“Southeast Asian art history doesn’t have a canon yet”: Isabel Ching – interview

Singaporean curator and academic Isabel Ching discusses the challenges of making art in Southeast Asia.

Art Radar met up with Isabel Ching in Bangkok, where she is currently curating the Brandnew Art Project, a Bangkok University Gallery initiative that will show works by young Thai artists year on year. We spoke to Ching about the Project, her research into Conceptualism and her thoughts on art in Southeast Asia.

Isabel Ching

Isabel Ching. Image courtesy Bangkok Univerisity Gallery.

You are from and based in Singapore, where the government has actively supported art and culture: the National Art Gallery of Singapore will be opening soon, and there is a growing number of art festivals in the city that feature Southeast Asian contemporary art – for example, the Singapore Biennale. All this looks like an attempt to become the art hub of the Southeast Asian region. From a local point of view, what’s your experience of the development of art in your country? And what do you anticipate the Singapore art scene will look like in the near future?

Yes, it is indeed an attempt to be the art hub in this region. The focus of the collection in the National Gallery will be on Southeast Asian Modern Art. No doubt [that] the Singapore government, compared to other countries from Southeast Asia, has really given a lot of options for financial support of the arts. As the result, I think that more conceptually-oriented art – or the more art which is not found on the usual Asian market – has been given a space to grow, and [artists] are able to get through project proposals that they submitted to the government. Finally, they’re able to find funding support for their projects. So in a way, I think the interesting conceptually-based artists, as well as performance artists, are coming out in Singapore. At least, there is room to grow with an art infrastructure that supports them.

In countries like the Philippines, Myanmar and also Thailand, it’s more difficult for the artists who are left on their own. So this is why, I think, Brandnew Art Project is so worthwhile, because it gives the artist [both] acknowledgement and some financial support. And hopefully, artists will then use this opportunity as a kind of encouragement for them to persist in their practices. I think it’s very difficult when you are not doing art that can attract Thai art collectors. Even if you are a very good artist, it will be a very long road before you become internationally validated and able to sell your work at an international level.

But of course, it’s going to be another question whether or not this sort of support from the Singapore government is enough, or whether artists actually need more understanding of the cultural realm by the government in order to set up an adequate support structure for art. Some of our [regional] neighbours think that maybe Singaporean artists are spoiled compared to them. And also, some Singaporeans say that the city’s artists have relied too much on the government. As a result, they are not finding their own way, unlike the artists [in Thailand] and in the Philippines, who can be so creative, can still continue in art production and have exhibitions without any support from the government. Those artists are very creative and very driven about this. So I think the question of how to support artistic growth in every country is actually a complex question, and requires a deeper understanding of what culture is and what it needs to sustain itself.

So the infrastructure is not only part of art advancement, it’s also art education?

Yes, art education, visual literacy… We’re just very poor [in that way] in Singapore.

Rattawalee Chanchawvalit, Brandnew Art Project 2013 at Bangkok University Gallery.

Rattawalee Chanchawvalit, Brandnew Art Project 2013 at Bangkok University Gallery. Image courtesy Bangkok Univerisity Gallery.

It’s the same in Thailand. It’s barely possible to penetrate or interpret conceptually-oriented art without acquiring the visual literacy.

Yes! How can you communicate in art if visual literacy is so poor? And actually, sometimes I think governments or state institutions perpetuate this because they think that they should lower how difficult art is, they should make it much easier in order to communicate or to go out to the public, instead of trying to educate people or make people think more. I think it’s a slow process to educate people and the problem in Singapore is that we want it all too quickly, we want it instantly. For example, in Singapore, if you want a tree you don’t grow it, you uproot the existing tree. That’s the problem. You have to think in the longer term, not about an instant result, not about something necessarily measurable by economics. So I think this is what Singapore needs to understand as well.

How do you define “Southeast Asian contemporary art”? Does it simply mean any work made by Southeast Asian artists?

Again, it’s not an easy question. On the one hand, the term “Southeast Asia” was brought about by the Cold War and all that, like a strategic point; we can kind of identify Southeast Asia more easily than, let’s say, Asia. When you ask “what is Asia?”, it will never end. Where does Asia start and Europe begin? It could spread so widely, but then some people just consider Asia to be China, Japan and South Korea. Another person would think about India. But anything else is lost.

What is interesting in Southeast Asia is that it’s so based on maritime culture. I think an interesting mix of things has been happening for a very long time, because we are between India and China; some of the most interesting things can be found in a place which is between big regions. In my thesis, when I tried to study Southeast Asian artists, I questioned the idea of Southeast Asia as an entity: is it a cultural entity? An artistic one? And does it make sense to define ourselves as Southeast Asian?

