‘Pocket Utopias’: How To Rethink Asia and Art

Saodat Ismailova, ‘Qyrq Qyz (forty girls)’, 2018, filmed by Carlos Casas. Courtesy the artist

The Asia Forum’s Annie Jael Kwan, Ming Tiampo, Hammad Nasar and John Tain in conversation

ArtReview How and why did the Asia Forum come into being?

Annie Jael Kwan On repeated trips to Venice I had noticed, alongside certain changes within the cultural landscape in London and Europe, that there seemed to be an increased presence of Asian artists (or artists working in relation to Asia). Then, in 2017, the African Art in Venice Forum was launched. I attended that for all three days, and became interested in the way that they had managed to pull out different thematic strands, and to provide a space in which to explore them in more detail. Some of those themes – that come out in relation to cultural relations and representation – get a bit lost in the louder narratives of nation that spring up during the Biennale. So I began to wonder what shape an Asia Forum might take and approached Ming [Tiampo], Hammad [Nasar] and John [Tain] to start a conversation.

AR Why is it important to do this in Venice? In some respects it feels like it’s a dying structure of an outdated ‘great exhibition’ view of the world.

Ming Tiampo You’re right, but it’s also a place that brings together many like-minded people; it enables certain kinds of intersections and conversations to take place. If we wanted to look a little bit further then there are obviously other links to Asia through Venice: it is home to one of the most important East Asian studies departments in Italy [at Università Ca’ Foscari Venezia]; it has long relationships through its maritime history. But in the main it’s very much about those intersections of people and intellectual structures.

Hammad Nasar There are no neutral spaces. They don’t exist. Name me a place and I’ll give you a counter argument. And there is value in using the energies that already exist, the energies that Venice attracts, and then redirecting them. Like in the Tai Chi technique of pushing hands.

John Tain I think one of the reasons why we wanted to engage Venice specifically, has also to do with the way that the Asia Forum is positioning Asia itself: not as a place but really as a position. Part of the reason why we’re doing the Asia Forum in Venice is because it’s not necessarily for Asia per se, it’s as an interface between Asia or ways of thinking about Asia and other parts of the world. As Ming said I think Venice is still a place where I think that kind of convergence does happen.

The other thing to say is that the Asia Forum is not limited or tied to Venice in a way that Africa Forum has been. I think there is the hope that this can continue beyond the context of Venice as well.

Clockwise from top left: Hammad Nasar, Ming Tiampo, John Tain, Annie Jael Kwan. Courtesy Asia Forum

AR Perhaps the other big question in relation to all this is what is ‘Asia’ in this context. There are many different ways of defining it depending on context, history and politics, and in many cases we seem to be dealing with ‘Asias’, rather than any single geography or context.

AJK That’s a really complex question but also a really exciting one, because it leads to all sorts of productive explorations. It was also part of the reasoning of why we four came together from the different fields and expertise from which we work, so we could have those kinds of conversations where we position Asia differently and question what it is, but also use it as a lens, as an engine to further other questionings in terms of big current critical topics.

When you ask, ‘What is Asia?’, it’s complex in that way because is there Asia in the UK? Certainly, there’s an ‘Asia’ in the UK – and then there are Asia-Pacific histories. So, do we then look at the diaspora and their practices? Is that Asian? Or is it Asian to be in Asia? The questions themselves can continue to expand, because the histories themselves are very much entangled.

AR It certainly seems to be the case that during the pandemic and in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter movement there has been a move in the artworld to highlight people’s ‘otherness’ in places like Europe. But for someone who’s mixed race like myself, for example, these often seem to be labels that suit the purposes of someone else. I’ll be Sri Lankan to some people, British to others, and German to others still.

MT I think that what John said earlier about this being a critical category that we’re using, or what Annie said in terms of it being a lens, is really very much how we’re thinking of Asia. Not so much as a geography but as a method, as a way of thinking about certain issues, so that we’re thinking through Asia rather than about Asia. The question of where the boundaries are become a little bit less urgent, although we are very aware of including West Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, East Asia, and really trying to make sure that we are addressing different geographies too.

AR And presumably that becomes more complex because those different geographies are in many ways – politics, religion, history, economics – radically different.

HN Originally, I’m from Pakistan and there’s always a question mark when anybody says South Asia, because South Asia doesn’t exist in the countries of South Asia, because they can’t really talk to each other. They can’t travel. South Asia only exists outside of South Asia. Now, you can behold it from the Gulf or you can behold it from Venice or London, or potentially from Singapore. When you do that, it’s a different South Asia that emerges, shaped by its own particular histories and entanglements from where you are beholding it.

