A Conversation with Brian Curtin: Part 1

On the state of art criticism
By A&M

Brian Curtin is an Irish-born art critic, lecturer and curator based in Bangkok since 2000. His recent projects include the group exhibition ‘Time Less Held: Artists Revisiting the Overlooked (2018)’ at Tadu Contemporary Art in Bangkok. He also oversaw ‘Uncommon Pursuits: A Temporary School for Emergent Curators in Southeast Asia (2018)’ at Sàn Art, the non-profit arts platform in Vietnam, while he was Director there last year. Brian is currently working on a number of writing projects that explore art criticism through his interest in the practical application of Queer theories.

In a two-part conversation, he speaks to A&M first about recent events and developments in the region, including his views on art criticism, and then about his curatorial work and his upcoming monograph on contemporary art in Thailand.  

Brian Curtin. Photograph by Be Takerng Pattanopas.

Brian Curtin. Photograph by Be Takerng Pattanopas.

What are your thoughts about the three biennales –Thailand inaugural Bangkok Art Biennale, the Bangkok Biennial, and the Thailand Biennale– that took place in Thailand last year? Did one stand out against from the others?
Any opinion on Bangkok Art Biennale (BAB) as an exhibition in and of itself, curated by Apinan Poshyananda and organised through private and corporate funding and including the Tourism Authority of Thailand, is less important than noting how controversial aspects of the organization and context have been glossed over. Reviews have been positive to the point of unctuousness, and commentators seem to have swallowed the public relations rhetoric on this event whole. BAB has been written as quietly contentious and gently pushing at taboos in Thailand as if an entrenched culture of self-censorship and the potential for arbitrary interference by a ruling military junta hadn’t already shaped what this biennale could be.

It has been reported that funding has been secured for two more editions, and there is an implication that BAB will be incrementally critical. This, of course, is nonsense for a context where progressive evolution has become near unthinkable. A review in the local magazine ‘Art 4D’, by Adulaya Hoontrakul, asked “[…] if the biennale can prove its influence on the national GDP” then art might secure a firmer role in the country. As the basis of ultimate recognition and support, BAB is already preparing itself.

The Bangkok Biennial (BB), organised anonymously and inclusive of anyone, deserves the praise that BAB has been given: a generously informal rather than cosmopolitan network has been engaged; multiple sites across Bangkok were used, away from touristic areas; and satellite exhibitions in Khon Kaen, in the Northeast of Thailand, and Patani in the deep south drew attention to actual contentious sites and disenfranchised populations. The former, titled ‘Khon Kaen Manifesto’, was housed in the ruins of a financial institution that closed after the 1997 economic crisis and is part of a province where dictator Sarit Thanarat declared a pathway to modernity in 1961; the latter, ‘Re/Form/Ing Patani’, acknowledges the violence of that pathway.

These exhibitions were curated by Thanom Chapackdee and by Zulfadhli Hilmi bin Mohamad and Muhammad Arafat bin Mohamad respectively. Zulfadhli told me that he worked with artists to challenge expectations of their identity as “other”. On the other hand, walking through BAB is to get a strong sense of the merely symbolic and tokenistic. The loud wall texts at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC) bracketed each artists’ work in the manner of a trade fair.

What do you think is an art critic’s job? Which art critics do you read and why them? In particular, are there any new art critics we should be paying attention to, and do they come from a strictly art historical background or are there any who have primarily trained in other fields such as geography or education?
Without wanting to be facetious, art critics write art criticism. It is interesting to note the reviews that followed the recent publication of writer Gary Indiana’s art criticism from New York in the 1980s: ‘Vile Days (Semiotext(e), 2018)’. The reviews ring a lament: this is what art criticism can be and this is what we’ve lost. Indiana’s criticism runs a range of impassioned responses, is intellectually savvy without being “academic,” and examines, if not exposes, the often dubious contexts in which art circulates. Further, he doesn’t elevate his insights or claims to the status of grand principles, thus his work has an honest, likeable quality. Speculation and humility are written in and this also mitigates his occasional iconoclasm as an authentic response rather than a particular politics.

