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ARTS

Art History:

The Aporias of Modernization in Southeast Asia The Visual Art Study Program of ITB, supported by The Getty Foundation, the University of Sydney and ITB’s Soemardja Gallery, recently organized an international seminar on art history and visual culture in Southeast Asia, titled ‘Gathering of Histories.’

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HE participants to the seminar came from Singapore, Australia, Vietnam, Thailand, the Netherlands and host country Indonesia. Malaysian gallery owner Valentine Willie asked the first pertinent question: Who is telling what, how, to whom and for what reasons? Artist and 76 |

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art historian Nguyen Quan from Vietnam, added: in what language do we tell the histories of art in this region? Opting for English inherently limits some of the participants and audience, while the use of the outsiders’ language could bring out the ‘exotic’ in ourselves. The seminar’s organizing committee used an elegant solution: the

presentations and interaction with members of the audience were either in English or in Indonesian, with simultaneous translations. And if we were genuinely interested in art practiced elsewhere, Sutee Kunav-


The Gathering of Histories seminar at the Bandung Institute of Technology, Bandung.

ichayanont, an associate professor of art theory from Thailand, proposed that participants translated and published more of their works. His suggestion was in response to Thomas Berghuis’ comment, a lecturer of

art in Asia at the University of Sydney, who said that while the academic lingua franca was English, art speaks multiple languages. Art history, according to first speaker Professor Mark Ledbury from Sydney University, was a young academic discipline. It is, therefore, often a self-reflective discipline that borrows methods and theories from a wide variety of academic fields, and the discipline is ambitious and anxious at the very same time. Furthermore, he said art history was as much the product of modernity as it produces modernity. The next speaker, Yustiono, senior lecturer at the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB), focused his presentation on the ambitions, anxieties and setbacks in developing art history as an academic discipline in Indonesia, a country where no university has a department of art history, which is as unfortunate as the fact that Indonesia does not—as yet—have a public art museum. Of course, Indonesia today has quite a few private museums. However, as Ber-

ghuis commented, a museum should be more than a building with a collection, it should also facilitate research. Singapore is fast becoming a hub for art in the region. In 1997, the Singapore Art Museum opened its doors to the public and according to Singaporean Dr. Adele Tan, so will the National Art Gallery in 2015. Her presentation, however, came across as a sale’s pitch to which Bandung-based artist Tisna Sanjaya responded with his usual passion that if art were considered a part of the so-called creative industry and the emphasis was on the latter, then art was merely at the service of the tourism industry to increase the country’s GDP. The question of how art is or could be connected to the wider culture is then ignored. ITB lecturer and director of Soemardja Gallery Amunidin TH Siregar, in turn, emphasized that a museum’s research facility should not only make sure that what is collected will withstand the test of time, but that the authenticity of the collected works is assured (art history can, of course, be told with fake paintings, but at what cost?). The discipline’s ambitions and anxieties have much to do with questions related to temporal and geographical inclusion as well as porous boundaries of the field of inquiry. How far back does the study of art history need to go (especially since the nation-state is a relatively recent invention)? What are the boundaries between art and other visual domains? John Clark, a professor from Sydney University, wanted art historians to study advertisements and kitsch as well. And how cosmopolitan can or should the study of art history be? Senior curator Jim Supangkat, from Indonesia, discussed the latter question by analyzing the term global art, which has been in vogue during the last decade. He claimed, however, that it was more related to how the art market operates in today’s era of globalization. On the other hand, is it really a problem if the West only pays lip service to inclusivity? There are so many interesting developments in the arts in Asia that it would be the West’s loss if it chose to remain ignorant. A question that did not emerge during the seminar was whether it was actually possible to study art history in the absence of a public art museum, as is the case in Indonesia. Hopefully this will be one day turned into a blessing in disguise by having learned valuable experiences from other countries, experiences that are exchanged at seminars like this recent one at ITB’s art school in Bandung. ● ROY VORAGEN DECEMBER 9, 2012 |

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Art History: Aporias of Modernization in Southeast Asia