The Distances of Our Time: Reflections on Art Criticism and Southeast Asia
One of the privileges of being an art critic is that sometimes, someone you don’t know, from another side of the world, emails and invites you to write for them. It is humbling to be invited. Even more so when the invitation puts your work into a context that you were not familiar with.1 These days, to be an arts worker entails traversing great distances, not always physically and personally, but often because your reading takes you to places across stretches of time and geography, and because your work finds itself in unexpected situations. As someone who writes about art, I am, first of all, a being in the world, not just the artworld. And to be in the world is to struggle with its vastness – trying to understand the complexity of it all, attempting to do something of value, bearing with disappointments like romantic heartbreak and family tragedy, or enduring civic strife, war or ecological ruin. That the world is very big seems like the simplest, most obvious thing to say, but I think a critic’s job is to try and find a way to articulate a sense of the scale of the world, and one’s place in it. If criticism is about finding a vantage point from which to interpret art and the world, then the discourse of distance is key to this endeavor.
We each have our own tool boxes by which we try to cope, and I suppose the reason I am a critic is that I happen to like writing essays on art, but, really, it’s my own way of trying to speak to a world at large that is too large. As I type these words, I am in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the city of my birth. I have never really been a resident of this country, except for this past year. If the reader will indulge me a few details of my biography: I lived for many years in the Philippines and in the U.S., but the largest chunk of my life has been in Singapore. You could say I became an art critic because of Singapore. It has been in and through this island city-state that I worked out my ideas about art and writing. While I had visited the country many times in my youth, it was in 1992 that I moved there, at first with the intention of staying a few years, then somehow I kept staying, and somehow this place became what I might call home (although, as my friends know, there have been obstacles and complications). What does it mean to claim home? How are art criticism and a sense of place related? These are questions beyond the scope of this text, but suffice to say, home is not just a claim in the past tense, as in, this was my home, but a claim for the future; it is not enough that this is my home now, it matters that it will be for at least some time to come.
The Future Was When
And yet the “future” – in the fullest sense of what the word can evoke – paradoxically belongs more properly to the past than to itself. Or rather, it belongs not to the impersonal “the” past, but to the highly subjective “our” past. The future was when our younger selves imagined a horizon, beyond which another world beckoned. A better, more exciting, or more dangerous world, but never the same world — a world that can be imagined, but not, strictly speaking, recognized. That is why I would not say “our future.” By definition, it eludes possession. It is the future. As we find ourselves older, or simply old, we imagine the future differently. Perhaps because rather than imagining it – contemplating the distant horizon – we are too busy trying to realize it, trying to compress the long interval between here and then. A productive life requires rendering the future predictable. The true future, the future of imagination, is the future of our past, of our younger selves. No, I am not talking about the middle-aged longing for their youth. I am just as easily referring to those in their twenties, for instance. They too have younger selves. Whenever we stop and think about the future, we find ourselves somehow older (isn’t the act of pausing and pondering such things the very sign of aging?) The future never seems as wondrous or full of potential as when – in our distorted recollection – we imagined it when were young.
What of the “future” and Singapore? The island city-state is Sign-apore, a society of the spectacle par excellence, the all appropriating agent, modernity’s idealized tabula rasa. Singapore imagines itself not only as taking the best from the East and the West – the inheritor of the great traditions and the latest technologies – it also stakes a claim as part of the avant-garde of the next stage of global capitalism. Whenever I visit other places, my experience is of multiple times; there are always neighborhoods that seem significantly unchanged. In Singapore, there appears to be only one time – a peculiar present, in a hurry, on the verge of tomorrow. Life may be more hectic in Hong Kong, New York, or Tokyo, but I know of no other place where it feels like everyone marches in the same step. Practically everything is subjected to economic development – hills have been flattened, cemeteries unearthed. The pace, while not the fastest on the planet, is possibly the most persistent. This relentless present is of course not entirely omnipresent; if it were, then this truly would be a utopia. In Singapore, it is an intensely pervasive and spectacularized ideal. Although it is not quite the “present” itself. It is the obverse of Walter Benjamin’s angel of history, who flies towards the heavens looking backwards at the past.2 Singapore, persistently facing forward, is what’s next, the near future.