Indiana retroactively “answers” many standing claims about art criticism as either extinct or beleaguered. These claims include that terms such as “art criticism” and “art writing” are now stretched to near meaninglessness; and judgment is impossible when there is no predominant tradition to judge. The critic and historian James Elkins has mapped these claims and characterises a contemporary polarity between the informal and descriptive and specialist and academic, arguing that both approaches are comparable because conventional and predictable. I’m not sure this doesn’t suggest a jaded and lazy reader but, anyway, Indiana explodes that polarity, as, I think, Chris Kraus’s writing on art also does, more contemporaneously.

Both these writers invoke another standing, though less discussed, claim: art criticism should function as an equivalent to the artwork, as autonomous. As writers, they consistently reinvent their approaches and produce compelling narratives. As critics, they can take in broad contexts and judgment builds incrementally and thus persuasively–not representing a “position” which is hackneyed for the contemporary moment. In all these respects, the writings don’t presuppose a particular audience, and therefore can be read on multiple levels.

Or, to put another way, perhaps art criticism functions well as a crossroads amidst different disciplines such as art history, geography etc. For Southeast Asia, there is the advantage that generic criticism, such as in catalogue essays, journalism et cetera is “archively” important due to the absence of notable traditions in art history. That is, art criticism can be studied —and written— seriously without the demands made by usually privileged disciplines.

Is there space for art criticism given the positivity that friendly public relations for galleries and institutions which the media seems to demand? Does art criticism then exist in mostly academic circles with limited readership and not on journalistic platforms that may have a wider audience, and what is the value of art criticism?
Or the space exists, and the question is how we can use it. As above, there are two long-recurring adages about art criticism and the market (cultural as well as financial exchange). These are: when a market shrinks, art criticism is needed more than ever (in order to parse value) and; when a market expands, art criticism is needed more than ever (in order to parse value). Ergo art criticism can substitute for the market but also regulate it. This schizophrenia highlights how a particular relation to “the market” for art criticism is essentially undecidable.

However, the contemporary art scenes in Southeast Asia are a possible case-study in questions of the current role and function of, generally speaking, “art writing”. Due to accelerated changes over the last decade or so, there are informal and professional relationships across different contexts: academia, commercial galleries/the market, non-profits and grassroots initiatives. Degrees of resource –and knowledge– exchange exists and suggests a sense of a shared horizon, against professional polarities of old or elsewhere. In a word, people move quite easily across these contexts. PhDs are less likely to be tied exclusively to academia; and, for example, the journal ‘Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia’ established an Emerging Writers Fellowship last year.

This is a roundabout way of asking: how is the role of writing understood in this context and, in turn, how is writing actually taught in the tertiary systems we’ve all emerged from? Or, crucially, how could it be taught? If there is a standoff between journalism and academia, this is hardly unsurmountable.

It strikes me that the institutionalising of “art writing” is a critical issue. Looking at the current state of university programmes is to perceive problems rather than resolutions, and few programmes exist. An MFA in Art Writing at Goldsmiths opened to fanfare in 2009 only to later disappear. The director, Maria Fusco, has argued that art writing needs to be understood as a studio-based activity with text as a material; on the other hand, the emergent writer Travis Jeppesen has pointed out that debates about the purpose of art criticism ignore the fact it is a literary practice. Rather than debating the relative merits of these claims as a means of building a practice, we can ask what problems can be identified that forms of art writing can address. Localising is imperative in this respect, against the generalizations that Fusco and Jeppesen evoke. And this means not necessarily pushing past “tradition” while remaining critical of belles-lettres.

Writing needs to occupy a serious, examined place in what we do and how we are taught, as well as how we teach. Last year I wrote a gallery essay for a series of abstract paintings by Mit Jai Inn and a reviewer remarked that Mit’s politics could only be understood through my text and not in the works themselves. Why would a critic not consider the politics of abstraction versus figurative iconography for a context like Thailand? This is an example of the need for localised understandings.

