In this webinar, Prof Patrick D. Flores walks us through a series of exhibitions that yields instructive reflections on what it means and what it takes to curate the Southeast Asia region.
REGIONAL SOCIAL AND CULTURAL STUDIES PROGRAMME WEBINAR
The Politics of Art in Southeast Asia Seminar Series
Tuesday, 3 November 2020 – The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute held the final webinar in the Politics of Arts in Southeast Asia Seminar Series for 2020. The webinar on “Ties of History: Reflections on the Politics and Poetics of Curating Southeast Asia” featured Patrick D. Flores, who is Professor of Art Studies at the University of the Philippines and curator of the Vargas Museum in Manila. This webinar was moderated by Dr Su-Ann Oh.
The webinar began with Mr Christian Echle’s welcoming remarks on behalf of Konrad Adenauer Stiftung which supports this seminar series. He stressed the importance of the art industry receiving additional support during COVID-19 as art is a crucial part of cultural and political life. With that, Professor Flores began his presentation on a series of exhibitions and his reflections on what it means and what it takes to curate a region. Professor Flores criticised the treatment of Southeast Asia as an object or a ready-made region that produces ready-made art. He underscored that artists and their creations cannot be appended to a location which may be made of constructed boundaries and a false sense of homogeneity.
The first exhibition he spoke about was “Ties of History: Art in Southeast Asia”. Professor Flores curated this exhibition of contemporary art in Southeast Asia in Manila to mark the 50th anniversary of ASEAN. The exhibit featured ten artists from the member-states of ASEAN and the phrase “Ties of History” was taken from the ASEAN Declaration in 1967, which Professor Flores suggests, may allude to the blessings and burdens of being together and being different in a region that is thought to have commonalities. For this exhibit, he wanted to focus on the conceptualisation of ‘Southeast Asia’ rather than ‘ASEAN’ as a way of overcoming the bureaucratic nature of ASEAN as an organization. Further, he made the case for alternative ties such as Austronesia, Zomia and the Sulu zone, all of which expose a vast, heterogenous Southeast Asia which does not subscribe to state-making boundaries.
To tease out coherence in the region, Professor Flores listed a few entry points such as maritime activities, forest ecologies, Austronesian language, animism, status of women in social life and debt as shaper of social obligations. In identifying coherence in geopolitics, Professor Flores suggested that inter-state systems could be analysed through the mandala structure along with concepts of colonialism, nationalism and regionalism. However, there are two texts which complicate the notion of coherence in the region. In “Southeast Asia: Comparatist Errors and the Construction of a Region”, author Ananda Rajah posits that central to region-ness is intersubjectivity and interactions as opposed to geographical spaces. To understand the intricacies of interactions, Rajah advocates an alertness to vernacular conceptions of region-ness and transformations in time. The other text is “The State of Culture Theory in the Anthropology of Southeast Asia” by Mary Margaret Steedly in which Steedly marks out culture as a mode of explaining the production of art. Observations on everyday life as regularities and routines are worth looking into. Thus, Professor Flores highlighted these two works which he keeps in mind when he looks at the region to understand politics, poetics and the banal as geopolitics alone cannot capture art.
Next, Professor Flores reflected on his 2015 Hong Kong exhibition, “South by Southeast “. It is not a thematic proposition but a geo-poetic one. The aim of the exhibit was to go beyond regional boundaries and North/South binaries. As such, Professor Flores and his team worked with artists from Sri Lanka, Hong Kong — which are not traditionally considered Southeast Asian regions. Finally, on the Singapore Biennale 2019, Flores shared various interesting insights. For instance, the dioramas used to depict colonial history in the biennale were produced painstakingly by local labour from the Philippines, This he believes, reflects that images of art can migrate and circulate trans-locally.
Moderator Su-Ann Oh concluded the rich and thought-provoking webinar with a Question and Answer Segment. The webinar audience engaged Professor Flores with questions ranging from his approach to selecting artists, the working relationship between artists and curators, how geopoetics could counter geopolitics apart from unlikely nations being paired together and global versus local anxieties present in the curatorial process. The webinar ended with Professor Flores’ concluding comments that the beauty and difficulty of curatorial practice is that it asks hard questions and the answers come from artists and communities as communities are part of the response to art. He reminded the webinar audience that curatorial interrogation is a process and that exhibitions are also a form of theatre which can be persuasive and haunting.