Southeast Asia: Art History, Art Today
Patrick D. Flores
October 11, 2012
Consider the complexity of the category “Southeast Asia” as a kind of theater. On one level, it is a stage on which a great tradition is idealized, the spectacle of a storied past juxtaposed with the speed and density of current urban life. The rubric also once embodied a theater of operations for various 19th- and 20th-century imperialisms, in which the empires of Europe and America extended their dominions across the world. One might think of it too as a present-day platform for both the marketing of goods and the migration of people and things.
Southeast Asia is also a specific locale or region within Asia, the latter part of its name being the main coordinate. This “southeast” is a distinct category, not merely an allusion to traces of the great traditions of India and China, or the spiritual legacies of Hinduism and Buddhism. Southeast Asia is neither India nor China—and certainly not the West—but manifests significant inheritances from them, as may be seen in the monuments of Angkor in Cambodia, Borobudur in Indonesia, Ayutthaya in Siam (now Thailand), and the colonial churches of the Philippines.
Southeast Asia may further be regarded as a geopolitical field, the scene of colonial expansion by the Portuguese in Eastern Timor; the British in Malaya, Burma, and Northern Borneo; the Dutch in Indonesia; the Spanish and Americans in the Philippines; and the French in Indochina (Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos), with Siam as a buffer state. In an earlier time, the region was vaster, encompassing parts of China, India, and the Pacific. Southeast Asia may also be seen as a place where religions such as Christianity and Islam have undergone localization, exemplified by the only Catholic nation in Asia, the Philippines, and the world’s most populous Islamic country, Indonesia. Links may be drawn from this colonial phenomenon to events ranging from the Cold War era that began in the late forties to the post-independence period, which spanned the rise of authoritarian states and the struggle for representation and justice, through the 1990s; the Vietnam War; the Asian financial crisis of 1997; and increasing terror and counter-terror operations after 9/11. The establishment of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1967 clarified the status of Southeast Asia as a geopolitical, not merely geographical, category—a distinction that remains in place. Finally, Southeast Asia may be traced to a deeper Austronesian history.
When considering the many contingencies of Southeast Asian art history and its contemporary articulations, it is worth pondering a line from Malaysian artist and curator Redza Piyadasa’s intermedia work Entry Points (1978), which consists of a text inscribed on the surface of a painting, in relation to an actual work of art. According to the piece: “Art works never exist in time; they have entry points.” To replace presence with trajectory leads us to think about how the category “Southeast Asia” might figure in the mercurial logic of art history, a discipline that emerged coincidentally with the birth of the museum and a certain phase of capitalism. In Piyadasa’s scheme, it seems that art takes a nonlinear route, taking place out of time, slipping past edges and limits, insinuating itself into whatever discursive space renders it current or instills it with value.
What might we identify as some of the “entry points” to which Piyadasa refers? First, there is the idea of the modernity of art in Asia. This theme has preoccupied the Australian art historian John Clark, who has written an extensive survey of Asian modern art as well as comparative studies of contemporary phenomena such as regional biennials, or the relations between modernities in Thailand and China. His concept of the “worlding of the Asian modern” (my italics) is instructive to the degree that it maps the histories of Asia’s diverse art worlds, offering typologies, paradigms, and tendencies in the mediation of the translocal. Clark’s ventures move beyond national art histories, which tend to bypass living interactions in favor of national imaginaries, but they are keenly attentive to local knowledge. He defines worlding as a process that “implies a coherence other than that provided by internal discourses: it posits an outside, and this depends on how the nature and extent of the outside were reciprocally conceived.”1
The second entry point is the set of signs that reveal the transfer of self-consciousness in Southeast Asian art and image production. This includes the signature that validates the identity of an artist and his or her claim on the work of art as a distinct category involving the criteria of talent, quality, and social significance. This was observable in the first time that Philippine engravers (Nicolas de la Cruz Bagay and Francisco Suarez) signed their names on the maps they made in the 18th century, and in the identifying mark stamped on pictures taken by a Javanese photographer (Kassian Cephas) working for the sultan of Jogjakarta in the 19th century. Allied with the signature are both the artist’s innate skill and the ability derived from training through apprenticeship or art-school education. One such ability was the kind of mastery of perspective discernible in early drawing manuals from Manila (Elementos de Perspectiva in 1828) and a midwifery book (Treatise on Midwifery in 1842) from Bangkok.
