close proximity to each other, signalling to the audience that there is not a single centrestage. Rather, the audience stands in close proximity with each work, exploring the particular story told be each of them while finding them reinforcing the themes of the exhibition: “Conditions of Place”, “States and Powers” and Transnational Flows”. The exhibition is subdivided in the space space according to the three themes to help guide the audience’s experience and exploration. Art Radar takes a closer look at some highlighted works from the three sections.
“Conditions of Place”
Despite the historical and cultural heterogeneity of the countries in Southeast Asia, many experience similar local conditions like historical origins, climate, topography, vernacular materials and urban development. The exhibition first introduces the audience to these similarities through works that embody or draw inspiration from historical and environmental conditions.
One example is the film The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music (2014) by Vietnamese art collective The Propeller Group. The film brings the viewers on an audiovisual journey by mixing music, images and provocative subject matter, displaying the ritual and funerary traditions specific to southern Vietnam. Features in the film include trained acrobats, snake charmers, sword swallowers, fire breathers, transgender performers and other individuals not easily accepted in mainstream society.
Houses, Malaysia and Singapore, 1959-1964 by Kington Loo and Lim Chong Keat was designed to reflect an aspiration for residences that would respond to local climate, new materials and construction methods, and patterns of living for an emerging middle class. The natural illumination, cross ventilation through the use of slated timber screens, grillewor, and overhangs created shaded transitions between inside and outside.
Works displayed in this thematic section heighten the awareness of local specificities. For some, it is a search of origin and histories from their surroundings, or an encounter of visual language with locally sourced materials, and perhaps a reinterpretation of everyday typologies.
“States and Powers”
In Southeast Asia, some areas have a shared history of colonialism, decolonization, rebuilding to a nation in the aftermath. “States and Powers” takes a more macroscopic look into how power – exercised through colonial imperialism, nation-building efforts or contemporary statecraft – can revive and limit cultural expression.
The set of archival materials of the BEP Akitek (preceded by Booty, Edwards & Partners) showcases modernist projections of nation building, not only by returning local architects but also by expatriate architects after the first two decades following the independence of the Federation of Malaysia in 1957. An ambitious use of a variety of forms, materials and construction technologies to suit local conditions could be seen from buildings like the Brunei State Mosque and Kuala Belait Government House in Brunei and the Chartered Bank Building in Malaysia. Aside from the archival materials, the audience can further explore how Malaysia’s identity was discussed and formed in the papers related to the discussion “What is Malaysian Architecture?” since independence.
Works from another group of architects, namely Singapore-based Architects Team 3 and Malayan Architects Co-partnership, also witness the transformations resulting from the social and cultural independence of the urban fabric of Malaysia and Singapore. For example, in Singapore, projects such as the Singapore Conference Hall and Trade Union House and the headquarters of the Development Bank of Singapore took into consideration aesthetics in order to contribute to the country’s business development as well as its modernity. Likewise, in Malaysia, to move away from the previously prevailing vernacular forms or ethnic signs as part of a preoccupation with Islamic-Malay nationalism, special considerations were put into structure, space, form, and the holistic designs for buildings such as Bank Negara and the Negeri Sembilan State Mosque.
“State and Powers” highlights the struggles and intense construction deriving from urban modernisation and renewed perspectives towards concepts of nation-state.
The exhibition concludes with a dynamic and fluid theme, “Transnational Flow”, which investigates the global flows of people, goods and ideas within and beyond Southeast Asia. It stresses that the artworks from and about the region are ever-changing and fluid.
Angkor Quartet (2004) by artist Wilson Shieh Ka-ho was inspired by Wong Kar-wai’s film In the Mood for Love (2000). The artist depicts a fictional musical foursome with the film’s two lead characters. The characters are shown to play the film’s theme song, Quizas, Quizas, Quizas, in the work. It speaks to the audience in Hong Kong particularly, as Wong’s film captures a period in Hong Kong’s past when the city acted as a crucial hub for trade with and migration to Southeast Asia, reflecting the fluidity and transnational flow.
Across the Angkor Quarter is the model of The British Council Building, Bangkok, Thailand (1969-1970) by Sumet Jumsai. Jumsai played with the influential architect Le Corbusier’s concept of a house as “a machine for living in”, putting a personal touch to machines and designing the British Council’s first headquarters in Thailand as a robot or a toy kit. The building design is not only a means to explore concepts, but it also provides spatial and formal solutions.
The works showcased in the thematic section “Transnational Flow” embrace new visual languages and transnational collaborations, stressing that the region of Southeast Asia is fundamentally porous, defined by all manners of circulation in, around and outside it.