Alas, if the island city-state is predicated on the near future, it is also predicated on forgetting the past. “Forgetting is the condition of Singapore,” Janadas Devan has argued. Its history has unfolded “as partings, as separations, as sudden, unaccountable breaks.” Consider these crucial moments in the years between fledgling self-governance in 1959 to full independence in 1965: Political activist Lim Chin Siong and his allies break away from Lee Kuan Yew’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), and form the Barisan Sosialis (Socialist Front) in 1961. The two factions fight over the future of the country. Lim and 112 other Barisan, labor and student activists are arrested in 1963 under the Internal Security Act for being “communist sympathizers.” That same year, the PAP leads Singapore to join the Federation of Malaysia. Conflicts arise between the PAP and the central Malaysian government. On the 9th of August 1965, a teary-eyed Lee announces the separation from Malaysia, as Singapore becomes a nation all on its own; it is for Lee “a moment of anguish. All my life [...] I have believed in merger and unity of the two territories.” Janadas contends, “What happened before August 9, 1965, cannot therefore be absorbed into a triumphant nationalist narrative leading up to the founding moment,” because the “9th of August 1965 forgets the entire period from 1959 to 1963.” More remarkable, however, is that this forgetting remains a structural necessity. “Singapore occurred, and continues to sustain itself, as a result of recurrent acts of forgettings.”3 Which perhaps accounts for how the acclaimed poet Alfian Sa’at could write a volume about his homeland entitled, A history of Amnesia.4
What does it mean to say that a nation sustains itself through amnesia? Perhaps the following anecdote might help: To make way for a traffic tunnel, the country’s National Library was demolished. The Urban Redevelopment Authority judged the old red-bricked building, which opened in 1960, to be without “great architectural merit.” The National Library moved to a new, larger building that opened in 2004. The demolition of the old Library provoked public outcry, as many people urged the government to reconsider, maintaining that the building had social and emotional significance, and deserved to be conserved. In a Straits Times newspaper article, pro-government columnist Tan Sai Siong dismissed, “scholars and those infatuated about keeping the past alive to provide continuity for the present and the future.” She speculated that, “our 21st-century descendent could ask what is so creative about keeping intact crumbling slabs of mortar and brick in styles that are more quaint than grand? [...] Real creation to the 21st-century mind could well be deletion of the past, so that there is constantly more byte for the future.”5
The cliché that Singapore is like a social laboratory is not an entirely inaccurate proposition, given the country’s small-scale geography. The notion “island historiography” refers to the field of island biogeography: the study of the facts and patterns of species distribution on islands. Islands, David Quammen observes, “are natural laboratories of extravagant evolutionary experimentation. That’s why island biogeography is a catalog of quirks and superlatives. And that’s why islands, those outlands, have played a central role in the study of evolution. Charles Darwin himself was an island biogeographer before he was a Darwinist. [...] Islands have been especially instructive because their limited area and inherent isolation combine to make patterns of evolution stand out starkly.”6 The Singapore government’s ambitions to make Singapore a “Renaissance City” or a “global city of the arts” are part of a strategy to generate and attract a creative work force for this small island so that it can compete in the top-tier of the global knowledge-centric economy. If this ahistorical island is to be of larger interest, if contemporary Singapore art is to have a part in a larger history of contemporary art, it may also be because the way that history is forgotten here is so starkly instrumental.
We live in a time of maximum inclusion – or so it would seem whenever someone pronounces the word “globalization.” Interestingly, it’s never just “globalization,” but somehow the global is almost always increasing, as in “our increasingly globalized world.” The use of “our” here is, however, highly problematic; it assumes an “our” that belies a series of elisions: women, working classes, minorities, the list goes on. To elide is not only to omit, but also to erase any trace of omission and bring it all together seamlessly.
Today, the artworld is changing, radically and irrevocably, and in part because of some historical irruption on the global art scene called the rise of contemporary art from Asia. By the 1990s, artists, critics, curators, academics, and administrators had decidedly acknowledged that the future of the field no longer belonged to the “West,” but to the whole wide world. And it was as if “Asia” had become the signifier for this increasingly integrated world system. A phrase which aptly characterizes these dynamics is: “the distance between us.” Those grand categories, the “West” and “Asia” – or at least Asia as code for the “Rest” – they are separated by a distance and, yet, one can still assert a conjunction. The West and Asia constitute an “us” – an integrated global system. Of course, within Asia and within the West there are many distances as well, and for some, the more interesting and relevant differences are the ones within, not between. Moreover, these differences are not only defined geographically, they are also temporally, that is, historically, determined. What the conjunction “and” tries to bring together is disparate pasts, presents, places and peoples. In “the distance between us,” the accent should lie not on the us, but on these multiple distances.
The international biennale-type exhibition is an exemplary form of bringing together for display a certain “us,” at a certain moment in time, while eliding the distances between. Moreover, there is an assumption that, no matter how great the distances – mainly in space, occasionally in time –artworks from all over the world can be seen together as part of an increasingly globalized world. But is this assumption valid?
