Res Artis: On the verge of elsewhere

Olivia Khoo

The 2004 Res Artis Conference Knowledge + Dialogue + Exchange: Remapping Cultural Globalisms from the South aimed to be a space for dialogue and engagement in the context of the exchange of art and cultural knowledge. Res Artis itself is a worldwide network of residential arts centres and programs. Taking a critical perspective of “South” and, I assume, Ross Gibson’s characterisation of Australia as “South of the West”, the strong Asian presence at the conference was a reminder that Australia is also “South of Asia” and therefore in a unique geographical position from which to question issues of postcolonialism and globalism.

Program A of the conference, Crisis and Cultural Collisions, was held at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Prominent Asian-Australian cultural theorist Ien Ang opened with a paper entitled “Negotiating Fundamentalisms in a Dangerous World.” Taking as her point of departure Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations, Ang’s paper was concerned with the state of emergency that has gripped the Western world post-September 11. She sought to formulate a more generalised notion of fundamentalism that, following Anthony Giddens, can be thought of as “a refusal of dialogue.” In this definition, George W Bush’s “you are either with us or against us” rhetoric simply posits another kind of fundamentalism against the Islamic version that the USA has been so keen to destroy. Ang argues that these contemporary fundamentalisms are reactionary responses to the cultural crises unleashed by globalisation, which involve defending one’s “identity” against external threats.

Ang’s corrective to this drift towards fundamentalism is to invoke that weary, catch-all rubric of cosmopolitanism, suggesting that a “cosmopolitan way of being in the world” can come by recognising not only the fundamentalisms of the “Other” but also the fundamentalisms within ourselves. We should all become more cosmopolitan, albeit reluctantly and imperfectly. There was no critique of the ‘imperfect’ bases to cosmopolitanism—in particular its elitist underpinnings—nor was there any sense of why we should indeed become more cosmopolitan, or how artistic practice might contribute to this. Given that the term “reluctant cosmopolitan” was used by Daniel Swetschinski to discuss the situation of Portuguese Jews in 17th Century Amsterdam, I was keen to hear more on the version of cosmopolitanism forming the basis of Ang’s political redress.

The second speaker, Lu Jie, delivered a passionate and articulate paper integrating theory with practice. Lu Jie is a founder of the Long March Foundation, an organisational platform and art program that undertook a 2 year, 6000 mile journey from southern to northern China retracing the route of the Long March with 20 site-specific works and exhibitions. Lu’s paper, “Localising the Chinese Context in Contemporary Chinese Art in China and Abroad”, began with the premise that the defining characteristic of Chinese art since the 1990s has been its hypervisibility on the international stage. According to Lu, this has become the most prominent, if not the only, framework for both theoretical debate and artistic creation in the context of contemporary Chinese art. How then is it possible to (re)interpret local context in the face of this internationalisation?

Chinese artists have been exhibited primarily in Biennales and in large group exhibitions. There are fewer Chinese artists benefiting from residency programs or working with communities (perhaps because they are too busy producing work for Biennales!). Contemporary Chinese artists have institutionalised themselves as an elite class, authorised to represent modern-day China. The fear is that art in China has left the (local) audience and that international consumption has come to dominate artistic practice.

Program B of the conference took place at the Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-Operative and was entitled “New Writing, Criticism and Theory.” In the opening paper, “The Real, the Potential, and the Political”, Sydney academic Ghassan Hage argued for a politics of “minor utopias.” Hage drew on the philosophical distinction between actuality and reality whereby reality is constituted not only by actuality (what is) but also what is about to be, what could be, and what ought to be (reality conceived in moral terms). Utopian thought, as manifested either in writing or in artistic practice, is that which can shift what could and ought to be into reality. Hage is arguing against a neo-conservative politics of “realism”, which seeks to prevent us from imagining new potentialities (by asking us to “get real” or to “look at things as they really are”). Instead, we must activate the “potential” as the space from which political change emerges. As with Ien Ang’s paper, I found the densely theoretical nature of Hage’s talk extremely seductive although ultimately unsatisfying, requiring some anchor in the contribution of artistic practice to the possibilities he evoked.

Lee Weng Choy, artistic co-director of the Substation (an independent arts centre in Singapore), gave a very advanced work-in-progress towards an essay in “3 registers”, addressing the epistemological, the practical and the imaginary in the context of regional and global art circuits. Lee is interested in how our knowledge about the art world has changed radically due to the historical eruption of contemporary art from Asia onto the global scene.

Lee discussed a symposium entitled “Comparative Contemporaries” held at the Substation in 2003, which workshopped the idea of producing an anthology of existing writing on contemporary south east Asian art over the last 15 years. At present this writing remains uncollated and poorly disseminated. To deal with the issue of comtemporaneity in the art of different south east Asian nations, Lee suggested using the paradigms of comparative literature (as practiced in America) to define and build dialogues.

What was particularly interesting to me was Lee’s discussion of the state of the contemporary arts in Singapore. The architect Rem Koolhaas argued several years ago that Singapore was characterised by modernisation without modernity; that is, a mechanistic rationality whereby only one temporality exists—that of being on the verge of elsewhere, a restless present always focussed on what’s next. Lee asks, if Singapore is only modernisation without modernity, why would the Singaporean State care about art? Lee suggested that it might be more accurate to characterise Singapore as modernism without modernity (in the sense of requiring historical self-reflexivity). It will be interesting to see how this preliminary dialogue progresses.

Residency programs are so important because of the various exchanges they foster: an international exchange becomes one that is also resolutely local, and the exchange always goes both ways. For example, it has been my great pleasure to get to know 2 artists-in-residence over the past few months: Tan Pin Pin, a filmmaker from Singapore (who was resident at the University of Technology, Sydney), and Tu Shih-hue, a performance artist and director from Taiwan, brought to Sydney through the Taipei Artists’ Village residency program. I welcome such continued dialogues and only wish I could have been in Melbourne to catch the second half of the conference.

Knowledge + Dialogue + Exchange: Remapping Cultural Globalisms from the South, convened by Artspace Visual Arts Centre, Sydney and Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces, Melbourne; 9th General Meeting of Res Artis, Sydney and Melbourne, August 10-16

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 14

© Olivia Khoo; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2004