Exploring Trauma and Forgotten Histories in the Works of Dinh Q. Lê
1978: ten-year-old Dinh Q. Lê steps onto a small, overcrowded fishing boat in Southern Vietnam. Together with his mother and several family members, they drift across the Gulf of Thailand, spending a year in a Thai refugee camp before heading to the United States.
Considered one of the world’s most renowned Vietnamese contemporary artists, Lê’s artistic creations germinated in a pond of cloudy memories and second-hand recollections of the Vietnam War and its aftermath, continuously striving to remember and preserve a part of history that risks being forgotten. The systematic revisiting of these traumatic memories is a distinctive characteristic of his multi-disciplinary practice, one that continuously looks at a history that is difficult to remember yet impossible to forget. Does this process of repetition provide a platform for Lê to reconcile with a troubled and amorphous past, abating the emotional impact of not only experiencing the war but also the guilt of surviving it? With a look at Sigmund Freud’s theorization of trauma, a better understanding of Lê’s practice as one that “merges fact, fiction, and personal recollections to create a tapestry of memories” can be attained.
Lê was born in 1968, in Hà-Tiên, a small town in the south of Vietnam. His family lived through the war, eventually fleeing to the United States when the Khmer Rouge started making cross-border incursions from neighbouring Cambodia. Arriving in California in 1979, he grew up with Hollywood depictions of a war whose history had been written almost exclusively by the West. Lê explains that “as a child growing up in Simi Valley, California, with the distant memories of a country whose culture and imagery was being fed back to me via mainstream television and film, it was at times difficult to pinpoint which memories were mine or popularly inherited.” This volatile interchange between memory and illusion, fact and fiction, recurs in his practice, which is still galvanized by the process of perceiving the Vietnam War through a Vaselined lens.
The definition of ‘trauma’ centres on intense personal suffering, and is one of the many afflictions that Sigmund Freud studied throughout his career. After World War I, he was intrigued by the propensity of his patients to repeat and re-live unpleasant experiences. He observed that this compulsion was prevalent after sudden and unexpected shocks; the brain inflicts the same traumatic damage on itself, repeatedly. The element of surprise or fright was constant across these patients, the normal defences against danger not having time to operate and the individual being overwhelmed by dread. As a young child experiencing the onslaught of war and having to flee the country, Lê was exposed to a plethora of unpredictable and shocking events. This characteristic of repeatedly reliving these traumas is reflected not only in the subject matter of his works, but also in the processes he uses to create them.
The Vietnam War sparked a renewed interest in the topic of trauma and 1980 saw the formal acknowledgement of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) by the American Psychiatric Association. The method of catharsis, where patients uncover original traumas and purge harrowing memories by vividly recalling them, was pioneered by Freud and has subsequently been widely used to treat patients suffering from PTSD. After years of suppressing his childhood memories, Lê’s recollections resurfaced upon returning to Vietnam in 1993. Through his practice, he grapples with his own traumatic experiences and draws attention to the victims of the same conflicts, memorializing them through the act of creation. Through this process of catharsis, he not only pays tribute to the casualties of war, but also forever attaches his name to them.
Merging Eastern and Western cultures, Lê’s works have ventured into the realm of large-scale photo montages and installations, documentary film, and appropriated objects and images. His re-interpretation of traditional grass mat weaving has become his trademark, a technique he learned from an aunt during his childhood in Hà-Tiên. Focusing on the recent history of Vietnam, Lê explores themes of loss and redemption, ensuring that the histories of those who perished in its wake are not forgotten. Whilst at the University of California, he engaged with the topic of the Vietnam War for the first time. Frustrated by “an Asian culture with which the West was for a time intimately and violently engaged with, but about which it knew almost nothing about,” Lê produced a series of posters juxtaposing American media images of the war with photos of Vietnamese suffering, unmasking the contradictory accounts of the conflict’s history (Fig. 1). This was the beginning of a practice that continues to challenge the apathy towards war memories and shines a spotlight on forgotten histories.
A trip to Cambodia in 1994 resulted in Lê’s acclaimed Cambodia: Splendor and Darkness series (Fig. 2). He visited the temples in Siem Reap and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, located at the site of the Khmer Rouge prison and execution centre. Shocked by the contrast between the cruelty of the regime and the beauty of the temples, Lê began working on a series of photo weavings that blended the images of the intricate temple carvings with haunting photographs of the prisoners. Cutting the images into strips, he weaved them together as a way of intertwining cultures and identities. In a careful and repetitive manner, he interweaves the faces of the prisoners with images of the monuments that were also privy to the deaths of countless individuals who helped build them. The artist revisited this series during a residency at STPI in 2018, throwing himself into this compelling act of repetition (Fig. 3).
The attempt to justify abject brutality and unfathomable aggression under the pretext of war, is one that continues to challenge those who have not only experienced it but also suffer the emotional consequences of having survived it. Shaped by his own recollections of the war, together with second-hand memories and photographic cues, Lê has used his practice as both a refuge and a vessel to immortalise those who no longer have a voice. Freud noted that traumas are alternately relived and suppressed, and Lê’s process of healing and acceptance of his past continues to be an onerous one. Reflecting on the experience of living through but also later remembering the war from afar, his works offer a distanced view of a history that he was born into but living away from. With his photo-weavings now firmly established as his trademark, the repetitive nature of Lê’s practice sees him continuously revisiting the past. Is this done in an attempt to deal with a troubled history or is his mind unable to process these traumatic events, compelling him to continuously relive them? Is war ever truly over for those who have experienced it so vehemently? The nature of suffering is a complex and multifaceted one; whilst Lê’s art has set him on a journey of catharsis, this is one where the destination is still unknown.
Published January 2021.
