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First Look: In Search of Southeast Asia through the M+ Collections

Plastic model of a skyscraper against a white background. The skyscraper is made to resemble a robot, with two round windows on the top floor looking like eyes and two antennas sticking up from the roof.

Sumet Jumsai. Model, Bank of Asia (Robot Building) (1983–1986), Bangkok, Thailand, circa 1986. Plastic. M+, Hong Kong. © Sumet Jumsai

In Search of Southeast Asia through the M+ Collections is the newest exhibition in the M+ Pavilion, running from 22 June to 30 September. Below, exhibition curators Pauline J. Yao (Lead Curator, Visual Art) and Shirley Surya (Associate Curator, Design & Architecture) answer some key questions about the show.

What is this exhibition about?

Pauline J. Yao: Broadly speaking, it’s an exhibition about Southeast Asia. More specifically, it’s an exhibition about Southeast Asia as seen through the lens of the M+ Collections.

The exhibition looks at Southeast Asia through individual perspectives and isolated moments. Together, these create a mosaic of different stories and perspectives on the region. It is not intended as a survey of Southeast Asia. There is no single overarching narrative that weaves together the individual countries. Instead it’s part of a process of understanding.

Shirley Surya: As suggested by the exhibition’s first thematic section, it’s a show that seeks to understand or bring out ‘conditions of place’ in a way that’s informed by the M+ Collections. So the title, In Search of Southeast Asia, is not only about the exhibition; it also represents how we’ve sought to build the collection with an interest in the specificities of the region, but also in discovering relationships within and outside the region.

Yao: The title also has to do with the fact that we’ve intended this to be an open-ended approach, and that the show contains a highly edited, and not a comprehensive, selection of works. Actually, there’ll be another post on this blog towards the end of the exhibition where you will get to see works that we weren’t able to include in the show!

Video still depicting a woman, seen from the back, in a light yellow top and skirt walking along a paved area with enormous rusted anchors and chains lying in piles next to her.

Midi Z. The Palace on the Sea, 2013. HD digital video. M+, Hong. © Midi Z

What can I expect to see in this exhibition?

Yao: You’ll see contemporary artworks: installations, paintings, videos, and photographs by artists, designers, and architects of Southeast Asian origin, as well as those based outside the region. You’ll see historical archival materials that relate to architecture and design, and you’ll see architectural models, design objects, and drawings.

You’ll see things that were made during the last sixty years, with the earliest dating from the 1930s. You can expect to see a very wide variety of things from different time periods and places, arranged in a way that has to do with thematic relationships rather than time or place. It may be a lot, but that is also partly the point—we want to communicate the breadth and depth of cultural production in the region.

Surya: You’ll see works by artists and architects who are not from Southeast Asia, but who have been engaging with, and have had significant influence on, the region. Representing the works of these figures is a key component for us, to reflect transnational exchanges but also to Southeast Asia as a porous entity that has allowed for multiple exchanges and multi-directional influences between those based in the region, and those traveling in and out of it.

For example, you’ll see the work of Geoffrey Bawa and Paul Rudolph, which have contributed to architectural developments in the region; there are works by two Hong Kong artists, Stanley Wong and Wilson Shieh, which reflect the region’s affinities with Hong Kong and China; you’ll also see archival documentation of Buckminster Fuller’s exchanges with architects in Malaysia and Thailand.

Cover of a paperback booklet depicting a photograph of a white building in a field under a blue sky. The words ‘Jurong Town Hall’ are printed in the bottom right corner of the photograph.

Architects Team 3. Booklet, Jurong Town Hall (1969–1974), Singapore, 1974. Printed paper. M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Architects Team 3, 2015. © Architects Team 3 Pte Ltd, Singapore

Is there anything different about this exhibition compared to previous exhibitions in the M+ Pavilion?

Surya: This exhibition is the first time in which the works represented by the fields of both Visual Art and Design and Architecture have collectively been the basis of developing the three themes that framed the works in the exhibition.

Another difference is that this exhibition contains by far the largest amount of items from the M+ Collection Archives in comparison to previous shows. It’s an opportunity to share how M+ has been acquiring architectural archives, of a practice or a project as part of our interest in researching and revealing under-represented microhistories in post-war architectural developments of Asia, in relation to other parts of the world.

Yao: This is also the first exhibition that focuses on a particular geography. It’s also the first time that we have a relatively even balance of materials from the fields of visual art and design and architecture. We haven’t used this interdisciplinary approach in the same way before. In previous exhibitions, one field or discipline has always been more dominant.

Video still of a group of people in a dark area next to a shrine. Their faces are illuminated by the dim light that comes from the red and orange lights on the shrine, which is decorated with flowers, fruit, gauzy yellow fabric, and incense.

The Propeller Group. The Living Need Light, the Dead Need Music (still), 2014. Single-channel video. M+, Hong Kong. © The Propeller Group

This article was originally published on M+ Stories to coincide with In Search of Southeast Asia Through the M+ Collections.

Pauline J. Yao is Lead Curator, Visual Art at M+. Shirley Surya is Curator, Design and Architecture at M+.

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