A landscape with or without you

Sumugan Sivanesan, What's Eating Gilberto Gil? 2010, performance, Sydney
Sumugan Sivanesan, What's Eating Gilberto Gil? 14 October 2010, performance, Sydney. Image courtesy of the artist and 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art

As I write this my inbox and in-tray are littered with musings on Australia’s so-called “Asian Century.” There are links to blog posts, editorials and clippings from articles, cartoons and invitations to exhibitions. The term “Asian Century” gives policy makers and bureaucrats a terminology to explain a number of the discussions that have happened locally, and amongst our peers and colleagues around the world, for some decades now. While there is much to be happy about when our institutions and governments recognise the things we find important, this newfound recognition poses a number of traps and pitfalls for those engaged in a conversation which has been happening for some time without the sustained interest of government.

The Asian century is an Australian opportunity ... Australia is located in the right place at the right time – in the Asian region in the Asian century … The arts, culture and creativity can broaden and strengthen Australia’s relationships in Asia, both formally and informally. Australia’s cultural strengths … underpin values of respect, understanding and inclusion that help to connect people, business, institutions and governments.[1]

Although it makes political sense, it is somewhat disheartening to realise that in the short sight of the White Paper, the work of artists, curators, critics and writers working in various cultural fields will become relegated to playing a kind of conduit role in this “Asian Century.” It does not encourage creation of a body of knowledge capable of contributing in a meaningful way on its own. Instead our work merely operates as tools for business to deliver people-to-people understanding, or other such. But do we really live in the “Asian century?” If we needed to label a century such, that century could have been last century. Think back through Australia’s own history and the pre-colonial trade connecting Arnhem Land, through Makassan fishermen to the centres of industry and trade in China – this was one of the undesirable relationships which fed a fear of descending hordes from the north, and which was the basis of the White Australia Policy (1901). Look at the wars, turmoil and upheaval in modern times, the political speeches and pronouncements from other leaders like Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating.

What have the first twelve years of this 21st Century produced to deserve the moniker the “Asian Century?” In the art world there is increased awareness of contemporary Asian art; new collections emerging; new powerbases and different players. But the reality is that this is a continuation of work being done in the field by artists, curators, art historians, critics, collectors, small organisations, publishers, magazines and big institutions, for decades. The changing context now is for contemporary art itself: not a narrowing of its referents, but a larger global appreciation for the kinds of influences and trajectories that Australian artists have been part of for some time. In this context, our broader cultural discussions should be geared towards participating in this broader cultural context, inside and outside of Asia.

The large institutions in the traditional centres like New York which have recently been developing capacity within the Asian art context are doing so not at the expense of their traditional areas of collection, but presumably because there is a growing body – a discourse that has emerged over decades of work, which has influenced not only their own immediate artistic geographies, but communities of artists and critics the world over.[2] When we examine the biennales that we think are valuable or influential, Asian art is presented or discussed not as a kind of ethnographic-type but valuable as art that is illustrative of a global web of conversations and influences. June Yap describes the situation in much more prosaic terms, when she describes the demarcation of Eastern or Western art as,

idealistic in its assumption of complete isolation. Experience and life itself is fluid and permeable; my own experience is of growing up in Singapore with a combination of local history and culture, regional and British literature, American television, and then later adding to the blend, Eastern European texts and different philosophies both eastern and western. I do not think of myself as toggling between being Asian and non-Asian.

From my experience in Australia, each decade since the 1980s seems to have produced ways of dealing with cross-cultural or inter-cultural experience as a mixture of bilateral national cultural exchange, diplomatic exercise, an internal multicultural re-ordering of national identity and, more recently, as cosmopolitan mobility afforded by globalisation. In its most simple handling, the kind of activities which these policies engender is a treatment of artists as a kind of readymade to illustrate different permutations of similar nationalistic positions. Conversely, what these policy positions don’t account for is the idea that an artist or critic is an individual, with a set of networked relationships that don’t in fact exist to support the existence of such a strategy. Worryingly, if the current ideology on the “Asian Century” proceeds without the generation of a critical framework that might allow for self-reflexivity or self-critical analysis, the role of the artist, curator or critic is reduced to a kind of lubricant for the machinery of economics in the service of nation.

Recently I curated The Floating Eye, which is the Sydney Pavilion for the Inter-City Pavilions, part of the 9th Shanghai Biennale. Like many recent projects, it strove to reject a type of exhibition that highlights an artist’s personal history as an ethnographic example or multicultural subject. Rather it tried to present the individual experience as reflective of the true nature of our cities as meeting places for individuals; as messy, uncategorisable, and whose layered experiences are exactly why it is so difficult to articulate their meaning, or character. Through its artists – Bababa International, Brook Andrew, Shaun Gladwell, Raquel Ormella, Khaled Sabsabi and Shen Shaomin – The Floating Eye presents the city as a mirror to global politics. In our public spaces in Australia, there are constant reminders that people here have usually come from somewhere else; it has become difficult to articulate a position which retains the vibrancy of the artistic position without reducing the artistic action to a kind of cultural artefact.

A few weeks ago, on a research trip to Darwin, Tiwi Islands and Broome, I began to look at a number of places where the cultural histories and relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and Asian people defy the kind of textbook accounts of cultural exchange that we have become accustomed to in our national rhetoric. I am a southerner, searching for a kind of validation in an alternate story, searching to think that a different kind of history might be possible, or a different sort of contemporary practice might be conceivable. One which is reflective and responsive to the history and kind of society that we live in – where experiences of Asia in Australia have already produced valuable bodies of knowledge, relationships and objects, which are valuable precisely because they are reflective of our human histories. As I walked with the artist Glen Farmer around Milikapiti on Melville Island, looking at an old well dug by Makassars from a time when there was regular trading contact and the trees that they had planted: old tamarind trees, cashew fruit, bamboo groves and mahogany, he casually reminded me that these things and histories don’t really need pointing out because they are true, but if I needed the proof it was already here. It’s a subtle reminder, that this is a discussion of a landscape that is already happening, that in many cases has already happened … a landscape in progression that is going to happen with or without you.

Adnan Chowdhury, Stonework, 2012, still, HD video, 30 minutes


  1. ^ Australia in the Asian Century, Australian Government White Paper, October 2012, Executive Summary, pp. 1
  2. ^ See for instance Interview with June Yap, www.guggenheim.org/guggenheim-foundation/collaborations/map/interview-with-curator-june-yap [accessed November 5, 2012]. June Yap is the Guggenheim UBS MAP Curator, South and Southeast Asia, who is organizing the UBS MAP Global Art Initiative, opening at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 2013.

Card (detail): Adnan Chowdury, Stonework, 2012, still, HD Video

Aaron Seeto is the Director of 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney.

Support independent writing on the visual arts. Subscribe or donate here.