 The Vietnam War took place between 1954 and 1975. It was officially fought between North and South Vietnam, the North Vietnamese army supported by the Soviet Union, China and other communist allies and the South Vietnamese one backed by the United States, South Korea, Australia, Thailand and other anti-communist allies. US military involvement escalated in 1961 and continued until their withdrawal in 1973. Two years later, Communist forces ended the war by seizing control of South Vietnam and in 1976 the country was unified as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
 Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was an Austrian neurologist best known for developing the theories and techniques of psychoanalysis. Freud posited that neuroses had their origins in deeply traumatic experiences that had occurred in the past, forgotten and hidden from consciousness. His theories on child sexuality, libido and the ego, are some of the most influential academic concepts of the twentieth century.
 Melissa Chiu and Benjamin Genocchio, “Contemporary Asian Art.” (Singapore: Thames & Hudson, 2010).
 In an attempt to socially engineer a classless communist society in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge government, led by Pol Pot, rose to power in 1975 after winning the Cambodian Civil War. Forcibly depopulating the country’s cities, they targeted and murdered perceived political opponents and carried out a genocide in which an estimated 1.5 to 3 million people were killed or died (source: Encyclopaedia Britannica). The Khmer Rouge regime was removed from power when Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1979.
 Dinh Q. Lê, “On Dinh” in Dinh Q. Lê: Monuments and Memorials, exhibition catalogue, 2018 (Singapore: STPI 2018), 12.
 Holland Cotter, “Vietnamese Voices Against a Whir of War,” nytimes.com, USA, 12 August, 2010, accessed 23 April, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/13/arts/design/13dinh.html
 Lê blended iconic images of the Vietnam War with documentary photographs and anonymous family portraits that he had bought in thrift shops in Vietnam, Lê created a tapestry of memories and fictions that all merge together. From Vietnam to Hollywood explored and reflected upon the experience of living through and later remembering the war from a distance.
 A former secondary school, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, was used as a prison and interrogation centre during the Khmer Rouge regime. Soldiers, government officials, academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers, monks, engineers, to name a few, were imprisoned, tortured and killed during the four year regime. An estimated 17,000 people were murdered at the prison and only seven inmates survived.
 Photos are cut into strips and the ones placed horizontally are woven into the vertical ones.
 Lê’s exhibition at STPI – Monuments and Memorials (17 March – 12 May, 2018) establishes a strong connection between previous works and his STPI residency. He revised the Cambodia: Splendour and Darkness series and adopted the same weaving technique and style for these new works. Having previously done little with the print medium and no papermaking experience, Lê was pushed out of his comfort zone, going beyond the weaving process and creating new three-dimensional works.
 As Freud points out in his research findings, repetition itself is the aim of the compulsion.
Caruth, Cathy. ‘Parting Words: Trauma, Silence, and Survival,’ from Trauma, Abstraction and Creativity, 2014-15, 20-33.
Caruth, Cathy, ed. Trauma: Explorations in Memory. USA: The John Hopkins University Press, 1995.
Chiu, Melissa and Benjamin Genocchio. Contemporary Asian Art. Singapore: Thames & Hudson, 2010.
Conway, Martin. A. ‘Memory and Desire: Reading Freud.’ The Psychologist, September 2006.
Coombe, Sofia. ‘Trauma & Memory: Weaving the Past and Present in the Works of Dinh Q. Lê.’ Masters essay, LASALLE College of the Arts, 2018.
Freud, Sigmund, ed. John Rickman. A General Selection from the Works of Sigmund Freud. USA: Anchor Books, 1957.
Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. UK/Austria: The International Psycho-Analytical Press, (year)
Freud, Sigmund. Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis. USA: W. W. Norton & Company Ltd, 1989.
Freud, Sigmund. On Creativity and the Unconscious: Papers on the Psychology of Art, Literature, Love, Religion. USA: Harper & Row Publishers, 1958.
Huong, Bui Nhu and Pham Trung. Vietnamese Contemporary Art 1990-2010. Vietnam: Knowledge Publishing House, 2012.
Jones, Dr Ernest. “War shock and Freud’s Theory of the Neuroses.” USA: Volume: 11 issue: Sect_Psych, 1918.
Lear, Jonathan. Freud. UK: Routledge, 2015.
Nora, Pierre. Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire. Representations, No. 26, Special Issue: Memory and Counter-Memory (Spring 1989), pp. 7-24. USA: University of California Press, 1989.
Pollock, Griselda. Art/Trauma/Representation. Parallax, 15:1, 40-54.
Reid, Anthony, A History of Southeast Asia: Critical Crossroads. UK: Wiley Blackwell, 2015.
Singapore Art Museum. Still Moving: A Triple Bill On The Image. Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, 2014. Exhibition catalogue.
Snowden, Ruth. Freud: The Key Ideas. From psychoanalysis and sex to dreams, the unconscious and more. Great Britain: Hodder & Stoughton, 2017.
STPI. Dinh Q. Lê: Monuments and Memorials. Singapore: STPI, 2018. Exhibition catalogue.
Trang, Dao Mai. 12 Contemporary Artists of Vietnam. Vietnam: Thê Giói Publishers, 2010.
About the Writer
Based in Singapore, Sofia is an art consultant and independent curator who holds a Master of Arts, Asian Art Histories, from Goldsmiths University of London through LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore.
With over a decade in Southeast Asia, Sofia was the Press and Media Relations at STPI – Creative Workshop and Gallery for 2 years. In 2016, she founded Art Locker, a Singapore-based art consultancy offering marketing, PR, curatorial and strategic advice, as well as artist representation. She has collaborated with a plethora of artists from the region, curating shows and managing special projects. In 2019 she partnered with Amador Arts Projects on the production of a short video on audience reception of Cambodian-American artist Anida Yoeu Ali’s ‘The Buddhist Bug’ performance in Kuala Lumpur.
