2017 saw two major institutional exhibitions of LGBT- and Queer-related art: Queer British Art 1861-1967 at Tate Britain and Spectrosynthesis-Asian LGBTQ Issues and Art Now at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Taipei. Both arguably exchanged a more precise use of each other’s mantles: the former mounted a historical survey of subcultural interests and functioned as representation; while the latter avowed a diverse selection of themes for a broad context (“Asia”) where terms such as LGBT and “queer” remain rhetorically and politically insecure. And thus provocative. Indeed, Queer British Art was one of a number of events organized to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the decriminalization of male homosexuality in the UK, while Taiwan’s recent recognition of a ban on same-sex marriage as unconstitutional was but one touchstone for Spectrosynthesis.
This article considers a range of queer-related contemporary art exhibitions and curated events in Asia–dating from the early 1990s-in relation to examples of LGBT organizing and linked to theorizations of what has been termed Asia’s “disjunctive modernities.” That is, models of modernity that are non-linear and non-teleological. Inquiring into how these curatorial projects may be read in terms of the localized conditions of their production, issues of identity politics per se are examined for distinct queer lineages and contexts. And queer is elaborated as not definitively imbricated with LGBT and an essential politics of recognition, assimilation and rights.
Surely, critically resisting what Ara Wilson has termed an “import-export calculus” for considering Queer Theory and/or ideas of queerness for Asia-or indeed, any site outside “the West”-is by now moot. That is, acknowledging the limitations, distortions and political problems of understanding “queer” in Asia-or the Global South-through a Western-centric lens should be by this point a given. In the first instance, Asia as a subject for queer studies shares a temporal relationship with the emergence of Queer Theory as an academic discipline in North America in the early 1990s. Moreover, certain facts belie the origin of Queer interests in “the West.” Peter A. Jackson, for example, discovered the first public use of the word “gay” in Thailand, in a newspaper, in 1965, before Stonewall and the modern gay liberation movement. Here Jackson identified a local genealogy for the meaning of gay as masculine-identified, thus bucking universalizing assumptions about language and identity.
However, as recently as 2013, Michael O'Rourke called out the dominance and geographic myopia of prominent Anglophone queer theorists. Examining a moment in debates about the possible faltering significance of Queer Theory as an unacknowledged North American concern, O’Rourke highlighted the differential uses of “Queer” internationally, across theory, activism and institutionalization. Such a splintering is testament to Queer Theory’s continuing vitality, and affirms that any implication of its singular significance needs to be guarded against. But how to theorize such multiplicity? Beyond O’Rourke’s speculative call for disciplinary disobedience—a refusal of loyalty to schools of thought—Wilson shaped ideas of critical regionalism, the significance of, for example, intra-Asian networks of exchange that, to paraphrase Dipesh Chakrabarty’s famous term, provincializes the West. Howard Chiang and Alvin K. Wong have brought critical regionalism to bear on queer studies in transnationalism—queers-of-color and queer diaspora critiques—and the intersection of Queer Theory and Asian Studies, arguing for case-studies grounded in locality beyond theoretical speculation about “Queer Asia[n]” in and of itself.
In this article I want to consider a case-study approach to examples of curatorial practices in contemporary art in Asia that allow us insight into the localized contexts and genealogies of “queer.” The title of this article–Between Queer and LGBT-points to the relative instabilities of both terms for the contexts I elaborate; and instability is a productive point of departure for localized genealogies against the pervasiveness of Euro-American theories and paradigms. Moreover, if we can acknowledge that dialogues between Queer Theory and studies in visual and material cultures and art history generally remain under-written and somewhat isolated from the main threads of their respective fields, we have Asia as an important point of departure for theorizations from the interdisciplinary practice entailed, as both visual culture[s] and its mediations can be foregrounded.
