Comparative Contemporaries was an attempt to develop a web anthology of art writing from across Asia. This introduction to the project is comprised of edited excerpts from the website
The project began with Southeast Asia and five editors: Sue Acret, a former editor of ArtAsiaPacific, which started out of Sydney; Patrick Flores, an art historian and curator from the Philippines; Ho Tzu-Nyen, an artist and filmmaker from Singapore; Ly Daravuth, a co-founder of the Reyum Institute of Arts and Culture in Cambodia; and Bangkok-based Keiko Sei, the documenta 12 magazines project coordinator for Southeast Asia. They each selected what they believed are key texts of art writing from or for this part of the world. Over time, the original plan for Comparative Contemporaries was that new editors and their “proto-anthologies” would be added to the website, and also other regional sections would be developed in addition to Southeast Asia.
Comparative Contemporaries (CC) alludes to the discipline of comparative literature. “CompLit,” as it’s sometimes called, asks its students to think about literature, not only from differing national traditions, but also from different historical periods – often with the aim of questioning the very concepts of “literature,” “tradition,” “canon,” “nation,” and “history.” Likewise, CC invoked an investigation of the art of different societies and traditions, and, at the same time, a questioning of those categories usually employed in constructing big fat books, a.k.a. anthologies. In what ways are the arts of the different countries in Asia “contemporary” with each other? How are Asian arts contemporary with the arts from everywhere else on the globe? How does one begin to compare these diverse, even disparate arts communities? What about the relationship between the “contemporary” and the “modern”? How does one draw boundaries? And how does one deal with that most important of issues: language and translation? Comparative Contemporaries did not aim for a definitive survey or authoritative mapping; it was provisional and tactical. It reflected both the exploratory attitude underlying this assemblage, and the fact that “we” – that very large “we” of Asia’s diverse arts communities – were still at relatively early stages of forming discourses about contemporary art from this part of the world. Far from attempting to establish a canon of authors, the aim of Comparative Contemporaries was to bring together different fields of practice side by side, to generate dialogue, and to find, contest, and possibly build, common grounds.
In my own estimation, ArtAsiaPacific was one of the first major international platforms for contemporary art writing from and about Southeast Asia. For me, writing for the magazine in the 1990s and early 2000s, and working with its editors – notably Sue Acret – fostered my own development as an art critic. Patrick Flores: while I wouldn’t call him one of the region’s senior art historians – he’s not old enough yet! – he is certainly one of its foremost scholars. Rather than entrenching himself as a specialist of his own country, Patrick has been at the forefront of advancing research and writing on Southeast Asia as a region. I also thought it essential to have an artist’s voice in the mix, and Ho Tzu Nyen is one of the most well-read artists that I know. What I admire in his art is how he deftly engages theory and history – so thoroughly, thoughtfully and yet also so light-handedly. Ly Daravuth’s perspective exemplifies the complexities of comparison at the heart of CC. How the project resonates with someone like him – who, in 1998, co-founded a landmark independent arts organization in Cambodia – is a crucial test of its relevance. In 2006, when I was planning a symposium and workshop for Comparative Contemporaries at The Substation Arts Centre in Singapore, the documenta 12 magazines project was also in progress, and I thought about starting a dialogue between these two parallel but different projects, and thus invited Keiko Sei. Over the years, the friendships of these five have played an invaluable part in my own art education. While the purpose of Comparative Contemporaries is to address a wide-reading audience, I believe that writing also always has a very personal register. We always address the larger public, but it is for our friends that we write – those people whose opinions truly matter, and with whom we aspire to have our most honest conversations.
The ten essays I have chosen are from the annals of ArtAsiaPacific magazine. For those unfamiliar with the magazine, a bit of background. The magazine began in 1993 as a sister publication to ART and Australia, and both were published out of Sydney. ArtAsiaPacific’s early audience was clearly ART and Australia’s audience; that is, an Australian audience. The magazine’s focus was very much on Australia’s relationship with the Asia-Pacific region, and in particular with its closest neighbors in Southeast Asia. As a former editor of the publication, choosing ten essays seemed like an easy road to travel, however, ultimately it proved challenging due to the fact that the magazine format does not necessarily lend itself to lengthy critical analyses and many of the articles focus on one artist and do not go beyond the scope of that particular artist’s practice. The essays I have chosen seem to have endured beyond their original boundaries to become significant pieces of writing. So while each of these essays are of a particular, narrow context – and usually around 2000 words – collectively they provide a wider window on critical writing on contemporary Southeast Asian art over a period of ten years, from 1993 to 2003, illuminating recurring themes that challenged writers and critics. While some of these ideas continue to engage today, these pieces also highlight how arguments have moved on.
