Ho Tzu Nyen, The Cloud of Unknowing, 2011, Color video, with sound, 28 min., edition 35 Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. June Yap. Guggenheim UBS MAP Purchase Fund © Ho Tzu Nyen. Photo Courtesy Russell Morton
NEW YORK, NY.,– When June Yap was selected as curator of the Guggenheim USB Map Global Art Initiative in the spring of 2012, many people celebrated. June Yap has an outstanding record as an independent curator and there was no doubt that she would make great strive curating the first exhibition in the initiative. However, there were those who doubted her ability and were very skeptical about what she would produce. Since June Yap is not well-known in the West, many in the art circle wondered and continue to question why she was selected over other established curators for such a major show.
Based in Singapore, June Yap is presently in residency at the Guggenheim in New York. She is a well-travelled curator and has organized exhibitions in different parts of the world, including Germany, Hong Kong, Italy, Malaysia and Singapore. As an independent curator, June Yap is focused on contemporary art practice in South and Southeast Asia. She has curated several shows, including You and I, We’ve Never Been so far apart: Works From Asia for the Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv for the International Video Art Biennial. In 2011, she exhibited the works of Ho Tzu Nyen as part of the Singapore Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Currently a PhD candidate in the Cultural Studies in Asia Program at the National University of Singapore, June Yap has written numerous essays and exhibition catalogues.
No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia that opened recently at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York has proven many of those who doubted June Yap’s ability wrong. No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia is an outstanding exhibition by every standard. Divided into seven sections, the exhibition is educational, informative, enlightening and captivating. The show has a comprehensive theme enhanced by dialogue not just between the works, but also amongst the seven sections. But perhaps the major point of the exhibition is the introduction of new young vibrant artists from South and Southeast Asia, whose works show rich artistic developments in the areas of painting, sculpture, photography, video art, and performance and documentation.
Drawn from Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines Myanmar, Bangladesh and India, the artists in No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia use their works to challenge and contest the hegemonic narratives and dominant Western –centrist view of art history and discourses that have negated other narratives. They bring to the fore the relevance and importance of competing narratives beyond that often postulated in Western discourses as the dominate treatise. But more importantly, they show that modernism does not follow a lineal trajectory or just a Western phenomenon.
No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia features 22 artists and collectives. The works of the artists highlight one of the major criticisms of Western curators and institutions, who have often been accused of deliberately marginalizing or overlooking highly developed artistic tradition and artists because they don’t reside in Western metropolises. The artists through their works vehement contests this faulty line based on power relationship. Many of the works selected for this show not only reflect new and recent artistic traditions of the areas represented, but also multiple sources of influences. A globalization thread runs through all the works, showing evidence of cross fertilization of artistic traditions.
Majority of the works in No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia display a confluence of influences, thoughts and ideas, transcending the South and Southeast Asia axis. Works by Amar Kanwar (India), Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook (Thailand), Tun Win Aung and Wah Nu (husband and wife, Myanmar), Tuan Andrew Nguyen (Vietnam), Vincent Leong (Malaysia), Khadim Ali (Pakistan), Norberto Roldan (Philippines), Navin Rawanchaikul, and many others reflect cross-cultural influence and encounters, which have significantly influenced identities, religion, history and interpretations of culture.
June Yap’s deep knowledge and understanding of the artists and areas represented is key to the success of this exhibition. She presents a cohesive body of work that is very engaging and instructive enough to facilitate intense discussions. Evidently, the curatorial strategy explored by June Yap was not intended to pass judgment or reiterate already well-known facts, but to make meaning, new observations and comments about the artists and their works. It is not surprising that the success of this exhibition is generating a lot of energy, and art lovers are already looking forward to subsequent projects. The next installments in this project will focus on Latin America, and the Middle East and North America. Works in this exhibition and subsequent ones will be bought for the Guggenheim permanent collection.
USB sponsorship of the Guggenheim USB Map Global Art Initiative deserves some commendation. While it is easy to criticize the relationship between USB and Guggenheim museum, what is of utmost significance is the show. Besides bringing to the center marginalized artists and artistic traditions—many of which are as advanced as those in the West—the inclusion of curators, who have until recently resided in the periphery of global curatorial practice for decades deserve praise. Furthermore, the sponsorship helps expand efforts to dislocate the modernist tradition of museums privileging one group over the other. USB sponsorship also frees the curators selected for this initiative from the unbridled pressure from artists, institutions and galleries.
Clearly, this exhibition is a huge undertaking. Although it features just 22 artists and collectives, the curatorial process is daunting. Besides the excavation of archives, the travels across countries, viewing works in museums, galleries, artists’ studios, and institutions can be gruesome. Even June Yap acknowledges this much. But what is even more challenging is the selection of works and the curator’s inability to include every thoughts and idea, not just because of the difficulties and complexities of navigating such terrains presented by this show, but also because things are ever evolving and changing. June Yap acknowledges this challenge when she noted that, “However much one may know or have experienced of a place, there is always something new to find, as these are complex cultural terrains.”
Despite the enormous challenge of putting together, the exhibition archived its intended objective. Beyond the introduction of the rich artistic development in the South and Southeast Asia to a Western audience, the show also “reflects a range of the most salient cultural practices and intellectually discourses from these areas.” There was no attempt at experimentation or effort at breaking imagined boundaries. The focus was on what it means to be an artist in South and Southeast Asia and artistic practices therein. This curatorial strategy effectively enabled the carryover of full artistic energy emanating from the interaction between curator and the artists whose works are in No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia.
The success of this exhibition is why Artcentron is celebrating June Yap. This exhibition shows not just her boldness as a curator, but also someone who is always willing and ready to face challenges. Above all, it supports her track record as an outstanding curator. June Yap, however, did not achieve the success alone. She worked with “local artists, curators, and intellectuals to bring context to the artistic and cultural practices that are currently shaping regional discourse and practice”. Curatorially, she worked with Helen Hsu, Assistant Curator, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Nancy Spector, Deputy Director and Chief Curator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York, and Joan Young, Director of Curatorial Affairs, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Unlike other exhibitions of this nature, what is very clear in this show is Yap’s dedication to showing that Asia is not a place stuck in the past but a continent ever evolving.