Book Review: “Retrospective: A Historiographical Aesthetic in Contemporary Singapore and Malaysia” by June Yap

How does contemporary art in Singapore and Malaysia reflect an alternative to the dominant narrative of history? June Yap’s book produces a concept of ‘Malayan’ history from the 1950s till 2010s through a selection of contemporary art from the region. In re-defining history through these works, Yap is reformulating the vocation of an art historian, as someone who is “[no] longer to produce some vivid representation of history as it really happened” (Jameson, 1984: 180), but an individual complicit in narrating a history of aesthetics through the aesthetics of history.

It is a significant book that reiterates some relatively known artists and works (e.g. Amanda Heng, Redza Piyadasa), while foregrounding artists who have yet to be canonised (e.g. Green Zeng, Seelan Palay). Throughout the book, Yap attempts to identify a ‘historiographical aesthetic’, one that possesses a “historiographical disposition” (Yap 2016: 7). An example she cites is Ho Tzu Nyen’s 4×4: Episodes of Singapore Art (2005), a four-episode television series made for national broadcast in Singapore. Each episode of the series features a work of art by a Singaporean artist. In her analysis of 4×4: Episodes of Singapore Art, Yap reflects that it comprises of five artworks in total beyond the four referred to explicitly, claiming that the series itself is the fifth artwork. If we apply Yap’s observation on her own scholarship, it might be productive to frame this book itself as possessing a ‘historiographical aesthetic’ that strives, paraphrasing Ranciére as quoted by Yap (Yap 2016: 150 / Ranciére 2004: 63), to re-distribute a normative sensibility and reconfigure perceptual forms. Perhaps the barometer Yap is measuring her scholarship against can be inferred from the following quote by Ho on 4×4: Episodes of Singapore Art:

“the art historians who interest me most are those whom I feel most powerfully reconstruct the objects they explain… What interests me [is]… an interpretation which opens up and constructs new possibilities.” (Yap 2016: 213 / Low and Ho, 2005: 128)

The reflexivity of this mapping project is evident in the structure of the book – the legend / table of contents organised in four sections (Histories, Witness, Profane and Return) starting with the beachhead and concluding at sea. This triadic relationship between land, history and art is poetically established in the introduction and consistently referred to throughout the book. I applaud her valiant attempt to resist chronology – Yap gathers objects together according to events and thematic concepts – but this resistance to linearity can be confusing to a reader who is unfamiliar with the region’s history and artworks. Yap also makes a decision to not include an index of artists and artworks she references in the book. Such an inclusion would have made her scholarship much more accessible to newer readers. This lack of an index encourages the reader to engage with the entire book as a linear entity – approaching the text and Yap’s thesis sequentially and relationally instead of sifting through the book and isolating individual artworks or artist from other artworks, histories and theories it is positioned in conversation with.

Loo Zihan’s annotations in the Table of Contents of June Yap’s “Retrospective: A Historiographical Aesthetic in Contemporary Singapore and Malaysia” (2016) in lieu of an index.

Yap builds on the historiographical groundwork laid by Marco Hsu in A Brief History of Malayan Art (1963) and art historian T.K. Sabapathy, who recorded the development of regional art scholarship in his book The Road to Nowhere: The Quick Rise and the Long Fall of Art History in Singapore (2010). She weaves their narratives together with other fragments of regional art criticism that have been recorded by Malaysian artist Wong Hoy Cheong, Singaporean artist-archivist Koh Nguang How, performance artist and academic Ray Langenbach etc. The bibliography is an impressive consolidation of scholarship on aesthetics in Singapore and Malaysia. As with innovative gestures on a newly primed canvas, a pioneer does so with broad and generous strokes, it is up to those who continue working on this canvas of art history in Singapore and Malaysia to fill it in with necessarily finer details.

The sections titled Poetry and Catachresis are two of the richest sections in this project of opening up “new possibilities” in historiographical aesthetics. Yap begins with Jason Wee and Alfian Sa’at’s poems, tying them to the accounts of life in prison by political detainees. She eventually proceeds to map Harold Bloom’s series of “revisionist ratios for the poetic endeavour” (Yap 2016: 215) onto various contemporary historiographical works from Singapore and Malaysia. These ratios includes the clinamen, also known as the swerve, that Yap defines as a “movement away from” and “in relation to another” where poetic license is taken in the revisioning of history to “esteem and estimate differently” (Yap 2016: 215). Yap performs the very act she is gesturing to in the palimpsest of Bloom’s literary psychoanalytic framework onto historiographical aesthetics, blurring the boundary between fiction / fact, aesthetics / politics, thus demonstrating the exciting conversations this swerve can potentially generate.