I think those are really interesting, not just for folks in South Asia itself but then as ways of thinking, both comparatively but also in an entangled messy way. I think we are embracing that. In a way it’s about thinking through and trying to stay with the mess, to borrow Donna Haraway, in considering this ‘lumpy’ framing of Asia.

AR How would you characterise this Asia lens or Asia thinking? Just messy or is there more you can say to that, about what the possibilities opened up by viewing things through this Asian lens or lenses might be?

AJK It does decentre a certain kind of conditioned access that we tend to think of when we think of art and the circulations of value. It moves a centre away from, I suppose, a more Eurocentric understanding of knowledge. It affords those possibilities to some extent. But going back to what you were saying earlier, that we work in the field of discourses and ideas but nevertheless, of course, there’s also embodied lived experiences and there’s always this, ambiguous, sometimes, ambivalent negotiation between how we see ourselves, how others see us, and how that’s entangled with these broader thematics. Certainly, in some way, I never feel very Chinese until I’m in the UK, and then people ask me a lot about that.

JT To follow up on your question of what are the potentials and the possibilities, I think – and to continue with the thought that Hammad and Annie were pursuing – I think some of the possibilities have to do with ‘Asia’. It’s not just South Asia that doesn’t exist within the region; Asia, as a larger construct, is a European project.

There is a sense that Europeans understand – even if they don’t agree with being part of EU – that ‘Oh, I am European in some ways.’ Whereas the idea of commonality within Asia is a very contentious one. Just this morning I was listening to the idea of China and Japan relations and the Rape of Nanking. There’s all kinds of ongoing simmering feuds between the different countries, and there’s this very longheld sense of national identity or cultural identity that’s separate from a continental one.

I think one thing that the Asia Forum can allow for is an exploration of those other commonalities that are defined from the outside, where it’s Europe defining Asia or the US defining Asia, and what is it that diaspora communities working with communities within the region can contribute. I think some of these things have already come out in the online forums that we’ve had.

AR I think we’re talking about a certain contingency that’s embedded in the very idea of ‘Asia’, but that’s something that’s historical too – you might look to the treatment of Buddhism in India, which for a long time was erased from its history, or the current attempts to erase its Muslim histories.

HN What you’re pointing towards is the difference between history and fact. That history is always contingent. I think one of the things about the lens of Asia, or the lenses of Asia, is the fact that there are now such institutional effort in history writing, particularly around cultural infrastructure. There’s, for want of a better metaphor, an ‘arms race’ for the discourse at various institutions to create histories around nation, region, or even the world, if you have a big enough budget. You can take positions of dismissing them or you can take positions of championing and cheerleading them. But I think those then also point to where some of the energies and money are headed – quite frankly, art’s always been entwined with money, it’s about which empire had it, whether it’s the Mughal or the Ottoman, and then who did they share it with and in what form; that’s the history of art.

What I think we are trying to do is to wrestle with those positions. To see what energies they’re bringing, and what would they do to the dominant forums and structures of the artworld. At the same time the artworld is very good at assimilating this. It’s very good at expansion by assimilation and assimilation by resemblance.

AR We described a lot of what you’re doing in terms of thought and thinking, and now you’ve brought up the artworld and its more tangible infrastructures. Is the aim to play a role in shaping or reconsidering the direction those things go in, say, arts institutions, say, arts education? Moving beyond thought into practice.

MT I think for now we’re imagining ourselves as a descriptive space that has the ability to expand into other structures and infect them in terms of changing discourses and being in dialogue with arts institutions, with various types of educational organisations, but really from the inside out in a sense, rather than directly engaging with the projects of institution building. It seems to me that that’s the project right now, that it’s to create this network of people and ideas that can then serve as the soil in which other things can grow.

AR How do you decide which people or ideas are of interest?

JT I think that comes out of the conversations that we’ve been having. The kind of conversations between the four of us that don’t make it to the public part of what we do – the ‘Oh, have you heard about this person, this person?’ It’s interesting how much consensus there is, but also I think sometimes one of us may know something or know about someone or know about a project that the others don’t know about, and we can make these recommendations. I think that’s part of the fun.

AR Do you think that’s changing the way you approach… let’s call them your ‘day jobs’?

HN Actually, that was precisely what I wanted to come to, because when you raise the infrastructure and institutional question, we’re all inside or working with, or avoiding, or dancing around multiple institutions. Part of what we can see the Asia Forum doing is opening up a space where we also can bounce ideas, but also socialise them. More than just ideas it’s about an attitude and openness to allowing ourselves to be pushed or infected (I’m thinking about when that used to be an innocent word), in different ways.