A third entry point is the face, a representation of the self and its sense of belonging to the world. The changing treatment of the face is concretized by the way in which Thai King Mongkut (1851–1868) defied the Buddhist interdiction of reproduction and allowed himself to be photographed so that his image could be disseminated to the world. This rupture catalyzed a more fulsome modernity in the efforts of his son Chulalongkorn (1868–1910), who invited Italian artists to Thailand to adorn the country with art. Portraiture, therefore, was a cogent instance of modernity, as evidenced in the self-portraits of two of Southeast Asia’s most highly accomplished artists in the 19th century, Indonesian Raden Saleh and Filipino Juan Luna, as well as in group portraits that prefigured the nation as a filial system or network of affinities.
Together with the face, the historic event as a subject for art is also a significant entry point, letting the artist act critically in at once recording and offering comment—either allegorically, as in the 1821 “Basi Revolt” series by Philippine painter Esteban Villanueva, or politically, as in The Arrest of Diponegoro (1857) by Saleh (who, incidentally, was the first major Asian artist to exhibit at a European salon, in Amsterdam in 1834 and in Paris in 1847). Related to this as a further entry point or index is the notion of movement beyond locality, an exposure to others within a global setting of the kind referenced by such instances of the universal expositions of art and culture as Luna’s receipt of a gold medal for his painting Spoliarium in Madrid in 1884, or the appearance of a Cambodian temple in Paris in 1900.
Tradition is a way in too. What are the ties binding the modernity of art in Southeast Asia to a past, to an authentic “precolonial” or “premodern”—or alternatively “civilizational” or “ancient”—origin? The eminent scholar T. K. Sabapathy, who lives and works in Singapore, dwells on how art historiography may be shaped by a strategically non-Western epistemology. Sabapathy probes this problem through the oft-cited texts History of Indian and Indonesian Art (1957) by Ananda Coomaraswamy and The Indianized States of Southeast Asia(1968) by George Coedes. His main point is that Southeast Asia gains the privilege of identity through India; he even calls the region “Farther India.” Coedes for his part would reduce Southeast Asia to the process of Indianization or Sanskritization, prompting Sabapathy to argue that he “has imposed a programmatic design of Indian influence onto Southeast Asia. . . . tantamount to propounding a colonial doctrine.”2 Here, the true tradition is Indian, co-opting the kunstwollen of the Southeast Asian, as may be intuited in the interpretation of the image of Harihara (late 7th–early 8th century) from Prasat Andet in Cambodia. Coomaraswamy describes the latter in terms of its diffusion of Pallava art of the same period in India, not in terms of its peculiar translocal form.
