How does one represent the complexity of the affinity and heterogeneity across the Southeast Asian region with a wide range of visual materials? On the occasion of the exhibition ‘In Search of Southeast Asia through the M+ Collections’ pursuing this topic, we spoke to the two curators and the deputy director from M+, Hong Kong’s museum of 20th and 21st Century visual culture.
Pauline J Yao, lead curator of visual art, and Shirley Surya, associate curator of design and architecture, provide invaluable insight into their interdisciplinary and transnational curatorial approach. Doryun Chong, deputy director and chief curator of M+, also shares with us how this exhibition fits into the vision of M+ and the context of Hong Kong.
The exhibition will be presented at the M+ Pavilion from June 22 until September 30, 2018, featuring works from the fields of design and architecture, moving image and visual art. Using the museum’s growing multidisciplinary holdings, the exhibition sheds light on the diverse and wide-ranging historical and cultural practices within the region over the last half-century, giving special attention to layered conditions of place.
First of all, could you tell us how this exhibition was conceived? Why did M+ decide to explore Southeast Asia in particular?
Pauline and Shirley: Since September 2016, we have been using the M+ Pavilion to highlight various aspects of the M+ Collections. After mounting exhibitions around the design collections, Hong Kong visual culture and our holdings of ink art, we thought it could be beneficial to explore a different, less media specific route and focus on a particular geography within the M+ Collections. We settled on Southeast Asia in part because it offers an entry point to thinking about locales outside Hong Kong and brings in the question of regional identity. The complexity of the region also feels well suited for a transnational and interdisciplinary approach. After reviewing all of the materials in the collection that relate to Southeast Asia and noting the incredible diversity and range of topics present, we felt that containing the narratives to one or two countries or just to visual art or just design and architecture would be too limiting.
In this process of exploring local conditions and cultures throughout Southeast Asia, how do you grapple with the shifting borders and the fluid concept of “place”?
P&S: We have been using the term ‘conditions of place’ to comment on how we explore the region—namely acknowledging the particular specificities of a place or locale. How each locale is inevitably characterised by particular topographical or climatic factors and embedded with specific narratives, histories, daily customs and politics. How all of these became the conditions to which many artists, architects and designers are compelled to address respond to or engage with. These responses can be viewed as informed by local contexts but at the same time, what is seemingly “local” is also deeply intertwined with the regional and global.
As this is the first time for M+ to stage an exhibition focusing on one region, what were some of the challenges you faced along the way? Were there particularly fruitful moments?
P&S: The challenges we faced in making this exhibition was actually less to do with the focusing on one region per se, but more to do with the (necessary) challenge of representing the region through an interdisciplinary interpretive framework. This means presenting works and materials of very diverse nature - from moving image works, art installations, photography, architectural models, archival materials and design objects—in a way so they could have spatial dialogue with each other. The geographic focus on Southeast Asia does have some challenges built into it since it is quite layered and complex and therefore we have to convey these realities in an engaging and accessible way to Hong Kong audiences who may not be familiar with the intricacies of Southeast Asia or its histories.
Since M+ is a museum for visual culture with an emphasis on art, design, architecture and moving image, how do you think its diverse collection will shed light on the complexities of history and culture within Southeast Asia?
P&S: Any one work or discipline is certainly capable of revealing various degrees of complexity of a place or a phenomenon. But in the process of putting together this exhibition and seeing how, even by the act of choosing to let certain visual art works be placed next to particular design and architecture works—thereby putting them in conversation with each other under one theme or issue—we realise the multiple dimensions in which works from various disciplines and context could shed light on a reality. For example, under the section ‘Transnational Flows’ we realise that, despite being rooted in their specific locale where they are from, their work doesn’t necessarily address or represent the identities or characteristics of the place. Instead their work may be characterised by a deliberate engagement with a more transnational or global conceptual discourse or visual language.
As you mentioned, the curatorial approach sought to highlight “isolated moments, individual perspectives, and under-represented microhistories”. How do you achieve this through your selection of works and display?
P&S: The works were selected for the ways that they could illuminate specific practices or histories within the region, rather than for adhering to a single overarching narrative or defining theme. Given the complexity of the region, it seemed apt to highlight instead of gloss over the deep diversity and the highly localised histories. Some practices speak to a particular moment in time, say post-independence nation building or exchanges between practitioners that are largely undocumented, while others—usually artists—bring their own personal viewpoint or experiences and take a more critical stance. In terms of display, the exhibition is arranged according to three thematic areas, within these areas one can find a mixture of design and architecture materials, as well as visual art side by side. We settled on this design as way to group together works according to broad strategies or topics; but within. Each section there are many different time periods, styles or approaches present and visible.
How do you think this exhibition is relevant to the context of Hong Kong?
P&S: Historically speaking connections between Hong Kong and Southeast Asia are easy to find—from climate to maritime trade links to shared colonial heritage—but in the contemporary context the links may be less obvious. Hong Kong has a habit of looking to northward to China and East Asia, so with this exhibition we want to encourage people to look southward and to consider, even for a moment, as being part of Southeast Asia. Geographically Hong Kong is positioned at the intersection point just between East Asia and Southeast Asia so it also raises a point about regional identity.
@Pauline: As the Lead Curator of Visual Art, has your background in San Francisco and Beijing helped or informed your curatorial practice in any way?
Indeed, my museum and collection experience in San Francisco combined with years of working freelance in China are both integral to my practice as a curator today. One of these was a large established institution with long history and an invaluable collection available to me for research and the other was much more flexible context of working directly with artists in a more spontaneous way. The situation for me in M+ now, as part of building an important collection and also working in a way that requires me to be adaptable and responsive is a perfect marriage of the two. I have always believed in the public role of institutions and in both SF and BJ this has been an important aspect., it also continues through my current work at M+.
After this exhibition on Southeast Asia, will M+ continue to hold region-specific exhibitions? What is the future plan for the museum?
Doryun Chong: M+ is a museum of visual culture, rooted in Hong Kong—one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world—and with a global vision. Before the building is completed, we have been holding many exhibitions and public programs while also building a collection that covers Asia broadly and also reaches beyond Asia. One of the reasons why we decided to organize 'In Search of Southeast Asia through the M+ Collections' is because of the proximity of Southeast Asia to Hong Kong as well as due to myriad connections and exchanges between Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. We also wanted to remind our viewers, both local and international, that Hong Kong is at the cultural and historical crossroads between East Asia and Southeast Asia.
We may organise other specific region or location-focused exhibitions in the future. It’s important for us that such exhibitions will not simply address a whole region or location, which is impossible, but will always approach it through a particular thematic, curatorial lens.
Visit westkowloon.hk/insearchofsea to learn more about the exhibition.