Articulations of Southeast Asian Art – Liani Manta-Khaira

Articulations of Southeast Asian Art: Reflections on Visits to SAM, ACM and Bugis Street

by Liani Manta-Khaira

It is hard not to marvel at the majestic displays of archaeological objects at the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM). Many of these objects appear as complex but spiritually-charged items that must have held many layers of meanings in the past. To understand these displays, it felt almost imperative to read the descriptions that would inform us of the kinds of cultural traditions and beliefs that surround the striking artifacts. One is impressed by the amount of research done on the objects through these captions and panels of descriptions. For instance, in the exhibition, “Devotion & Desire: Cross-Cultural Art in Asia, New Acquisitions”, we learn from captions and guided tours about cross-cultural contacts in Asia and comprehend such movements through the Sinic-influenced dragon designs that encircle one “’Alam” (early 18th century), a processional standard of the Safavid dynasty. It was easier to make sense of the displays and to locate the context the objects through such explanatory notes. One is then guided to ponder on the themes underlined in the exhibitions in more depth.

As I paced through the subsequent halls however, I began to feel disconcerted. Perhaps there were simply too many displays to look at. Every time I decided to leave, I would stumble into yet another hall, describing more cultural transformations, narrating the story of another region of Asia that was necessary to explore and implore over. Yet it was also the immense amount of facts at each exhibition that seemed to demand attention and time, both of which were fast dissipating on my end. The captions suddenly became distracting, almost intrusive to my thoughts, as I became confused. Should I study the displays first, then read the captions, or vice versa? Should I simply glance through the captions, or the object, as I seek to maximise my short time left at the museum, in gaining more information or insights into the past?

This experience made me think of the ways captions in museums have the potential to inform and guide, but also to interrupt one’s explorations of art, or the displayed items in  museums. In both my visits to the ACM and Singapore Arts Museum (SAM), captions follow each art piece. Each object is to be labelled, dated, and explained. It informs and contextualises the pieces for the viewer. In the ACM, Jakkal Siributr’s tiered Buddha-piece, “Shroud” (2011), is accompanied by a panel that asks, “Are stupas really what they seem to be, or what people believe them to be? The fragility of materials and of belief is also suggested by the thin threads that support the Buddhas”. The multiple Buddhas arranged in a stupa-like design can suddenly be more than just visual imageries, and one begins to linger a little longer on the object to make sense of such ideas of form, art and symbols.

With captions, the pieces on display becomes meaningful, or is easier to be interpreted. In some ways, it made me recall a reading from class of Martin Heidegger’s “The Origin of the Work of Art” (1950) as he describes the thingly aspect of an object. “Once perceived by the senses, [it] is assigned a feature” (26). In similar ways, once the object is labelled, framed and explained, it is assigned to a particular interpretation and a feature not visible before. With the captions, a narrative force develops and transmits from the captions to the art, and then to the observer. The observer is then, upon reading the captions, urged to revisit the visual aspects of the particular piece. A dialogical journey thus occurs between the artwork, text and observer.

Captions, guided tours and pamphlets aids in the educational function of museums. However, it also frames the interpretation of the artwork, its history, and culture in a particular way. It changes our approaches to the displays through the titles, information, and questions it poses. In the ACM, the captions contained more historical details to provide context to the objects, such as the dates and functions of the objects. With artworks at the SAM, the descriptions contained information about the artist and the outline of his/her purposes behind the piece. Often, the texts ended in questions that urged the viewer to deconstruct ideas and terms related to art.

In the Singapore Arts Museum (SAM), the exhibition, “Not Against Interpretation: Untitled”, sought to reduce this almost-imposing narrative nature of captions by displaying the objects without titles. Yet, while it aims to do away with such labels to promote individual interpretation, it still placed tags with the artists’ background and influences right next to the piece. Some of the artworks also contained descriptive titles in parentheses, such as “Untitled (Chair)” by Ahmad Abu Bakar (1992). Additionally, activity sheets were provided to guide viewers to “understand the different characteristics of these artworks”. The set of questions posed in their activity sheet moulds a particular way of approaching and seeing art. For instance, it asks visitors what their interpretation of the art is, and what titles would be appropriate based on these interpretations. We were then given empty papers to write these titles to be stuck on the wall next to the pieces.

Some of the pieces reminded me of an image or memory, and I found myself conjuring titles for them in my head. They were certainly different from the titles given by other visitors, and it made me conscious of my role as the observer and active recipient of art. With other artworks, however, I could not place them anywhere and felt that some pieces speak for themselves – even without necessarily holding any meaning for me. It made me wonder if I was looking at these pieces wrongly – perhaps not “nuanced” enough – or if art was something to be titled, interpreted and always be made sense of. Should art itself be represented by titles, values and explanations? One cannot help but reflect if art is then to be broken down, or be based on the “what” and “why” questions. Do we always need to ‘make sense’ of everything – art or not? Can we – and don’t we sometimes – let objects or beings ‘be’ as they are, and still allow it to offer us a different way of thinking, living and doing?