Due to the multidisciplinary and carefully curated design of the exhibition, reaching the end of the show, the audience might forget that the compact space has displayed only a fraction of the M+ collections. In this sense, the exhibition has only provided a glimpse into M+’s committed and ongoing effort to build its collections. Art Radar asked Suhanya Raffel, Executive Director, M+, about the development of the art scene and M+’s role:
I think M+ is one of the most important museums in the world that is yet to been seen and we have been working very hard to make sure that we are bringing that voice to the table as we present our stories from this part of the world. For example, you go to Europe and there are museums talking about European arts, architectural designs, visual arts, and other cultural forms. We don’t have that museum to talk about Asia and M+ is the museum that is aiming to do that through our collections, our lectures, (and) our research. It is very important for research in the twenty-first century to understand that there are very deep cultural voices here and they have a very contemporary edge or vision to it. Our positioning in Hong Kong as a cosmopolitan voice in the region is the perfect place to make M+ a museum and more; more as in saying, “Hang on. What is happening in the world that is very important and what stories are needed to be told?”
The exhibition “In Search of Southeast Asia through the M+ Collections” is telling a story not centred on any single, overarching message or narrative, but rather on the fluid exploration of the complexities and rich diversity of works from and about Southeast Asia. Strategic and distinct moments, individual perspectives and micro-histories together form the three thematic sections for the audience to explore how the world could be seen and felt differently. Art Radar interviewed the two exhibition curators, Pauline J. Yao and Shirley Surya, to learn more about the show’s inception, and the conceptual approach and curatorial decisions taken behind-the-scene. The following is an excerpt from the interview.
Could you take us back to the beginning of the exhibition? How did it begin? How was the process like and how did it evolve along the way?
Pauline J. Yao (PJY): The idea to make a show about Southeast Asia did in part come out of institutional thinking since the M+ Pavilion is a place where we look to show the various aspects or parts of the M+ collections. As an exhibition space, the M+ Pavilion is a place where we want to do two things: the first is to test out ideas, to test different methods of display and to experiment with new strategies and combinations of materials. Second, it is a way to highlight our collections, especially those parts that people may not know as well or haven’t had a chance to see. Along with this is presenting is the M+ perspective on that particular theme or part of the collection. So the way we choose to make a show, say ink art for example, is not just about putting the paintings on view for people to see but to craft a story about ink art that reflects how M+ looks at this subject, that is, transnationally and extending beyond the materials of ink, brush and paper.
“In Search of Southeast Asia Through the M+ Collections” follows a similar idea – it presents Southeast Asia in a way that is not often seen and could only be seen by looking into the M+ Collection materials – and takes an experimental approach of putting architectural archives and visual arts together in a way that we haven’t exactly done before. In presenting materials relating to Southeast Asia we also wanted to convey the global scope of M+ and the fact that our collections extend well beyond China, and East Asia. We could have chosen South Asia or another geographic locale but once we began considering Southeast Asia it made the most sense. Its rich complexity and diversity is also well suited for a multidisciplinary approach.
Shirley Surya (SS): We had to first be convinced of the choice of geographically focusing on Southeast Asia. We knew we needed to highlight certain areas of the M+ Collections that have not been represented in previous exhibitions. So when we were considering works in the M+ Collections related to South and Southeast Asia, we realised that there were more works from Southeast Asia, and how the also cut across the disciplines of Visual Art, Design and Architecture, and Moving Image. The show could have focused only on Visual Art, or Design and Architecture. But we chose not to do so as we believe M+’s multidisciplinary holdings can offer new readings to a place and a region like Southeast Asia, in a way that previous exhibitions on Southeast Asia didn’t offer. So when we decided to try to put works from Design and Architecture and Visual Art together, we noticed issues such as how artists and architects address local conditions such as climate or materiality, the different relationship artists and architects have toward institutional powers, and how artists and designers in Southeast Asia have been part of a larger global network of ideas. These have thus informed how we framed the exhibition into three themes – “Conditions of Place”, “States and Powers” and “Transnational Flows” – which developed from, at the same time reinforced by, the dialogue between works from the two disciplines.
With that, could you tell us more about the collaboration between the two disciplines? Was there a time when the works did not complement each other, or do they always do?
SS: There is no denying that works from Visual Art and Design and Architecture are conceived very differently, and to be displayed and experienced very differently. Unlike works from visual art, most design and architecture materials are produced without the intention of being displayed, as they exist as part of the design process. So we were clearthat the common denominator has to be the stories told and affinities shared by the works and objects from the two disciplines. If those stories overlap, there is clarity on why, and how, the works could be in the same space,regardless of how seemingly jarring they may seem to visitors.
