Asian Art Spaces Network Meeting 2011, a brief report

The 2011 Gwangju (Korea) based symposium Asian Arts Space Network Meeting has spent its two day discussion (22-24 August) on two key subjects: firstly, Partnership for Developing New Asian Cultural Contents & Exhibitionand secondly, Sharing Archives among Asian Arts Spaces. Arguably, after Gwangju Biennale 2002 whose core subject was a review on the influence, discourse and structures of all alternative spaces worldwide, this has been the second time that a large-scale gathering of the most dynamic alternative spaces in Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and Philippines has taken place.

The symposium was structured into two components. The first one included internal and public discussions and the second one was an exhibition where all invited Asian art spaces introduced their activities through screening short documentaries about them.

Why Asia? And why alternative spaces?

Director of alternative space LOOP (Seoul), Jin Suk Suh delivered a speech with a stress on the rise of Asian-ness in the contemporary art discourse around the world. He had noticed two distinct ways of approaching reality, which come from Western and Asian models respectively. The key distinction is that the former follows empirical and analytic inquiry, while the latter is grounded on transcendence and synthesis. Both ways, of course, share contributions to human being’s total view on reality, but Jin Suk Suh put a highlight on the advances of Asian model as it can help the subject to effectively capture the wholeness as well as all spirituous aspects of reality.

I myself undoubtedly agree with Jin Suk Suh on his enlightened division of reality approaching methods, yet I still uphold a little uneasiness on thinking of that-so-called Asian-ness and Western-ness. Theoretically speaking, it is possible to argue that Asian-ness and Western-ness, or in other words, the They and the We, are both cultural and political artifacts based on Western orientalism. Thus, an essentialist stress on the Asian-ness as an antithetical entity to Western-ness leaves a danger of falling back into the very discourse which it wants to challenge.

Artist Hong Ju, director of Happy Imagination Studio (Seoul) shared my view by giving a suggestion that we should not give too much weight on the Asian-ness in terms of identity, but go beyond it to consider humanity in general, which can then be distinguished by different localities. By grounding on an exclusive process, the identity or essentiality based approach inevitably leads to the unavoidable conflict between the They and theWe. On the contrary, by basing on an inclusive process, the approach using locality discourse will channel all interpreting activities of reality into a space of endless dialogues and foster the extension and fusion of plural visions from different subjects. It is where we can open a new path, not only for Asian contemporary art, but also for international contemporary art in general.

Sharing similar perspective but with stronger focus on a critical analysis about the networking of Asian art spaces, Ade Darmawan, director of Ruangrupa (Indonesia) pointed out the ineffectiveness of the previous networking models. For him, most of the regional networks are structure-based and for most of the time, are not capable of providing sufficient contents or issues for the members to share and develop upon their specific local context. He suggested a new way of networking by shifting from a structure-based to a content-based model, through which the network itself becomes a think-tank where every member can brainstorm, contribute and collaborate to decide a certain theme or subject. For him, this new network would serve as the platform to conduct a mapping of what are relevant and important issues in contemporary Asian society, and furthermore, to develop a larger discourse by producing, sharing and distributing knowledge through artistic practices, which eventually bring significant contributions for the region.


Hu Fan, a former literary student and now director of an important art space, Vitamin Creative Space (China), which locates in both Beijing and Guangzhou, shared his notices about the essence of an alternative space. For him, an alternative space is not only a physical exhibiting space but more importantly, a spirituous and psychological one. He stressed the element of “qi” (rawly translated by me as “invisibly spirituous and psychological temperature”) of an alternative space. Chinese philosophy sees this “qi” as a very important element for all physical spaces. It is the endless and fluent moves of that “qi” in the physical space that gives it its productive and living energy. His questions were: What will make a physical exhibiting space become an alternative space? How could we, artists and curators, facilitate ourselves for the fluent and endless move of the “qi” in this physical space and through which, boosting the creative and productive energy to transform this physical one into an alternative space. The discussion of Hu Fan on the essence of the alternative space, in fact, underlined the core characteristics of theirs all, which are the organic attachment with the contemporary needs, the engagement to the immediate social and cultural realities, and the endless and non-stop moves in all complicated relations among everyday life. This idea of Hu Fan seemed to be illustrated perfectly by the talk of Jennifer Teo, from Post-museum (Singapore). Although already much impressed by the past activities ofPost-museum (formerly the p-10 artist collective), I was even more impressed when Jennifer Teo ended her speech with the fact that right now Post-museum has no physical address at all. Jennifer also confirmed that this situation of Post-museum will remain as long as she and her colleagues see the necessity of having a physical space.

