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. 

UOB Museum MACAN Children’s Art Space Commission – Color in Cave, 2019. Photo courtesy of Museum MACAN.

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.

Melati Suryodarmo, Fins und Eins, 2016. Performance at “First Sight”, Museum MACAN, Jakarta, Indonesia, 2017. Image courtesy of Museum MACAN.
Duto Hardono, Variation & Improvisation for ‘In Harmonia Progressio’, 2017. Performance at “First Sight”, Museum MACAN, Jakarta, Indonesia. 2017. Image courtesy of Museum MACAN.

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.

Lee Mingwei, Guernica in Sand (performance), 2006. Performance at “Lee Mingwei: Seven Stories”, Museum MACAN, Jakarta, Indonesia, 2019. Image courtesy of Museum MACAN.

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.