But due to the nature of design and architecture materials, which are largely in the form of drawings and other works on paper that had to be laid flat or hung on the wall and could only be exposed to lower lighting condition, they were naturally displayed in the alcoves on one side of the space, as compared to a sculptural installation like Sopheap Pich’s Compound that could occupy the floor as it can be free-standing and freely configured. But our decision to begin with a moving image work namely RIAU by Zai Kuning was a deliberate one, as we felt the work could set the scene for all the works in the section on “Conditions of Place”, as the film has to do with the people, water, and land, setting the tone of other works that show how artists and architects address local histories as well as climate.
PJY: I agree. I don’t have a whole lot more to add other than to comment on the three themes. We decided early on that within each thematic grouping, there would be (works from) both disciplines. We discussed at some point if we should make a sharper division between visual artworks and the archival materials relating to architecture but we decided against it, preferring instead to have the themes cross over both disciplines. We didn’twant them to be too separated or obviously spread apart. We wanted to have some dialogue to take place between these different materials and disciplines but we had to be very sensitive that they are viewed differently and require different kinds of display methods. We had a lot of iterations of the exhibition design, discussing at each turn about how we could design a partition that wouldn’t be too overbearing, to have the right type of wall surface for hanging framed materials and how to deal with the archival tables. We also assessed what kinds of things should be near to each other or far away, the various textures and materialities, and of course sound and lighting levels—all very much part of the normal process of any exhibition design.
Was language ever a challenge when you studied the works?
PJY: From the visual art side there was not a big challenge.
SS: There were cases in which language played a factor in how we chose to interpret or present certain works. But it’s not really a challenge.
PJY: Maybe more for you (Surya), or relating to the archival materials that might have included coming across things from other languages. In terms of the visual artworks, language is less of an issue, as most of the artists are English-speaking so communication-wise it’s not as much of a problem. They are also relatively young or mid-career contemporary artists therefore quite conversant in English. However, if we were working with more senior or older generation artists, there could be challenges, although those would pertain to our work on the collections and unrelated to this specific exhibition.
SS: There’s probably just one instance when language posed a small challenge. We had to decipher the precise title of the elevation of the Bank of Asia building, or Robot Building, by Thai architect Sumet Jumsai as the notations on the drawing were in Thai. Apart from that, most of the architects, including Sumet Jumsai, spoke English, so we were able to interview them to learn more about their work. Also, most of the architecture archival materials from Malaysia and Singapore – which were former British colonies – were in English. There were, however, cases when there were words in Malay which we chose to highlight in our interpretation of the work as those words were important in the conception of the work. For example, words such as “merdeka” which is “independence” that were often used in the discourse of architecture in post-colonial British Malaysia; words like “longkang” which means “drains”, and “orang laut” which is “sea people”. So it’s not so much a challenge, but an extra effort we had to take to ensure that we communicate these words from another language other than English for the audience to pay attention to.
Could you also share more about the collection of works? How did you decide which works to display in the exhibition?
PJY: As always, there are a lot of practical limitations that come to play. Limited space is probably the number one reason behind excluding something. Of course, let’s remember that the show does not include every single work in M+ Collections relating to Southeast Asia—what one sees in the show is a selection. Along with floor space there are other issues like ceiling height, which is quite limited at the M+ Pavilion, or the fact that works have been exhibited in Hong Kong recently and so on. There are unfortunate practical issues that very quickly eliminated certain works or materials from consideration. In our early workshops we reviewed all the potential works and then had to remove some from consideration due to the spatial limitations.
After that, our process involved a lot of discussions around what themes and narratives we saw emerging and how best situate the works in conversation with one another. Together with evaluating the space and how the works would fit in, and noting our limitations, we also thought about choosing works that can bring different lenses to a particular topic or provide a multiplicity of perspectives while also expressing an idea or question that resonates well with other works. It takes a long time and many discussions to identify the key pieces or essential combinations. Given that we can only include a limited number of pieces, each one has to ‘do a lot of work’ in terms of articulating ideas that speak to the themes but also to each other in a way that stories and threads begin to emerge. The decision making process is hard but that’s just a part of curating and making exhibitions.
SS: Yes, while space is quite a determinant to how much we could show, but like Pauline said, our selection is largely based on the narratives that each work could represent. For Design and Architecture, since the materials are largely flat works, it was more important to select materials that could represent the most pioneering aspects of a designer’s or architect’s practice in a way that could communicate each of the three thematic sections.
PJY: And in our selections we also do take into account things like whether a work has been shown in Hong Kong before, and think about how to create a balanced cross-section of age group, gender, geography, and location. We don’t have every country in Southeast Asia represented in the exhibition but we tried our best to cover as many as possible.
“In Search of Southeast Asia through the M+ Collections” is on view from 22 June to 30 September 2018 at the M+ Pavillion, West Kowloon Cultural District, Hong Kong.
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