Interview June Yap: On Guggenheim's No Country exhibition

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As the Guggenheim’s No Country exhibition arrives in South-East Asia, Gwen Pew talks to its Singaporean curator June Yap

First published on 6 May 2014.

When June Yap was selected by a committee of experts at New York’s Guggenheim Museum to be the curator of their first UBS MAP Global Art Initiative exhibition, No Country, she was handed an enormous task. Not only would the chosen works be displayed in three different cities – New York, Hong Kong and Singapore – but they would also be introduced to the museum’s permanent collection. ‘When I considered the artworks, I wasn’t just looking at whether they work well with each other in a single exhibition, or just what is most trendy,’ says Yap, who is locally born, bred and based. ‘They have to have a life beyond the exhibition and possess a weight and significance that fits into a broader art history.’

Named after a line in WB Yeats’ poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, No Country is a five-year project that will be divided into three parts, each focussing on a different geographical region. With her wealth of experience in dealing with South and South-East Asian art, having worked at esteemed local institutions such as the Singapore Art Museum and the Institute of Contemporary Art for many years prior to becoming a freelance curator in 2008, Yap is the perfect candidate for the first edition of the series, which is centred on this part of the world. She’s always been fascinated with the region simply because ‘there are lots going on that we still don’t know, and there’s still so much to learn,’ she tells us. ‘The art world tends to gravitate towards certain centres, but there are always peripheral places that get missed out, and that is unfortunate.’

At the same time, many people do tend to have specific preconceptions about Asia, which is something Yap was very conscious of, particularly when considering some of her New York audiences who would first see the show. ‘I didn’t want people to go into the show and immediately say, “Oh that’s Asia”,’ she says, explaining why she went to great pains to ensure that the selected works did not confirm to any stereotypes or presumptions.

The exhibition was put together after three months of country-hopping and speaking with artists Yap had previously worked with as well as ones who she’s so far only admired from a distance. The final tally comes to 40 works by 27 artists, comprising a variety of media, from paintings and sculptures to videos and photographs that were all created between 1994 and 2012. After first opening at the New York Guggenheim in 2012 and showing in Hong Kong’s The Asia Society last October, 19 pieces by 16 artists from the show will be arriving in Singapore this month.

Of course, with the shift in the works’ context from a representation of Asia in the West to them being shown in their native region – which Yap views as a home-coming of sorts – comes a change in audiences as well. Although she acknowledges that many people in Singapore have yet to make gallery-going a regular activity, Yap has faith that the collection of works in No Country will be able to pique the public’s interest.

‘Love Bed’ by Indian artist Tayeba Begum Lipi, a double bed made out of razorblades, which is a brilliantly eye-catching piece that hints at the idea of domestic violence. Vietnamese- American Tuan Andrew Nguyen’s ‘Enemy’s Enemy: Monument to a Monument’ – a baseball bat beautifully carved with a monument to Thich Quanc Duc, a monk who immolated himself in 1963 in protest against the Diem regime – encompasses both the artist’s dual identity and a wonderful juxtaposition between violence and serenity.

It’s been two years since Yap first selected the works, but she’s clearly still infatuated with them. ‘I’m still amazed when I look at them, and I still want to touch some of those pieces!’ she laughs. ‘Revisiting them is like re-reading a good book. They’re familiar, and yet I’m still finding new things about them.’ At the time of print, she is working with the team at the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) at Gillman Barracks to install the show, but also to put together a programme of guided tours, artists’ talks and screenings for the public to learn more about the works.

‘I don’t think one should judge how successful a country’s art scene is by the number of people going to the museums, but rather by asking whether or not they are producing exciting works that make people want to come in and see and find out about them,’ says Yap. ‘I believe that it’s about finding that personal experience with the art, and to encourage them to continue and be unafraid [to question their meanings].’ The rest, she insists, will follow.

No Country – Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia is at the Centre for Contemporary Art from 8 May-20 Jul.

By Gwen Pew
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