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I am wary of world conquering art histories: Boon Hui Tan

Boon Hui Tan says one of the strengths of Western modernism, of Euro-American artistic development, is that the ultimate aim of art is to be autonymous from society. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/MintPremium
Boon Hui Tan says one of the strengths of Western modernism, of Euro-American artistic development, is that the ultimate aim of art is to be autonymous from society. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

The vice-president of Global Arts and Cultural Programs, Asia Society, and director of Asia Society Museum on the global art community's response to the increasing radicalization of society

New Delhi: Boon Hui Tan has been a pacesetter in the Asian arts scene. In 2015, when he was named Asia Society’s vice-president of global arts and cultural programs and director of the Asia Society Museum in New York, he had already spent over a decade transforming the outlook of museums in Singapore. His legacy, really, is the Singapore Art Museum, which under his watch moved from the typical mission of museums to be repositories of a past heritage, to build a formidable collection of South-East Asian and Asian contemporary art.

In this role, as well as a curator of biennales in the past, he has consistently attempted to showcase the diversity in Asian art, and the different historical contexts that shape the art from regions within Asia. This continues to shape his programming at Asia Society, a non-profit that aims to strengthen partnerships between people and institutions in Asia and the US.

Tan was in Delhi for the presentation of the Asia Arts Awards on 1 February.

Edited excerpts from an interview:

The Asia Arts Awards have until now been given out during Art Basel Hong Kong. Why did you decide to focus on India this year?

The Asia Arts Awards is the premier platform within the Asia Society that acknowledges the extraordinary artistic creativity in this region. Being a curator and art museum director from Asia until very recently, I was keenly aware of the diversity of talent through the region. I was always very interested in South Asia, looking at what is happening with the India Art Fair, the Kochi Biennale and the Dhaka Art Summit. I began to realize that so much talent is visible only because the art world supports it. This is a region where state investment in formal structures that support the arts is still developing. We can credit not just collectors, but galleries for filling in the gap, artists who unite to form artist collectives or NGOs who support artists, like Khoj in Delhi. I wanted the Asia Arts Awards to be a global platform, not to sit in one place (Hong Kong, where the Asia Arts Game Changer Awards are presented) but to reflect on what’s happening across the region. I wanted to host this award in centres around Asia that are hubs for this kind of resurgence of contemporary art.

Why did you award Krishen Khanna, Abir Karmakar and teamLab?

We decided that we would give one award to a senior artist who has had a great impact on the arts scene. Krishen Khanna is the last of the Progressive artists, a painter who has been part of a movement that was not merely about art, but in a sense put forward a vision of a modern, progressive India, at a time when India imagined itself as an independent entity, out of the colonial graveyard, so to speak.

Then, we felt we should give an award to a younger artist who has taken risks in experimenting with the particular genre that he/she has chosen. Because we had Krishen Khanna, with Abir Karmakar we wanted to look at a young artist who worked in the same medium of painting, but (who dealt with it) with the self-consciousness (present in) all contemporary art.

And then we wanted the last of the awards to be given to an artist from outside India, particularly working in a genre still developing in this region. So when we say international, I was not interested in global names; everybody does that. I was interested in what would be exciting for South Asia. teamLab works in new media and video, but from a completely different perspective in the sense that they are both artists and technologists. Every artistic project is also a way in which they create new technologies, which later have a life outside art.

What is your opinion about contemporary Indian art’s place in the world?

This is one of the most exciting scenes now, and not just India, but more broadly South Asia. One of the strengths of Western modernism, of Euro-American artistic development, is that the ultimate aim of art is to be autonymous from society. The thing with Asian art is that many times it’s not; its strength comes from its implication with society. A lot of it has to do with the fact that much of Asia was colonized by the West. Many of the schools that taught modern paintings and sculpture were set up during the colonial period. So art became a way to create an identity, to express your own independence, and your integrity as a creative being. (Modern) artists in places like India always created art that had a kind of ethical, moral purpose. It was art that was on the side of the oppressed, the weak, of those without a voice.

This continues till today. We don’t see a progression into minimalism, we don’t see all these “isms". What distinguishes it is that kind of moral aesthetic and a kind of social purpose of art. That, to me, is very exciting because it provides a kind of tension and charge that also validates why people should support art. And it does this not in terms of providing solutions. I have always said art does not provide any solutions, but it extends the realm of possibility. And it is becoming more and more clear now, because of changes that are happening in the world. When we say radicalization, we actually mean a kind of polarization into black and white, a kind of retreat behind walls. And art is one of the most important weapons to basically…it holds you back from saying I’m right and you’re wrong, I’m good and you’re bad. That is really important now.

When the Western gaze falls on Indian art, it often misses out on these complexities, and views the art from the perspective of their own historical art movements, isn’t it?

I am very wary, and very afraid of world-conquering art histories. And world-conquering encyclopaedic art museums, which are a kind of occidental project arising out of humanism and the enlightenment, and of course colonialism. I always question why Asian art that has been championed by the West in the last few years is post-war abstraction. My suspicion is that it’s because visually, it can be stripped of all local reference. I am very wary of being inserted into someone else’s history. There is no one world art history; it is made up of multiple streams. Many museums in the West cannot assimilate that simply because it would threaten their existing narrative. With Indian art, the Asia Society years ago did a very important show, Edge of Desire, (in which) it included artists that worked with craft traditions, which, to this day, is shocking. The question always comes up, is it contemporary? (But I say) your contemporary is not my contemporary, and your contemporary is not a universal contemporary.

Will this particular idea define Asia Society’s forthcoming plans?

A part of Asia Society’s mission has always been to build bridges between the US and Asia. We take risks to show work in the US that falls out of the realm of the familiar. We were the first to consistently show Chinese art. And Edge of Desire, that was the moment when all of New York realized that there were all these incredible works from South Asia. So we try not to be followers; we try always to show the diversity and understand Asia on its own terms, and we do not shy away from contextual explanations. In the next few years, one of the threads in my programming will be this idea of diaspora, of artists as ambassadors and border crossers. The other thread is the artist as an agent in society. I am concerned that we are living in a moment where the value of art is no longer evident. One of the things I aim to do is to show, whether with contemporary or historical art, this idea of what art does. Which is why we want to do this project on the Progressives; I think that kind of vision in that moment when India was being born is relevant for what’s happening now.

So at a time in the US when there is a mistrust of outsiders, you feel Asia Society needs to respond to the situation?

Anyone who works in the arts will respond to what is happening now. And as a curator, I follow artists and the sense is that clearly, (among) artists all over the world, suddenly there is a kind of intensified action, a kind of call to urgent response. I firmly believe curators follow the artists; I never believed curators are the ones writing the script for the artists.

So, (while we will do the show on the) Progressives next year, this year, we are working on a project called Lucid Dreams, a collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution as well as the Queens Museum, that features diasporic art from South Asia, (from artists) who are living between two worlds. So they can speak not just to South Asia but also to America. That is a kind of rapid response.

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