In a way, Myanmar, Singapore and the Philippines are three very contrasting countries; they have very different histories and geographies. But there are some similar conditions that we went through as a whole. So there is a basis for comparison: to what extent can we compare, find similarity and find that certain point where we break apart?

I’m sure when you asked this question you were thinking about the National Art Gallery in Singapore and also Singapore Art Museum. They have been focusing on Southeast Asian Art, which is really great. I think many people seem to feel that there is at least some sort of financial support and serious state support for this enterprise in Southeast Asia, and everybody from the region can contribute and at least start to build this thing by the consistent support.

On the other hand, there is the question of whether Singapore is exercising imperialism. Or questions like, why don’t we just focus on Singapore? Why do we claim the whole of Southeast Asia? So the questions have been going on and I don’t think I have an answer. What I can do, through my research and practice, is find the connections and also understand, accept and realise where they break apart.

Nut Sawasdee, Brandnew Art Project 2013 at Bangkok University Gallery.

Nut Sawasdee, Brandnew Art Project 2013 at Bangkok University Gallery. Image courtesy Bangkok Univerisity Gallery.

As a curator and art academic, how did you avoid over-generalisation when using the term “Southeast Asian art” in your research? Likewise, the word “Asian” itself,  which has been used as a deductive definition of anything from this part of the world regardless of differences in, for example, geographical, cultural or political contexts.

One thing that I try to do is to look at small facts and to take a modest approach, because in history and historical research it’s particularity that actually makes up the content for a historian. I think we have to pursue these particularities and we have to keep open-minded as well, then follow the actors in different societies and see what they tell us and what we discover from them. I think these artists will discover unlikely connections and correspondences. Assumptions you probably held would disintegrate and you realise that they do not really have any real substance. That’s my approach.

Surat Satsaeng, Brandnew Art Project 2013 at Bangkok University Gallery.

Surat Satsaeng, Brandnew Art Project 2013 at Bangkok University Gallery. Image courtesy Bangkok Univerisity Gallery.

Why do you really look at conceptual art?

As a historical phenomenon in Southeast Asia, conceptual art is not often spoken of. If you look at the language itself, it can look very minimal and sometimes it can look a bit formal. The message itself is not necessarily clear to anyone and it can look like minimal art from the West. It’s not what [the West] wants to see as coming from Asian artists, it’s not what they think it’s an important art coming from Asian artists.

I think it’s not only about signs that help you to identify the work, but you have to be subtler. Even from the formal aspect of the work, the content will arise, and then you need to look at it deeply and to understand its context, why they [the artists] are doing this, what the work says – it’s about this sort of condition and of production. If someone is a good artist, you can’t help to respond to the world around you, and you may try to purpose different conditions, different strategies, a different way of changing the rules of the game, and that’s not obvious or simply signed by ethnic differences, for example. When you look at those conceptually-oriented artists of the 1970s and 1980s, they are strongly concerned with a method which is not only chosen as a formal development. This operated, to me, in a peculiar way within a certain context, so that’s what I am trying to look for.

Let’s talk about your PhD thesis, “Conceptualism in Myanmar, the Philippines and Singapore: 1960s – 1990s.” What is the original question of your research and what really drives you to seek for understanding?

We don’t really have a canon for Southeast Asian art history yet. So I consider whatever work I and my fellow colleagues are doing, as building up knowledge and offering different perspectives, as well as challenging how to construct knowledge in a meaningful way and how to educate future generations. So it’s not exactly like in the West where they already have their canon and they tried to break it down. I think it’s important to have various and different ways to tell a story. So I try to bring up what I think has been neglected in terms of knowledge about this subject. [Southeast Asian art] is not completely unknown, but it’s not yet seriously studied, like many other things.

To put it very simply, I am trying to provide an alternative way to tell a story. Even in the place where the canon has not yet really been formed, there are already certain narratives. They are formed by power and they get circulated. As I said, I tried to pursue the particularities and to let them guide me.

Wut Chalanant, Brandnew Art Project 2013 at Numthong Gallery at Aree.

Wut Chalanant, Brandnew Art Project 2013 at Numthong Gallery at Aree. Image courtesy Bangkok Univerisity Gallery.

Why are the Philippines and Myanmar included together with Singapore in your research? Is there any connection between the artists you study from each country – Po Po (Myanmar), Roberto Chabet (The Philippines), Cheo Chai-Hiang (Singapore)?

As I said before, these are not countries that can easily be compared. During [my study], my colleagues asked why these three, why didn’t I chose something easier like Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. I don’t think I am interested in following the same line, but not just for the sake of being different or anything like that: I want to question some assumptions.