Sanjay Krishnan in his book, Reading the Global, aims to “show how the global as a frame and an operation constitutes or produces the region it claims to merely describe.” He argues that in “recent discussions of globalization, the adjective ‘global’ is tacitly assumed to refer to an empirical process that takes place ‘out there’ in the world.” Furthermore, belonging to the global community is normative: for instance, you should wage war only in certain ways, you must open your borders to transnational capital, and so on. For Krishnan, the crux of the matter is an instituted perspective: the “term ‘global’ describes a way of bringing into view the world as a single, unified entity, articulated in space and developing over (common) time.” These assumptions and implications are problematic, and have been, for the most part, “uncritically assimilated” in the humanities and social sciences. Going beyond a critique of eurocentrism, Krishnan argues that the naturalization of the global also serves the “rise of Asia.” Its ascendance is no guarantee that these predominant modes of thematizing and representing the world will change; rather, present indications suggest that what is in store is a deeper entrenchment of the global perspective. Krishnan’s strategy for reading is to trouble that perspective, not by offering an alternative narrative, say, from an Asian perspective, but by interrupting the elisions and closures of the global.7
Returning to biennales: John Clark is among the first art historians to attempt a systematic examination of the Asian biennale. He argues that one of their main functions is to act as “exhibitors of international art to local audiences,” and as “exhibition sites for local art deemed worthy of attracting international attention. They have also functioned to draw contemporary art from other Asian countries into new interregional circuits of comparison and circulation.” For Clark, one of their more controversial functions is to operate prescriptively, where inclusion “means an appraisal has been made of the importance of a work or an artist as a representative of current contemporary practice, and often by implication as indicating a direction others may follow, or indeed should follow.”8
Clark is hardly alone in criticizing biennales. However, it is not just a problem of an elite class of curators jet-setting around the world, selecting the same artists, and promoting them in one exhibition after the other. The prescription of the biennale is also in how it institutes and naturalizes the global perspective of its producers as well as how it constitutes an audience for global contemporary art. Biennale criticism may appear varied, but seldom does it read its object with a thorough commitment to the multiplicities available in the exhibitions discussed. How often does one hear a reviewer lamenting that he or she has seen it all before. Such rejections – biennales are bad because they are repetitive – paradoxically only further consolidate the centrality of the global, as they fail to consider the possibilities of interrupting that perspective. When we set out to attack the grand ambitions of these events, we reinforce the biennale as something grand by default, rather than engaging its diverse aspirations. Criticism of biennales might do much better, if we were to attend more carefully to the many distances traversed in biennales, which are often elided over, both in curatorial discourses, as well as critical engagements.
Art criticism and the rise of contemporary art from Asia
If contemporary art from Asia is indeed on the rise, what then of criticism from this part of the world? One no longer expects a modernist Greenbergian-type to thrive, let alone dominate, as he did, championing North American art in the middle of the last century. These days, art critics have hardly kept up with curators, who have so thoroughly eclipsed the former as the spokespersons for the art of our time. If critics once thought that they could be counted among the privileged arbiters of taste, now they are struggling to find an audience. Who reads criticism anymore? Has criticism become less and less a factor in influencing the production of art? Is the art world engaged in a conversation that critics do not interrupt? The artistic achievements of Europe and North America were possible because they developed in the context of criticism. The rise of art from Asia does not seem to have that same requirement. Are we entering an era where criticism no longer matters? And is that a problem?
In Asia, we still lack critical density in our arts discourses. More important than the debates that have, for instance, a tired West and a rising Asia as its agonists, are the conversations “we” in this part of the world are not having amongst ourselves. It is density in these inter-regional discourses that we need. In his foreword to the English translation of Marco Hsü’s early history of Malayan art, the eminent Singaporean art historian T. K. Sabapathy wrote: “A symptom of the desultory state of writing on art in Singapore is the ignorance and somewhat willful neglect demonstrated by writers towards its own history. This is pronounced, at the present moment as the circle of writers has perceptibly increased, leading to expectations that writing on art is not only enriched by diversity but also deepened by exacting methods [...] It appears that each and every review, notice or catalogue essay is a new beginning, having no precedence.”9 Written in 1999 – Hsü’s book was first published in Chinese in 1963 – Sabapathy’s accusation still troubles even today, applying not only to the island city-state, but across Southeast Asia as well.
