Whither Art History? — 10.01.2020

An excerpt from “Whither Art History? Institutions, Curatorship and the Undead Nation State” by David Teh at Green Papaya Extension, 17 May 2016.

“How should art be historicized in its ‘contemporary’ and ‘global’ phase? What is to be historicized, if not the work of art per se? Where art history has shallow roots, the emerging paradigms of visual culture, curatorial studies, and exhibition histories offer appealing alternatives. But their path is strewn with hazards, not least, the lack of that visual literacy and discursive space that art history, for all its sins, has long cultivated elsewhere. In this talk, David Teh will address some of the obstacles to the study of contemporary art in Southeast Asia, with reference to the institutional landscape, the curatorial function, and the still pivotal role of the Nation.”

Dr. David Teh is a writer, curator, art advisor, and researcher based at the National University of Singapore (NUS), specializing in Southeast Asian contemporary art. Before moving to Singapore, he worked as an independent curator and critic in Bangkok from 2005 to 2009, and has since realized projects in Germany, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore. His writings have appeared in Third Text, Afterall, LEAP Magazine, Art Asia Pacific, Artforum, and The Bangkok Post.


Eileen Legaspi-Ramirez: I was asking him what he thinks about the relationships between institutions and quasi-institutions because they don't exist totally separate from each other. At some point, institutions validate what quasi-institutions produce.

David Teh: Well, again, I think I can't really give a very lengthy answer, because this is something that, I think, in the context that I'm most familiar with, we've really started to see happening, or at least has been getting critical mass quite recently.

I think Asiatopia is a really good example. Asiatopia was formed in the late ‘90s as a performance art festival, a very international, fun circuit. It's really almost more than a quasi-institutional kind of performance art circuit. It's artform-specific and therefore a little more modest in scale than say biennales and so on. But also, it doesn't involve collection, shipping, and these kinds of things. It’s quite a lightweight sort of organization. It was a really important embassy of the contemporary, from the late ‘90s to the early 2000s.

By the time I arrived, it was already really boring. They became kind of like institutions in a way, so that's one possible trajectory. I will still try to go to Asiatopia. I think some interesting things still happen there, but it became very predictable and repetitive. It became sort of a closed chapter to some extent. I think there was a lot of intent on the part of the organizers and founders to broaden the church and to bring new generations in. But, as you know, as is often the case with this kind of autonomous groups, people don't feel like it's theirs. Sometimes, if you come from a younger generation or another gender position, perhaps you might not feel like it's yours to take over. I think they had that problem. That left it, in a sense, a little bit vulnerable. Now, the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC) has basically kind of latched on to it. It's more than a quasi-institutional kind of thing now, so that's one possible scenario.

The other is the artist-run space that kind of flourishes and dies. I think that's probably, by numbers, the most common. Sort of artist-run spaces are supposed to die. They're not necessarily, in many cases, designed for long term. I know we’re sitting within that kind of contrary case, which is a great thrill, but, I mean, I've been involved in these things too. Sometimes they gotta die. I think sometimes you shouldn't belly-ache about that. I think it's great when they die. Sometimes they need to, because otherwise they'll retard the development of some of the people that are involved in it.

The other thing, of course, is archiving. I think it becomes more and more important when you get this kind of regional institutional data like we have recently. I mean, if anyone has been to the National Gallery Singapore (NGS), it's like this scary mothership from outer space. It’s like a massive statement. It really is doing the stuff that a museum does. This is something that the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) never really pretended to do. SAM pretended to be a museum and sometimes it has been convincing in that, but it never had any pretenses towards historical scholarship or a historically informed collection. I mean, that wasn't what it was doing. I think most of the people I know that worked at SAM are reasonably honest about that; they knew they weren't experts in most cases and they were happy to admit that this is a different kind of institution.

I think the NGS really is a paradigm shift. It's some kind of a weird quantum leap where you're not just in the trappings of institutional existence that are there, but also actually some possibilities for genuine memory building. With objects, I think they can do that quite effectively. They can also initiate research a little bit. They've got more people who are interested in doing that and I think they've hired very carefully to get that, so I think it's changing.

Right now, the role of the quasi-institutions is often, kind of, trying to shift to serve that historicization and, maybe, sometimes also to thwart it. I would sit on the fence about what artist-run spaces should be doing with their memory or their legacy. In some cases, it may be the best thing to consign it to the institution that can keep the moisture out, keep the bugs off, and keep the coloring things and so on, right?

In some cases, I think, maybe one should just burn it all down and start again. People who have been asked to give things that are important, they would say, “You know, I would rather slit my wrists than give it to them, to that place. In my territory, we don't have these sorts of institutions, but it's not right for it to go and live there. That's not where it belongs.” I think that has to be taken seriously as artists have a relationship and the responsibility for the legacy of their past work that I think goes beyond some kind of hippie dippie sense of the “United Nations of Contemporary Art Collection.”

With Singapore, it plays that role too, I think, too convincingly. Often, people are a bit flattered when the institution comes knocking. I think my general kind of manifesto on this would be to make them earn it. I just wish that more artists in Southeast Asia had the foothold and the wherewithal to force institutions of that nature to really do their homework. I think artists, in my opinion, at least the ones that I've seen go through this process, have not been demanding and exacting enough in terms of the care that is taken to historicize that stuff.

But yeah, I can't generalize about them. It's really different. Groups like Forum Lenteng and ruangrupa, both in Jakarta, have massive archives of stuff. They have pretty much the smell-of-an-oily-rag sort of operation. Although they also have some very lucrative revenue streams these days, it's not a fancy pants institution. They don't have super archival conditions, etc. I would say, in their case, that's the best place for what they've got. It's really what they use; they hire people who specialize in making it available to people so it's very well-kept and very well-used. I think, in that sort of case, I don't really see a reason for trying to go the next step, to the kind of vaulting in the West or in Singapore where these will be buried. They can really do more with it by keeping it alive.

Brutalist ethnography, National Museum of Myanmar, Yangon, 2015. Courtesy of David Teh.

The crumbling facade of the Bhirasri Institute of Modern Art, Bangkok, Thailand. Courtesy of David Teh.

Basement parking space of Teater Jakarta — Taman Ismail Marzuki, Jakarta Biennale 2013, Jakarta, Indonesia.  Courtesy of David Teh.