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5 Apr 2019 / by Lee Weng Choy

Discipline and Practice

Chromogenic print under Plexiglas depicting a red sky viewed from below. A black silhouetted urban landscape, featuring skyscrapers and lampposts, rises up all around the viewer to frame the sky.

Leung Chi Wo, Queen’s Possession, 2002. Chromogenic print under Plexiglas. M+, Hong Kong. © Warren Leung Chi Wo

In 1996, the journal October published the Visual Culture Questionnaire—four questions about the study of visual culture—alongside responses from art and architecture historians, film theorists, literary critics, and artists. These four questions have been republished in Chinese and English by M+, with October’s permission, to reflect on how the understanding of visual culture has changed since this 1996 enquiry. Below is Lee Weng Choy’s response.

If I may speak personally, and I often do in my writing, though rarely do I mean to go on about myself; rather, the aim is for empathetic contact with the reader. As an art critic, I see the job as less about winning agreement than fostering understanding.[1] On this occasion, however, the personal might seem out of place. My remit is to revisit a set of questions from over twenty years ago that emanated from across the Pacific Ocean and the North American continent: the October Visual Culture Questionnaire, published in the summer of 1996.[2] The reason for evoking the personal is because I want to raise the issue of intellectual vulnerability.

Art criticism is not something I would consider a discipline, an example of which would be art history. Art criticism is a practice, like art making. If you want to become an artist, you simply start making art; likewise, to become an art critic you start writing about it. In either case, it’s not easy, but you keep practising. In most cases, critics and artists go to university, whether for degrees in fine art or design, literature, philosophy, and so on—there are few departments of art criticism, by the way; but these excursions into the academy, while highly recommended, are not required. You can’t say the same about becoming a historian, sociologist, anthropologist, and the like; these are professions that are far more institutionally regulated.

When a museum embraces visual culture as its purview, does it matter whether or not visual culture has become a discipline like art history? Is it necessary for visual culture to have institutional legitimacy and rigour as a museological category? As I read the October Questionnaire—instructive and edifying as it was—I realised that I didn’t have a stake in the theoretical debates from back then, and was unsure how to respond to them now. It has taken me many years, but I have gained some clarity about working outside a discipline; I feel I know what it means to practice criticism. Yet I have struggled to write this text, stumbled to articulate an argument, and I hope the reader cares to understand why.

In Southeast Asia, the corner of the art world I call home, there is a recurring suspicion towards theory—often read as Western in its essence—that comes from audiences, artists, curators, writers, and even academics. To be sure, an increasing number of scholars and cultural workers espouse theory—but I am not suggesting a dominant tendency, only a common one. I have no surveys or ethnographic studies to cite, but after twenty-five years of attending and participating in all manner of gatherings held at museums, universities, art spaces, fairs, and galleries—from academic conferences to artist talks and writing workshops—I have a good deal of anecdotal evidence that warrants at least a serviceable generalisation if not a fully formed position.

What are some of the patterns in these various suspicions or refusals of theory? I could chart a range of underlying reasons. Instead, let me point to something that these refusals of theory might have in common with the intricate debates in October about the intrusion of visual culture into art history. What strikes me reading the Visual Culture Questionnaire today is the level of apprehension: a number of respondents worried about how the visual might dominate over the discursive, though others, like Susan Buck-Morss and Martin Jay, argued that there was no going back, since visual culture had already changed the way we think about art and art history. Surprisingly, only a few, like Thomas Crow, explicitly argued for the importance of comparative studies of different geographies. While there was diversity in tone and message, with hindsight, it seems the very framework of the whole exercise was about specialised self-reflexivity as a highly evolved modality of anxiety.

It is important to make a distinction between a ‘refusal’ and a ‘resistance’ to theory. The two might be reactions rather than carefully considered responses to the same situation, and both could be rooted in anxiety. (I don’t mean to pathologise or normalise the emotion, but it bears emphasising how much it figures in intellectual activity, on both personal and institutional registers.) Resistance has a criticality that refusal lacks. Small reactive resistances can build to a critique, whereas even the most enduring refusal can belie insecurities that remain unexamined.