Sofia is the co-founder of Art World Database, a new online compendium of Southeast Asian contemporary artists, set to launch in 2021.
The public health crisis has initiated an institutional crisis of confidence in the exhibitionary status quo. Curatorial momentum for some institutions lie in evangelising technology as responsive to and amelioratory – if not outright curative – of the social crises occurring during this pandemic event. A variant of pandemic amnesia has afflicted institutional thinking; it is sufficient to note for now that the crisis talk around the needs of a post-COVID museum or exhibition has effaced all other social developments prior to the pandemic, as though they are no longer present in or relevant to our public and cultural spaces. Talk of ‘the future’ now runs synonymous with ‘post-pandemic’ – with all prior fractures around race, gender, and the have-nots now safely quarantined in silence.
With near-uniformity, the normative course of action by state funders and arts councils for exhibition-making and public programming lies in the Frankenstein neologism that is the phygital, a term that first arose as marketing adspeak describing blended customer experience combining physical spatial design and digital applications that has filtered into museological thinking around the post-Covid future of exhibitions. This futuristic vision counts on a double assumption of simultaneity and substitutability: first, that online viewership will be concurrent to in-person attendance in ways that the latter either desires to double their engagement with the same exhibition, or is satisfied with substituting their in-person engagement with digital counterparts; second, that the digitised programming is concurrent in all territories and timezones, offering simultaneous and potentially limitless access to any interested registrant, while offering the host institution the not-unattractive proposition of substituting any fall in attendance count with endlessly replenished global views.
The more substantive contention isn’t with the success or failure of these assumptions, or to meet these assumptions with some form of empiricism, but the belief they rest on – of the Internet as an open commons that maps seamless pathways back to institutional audiences. Access to digitised exhibition content continues to be pathway- and platform-dependent, with enduring patterns and procedures for access and interaction that also shape the contours and limits of these interactions. Using Instagram TV or Facebook Live is to accept that platform’s demographic curve (Facebook skews college educated, far less under-25s), and their behavioral preferences (Facebook favors settled social rhythms and family networks, Instagram users tend to visit daily). Platform algorithms are still counting on posts timings and discussion-driving mechanics, like polls and queries, to drive in-feed appearances and features. Taken together with our user preferences for habituation and known pleasures, these platform technologies fashion a self-selecting loop that reinforces the recurrence of the familiar in our searches and feeds, pushing the hyper-local to users instead of other regionalities. Crucially, the COVID-19 crisis has shown an institutional perception in Singapore of the internet as a commons that is somehow untethered to and consequently unimpeded by the limits on discursive and social spaces in the country. We are witnessing the museum in Singapore as an metonymic aspirant, even if impossible, to that belief in the Internet commons; user experience becomes a substitute for even the mildest form of participation, where possibly political implications of what it means to make difficult decisions between constrained options have become entirely a matter of technology or communications.
The question I’ve been asking myself is the possibility for art spaces, especially, artist initiatives to do otherwise, to become spaces that were necessary even in times of relative normalcy, but are now meeting an alarming urgency; if art spaces can provide the care of already divergent communities, but were already comet-like in their scarcity within the cosmology of art spaces; if, to borrow Marisol de la Cadena’s term for ecological thinking underpinned by still-unseen activities and assemblages, we can produce uncommons, spaces for differences and divergences that remain discomforting to the mainstream, even unwelcome in the existing public spaces in our cities. These differences nonetheless are existing if less-visible participants in the image of multicultural cosmopolises which cities like Singapore prophesied themselves into being. These divergent spaces in small cities (and Singapore is a small city) are themselves small, but befits the scale of those who attend to them. These uncommons, in other words, are crucial to the often unattended-to: the economically precarious, our sexual minorities, and to those with resistive cultural practices.
Imagining a development of the uncommons with this underseen pluralism in mind necessitates thinking out of the scalar logics of operating systems and Web-based platforms, to consider other paths for these micro-spaces to meet their uncommon publics. Multiplication can happen granularly, in the interiors of our existing spaces. Together with other spaces such as soft/WALL/studs, Objectifs, and other smaller organisations and collectives concerned with the unattended-to, Grey Projects has made some modest moves in this direction. By happenstance, prior to the start of last year, I had made plans to shift away from an exhibition-first programming to other forms of curatorial-thinking and space-making. We have continued with our commitment to an annual queer exhibition program but have supplemented it with free studio space to queer practitioners who cannot count on arts council grant- or studio-support for their proposals. We have converted our space on the weekends into a counselling space, to offer free and queer-friendly mental health counselling by trained counsellors for anyone working in the arts. We have organised book sales with materials donated by friends and supporters, to raise the money required to pay for these counsellors. Our curatorial project Care Package offers artist-participants a small stipend if they would consider in turn making a gift of any kind for someone in the arts who they not only respect but care about.
To grow the uncommons is to think away from the architecture of bigness and consider ways to proliferate ever more divergent spots from which to address the underseen city, and to build alliances and other temporary modes of collective action. Together with three other artist initiatives and collectives, Grey has co-created a mutual aid program that diverts some of the financial support that we have received from the larger museums towards meeting urgent, non-production-related necessities, such as medical costs, rent and food expenses. In the coming months, we are planning to release a public document and organise workshops for people involved in nonprofit and independent spaces, to discuss the spatial precarity of Singapore’s independent art spaces, and the ways in which we can better collectively advocate and organise for their survival. Three long-standing, pioneering organisations – Theatre Practice, The Necessary Stage, and the Substation – are due to lose their leases in the coming year. By thinking through the changes in the existing ecology only in terms of increasing digitisation or virtualising our spaces and work, are we only to expect more losses to come?
