Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

Regional Departures: An Interview with David Teh on “Misfits: Pages from a Loose-Leaf Modernity”

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Between 21 April to 3 July this year, Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) in Berlin hosted Misfits: Pages from a Loose-Leaf Modernity, curated by David Teh. The exhibition featured three artists from Southeast Asia: Fillipino filmmaker Rox Lee, who sowed the seeds of a nascent experimental scene; Thai artist and poet Tang Chang, known for his “visual poems” that overturned traditional Thai poetry; and Burmese artist Bagyi Aung Soe, who was not only revered by the country’s intellectual circles, but was also a prominent film actor. Emphatic was the exhibition’s breadth of media—cartoons, animation, poems and book cover illustrations, among others, displaying “loose-leaf” outputs that exceed prevailing conceptions of the ‘oeuvre’. Marcus Yee spoke with David Teh about the artists, the display system and Southeast Asia’s entanglements in the ‘global’.

 

Marcus Yee (M): By way of contextualisation, what was the impetus for Misfits?

David Teh (D): Misfits emerged out of a long conversation. For four years I’ve been studying the work of the Sino-Thai artist Tang Chang (1934-1990). Chang was an artist’s artist. He’s well known amongst experimental and intellectually inclined artists in Thailand, but all his life, he kept his distance from the market and from art’s institutions, so he hasn’t been historicised within the main narratives of Thai art history. The majority of his oeuvre has been kept by his family, but they hadn’t the resources to initiate thorough research. For an art historian’s purposes, he was basically a modernist, but art history has told us almost nothing about him. The impetus for my own research really came from curators, people working outside of Southeast Asia who wanted to show his work in contemporary art contexts.

Outside Thailand, people knew about Chang but with western institutions clamouring to globalize their collections, and museums springing up all over Asia, this ‘undiscovered’ modernist had an obvious appeal. I was fascinated by the question of how this ‘modern art’ seemed ‘contemporary’ to them, why it seemed relevant to the present. Meanwhile I’d started a conversation with Anselm Franke, who runs the visual art programme at HKW, around questions of stewardship – who takes responsibility for an artist’s legacy? Which factors condition their role? HKW doesn’t have a collection, but was launching a long-term project on the process of canon formation, in the context of that broader shift towards ‘global’ collecting. They provided some modest funding, which allowed us to begin to catalogue Chang’s oeuvre in a methodical way.

Over several years I was looking out for artists who might be similarly poised on this landscape. I had a list of maybe ten or twelve. When I was asked to make a show in Berlin and a space was assigned for it, I had to cut that down. I was dimly familiar with Bagyi Aung Soe when I got to see some of his work in the flesh in the Reframing Modernism show at National Gallery Singapore (NGS). A few of Chang’s works were also in that show and I saw a striking kinship between them. Around them, one could’ve put together an interesting bunch of outsider modernists. But their simpatico – and their relevance to the present – ran much deeper than their fringe status, particularly in their explorations of spirituality, language and drawing, and their engagements with international aesthetics, without really being in dialogue with artists beyond their respective countries.

Quite fortuitously, in another context, I learned about the Manila-based artist Rox Lee, in many ways another kindred spirit: also tirelessly experimental, also on the fringes of a national art history. I knew him as a filmmaker – he’d made a number of brilliant short films in the mid-1980s that had legendary status amongst Filipino artists of my own generation – but I hadn’t realised the interdisciplinary breadth of his work. He was musical, performative, and was well known as a cartoonist, before he started making films. The more I saw, the more I was convinced he belonged in the project.

Still, bringing these artists together was an unorthodox move – three singular figures from three distinct times and places. It was more about what I couldn’t do with them, than what I could do. Their careers have spanned eight decades, so any historical proposition would be fuzzy at best; and as they didn’t share a milieu, there was no claim to be made about a particular place or culture. This meant that their individuality, their individual experiences, would be the starting point for any comparison. I wanted to reflect the circumstances of canonisation in Southeast Asia, without doing a show about Southeast Asia. It was also unorthodox to show two dead artists with one living artist, because when an artist dies, a different institutional machinery kicks in, a whole other economy. I liked how this threw wide open the question of contemporaneity. What is it that actually separates the modern from the contemporary?

