April 5, 2008

Lee Weng Chat

Administrator’s Note: Singapore art critic Lee Weng Choy recently engaged in an on-line chat with my 'Postconceptualism' class about his essay, “Authenticity, Reflexivity and Spectacle or, the Rise of New Asia is not the End of the World”. This is my edit of our text-only discussion (thanks to Brock Boyts for technical assistance and his iChat transcription) with two brief bracketed interruptions for clarification. I especially want to thank Weng for waking up at 5AM to talk with us.

Weng: So, shall we start with a question?

Corey Cochran: I am most interested in the idea of Singapore as an entity and its cultural philosophy about art history/history itself. The complication of the philosophies “the best of the East and West” versus “Asian essentialism” are of particular interest. Yet, ironically I feel the disconnection of these ideas is irrelevant in today’s times. I question the need for the separation of the two. In today’s modern art market and current trends, art institutions such as art fairs and international biennials disprove the need for this division in thought. In addition, technologies, such as the Internet have all expanded the cultural boundaries of our nations and cities; therefore our understanding /influences of different environments has emerged to an all time high. To me, I see the important signifier of Singapore art as a reflection of the location itself, focusing on the economical, historical, social ideas, etc. relevant to exclusively Singapore are its distinguishing qualifiers despite the style in which art appropriates. That is it for now at least, sorry for the large amount of text

Weng: The idea of Singapore ... I need to qualify what I mean by this. You raise many issues. Let me see how I can tackle your multi-part question. You raise questions of difference, distance and identity. And also connectivity. Perhaps I can start by addressing “distance.” Let me respond by telling an anecdote, which is a detour. I was recently at a conference in Mexico. I don't speak Spanish, but was participating in workshops that were held in Spanish, and for some reason, my high school Spanish didn't entirely fail me, and I could follow the discussions. So when it was my turn to speak, I said that, on the surface of things, it would seem that what was an obvious sign of difference in the room was my person. I had traveled from half way around the world, I did not speak Spanish, and I am an Asian. But of course, my presence in the workshop also signified that the most interesting distances in the room were not the largest ones. Or, that the most interesting differences where not the most obvious ones of Asian versus Mexican. Rather, it was the distances represented by the diversity of Mexican participants that were most interesting. And my role as an outsider was perhaps to regularly interject in the discussions to facilitate the recognition of those distances and differences. So I didn't see my role as speaking FROM Asia, so much as, because I was from Asia, I was in a certain place to speak about difference at a theoretical level. So, to get back to my use of Singapore in the essay. I was addressing Singapore specifically. But I was also using Singapore as a symptom of many global desires.

Rachel Fick: What kind of global desires? Can you give examples? Or clarify?

Weng: Yes, what I mean is that while I don't tackle the question of the biennale directly -- at least not in that essay -- I do imply that it's problematic to desire art from a place to represent that place. Let me explain. I discuss Ong Keng Sen's production of Lear. Singapore wants to represent Asia to the world. Singapore sees itself as this agent of both bringing the "West" to the "East", and bridging/bringing the "East" to the "West". Now, on the one hand, that's what we all want to do. To bridge difference.

Brock Boyts: Are we speaking in terms of art or globally?

Weng: For me, as an art critic, what I want to do is speak TO art. That entails listening TO it in the first place, but then trying to speak TO it. The work of writing is an attempt to bridge. That's what's entailed in the preposition TO.

MCB: Do you mean speaking of art theoretically?

Weng: I mean both in the specific instance, and in the general. So in writing about a particular work, say, by Amanda Heng. I want to speak TO that work. But also in speaking to any single work, one also speaks to art discourses and histories. To Art, with the capital A. But let me continue with a point I was trying to make ... (but may have forgotten). Where was I ... ah yes ... However, what institutions like the Singapore government, or if one judges biennales and art fairs rather critically, then these institutions take this genuine desire to bridge, and turn it into spectacle. What I was trying to discuss what the spectacularization of art, difference, identity the biennale system, as a spectacle, takes social, cultural difference, and makes it into image for global consumption. Art from Singapore is desired as a sign of Singapore, a sign of difference (and in Singapore's case specifically, it's different, somewhat exotic, but also comfortably familiar.) Singapore is modern, but “Asian.” Now, I don't what to just diss biennales.

MCB: On page 249, you say what is most revealing about “New Asia” is that it “exhibits no indebtedness to history, no commitment to the task of critically reworking inheritances, but is content to authenticate itself through its own spectacular reflection.” How can Singapore avoid a “spectacular reflection” of itself in the 21st Century?