Patrick D Flores:
In imagining this proto-anthology I looked to both writing and writers, placing them in the arena of “serious language games” – a hybrid phrase I pilfer from linguistics and anthropology to indicate the strategic play of discourse within a matrix of ties and strategies. Here, affinities appear and then recede into unfamiliarity, move up and down with kindred guises and sometimes strange manifestations. Still, the dynamic is resemblance, a condition that is neither mimicry nor mimesis. Nevertheless, it is uneasy coming to terms with relative equivalence. First, I chose colleagues who have attempted to engage in cross-cultural research, working out methods and perspectives that encourage translations of certain contexts like culture and modernity. This commitment or decision to venture into a field with provisionally transcultural, and thus potentially universalizing, concepts like “art,” “critique,” and even “reflexivity” is not without its predicaments. Nevertheless, it is necessary because it seeks to transcend the notion of radical particularity that resists any mode of comparative judgement and reciprocal communication: a nearly absolute denial of the economy of exchange, where the knowledge of others is irreducibly incommensurate and encrypted, inhospitable to the inquiry of strangers who speak another language. While not denying peculiarities and differences that inhere in any form of production, this kind of research is able to relativize autonomies, cross gaps, chart maps, configure a tentative totality that makes sense of discrepant details. Moreover, it tries to move away from rubrics like “civilisations,” “great traditions,” “national histories” in favor of “regions,” or “regionalities,” “case studies,” “localities,” and “horizontal liaisons.” It does not privilege diversity or syncretism, diffusion or purity, but rather strives for commensurability. Second, the essays I have chosen bear the marks of the investments of their authors in understanding others in relation to an array of identifications, risking misrecognition, simplification, mistranslation, and other oversights that attend any exploration of a terrain beyond one’s own. These colleagues sustain their practice within various platforms and perform intersecting roles as critics, artists, curators, academics, journalists, and art historians. They avail of disciplinary methods in art history, art theory, criticism, and aesthetics.
Making up a list is fun – a list of your favorite books, your favorite films, favorite music, a list of all your favorite things. So choosing the ten texts that I considered useful in my own approach towards understanding Southeast Asian art historiography was an immensely enjoyable affair. But having to explain the rationale behind this list – now, that is difficult, especially for someone who has gradually weaned himself off forms of critical and scholarly writing. This is not to say that I have cut myself off from my favorite addiction, reading. For me, reading is not merely a pleasure, but also a constant well of ideas for my own art works and films. I should say straightaway that this is not the list of an academic or a practicing art writer. Instead, this is simply the list of a “user” (or if you like, “abuser”). I selected texts on the basis of the following criteria: their usefulness for my understanding of Southeast Asian art historiography – the shape of its past, the dynamics of its present, as well as glimpses of a future that I imagine for it. Some of these are texts close to my heart. Others are texts with which I disagree – sometimes violently – but which, nevertheless, I regard highly: for their integrity, their force and the thoughts and works to which they gave birth. For me, a text is essentially a tool, valuable for its usefulness. This list is really a personal toolbox. Over the years, I have discovered that I possess a special love for texts whose authors, in one way or another, over-reach themselves. When they do engage with art objects, they do so by refashioning the latter into vehicles for the projection of the writers’ own anxieties and desires. If anything, the texts that fascinate me most are those that are borne out of a feverish search for “truth” that paradoxically results in an interpretative process of hallucinatory intensity. One criterion I did not take into consideration when choosing the texts was the ethnicity, nationality or discipline of the writers. As a result, eight of the ten authors on my list cannot in any way be considered “Southeast Asian.” This has to do with my general reluctance to qualify or disqualify any text or authors based on identities and origins, because I have never selected my tools based on the country that has produced them. More specifically, demarcations of this nature go against the very grain of the argument I am making with the assemblage of this list.
Ly Daravuth (interviewed by Viviana Mejía):
When Weng Choy asked me to be one of the editors, I told him that I was not quite sure how I could contribute to such a project. At the time, my work for the past several years had been focused on understanding cultural materials produced with local languages and perspectives in Cambodia, and I thought my perspectives might lack a certain international appeal. His reply to me was that my understanding of these experiences and perspectives was exactly why he wished me to be part of this project: for if someone like myself wasn’t part of the project or interested in it, then somehow this anthology would be missing the point. Maybe I really didn’t know what he meant, but I decided to participate. I appreciated that he had this desire for the project to address the issues of access to local texts and contexts. I thought, okay, the other editors are selecting more established kinds of texts – from curators, critics or art historians, who write in English, who participate in international art discourse. Whereas, the kinds of work that I was doing, and the kinds of text that I was trying to uncover for Cambodia were quite different – I mean they didn’t really fit with the rest of the selections. Over the years, through my various encounters with artists, cultural workers, and curators in the region, I’ve come to realize that there are many writings that don’t fit into established or canonized systems of references. They are somehow out of context, out of place, and they are written in different formats, different languages, from different cultural backgrounds. The challenge is how could these bodies of text be translated into this anthology. Not only in terms of the translation of languages but also in terms of contexts. Some of the writings I was thinking of are not designed per se as writings on art but rather writings that still have artistic and aesthetics aspects. There is, for instance, an “old man inscription,” which was never written from a historical perspective, nevertheless it contains historical facts.
My involvement in Comparative Contemporaries developed from my assigned work for the Southeast Asia section of the documenta 12 magazines project (d12). I had already done some research on printed periodicals and online media from the region for d12, and was becoming increasingly aware of how little the “West” knows about the region in terms of its writing; then I came across this initiative. The objective of the Comparative Contemporaries project was therefore obviously valuable to me. Among the ten articles on my list, half of them are here because of the quality and tone of writing; I chose the other half based on my interest in what I would call a meta-narrative reading of texts – that is, texts which reflect on the construction of narratives of Asian art. That three of the ten articles have been published in the same publication – focas Forum On Contemporary Art & Society – suggests that for a Western-based researcher, there are limitations to finding good articles in this region if you do not speak multiple regional languages. In the course of my research, I have learned of the mountain of problems that publishers and editors of regional magazines face: censorship, lack of funds and support, the external influences of various political forces, and so on. Two of the texts selected directly refer to these problems. Inter-regional collaborations (such as this project) might be one solution; certainly, more forums are needed to help improve the situation.
Postscript (Lee Weng Choy):
The Comparative Contemporaries project will undergo a rethink and restructuring next year. The invitation by Obieg to introduce the project to its readers is timely, and I hope to continue the conversations with Obieg as I plan the next phases of the project.