M: I understand that there were other key figures in the research of the exhibition. Could you introduce them and their roles?

D: With pleasure. My conversations with Anselm and Hyunjin Kim, who co-curated the concurrent show 2 or 3 Tigers, were pivotal. And I’d seen each of the artists through the lens of an individual researcher. On Tang Chang, from the start I was working closely with Bangkok-based independent curator Mary Pansanga. Merv Espina, a Manila-based artist and researcher, had taught me most of what I knew about Rox Lee, and was developing an archive, gathering and scanning Rox’s films. Art historian Yin Ker had worked on Aung Soe for a decade already and I’d read many of her essays. These three were very involved in shaping the show. I would also mention Chang’s son, Thip Sae-tang; and the Singaporean gallerist Jasdeep Sandhu, from whom we borrowed most of the Aung Soe works.

I wanted to include these people, not just in making the show – which would’ve been impossible without them – but also to make visible the workforce, the state of the human resources in modern art’s value chain. Such research is largely a labour of love. These ‘stewards’ have spent years rendering the legacies of these artists, making them available for future generations with little or no institutional support. But they don’t share the same training, methods or ambitions. This is the mixed professional reality in Southeast Asia. It’s very different to western contexts where the market and Art History are more mature, more entrenched.

Photo: Laura Fiorio / HKW

M: In your curatorial essay, you described several affinities between, as well as singularities of, the three artists. Could you elaborate on the process of selecting these three artists?

D: Apart from those I’ve mentioned, one important connection is that none of their legacies have been mediated by national institutions. When an artist’s importance is recognized abroad before it is at home, different values arise and a different set of stories can be told with and around the work. Another is that all three actually cultivated large audiences, particularly through print media, but separately from their ‘fine art’ practices. As museums start to collect beyond their habitual geographies, they inevitably go for things that resemble the modern art they’ve collected for decades. But very different formal hierarchies operate in Southeast Asia. As young men, both Aung Soe and Rox Lee aspired to become cartoonists; Tang Chang probably reached more people with his self-published poetry and translations than ever saw his oil paintings, and the same is certainly true of Aung Soe’s illustrations. Of course, the ‘fine art’ is more collectible and will be more valuable, but their works on paper shouldn’t be tacked onto the story as marginalia – in all three cases, this was how they reached their main audience, their primary public. More affinities emerged in the process of making the exhibition. For instance, we knew they all worked with very modest materials, but the significance of this only really emerges when you bring the works together and they have to share a space. We tried hard to suspend the usual hierarchies, say, between finished art works and the more ‘loose-leaf’ materials.

M: The exhibition explicitly positioned these artists as ‘misfits’. Beyond the accusation of fetishising ‘outsider art’, in itself an automatic critique well-rehearsed in contemporary art discourse, how was an essentialist framing avoided? How did the exhibition address the ethical issues behind representing the ‘outsider’?

D: I was content for the show to read on the surface like a gathering of ‘outsider modernists.’ As you suggest, that’s an established genre on the exhibitionary landscape, but I’m not really bothered by it. I’m concerned with the viewer who actually sees the show, not with the armchair critics, and it was obvious to most viewers that there was a lot more going on beneath that surface. The strategy was to let the artists stand for themselves. We hung the show in three discrete sections. The artists weren’t there to represent larger entities; they weren’t flying national flags and we didn’t try to distill some regional story – this was in keeping with the research done by my collaborators.

Photo: Laura Fiorio / HKW

M: You further disarticulated the use of Western modern art history to scaffold discussions on Southeast Asian modern art. What were some examples of interpretive pitfalls, and their alternatives, in reference to artworks from the exhibition?