Photograph of four people stand on a metal scaffolding platform to the left. One of the people in a red shirt leans back against the railing, and the other three face them. One person is taking a photo of the person in the red shirt, while the other two are talking to them. To the right of the photograph is a tall white sculpture depicting a person standing confidently with their arms crossed. An urban landscape of skyscrapers is in the background.

Lee Wen, Untitled: Raffles, 2000. Part of AIM: Artists Investigating Monuments, organised by The Artists Village. Photo: Koh Nguang How

Trying to respond to the October Questionnaire has made me confront some of my own resistances, refusals, and anxieties. Eleven years ago I gave a talk in Hong Kong called ‘Biennale Demand’.[3] In preparing to write for Podium, I returned to that essay. It described the various demands that ‘we’—local audiences, the international art world, governments, sponsors, and so forth—make on biennales. But my point was to ask instead what biennales demand of us: our attention, and in many instances our guilt. Beyond this, I suggested that biennales also ask us to think of them in time, in history.

Usually, I am ready to acknowledge my own mistakes—how else do you learn but by recognising and admitting them? Still, it can be an uneasy thing to look back at an old text. Reading ‘Biennale Demand’ now, I see it as too polemical: it rushes over complexities, and I would not depict biennales in the same way today. Moreover, it did not address the discourse around exhibition histories. Chelsea Haines identifies Reesa Greenberg, writing in 1996, as providing one of the earlier scholarly discussions on the topic of exhibition histories, although Haines notes that it was really in the 2000s when the surge of attention on the subject began.[4] Doubtless, the field deserves study, but I find myself anxious about the subject’s increasing popularity. Am I afraid that exhibition histories may eclipse other modes of writing stories of art? Surely we do not have to choose between curatorial or artistic authorship, or between the exhibition and the production of art, as the site of meaning.

And why compare M+, and its framing as a museum of visual culture, with the biennale? Across Asia there isn’t a strong tradition of the regional art museum—most have a national focus. The older Fukuoka Asian Art Museum and the newer National Gallery Singapore are among the few exceptions.[5] It is the biennale that has become the platform for the contemporary art and culture of the region. If M+ proves any different from existing museums, perhaps it has less to do with the shift to expand beyond art to include visual culture as it does with the commonalities that the museum shares with the Asian biennale—and not just because of its wide geographic scope, or its interdisciplinary approach. Could we say that what many biennales in the region share is a foundational anxiety about how to frame everything that they display, and how to thematise what they contain? Is this same anxiety also shared by M+?

Numerous people stand in a room with tall ceilings, white walls, and multiple plastic chairs and tables. The people in the room are all standing with the arms stretched out to the sides, facing different directions. One person is dressed in a red coat and three people are dressed in black coats. The rest of the people are dressed in white coats. A screen is projected onto the wall above the people, showing a person with a white bob wig in a white coat against a red background. They are sitting down with only their top half visible, and is looking straight ahead.

Loo Zihan in collaboration with Ray Langenbach, Shawn Chua Ming Ren, Lee Mun Wai, Bani Haykal, Kelvin Chew, Chan Silei, and TRIPPLE, I am LGB (2016). Performance commissioned by Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA), performed at 72-13, Theatreworks Singapore. Photo: Kong Chong Yew. Courtesy of Singapore International Festival of Arts

To speak of anxiety and M+ inevitably raises the larger question of anxiety in Hong Kong, a topic well beyond my capacity to comment on, although I’ve mentioned it in a text comparing the Special Administrative Region with Singapore.[6] Let me address only a specific instance of unease that Hong Kong arts communities share with many others across Southeast Asia: not the refusal of theory, but an overcompensating embrace of it. How often has one read a text that explains an artwork with plenty of references to this and that theorist, yet the work remains unconvincing? I have focused on ‘theory’ not only because it is one example among others of the conceptual tools used in the construction and understanding of art, but precisely because it is a powerful apparatus of intellectual legitimation. When does a tendency to lean on theory speak to an anxiety—on the part of artists, writers, and curators in this part of the world—about becoming accepted by the gatekeepers of ‘global art’? And when is the application of theory genuine? Could such a distinction ever be maintained?