For example, Ming and I started working together as part of the London, Asia research project which is really coming out of an institution of British art history (the Paul Mellon Centre) and trying to cleave it open and create a social space as much as a discursive one where people can find place to bounce ideas. That, in itself, sets off so many more and different ideas than we could on our own. The question then is ‘Well, what can we catalyse?’

MT It’s about trying to build communities that are horizontal, that cut across various geographical silos that exist, as well as sectoral silos, I think, because we do come from very different places. John, as you know, from Asia Art Archive, Hammad from a curatorial role, as well as Annie, and I am an academic. These worlds don’t always mix. It’s really our hope that what we can do is we can bring these worlds together across geographies and sectors and understand how those discourses can shape each other in really powerful ways.

I think that in this community, we’re also trying to define new ways of being together, new ways of communication, of creating community, that involve practices of radical listening. What that means is that we’re open to listen and we’re open to learning from each other, which means that I can’t, as an academic, say, ‘It must be this way because this is the precise way of describing what we need to say in my language.’ Rather, because of the ethics of care and radical listening that we’re engaging in here, I necessarily have to be thinking relationally with our audiences and vice versa as well.

AR And of course many of your audiences won’t have English as a first language.

HN From my perspective, I often think with and through artworks and with artists around this. I go back to somebody to the late Zarina [Hashmi, 1937–2020], for example: she would describe herself as an Urdu artist rather than an Indian, Muslim, or some other formulation indicating a nationality, and that provokes thinking about what language enables. Actually, if we study her work, we learn that language allows us entry into a world of thought, of history, of etiquette; of different modes of being, thinking and perceiving.

English is not the language that we’re working with. English is actually the most common mode of translation around another language – the language(s) of art. I think, in that way, perhaps we can also decenter and deprioritise the language as we think of it as an extension of the civilisation value and think of it more as a structure of thought that artists are working with. I think a great example of that was Anna Tsing and Lantian Xie bonding over silverfish in our first session online.

That said, with the right infrastructure and the right level of funding, in future iterations we might be able to afford an iteration elsewhere where a different language or a different system takes center stage? Then English could perhaps be one of the other languages that you can access particular conversations in.

AJK I often work with diaspora communities that navigate between ‘here’ and ‘there’ but also different minority communities in Southeast Asia, and certainly I always feel a little conscious of the fact that my Vietnamese friends or Cambodian friends have to usually communicate in English in order to have their position heard or be accepted into a particular discourse. I’m very aware that often in many seminars we’re not doing enough to support them expressing themselves in the fullness of how they want to.

That also goes back to colonial legacies where we look at how a lot of art histories in that region are written in French, for example, or Dutch. It’s very ironic that to be Cambodian in a contemporary artworld, you have to be French proficient to study the archives. There are these ongoing tensions with regards to the use of language.

We’re trying to be very aware of these tensions and how we are responding to them, so that it wouldn’t be seen that Asia Forum is trying to assume a certain position of authority.

AR Perhaps one of the other issues is that there are certain things – words, expressions, modes of thought – that simply can’t be translated.

MT Absolutely. I think that it’s not even just about language but it’s also about ways of knowing and ways of seeing and ways of expressing that changed through language. It’s poetics, but also it’s politics. What do we do with languages that are disappearing, and the use of languages by communities who don’t actually speak them? I’m from Canada and there’s a movement of indigenous languages being used for music and film even though there are very, very few native speakers, and it’s about a certain kind of politics. I could imagine us engaging with that at some point in the future.

AJK I think there’s also been interesting articles written about contemporary art and live performance in Cambodia, and how the words for contemporary art don’t actually exist in Khmer particularly in relation to the performance art.

AR Perhaps that brings us to a final question – which is what do you think that art brings to all of these issues? Do you see art as a very, very broad thing or does it have limits that make it art and not something else?

MT It’s a space that allows for reflection and hope and imagination of new futures. One term that Hammad often uses, and I’ll just borrow it from him here, is ‘pocket utopias’. We’re able to think through art in ways that aren’t possible in politics or sociology, in terms of speculative futures as well as interpretive pasts, and understanding the ways in which art can function as a space for healing and for rethinking this place where we are right now, which is obviously a place that’s in crisis.

Asia Forum for Contemporary Art – in-person in Venice + online: Saturday 23 April. Register now.

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