The world of Southeast Asian art

Vera Mey is an arts practitioner who has been based in Southeast Asia and London for the past several years. Mey is one of the speakers at the Saturday Symposium in Te Papa, as part of the Asian Aotearoa Arts Huì 2018. The Asia Media Centre caught up with Mey to discuss her involvement with the hui and the projects she is working on. 

Why were you interested in getting involved in the hui?

Vera Mey: Any thriving artistic scene needs robust discourse and it is amazing to see how art criticism has been growing, especially on platforms such as the Pantograph Punch, and a few years ago, an excellent reader called A Year of Conscious Practice. I felt these voices were perhaps not as visible in 2014, before I left.

From a distance, I’ve been hearing about the discussions happening at the previous Aotearoa Asian Arts Huì at Te Tuhi, and felt like I was missing out! Conversations around culture in Aotearoa are rigorous and fascinating because of the unique situation of biculturalism, decolonising efforts, and how different ethnic groups configure into this conversation.

I’ve been largely based in Southeast Asia for a large part of the last five years, with various and very distinct Asian groups also figuring out a different conversation. These voices are negotiating multiple independence movements, internal and external military occupations and a very long history of multiple migrations and colonisations. More recently, living in London there is very much a manifestation of multiple Asias in one hyper cosmopolitan place.

Tell us about your fieldwork in Indonesia.

I am currently a PhD candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. My research is a comparative study of art and visual culture in Cambodia, Indonesia and Singapore during the Independence and Cold War period, specifically looking at continuities of pre-modern iconography in the modern era.

As part of my studies, I am on my fieldwork stage for one year and have been based in Singapore, Cambodia and Indonesia. In the past few months, I’ve been looking at collections in Jakarta, Yogyakarta and Bandung; checking out monuments, public sculptures, archaeological ruins; and meeting artists who were active during the 1970s and 1980s.

Vera Mey in Java, Indonesia

Vera Mey in Chandi Sukuh, Central Java, Indonesia. (Photo: Vera Mey)

What are some of the developments taking place in the art world in the Asia-Pacific?

A renewed focus on approaches to territory and borders, looking at how this continually changes. The current descriptors, often based on military divisions erupting from the Cold War period, are not adequate in explaining the paucity of movements as well as those who do not fit neatly into categories and the cultural movements that accompany this.

There is a continued strengthening of artist collectives throughout the region – this inspires me greatly, how artists work together beyond institutions.

I would say artists in Southeast Asia are surprisingly mobile considering the bureaucratic and discriminatory barriers of visa requirements (only one of many barriers).

Do you see the New Zealand arts world being more connected with Asia? 

Yes. At the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore (NTU CCA), we hosted some artists-in-residence from New Zealand, including Sonya Lacey. There is a surprising amount of traffic of New Zealand artists going through Asia. Often, the New Zealand and Asian art scene intersect through the Asia Pacific Triennial held in Brisbane.

Vera Mey in Cambodia

Vera Mey at Wat Bo Veal in Battambang, Cambodia. (Photo: Vera Mey)

Would it be fair to say Southeast Asian art scenes are a bit off the radar here in New Zealand? Is it different in London?

Yes, however after doing a bit of mining in the archive, I can see that there are patches of intersection with the Southeast Asian art scene.

Specifically, I can think about Marco Hsu, a Singapore writer who apparently travelled to New Zealand in the 50s or 60s to learn about Māori art; Vivian Lynn, in 1970s or 1980s I believe, and a group of New Zealand artists exhibiting at Alpha Gallery in Singapore; a Thai artist living in Auckland; and various artists exhibiting in New Zealand through group exhibitions and biennials.

I would say there is perhaps more consistent traffic of Southeast Asian artists coming in and out of London and an interest of London curators who travel to the region.

You’ve been doing all sorts of interesting things since you took part in the 2012 Curators Tour to Asia. What else have you been up to? 

The Curators Tour in 2012 resulted in many opportunities for me, including a residency at Arts Initiative Tokyo, and co-curating an exhibition of Japanese artists at ST PAUL St Gallery called “Invisible Energy”.

I got a position as Curator on the founding team of the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore (NTU CCA), and also worked on a Getty Foundation research initiative called “Ambitious Alignments: New Histories of Southeast Asian Art”, which really stretched my abilities as a researcher.

I am part of a scholarly journal, Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia.

I’ve been very fortunate with my career as a curator so far and have worked with incredible artists from everywhere and on exhibitions in Bangkok, Phnom Penh, Paris, Shanghai, Singapore and Tokyo. A particular highlight was working on an exhibition called “Sunshower: Contemporary Art in Southeast Asia From 1980s to Now” at the Mori Art Museum and National Art Centre Tokyo, which was the largest survey of art from Southeast Asia ever to be mounted working with more than 80 artists and attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors. Working on an exhibition of that scale and timeframe of two-and-a-half years was an incredible privilege.

Curators Tour 2012

Vera Mey (right) on the Curators Tour in 2012. (Photo: Asia Media Centre)

Anything you’re looking forward to art-wise in Asia?

The Equator Symposium in Yogyakarta later this year – they partner with a different country each time based on other countries which are on the equatorial axis. I admire the programme at the NUS Museum in Singapore, as well as the radical pedagogical approach of what Kunci Cultural Studies Centre are doing.

I recently attended an incredible media festival curated by Wok the Rock which included an exhibition of new media alongside a music festival combining punk, metal and 90s dangdut (Indonesian pop music).

What sustains you in your practice as an arts curator?

The desire to keep knowing and learning using art as a lens to see and understand the world. There is still plenty of work to be done! Many histories to write and unpack, many artworks to see and of course many incredible artists to work with. I feel particularly inspired how artists in Asia are working from the ground up and taking matters into their own hands.

Vera Mey will be speaking at the Saturday Symposium for the 2018 Asian Aotearoa Arts Hui on Saturday, 22 September, at Te Papa.

– Asia Media Centre

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