Some of my best encounters with theory, history, ethnography, and other tools and materials, are not moments when intellectual anxiety is overcome, but when vulnerability is accepted. I know I am far from the best expert—there is always so much more to read, so many more people to speak with and listen to. But the point is to try and try again, and to speak with a sense of conviction, even if I know for certain that there will be corrections. Much as I appreciate institutions and disciplines, would it be fair to say that they do not always provide the best conditions for practicing intellectual vulnerability? I’d like to think the ideal of criticism is a practice of radical openness: to both care deeply and risk greatly with one’s attention, analysis, and reflection.

This article was originally published on Podium, M+ Stories.

Lee Weng Choy is an art critic, and president of the Singapore Section of the International Association of Art Critics; he writes on contemporary art and culture in Southeast Asia. From 2000 to 2009, he was the Artistic Co-Director of The Substation, Singapore’s first independent contemporary art centre, and he has taught at a number of institutions, including as a visiting lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. More recently he has done consultation work for National Gallery Singapore, NTU CCA Singapore, ILHAM Gallery and A+ Works of Art, both in Kuala Lumpur. Lee’s current projects include a collection of essays on artists, The Address of Art and the Scale of Other Places, which asks, among other things: What is art’s address? How does it speak to us and locate us in the world?

  1. 1.

    As an art critic, I write in order to better understand the art and ideas I am writing about. The critic tests the art: what does the work say, how does it say it, and so on. One tests oneself too: reflecting on observations and intuitions, interrogating opinions and interpretations, all with the aim of achieving some clarity and some sense of conviction, and of telling a good story. Criticism asks its readers not necessarily to agree with the writer. Rather, the demand of criticism is to better understand—both the art at hand and the critic’s own arguments.

  2. 2.

    See October 77 (Summer 1996). This is the second time that I’ve been asked to engage with something that first appeared in October. In 2012, Asia Art Archive invited me to participate in the second part of their ‘Expanded’ Questionnaire on the Contemporary, which was based on the Questionnaire from October 130 (Fall 2009). See:

  3. 3.

    My ‘Biennale Demand’ talk was part of the October 2007 workshop ‘Cultural Events, Celebrity Curators and Creative Networking’, organised by the Department of Cultural and Religious Studies, Chinese University, Hong Kong, in association with Asia Art Archive and Para Site. The text was first published with Asia Art Archive in 2008, and reprinted in Contemporary Art in Asia, edited by Melissa Chiu and Benjamin Genocchio (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011). In August 2018, Zoe Butt, Bill Nguyen, Ben Valentine, and I met for a ‘writing intensive’ where we read specific texts from each other. For my part, we discussed ‘Biennale Demand’ and a rough draft of my contribution to Podium. I want to thank them immensely for their generous criticisms, although the remaining faults are mine alone.

  4. 4.

    Chelsea Haines, ‘Exhibitions on Exhibitions’, Mousse 39 (Summer 2013).

  5. 5.

    Unlike the Fukuoka museum, which has a regional descriptor in its name, National Gallery Singapore does not, but its mission is indeed to be a museum of Southeast Asian art, and to promote Singapore as a regional hub. See:

  6. 6.

    In ‘The future was when’, published in the December 2017 issue of Journal of Visual Culture (volume 6, issue 3), I compared the two cities and engaged with the writing of Hong Kong art critic Jaspar K. W. Lau. Lau has spoken of his envy of Singapore because it has its independence, whereas his hometown does not. On my part, I’ve envied Lau’s place of residence because in Singapore, street demonstrations are prohibited; in Hong Kong, they are legendary. A tale of two envies the essay was not, but it was an attempt to explore contrasting lacks and desires. Considerations of smallness (space) and the future (time) have figured repeatedly in my interpretations of Singapore, and I was curious about thinking through those same considerations in relation to Hong Kong.

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