Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art

Sun, 23/06/2013 - 13:02 -- damien

Words are flying pell-mell amongst us. I thought to credit this at first to the tendency of rhetoric to be the currency of exchange during meetings like this. Then again, words are ghostly that float out of the elegances of contrived eloquences. Floating and circulating thus—ominously, it appears to me—these words haunt.

Many are meaningless; to many: "Greek". Words not in English proliferate in conversations that can only incline towards trepidation, or politesse, or fantasizing. Words from the language I speak back home are distant-sounding here, and hover wildly near syntaxes hybridizing even at the moment of speech. (Parole and langue become spectral distinctions).

Other words are ubiquitous—nation, for instance, or region, or Asia, or Pacific or Asia Pacific, and add, too, Triennial—seem to materialise the weight of the master narratives against which many 'of us struggle, though these struggles are of course inconceivable outside of (or without what Edward Said called a contrapuntal relation with) orders of knowledge constituted precisely within these grand narratives.1

Still other words—like alternative, ethnicity, hyphenated, identity, other, indeed the number of words preceded by post—from the vocabulary or what are already traditions of discursive radicalism, so politically correct, so a la mode, are nonetheless signifiers with unstable signifieds, here, in for instance this melee, outside academic confines. The mythologies passionately being crafted out of mixtures of histories and desires and angers, are not quite—or not yet—coalescing into a palpability, indeed into liberation.

And perhaps we do not wish such a coalescing, because once again, another omnipotent canon will propose enslavement.

I have no wish to privilege words over images, over the immediacies of experience, or over the miraculous intimacies which occur when human understanding is momentarily possible—that is to say, to privilege representation itself, whether in the practice of the artist or of the critic. I am, rather, proposing, at least to myself, a yielding to the experience of being haunted—and in that yielding, to locate, perhaps, a site of engagement that escapes that obsession for unitary knowledge.

Here is my short list of worrisome words, from a much longer one.


Yesterday, just to cite one overview, Mr Kanaga Sabapathy described the way the Singaporean nation has been constructed as metatext, and the highly specific way in which this construction shunted art practice to the margins of what is known as the modern Singapore experience; and also the highly specific way the current art practitioners have responded to that metatext. My immediate response—obviously issuing out of "Philippines"-as-locus—was to tremble to the truly diffused and violent way this notion of nation is being coalesced in the Philippines. Ours is a narration of nation (to borrow Homi Bhabha's words licentiously) that is not entirely inscribed, that does not emanate solely from the centre of power, but is variously, fitfully mythologised—collectively, too, if I may use the word without sounding romantic. I do not keen towards the clean and willful Singapore mythos on nation, nor, say, to the elaborate construction that created the modern Japanese state, just as I will not envisage an outrageous utopian version of postcoloniality from out of anything so coarsely constructed as a phrase like "the Philippine experience".

What seems useful, however, is to nuance this word "nation" here, and this word "nation" there, and the word "nation" somewhere else. In the specific case of the Philippines, it cannot even be assumed, at this time, that the word "Philippines" means the same thing to every segment of our sixty-something million so-called citizens. One hesitates before deciding whether the words "Papua New Guinea" mean the same thing to inhabitants of interiors of that vast island, opaque to many. The word nation has become a most necessary fiction since the nineteenth century, and yet it is a various word. And the global community cannot be read like a Miss Universe Beauty pageant, where there is so much of that kind of democratisation of word use—as in the domain of politics—that ultimately makes words like nation co-optable into a unified, dominant regime of ideas.

Artists propose their practice, and practice here is also a various word, vis-a-vis this word nation. The relationalities are various. The artist in Vietnam who wills to paint in a Fauvist manner today, for instance, posits the Vietnamese nation in an entirely different way from the artist responding to the construction of knowledge in Japan, which has been incredibly homogeneous for quite a long time. I do not know the flesh of those differences, nor the functionings of the artistic imagination within the frames of reference imposed by each definition of nation, and indeed, in many cases—such as the Philippines and a number of Pacific Island Nations, many of whom are not here—in the amorphous, in fact phantom spaces betwixt and between the imagining of nation and the imagining of other units of social coherence.

Here lies, however, a dangerous discursive area. In the application of an homogeneous definition of nation, there is the frighteningly inevitable prospect: the demise of many other ways of conceiving self within community, or perhaps self as community, of definitions of personhood and society which are shaped, perhaps temporarily, by wild couplings between inside and outside and amongst a variety of systems of meaning. It is within this framework that I tend to view what seems to me the chosen sites of engagement of many artists in this Triennial: as some of the persons who wish to image, or will to imagine, a texturing of this word nation via a specificity of witnessing and experiencing—or even willing the creation or re-creation of—units of social and individual coherence, other than or in an effort to rename, redefine "nation" and citizenship. It is to be hoped that such specific projects of the artistic imagination will not be trivialised—or rendered uni-dimensional—by the use of such words as heroic, or valorous. In my view, if artists, or writers, or politicians cannot imagine or affirm other species of the politics of self and society within, without, in the interstices of nation, or in relational loci with other definitions of nation; and if they cannot do so without the modern vocabulary of redemption through art or text or state formation, or the privileging of the author, what paradigmatic changes does the so-called postcolonial world, in fact, offer?

