Display Cases

CONTEXT: I recently had the opportunity to be part of the curatorial team of ESCAPE from the SEA, a contemporary art exhibition in Kuala Lumpur, MY organized by the Japan Foundation Asia Center and Japan Foundation KL Office. On the night of the opening, there were complaints received about one of the woodcut prints, made by Pangrok Sulap (tr. Punk Rock House), a collective based in Ranau, Sabah. This is just one piece in a three-part article about what unfolded after that first anonymous complaint was lodged, wherein the organizers chose to take the work down, and followed it with a lengthy silence about what had transpired.

The last I heard from Sze (i.e. this morning) I asked her what was up, and she replied that she is “still filled with despair.” While I cannot safely say that the crisis happening (because yes, it is still taking place) due to and at the exhibition for which we are credited as co-curators has been averted, much of my attention has already been diverted: diverted to other matters, as we tend to see everyday life as something that happens when we are not busy with art.

There are so many other things that structure our days and make up the so-called grand scheme of things. In this so-called grand scheme, we are led to believe that art can only claim so much space. It definitely does not help that the art we make and busy ourselves with has to share this laughable amount of space with other art. As I write this, our other lead curator, Hiroyuki Hattori, is in Cuba preparing for another large show. SauBin Yap on the other hand is attending to family matters, while everybody else is, little by little, if at all, being drawn in by the demands of everyday life in the modern world—art-related or otherwise.

Sze, on the other hand, is still in despair, and reminds me that despite being able to safely retreat back to my hometown (a place that should drive any thinking human being to despair), these are still matters that concern me, not only as a co-curator, not only as someone who works with art and artists and is constantly involved in cultural production, but as someone with a stake in the limits and boundaries set on freedom of speech. In other words, as a human being.

Earlier this week, the council at the University of the Philippines (where I am currently a lecturer) convened a meeting wherein faculty members across the Departments voted to decrease the number of General Education units from the core curriculum from a requirement of 45, to a mere 21 units – amounting to a mere 7 course requirement in either the Sciences, Social Sciences, or the Humanities. Combined with diminishing funding allocated to the arts and a non-existent cultural agenda, it does not take a genius or a prophet to foresee which programs will get hit the hardest by the changes set to take effect in the next school year.

Again with despair: this leaves those of us in the arts and humanities with more questions than answers. What many fail to see though is that for some, this reduction of units is already the answer. I did not come from an arts program. I was trained in the highly technical Clothing Technology, which combined Business Administration and Engineering. While many of my colleagues in grad school spent their final years, as undergrads, in museums or other cultural offices, I sat in a factory computing the optimum number of steps to streamline the production process of a pair of jeans (it’s 12 steps, like Alcoholics Anonymous). Unlike most of my colleagues in my undergrad department however, I learned to become wary of terms like “entrepreneurial” and “manufacturing,” in a word, I was critical of industry.

Now that I’m working (not predominantly, but often) in the arts, I see how the term is being put to use, with art in some venues occupying that functional space of producing entrepreneurial subjects rather than citizens and telling people what to look at rather than different ways to see.

It is easy to commit to despair when what we should be doing is asking: where, if public education falls short, can institutions like museums and other art spaces pick up the slack? And this is what confuses me most about this situation we find ourselves in, wherein my tendency to believe in a museum as a space that will fight not only for art, but for artists, has been (to put it VERY LIGHTLY) challenged. Questions like, “When art is censored, what or whom is being responded to?” do not interest me quite as much as the response itself: that censorship should consist of the deprivation of space rather than the denial of existence. Given that this incident took place in the age of information, big data, and Web 2.0, the act of censorship only affirmed the existence (possibly even the relevance) of the work; and in the attempts to create something positive in its absence (like a video depicting collective endeavor), it only marked the violence of the deprivation that comes with being silenced.

In the silence that followed the removal of Pangrok Sulap’s work from the space at Art Printing Works, it was repeatedly asked where we, the curators and organizers, were. But we were here, in despair, given our limited role in the exhibition – still we were here. But curatorship—whether in your capacity as a junior or a lead—still depends so much on space: not just the national context of Malaysia and its unspoken but widely understood policies on criticizing its institutions, but the institutions given to art. After collecting my thoughts, what I still do not understand—and wish to gain a better grasp of, given that I am bound to work in a museum—is whether the museum is a living, breathing, empowering space for art, or simply a void?

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Author: alicesarmiento

San Juan, Metro Manila

3 thoughts on “Display Cases”

  1. “…telling people what to look at rather than different ways to see.” Yet again, you make my brain halt, and force it to participate in a strange, new world. I’ll be mulling over these thoughts for a long time.

  2. If you are going to pursue this point through critical literature on the museum then as you already know there is great stuff around, from the ‘material culture’ moment of museological studies, to Tony Bennett’s The Birth of the Museum and some US female writers commenting on the “blockbuster” tendency of international art exhibitions. It’s not my area at all and none of the above goes to the particularity of your recent exerience but to an outsider’s eye it seems a very substantial body of interesting critical work. Good luck!

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