Who Cares? 16 Essays on Curating in Asia, edited by Álvaro Rodríguez Fominaya and Michael Lee. Published by Para Site Art Space, Hong Kong, 2010. Photo by Jen Kwok for ArtAsiaPacific

Jul 09 2014

Book Blog: Who Cares? 16 Essays on Curating in Asia

by Jacqueline Liu

South Asia is described by many in the art world as being “the next big thing.” With more and more artists and museums popping up, increased attention has been focusing on the rapidly emerging Asian art scene. However, can curatorial practices and ideologies keep up with the new trend? Hong Kong’s Para Site Art Space curator Álvaro Rodríguez Fominaya sees Asia as being like “a curatorial Wild West,” where the continent’s multi-role curatorial practices deconstruct all his European preconceptions. Influenced by the lack of publications that focus on curatorial practices in Asia, Fominaya and artist Michael Lee compiled a selection of 16 essays that address this issue, inviting contribution from artists, curators and critics, including Hans Ulrich Obrist, Russell Storer, Cao Weijun, Héctor Rodríguez and many others. 

Who Cares? is an anthology of texts that embody the writers’ philosophy, perspectives and issues of concern with regards to curating. For Hong Kong-based curator Yeung Yang, “to curate is to take care of.” Yeung’s notion of “caring,” however, rejects the usual practice of treating “exhibitions” and “shows” as objects of care. Instead, according to Yeung, what should be cared for are the material and symbolic conditions that make the exhibition itself (and the curator’s role as caregiver) possible. Yeung believes a big component of such conditions lies in the artwork’s “public life.” When an artwork seeks a public life, its caregiver’s job is to tend to both the artwork and its public life. In other words, the curator should safeguard future possibilities for the artwork, but at the same time allow time for the work to reveal its significance to the public and vice versa. Yeung borrows German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s metaphor of “the hand” to describe curating as a gesture of embrace; to care is not to manipulate, but to respond to and be concerned about the artwork’s and artist’s needs, all while with a sense of humility. On artist’s concerns about institutionalism, Yeung provides a bi-directional solution between artists and curators, stating that caring "is a relation that requires not the two sides looking into each others’ eyes, but towards the same direction.” 

Running in the same vein as exhibitions, art criticism also carries an important role in the process of acquiring artistic knowledge. Singapore-based art critic Lee Weng Choy shares with readers what he thinks should be the central object of art criticism: wonder. Drawing on his personal visits to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, Lee is impressed by how the former is able to engage with contemporary ideas on natural history by looking at unresolved uncertainties and open speculations, while he is frustrated with the historical narrative presented by MoMA, which gives visitors not an accurate view of the past, but a picture of how people used to depict it. To Lee, AMNH is a successful model on the cultivation of wonder, which, in his opinion, is sustainable and foundational to critical enquiry. The relevance of theories and critical literature regarding contemporary art history are thought to only have a lifespan of 30 years before they are replaced by newer ones. With that in mind, Lee pans the current crave for rigor and forcefulness of critique in contemporary writing. He reminds readers that the longevity of writing and, of course, exhibitions lies not in the reverence for the object of study, but in “a sense of being precariously on the horizon line of insight and judgment”—in other words, in the experience of wonder. 

Globalization is a concept that cannot be ignored in the discussion of today’s curatorial theories and practices. In Who Cares? curator June Yap points out to readers the problem of situating Asia within the global context. In many curators’ and artists’ dictionaries, “globalization” has its basis on cartography, and what it means to be globalized is to not neglect even the smallest island on the map. This sense of globalization, as Yap disputes, functions only with “the necessity of the same boundaries and borders globalization purports to erase.” As a result, many artists participate in global platforms by focusing on and presenting their cultural differences from others. Art is framed to be geographically specific, and exhibitions are designed with a sense of “local exoticism” to underline each participant’s citizenry. To resist this, Yap promotes the intriguing idea of “disidentification”—that is, curating without geography—where, in a post-nation era, there will only be international free cities, no man’s lands and demilitarized zones.

Credit should be given to the variety of texts that comprise this book, which brings about many exciting and refreshing viewpoints to the practice of curating. Artist Richard Streitmatter-Tran writes poetic and free-flowing short paragraphs that trace his views on artistry and curating; a relaxing conversation with curator Hou Hanru gives insight into how the changing notions of time, being and space creates opportunities for the invention of new curatorial models; digital artist Héctor Rodríguez shares with readers how his documentary project “Human Resources” can engage everyday firms and organizations. 

Who Cares? may be a discussion that covers breadth over depth, but it is definitely not one that is too ambitious for readers to grasp. This anthology provides a glimpse into curating from the perspective of cultural practitioners working in the field today. Not only does it discuss important representational considerations of Asian artists and art communities, it also offers innovative approaches and ideas for future practice. This book serves as a delightful read and insightful starting point for curators, artists and anyone else curious about curating and exhibiting in Asia.