The problem of generalizing “Asia” is, of course, acknowledged and the scattered examples of curatorial projects I discuss can lay claim to a speculative inquiry in terms of region; and also an invitation to further research. Following convention from Asian Studies, “Asia” is already acknowledged as fictive, but a fiction with material realities. In this respect, the article grounds my discussion of curatorial endeavours through correspondences with public organizing around LGBT issues, loosely related to “gay pride,” and substantiates the former as, if not always rooted in, profoundly relevant to broad social and political contexts specific to locality and region.
Between Queer and LGBT in Curating Art in Asia
2017 saw two major institutional exhibitions of LGBT- and/or Queer- related art: Queer British Art 1861-1967 at Tate Britain and Spectrosynthesis-Asian LGBTQ Issues and Art Now at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Taipei (fig. 1). The former arguably avows a homonationalism-neoliberal co-optation of the homosexuality-that the latter throws into relief by addressing fractured and uneven interests for Asia. Organized as an anniversary celebration of the partial decriminalization of male homosexuality in England in 1967, Tate Britain presented a matter-of-fact survey that foregrounded mages of queer desire and the human body as subcultural interest; and therefore, as one reviewer remarked, “queer” could have been comfortably exchanged with socially familiar ideas of “gay.” Spectrosynthesis, on the other hand, was a dizzying selection of artworks which explored ideas of identity per se and sometimes unpalatable representations of of queer experience, such as Su Hui-Yu’s hyper-aestheticized video installation that elegiacally re-creates an infamous incident salaciously reported by the Taiwanese press when one participant in a S+M relationship died. Crossing national lines in the choice of artists, an introductory timeline also inserted queer moments in the history of Taiwan into world history. Further, while the country is on path to legalizing same-sex marriage, this liberalism wasn’t exceptionally emphasized amidst the curatorial interests. Provocative and performative, Spectrosynthesis usurped neat categories of “queer” with a refusal to settle on any particular understanding of desire, the body and identity.
While, again, Taiwan is currently the most liberal country in Asia for LGBT rights—witness the current potential for same-sex marriage and a move in 2018 to introduce a third gender on official identification documents—to treat Spectrosynthesis as a symptom of this, in any celebratory way, is to miss a number of points. The comparison with Queer British Art allows for questions of why and when such exhibitions open in major venues, and how ideas of representation dovetail with other functions. MOCA Taipei is a public museum directly under the Department of Cultural Affairs of Taipei City Government but Spectrosynthesis was co-organized with the Sunpride Foundation, a private and grassroots organization that collects LGBT-themed art. The exhibition could not be reduced to tropes of visibility and celebration as it too readily spoke to a fraught contemporaneity: from age-limit restrictions imposed on a couple of video installations to the pan-Chinese selection of artists, including diasporic, which pointed to multiple social and legal contexts. Here the multiple contexts of a “national” identity can only be compared through difference. In this respect, a comparison among the various localities where the artists are based (Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Canada) is suggested but hardly affirmed as questions of ethnicity and national identities come together only to fall apart, so to speak, on the spectrum of critical interests suggested by the artists. These include self-identity and the human body, race and media culture and vernacular aesthetics; all, of course, under the rubric of “queer.”
The multiple interests of Spectrosynthesis is borne out by the different historical contexts of LGBT organizing in Asia and to briefly examine such is to introduce the variety and idiosyncrasies of these organizations; indeed, the very idea of organization and its conditions. Moreover, we can note, further to Simon Soon’s insights on critical regionalism, that variety and idiosyncrasies can index the temporal and geographic as a means of challenging grand narratives, “returning” us to case-studies and recognition of multiplicity and non-coeval parallels.
Visible, self-identified, queer and LGBT cultural organizing in Asia has existed since 1989 with the Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. The Tokyo International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival began in 1992, and more have since followed, including Q! Film Festival in Indonesia in 2002 &Proud Yangon Queer Film Festival in Myanmar in 2014. In 1994 the Philippines and Japan held the first gay pride marches in Asia. In Thailand, marches and festivals were held annually from 1999-2006, with comparable events in Phuket and Pattaya, and an event for 2017 was postponed due to the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej in 2016 and an official year-long mourning period for the nation. South Korea began the annual Korea Queer Culture Festival in 2000, a public march and festival. Cambodia held the first Gay Pride in 2003. Taiwan Pride began in 2003 after a comparable event in 1996 and has become the biggest in East Asia. Vietnam held the first LGBT Viet Pride in 2012.
