The Preter-National: The Southeast Asian Contemporary and What Haunts It
Southeast Asian modern art has thus far been historicized largely within national historical frameworks. The region’s contemporary art has been pulled, sometimes unwillingly, into those national frameworks, even as it enters a global market and takes part in a more transnational dialogue. What is the geography proper to contemporary art? And what insights might a regional perspective afford about art that speaks to a world beyond the nation, but resists outright assimilation under the rubric of ‘the global’? This essay proposes a calibration of three art historical frames – national, regional and international. I argue that far from meaning transcendence of national frames, even where artists intend it, contemporaneity compounds and complicates them. I examine two specific manifestations of contemporaneity, one that emerged at the height of the Cold War in the work of a Sino-Thai modernist, Chang Sae-tang; the other in the broaching of Cold War trauma in art and film of the ‘post-historical’ twenty-first century. Neither ‘contemporary’ can be understood without its respective national framing, but that framing alone proves inadequate for describing the complex histories, subjectivities, and formal choices with which Southeast Asian artists have grappled. If studies of modern art demanded recourse to specific national histories, the study of contemporary art will require no less specific histories of the international.
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