There’s nothing like getting plonked into a category to ground you in the fact you’re not as white, nor as American, as you thought you were.
In this age of googling, maps (the paper kind) have turned into benign curios—crisp antique foldouts faintly smelling of gridded beginnings and endings. Even so, when the Guggenheim sets out to “MAP,” it ought not be much of a surprise that the art world’s knee-jerk territorial impulses go into hyperdrive. After all, in the Philippines, only six decades separate today from the symbolic descent of the stars-and-stripes, and the American military still visits way too often for prickly memories of a not-so-distant past to be completely erased. It’s not exactly yesterday, but the trail is still pretty warm.
At various junctures during and since World War II, the Philippine artworld has had to plod through now well-worn oppositions that come with its own requisite mapping: modern versus conservative, nativist social realist versus cosmopolitan conceptualist, all the facetious dualities that keep critical exchange colorful and emotional—but rarely productive. Some belated respite has come in the discovery that this neurosis was often shared across Asian borders, and even amongst the other Americas (themselves reckoning with pre- and postcolonial strains of resistance, the tug of roots and influences, and questions of authenticity—evocative pegs that reaffirm that these territories weren’t actually discovered, but merely chanced upon by some intrepid imperialist who couldn’t work a compass.
Of course, it isn’t as if we haven’t all been collectively trying to make peace with our accumulated psychological baggage. If your blood is a cocktail of Austronesian, Malay, Iberian, and Northern American DNA, you run with it. Yet there’s nothing like travel to impolitely shatter your illusions about how you stand—or think you stand—in relation to where you’re at. So it was when, three years ago, I signed up for an NEA fellowship and was promptly counted among the program’s non-native English speakers. There’s nothing like getting plonked into a category to ground you in the fact you’re not as white, nor as American, as you thought you were. (Of course I guiltily asked myself at the time, why did this profiling bother me to begin with?) Chalk one up for less than utterly successful neo-colonialism.
In 2006, when Pananaw, Philippine Journal of Visual Arts and Kakiseni, an online magazine based in Kuala Lumpur, were collaborating on a project, a Malay colleague asked me why the Philippines seemed so separate from “the rest of Asia.” In the context of a collaboration that prefaced the Documenta 12 Magazines Project, her question was framed by the perception that “our” art and culture appeared removed from an “Asian” sensibility rooted in European, as opposed to American, colonialism. Even as this query gives me pause today, much of my mental energy has shifted to other matters—how the now visibly overheating market and attendant literature reeks of ageism, and the dearth of critical discourse channels makes for problematic skews in the validation scape. These latter conditions play into my own skepticism about how the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative will get Asia “out there” in any truly “appropriate” way. I do draw comfort from how June Yap, its South and Southeast Asia Curator, admits that part of her job is to deal with exclusions that come with the daunting task of doing right by an intimidatingly vast number of artists and artisitic currents—much less countries—that are within the project’s purview.
What I’d like to know though is if she was enabled to spring any surprises, any ventures risky enough to stir the pot by way of targeting generational and art-historical blind spots? Given that so many of these “local” histories remain unwritten and that too much writing on contemporary art in the region is, however smartened-up, problematically complicit with the marketing of auctions and fairs, just how much is the Guggenheim willing to wager to make this work? Surely quick trips that only allow one to touch base with the usual suspects in a focus country doesn’t cut it? You’d think that if they’d taken this much time to come around to “contemporary Asia,” surely they could be more enterprising about negotiating contradictions and navigating under-researched terrain?
But perhaps Guggenheim UBS MAP and its aspiration to globality simply underscores problems familiar to anyone working the ground ‘in’ and ‘out’ of Asia—reckoning with how terms like nation and region signify differently from one juncture to the next. Where, for example, do countries begin and end given the present tumult over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands jointly claimed by China and Japan? And nearer my own backyard, what about the Paracels and the Spratlys, loci of territorial claims by at least six countries (the Philippines, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei)? Then too there is the ongoing violent tussle between Malaysia and the forces of the Sultan of Sulu. Not to belittle the painful histories that accompany such claims, but certainly they make a case for doubting that “MAP-ing” will make the Guggenheim any more “international” than its status as an American institution (with prominent global franchises) makes it fully representative of the entire United States.
When the Guggenheim pats itself on the back for conducting self-analysis, owning up to its roots in European modernism, and recognizing that, according to its own statement, the “impulse toward homogenization has been eclipsed by connected and conjoined localities,” all my cynical nerve-endings get tweaked. In acknowledging the fraught project of representation, the Guggenheim states a hope “to participate in rather than merely represent cultures around the world and in so doing map out a new art-historical model that is both integrative and contextual.” I have no doubt that Yap earnestly tries to tend to the contextual department, but I wonder how much leverage she was accorded, and how possible it was for her to break from the herd sensibility that plagues much of the global curatorium?
So what does this all have to do with regional art production? Everything, of course. Art’s production and circulation are inarguably bound up with how territories (not to mention national and regional egos) are inflated and deflated. The U.S. is playing a very late catch-up game by wooing (while also keeping at bay) the nebulous entity called “Asia,” and the odds are stacked against it. While noting how this bolstered emphasis on Asian culture is conflated with the overwhelming business that Asia represents, perhaps one may still hope that critical scholarship can also be given a leg up by broadening exchange beyond predigested art and ideas, and that space could be made for greater productive dissonance. In the end, we may still end up carving out our own self-interested spaces, but perhaps some collateral pleasure could come out of opening up to more than just tokenistic multiplicity and requisite pleasantries.
Eileen Legaspi-Ramirez is a critic, curator, and lecturer based in the Philippines.