The temporally and geographically scattered and highly variegated contexts in which these projects occur shape a spectrum of functions: from broad questions of visibility and community, assertions of regionalism and the very idea of “gay Asia” to specific objectives such as commercial party promotion, tourism; contemporaneous political issues, and platforms for art and film. The background contexts of these events are too detailed to examine in depth here but idiosyncrasies would include, for example, that Gay Pride in Cambodia was initially led by the artist Chath Piersath funded by private donations. Taiwan Pride is generally considered the most socially conscious–responding to current issues such as a law on censorship in 2005 with the inclusion of publishers and sex workers, and agitating for equal rights to marriage in 2012—and it has been funded by city government. Thailand’s early event—the Bangkok Gay Festival—were supported by an awkward alliance between businesses and NGOs and included the participation of the sex industry in apolitical terms. And related events include, for example, &Proud’s photography exhibitions that travel across major cities.
To try and trace these events against a “western” narrative of progressive agitation for liberalization and rights is, of course, to miss these variegated contexts. Here, ideas of community are formed by different interests, through different means and in uneven relations to identity politics. Jackson’s insight that the regular, and unpredictable, changes of government in Thailand has encouraged local LGBT groups to lobby for changes in media representation rather than overarching constitutional change is an illustration of this point. Further, practices of “coming out” don’t necessarily apply where queer and LGBT interests more typically negotiate repressive legislation. Here we should also consider the historic absence of prohibitions on same-sex sexuality in certain countries against the particulars of types of legislation they have proposed: from Thailand’s famed “tolerant but unaccepting” attitudes to what has been described as Vietnam’s reification of queer invisibility. Moreover, differential stigma to different identities and variable understandings of relations of gender to sexuality give to meanings and forms of discrimination a variable texture. . This is a straightforward point to make but belies the complexity at stake, for this is where queer curatorial work reveals its significance in allowing considerations of what it means to visibly negotiate localized terms and understandings, without any a priori understanding of identity, its political contexts and its potential ambitions.
The examples sketched above substantiate a context for more recent curatorial endeavours, which remain scattered examples.
A discussion of curatorial work in Singapore, useful in highlighting specific conditions, then allows me to move outwards to other examples of curatorial frameworks that address precisely the variegations of “queer.” Due to space, Singapore is singularly elaborated contextually as a case-study, while my other examples focus on the implications of the curated project in and of itself.
Urban queer culture in Singapore is a case study in what Audrey Lue and Helen Hok-Sze Leung characterize as “disjunctive modernity,” spaces shaped by interlocking and contiguous forces that are non-evolutionary and non-teleological, unlike the archetypal modern “western” city. In this respect, queer culture isn’t, or cannot be, shaped by a progressive logic of recognition and rights through processes of mainstreaming and homonationalism. Male homosexuality is illegal in Singapore, LGBT persons are not protected by anti-discrimination laws and are also governed by heteronormative logic, such that, for example, post-operative transgenders can legally marry the opposite sex. However, the city-state boasts any number of gay venues and, as Yue and Leung trace, government investments in a “creative economy” have inadvertently allowed for representations of homosexuality to circulate. Moreover, the models for gay venues have often been comparable venues in Bangkok, thus further deflecting “western” comparisons for localized contexts.
The artist Loo Zihan’s multi-platform event Cane in Singapore in 2012 can be situated as a response to non-linear and temporal contexts with unpredictable futures, and what Yue and Leung elaborated as an ambivalent and contradictory logic of liberalism and non-liberalism (fig. 2). Zihan re-created the infamous performance Brother Cane by Josef Ng from1994. The title references the national corporal punishment of caning and Brother Cane was conceived in reaction to the police entrapment of gay men in a public cruising area. Ng had cut his pubic hair and presented it to a small audience. The performance proved a scandal in the press and led to a banning of public funding for performance art for ten years as well as provoking a law that requires the prior submission of fixed scripts for approval. Ng himself was banned from performing again in the country.
