Interview with June Yap

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June Yap recently began a two-year residency as the Guggenheim UBS MAP Curator, South and Southeast Asia. Currently she is organizing the first exhibition in the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative, opening at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, in winter 2013.

You’ve just made a couple of research trips for the upcoming show. What countries did you visit?

Since my residency at the Guggenheim began, I've visited Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, Myanmar, Bangladesh, and India.

Sustainable ecological garden project by Angkrit Ajchariyasophon, Chiang Rai, Thailand. Photo: June Yap, 2012

Sustainable ecological garden project by Angkrit Ajchariyasophon, Chiang Rai, Thailand

How are you choosing the places you’ll visit? How familiar were you with the art scenes in the locales you’ve traveled to so far?

I’ve felt from the start of this project that, brief as my time in each place may be, and even though I had been to several of these countries before, it would be critical to develop this exhibition in as direct a way as possible, making observations with the project in mind. However much one may know or have experienced of a place, there is always something new to find, as these are complex cultural terrains. In a few countries, I visited more than one city, and these occasions have been valuable in getting a better sense of the diversity of conditions and developments even within a single country, and how these differences influence art practices and even reception of art practices.

Of course, at the same time, some of the works of artists from these countries and cities are featured in exhibitions abroad—they’re accessible not only within the artists’ local contexts. As such, I'm drawing on prior viewing of works in exhibitions and other past experiences as much as my present ones.

Vietnamese postpunk rock band GỗLim performing at Hanoi Rock City. Photo: June Yap, 2012

Vietnamese postpunk rock band GỗLim performing at Hanoi Rock City

What kind of a relationship has there been between what you already knew or understood when you came to this project with and what you’re finding in the course of your new research?

In seeing and working with art from the region, as I have for a decade now, one develops a sense of how each country’s art narrative is being written. But I think it is crucial that we not be limited to any single narrative. I have been fortunate in that I have met and continue to meet artists, curators, writers, and cultural thinkers who are keen, critical observers of the discussions and developments within the region. My perspectives on South and Southeast Asia, as well as the questions I wish to consider in this project, evolve out of these exchanges and the process of reflecting on them—in addition, of course, to the artworks themselves. A few questions that come to the fore in considering a project such as this are: what narratives of aesthetic developments have emerged, how do contemporary artists view these developments, and what other ways of understanding the region and its countries are possible. Aesthetic developments, art infrastructure and organization differ from country to country and appear perhaps incommensurable; however these are also countries that have shared histories and experiences where one may then understand a country even via another.

What are your activities like on the trips you’re taking?

Besides traveling from airport to airport and hotel to hotel, my time is spent meeting with artists, curators, and gallerists, and also reviewing the conversations I have and the materials I come across. In the course of all these meetings, I traverse the city, visiting artist studios, art spaces, and galleries, and sometimes share a meal. Regardless of where these meetings take place, what is essential, and what I value greatly, are the conversations I have—about art and artists, and about life. One generally never really curates alone, and over the years I have had the pleasure and opportunity to encounter and know numerous remarkable individuals who are passionate and generous in what they do. In the course of the research trips, I have also had the chance to meet a few artists I have before this only observed from afar. Perhaps one thing that has been particularly significant in the course of these meetings and conversations is how profoundly we can benefit from each other’s experiences.

Do you find that this sort of routine is limiting in any way? Operating within the art community, it can be difficult to find things that you haven't seen before, to step outside of existing networks.

“Globetrotting” as an occupational prerequisite is a fairly recent development for curating. It certainly makes the job more physically and conceptually demanding and complex. To a large extent given the nature of my trips, my view of the cities I visit is predominantly through its art, that arguably is an enjoyable vantage point from which to understand a country. Yet, what is produced through the MAP residency and exhibition certainly cannot represent the limits of understanding South and Southeast Asia, nor will it exhaust critical analyses of it. I do hope I can contribute to what I see as a necessary and ongoing discussion within the region and beyond it—a discussion of what can be understood or developed as regional theses because of and in spite of national narratives.

The artworks for the exhibition, besides their aesthetic, conceptual or political intents and effects, in an exhibition such as this, are given to perform some representative function however modest, and it is important that we are conscious of this interpretation. Supplementing the artworks are perspectives from the region by artists, curators and writers, who individually lend their voices to enrich our understanding of the region from their own locale and experience, on issues such as lesser observed conditions of life in their country, or other cultural forms of production in music and sound, or street art, that have developed and that have different meanings within their specific contexts of culture and society. It is this combination of artworks and viewpoints that I think and hope will provide platforms for a more comprehensive dialogue and understanding of the region.

 White Building in Phnom Penh, home to Sa Sa Art Projects, organized by
artist collective Stiev Selapak (Vandy Rattana, Lim Sokchanlina, Khvay
Samnang, and Vuth Lyno). Photo: June Yap, 2012

The White Building in Phnom Penh, home to Sa Sa Art Projects, organized by artist collective Stiev Selapak (Vandy Rattana, Lim Sokchanlina, Khvay Samnang, and Vuth Lyno)

The definition of art in a Western sense, under which an institution like the Guggenheim has traditionally operated (but is in the process of rethinking), may be different from local ones in other parts of the world, and the dominant Western sense of art that has been disseminated around the world may hybridize in myriad ways. What was this experience like for you in this particular case?

The conception of a distinct binary of “East” and “West” is, I think, 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.”

Clearly narratives of exclusion exist, and they are important in the way they provide lenses for viewing and understanding life and events in particular ways. There may be reasons for seeking lines of demarcation in other spheres in life, but I would like to think that in art and cultural production, we can allow for ideas to be presented and contested, acknowledging the need for, but going beyond, categorization.

Indonesian Street Art Database (ISAD) office, Jakarta. Photo: June Yap, 2012

Indonesian Street Art Database (ISAD) office, Jakarta

The MAP exhibition could be the perfect platform for this kind of exploration.

I hope so. It is already a stretch within a single exhibition to encompass the complexities of a country, especially countries in South and Southeast Asia, much less a region as a whole. The challenge, then, is for this to be an opportunity to discuss what regionalism and representation means in contemporary art and curating, and specifically in this case, for these countries that are identified or self-identify as being in the region of South and Southeast Asia.

Part of your assignment involves you traveling not just within South and Southeast Asia but also spending time in New York City. How does splitting time between the two places illuminate what you're doing? Does anything really stand out to you so far about being in New York?

I have visited New York on several occasions beginning in the 1990s, though for shorter durations. It is a city that is interesting perhaps not just for what it is but also what it is perceived to be, by virtue of its international position and through the media. In this I find an intriguing similarity between New York and the South and Southeast Asian region in focus for this show—certainly both know how to be distinctive, exotic even. I think what would be a worthwhile effort would be to find new, deeper ways to connect.

How far have you gotten with your work on the exhibition? Can you provide a rough characterization of what will be in it?

The exhibition is still developing, so I cannot say at this point how many works will be included or where they would be from. I do hope, nevertheless, that somewhere within the exhibition, there will be something new or thought-provoking for each audience to encounter. What I can say at this time is that the exhibition intends to present art from South and Southeast Asia as a critical and discursive practice, a practice that is reflexive of its geopolitics.

Have a question for June about Guggenheim UBS MAP, her travels, or experience so far? Submit your question via e-mail, Twitter using #GuggUBSMAP, or Facebook for June to respond in her next Q&A.

Photos: June Yap, 2012

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