This burden of context in Southeast Asian art history leads us to Stanley J. O’Connor’s essay “Art Critics, Connoisseurs, and Collectors in the Southeast Asian Rain Forest: A Study in Cross-Cultural Art Theory” (1983), in which he speaks of a mode of being and origin. Looking at Southeast Asian ceramics, O’Connor marks the origin of an aesthetic that, according to him, “seems to lead not to some special province reserved for an affective response to privileged objects, but is instead rooted in social customs concerning death and a speculative investigation into the nature and destiny of the soul.”3 What we see here is a turn to the ethnographic and the affective in the discussion of art as well as the intimate connections between art and ethnology, imagination and origin. As a pioneering mentor of scholars in the field, O’Connor represents what may be characterized as the Cornell school in the history of art in Southeast Asia. From this school came such influential names as Claire Holt, Nora Taylor, Astri Wright, and Apinan Poshyananda. Taylor in particular elaborates on this methodology in her recent book on Vietnamese art, which takes a decidedly ethnographic approach in the writing of what may already be a tenuous enterprise of art history.4
The final entry point is the consolidation of art in Southeast Asia as a corpus, collected by museums, traded in the market, historicized by discourse, subjected to connoisseurship, and studied in schools. In this regard, survey and thematic exhibitions, biennials, conferences, and publications testify to the body of work, which was predominantly generated by certain centers such as Brisbane through the Asia-Pacific Triennial, Fukuoka through the Asian Art Show and later the Triennial, Singapore through its biennial (the first of its kind in the area), and Tokyo through the Japan Foundation. That said, ASEAN’s initiatives to convene art and specialists and develop regional discourse must be acknowledged. The region’s grandest museum project, the National Art Gallery, Singapore (slated to open in 2015), also has a role to play. But with such gains come multiple pressures on the practice of Southeast Asian art history.
The entry points discussed here may be regarded as tangential to the Southeast Asian contemporary, which gathers its lineage from a nuanced history of relationships with the West and its systems of artistic knowledge. Mediations of the modern and its critical appropriation reside at the core of this contemporary condition. The process of belonging to it, resisting it, or transforming it constitutes a significant aspect of art making, and has yielded a body of works, texts, and practices. Another impulse might be that of opposition to critique, an attitude that expresses a certain comfort with the world and its relocations and dispersals; it is playful, performative, unafraid of the foreign, and unburdened by the anxiety of influence. The interplay of these tendencies may yet shape Southeast Asia as a postcolonial, contemporary, and global artistic terrain, animated by the integrities and idiosyncrasies of a region known for its cogent thought and histories of struggle.
In terms of aesthetic practice, Southeast Asian contemporary art also turns on multiple pivots. First, we must consider its fraught tie with the image, whose potency stems from its promise of salvation and relationship with authority. Whether religious or monarchical, imbricated in dictatorships or capitalist regimes, the image is a central “structure of feeling” that invites resistance by way of parody, iconoclasm, scatology, and instructive social commentary. That said, the devotional or heretical image appears open to exploitation by a market that peddles “realism,” resulting in a mannerist approach to the figure and image.
Second, the Southeast Asian contemporary exhibits a strong sense of the relational, advancing a spirited argument against the fragmentation wrought by forces such as a patrimonial state preoccupied with development and nation building, democracy and paternalism. The search for a respite from this relentless instrumentalization of the “mass” has sparked the formation of artist-initiated spaces and the emergence of the artist-curator-historian. It also has fostered efforts in the fields of performance, activism, and collaborative endeavors among dispossessed communities from cities to rural villages—and, in the case of the Philippines, in the context of an in-progress socialist revolution.
Finally, there is an instinct to re-purpose the hybrid impedimenta of globalization and further intensify an already ebullient post-colonialist drive. The effect is a vibrant, even baroque challenge to the totality of the dominant order that lies somewhere between ethnographic surrealism and everyday life.
Patrick D. Flores is an art historian and curator based in Manila.
1. John Clark, “The Worlding of the Asian Modern” (paper, World and World-Making in Art Conference, Australian National University, Canberra, 2011).
2. T. K. Sabapathy, “Developing Regionalist Perspectives in Southeast Asian Art Historiography,” in The Second Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (Brisbane: Queensland Art Gallery, 1996), p. 16.
3. Stanley J. O’Connor, “Art Critics, Connoisseurs, and Collectors in the Southeast Asian Rain Forest: A Study in Cross-Cultural Art Theory,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies14, no. 2 (September 1983), p. 408.
4. Nora Taylor, Painters in Hanoi: An Ethnography of Vietnamese Art (Singapore: National University of Singapore, 2009). Taylor also co-edited with Boris Ly the anthology Modern and Contemporary Southeast Asian Art: An Anthology (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012).