About the Writer
Jason Wee is an artist and the author of three poetry books, including the 2020 Singapore Literature Prize finalist An Epic of Durable Departures. He has participated in residencies and fellowships such as The Arts House-National University of Singapore (2014-2015), NTU-CCA Singapore (2016-2017), and IdeasCity New Museum (2020). Recent exhibitions include Asia Society Triennial 2020, Singapore Biennale 2019, ArtSciene Museum (2019), Richard Koh Fine Art KL (2019), NTU-CCA Singapore (2017). He is represented by Yavuz Gallery Singapore.
Recent curatorial projects include Stories We Tell To Scare Ourselves With (Taipei MOCA, 2019), and Singapur Unheimlich (ifa galerie Berlin, 2015). Other curatorial projects include Useful Fictions by Shubigi Rao (2013), When You Get Closer To The Heart, You May Find Cracks by the Migrant Ecologies Project (NUS Museum, 2014). His artist-initiated projects include Tomorrow Is An Island (Villa Vassilieff, 2016), ART OPENINGS: The Expanded Field of Art Writing (CCA Singapore, 2018) and PostSuperFutureAsia (Taipei Contemporary Art Center 2017, Ilmin Museum, 2019). He founded and runs Grey Projects, an art library and residency.
In Pursuit of Public Engagement with Eugene Tan
Eugene Tan has been Director of National Gallery Singapore since May 2013. He takes the lead on key museological and curatorial aspects of the Gallery’s work and also plays a key role in influencing the intellectual framework that guides the display and further development of the Gallery’s collections.
On 1 April 2019, he was appointed Director of Singapore Art Museum to guide it towards its vision of becoming a leading museum of contemporary art, while retaining his role as Director of National Gallery Singapore. Prior to this, he served as Programme Director (Special Projects) at the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB) and oversaw the development of the Gillman Barracks art district. He has also held various positions including Director of Exhibitions for Osage Gallery, Director of Contemporary Art at the Sotheby’s Institute of Art – Singapore, as well as Director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore.
Eugene has published and curated widely, organising exhibitions including the Singapore Pavilion at the 51st Venice Biennale (2005), the inaugural Singapore Biennale (2006) and Reframing Modernism: Painting from Southeast Asia, Europe and Beyond (2016) and Minimalism: Space. Light. Object. (2018) at National Gallery Singapore. He also serves as a board member of the International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art (CIMAM) and Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp.
With critical collaborations with institutions such as Tate Britain, The Centre Pompidou and Musée D’Orsay in recent years, National Gallery Singapore (NGS) is progressively poised to become more so an international than regional phenomenon. Would you say that this has shifted the curatorial ambit of the Gallery away from the specificity of Southeast Asia to a more telescopic view of global art historical developments? How would you situate this in the larger picture of the Gallery’s mission and vision?
An important part of the National Gallery Singapore’s mission has always been to examine the art histories of Singapore and Southeast Asia within a larger global context. While our long term exhibitions of Singapore and Southeast Asian art look at the histories within the country and the region respectively, our international collaborations with institutions around the world connect and contextualise Southeast Asia into larger art historical narratives. They do so by also re-thinking established art historical narratives through the perspectives of Southeast Asia.
The 2016 exhibition Reframing Modernism: Painting from Southeast Asia, Europe and Beyond, co-curated by Centre Pompidou, is an example of how such international collaborations can unsettle assumptions that currently ground conceptions of art history. The exhibition explored new ways of looking at the history of modernism in art through an encounter between the collections of the Centre Pompidou and National Gallery Singapore. Minimalism: Space. Light. Object., held from 2018 to 2019, shared a similar critical perspective by exploring the relationship between Minimalism, a movement pivotal to the development of art in the United States and Europe in the 1960s, and Asian aesthetics and philosophies.
NGS has, since its establishment in 2015, mounted a number of blockbuster exhibitions that drew record numbers of visitors. Shows such as Yayoi Kusama’s Life is the Heart of a Rainbow may seem to draw heavily on the concept of ‘spectacle’ to incite visitorship. How does the Gallery negotiate this idea of the ‘spectacular’ in engaging audiences?
YAYOI KUSAMA: Life is the heart of a rainbow was undoubtedly a very well received exhibition by the public, and widely shared online and on social media platforms. While being a popular exhibition, Kusama is also a historically critical artist, whose significance has only been acknowledged and thoroughly examined more recently. The exhibition sought to show how her work from the 1950s when she was still living in Japan, to the works she made after arriving in New York in 1958, to her more recent infinity rooms, had a singular vision that made it difficult to place her within the established history of art. As such, the exhibition not only sought to introduce her work to audiences in Southeast Asia, but also to question our received understanding of art history. These aims to grow the appreciation and understanding of art and its histories sit at the heart of the exhibitions that we organise at the National Gallery.
Proposals for Novel Ways of Being saw NGS and Singapore Art Museum (SAM) reach out to and partner with numerous independent art spaces in a supportive and collaborative manner. How do both museums position themselves in Singapore, especially in relation to the private sphere of smaller art spaces and galleries?
As two of the largest arts institutions in Singapore, the Gallery and SAM have a responsibility to support other areas of the art ecosystem. Proposals for Novel Ways of Being was an opportunity for us to collaborate with independent art spaces, collectives, artists, and curators who were deeply affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and provide them with a platform to share different perspectives and experiences of art in such a tumultuous time. In many ways, this initiative complemented the efforts being done by others in Singapore, such as galleries, which also presented shows by contemporary artists, including recent graduates.
In an interview in 2019, you described the ‘contemporary’ as a complexly nuanced milieu in terms of representation by both NGS and SAM, with the former taking on a far more ‘historical’ approach to contemporary art as a category. How would you describe SAM’s focus on the “art of the present” then? Is this primarily a temporal distinction?