This elegant conceptual move is echoed once again close towards the end of the book in the section titled Beginnings. By this time, Yap has built a formidable lexicon of works and theories that she can refer to in shorthand to unpack dense and complex relations between continental philosophy (Heidegger, Badiou, and her clear favourite – Hegel) with artists and works. This is also the section where she refers to texts that reside on the fringes of art theory like Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man (1992) and Chen Kuan-Hsing’s Asia as Method: Towards Deimperialization (2010), venturing into uncharted territories of regional aesthetic scholarship.

Throughout the book, Yap maintains an authorial voice that distances her from the work she analyses – but to comprehensively critique her scholarship, it is necessary to consider the personal relationship she shares with the works and artists she refers to. It is this relationship that allows her to access and record aspects of the works from a first-hand eyewitness account. It is also these years of consistent fieldwork and her curatorial practice that lends her scholarship credibility.

It is often a privilege to read a critical analysis of your aesthetic projects and Yap refers to several of my installations and performances in her book. She was present at my enactment of Cane (2012) in Singapore and was the one who kept the cigarette butt that I stubbed out on my forearm. She engaged with my work thoroughly, referring to periphery documents, installations and performances preceding and following the main re-enactment itself – substantiating her analysis with conversations, quotes and Ray Langenbach’s scholarship that preceded mine. It is one of the rare instances that the analysis of my work moves beyond the narcissism of small differences, beyond obsession over material and form, to track how the work is sustained over a longer trajectory of time and how it can be positioned along the arc of history.

For a recent exhibition, I requested the remains of the cigarette. Yap returned it to me in a compact plastic container with a red lid, enclosed with a handwritten label of the date and name of the performance: she had archived it for four years between 2012 and 2016. It is this gesture of preserving and caring for the afterlife of a work that echoes the precision of the work Yap is performing with this book.

Exhibition documentation of performance remains from Cane (2012). Photo by Loo Zihan.

Given the nature of her scholarship, as one that requires dedicated investment over a long dureé, Yap understandably lean towards artists that she is most familiar with – this includes Wong Hoy Cheong, Zai Kuning and Ho Tzu Nyen, whom she curated for the Singapore Pavilion in the 54th Venice Biennale (2011). It is important to remember that while it is impossible for Yap provide a comprehensive overview of all works with a historiographical aesthetic produced in Singapore and Malaysia, one also imagines the potential of applying her framework of analysis to works beyond the foregrounded field of visual art. Some of the most exciting works she refers to transgress the boundaries of visual art into theatre, literature and film. Beyond the poetry on political detention mentioned above, she also refers in other sections to academic and playwright Tan Tarn How’s plays, defunct theatre group Third Stage’s Square Moon, Sonny Liew’s counterfactual political graphic novel Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (2015) and documentarian Jason Soo’s 1987: Untracing the Conspiracy (2015) film. As mentioned earlier in this review, it is the responsibility of future scholars to apply Yap’s historiographical analysis on works that defy convenient disciplinary classification.

Yap concludes the Beginnings section considering “how far the historiographical artwork can, in fact, swerve” (Yap 2016: 300). In her scholarship, Yap conservatively dissects works that are explicitly political or speak directly to the re-framing of history. The finer strokes to be filled in on this canvas would perhaps be the most controversial ones. Gestures that will test the limits of this swerve, re-visioning works that might not be explicitly historiographical within a political context or examining political events within an aesthetic framework[1]. It will be through the challenging the limits of Yap’s framework that we might be able to continue “[opening] up and [constructing] new possibilities” (Yap 2016: 213 / Low and Ho, 2005: 128) of regional aesthetic scholarship in time to come.

Jameson, Frederic. (1984) Periodizing the 60’s – Social Text No. 9/10, The 60’s without Apology (Spring – Summer, 1984), North Carolina: Duke University Press.

Ranciére, Jacques. ([2000] 2004) The Distribution of the Sensible, trans. Gabriel Rockhill, New York: Continuum.

Low, John and Ho Tzu Nyen (2005) ‘A Conversation about 4×4 – Episodes of Singapore Art’, in Singapore Art Show 2005, Singapore: National Arts Council.

[1] Some hypothetical examples include whether it possible to examine the historiographical potential of Chun Kai Feng’s formal sculptures? Or what would it look like to unpack the aesthetics behind the 2017 Singaporean Presidential Elections, framing it as performance?

Retrospective: A Historiographical Aesthetic in Contemporary Singapore and Malaysia by June Yap was published in 2016 by SIRD.

About the author(s)

Zihan Loo is pursuing a PhD in performance studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He received his MFA in Studio Practice (Filmmaking) from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and MA in Performance Studies at New York University. His research focuses on performance and resistance in Singapore. Zihan is an educator and artist working in performance, dance, theatre and the visual arts. He has taught at various arts institutions including Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and the School of the Arts, Singapore. He received the Young Artist Award by the National Arts Council in 2015. Further information on his work is available at

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