Map Is an Unwelcomed Trope

Bani Abadi, Pakistan, The Boy Who Got Tired of Posing, 2006

"No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia" is the first installment of a three-part project of the Guggenheim UBS Map Global Art Initiative. I saw the exhibition on Wednesday and was impressed by the variety of works on show. June Yap, from Singapore, is the curator of the show. I don't know anything about South and Southeast Asia art, and so cannot tell whether the chosen artists are the usual suspects of the international art circuit. The Singaporean artist Tang Da Wu I vaguely know as an art pioneer, and his modern sculptural reworking of a Chinese story is pleasing in its abstract simplicity and emotional resonance.

Do read, however, the essay by Philippine art critic Eileen Legaspi-Ramirez, who is critical of the Guggenheim's belated attempt to "map" the world of global art. She questions how much leeway and resources the Guggenheim gave to June Yap:

What I’d like to know though is if she was enabled to spring any surprises, any ventures risky enough to stir the pot by way of targeting generational and art-historical blind spots? Given that so many of these “local” histories remain unwritten and that too much writing on contemporary art in the region is, however smartened-up, problematically complicit with the marketing of auctions and fairs, just how much is the Guggenheim willing to wager to make this work? Surely quick trips that only allow one to touch base with the usual suspects in a focus country doesn’t cut it? You’d think that if they’d taken this much time to come around to “contemporary Asia,” surely they could be more enterprising about negotiating contradictions and navigating under-researched terrain?

Legaspi-Ramirez's questions make me think of another: why choose a curator from Singapore, with its relatively short history of art-making? Why not a curator from India or even from the Phillippines, with their much longer traditions of not just art production but also critical discourse? I am nationalistically proud that a Singaporean was selected for the job, but suspicious about the reasons. Did the Singapore government's economic-minded promotion of the arts get the attention of global players like the Guggenheim? Did the selection board think that a curator from cosmopolitan Singapore would fall in more readily with the project's assumptions and practices? These are troubling questions with no clear answers, precisely because the powers-that-be, like the Guggenheim, hold no brief but for themselves.


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