James Elkins, in his pamphlet, “What Happened to Art Criticism?”, talks about the paradox of art criticism which I have particularized for Southeast Asia which he sees happening globally: “Art criticism is in a worldwide crisis. [...] But its decay is not the ordinary last faint push of a practice that has run its course [...] Its business is booming: it attracts an enormous number of writers, and often benefits from high-quality color printing and worldwide distribution [...] it is practiced more widely than ever before, and almost completely ignored. Its readership is unknown, unmeasured, and disturbingly ephemeral.” Elkins raises two questions: “Does it make sense to talk about art criticism as a single practice?”, and “does it make sense to try to reform criticism?” I think the answer to the first question is, No, it doesn’t make sense to think of criticism as a unified practice. It is ubiquitous but not universal. It is profoundly disparate and ad hoc. We can talk about criticism as a category only in the sense that a wide array of resemblances connect these diverse practices, rather than a single thread binding them all. As for the second question, it was, as Elkins notes, “prompted by some recent writing on the state of art criticism [including a roundtable organized by the journal October].” Elkins is “not so sure that the situation is that easy to fix, or that the proposed measures are the right ones. In particular, it seems to [him] that calls for reform are often disguised desires to return to some idealized past.” Elkins may be skeptical about these various analyses and prescriptions regarding art criticism today, but he ends his own essay by sharing what he admires in contemporary writing.10
There’s much to complain about the lack of criticism in Southeast Asia. Although the fact remains, there is criticism, and some good criticism at that. Its role is no doubt different from the role Greenberg played in the 1950s. It’s not just that there are persons who identify as critics and that they have some influence on important or emerging artists. The question isn’t about the critic so much as criticism, which includes writing by a range of arts workers – curators, artists, scholars – who play a role in shaping the production and reception of contemporary art. Part of my job is to point to this diverse writing out there, to converse and argue with these texts, and work towards developing a public for these various forms of reading. There’s nothing special about this project. It’s a modest task that addresses the continuities and changes of contemporary art. It is cumulative work, and it is here where the densifying of discourses happens.
So let me close with some pointing – two citations, of two examples of critical discourse, from and about Singapore that I believe are admirable. The first is from an exhibition essay by art historian Kevin Chua, “Ho Tzu Nyen’s Criminal Tableaux,” about the artist’s The Bohemian Rhapsody Project. A short film set against the Queen song, it was first screened in the 2006 Singapore Biennale, in the room of the former City Hall building where it was shot. But Ho’s The Bohemian Rhapsody Project is not so much a music video as a montage of behind-the-scenes footage of the making of such a video. Among the artist’s preoccupations are the histories of cinema and painting, narratives of origins, and philosophical imagery like Plato’s cave. Chua opens his essay as follows:
“Climbing the stairs, we enter Singapore’s City Hall, through the corridors and into one of its dimly-lit chambers. Ushered in by a group of young chorus girls dressed in pearly white, we take our seats. Several actors are auditioning for the lead role [...]: they moan and grimace, parading before us with all the make-believe sincerity of a Medieval passion play. [...] What if – somewhat perversely – we took the film literally, as really about a trial, with us called on to play the dual roles of witness and judge? [...] That each actor is more histrionic than the next only seems to take us beyond theatricality, to that place where we would be free from its burden. We listen with open ears, naked hearts, as though the bare emotionality of their confessions will release us from the necessity of conviction – and manifest a verdict that can only be our own. [... ] The ‘crime’ at the center of [Ho’s] film is not just a murder, but also the double death of Painting and Cinema as such. Writing history, we end up accumulating mere alibis.”11
The second citation is from a film script by Ho Tzu Nyen; it is about another artist, Tang Da Wu, and his performance, Don’t Give Money to the Arts (1995). Tang had approached the Singapore president at a major art event, put on a blazer with the words “Don’t Give Money to the Arts” embroidered on the back, and gave him a note saying, “Dear Mr. President, I am an artist and I am important.” The action took place during the decade when performance art was effectively proscribed in Singapore. Ho’s film, called Tang Da Wu – The Most Radical Gesture (2005), is a fictional behind-the-scenes making of a documentary-in-progress about the event. In the course of the film, the documentary director and the assistant debate the meaning of Tang’s public intervention. It reaches its climax with these closing arguments by the director:
“Now what is the most radical gesture within this performance? Is it because this was a performance carried out right at the very heart of the authorities, before the head of the state, and yet nobody knew it – as though Tang Da Wu had somehow outsmarted and outwitted everybody? I don’t think so. I think it is radical precisely because everyone knew it was a performance – and, and yet they had allowed it to happen, right before them. And for this to happen [...] before [Tang] puts on the jacket, he asks the President: ‘Mr. President, will you allow me to put on the jacket?’ It is through this small, simple act of politeness, of regard for the other – that is to me the most radical gesture within this whole performance.”12
Lee Weng-Choy is president of the Singapore Section of the International Association of Art Critics, and is a part-time consultant with the National Gallery Singapore. From 2000 to 2009, he was the Artistic Co-Director of The Substation Arts Centre in Singapore. Lee has taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and the Sotheby’s Institute of Art, Singapore, on topics from art theory to cultural policy. He has convened and participated in numerous conferences, and done project work with many arts organizations, including the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore. His essays, which discuss contemporary art and culture in Southeast Asia and Singapore, have appeared in such publications as: Afterall; After the Event: New Perspectives on Art History (Manchester); Art & Intimate Publics: Art in the Asia-Pacific (Routledge); Broadsheet; Contemporary Art in Asia (MIT); Forum On Contemporary Art & Society; Modern and Contemporary Southeast Asian Art (Cornell); Over Here: International Perspectives on Art and Culture (MIT); Theory in Contemporary Art since 1985 (Blackwell) and Third Text.