The National Gallery Singapore focuses on the histories of art in Singapore and Southeast Asia and its connections to the global, while SAM is a contemporary art museum. The term “contemporary” in art is complex in the sense that it not only refers both to an historical period of development – which is among the focus of the National Gallery – and to the art being produced in the present time, it is also about how we understand the relationship of our pasts to the present. SAM’s focus is on the contemporary as being about art that speaks to our contemporaneity. In addition to the focus on art that responds to the forces that shape our times and which in turn shape the art, SAM also examines art from other historical pasts that has bearing on the understanding of our present condition. As such, this does not preclude art made in a more remote temporal proximity.
SAM recently made public its decision to start a residency programme. What inspired this momentous progression in the institution’s development?
The SAM Residencies programme is a way for us to continue the engagement with the art community and public; it is, in many ways, a natural extension of our work. This museum-run residencies programme was developed to actively engage not only the local and international artistic community, but also the public at large. There are four different modes: the Artist Residency, Community & Education Residency, Curatorial & Research Residency, and Art Spaces Residency, called “EX-SITU”. Unique to the Southeast Asian region are the Community & Education Residency and EX-SITU: Art Spaces Residency where, through a diverse lineup of activities, residents will be encouraged to interact with or involve local communities and the public in different ways.
On the whole, these residencies look to be an incubator for new approaches to artistic and curatorial practices for those in the arts community. The public programmes will add to the diversity of SAM’s curatorial and programming plans to engage visitors in different ways through the activities and presentations of the residencies. These programmes may take the form of open studio visits, public workshops, talks as well as interactions with artists. It will also create more spaces to support community interactions between artists and the public, and enable meaningful encounters with art.
More information can be found on the SAM website, and we encourage those interested to apply for the coming cycle.
Interrogating Curatorial Language with Patrick Flores
Patrick Flores is Professor of Art Studies at the Department of Art Studies at the University of the Philippines and Curator of the Vargas Museum in Manila. He is the Director of the Philippine Contemporary Art Network. He was one of the curators of Under Construction: New Dimensions in Asian Art in 2000 and the Gwangju Biennale (Position Papers) in 2008. He was a Visiting Fellow at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1999 and an Asian Public Intellectuals Fellow in 2004. Among his publications are Painting History: Revisions in Philippine Colonial Art (1999); Remarkable Collection: Art, History, and the National Museum (2006); and Past Peripheral: Curation in Southeast Asia (2008). He was a Guest Scholar of the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles in 2014. He curated the Philippine Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2015. He was the Artistic Director of Singapore Biennale 2019 and is the Curator of the Taiwan Pavilion for Venice Biennale in 2022.
In an interview with Design Anthology, you described the model of the art biennale to be crucial in its capricious potentialities, against the streamlined and often restrictive curatorial framework of institutions. With the pandemic having irreversibly altered the ecologies of the art world, how would you position the importance of the art biennale today?
I am struck by the word “importance” in relation to the biennale, because it tends to disperse the much-maligned yet also much-coveted force of the biennale across the more granular details of “capricious potentialities.” I am not sure about the word “capricious,” though I yield to its productive indeterminacy to the degree that it foils the grimness either of ideology or bureaucracy. To gauge “importance” is to imply significance; and also to “bring in” consequence. And the biennale, being a project that reaches out, or “inclines outward,” from a privileged vantage point of consolidation and critical awareness, constantly exposes itself to the risks of what it decides to engage or exclude: to mark as of import or to import into its fold. This exposure is its importance. And the pandemic, as an index of an exceptional exposure, advances yet another element the biennale must respond to or mediate in ways that reveal a need for a supplement, a lack and an extension, if we heed the words of Gayatri Spivak. What bears watching is the evolving immune system of the biennale, which is idiosyncratic every time it turns: how it comes to terms with, or positions itself to be transformed by, the dense and oftentimes importuning social material that precedes, exceeds, overlooks, refuses, and survives it.
The Singapore Biennale 2019, which I imagined as a festival and a seminar, tried to allude to these supplements via the circus-school Phare the Cambodian Circus; the Coordinates Project, which was attentive to the sustained work of initiatives and institutions in Singapore and Eurasia; the decisive introspections through the workshop/performance and installation of Amanda Heng and Lani Maestro; the practice in public and digital spaces of Haifa Subay and Lawrence Lek; the alacritous modernisms of Ali Akbar Sadeghi and Alfonso Ossorio; the archives of Carlos Villa and Raymundo Albano through the spatial vehicle provided by Celine Condorelli; among others.
You spoke before about the significant influence your Filipino heritage has had in shaping your curatorial practice, notably in terms of the Philippines’ complex colonial histories and its consequent ‘mixedness’ of social and national genealogies. How would you characterise the notion of ‘borders’ in conceiving of the Southeast Asian region? Is there a balance to be struck between fluidity and specificity?
For me, the “Philippine,” not the country but the figurine, is not just a location or an identity, but a poetics and a problematic. This is how I redeem the nation from the instrumentalization of the state alongside some species of nationalism. I am not so fond of the word “balance” because it conjures the fantasy of homeostasis; and the interface between “fluidity” and “specificity” may well be a false choice. I’d rather like to think of the latter terms as forming a double bind, but not in binary opposition. Which means that mixture, porosity, and mutation need to be articulated in a livelier idiom of intervolvement. In my mind, the “Philippine” as a highly inflected register embodies both geography and elaboration, rooted and intricate.
Singapore has, over the decades, strived to distinguish itself as a thought-leader within the region, an ambition perceivable in the cultural ambit of its art institutions as well. Aside from manifesting the ‘Southeast Asian’ in representation within the National Collection and regional efforts such as the Singapore Biennale, how else do you think Singapore may be able to effectively situate ‘Southeast Asia’ as a coherent and yet productively ‘mercurial’ cartography?