In your opinion, how have market forces shaped the development of the Thai art scene in terms of making artists’ careers’ viable, in terms of a sustainable infrastructure et cetera?
As we know, a new regional consciousness about contemporary “Southeast Asian” art has been growing over the last decade or so and markets function in tandem; the inaugural Singapore Biennale was in 2006; Jakarta Biennale internationalised in 2009; Art Stage Singapore began in 2011; Art Fair Philippines and Hotel Art Fair Bangkok began in 2013; and, nearby, Art Basel bought out Hong Kong International Art Fair in that year. 

However, with the cancellation of Art Stage Singapore this year and other examples such as the closure of the gallery SA SA BASSAC in Phnom Penh last year and Sàn Art’s recent opening of a gallery with an ambiguous identity, I am not sure we can talk about sustainable infrastructure with any degree of real confidence.

With the specific example of Thailand, MAIIAM opened in Chiang Mai in 2016 as the first major museum for contemporary art in the country, based on a private collection, though following the misnomer-ed Museum of Contemporary Art in Bangkok which opened in 2012, which is an idiosyncratic private collection of modern and traditional Thai art.

The market for neo-traditional art and art that would sit outside the category of “contemporary” is relatively strong, and we can note that there are many artists in Thailand. Economic patterns tell us that when the collector base is small, tastes are nationalistic. This is borne out by Thai collectors who are not major buyers of art from other countries. Further, major international events such as ‘Thailand Eye: Contemporary Thailand Art’ in 2015 at Saatchi Gallery in London was loosely contextualised in terms of Thai history and organised as part of ‘Totally Thai’ in the UK in honour of the 60th birthday of Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn and 160th year of Thai-UK diplomatic relations. There was also a Khon performance –traditional royalist and masked performance– at the Royal Albert Hall and a Thai film festival in the capital. Artists and filmmakers of an avant-garde lineage where not included.

Thus, we can concede that the infrastructure for Thai artists is conservative and limited, not particularly acting in the interests of art and artists. More generously, we can point out that the situation is young and may evolve very differently. We can inquire into specificities of the region and also compare to South Korea, for example, which has a very diverse collecting and museum culture due to the growth of a middle class.

What do you see to be the role of institutions in the development of art, especially with the opening of the National Gallery Singapore as well as the growth of private museums in recent years such as MAIIAM in Chiang Mai and Museum MACAN in Jakarta? And given the occurrence of regional group exhibitions they have put up since, in what ways is Southeast Asia as a category useful and/or problematic for the promotion of art within and outside of the region?
Well, let’s establish basic facts. MAIIAM and MACAN house private collections within a conventional museum structure that allows for temporary and touring exhibitions. Their policies and aims appear fairly unremarkable, though MAIIAM mounted the important ‘PATANI SEMASA: An Exhibition on Contemporary Art from the Golden Peninsula in 2017’, which was important because any project that breaks down Thailand’s Bangkok-centrism and addresses the conflicted landscape of the south is. But “introductory” and “promote” seem to remain key forms of rhetoric for these institutions. And arguably this maintains a sense of being peripheral, the problems of which are self-evident.

There is no easy response to the idea of Southeast Asia as a useful curatorial category, though it’s always better to face a construct rather than debate whether or not it should exist. I think we need to remind ourselves that geography-based survey exhibitions about the region have been happening since the 1990s. That history was recently consolidated with ‘Sunshower: Contemporary Art from Southeast Asia 1980s to Now’ at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo in 2017, with earlier exhibitions largely backed by funding from Japan. Did exhibitions such as ‘No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia’ at the Guggenheim in 2013 or ‘Secret Archipelago’ at the Palais de Tokyo in 2015 respond adequately to this history? With ever-new audiences emerging and the reasons for using geography as an anchor changing, what contemporary understandings are to be explicitly parsed? I have no substantial answers to these questions.

Read Part 2 of A&M’s conversation with Brian next Monday.