Politics and art inseparable, says Asia Society's new museum director

In New York, Tan Boon Hui is looking to offer a bridge between traditional and contemporary art

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 September, 2015, 4:30am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 September, 2015, 4:30am

Working as an arts curator at the Asia Society headquarters in New York requires broader knowledge than at most museums, given the institution also has an active political and policy arm. Guest speakers have included former US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, and the society's policy institute is headed by former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd.

It's a set-up that Tan Boon Hui, the new Asia Society museum director, finds invigorating. Tan, who formerly spearheaded the acquisition of contemporary Southeast Asian artworks for the Singapore Art Museum, believes that politics and art in Asia are intertwined, and the society - founded in 1956 by philanthropist John D. Rockefeller III to "build bridges of understanding between Americans and Asians"  - offers the scope to explore the relationship.

"I'm interested in the intersection between the aesthetic realm of art in Asia and the other areas of society, like policy and business," says Tan, who began as a curator of traditional art and ethnographic materials in Singapore.

"Contemporary art from Southeast Asia involves a strong tradition of conceptual art, and the themes the artists explore have deep roots in the [politics] of the society they are dealing with. You need to know about these aspects to understand their work, as you can't position contemporary art from Asia in a purely aesthetic realm."

Even colonialism has played a part in the process, he adds. "Many Asian countries were once colonies, and the development of art became part of the struggle against colonialism. That's especially true of the generation of artists who lived through the transitions from colonies to independent nations. They used their art to show what it would mean to be an independent country, and what it would mean to be an individual in these new circumstances."

The politics is still there in the post-colonial era, Tan adds, as governments in places such as Singapore feel art and artists can inspire modes of thought beneficial to society.

 New York's ... always been a refuge for artists with new ideas from all over the world. That has given it an openness
Tan Boon Hui

"It's a way of looking at the world which can take in its complexity and show us how to deal with uncertainty. It's very useful for situations in which values are shifting, or are in transition, as it teaches you to look for different perspectives."

Contemporary art, by its very nature, inspires a different approach, he says. "It does not even have to look like something that is generally considered art. It can look like something else. So it forces your mind to go down different paths."

The Asia Society has offices worldwide, including one in Hong Kong, at the Old Victoria Barracks on Justice Drive.

The art collection at the society's New York museum is largely traditional, based on about 300 works from across the region acquired by Rockefeller and his wife, Blanchette Ferry Hooker Rockefeller, who also served as president of the Museum of Modern Art. The collection contains works that date from the 11th century BC to the 19th century, and includes Southeast Asian sculptures, Chinese ceramics from the Song and Ming dynasties, and notable Korean ceramics.

Asia Society exhibitions are generally traditional, such as the current "Philippine Gold: Treasures of Forgotten Kingdoms", although more modern artists, such as Nam June Paik and Chinese video artist Yang Fudong, have been featured.

Tan, who is knowledgeable about both traditional and contemporary art, says he aims to bridge the past and the present in his work as curator.

"As someone who is currently working with contemporary art, I want to talk about how the Asia Society's collection relates to today. For example, what do these traditional forms - whether, say, Islamic or Hindu - mean for contemporary artists? I think that kind of question is a way to integrate tradition and modernity. This way, you can move back and forth in time between the traditional and the contemporary," Tan says.

Although Asian art has long exerted an influence on artists working in New York, it was generally an unknown quantity for gallery-goers until the Chinese contemporary-art boom in the new millennium.

The public is better informed today, Tan says. "Due to the impact of contemporary Chinese art, we are no longer in an Asian art class [for beginners] in Western Europe and America. There is a good awareness of it."

Today's art isn't nation-specific, or even regional, he adds. "Contemporary art is a global phenomenon and artists in Asia are making art that is not relevant to just Asia. They are conscious about what is happening in the wider world and are positioning themselves with regard to the global community, rather than fellow national artists.

"Like artists in other parts of the world, they are articulating concerns about the global reality. It's become complex. It's not, for example, about a 'Chinese artist' any more; it's about 'an artist from China'. There has been a shift in perspective."

Tan says New York is a good city to observe these shifts.

"It's the perfect place to talk about contemporary Asian art as part of the global arts scene. New York is a place where ideas arise, and I think part of this is because it is a city of sojourners and settlers. It's always been a refuge for artists with new ideas from all over the world. That has given it an openness," he says.

"I am interested in the diversity of contemporary art across Asia. I'd like to show the breadth of Asian art. ... I think I'll be able to do that in New York."

While Tan was at the Singapore Art Museum, apart from acquiring the contemporary Southeast Asian collection, he managed 27 curators for the 2013 Singapore Biennale. He says it's too soon for him to announce plans for any exhibitions at the Asia Society, although he has started thinking about his first moves.

"There are two ways in which a project begins," he says. "The first is by considering a question and then finding artworks and artists which inform that question. But an exhibition can also be inspired by an artist.

"In traditional art, you have to look at the work in the context of what came before it, its legacy. But with contemporary art, you can just start with the artist, and you might not know what you'll get at the end. Contemporary art is the result of a kind of artistic struggle. These artists are wrestling with themselves; they are trying to pull something out from deep within their souls."