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Book Review
‘Modern and Contemporary Southeast Asian Art: An Anthology’
Top international sales of miniature paintings, sculptures, as well as both modern & contemporary from India and the whole of South Asia have yielded impressive results in the last few years, setting record prices, in the process. The art in spotlight from the region encompasses countries like Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Laos, Singapore, the Philippines, Burma, Cambodia apart from Nepal and Tibet in the ravishing Himalayas region, enjoying a greater exposure alongside that from Japan, Korea, China, and India.

No surprise then that top auction houses including Sotheby’s and Christie’s now offer a wide variety of artworks that range from the exquisite sculpture of India dating from as early as the 1st century to the thought-provoking paintings by renowned modern artists as well as cutting-edge creations by emerging practitioners of the new millennium. Their integrated Southeast Asian art showcases have evolved in recent years, with specialized teams are devoted to the new hub of the global art world, so to say, attaining strong prices.

In fact, a groundbreaking exhibition, entitled ‘Negotiating Home, History and Nation’, at Singapore Art Museum in collaboration with guest-curator Iola Lenzi, was the one that strongly symbolized the recent trend of Asian art attaining an international presence from possessing just a regional identity. It presented two decades of art in Southeast Asia (1991–2011) by more than fifty artists. A curatorial essay stated: “Through a broad range of media such as photography, video, painting, performance and installation art, the exhibition provides an entry to the specific characteristics of Southeast Asia’s aesthetic language and conceptual tendencies. Through the art presented, it also offers insights into the region’s recent political and social developments with a historical perspective.”

Just take the case of India: The culturally, socially and geographically vast nation no less than 1.25 billion people, 1,600 dialects; 330,000 gods and goddesses; 300 ways, hundreds of rivers worshipped as holy sites is one of the most ancient and richest cultures on the planet that presents itself differently every few miles. It's modern, albeit traditional. It’s fast getting urbanized and modernized, but there are lakhs of villages without basic facilities even as towering skyscrapers jostle shabby shanties for space. Sensitive and observant artists try and capture the contrasts coming to the fore even as winds of development lead to blatant consumerism.

In this backdrop, another ambitious and elaborate anthology tries to explore the various artistic practices as well artworks produced from a vibrant and diverse region. Critics, scholars, researchers and renowned curators offer their insightful perspectives on dynamic Southeast Asian art scene. Their aim is not to precisely define the field or pinpoint its epicenter but to throw light on its gradually changing nature and its meaningful interactions with an array of creative endeavors, cultures and histories elsewhere.

A series of essays in ‘Modern and Contemporary Southeast Asian Art: An Anthology’ (Edited by Nora A. Taylor, Boreth Ly; Publishers; Southeast Asia Program Publications; Pages: 280 Price: $51.95) look to examine a wide range of new and modern work, from Thai art Installations, seeking audience participation and sculptures that look to invoke deep post-conflict trauma In Cambodia. This in a way challenges traditional definitions of the art object’. Keeping the dynamic approach in mind, the authors not only offer a lively study of art in the region, but also challenge and initiate broad debates about both international and trans-national art.

An introduction by Nora Taylor tries to expand the concept, discussing ‘Who Speaks for Southeast Asian Art?’ Other accompanying essays dwell upon allied issues and themes like ‘The Southeast Asian Modem: Three Artists’ (John Clark); ‘Vietnamese Modem Art: An Unfinished Journey’ (Boitran Huynh-Beattie); ‘The Cultural Politics of Modem and Contemporary Islamic Art in Southeast Asia (Kenneth M. George); ‘Thai Artists, Resisting the Age of Spectacle’ (Sandra Cate); ‘Many Returns: Contemporary Vietnamese Diasporic Artists’ (Viet Le); ‘Turns in Tropics: Artist-Curator’ (Patrick D. Flares); ‘The Assumption of Love: Friendship and the Search for Discursive Density’ (Lee Weng Choy) and ‘Uncommon Sense: "Empty the Visual from Eyes of Flesh’ (Flaudette May V. Datuin), among others.

The extensive overview gives readers the perfect opportunity to derive a cogent picture of the common threads, linking art practices from the Southeast Asian countries. However diverse their cultures and national structures, as it emphasizes, the artists’ core purpose remains exploring topics like nation-building, history, memory, urbanization, and religious and gender discourses. In its all-encompassing scope of intellectual interests and contemporary context, the book adds a new perspective to art in Southeast Asia. Its specific methodological relevance will be of special interest to those concerned with, visual culture, art history, religious studies, anthropology and political science. The meticulously edited collection of essays ‘as if complicates and twists our ever-evolving understanding of exactly what 'contemporary art' means.