For these three locations, Conceptualism is a travelling concept. If you look at these three people, they seem to share some similarities, but if you look at their individual practices, they are very different. For Po Po, his conceptualism is really integral to his studies in Buddhist knowledge, and his artwork then is [made] under the very closed conditions of Myanmar in that time. His conceptual orientation is rather like theoretical study and meditative practices in Buddhism.

Then we have Cheo Chai-Hiang, whose work is about language and how he is a person from Singapore travelling around the world, understanding the tension and friction between English and Chinese, as well as between the different societies he has lived in.

And Roberto Chabet is such a master of his artistic language. If you look at his work, it’s full of construction and a lot of beauty. What he actually wants to say is how a practice makes sense with the context. His achievement is very meaningful.

Sarisa Dhammalangka, Brandnew Art Project 2013 at WTF Gallery.

Sarisa Dhammalangka, Brandnew Art Project 2013 at WTF Gallery. Image courtesy Bangkok Univerisity Gallery.

Let’s move on to the Brandnew Art Project 2014. You have been appointed as a curator to select young Thai artists, to conceptualise all the selected works and to interweave their concepts into one exhibition spread over three venues. What is your criteria or what are you looking for in each work?

I am doing this as a kind of residency; it’s not like I am flying to Bangkok for one week to choose artwork. I have spent some time getting to know people and the local art scene in order to choose [works]. What I’ve tried to do then is to select from what I’ve learned from my experiences during the residency.

It’s actually a crucial and exciting time to be in Bangkok. I can really sense the fragility of the situation. So one of the ideas by Nat Sawasdee, who worked out very much on the street, is how to bring what is out there on the street into the gallery. All the artists are reflecting the situation, which makes me feel excited to be working with them. None of them came to me with any specific proposals for an exhibition, none of them had prepared in that way. So they just showed me their artwork, what they’ve done and what they wanted to do in the future. Of course, the [chosen] artists must demonstrate that they can do serious art practice, because we know that this is an unusual opportunity. The selected artists are from 10 percent or less of applicants, so it’s a very precious opportunity for them.

We really need someone who has that drive to continue in art practice, so we give them an additional push for them in order to continue. In every country in Southeast Asia, or all over the world when art students graduate, you have only a handful of students who can continue practicing art and the rest of them will go for graphic design or so on. When I saw these different projects that made me feel excited, I wanted to see what the artists will do next if they are given an opportunity.

I have chosen artists who are quite different from each other. I wrote in my curatorial statement that contemporary reality has so many different options and different directions in which art practices can go. I didn’t want to push only one particular style or strategy of art making, but we are able to accommodate many types of contemporary art. I wanted to bring out the differences of contemporary reality into six solo exhibitions under the Brandnew Art Project, supported by Bangkok University Gallery.

Yingyod Yenarkarn, Brandnew Art Project 2013 at WTF Gallery.

Yingyod Yenarkarn, Brandnew Art Project 2013 at WTF Gallery. Image courtesy Bangkok Univerisity Gallery.

What’s the most difficult part of this exhibition?

Definitely language!

So you find it difficult to communicate to people here in Bangkok in English?

Some of them are OK, but some are not. And my Thai assistant curator helps. But again, nothing can really replace [shared language]. When I was trying to talk to the artists and to convey their ideas… Some words they need to use are really specific and I have the constant feeling that a lot of mistranslations are going on. Even when we speak in the same language, there are still many mistranslations and a lot of feelings between the gaps. Therefore, I am trying to make that gap become an interesting thing, because you cannot control everything, so I see that as a space of possibility. So I am very aware of the possible mistranslation in this project. This struggle, however, could be productive if you apply some skill and thought to it, and see how turns into a positive thing.

Working with young artists is especially interesting, because they are more open to new ideas and possibilities; it’s different from when you are working with the more mature artists. These are their first solo shows; before they just thought about making their work and putting it in a space. Now, they have to start thinking more about installations, audiences and everything. So the greatest challenge for me is to learn and see this as the space of possibility rather than restriction.

What else have you observed while you’ve been living in Bangkok?

The question for just-graduated art students is: why do they need to continue making art? Why is it still important to them? I think in Thailand, or some other parts in Southeast Asia, it’s not easy to make art for a living. Sometimes you feel like you are talking to yourself and it can be very lonely. At some point, you have to insist in order to exist.

Judha Su


Related Topics: events in Bangkok, Thai artists, Singapore artists, Filipino artists, Myanmar artists, curatorial practice, emerging artists, conceptual art, interviews

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