The Guggenheim Museum, ever globally ambitious, is currently presenting “No Country: Contemporary Art for Southeast Asia” (through May 22), featuring 22 artists and collectives selected by the Singapore-born curator June Yap. Representing 10 nations often neglected by Western institutions (Bangladesh, Myanmar, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippines, India, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam), the show is the first phase of a multi-year project launched in collaboration with the financial powerhouse Union Bank of Switzerland. The Guggenheim UBS Map Global Art Initiative charts contemporary art in three developing regions—South and Southeast Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East and North Africa. In addition to exhibitions, curatorial residencies and educational programs, the project includes purchase of the exhibited works for the Guggenheim’s permanent collection.
June Yap recently spoke to A.i.A. about her curatorial objectives for “No Country,” her vision of the culturally diverse region it surveys, and the overall goals of the Guggenheim UBS Map Initiative.
RICHARD VINE What’s your professional background, and what do you think led most directly to your appointment by the Guggenheim?
JUNE YAP I received my MA in art history from the University of Melbourne, and over the last 10 years I’ve done a fair amount of writing and worked for institutions such as the Singapore Art Museum and the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore. As an independent curator, I organized shows at the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen [Stuttgart], Osage Gallery [Hong Kong] and the National University of Singapore Museum. Just before my appointment to the MAP project I curated the Singapore pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale , presenting Ho Tzu Nyen’s video installation The Cloud of Unknowing, a work referencing both the 14th-century mystical treatise and Hubert Damisch’s semiotic thesis A Theory of /Cloud/: Toward a History of Painting. I imagine these activities may have had some bearing on my appointment.
VINE Where will you live now, and what will your role be once this show is over?
YAP “No Country” will travel to the Asia Society in Hong Kong and then to a venue in Singapore that is yet to be announced. I anticipate that the discussion on the subject of the region and its contemporary practices will evolve in invigorating ways as the show tours. As I am in the midst of my PhD candidature at the National University of Singapore in the cultural studies in Asia program, I intend to return to that at the completion of this project.
VINE Can you explain the rather mysterious exhibition title?
YAP The exhibition title is in part derived from William Butler Yeats’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium,” which begins with the line, “That is no country for old men.” As an exhibition title it performs in two respects. Firstly, it evokes the notion of lineage and transformation. In Yeats’s poem, Byzantium, an empire that flourished for centuries with wealth, power, culture and faith, is contrasted with the poet’s own sense of impending mortality.
Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men picks up on the subjects of the pursuit of well-being, the struggle against corporeality, and the unavoidability of death, adapting Yeats’s themes to a very stark West Texas setting. In both works, you have some traversal of geography, but it is the Yeats-to-McCarthy adaptation that’s most relevant to the exhibition, because it mirrors the cultural and historical transformations in South and Southeast Asia, which transcend the region’s separate and distinct countries today. Secondly, the title in its literal sense is about the idea of borderlessness—the possibility of exceeding geopolitical delineations and confines, or not privileging the standard categories invoked in regional exhibitions. “No Country” reflects a shift of curatorial framing from didacticism to a more dialogical approach.
VINE How did you go about making your selections?
YAP I’ve worked with some of the artists previously or known about their practice, but I also made a lot of new studio visits. The goal was to present notable artists with critical practices whose works, in being absorbed into the museum’s collection, can become the foundation for further engagement and research into the region. Clearly, I couldn’t include all the locally important practitioners from an area this vast. My concern was to identify the key esthetic developments. The Guggenheim UBS MAP Purchase Fund includes more works than are presented in the museum gallery in New York. My hope is that the examples on view will expand conceptions about the region, and provide viewers with food for thought.
The first two works one encounters in the exhibition, for example, quietly disrupt geopolitical assumptions. In the video Láºp Lòe, by Vietnamese artist Tran Luong, a red scarf worn by Vietnamese school children—which is loaded with historic meaning and emotion—is presented as simply a piece of dyed fabric that people can play around with or use in various ways, pointing to how representations and meanings are constructed. The photographic lightbox installation Counter Acts, by Poklong Anading, from the Philippines, features a group of people holding up mirrors that reflect sunlight into the camera’s lens, thus thwarting the sun’s power through collective action.
VINE Is there a Southeast Asian esthetic? If so, how would you describe it?
YAP I think it is problematic to say there is “a” South and Southeast Asian esthetic. Of course specific cultural references, whether current or traditional, often get accentuated in exhibitions and critical analyses. But given today’s circulation of art and ideas, the forms used throughout the region are not too different from those in the West. We should not, on the other hand, overlook the fact that all works are created within—and implicitly reveal—particular cultural contexts.
VINE In press materials, the UBS spokesman is quite candid about launching the MAP initiative in order to cultivate good relations in areas of potential new business. How do you feel about the connection between commerce and culture?
YAP I think it would be disingenuous to expect that art today can or should be entirely isolated from global markets. The subject is well worth discussing. What perturbs me is not that art and business might be interrelated—that’s inevitable—but that artistic achievement is now measured primarily in economic terms. We need to broaden our understanding and find fresh critical alternatives.
VINE You’ve included a huge Navin Rawanchaikul painting done in the style of Indian movie posters, with multiple scenes of the well-known Thai artist taking his Japanese wife and their daughter to explore his own familial origins in India. That multicultural vision seems to be at the heart of your curatorial enterprise here.
YAP Yes, Navin’s painting—with its visual elaboration of migration, conflict and complex relations—definitely speaks to the exhibition’s thesis, as do the other works, even if in a less apparent fashion. Navin provides an optimistic perspective, suggesting a convivial future for the region—a view that one can easily be drawn to, although history and current events alike provide plenty of reasons for a circumspect approach.
“No Country” attempts to subvert reductive representation of South and Southeast Asia, not merely for Western viewers but for those who live in the region as well, prompting us to consider how national, social and personal relations might be redefined. That, for me, is what a project of this nature can perhaps best contribute.
PHOTO: Poklong Anading: Counter Acts, 2004 (production detail), chromogenic transparency in light box, 90 by 144 inches, edition 3/3.