Mercurial! That’s an interesting adjective. I would maybe settle for equatorial to describe Singapore. Singapore can revisit its history and from there, trace certain trajectories that either anticipate or surmount a region called Southeast Asia. Singapore can also let other subjectivities annotate its place and the representation of that place in the region and, from there, dilate or ramify Singapore in ways that emerge from critical mediation and not from continuous expansion and assimilation, on the one hand, and from the overinvestment in the co-production of modernities, on the other. Singapore has to be more confident, truly tropical, if not altogether intemperate. It has nothing to lose if it doesn’t look westward or northward. It should learn not to care anymore about normative coordinates and start looking after the “sudden vicinity of things” in its latitude. Thought leading is one thing. Leading thought is another.
You have described the “relationality and activation” of the curatorial as especially equipped to release Southeast Asia and, more broadly, the Global South from the ‘psychogeographies’ of colonial histories. Relatedly, how would you describe the importance (or necessity) of the role of the curator in advancing this postcolonial prospect within the region today?
The role of the curator has greatly enhanced over time and to some extent has thickened the capital and the charisma of the personage in spite of, and perhaps because of, the relentless critique of its hegemony. I like the way the question choreographs post-coloniality along the axis of “relationality and activation.” That’s a vital proposition: that to be post-colonial is to relate and to activate. The curator in Southeast Asia, if she were diligent and intuitive enough, should acknowledge that these constitute the foundations of the practice, not the mimicry of the methods, glossaries, instincts, and thematizations honed in self-styled centers of contemporary art; or the overcirculation of certain forward-looking careers; or the idealizations of alternatives to replace an exhausted avant-garde. To relate and to activate requires a post-colonial theory and strategy as well as the patience through which to sort out the uneasy ties with a partly sympathetic, partly resistive public. Without these, the curatorial gesture will just be a repetition of an extractive art history and the subcontraction of artistic production from the so-called south. It will ultimately just be a franchise.
Your idea of a “third moment”, characterised by a quality of “co-implication” that transcends the traditional centre-periphery binary is especially interesting. Would you say that the cultural geography of Southeast Asia is particularly poised to structure this almost nomadic, almost explosive framework for understanding contemporary identities?
To a certain extent yes, because the waters surrounding it as well as the migration of its peoples are storied. It’s a hotbed of eccentricity and queerness, of everyday insurgencies. Such an environment nurtures agencies that can re-master grand narratives and aspire to a metabolism that breaks down the saturated fat of nativism and globalization. The word “explosive” might be too excited. But come to think of it, it may well be the exemplary condition of the “third moment,” as heralded by the great Philippine artist David Medalla (passed last December), who conceived of an “exploding galaxy” as a performative opportunity to restore the worldliness of a diminishing, ever-possible ecology.
New Museum Perspectives with Aaron Seeto
The Director of Museum MACAN, Aaron Seeto, has a vast experience working to advance the goals of contemporary arts organisations and curating significant exhibitions of artists from the Asia and Pacific regions. Seeto was formerly Curatorial Manager of Asian and Pacific Art, at Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane, Australia where he led the curatorial team at the eighth Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT8) in 2015. For eight years prior, he was the Director of Sydney’s ground-breaking 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art.
What characterises and drives the energy of Indonesia’s art ecology, and does it vary from city to city?
Indonesia has a very diverse artistic scene, but there is definitely a need for stronger infrastructure for artists, such as regular venues to exhibit, galleries with continuous programmes, funding opportunities, etc. But despite this, artists always seem to find creative solutions. Perhaps this inventiveness is what gives the scene its energy? I saw this very clearly in the current Jogja Biennale, which introduced so many young artists to new audiences and which had an infectious energy and a real sense of urgency, despite what were limitations on the exhibition.
There are variations from city to city, and this has much to do with their very specific art and social histories, which inflect the teachings of art schools and the creative outputs of its artists.
How would you describe the relationship between private patronage and public cultural provision in the Indonesian art scene – how distinct or diffuse are their boundaries?
In places like Singapore, the role of public institutions and their connection to civic space is clear. But in the developing context of Indonesia, I would suggest that both philanthropy and government support for the arts needs further development and encouragement, in order to sustain a truly effective civic discourse.
At the core of the mission and vision of Museum MACAN, is a principle which revolves around art education; it has an important civic aspiration that it seeks to share as widely as possible. We have opened a private museum developed through private means, which serves a very public function – we understand that our activities occur within the public sphere. I have been thinking about these divisions between public and private quite a bit, and I think that how they operate is not so clear-cut as they may have been in the past. The situation should not be either/or – governments of all persuasions and individuals of various means should be encouraged to do more.
Museum MACAN opened fairly recently, in November 2017, with a mission to support “interdisciplinary education and cultural exchange”. What are your thoughts on the urgency and cruciality in invigorating art education in the country?
On a global context, arts education is in decline and it is crucial that it is supported. I would say that there is an urgent need to support art education in Indonesia, where the national development is vast and the people need a way to reflect on the societal changes happening around them. This is where arts education come into play. We really need to build a robust education programme that is relevant to citizens from different ages and backgrounds. At the moment, MACAN is focusing on arts education for children and students, as a way to spark critical thinking among the young minds.
Could you share about the museum’s practice of commissioning artists – how does it effectuate new perspectives?
Our UOB Museum MACAN Children’s Art Space Commission is one of the programmes which involves commissioning artists. Developed for young audiences, the process of commissioning always sparks conversations that challenge how we understand our audiences and involves artists in a very unique relationship with the institution. In two years since the Museum opened, we have worked with Entang Wiharso (Indonesia), Gatot Indrajati (Indonesia), Shooshie Sulaiman (Malaysia) and Mit Jai Inn (Thailand). Our most current commission is Color in Cave by Mit Jai Inn, who has completely transformed the space into an almost anarchic zone of free play and colour.