I must say that I cannot agree more with Jennifer Teo on the fact that sometime we do not need a physical address to make an alternative space. I recalled the time of 2003-2005, when I myself with two friend artists, Sue Hajdu and Motoko Uda, co-founded a collective called A Little Blah Blah. During the entire duration between 2003-2005, A Little Blah Blah had no physical space. All activities took place in either public addresses, such as coffee shop, local culture house, or private space such as our homes. The activities were very diverse, ranging from setting up talks and workshops of foreign artists to organize exhibition or inviting foreign artists to participate in our short and long term (3 months the longest) residency programs. It is possible to say that what determines an alternative space is not only to have a physical space, but more importantly, to own a vision and to understand local situations. This vision and understanding would facilitate the fluent move of the “qi” in order to create the productive and creative energy for the space and then help it engage and move endlessly in all contemporary moments of everyday life. To me, this is the genuine way to make meaning for an alternative space, i.e. make a physical space to become an alternative.

The most obvious shared thing we could see in the presentations of most alternative spaces in Korea and Asia in general (such as Lost Generation (Malaysia), Lost Project (Philippines), Ruangrupa (Indonesia) was their convergence on operating artistic activities under the models of public based art projects. Yeo, director of Lost Generation (Malaysia) said: “If the audience do not come to contemporary art, we will come to them”. Needless to say that ourZeroStation (Vietnam) fully share Yeo’s opinion. In fact, in the recent years, artists, curators and audience in Southeast Asia have witnessed a new perspective on practicing art among alternative spaces, in which the artists and curators are not only personalities belonging to the art world, but also persons who take the roles of cultural practitioners. This perspective is very different from Western society, where all infrastructures of culture, art, and art education have reached its highly coherent and stable level, in which all cultural and artistic criterion have been standardized and made possible to be referred sufficiently for the whole society. In Asia (maybe except Japan, Korea and China), especially in Southeast Asia, infrastructures of culture, art, and art education are still very poorly developed.

Here we can take Vietnam as an example. Up to now, all art universities in Vietnam, (regardless their efforts to change in the surface) still generally base their essential educational agendas on the very old frame of the colonial time mixed with socialist realism. It would take much more time to thoroughly analyze this model, yet the core thing to be noticed here is that all art educational agendas of these universities still rely on the main discourse of distinctions between fine art and art craft by Immanuel Kant from 17th century. This model, which later was mixed with socialist realist perspective, and more recent with some new forms of art such as video art, owns its nature from the Greek concept of art as imitation and the (fragmental) Kantian aesthetics. Thus, the graduate students easily get confused when trying to approach contemporary art model which bases on the conceptual and self-reflexive discourses.

At the same time, the local audience are mostly unacquainted (not to mention their absence of understanding) with contemporary art because of the total lack of art platforms, such as contemporary art museums, publications on contemporary art theories (both Vietnamese and English) and art literacy education. This situation leads them to a misunderstanding matrix of both meaning and practice of contemporary art, which has transformed contemporary art scene of Vietnam into a conflicting space where audience always think that the artists are cheating them, while the artists think that the audience are too stupid to understand their highly spirituous practices. The final result is that audience and contemporary artists in Vietnam seem to become two insolated ghettos whose navigations about each other always depend upon wrong and subjectively deductive information due to the unavailability of any effective dialoguing instruments.

I believe that this situation does not only exist in Vietnam but also in all societies where contemporary art is an imported practice/concept from outside thanks to the modernization process, which was operated initially by colonial powers in the past or/and by globalization process in the present. Only in these societies that the alternative spaces face its epistemic challenges between their activities and their local audience who act as the receivers. Still, these challenges also open up new possibilities. One of these is the potentiality of unlocking the door of the ghetto to get full engagement into daily life at its most primordial levels which are locating on experiential but not epistemic environments.

All examples from Ruangrupa, Post-museum, Lost Generation, Lost Project or Vitamin Creative Space etc. seem to conjointly demonstrate that experiential environment can make important contribution for local societies of an alternative spaces. Here we should not make a mistake in considering these experiential environments as purely entertaining. In order to appreciate it thoroughly, we should consider these experiential environments as rhetorics for the alternative spaces to engage into daily life, and only by which can they reach a discursive sharing of knowledge with their local audience. We should once more bring attention to the fact that in a social context without all epistemic infrastructures of contemporary art and culture, the epistemic rhetorics would assuredly come to a failure due to the co-existence of too many different standards, not only between audience and contemporary artists, but also between artists and artists, and audience and audience themselves. The activities based on epistemic rhetorics will very likely deepen the gap between audience and contemporary artist, and between contemporary art and contemporary life. It would be far more effective for Southeast Asian alternative spaces to use a practicing model based on experiential rhetorics to reach its shared knowledge through dialogues with audience. Besides the advantage of initiating dialoguing channel with local audience, the experiential rhetorics will also allow the engagement of the artists into contemporary life so that they can meet, discover, and build new discursive content or issues on culture, art and society.

Asian Arts Space Network Meeting 2011 – A new premise for the partnership and information sharing

In his speech, Chan Dong Kim, a well known art critic and former director of Arko Art Center (Seoul) underlined the need of a new idea for networking among Asian art spaces. He analyzed that in early 1990s, Korean alternative spaces and their artistic activities established themselves as a new system, raising new suggestions for institutional art. However, at the present time, the emphasis has been shifted to giving more expanding non-profit exhibition spaces to support new artists.

