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December 29, 2015

Editorial: The Politics of Southeast Asian Contemporary Art


As indicated by the expression «the politics of» in the title, and as demonstrated by the articles in this issue, Southeast Asian contemporary art is neither a politically neutral, nor a geographically exact concept. Many of the artists in Southeast Asia are facing local demands to take part in still ongoing, post-colonial cultural processes of nation building, under circumstances that sometimes are precarious in terms of human rights and the freedom of speech; in which there is also a strong need to reformulate subjectivities/ identities, as well as to renew and rewrite (art) histories. The challenges in these tasks are even further increased and complicated by economic and geopolitical agendas that nourish themselves from clichés about national/ regional identity – and as part of which, paradoxically, larger venues of contemporary art and biennales often operate seamlessly.

During the military dictatorship in Burma, art served a function of personal protest and as a means of survival that still not many people know about. The artists Ko Z and San Zaw Htway (interviewed by Luigi Galimberti and Ilaria Benini) also share their doubts and anxieties concerning the future of the country  – despite the fact that the first free elections since 1990 were finally held in November 2015. Even though the conditions for free expression have partly improved since 2011, they remain insecure – especially for the country’s many minorities.

Clearly, the vital, contemporary challenges faced by Burmese artists are comparable to other places in the region – a fact that is not necessarily reflected by the current definitions of Southeast Asian contemporary art. At the opposite end of the visibility scale of global contemporary art, we find such cultural lighthouses as Singapore - a country in the same region, where the possibility of censorship is also ubiquitous.[1] In her article, “Re-evaluating (art-) historical ties: The politics of showing Southeast Asian art and culture in Singapore (1963-2013)”, Yvonne Low demonstrates how the metropolis has literally instated itself as the principal image and marketing agent in the global mediation of Southeast Asian identity. According to Low, the country has seen a (geo-)politically motivated process during half a century in which the increasing institutionalization of «Southeast Asian contemporary art» has been proportional to investments in the cultural sector, and in parallel with this, to a

(…) self-conscious desire to position itself not only as a global city but more precisely, a global city of Southeast Asia.

One of the many sub-categories of Southeast Asian contemporary art is "Chinese Southeast Asian contemporary art". Nobuo Takamori points out that "Chinese Southeast Asians" is one of the many ethnic concepts that are constructed by other ethnic groups, across and between the countries in Southeast Asia, and that are problematic for many artists to have to relate their art to: Their identities and histories are as difficult to define through the new, national narratives in the region, as they would be from a fixed viewpoint based in continental China and its cultural history.  Notwithstanding, the circumscribed field of "Chinese Southeast Asian contemporary art" and the perception ascribed to its associated artists, proves to be a valuable tool: This is, precisely, due to its usefulness in highlighting the complex political image of the region after WW2, and not least also; the cultural manipulation that the populations of the region were exposed to, as part of the Cold War logic.

The ongoing, 8th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, reviewed by Paolo Magagnoli, seems to join the worldwide tendency to subsume contemporary art under politically and economically motivated fictions about local/ regional identities. This is not synonymous, however, with a lack of critical/ political themes – instead, according to Magagnoli, it here implies a «simulacrum of criticism»: In similar fashion to many other biennales and international art events of the last decade, political themes are being exploited as an apparent alibi and means to dissimulate the need for a real reflection concerning the socio-economic conditions which art and its spaces of presentation are bound by.

For her part, Bharti Lalwani provides momentum to the universal and inclusive appeal in Southeast Asian contemporary art, giving examples of how it may serve as an inspiration for other art scenes. During a lecture she held during her stay as a founding-resident at the AICA-Kunsthaus Wien Art Critic Residency, this became a central focus:

By examining contemporary art practices of Southeast Asian artists across three generations, I have found that many employed art as a medium to critique moral assumptions, corruption, repression, social inequality, totalitarianism, political power and its connection with religious fanaticism. History too has been relentlessly investigated by SEA artists who illuminate its dark half-forgotten chapters in order to contest contemporary mainstream suppositions and prejudice. These are concepts that transcend their specific local circumstances (...).

It is also against this background, and from the viewpoint that art may provide an opportunity to try to understand, and to create empathy with the other, that Lalwani in her “Travelogue” bravely takes on the task of trying to understand this art scene where locally and historically reflective exhibitions of contemporary art seem conspicuously difficult to find.

The recent proliferation of social art practices in Java is the theme of two articles included in this issue. Kathrine Bruhn discusses this development – its history and possible definitions – with reference to the examples of Taring Padi and Ketjilbergerak. Active during the reformasi-period at the turn of the centuries, Taring Padi was an artist collective that worked to provide a voice to suppressed local communities, particularly workers and peasants. Four years after the volcanic eruption near Sidoarjo in 2006, for example, the group helped the dispersed local community hold a memorial over the event; it helped them preserve their local history and to continue the battle for rights they had been refused. The heritage after Taring Padi is today blossoming, Bruhn explains – among others, in the artist collective Ketjilbergerak that works to develop artistic activities as alternative forms of learning.

In the second article from Java - in which, by the way, the theme of the art residency returns – Mitha Budhyarto reflects upon the basic categories of residency – friendship and hospitality – as political categories (of friendship/ enmity).  She uses the example of Jatiwangi Art Factory (JaF) to show us that the «host» category does not necessarily mean an authority that has the last word of acknowledgment over the “guest” at the moment the latter becomes assimilated into a “friend”. JaF is an artist collective in West-Java, which among other things organizes two festivals that take place every year, and an artist residency. Their activities that are based on cooperation between the guest artists and the population, can be seen as experiments in ways of living together, solving local/ rural problems – at the same time as these are seen in a global perspective.

[1] See for example June Yap's article "Fear of speaking",, in Seismopolite Journal of Art and Politics issue 2, 2011.