Zihan’s re-staging engaged different accounts of the original performance , including both media and eyewitness, and he mounted an exhibition where research materials and other artifacts were displayed. The Media Development Authority of Singapore restricted attendance to visitors over the age of 21. Zihan responded by copying the ID cards of all visitors and including them in the display, as well as adding them to the cover of a folio of texts that each received. For Singapore, times may change and move but progressivism cannot be assumed and amidst the censorious climate Zihan visualized evidence of state regulation as critically ambiguous icons of conformity. Thus audiences were invited to ponder what normally functions most effectively when invisible.
Fault-lines: Disparate and Desperate Intimacies at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) Singapore in 2016 was a group exhibition, curated by Wong Binghao, that explored queer diasporic experience and relations of desire to locality, particularly in regard to estrangement and new and alternative forms of kinship. Two sex toys were preemptively removed, before the opening night, from an installation by Zihan entitled Queer Objects: An Archive For The Future. Zihan noted their absence with black vinyl stickers that resembled the shapes of the original items and the incident also prompted the artist to insist on a dialogue about definitions of obscenity under the purview of Singapore’s Penal Code. Like Cane, the explicit recognition of conformity might reveal absurdity, or, at least, allow consideration of the effectiveness of conformity when transgression cannot be fully hidden.
The exhibition, however, explored ideas of space and queer experience across personal, theoretical and interactive contexts and thus the narrating or affirmation of identities was less at issue than a tentative exploration of the forms of distinctly contemporary relationships. The censorship of the representation of certain sexual practices was incorporated into an inevitable consideration of social boundaries between public and private, and of the patina of relationships within contemporary media and technology cultures.
Through these examples, we can note incremental and adaptive curatorial strategies rather than an explicitly oppositional or “liberatory” approach to queer and/or LGBT politics, as Yue and Leung map in other terms, testified to in the diversity of Spectrosynthesis, as well. In acknowledging such, a localized recognition of identity, community, provocation, and the politics of the pursuit of rights comes to light.
The use of “queer” in titles for exhibitions of contemporary or current art in Asia was first deployed as introductory and theoretical, as opposed to directly emerging from LGBT public organizing. Among these exhibitions are Queer Manila, curated by Eva McGovern, and my own Radiation: Art and Queer Ideas from Bangkok and Manila, Un-Compared (fig. 3), both in 2012 at spaces in Manila, with a second version of Radiation subsequently mounted at a university gallery in Bangkok in 2014. Pursuing a theoretical view, loosely reflecting Zihan’s concerns with queer-ing rather than identity politics, the exhibitions included an amorphous array of artists that explored the explosion of strict categories of form, foregrounding a variety of responses and challenges that would demonstrate “queer” as active in twisting forms and highlighting questions of subversion, contradiction, desire and the regulated and/or repressed. The curatorial conceit of “un-comparing” was precisely to challenge academic orthodoxy and allow for multiple points of difference as well as connection while activating the subjectivity of audiences.
The group exhibition In Search of Miss Ruthless, curated by Hera Chan and David Xu Borgonjon, at Para Site in Hong Kong in 2017 was premised on the simultaneous rise of Chinese beauty pageants—diasporic and national—and televisual media in the 1970s, taking the theatrics of pageantry as a departure for considerations of types of identification and what the political significance of the “queen” might mean for queer life. Artists examined ideals of personhood across the specters of both orientalism and Chinese national politics, and the exhibition included archival documents about the media’s framing of beauty pageants, thus surfacing a variety of ideas about class and ethnicity.
The range of exhibits discussed here not only brings us away from “western” perspectives, but also breaks down any essentialist view of “Asia” itself. Exhibitions by the Cambodian artist Lyno Vuth entitled Thoamada and Thoamada II, both at SA SA BASACC in Phnom Penh in 2011 and 2013 respectively, were collaborative projects that explored self-identity and the meanings of community and family. The former was a photographic installation that resulted from a workshop where men who have sex with men discussed and exchanged their experiences; the latter was also photographic portraits, of LGBT families juxtaposed with the recreation of a collective memory.
