Re defining Uni versalism in Asia

When I saw the Singapore Art Museum Guide to PANORAMA: Art from Recent Asia it wasn’t the works or the artists that caught my eye. It was Page 1 of the booklet which contained 7 points for viewers to consider when viewing the contemporary:

  1. Contemporary art is often irreverent and humorous, and mixes ‘high’ with ‘low’ culture
  2. Contemporary art is often about the process of art-making, rather than the finished product, and often places importance on active participation, comment and interaction from the wider community
  3. Contemporary art installations often make full use of the space they are in. In contemporary art, artists go beyond the borders and confines of a picture or painting frame or pedestal, often creating works that fill and entire room or space.
  4. Contemporary artists are often influenced by their context or background, be it personal, cultural or socio-political, and draw upon this when they create their artworks, as well as make reference to it.
  5. Contemporary artists often explore new art forms and experiment with artistic mediums, such as new media or digital art, and sound art.
  6. Contemporary art often deals with current political, social and cultural issues.
  7. Contemporary art often revisits and reworks traditional myths and folklore to explore contemporary issues.
  8. Contemporary art often appropriates from art history and other cultural landmarks.

I wonder whether these points were taken in the context of contemporary art as a whole or specifically within the realm of Southeast Asia. Obviously the points can be applied anywhere in the world, but particular to the non-Western art practice is this idea of personal and cultural history, as they are so often intertwined. Last night I met Robert, a professor of theatre at Yale and Ruth, a performance artist who deal with contemporary theatre in Bangkok and greater Southeast Asia. We were talking about the performance/contemporary in Myanmar and what kind of histories the artists are dealing with when Robert said something very interesting – ‘what do their histories matter? Just get on with the art’ or something to that effect. On the one hand, I agree with him and yet, the historian in me remembered (as Ruth later pointed this out) that histories here are so important on the path to strengthening art practice. It’s not only pushing away the heavy influences of American pop culture and Chinese economic power, but also fixating on your own identities and cultural genetics.

Last week at the Blue Wind Festival, I gave a presentation comparing Myanmar and International contemporary performance art. I built my case by talking about the intersections in performance and challenged ideas of Western universalism, rather than point to a chronology. I explain why here:

Chronology can be useful to show where artists were when, and what kind of environments they were responding to. Please keep in mind that many consider performance art to have “begun in the west” – the West greatly controlled most of the world as we know it today (and in many cases still does) so I strongly suggest you resist the urge to say “it started in the West.” Beginnings are everywhere and we respond to the environments in which we grow and which influence us.

In my conclusion for the presentation, I address briefly what Robert may have unconsciously referred to – that artists can just let go and make without all this burden of history. But as I state below, perhaps that is because Western performance artists, or any artists for that matter, don’t have these histories that can become either burden or blessing and this comes from being in a position of power and safety, while people in Southeast Asia have been suffering under the hands of both Eastern and Western powers for generations.


Even if there hasn’t always been a chronological correlation between international and Myanmar performance artists, the common themes and anxieties are there. You may notice that performance artists fundamentally address the same sets of concerns, interpreted through their own histories and languages using body-based art.

 On the other hand, there is an obvious difference between International and Myanmar in the production quality of the performance pieces as well as lack of apparent “risk.”

 I think one thing that is often NOT said is that Western artists tend to take more “risks” because they’ve been in a position and safe space long enough to do so.  Myanmar artists, as well as many in SE Asia, get little to no support from private institutions. And forget government funding. I think Myanmar performance art remains fairly raw and unpolished because at this point, there is little framework within which to work. They must create their own.

For example – you are an interior designer. But you are also an engineer and architect. You have to design and build the damn house before you can start picking out furniture.

For centuries the west has thought that its values and interpretations were universal and universalist. Now that western hegemony is breaking down under a multi-polar world, what I hope we are going to see (and I think it’s already beginning in Myanmar) is Western universalism as false. That will create other cultural interpretations as identity outside categories, which have been imposed for so long.

Robert could not have known that what he said would’ve inspired such a post, but it’s very important to recognize artists such as himself (in addition to being an academic presence in Asia) are not necessarily aware of the importance of the environments of the post-colonial, traditional theatre, Buddhist practice, contrast in language and ethnicity and so on that have a massive impact on Southeast Asian art today. A kind of ‘guide’ to this art might be exactly what the institution will need provide in this region, in order to redefine previously held ideas on universalism.

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