A Wider Search, a Closer Look

Pauline J. Yao (Lead Curator, Visual Art) and Shirley Surya (Associate Curator, Design and Architecture)

Looking at a specific region can unearth under-represented histories and cultural expressions, while expanding our appreciation of who and how we are in relation to the world. This is at the heart of M+’s work, as the museum continually looks for ways to uncover aspects of Asia in a transnational framework, through the building of its collections and the development of exhibitions. Considering multiple and layered conditions of place, In Search of Southeast Asia through the M+ Collections frames a selection of works that at once reinforces Southeast Asia as a specific and accepted geographical entity—south of China and east of India—and complicates this geography, which was derived from a political construct.

Reflecting on his film RIAU, Zai Kuning takes care to point out that the orang laut (‘sea people’, in Malay) never actually refer to themselves as orang laut. This term was imposed on them by outsiders, tainted with complex notions of difference and otherness. There is some resonance here with Southeast Asia, a politically fraught term with origins outside the region that is used to refer to a group of territorial nations on the Indochinese and Malay peninsulas as well as the islands of Borneo, Indonesia, and the Philippines. These nations attained independence from colonial powers beginning in the mid-1950s, and the establishment of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) in 1967 further solidified relationships within the region, which is increasingly positioned as a unified entity.

While the region does have topographic, climatic, political, linguistic, and religious affinities, the sheer diversity of its cultural contexts thwarts any assertion of a uniform identity or unifying history contained by a consistent border. The nations’ geographical proximity produces multiple histories, overlapping beliefs, and intertwined future trajectories that have yielded a deeply heterogeneous set of artistic expressions. The exhibition therefore takes a deliberately interdisciplinary approach to represent the multiplicities of this region through three organising themes.

These themes emerged from accidental affinities and overlaps between works of visual art, design and architecture, and moving image from the M+ Collections, representing practices from, and outside, Southeast Asia from the 1930s to the present. ‘Conditions of Place’ looks at the investigations, reflections, and solutions that artists, designers, and architects develop in response to local and regional specificities of climate, materiality, street culture, everyday archetypes, origins, and histories. ‘States and Powers’ presents works that reveal how power—exercised through colonial imperialism, nation-building efforts, and contemporary statecraft—can both invigorate and limit cultural expression. ‘Transnational Flows’ features works that both embrace and critique the global flows of people and ideas within and beyond the region. The exhibition’s emphasis on specificities as well as fluidity addresses the layered character of Southeast Asia, and it also represents M+’s commitment to visual culture as a methodology by developing perspectives and positions derived from various disciplines.

M+ has been building its collections since 2012 and has included works from Southeast Asia since 2014. However, this exhibition marks the first opportunity to exercise an interdisciplinary interpretive framework by placing the works of artists, designers, and architects from this region in conversation. M+ collected the work of designers and architects that represents specific responses to local and regional specificities in Southeast Asia, particularly in the area of design for the tropics. The acquisition of archives, particularly those that document the role of architecture during the heroic period of postcolonial nation building, has been a priority in highlighting the work of regionally significant, but globally under-represented, architectural practices. The acquisition of works by contemporary Southeast Asian artists has evolved naturally, in step with M+’s practice of acquiring work by established and mid-career artists from around Asia. The selection of visual art comes from a desire not to narrate a comprehensive story of Southeast Asia, but to weave aspects of this region into the narratives the museum is building through other works in the collections, which relate to Hong Kong, East Asia, and the rest of the world.

What is to be gained from this exhibition, when the term Southeast Asia points only to shared geographic coordinates and political ties, rather than to common cultural traits? What are we searching for across a region rich with radically different ethnicities, languages, religions, and cultures? By presenting artworks, design objects, and archival documentation that reveal how architects, designers, artists, and filmmakers respond to their local, national, and global contexts, we reveal individual perspectives, isolated moments, and microhistories that can articulate multiple readings. We hope this first presentation of works from, and about, Southeast Asia through the M+ Collections will trigger new ways of looking closer and more expansively across disciplines and geographies. It also presents an opportunity to expand our cultural imagination of Hong Kong in relation to a wider world beyond China and East Asia, to a region whose histories and current state of affairs are deeply intertwined with Hong Kong.