Apr 24 2012

Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative

by Kathy Zhang

Portrait of June Yap, the Guggenheim UBS MAP curator of South and Southeast Asia. Photo by David Heald. Copyright Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York.

On April 12, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation announced a five-year global cultural exchange program, titled “Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative,” that will culminate in three traveling exhibitions. Showcasing what the press release describes as the “most salient cultural practices and intellectual discourses” from three vastly defined regions—South and Southeast Asia as a single area, Latin America, and the Middle East together with North Africa)—it is a pointed, ambitious gesture away from the insitution’s Euro-American focus.

Guggenheim director Richard Armstrong stated in the release: “To a great degree, our view of art history remains Western-centric. Through this collaboration with UBS, we hope to challenge that view, and extend the art world to the real world’s horizons.” In addition to expanding on its previous transnational initiatives, such as the Asia Art Program, begun in 2006, and the building of the controversial Guggenheim Abu Dhabi (See AAP76 The Point), a big step in challenging a “Western” view of art history held by many—particularly in a modernist hub such as New York—will be to reevaluate the Guggenheim’s collection, which is heavily composed of American and European modernist art.

Although the Guggenheim has recently engaged with South and Southeast Asian art, notably in the current exhibition of Indian video- and sound-based art, titled “Being Singular Plural,” which was first organized in 2010 (See AAP71 Reviews), these regions remain underrepresented in the museum’s permanent collection.

Hence one of the driving motivations behind the Global Art Initiative is to invite curators from such underrepresented regions to advise the Guggenheim how to expand its programming in a meaningfully transnational direction, as well as to suggest new acquisitions. The first to do so will be independent curator June Yap, from Singapore, who is overseeing the South and Southeast Asia stretch of the project. Yap has previously worked in the curatorial departments of Singapore’s Institute of Contemporary Arts and the Singapore Art Museum. Most recently, she organized the Singapore Pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale.

Yap, with the assistance of an advisory committee (consisting of specialists from the region, including Patrick Flores of the University of the Philippines, Kwok Kian Chow of the National Art Gallery, Singapore, and Kavita Singh of New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, along with Guggenheim’s senior curator of Asian art, Alexandra Munroe and associate curator, Sandhini Poddar) will select new works by South and Southeast Asian artists to be showcased in New York in 2013. Artists from the following countries are being considered for inclusion: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam.

The exhibition will later travel to institutions in Singapore and Hong Kong large enough to accommodate the selected works, which will fill one of the Guggenheim’s annex galleries. Still, this is a comparatively small space for a show of such breadth and for the amount of money being pledged for the program by its main sponsor, the Union Bank of Switzerland (up to USD 40 million by some estimates). One difficult task will be to contextualize 15 countries’ artistic production in the space of approximately 700 square meters. According to Yap, “Time, and the diversity of practices having a relationship or ties to the region, are the main challenges.” Moreover, given the vastness and heterogeneity of South and Southeast Asia, neither she nor her colleagues at the Guggenheim, expect the show to be a “conclusive thesis of representation of the practices of the region,” she says.

Ultimately, the success of the Global Art Initiative will be seen in future transnational exchanges, curatorial residencies and the direction of the Guggenheim’s public programming, beyond the Initiative’s five-year lifespan.