Interview with Curator Iola Lenzi
From 17 September 2014 onwards, ARTER will be hosting a group exhibition The Roving Eye curated by Singapore-based Iola Lenzi. The exhibition will feature works by Southeast Asian artists who attempt to look at culture from multiple points of view, from both inside and outside their respective localities. This split gaze will be at the centre of the exhibition's framework, the latter with its historical roots in diasporic patterns, ethnic hybridity, the region’s ancient trade ethos and colonial/post-colonial history.
An initiative of the Vehbi Koç Foundation based in Istanbul, ARTER opened in 2010 to offer a sustainable infrastructure for producing and exhibiting contemporary art. ARTER has been presenting solo and group exhibitions with the aim of providing a platform of visibility for artistic practices and encouraging production of contemporary artworks.
What was your background and how did you end up as a curator?
I originally trained in law in Canada but after qualifying, gravitated to art. I moved to London, did a post-graduate course in art history at Sotheby’s, worked for Sotheby’s and in Chinese art, and in 1994 moved to Singapore. Southeast Asian contemporary art was exploding onto the scene then, riveting with its combination of social ideas, formal brio, and conceptual sophistication. I started writing about regional art for SPH Business Times in 1995, and from there contributed longer critical essays to the Australian journal ARTAsiaPacific. Galleries and artists commissioned essays and I was invited to curate my first exhibition in 2000. It was a solo of new work by Sutee Kunavichayanont at an independent space called Atelier Frank & Lee in Emerald Hill. The Lee was Singapore artist Yvonne Lee. I curated four shows in that space, and then two large regional exhibitions at Sculpture Square in the early millennium. After that I called myself a curator.
What kind of artists or practices are you drawn to? Was this something you kept in mind or tried to move away from in this show?
From the start of my curating career I have been interested in regional art that combines conceptual play, a certain type of performativity unique to Southeast Asia, and social content. I believe the best art of the region owes its excellence to artists’ interest in using their practice to further social progress. These artists do not necessarily call themselves activists, but they care deeply about their nation and people, they look outward even when their practice is rooted in the most intimate places. The work is socially and politically thoughtful -not to be confused with earnest-, sometimes critical of the status quo, but never in a literal way. This sort of art is not critical for the sake of it, but rather addresses very real concerns as a means of taking part socially. In Indonesia of the 1990s, some artists used their production to champion democratic institutions and the rights of minorities before the end of the Suharto regime. Today, the region has changed politically and socially. Yet still to me the most challenging and exciting art has social bite. Expressive languages have evolved but the formal command, the allusiveness and conceptual play, and the interest in involving audiences remain in the practices of many.
For “The Roving Eye” I selected art that whether recent or less so, I feel is significant because it combines these attributes. I argue the roving eye as a methodology typical of regional artists. So yes, i definitely aim to further some of the ideas I have been researching in the last decade with this show. To prove my point, I include a number of young, emerging artists whose approach can be compared to that of pioneers such as Lee Wen, Vasan Sitthiket, Heri Dono or FX Harsono.
Ping Pong Go Round 2014, by Lee Wen (Singapore)
What is this space ARTER about? Did it play a role with the selection of artists, and how did this collaboration come about?
ARTER is one of the best-regarded independent contemporary art spaces in Turkey. It is a non-profit showcase for international and Turkish contemporary art that comes under the Vehbi Koc Foundation umbrella of cultural philanthropy. It is a young space, but since its inception has held some remarkable exhibitions invariably accompanied by an excellent publication. The space itself is both state of the art in terms of facilities, and broad public- accessible, positioned on one of Istanbul’s busiest pedestrian streets. It is highly considered internationally despite being so young, those running it among the most committed and visionary art people I have met anywhere.
In May 2011 I met ARTER head Melih Fereli in Hong Kong through a friend; Melih was already familiar with some Southeast Asian art so our discussions about the field were quite natural. Some months later we met again in Singapore and Melih suggested I propose an exhibition concept for ARTER. I did this, and then travelled to Istanbul with a power point showing the sort of regional work I would put up at ARTER within a possible exhibition framework. My concept was accepted and from there i had absolute freedom to select whom and what I wanted, the only limitation being the size of the space. I seized the opportunity to present the very best Southeast Asian contemporary at ARTER, a very visible platform outside Asia; I also seized it as a way of putting up a large regional exhibition that I hope expands Southeast Asian art discourse. “The Roving Eye: contemporary art from Southeast Asia”, through its choice of works, aims to bring to light a certain way of looking that I see as a marker of the field.
It should be noted here that not only did ARTER afford me liberty regarding works and artists, but also actively supported new productions. Roughly a third of the works in “The Roving Eye” are entirely new pieces, or expanded pre-existing works. ARTER and the Koc Foundation have been very open and generous in their support of Southeast Asian contemporary.