Chan Dong Kim also noticed that we should interpret the issues and practices of Asian alternative spaces in their own Asian contexts and not in the original models derived from Western world in the 1960s. He ended his talk by accentuating that “though there is no need to cut a clear line between the East and the West, the important thing to keep in mind is to be equipped with a viewpoint that leaves out colonial perspectives or attitudes reflecting orientalism. An individual perspective and artistic philosophy is needed to create a truly genuine content”.

Jin Suk Suh, director of alternative space LOOP (Seoul) proposed his ideas of achieving and sharing information projects for Asian alternative spaces. For him, these projects will help the alternative spaces in Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, Japan, China, Thailand, Philippines, and Hong Kong to share information on their exhibitions, projects and publications. One of his ideas about achieving and sharing information projects, which we totally agreed, is the plan of publishing and sharing art publications. All alternative spaces in Asia will annually publish from 1 to 4 books on some certain subject matters which later will be shared around. In about 10 years, 10 alternative spaces over Asia will collect about 100-400 art books to build their own database. This collection does not only contain normal information but also valuable discursive and theoretical/theoreticalized materials about different local contexts on a set of joint subject matters. The information, therefore, is not neutral but serves as an epistemic domain, a comparative and productive space of awareness and an entire system of real knowledge for both practical and theoretical purposes about various contexts.

From a theoretical perspective, the idea of Jin Suk Suh is definitely a suggestion for a rhizomic system which is opposite to the old system based on a linear structure. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari have used the concept of “rhizome” to champion multiplicity and non-hierarchical associations. This model is an alternative to the tree-root frameworks that stress chronological linkages, binaries, and linear models of “growth”. In this rhizomic system, there are no places for hierarchical relationship between the centre and the periphery. In other words, in this system, all at the same time are centers and peripheries in an endless moving in multiple directions in order to create new associations and contents

ZeroStation(Vietnam) welcome this idea, because from personal experience both as artistic director of ZeroStation, and as an independent curator and visual artist working in Vietnam, I have always felt the insecurity of lacking information, not about Western art (because in the age of internet, the information about Western art scenes are not lacked, if not to say overflowing), but the information about my very colleagues who are living and working in the same region with me and who are also trying to survive and struggle in the same situation with Vietnamese artists. From this real experience of mine, I do hope the idea of Jin Suk Suh will soon become true.

Ade Adarwan from Ruangrupa (Indonesia) also contributed to the symposium the idea of conducting a research on how new media art is imported into Asia and how it has changed, not only the approaching way of Asian artists to reality, but the very Asian social and cultural realities. We all found Ade’s idea very interesting, especially given the fact that Ruangrupa is a very dynamic and active alternative space in Indonesia with its well-known biennial video art festival OK.

There were also many other refreshing ideas in the symposium, such as the idea on curating collective exhibitions on some same concepts which are shared widely among Asian countries. These concepts might range from the influence of religion in the Asian contemporary art, the role of Asian contemporary artist as a social, political entity that is living in social and political events, to the influences of the past wars in Asia on its the present time.


I must say that the symposium is short (only two days) but perfectly organized. All programs were well completed. The exhibition at Geumanamro Gallery of Gwangju Museum of Art was arranged admirably. Each alternative space from Asia was given a separate space to introduce its activities by a documentary video. ZeroStation from Vietnam showed a short documentary, Graffiti in the alley, an art project, a real life, which introduces our most recent art project.

To end this short review which I admit to be very raw, I would like to quote some words from professor Jeongsuk Nam, director of Asian Art Spaces Network, visiting professor at Sungkyungwan university: “A dream dreamt alone will remain a fantasy, but a dream dreamt by many will turn into a giant hope”

And yes, to me, this first meeting among Asian alternative spaces, with the particular ideas, discussions, and working plans does not remain as an abstract dream, but definitely a new hope for all of us.



About the Author

Nguyen Nhu Huy is an artist, writer and independent curator. His art practices is concerned to the relationship between present and past and the intervention of different tempo-spacial dimensions. As a curator his recent curating project has been “ Art in Marathon”, a public art project that taken place in the course three months, from September to December 2007, in some public spaces in Ho Chi Minh City. Recently, Nhu Huy contributed his writing for catalogue of the exhibition “ Video, an art, a history”, organized by Pompidou art center, France, and Singapore Museum of art, 2010, and IFA catalogue for the exhibition “ connect: Kunstszene Vietnam”. A member of the international contemporary art Project” Hochiminh trail” Project, organized and curated by Long March Project, China, Nhu Huy also was invited ( with Viet Le) to have a conversation titled : Transnationalsm in Translation”, which was published in the Yishu, Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, April 2011. Currently, he is managing ZeroStation a House for Creativity. ZeroStation is a complex including Studio/Space for exhibiting and a small room with two beds for artists who participate in ZeroStation art residency program. The main mission of ZeroStation is to create more opportunities for dialoguing, thinking, and working among young artists in HCMC and beyond.