What are some memorable moments and projects you find yourself returning to and reflecting on, in your role at the museum?
Before we officially opened, we developed a two-part performance project called “First Sight”. It was two, one-day only performance programmes that included an amazing line-up of artists including FX Harsono, Heman Chong, Yin Xiuzhen, Justin Shoulder, Melati Suryodarmo, Tisna Sanjaya, Xu Zhen, and Duto Hardono. The audience response was completely unexpected, and the production which tested my team to its limits was a great success.
What I learnt from this is how receptive Indonesian audiences are to performance practice, as well as how well my team operates under pressure. To be honest, I don’t know if an event like this could have been pulled off anywhere else. Months later, we saw the impact again with the totally mesmerising exhibition by Lee Ming Wei, “Seven Stories”, which included seven major performance works which saw us collaborating with teams of singers and dancers from across Indonesia – again the audience impact was extraordinary. The visitor responses outlining how the exhibition impacted people were incredible.
I suppose I constantly come back to the reflection about how much the team and I have achieved in only two years.
How do you see Museum MACAN positioned in the artistic landscape of Indonesia, and more widely on an international level?
I see Museum MACAN as being one part of the conversation in Indonesia. Indonesia has such a vibrant scene, great artists, great collectors, an extraordinary art history; the museum forms a part of its developing infrastructure. There are of course internal ambitions when it comes to programmes and projects, that bring together local concerns with artists from elsewhere. I hope what we do continues to generate interest and conversation, and contribute to much needed discussion about modern and contemporary art from Southeast Asia.
How do you feel about the use of the term “Southeast Asia” to frame the paradigm of art and cultural production in this region? What effect does it have on the way such production is perceived?
All of these kinds of terms which attempt to define a geography are double-edged. For our friends who are unfamiliar with the nuance of the various situations and geographies, it can be a useful means to locate artists and territories. But for those of us who are working in this context, as much as it can help to generate a sense of collegiality across the various geographies it denotes, we also know that it elides so many complexities of colonial and national histories, migration, ethnicity, language, economic experience, social and political realities, and so on. We should be grateful that it can help to bring so many interesting people together under a shared rubric, but we should also strive for depth and complexity, not flatness of experience.
What are some exciting programmes or plans in store for Museum MACAN in 2020?
One of the things which we strive for in our programme is to not only support Indonesian artists in the development of major exhibitions, sometimes their first solo or survey exhibition, but to also introduce artists who have never been presented in the region. Next year we have a major survey of Melati Suryodarmo and Agus Suwage, the presentation of the ambitious film work Manifesto by Julian Rosefeldt and a career survey by Chiharu Shiota that audiences can look forward to.
Works by Mit Jai Inn and Melati Suryodarmo will be presented at S.E.A. Focus 2020. Click here to find out more.
Between Africa and Southeast Asia
In December 1963, after a trip to the United States for the memorial of John F. Kennedy, Philippine president Diosdado Macapagal visited Libya, Tanganyika (part of present-day Tanzania), Madagascar, and Kenya. It was a trip motivated by diplomacy and goodwill, and a strategy to field for votes should the Philippine claim to Sabah prosper in the tribunal of the United Nations (U.N.). Writing about the necessity of the trip, Macapagal explains: “The African continent, like Asia itself, has long been a large fact in the geography of the World, but it is only in more recent times that the human implications of its geographic fact is beginning to be acknowledged as of political significance.” Furthermore, he notes: “Yet between ours and the societies of the rest of Asia and of Africa are obvious common givens of historical circumstances. This, and the present situation of our political status is compelling enough, on our part, to make common cause and collaborate on general schemes with societies and peoples beyond the national geography.”
Macapagal’s trip to the African continent threads through a number of contexts that make the years 1963/4 a salient timeframe for elaborating the trajectories of transregional solidarity between Southeast Asia and Africa: the death of Kennedy and the neocolonial relations between the U.S. and the Philippines, the place of the U.N. in the imagination and cultivation of a post-imperial world order, and the centrality of the Sabah question in the prospect of Southeast Asian regionalism. Although accounts of this period point to how relations between Africa and Southeast Asia “remain sparse, sporadic, and unspectacular,” extrapolating from and speculating on such trajectories allows us to nuance ideas of solidarity and sovereign self-determination during this period.
In addressing these considerations, Southeast Asia as a framework allows us to map out latitudes for upsetting the usual entry points to Afro-Asian solidarity and Cold War geopolitics. In particular, the essay looks at Maphilindo, an earlier iteration of Southeast Asia regionalism based on a pan-Malayan worldview, as a frame of reference to account for disperse yet interested alignments that complicate the ease with which aspirations of transregional solidarity are understood and the configuration of its terms. Whereas the imagination of a more encompassing Southeast Asia regionalism may provide compelling narratives of neo-colonial politics during the Cold War, the discussion on Maphilindo provides sharper focus and allows us to become more sensitive in accounting for more granular historical and political moments.
Perhaps what makes reframing Afro-Asian solidarity with Afro-Southeast Asian relations is the history of Southeast Asia’s “altered citations”, which trouble the geographic factuality of thinking about Asia and Africa. Indeed, with each iteration of Southeast Asian regionalism, a different understanding of the affinities between these two regions should be foregrounded. This way, what we conceptualize as Afro-Asian or Afro-Southeast Asian solidarities changes depending on what constellation or coordinates frame our analysis. Rhetorics of regionality and transregionality then become geopoetic, in the sense that their compositions are rendered dynamic and their prefigured coherence is questioned.