D: There are many. I was interested in what these works might look like if we left the Western art historical vocabulary at the door. What might we make of Chang’s abstraction without that Euro-American baggage? How would we interpret Rox Lee’s irreverent animations and collage-films in a world where Pop had not been institutionalized? I’m not alone in asking these questions – some art historians have been trying similar approaches. Another good example concerns the use of text in visual art. This is one trait that clearly appeals to the international curatorium, determined to sketch the pre-history of a contemporary art that is a priori ‘global.’ But for those versed in Western postwar art, it can be hard to see this evidence outside the frame of conceptualism. Each of these ‘misfits’ discovered and exploited the visuality of text, but none of them were conceptualists. Their linguistic, literary and media contexts were very different, as was the amplitude of text in each place. Rox Lee’s constant modulations between Tagalog and English reflect a very long history of subversive appropriation and linguistic hacking in The Philippines. Aung Soe drew on Pali and esoteric Buddhism; his theorisation of Burmese modern art was written from a transcultural perspective, informed by his studies at Santiniketan in postcolonial India. Tang Chang’s paintings and visual poems distill an abstract idiom out of Thai, a language he struggled to master as the son of poor immigrants in Bangkok, and from the Chinese literature he embraced even as it was being suppressed by Thai chauvinism, during the Cold War. At some point we may indeed want to expand the notion of ‘global conceptualism’ to accommodate these positions, but first we should attend to the complexities.

M: Exhibition design was one of the most striking aspects of Misfits. Sheets of wire-mesh, like those from storage systems for two-dimensional work, were used as display panels. How did the intermediary space between storage and display inform this exhibition?

D: That’s an interesting characterization of the display system. I thought of it more as a kind of graph paper, or like the gridded surface you might find on a draughtsman’s drawing board. In any case, I can’t take credit for it! The system was conceived by an architectural team, Kooperative für Darstellungspolitik. Gathering so many works on paper, we’d pictured a pretty horizontal show, but the architects picked up the ‘loose-leaf’ idea and ran with it – they wanted to make the display as vertical as possible. Physically, most of the works were slight, many on scraps of paper, some falling apart after decades exposed to the tropical atmosphere. In the end we kept a few table-top vitrines. But the nice thing about the mesh system was that it made the works feel more transparent and mobile, as if they might be shuffled around, put aside, then later resumed, like drafts. In fact that’s an accurate description of many of the drawings we showed. You can’t do this at a museum, where all the stakeholders have one eye (at least) on the objects’ market value. It was a privilege to work with HKW, an institution with high technical standards, but without some of the inhibitions that come along with collecting.

Tang Chang, “Untitled”, 1969, oil on canvas, 98 x 103 cm. Courtesy: Thip Sae-Tang. Installation view. Photo: Laura Fiorio / HKW

M: The wire-mesh enabled audiences to see both sides of the work—the image and its support. This mode of display was necessary in Tang Chang’s Untitled (1969), where holes made onto the surface canvas were pores that allowed the picture plane to seep into its support. However, other small drawings from Tang Chang and Bagyi Aung Soe were displayed in a similar fashion, at risk of clutter and distraction. What were the processes involved in devising this mode of display?

D: It was a complex set of discussions, with the researchers on one side, and with the architects on the other. When the basic division of the space was settled, the selection of works and artifacts had to be finalized, before the mesh could be fabricated and installed. Once everything was hung, the system allowed for fine-tuning, but not for improvisation. This was a challenge for me – I’m used to a smaller kitchen, with fewer cooks.

M: How did you see Misfits in relation to regional surveys of Southeast Asia?

D: I think it’s better for others to comment on this. I’m often critical of large surveys, which tend to be about diplomatic showcasing, or about vetting a putative canon, or both. Where Southeast Asia is concerned, a lot of the big institutional surveys have also been acquisitive vehicles, and this complicates the curatorial gambit in ways that are too rarely acknowledged. In comparison, Misfits is a small study, not a counter-proposal. We’re starting from the singularity of individual artists’ practices, which may or may not yield unseen resonances, or a productive unpicking of Art History’s vocabularies. Curating in the regional frame doesn’t have to be a colour-by-numbers exercise starting with a map of ASEAN.