The title-thoamada-is a Khmer word meaning “normal” or “common.” Thoamada (fig. 4) was curated as a suspended circle of portraits of the men who had been invited to paint their faces with personalized masks and the patterns ranged from nationalist to imaginatively mythological references. Viewers could move between the exterior and the interior of the installation as the men became either objects or subjects of their gaze; and the highly expressive features foregrounded questions of decoding communication and personality in terms of individual experience, rather than the passive attribution of meanings to bodies. That is, an inter-dialogical construction of identity was foregrounded. The family portraits of Thoamada II are curiously unremarkable in their depiction of non-normative identities and also compelling in the evocation of oblique narratives. Given the collaborative, relational means of both projects, we can be reminded of the root of curating in care. And whether “thoamada” or not, the particular stakes in recognition and kinship are acknowledged.
To bring queer-themed curatorial practices in contemporary art to bear on the questions and methods sketched at the beginning of this article is to purse the relevance of such curatorial work to Queer Asian Studies (and vice-versa), extending objects and interests for both avenues of inquiry. This contributes critical terms for the historicizing of LGBT and Queer organizing in Asia through the exploration of questions of local contexts and genealogies, thereby provincializing “western” comparisons, and/or, in the words of Soon, seeking affinities beyond purported national centers. Here again we can note the particular queer interest in the contingent and the temporal, especially in the fractured uses of and between “LGBT” and “queer.”
Curatorial practices must address the complexities of representation within varied legal contexts; the theoretical purchase of “queer” as it is foregrounded as a subject; and accounts of queer relations, kinship and collectivity. In broad terms, exhibitions must explore the contextual vicissitudes of identity, expression, concealment, revelation, experience and memory.
The significance of these examples is not, of course, exclusive to “Asia” nor are they incomparable. But as case studies, they begin to announce interests that account for the promises of “queer” through manifold strictures and toward different horizons, absent the limitations of universalizing tendencies.
Brian Curtin is an Irish-born lecturer, art writer and curator of contemporary art. He is Director of Sàn Art, a non-profit arts platform, in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. Brian also lectures in the Department of Communication Design at the Faculty of Architecture of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand. He publishes on dialogues between contemporary art, Queer theory and studies in visual and material cultures.
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2 Jackson, Peter A. “An American death in Bangkok: The murder of Darrell Berrigan and the hybrid origins of gay identity in 1960s Thailand,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, No. 3, 1999, pp. 361-411.
4 O’Rourke, Michael, preface to Queer Futures: Reconsidering Ethics, Activism and the Political, Ashgate Publishing, Surrey, 2013, n.p. Curtin, Brian. 2015. “But what can ever happen to Queer Theory?: An introduction to ‘Queer theory and visual cultures in Southeast Asia.’” Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context. Accessed 2.1.2018. http://intersections.anu.edu.au/issue38/curtin_intro.html.
8 Soon, Simon. 2016. “Images with bodies: Chiang Mai social installation and the art history of cooperative suffering.” Afterall. Accessed 19.3.2018. https://www.afterall.org/journal/issue.42/images-without-bodies-chiang-mai-social-installation-and-the-art-history-of-cooperative-suffering.
9 Sanders, Douglas. 2009. “Bye bye Bangkok pride.” Fridae. Accessed 3.12.17. http://www.fridae.asia/gay-news/2009/06/22/8499.bye-bye-bangkok-pride.
11 Jackson, Peter A., “Tolerant but Unaccepting: The Myth of a Thai “Gay Paradise” in Peter A. Jackson and Nerida M. Cook eds., Genders and Sexualities in Modern Thailand, Silkworm Books, Chiang Mai, 1999. Nualart, Cristina. “Queer art in Vietnam: From closet to pride in two decades,” Palgrave Communications, April 2016, pp. 1-10.