Maphilindo is exceptional in relation to how it plays out affinities with Africa. For instance, the pan-Malayan ethnos that the confederation invokes touches upon the history of Madagascar, an island nation located southeast of the African continent, as Malay space. Macapagal, for one, declares: “While proximate to Africa, [people of Madagascar] are more Asian than African.” In Wenceslao Vinzons’s invocation of a Malaysia irredenta, he places Madagascar well within the pan-Malayan ethnos: “A unified Malaysia extending from the northern extremity of the Malay Peninsula to the shores of New Guinea, from Madagascar to the Philippines and to the remotest islands of Polynesia.” Another aspect is related to Maphilindo’s role in the forestalling of the declaration of Malaysia, courtesy of Indonesian president Sukarno’s policy of Konfrontasi (1963-1966). In 1964, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew visited 17 African states to discuss the formation of Malaysia and what this might mean for Afro-Asian solidarity.
Maphilindo as a trajectory harnesses the potential of regional solidarity imagined by the Afro-Asia Conference in Bandung in 1955. In his speech before the University of Padjadjaran in Bandung in 1964, Filipino diplomat and Bandung delegate Carlos P. Romulo traced the continuity from Bandung to Maphilindo as the “recognition and assertion of the idea of ‘self-determinism’ of the countries of Asia against the big powers” that was “projected on a universal concept of a greater harmony among nations.” He explains: “It was in [Bandung Conference] that the effort of the emergent countries of Asia and Africa to come to a formulation of their common cause was eloquently expressed.” Afro-Asia connections find a sharper articulation and assume a more refractory capacity in Maphilindo. For Romulo, the confederation articulates the “actuality of a united world” shaped by “a new intellectual relation” that was needed to reconfigure the “outmoded…observations of the past colonial strategies and motivations in the politics of Asia.”
These questions and concerns are transformed as issues of transregional alignments that become even more cogent because of the choice to appoint Southeast Asia as a discursive framework. This also speaks to particular articulations and iterations of “common causes” and interests between the two regions. Writing in 1965, American social scientist Fred R. von der Mehden accounts for trajectories of commonality between Africa and Southeast Asia. For example, in the context of the U.N., von der Mehden narrates: “Within the U.N. there has been a mutual interest expressed in the regional problems of the respective areas. African delegates spoke, but did not always vote unanimously, on Southeast Asian issues such as the West Irian and Malaysian issues. At the same time Southeast Asian states have spoken in support of the independence of the former French North African colonies and have entered the debate on the Congo. Southeast Asian governments have also sent troops to African on U.N. peacekeeping missions in the Congo and Gaza strip. However, no special relationship appears to have emerged between Southeast Asia and the new African states other than the one based on the fact that they are all ‘underdeveloped states’ with certain common problems.”
By situating these problems within the iterative imaginations of Southeast Asia regionalism, we resist reducing both Africa and Southeast Asia as mere geographic facts and thus imagining them as fictive, interventive accounts, capable of reframing region-formation and worldmaking. This reconsideration also questions the insistent optimism in claims to solidarity and articulates the constitutive limits of affinities. This does not mean, however, that aspirations of solidarity or affinity prove to be superfluous – only that addressing these rhetorics requires us to be equally sensitive to both their optimism and idealist claims, and their ideological or instrumentalized implications.
Published January 2021.
 Diosdado Macapagal, “Report on United States and Africa Trip,” in Fullness of Freedom: Speeches and Statements of President Diosdado Macapagal, vol. IV (Manila: Bureau of Printing, 1965), 162.
 Fred R. von der Mehden, “Southeast Asian Relations with Africa,” Asian Survey 5, no. 7 (July 1965): 349.
 See Prasenjit Duara, Asia Redux: Conceptualizing a Region for Our Times (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2013).
 Macapagal, “Report on United States and Africa Trip,” 157.
 Wenceslao Q. Vinzons, “Malaysia Irredenta,” in The Philippine Encyclopedia of Eloquence, ed. Andres R. Camasura (Manila: The Philippine Encyclopedia, 1936), 413.
 Kathleen Ditzig brought this to my attention. The two trips to Africa became the backbone for the exhibition we co-curated titled In Our Best Interests: Afro-Southeast Asian Affinities during a Cold War, which opens at the NTU ADM Gallery this month and is scheduled to travel to the Vargas Museum in Manila later this year. Both iterations are part of a larger research project developed in partnership with KONNECT ASEAN.
 Carlos P. Romulo, “From Bandung to Maphilindo,” in Mission to Asia: The Dialogue Begins (Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 1964), 98.
 Ibid, 99.
 Ibid, 103.
 von der Mehden, “Southeast Asian Relations,” 343.
About the Writer
Carlos Quijon, Jr. (b. 1989) is an art historian, critic, and curator based in Manila. He is a fellow of the research platform Modern Art Histories in and across Africa, South and Southeast Asia (MAHASSA), convened by the Getty Foundation’s Connecting Art Histories project. He writes exhibition reviews for Artforum and his research is part of the book From a History of Exhibitions Towards a Future of Exhibition-Making (Sternberg Press, 2019). He has published in MoMA’s post (NY), Queer Southeast Asia, ArtReview Asia (Singapore), Art Monthly (UK), Asia Art Archive’s Ideas (HK), and Trans Asia Photography Review (US), among others. He is an alumnus of the Ateneo National Writers Workshop in Manila and the inaugural Para Site Workshops for Emerging Professionals in Hong Kong in 2015 and was a scholar participant of the symposium “How Institutions Think” hosted by LUMA Foundation in Arles in 2016. In 2017, he was a research resident in MMCA Seoul and a fellow of the Transcuratorial Academy both in Berlin and Mumbai. He curated Courses of Action in Hong Kong in 2019, A will for prolific disclosures in Manila and co-curated Minor Infelicities in Seoul in 2020. Together with Singapore-based curator Kathleen Ditzig, he is co-curating the exhibition In Our Best Interests: Afro-Southeast Asian Affinities during a Cold War in Singapore in January 2021.