No Country A contemporary art exhibition without borders

loading Installation view of the No Country exhibit at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Singapore.

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, more commonly referred to as The Guggenheim, is permanent home to paintings by artists such as Van Gogh, Picasso, Pollock, Chagall, Degas, Cezanne – the list goes on – and the building itself is a landmark in New York City and an American cultural icon. If you are unable to travel all the way to the Big Apple to visit the museum, fret not – the Guggenheim has come to your doorstep. Well, almost.

The Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative is a five-year programme which stretches across three regions: South and South-East Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East and North Africa. Featuring recent acquisitions

Q: The exhibit’s called No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia after W. B. Yeats’ poem Sailing to Byzantium, which inspired Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men. What was your direction or aim, and how do you think this has been achieved?

June Yap, curator of the No Country exhibit.

June Yap: No Country presents artworks collected under the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative, in a focus on South and South-East Asia. The inter-textual title is a reference to the influences, transmission and transformation of cultures of the region, and thus both a call to understanding, as well as an examination of, the histories and representations of the region. No Country looks at the region from both within and without; it challenges assumed distinctions and their inevitability. From the artworks of No Country we observe the complexities of contexts and of relationships within the region.

The exhibit is grouped according to four themes: reflection and encounter; intersections and dualities; diversities and divisions; and the desire for unity and community. How would you say the works tie in with the themes?.

The leitmotifs organise the exhibition spatially, but not exclusively. What we have are a number of ideas that link these artworks to each other: cultural influence as knowledge and illumination; of intersecting and collapsing dualities that point to conceptual and real entanglements; of divisive histories and the consequences of such clefts; and the possibility of redefinition or recalibration of community. These leitmotifs elaborate on the primary idea of definition, to suggest transcending the limits of such boundaries.

As a curator, what was your role in the entire process, especially a multi-year and multi-border programme such as this? Compared to your previous curatorial experiences, how does No Country differ?

My role was to facilitate an exchange and to conceptualise the platform through which such an exchange could occur. As with other exhibitions, I work closely with artists and institutions to mediate curatorially, aesthetically, critically and holistically. The Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative however is of a scale much larger than anything I have worked on before, but with specialised and professional teams at the museum, we managed to do quite a lot in a relatively short time in acquisition, exhibition, educational programmes, as well as online resources and engagements.

South and South-East Asia is a huge geographical expanse and a mixing bowl of identities and ideas. What were the challenges in finding and deciding who and what to exhibit?

No Country is intended to showcase the heterogeneity of the region as well as the relationships within it and how it has been affected by conditions from without. It was a huge challenge to narrow the selection down. However, it is not the end of such an exchange. Rather, the idea is for the dialogue to deepen and expand to more artworks and artists.

Were you at any point worried that the artworks might get lost in translation, in the sense that they might be speaking strongly of the sociopolitical situation of a country – for example in Malaysian artist Vincent Leong’s collection, Keeping Up with the Abdullahs – and might not have been readily understood when the exhibit travelled to New York and Hong Kong, prior to Singapore?

One of the ideas in conceptualising No Country was that experiences are universal, even if expressed through local conditions. Leong’s Keeping Up with the Abdullahs is a case in point where the desire for a harmonious community life and cultural negotiation as an everyday and immediate activity is not specific to Malaysia alone but is also experienced by many other communities. Of course the expression and detail may be particular and may require a bit of background information to completely understand, but it is also these elements that firstly make the artwork recognisably Malaysian and secondly draw the viewer in to find out more.

What’s different in No Country’s last stop compared to New York and Hong Kong? Is there a single artwork that resonates the most to you?

At the CCA, we have been able to present video installations by Amar Kanwar, The Otolith Group and Tran Luong, as well as the artworks of Sopheap Pich and Sheela Gowda that had not been presented in New York or Hong Kong. I have a soft spot for all the artworks, each for what they express.

Moving ahead, what’s next for you after the exhibit is over in July? Will you be involved in the other Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative projects?

While I am not involved in the next phases of the initiative, I am looking forward to the artworks and ideas that will be presented. As for myself personally, well, I too am waiting to see what happens next…

Richard Armstrong.

The Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative brought forth the No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia exhibit, and the initiative includes upcoming exhibits in Latin America, and Middle East and North Africa. What sets it apart from static international art exhibitions, such as the Venice Biennale?

Richard Armstrong: The Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative is more than just a series of contemporary art exhibitions; it is a combination of five things – a process of professional exchange and research that enables the development of new relationships with other arts organisations, curators and artists around the world; an acquisitions programme by which the museum builds its collection of works by innovative artists who are active in regions of tremendous cultural importance that are not represented in our collection in significant numbers today; an education programme, in which our educators work directly with colleagues in other parts of the world and with audiences in those regions; an online platform that encourages cross-cultural dialogue about contemporary art and cultural practice; and a programme of travelling exhibitions worldwide.

The initiative is also distinct in that it has the advantage of being able to take art from these regions – South and South-East Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East and North Africa – out into the world.

The Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative brought forth the No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia exhibit, and the initiative includes upcoming exhibits in Latin America, and Middle East and North Africa. What sets it apart from static international art exhibitions, such as the Venice Biennale?

The initiative is one of the most ambitious undertakings in The Guggenheim’s history, and the response to the first phase has been overwhelmingly positive. No Country has received critical acclaim in each of the three cities where it has been shown.

MAP has enabled us to go out into the world and meet people where they live, develop relationships with artists and art professionals, promote cross-cultural interaction, and reach new audiences. Furthermore, the MAP website has become a vibrant online platform for audience engagement, multidisciplinary learning and cross-cultural exchange, while also helping to contextualise the project’s content. Our educational programmes, which are customised for each presentation, have provided innovative and inclusive learning opportunities for youths, families and adults. Additionally, our collection of works from South and South-East Asia has increased by 36 works through this initiative, complementing and enhancing our holdings and serving to benefit generations of museum visitors to come.

You have served as director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation since November 2008, and prior to this, you curated at establishments such as the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh and the Whitney Museum of American Art. How would you say your current role differs from the previous ones?

The iconic Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City.

The Guggenheim’s global reach makes the role of the director here more expansive. It entails close cooperation with peers around the world, as we have activities and exhibitions at multiple locations.

No, the Guggenheim does not have any plans currently for a museum in Asia. We do, however, have a 40-year history of commitment to Asian Art, which is central to our identity as a global cultural institution and has included a wide range of special exhibitions, travelling exhibitions, and both public and education programmes. In fact we were the first Western modern and contemporary art museum to establish a curatorial programme of Asian art, led by a pioneering authority in the field, Dr Alexandra Munroe, Samsung Senior Curator of Asian Art. Through the Guggenheim’s Asian Art Initiative and the recently launched Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Chinese Art Initiative – which focuses on commissioning new work by contemporary Chinese artists that will become part of our permanent collection – the museum has affirmed and expanded its longstanding commitment to exploring and presenting contemporary artistic practice from Asia in a global context.

How do you envision the art collecting scene in the future? As the world becomes smaller and more global players step into the scene, is this where the Guggenheim museum’s vision for a global museum network comes in?

Our vision for a global museum network has nothing to do with the market, but is rather about the exchange of ideas and information and the sharing of exhibitions that reflect both local and international interests. Expanding the global conversation about art and cultural practice and the larger shift toward transnational dialogue and cross-cultural exchange is something from which the entire museum community benefits.

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