*Cover photo: Ho Tzu Nyen, Episode 3: Tang Da Wu — The Most Radical Gesture, from 4 X 4 — Episodes of Singapore Art, 2005, film still. Courtesy of the Artist
 I am especially grateful to Krzysztof Gutfrański for inviting me to be a part of this issue of Obieg. This is my first time writing for Polish and Eastern European readers. Unfortunately, given the constraints of my schedule, I did not have the time to produce something new. Yet, I very much wanted to contribute, so we agreed that I could rework and remix passages and ideas from my already published work, including: “The Assumption of Love: Friendship and the Search for Discursive Density,” in Modern and Contemporary Southeast Asian Art: a Critical Anthology, eds. Boreth Ly and Nora Taylor, (Ithaca: Southeast Asia Program Publications, Cornell University), 2012; “The distance of our time,” in Column, No. 4, (Sydney: Artspace), 2009; “Our history, large and small,” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, Vol. 10 No. 2, 2009; “The future was when: art criticism and the comparative tenses of Hong Kong and Singapore,” in Journal of Visual Culture 6:3, Dec 2007; “The Distance Between Us / Comparative Contemporaries / Criticism as Symptom and Performance,” in Knowledge + Dialogue + Exchange: remapping cultural globalisms from the south, ed. Nicholas Tsoutas, (Sydney: Artspace), 2005; “Authenticity, Reflexivity & Spectacle: or, the Rise of New Asia is not the End of the World,” in Positions: East Asia Cultures Critiques, Vol. 12 No. 3, special issue edited by Joan Kee, 2004; “Island historiography,” in Pause (Project 1 Realization) Gwangju Biennale exhibition catalog, Gwangju 2002.
 In “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” (Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn, [New York: Schocken Books], 1969), Walter Benjamin provides this caption for Paul Klee’s painting, Angelus Novus: “His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees on single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”
 Janadas Devan, “My Country and My People: Forgetting to Remember,” Our Place in Time, (Singapore: Singapore Heritage Society), 1999. Once a literary critic, Janadas is now the Director of the Institute of Policy Studies and the Chief of Government Communications in Singapore.
 Alfian Sa’at, A History of Amnesia, (Singapore: Ethos Books), 2001.
 Tan Sai Siong, “It’s OK to pass on the past,” The Straits Times, 9 April 1999.
 David Quammen, The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction, (New York: TouchStone), 1997.
 Sanjay Krishnan, Reading the Global: Troubling Perspectives on Britain’s Empire in Asia, (New York: Columbia University Press), 2007.
 John Clark, “Histories of the Asian ‘New’: Biennales and Contemporary Asian Art,” in Asian Art History in the Twenty-First Century, ed. Vishakha N Desai, (Williamstown: The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute), 2007.
 T K Sabapathy, “Foreword,” in Marco Hsü, A Brief History of Malayan Art, trans. Lai Chee Kien, (Singapore: Millennium Books), 1999.
 James Elkins, What Happened to Art Criticism, (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press), 2003.
 Kevin Chua, “Ho Tzu Nyen’s Criminal Tableaux,” in Bohemian Rhapsody Project and 4 X 4 – Episodes of Singapore Art exhibition publication, (Adelaide: Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia), 2007. In the essay, Chua also discusses Ho’s video about Tang Da Wu.
 The passages are courtesy of Ho Tzu Nyen’s unpublished script. Ho’s video on Tang Da Wu, Episode 3: Tang Da Wu – The Most Radical Gesture, was part of a four-part television series, 4 X 4 – Episodes of Singapore Art, which aired on the Singapore TV channel Arts Central in 2005. Each episode focuses on a single work by one Singapore artist.