Conceptual Strategies in Southeast Asian Art : A Local narrative

Category - essays and articles

by Iola Lenzi –

In his review of the Southeast Asian art exhibition of 2010 Making History Tony Godfrey, the author of Conceptual Art, assesses works by Alwin Reamillo (b.1964), Mella Jaarsma (b.1960), Vasan Sitthiket (b.1957),Tang Da Wu (b.1943), Nge Lay (b.1979), Green Zeng (b.1972), and Bui Cong Khanh (b.1972) as difficult to read, “… its (the exhibition’s) weakness is the indirect allusions that they (the artists) use to make their point…”. Yet it is emphatically the case that the practices of these acknowledged regional talents are marked by conceptual strategies, their visual languages chosen accordingly.1-3 Godfrey frames his review with a survey of history painting, an academic genre instrumentalised by nineteenth century Europe’s nationalist agenda. Had this respected art historian not perceived these artists’ elliptical tackling of history not for the sake of history, but as a means of socio-political and cultural critique? If a specialist of Conceptual art, though noting these pieces’ ‘indirect allusion’, judged them overly cryptic, what then was the nature of Southeast Asian conceptualism, and how could the genealogy of conceptual approaches in Southeast Asia be written? Surely conceptualism, by definition coded, demands some contextual analysis on the part of the viewer? Had these works failed on concept, or had Godfrey, an expert of Duchamp, omitted local context? Was the Southeast Asian frame referenced by Jaarsma, Reamillo et al so local as to be undecipherable? Did these works rooted at home, not also succeed in transcending home to speak universally?…. (more in PDF article)

Iola Lenzi is a Singapore-based researcher and critic specialising in Southeast Asian contemporary art. She takes a synthetic view of regional practice, her texts and exhibitions seeking to compare regional themes, expressive languages, and conceptual approaches. For the past 20 years, she has curated exhibitions in various countries in Southeast Asia as well as internationally, focusing on art commenting on the region’s socio-political landscape. She curated Negotiating Home, History and Nation: Two Decades of Contemporary Art in Southeast Asia 1991-2011 at the Singapore Art Museum in 2011 and The Roving Eye: Contemporary Art from Southeast Asia at ARTER in Istanbul, Turkey in September 2014. Lenzi is the Singapore correspondent for Asian Art newspaper, London as well as a frequent contributor to other international art publications. She is also a founding member of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA) Singapore. Lenzi is currently teaching in the MA Asian Art Histories programme at LASALLE College of the Arts and is a PhD candidate at the Nanyang Technological Institute.

This article was first published in the exhibition catalogue of Concept, Context and Contestation: Art and the Collective in Southeast Asia, curated by Iola Lenzi and organised by the Bangkok Art and Cultural Centre in 2014, All images used with permission from the author