Asia Pacific

My anxiety over words like Asia Pacific has to do with a particular fascination and fear I have developed over the years with regard to cartography. A "region" is of course a larger unit than the nation. And while we might grant that many nations of the world were born out of the struggles for self-determination of those living within the geographies which now constitute these nations, the so-called "region" cannot be conceived as coming up from the ground. A "region" is yet another exercise of the modern imagination in scale, and it is always constructed to regulate the flow of power. However, it is not my purpose here to question the structuring of this particular event on the basis of the construct of region. I suspect that that is a pointless exercise, especially if it only leads to debate about the relative efficacy of culture as an instrument of strategic definition. "Culture"—a word which has come to replace "race" in the politics of textualisation—cannot not be invoked in any creation of the apparatus of regulating power, hence the point is moot.

What I do think is perhaps of more serious import, from the point of view of the practice of criticism, has to do with the lack of fit of modern cartographic design with the conceptions of geography of specific peoples living in specific places. I am reminded here, for instance, of the act of mathematical and spatial abstraction required to conceive the international dateline, and how our bodies do not seem to follow that act of mind.

If we grant, as we must, that—even within the diffuseness of postcolonial discourse—there are maps and then there are maps, like there are nations and there are nations, and that these maps can be anything from a navigational sense of the wave patterns "recorded" in the body rhythms of Southeast Asian boatmen, to the conceptual orientation markers for a Filipino millenarian cultist who imagines the cosmos as containing a "Jerusalem" as well as a spring of magical water—or even just a simple map of how to negotiate the traffic of Bangkok; if we grant the validity to specific peoples and specific places of specific ways of locating self, then we are looking towards devising critical tools for understanding art making as imbricated in some forms of highly localised mapmaking.

There is another matter related to mapping which may have been overlooked by the students of postcoloniality. This has to do with what is usually assumed to be the total control of the modern apparatus over almost the entire skin of the planet. It is further assumed that those parts of the earth not yet within the control zones of that apparatus, will soon be so. And yet there is voluminous new material in anthropology and history and sociology—particularly material synthesised in the process of critiquing precisely these disciplines, within and without these disciplines—indicating that the power of the modern to overrule all other meaning may have been grossly over-rated.

I realize that it is difficult to posit this without slipping into the sloppiest nativisms, but I find it necessary to propose even an openness to the possibility that the modern machine has been subverted, and has been subverted variously, and has been subverted in ways that defy the logic of representation. I have proposed in other previous essays, to some extent following Levi-Strauss, that when a group of people appears to have bricolaged, say, fragments of Christian rituals and images, with fragments of linear narratives of nation, with fragments of modern popular culture—the elements of the bricolage are subsumed within the metasignification. If this sounds to you like dated structuralism, I can only answer that the challenge is in fact to create new intellectual tools that can perhaps go beyond the terms "syncretic", or even perhaps "hybrid", and certainly beyond that sad word "influences", into a terminology that can nuance the levels of co-aptation by the modern vis-a-vis the levels that some other system of meaning has been able to insist upon through its own tenacity. A calibrated terminology, therefore, that allows respect for cultures that structured the absorption of things from outside, with a system of meaning that managed to grow and survive violent encounters with global hegemonies—though they may have managed to do so, invisibly, or beyond the adequacy of dominant systems of representation to register. A calibrated terminology, furthermore, that can also register the total extinctions of culture caused by the modern machine, and therefore allow us the ability to mourn.

These are, in my view, useful tools to have if we are to do justice to even just the works that we see around us, each of which was created within the context of a bewildering variety of complex and prolonged negotiations between local and global. If we understand, for instance, the rather total nature of the modern nation-state as constructed in Singapore as the metatext with which much of the art produced there might be seen to be either in an antagonistic or complicit relationship, there is absolutely no reason to jump to the Philippines, or say, Papua New Guinea, and imagine that the same total control is the context for art making in these areas. And indeed in the case of the Philippines, even the linear narrative of history does not produce a progressive picture of gradual ascent into increasing modernization. I propose a map, therefore, of difference—not a timeless, core difference, which would be the sorriest indulgence in nostalgia—but a difference cohering within flux. A map, furthermore, of dominant power as it inscribes itself upon other notions of power.


Yesterday, Ms Xu Hong from Shanghai provided us with two words, jixu, which conveys a sense of continuity, and jicheng, which conveys a sense of inheritance, perhaps lineage. As I understood her paper, she suggests that we enter the domain of contemporary art in China of which she spoke, by gravely considering the construction of knowledge keyed into by these two words. I am gratefuI for those two words, though I may not wish to enter that domain, and indeed I feel privileged in the face of what I consider a gift of a possible understanding, beyond anything we can expect by confining ourselves to just the word Art.

