Curatorial Statement

How does modern art become “contemporary”? This progression might seem to be an effect of art’s globalization, although its causes can be very specific to a given locale. Yet as the modes, concerns, and exchanges of modern art have become increasingly transnational, so has art history had to look beyond national borders, and refocus on artists’ worldly orientations and affiliations.

“Misfits”: Pages from a loose-leaf modernity offers an eccentric view of Southeast Asian modern art and its transversal histories, with the nation no longer the main frame of reference but merely one frame among others. The exhibition brings together three artists working at the fringes of modernism in three discrete contexts, whose local significance is well established but who for various reasons sit uneasily in national historiographies of art.

Many of the world’s leading museums, anxious now to globalize their collections, are poised to embrace such outsiders in the retrospective expansion of the international family of modernism. Such discovery promises to cast new light on them, unconstrained by national biases, and attuned to the murmurs of cosmopolitanism or signs of a supposedly global contemporary. But with limited knowledge of local contexts and limited archival resources, these institutions (and even their local informants) may be hard-pressed to determine what was pivotal or influential in an artist’s oeuvre. From this imperfect vantage, certain forms and narratives will be privileged, while others may be ignored.

This exhibition asks how the practices of three “misfits” might disrupt the dominant genealogies of modern art—formal, institutional, ethno-political, etc—and generate alternative narratives informed by the artists’ attitudes to life and art, and their dialogues with wider publics and a wider culture, unshackled from the social and formal hierarchies of the beaux arts. Taking in a broad range of media including poetry, performance, illustration, comics, film and animation, “Misfits” also challenges and complicates the status of drawing as a “minor” art form.

Each artist’s work reflects a given place and period. It was known and admired, and yet was not exactly “of its time”: the musings of a worldly humanist as Myanmar slid towards authoritarian closure; of an artist-poet embracing Chinese philosophy in the face of Thai chauvinism; of a punk filmmaker who rocked out as Filipinos overthrew tyranny and enshrined democracy as the moral horizon of public life. Embodying a still uncertain agency in national struggles—governed in all three cases by dictatorial regimes—each pivoted toward a new, planetary scenario drawn by Cold War conflict and electronic media, addressing not just the imperial center but other positions in the postcolony. What was at stake in this correspondence, and what can we learn from it?

The three singular careers reveal unexpected resonances, around themes of nature and belief, the body and writing, and the emergent cultures and politics of the satellite age. But their common ground is perhaps more material than topical, for like modern artists in so many places, these figures scarcely made a living from fine art. Through inclusive surveys of their creative output, and detailed conversation with expert researchers, “Misfits” examines what made them marginal, what made them influential, and what makes them relevant today.

David Teh