Piano 2010, Alwin Reamillo (Philippines)
With this show, what do you hope to convey to Turkish audiences about Southeast Asian artists?
With “The Roving Eye” I hope to convert Turkish audiences to the idea that contemporary art can simultaneously be aesthetically triumphant, socio-politically engaged, and audience involving. In Turkey, as in Europe more generally, few seem to see art as able to have both form and critical function. I hope too with this show that through the art, Turkish viewers will become acquainted with some of Southeast Asia’s concerns, many of which are likely to resonate. Ultimately, what I hope Turkish audiences will take away is that art in Southeast Asia, before being a commodity, is very much part of and about life, has a role to play on the ground in shaping society.
Lastly, do you have any major projects on the horizon?
I am currently embarking on a major academic research project. In terms of exhibitions, I am curating a compact Mekong show in Yangon at the end of the year, taking “Concept Context Contestation” (the 2013 co-curated BACC Southeast Asian show about regional conceptualism) on the road, and curating the Singapore/Southeast Asian platform for ARTParis next March in Paris. And then there is the Southeast Asian digital art project ‘Masterpieces’ for Samsung which is on-going. A great deal of essay writing supports all these exhibitions. I also spend time teaching at LASALLE in Singapore, and running or joining symposia around the region. There is a great deal to do on the educational front. That’s it for the next few months!
Insect series called Suitcase of a Pilgrim 2001-2006, by Vu Dan Tan (Hanoi, Vietnam)
The Roving Eye, Contemporary Art from Southeast Asia will be open from 18 Sept 2014 till 4 Jan 2015. For more information on ARTER, click here: https://www.arter.org.tr/W3/?sAction=Contact
Rapid Fire Quiz!
What is your favourite place to see art?
In artists’ studios or on their mac screens if it’s new Southeast Asian art; in one of the great Asian or European museums if it’s classical Asian art (Palace Museum in Taipei, Shanghai Museum, Musee Guimet in Paris).
Do you have a museum or gallery-going routine?
No special routine. I attend institutional and commercial openings if I am in town as a way of supporting the artist and institution. I try to go however busy I am. Otherwise, I may do a museum/gallery trawl if I have foreign artists friends in town staying with me. Outside of this, I don’t have time to do the rounds more frequently.
What’s your favourite post-gallery watering hole or restaurant?
At home in Singapore I usually attend openings late so there is not much ‘post’. Out with artists, anywhere will do, i’m not fussy. When on research trips in Jogjakarta, Hanoi or Bangkok i go out with artists, so either we go to local spots or peoples’ homes.
Do you collect anything?
I don’t really consider myself a collector though my husband and I live with Southeast Asian art of all types. Early regional ceramics are a pet interest, as well as regional contemporary art, much of which i would qualify as ‘research art’ since it is mainly non-painting and not commercially mainstream. Most of the contemporary comes directly from artists, numerous pieces not purchased but swapped for catalogue essays, or given to me as presents. Some pieces, sadly, are ephemeral and have quite literally disintegrated. That probably makes me a custodian rather than a collector.
What’s the last artwork you purchased?
Not purchased, given. A photograph. I would rather not reveal the artist!
What work of art do you wish you owned?
The house is stuffed already. I don’t covet anything except more space to put things!
What’s your art world peeve?
That Asian art is still perceived as validated essentially by interest outside Asia.
What international art destination do you most want to visit?
I’ve never been to Moscow, I am curious about what non-mainstream artists are doing there now, with the climate in Russia so feverishly nationalistic.
What under-appreciated artist, gallery, or work do you think people should know about?
There are too many poorly-known Southeast Asian artists deserving of wider public recognition to be listed here. As a whole, contemporary Southeast Asian art the field needs more visibility!
What is the last great book you read?
Two at once: ‘The Cat’s Table’ by Michael Ondaatje, recent, and ‘The Key’, a 1950s classic by Juchiro Tanizaki that examines old age and constructions of Japanese and European identity through an erotic lens.
Last Drop, by Jason Lim (Singapore)
Iola Lenzi is a Singapore curator, critic and researcher of Southeast Asian contemporary art. She has conceptualised numerous institutional exhibtions charting art historical themes predicated on the region’s cultural, social and political landscape. Selected major projects include Negotiating Home History and Nation: two decades of contemporary art in Southeast Asia 1991-2011, Singapore Art Museum (2011); Concept Context Contestation: art and the collective in Southeast Asia, Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (2013); The Roving Eye: contemporary art in Southeast Asia, ARTER, Istanbul (September 2014); Masterpieces- digital art in Southeast Asia, Samsung art projets (ongoing).
Lenzi is a lecturer in the Asian Art Histories MA programme of Singapore’s LASALLE-Goldsmiths College of Art and publishes regularly in anthologies and periodicals on regional art. She is the editor of several multi-text catalogues and the author of ‘Museums of Southeast Asia’ (2004 & 2005).