Weng: Yes, I was talking about Ong's production of Lear as emblematic of a larger Singapore desire (and by 'Singapore,' not just the State, but also a prevailing cultural sensibility). Well, I don't think art can save the world. (laughs) But I do want to offer, very modestly, other stories.

ALL: Please! Please do!

Weng: It's a certain attention to these other stories that helps us not lapse into the knee-jerk reflex of always reducing the complexity of the world this self authentication through spectacular reflection is a smugness. It's the images of Asia like those I mentioned in the beginning of the essay, from the Channel News Asia advertisements news by Asians for Asians but of course Asia is very hard to pin down, there isn't just one Asia, but many Asias and sometimes it's easier for a person in India to relate to, say, the US, than for that person to relate to China. But this self-authentication of Asia as a unity, wants to per formatively assume that Asia is much more consistent internally. The anecdote -- whether told about art, or culture -- is an attempt to tell stories with some resistance to these grand “narrativizing” tendencies that project such internal consistencies. Not sure how much sense I'm making, but shall we move to another question?

[In this essay, Weng had begun his “critique of the spectacle” by quoting Debord: “The spectacle, being the reigning social organization of a paralyzed history, of a paralyzed memory . . . is in effect a false consciousness of time.”(1) Weng suggests that Singapore’s epistemic condition manifests an “eternal” present that envisions itself (architecture, media, art) as “history’s last word.”]

MCB: On page 246 you say that Singapore “exemplifies the spectacle.” Debord suggests that art becomes another facet of the spectacle, whose function is “to bury history in culture.” If Singapore’s epistemic condition manifests an “eternal” present that envisions itself (architecture, media, art) as “history’s last word” can it also “bury history in culture?”

Weng: History's last word is always a spectacular image (reduction) of history as complex process of loose ends that can't be neatly tied. So to assume to speak history's last word, is to reduce history to that image. The image of choice is a fetish: cultural identity, for global consumption. The beat-up on the biennale system a little bit more. So what you get at these spectacular shows is a parade of cultural differences. But it's not as if these events are really intended to generate in their audiences a profound engagement with the complexities of the diverse contexts and histories of the art on display. Rather, it's as if we're at this great supermarket.

Brock: What are your thoughts on Japan in relation to Hong Kong looking at South East Asia?

Weng: Okay. Japan, HK, and SEA. There's this intense consumption of J-culture in HK and Taiwan and Korea. SEA to a lesser extent is getting into J-pop and so on. That's on the pop culture front. On the art and history front, Japan like China, doesn't really see itself as part of Asia … and least not in the same way as smaller places like Singapore, Malaysia, need to feel part of Asia. HK is interesting, because in many ways it's a very Cantonese society, even though it's also very cosmopolitan and international, and outward looking (both to the West, and to China).

[In his essay, Weng introduces the idea of “anecdote” as an alternative to the traditional conception of history as a “narrative” based on progress, an position elaborated on by Michel Foucault, among others. Amazingly, Walter Benjamin foresaw this as early as the mid-1930s and Weng quotes from Benjamin’s unfinished 'Arcades Project': “Anecdote represents the extreme opposite of history – which demands an ‘empathy’ that renders everything abstract. Empathy amounts to the same thing as reading newspapers. The true method of making things present is: to imagine them in our space (and not to imagine ourselves in their space).”(2) In contradistinction, Weng elaborates on Benjamin’s critique of the “prevailing view of history … a cumulative and progressive narrative, where time flows continuously from past to future.”(3)]

MCB: On page 243 you wrote: “To empathize, that is, to imagine ourselves in an Other’s space, is, at some level, to colonize that other space."(4) Regardless of the disqualifying “at some level,” are you saying that empathy is a form of power? As in, “I empathize with you in order to colonize/control you.”

Weng: I think Benjamin wants to remind us that a certain form of empathy is about assuming the other's place. As if I recognize you, and I have a power to say that I feel your pain. But rather than assuming I can speak for the other, I have to accept a radical difference. I have to open myself to the other, and let the other inhabit my space.

MCB: “In a perfect world.”

Weng: Yeah, where we can all hold hands and levitate the pentagon.


1. Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle, New York, 1994, 114.

2. Walter Benjamin, quoted in Richard Sieburth, “Benjamin the Scrivener,” in Benjamin: Philosophy, Aesthetics, History, (Gary Smith, ed.), Chicago, 1989, 23. See also Joel Fineman’s “The History of the Anecdote: Fiction and Fiction,” in The New Historicism (H. Aram Vesser, ed.), New York, 1989, 57-61.

3. Lee, Weng Choy. “Authenticity, Reflexivity and Spectacle or, the Rise of New Asia is not the End of the World,” Theory in Contemporary Art since 1985, Oxford, 2005, 243.

4. Ibid., 243.

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