What do we make of exhibitions in a period of absence and emergency? ‘They Do Not Understand Each Other’ seeks to understand differences and commutability of culture observed in art

Interview by sand magazine  
2 August 2020

They Do Not Understand Each Other is an exhibition curated by Yuka Uematsu (The National Museum of Art, Osaka) and Dr June Yap (Singapore Art Museum). The works, shown at Tai Kwun Contemporary in Hong Kong, are connected visually and conceptually from the curators’ standpoint. The international exchange builds on narratives surrounding the social life, community and ideology.

The exhibition is held in a period where absence permeates through our inability to organise, work and get together. While virtual exhibitions seem to celebrate the adaptability of practitioners and institutions to digital spaces, surely such practices have shifted internal frameworks and operations of curation, exhibition design and set up.

In recent times, absence plays out in global art industries through the visibility of systemic injustices – where art institutions now face stronger scrutiny over gaps in ethics and accountability. Putting up an exhibition that cites cultural representation and exchange in this period can be daunting, and we wonder how the National Museum of Art, Osaka (NMAO) and Singapore Art Museum (SAM) see their joint partnership upholding these cultural responsibilities. In this interview, Dr June Yap discusses curatorial standpoints and how she observes cultures communing.

Editor’s Note:
The works (most of them created from an earlier period) that stood out in terms of delivering further thought on the commutability of cultures and identities amid power structures include: Tsubasa Kato’s They Do Not Understand Each Other (which the exhibition is named after), Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba’s Memorial Project Nha Trang, Vietnam: Towards the Complex—For the Courageous, the Curious and the Cowards, Sojung Jun’s A Day of a Tailor and Agnes Arellano’s Haliya Bathing. The exhibition guidebook can be found here

In your exhibition introduction co-written with Yuka Uematsu, the term ‘culture’ is mentioned in varied ways. What aspects of culture you were reflecting upon while co-curating the exhibition?

Culture – as noted within the exhibition text – encompasses broader custom and popular culture, as well as the culture that we observe through art. In curating the show, we considered these definitions which we feel are also represented within the artworks. Such as the cultural and social nuances in language in Ming Wong’s In Love for the Mood; the mythological and symbolic in Agnes Arellano’s Haliya Bathing; to the act of oral tradition in the story-telling of Heman Chong’s A Short, Performing, Story. At the same time, these artworks have their own aesthetic commentary: the witty recursive re-enactment, drawing attention to female and feminine representation, and the challenge of committing to aesthetic engagement, respectively.

Ming Wong, In Love for the Mood, 2009, Collection of Singapore Art Museum. Image courtesy of the artist

Agnes Arellano, Haliya Bathing, 1983, Collection of Singapore Art Museum. Image courtesy of Singapore Art Museum

The ‘commutability of culture’ was mentioned in the same text. What forms of dialogue and reflections were you hoping to motivate with relevance to shifting identities and occurrences – in the context of a world that’s facing a global pandemic and multiple crises at the same time? The exhibition seems to build on an absence of dialogue, too.

Commutability, that is most directly observed in linguistic translation, is certainly observed in art, through artistic influence and appreciation. What is perhaps exceptional during this time is how we are so connected, albeit mostly via technology, which has allowed us to share our experiences to others across the globe with such immediacy. The exhibition speaks to this propensity to communicate and express ourselves, and how, in doing so, we affect and become imbricated in each others’ experiences.

As you’ve noted, the ‘absence’ of dialogue is, via the works, clearly not the case though. Perhaps what is absent is listening. In this sense, the artworks act to mediate and prompt such understanding. The absence of communication within the title comes from the work by Tsubasa Kato, in reference to a lack of dialogue between nations that prompted the making of his artwork. Though, clearly, in Kato’s work, in the end, understanding is in fact reached, in spite of perceived obstacles.

What else informed the curation of artists and artworks?

Installation view of They Do Not Understand Each Other. Images courtesy of Tai Kwun Contemporary. 
View the virtual exhibition here

The open and generative conversations Yuka and I had also informed the exhibition’s curation. We went through a long list of artists and artworks, slowly whittling down and refining the selection over numerous conversations, and coming to a shared understanding of views and the others’ collections.

What considerations came to mind in the making of a cross-geographical institutional partnership leading up to the showing of They Do Not Understand Each Other? What dialogues between the curators, artists and organisers struck you during the process?

I think what interested Yuka and I was not approaching the exhibition as a confrontation of two collections, each trying to exert itself relative to the other. Instead, we were interested in how the two collections can be seen to dialogue – through similarities and in extending the interests and histories of each other.

Tsubasa Kato, They Do Not Understand Each Other, 2014. Collection of the National Museum of Art, Osaka. Photo/ Keiichi Sakakura

Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba, Memorial Project Nha Trang, Vietnam: Towards the Complex—For the Courageous, the Curious and the Cowards, 2001, Single-channel video, 13′, Collection of Singapore Art Museum

How do you think identities commune with one another? What are their social relations dependent upon?

In the context of aesthetic practice, its presentation and interpretation, representation becomes necessarily social, with opportunities for surprise, learning and reflection. In this sense, the communion occurs at both personal and at collective levels.

Speaking of interactions between cultures and identities, do you see art engagement within the institution as a productive ground for these exchanges? Are there particular challenges in organising dialogues for wider groups of audiences?

The institutional setting concentrates productive exchange and understanding, but such exchange and understanding continues in other spheres of life and activity too. The advantage of the arts is that it does not discriminate; one can enjoy at one’s level of knowledge and familiarity, with these also increasing with time.

Dr June Yap is Director of Curatorial, Collections and Programmes at the Singapore Art Museum, where she oversees content creation and museum programming.

Her prior roles include Guggenheim UBS MAP Curator (South and Southeast Asia), Deputy Director and Curator at the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, and curator at the Singapore Art Museum.

Amongst exhibitions she has curated are No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia as part of the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative, The Cloud of Unknowing at the 54th Venice Biennale with artist Ho Tzu Nyen, The Future of Exhibition: It Feels Like I’ve Been Here Before at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (Singapore), Paradise is Elsewhere at Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen (Germany), media art exhibitions Interrupt and Twilight Tomorrow at the Singapore Art Museum. She is the author of Retrospective: A Historiographical Aesthetic in Contemporary Singapore and Malaysia (2016).

© 2020 sand magazine and the author