M: The exhibition was part of HKW’s long-term research entitled the “Kanon-Fragen” (canon questions) to question the global system of validation. As articulated by Gerado Mosquera, this asymmetrical system could be divided between “curating west” and the “curated rest”. Could you elaborate more on the ideological problems behind the ‘global canon’?

D: I’ve written about this in my book Thai Art: Currencies of the Contemporary, and other recent essays. Like many people working in contemporary art in Southeast Asia, I broadly welcome the ‘global’ reframing because it’s been a circuit-breaker, a way for artists and their work to communicate beyond the confines of nation and region. But at the same time I think we need to be circumspect about the assimilations going on – both formal and conceptual – under the banner of this global exchange. And we need to hold artists (and curators) to account for their manipulation and arbitrage in that system. Informed criticism is harder and harder to find, but it has never been more important.

Photo: Laura Fiorio / HKW

M: There is much ongoing work to discipline and pave the way for Southeast Asia’s entrance into the ‘global canon’. What are your reservations towards such concerted efforts?

D: I have mixed feelings. Western institutions are becoming interested in Southeast Asia, and this is long overdue. Yet in a way, the slower it happens, the better. A huge amount of research and writing needs to be done, and I’m disappointed by the failure of Asian universities to take this field seriously. Every boosterish press release about Southeast Asian contemporary art rings hollow for me, because young people in the region still can’t get respectable degrees in art history or exhibition studies. Singapore has become the main crossroads for the regional workforce and the inauguration of the NGS is a huge step, upping the ante in a serious way. With rapid institutional development Asia-wide, a whole new generation of thinkers is emerging, far more transnationally aware and plugged in than their predecessors. But they need pathways and support to develop their research, they need mentors, they need to teach. They can’t all work at the museum! The state of art studies in Singapore’s universities is an embarrassment – they’re missing a huge opportunity.

M: Something could be said about Germany’s hospitality to the ‘global’. For instance, one could name the ongoing development of the “Global Museum” programme, initiated by the German Federal Cultural Foundation and Goethe-Institut in 2015, which involves a re-assessment of museum collections in Berlin, Düsseldorf and Frankfurt. In a review for Der Tagesspiegel, Nicola Kuhn wrote that “David Teh’s exhibition appears to be a prelude to the “Global Museum”.” Do you see Misfits in alignment with the “Global Museum” programme? Do you agree with Kuhn?

D: I was aware of that programme, but I haven’t followed it closely. Is Misfits a “prelude” to such initiatives? Not for my purposes. I’m responding to broad changes in the way modern art is being understood and collected. This refocusing has been happening in many places simultaneously, for more than a decade, as the world’s economic centre of gravity shifts. I was lucky to work with HKW – though it belongs to the German federal government and is therefore subject to the same policy imperatives, it stands somewhat apart from the museum sector. It has become a site where the rubric of ‘global’ art history can be interrogated.

M: If the exhibition travels back to the region, which aspects of the exhibition would be changed? What would you anticipate in terms of reception?

D: I can’t anticipate the reception. It’d depend on where it was shown and there are no concrete plans as yet. But I’d love to see it circulated, simply to share these amazing works with others in the region. It would certainly be mounted differently – that hanging system was customized for the situation at HKW. Artists could be added, or substituted. The idea is quite modular and there are many artists whose work might be fruitfully unpacked in such a way. So I’ll be happy to hear from any curator who’d like to roll with it!


Guest Contributor Marcus Yee is an artist and writer from Singapore. His artistic research takes an interest in materialisms and their contradictions. He has participated in group shows in LUMA Westbau, Zürich; BANK Gallery, Shanghai; and in Singapore. He is a regular contributor to ArtAsiaPacfic and Arts Equator and maintains an art-writing blog, Right Afters.

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