Monday, February 6, 2012

Conversations of Cities: Manila by Riel Hilario

Three Ships
Irma Lacorte, 2010
A few years ago in Jakarta, I was part of a panel of young curators from Europe and Asia and we had just concluded a week of exchanges on what we perceived were critical and key issues of contemporary art in our respective regions. But after a public presentation of our conclusions (and prescriptions) to an audience of Indonesian artists and curators, our European counterparts were confused when no one asked any questions, no one opposed our views and no one raised their hands for clarification. Yet during the cocktails, artists and writers sought after each one of us to present their reactions in private, often between snatches of clubhouse, sips of wine or beer and even an occasional puff from another “social lubricant”. It was then that I understood the normative habits of most Asian cultures favouring small talk as the most polite vehicle of discourse. Not that there is an incapacity for public discussion but the exchange of information and ideas seem to be more preferred in this part of the world. A Korean curator called this “the preference for tactile contact of discourse.” It seems that keeping the conversation within a tighter circle make ideas seem more  palpable, and more personal. Therefore, more real.

Folding Hongkong
Esther Yip Lai Man, 2010
I often thought that this idiosyncrasy of discursive structure is due to the tendencies of Asian artists to be more concerned with sharing experiences and insights, rather than with theory or manifestos. As such this leads to occasions when artists gather in groups because of common empathy rather than common ideology, or aesthetics. Relationships between Asian artists are more bound through shared experiences rather than shared politics. Therefore in gathering artists from Asia whose practices are grounded in different loci there is always an initial movement in searching for something common, something shared, something familiar, something similar and something intimate, personal, small enough, to be seen in close proximity.

Small Talk: Conversation of Cities is not just a themed exhibition with participating artists from Bangkok, Hongkong, Singapore and Manila, it is first and foremost an inquiry: How does contemporary urban life compare from one city to another? What aspects of the contemporary do we re-cognize in each city? The target artists therefore must have experience in transcience and mobility, a symptom of the contemporary Asian artist’s practice.

The goal of the project goes beyond a catalogue of comparison to create groundwork for critical stances on contemporary life and culture in the region. It is to create a field of creative thought where urban blight in Manila can be fully understood as the filter of its blood-red sunsets; or where the cosmopolitan edge of Singapore is but the vessel of its openness to all denizens; or where HongKong is seen as an example of contemporary urbanity that keeps in touch with heritage and where Bangkok is discovered as a region of plenitude, and as a nexus for travellers that does not exhaust the senses nor the travel fund. Or it can be a venue to air out grievances and bad memories: of lousy accommodations and cheating taxicab drivers; of lost luggage and bad bargains; of horrid humidity and fretful thunderstorms; of deadlock traffic jams and late-night revelry and its attendant hang-over; greasy bar tops, dark alleyways and difficult concierge services, connecting flights...
Come out and Play & I saw you Sing
Joo Choon Lin, 2009/2011 

Whatever the subject, a conversation in this structure can go on as long as the beer holds its dew. Small Talk is but an entry point to a promising variety of dialogue, where the works are equally provocative to other trajectories of thought. Like an urban traffic of creative projections, we revel: the smell of diesel fumes on our clothes, wafts of roast, chilli and curry, to the saccharine textures of a stretch of highways, the cold concrete greys of our alleyways and the circus primaries of our local politics. We swap stories of our everyday lives. riel hilario