I am not going to attempt here an argument about the continued validity of a word of such large-scale universalized usage as Art, in a supposedly postcolonial world. But I do want to suggest, again, an openness to the possibility of systems of coherence still existing in the structures and usage of the many languages still used by many of the artists here. Indeed very few of the artists here speak English as a first language, and to me it is a measure of our mutual respect to at least hold the word art just a little bit suspect. I realize that all of us who came to this Triennial are self-aware of our own practices within a global art infrastructure, and of the problematic conditions this implies. But if, in fact, we are here to foreground diversity, and to decentre the quite obvious marks of the great homogeneous—then we are certainly also asking ourselves to undertake the alarming but probably liberating steps towards viewing peoples on their own terms.

Of course this is easier said than done: everything here looks, smells, feels, sounds like a unified narrative of postmodernity. And yet over the days we have been here in this conference, we have heard repeatedly of local knowledge shaping the acceptance, or rejection, or the détente with, or subversion of the modern. All of which had the effect on me of strengthening a position I have been trying to refine, which is that, talk of "influences", "impact of the modern", perhaps even "change", may be, precisely, a reification of these very ideas and a reification of the modern machine.

I am not suggesting that these words do not relate at all to the phenomenologies with which we are grappling. But, supposing, for a moment, we send off to the margins this word "influences", for example, and begin to look for words in the many languages spoken by the artists here, words which obviously would have attempted to locate specific varieties of art making within local orders of knowledge, then, it would seem to me, that we are getting at a more serious idea of difference. I responded deeply to the bilingual nomenclature used, for instance, by Mr Jonathan Mane-Wheoki. I was reminded of an important research effort in the Philippines which reconstructed a rather archaic song-dance-ritual form, still being performed with great spiritual and physical energy in what we thought was so thoroughly colonized an area, in which no participant used any word equivalent to the word art. They used, in this particular case, laro and panata, which I translate roughly as "play" and "vow". These terms, to the scholar who undertook this work,2 are entry points into a thoroughly different construction of the creative experience from what we normally understand with the word art. Indeed I have suggested on other occasions that even the vocabulary of the modern, and now the postmodern, is not necessarily used within the regime of ideas from which it came—and is often enough cut off, and adrift in new grammatologies. This may be happening more than we think.

Finally, before I leave this word Art. Yesterday, Mr Ian Wedde suggested that we consider the relation between ethnography and art making, particularly because of the fused sources of narrative lines, and that furthermore, it might be possible to reappropriate—to take control of—the narrativization of the varieties of notions of self and art. I should like to add that the connections have become deeper as the twentith century proceeded. Ethnography, of course, has been one superb instrument for gazing. Now, the other has been self-ethnographizing, if I may use a truly awkward word, for an awkward act, or an awkward perception of what is going on.

My thoughts on the matter are somewhat murky at this point, but I do find in Mr Wedde's suggestion a way out of what, for me, are seriously agonizing problems in criticism. I am referring to my own discomfort with tendencies to make capital out of different versions of a "noble savage" exoticism, by "native" practitioners of art that is still, after all, meant for complicity in the global art machine. And how difficult it is not to be deeply disturbed by wild "orientalisms" by orientals (only they are not orientals, because this can no longer be the east). I do not know whether if I trusted the artist and the society in which he or she operates—let's say in a country like the Philippines, were the so-called "mass" tends to have a truly unpredictable and invisible way of asserting itself—whether one day I would find the orientalism itself has become an enabling instrument.

One can only say, generally speaking and in an almost futile way, of the need to problematize the nature of radicalism, in a period which demands incredible erudition, given the size of the enemy. I take consolation in observing that in this Triennial, there are many artists, academics, critics and administrators who understand the bottom line terms: the chance for the survival of different ways of being human, different ways of ordering reality.

I would like to end by registering a note of sorrow in the middle of this celebration, not as a critique of the Triennial, a task for which I am feeling rather inadequate, because of the points I discussed in this paper, nor as 'an appeal to any sense of mushiness. I would like to sound that note of sorrow out of what I know of my own Tagalog culture, which has changed so horrendously, but appears to have maintained an understanding of the necessity of acknowledging agony at the heart of joy. Laro and panata, in one breath. This is very difficult to do here, because of my own disdain for any roots trope, and also because of my own struggles with the paradox of representing worlds which I know to lie outside the technologies of representation available to us here.


1. Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism, London: Chatto & Windus, 1993.

2. Elena Rivera Mirano, Subli: One Dance in Four Voices, Manila: Cultural Centre of the Philippines.

Marian Pastor Roces is a writer and theorist living in Manila. She is General Manager, Tao Management, a Philippine management consultancy for cultural development projects, and was critical writer in residence at Griffith Artworks, Griffith University from 23 August – 5 October, 1993. A earlier version of this paper was presented at the Critics' Session, First Asia-Pacific Triennial Conference.