Museums thus can be disruptive by implying that it is necessary to know the objects comprehensively in order to understand the past or present – be it from the interpretation of others or one’s own. It has a way of placing the objects in a particular timeframe, place or idea. This does not mean that one should overlook the functions of museums as an educational medium for communicating knowledge about the past and across cultures, or as an avenue to view works from various parts of the world. The museum provides a language for us to understand about these different worlds that may otherwise not be accessed as outsiders to these cultures.

Perhaps one should instead be aware of the ways museums have attempted to reach these goals. In classes, we have discussed the importance of contextualising art in response to a long history of decontextualisation in colonial Southeast Asia. The museum visits gave me insight into how contextualisation can and has been done in museums. The labels and interactive forms of display are meant to contextualise the works by providing information in various forms. Yet, the ways these multimedia and description have been used together appear to focus on aspects that removes these works from how it was first understood in the culture it came from, or to reinforce assumptions and ways of conceiving Southeast Asian art.

In the highest floor of the ACM performance gallery, a set of gamelan music instruments are arranged, and a wide screen behind the ensemble shows a recording of a dance performance that focusses specifically on the dancer. One sees a faint connection between the musical instruments and the dance being screened because of such different focus, but also due to the stark contrast between the visual movements on the screen and the emptiness and dullness of the physically-present musical instruments. It occurred to me that this was the case with the other objects in the museum where the actual objects were merely displayed, but the movement, auditory and visuals in videos would contain stories about it.

In the case of the gamelan/dance exhibition, the “performance” was not brought to life as it was missing several elements, one being the human interaction with the instruments and events. Visitors are not allowed to touch or experience sitting next to the instruments, nor are there anyone involved in these artforms there to guide. This made me question the purpose of placing the musical instruments there as opposed to merely displaying a photo of it, if it were only allowed to be seen but not played or felt. Who plays them then, and will they ever get played, or be forever museum-ised? And is art meant to be a final product, or a process, as with music performances? The very fact that these museums direct their spotlights at the art exhibited while dimming the rest of the room is telling of the importance placed on the object than the observer or environment.

Although the gamelan set is positioned at the center of the gallery, the background music in the hall was not gamelan, but classical Thai piphet music. This was confusing and appeared to highlight the misinformation or the indecision of the curator to meld all the Southeast Asian artforms into one small hall. On the right side of the center “stage”, visitors could watch an informational video that acted as supplementary aid to the exhibitions. The videos however, were focussed only on different mask-making traditions in Southeast Asian performing arts, and was limited to simply stating the tools required to make a mask (such as wood and knife) and steps to making it. Just as the Balinese mask-maker mentioned the ideas behind masks, and making it unique to each dancer, the video cuts off to another segment of the mask-making process. One gets a very restricted idea of masks in Southeast Asian performances as props to dances, rather than the relevance it may actually have to the culture before, during, and after it is made. Such examples thus calls attention to the need to rethink how we contextualise art rather than only seeing what is contextualised.

Thus, it appeared fitting to visit Bugis street after the museums. Here, one sees art outside frames, without explanatory captions or hints to constantly look out for meanings. One cannot help but be enamoured by the lavish designs of the batik cloths sold at several shops along the architecturally-rich areas of Bugis street. In some ways, moving out of the museum helps to contextualise the art and its purpose in a community. By selling batik, the shops contextualise batik as a Southeast Art that is to be felt and worn as it often is in many communities in the region and beyond. Some of these shops have used batik as materials for fashionable dresses and flair skirts, while others are sold as it was – cloths for sarong wraparounds. Art is now not just about seeing or evaluating – it can be felt, kept, and used.

However, it also poses the danger of completely removing and disregarding the historical and cultural significances of these objects. It restricts the batik to an item that is to be bought and one that is judged for the attractive designs than what meanings it has. The commodification of art has such an effect by placing these objects at a market where it is promoted for its aestheticism and value. Purchasing it at a price places a value onto the art, and owning it changes the experience of art. The stories behind the textiles can thus be lost. The advantage of having no captions can precisely be the problem for consumers when there is no researched information into these art on what it represents, its history and links to colonialism, and what the processes of these productions entail.

Different experiences of art can be reflected in the kinds of location, motivations and the roles the observer plays in his/her encounters with art. Visiting these museums and streets made me conscious of how I have and can receive and think about art and the ways in which art can always be viewed differently when approached with such different aims.  As I constantly return to the kinds of “art” that surround me – whether playing the gamelan or visiting the museum, I realise the dynamism at play in viewing, feeling and responding to the art in Southeast Asia.

Liani MK graduated from a double majors in Southeast Asian Studies and History. Of Dayak and Punjabi heritage, she has always been curious about issues of identity, indigeneity and language. Liani has worked as a translator and editor, and is currently a writer based in Kuala Lumpur. She enjoys Javanese gamelan, jewellery-making, illustration and capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial arts.

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