FOR seven decades, the Guggenheim Museum in New York has been a temple for art lovers. But in its vast collection of more than 6,800 artworks, only 12 were from South and South-east Asia. None was from Singapore.
To redress its Western-centric focus, the museum partnered with banking and financial services group UBS to launch the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative in 2012. For five years starting in 2012, it seeks to expand its collection to include works from three territories - South and South-east Asia; Latin America; and Middle East and North Africa.
The curator picked from several candidates to help the museum acquire Asian works was none other than Singapore's June Yap, a familiar face in the local art scene. Yap, 40, was once a curator at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in Singapore, and then the Singapore Art Museum.
In the whirlwind year that was 2012, Ms Yap criss-crossed Asia in search of outstanding contemporary artworks to be acquired by the museum. Some of the well-known Asian artists whose works are now in the Guggenheim permanent collection include Cambodia's Sopheap Pich, India's Sheela Gowda, Myanmar's Aung Myint, and Singapore's Tang Da Wu and Ho Tzu Nyen.
To have one's work acquired by such a respected institution is a mark of distinction for any artist.
Now, an exhibition of the acquired works is set to open next week at the Centre of Contemporary Art in Gillman Barracks, after its debut in the Guggenheim last year and subsequent showing in Hong Kong. Of the 36 works by 27 artists acquired, only 19 works by 16 artists will be shown in Singapore.
Unfortunately, one of the omissions is Singapore artist Ho's video The Cloud of Unknowing, which debuted at the Venice Biennale in 2011. The reason for its absence here - it was shown in New York - is that the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) is showing an edition of the same video work at its current exhibition. Notably, though, SAM's one-channel video work is the smaller version of the four-channel video work that Guggenheim acquired.
Still, the exhibition titled No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia is set to impress viewers with some outstanding pieces that demonstrate the aesthetic developments and subjects of interest to Asian artists, from India to Cambodia to Indonesia. (See story below.)
Acknowledging that no one exhibition can fully speak for an entire Asian region, Ms Yap says: "There is a tremendous diversity of artists and practices in the region - more than a single project can accommodate.
"In fact, I think the variety of art experimentation and the level of art discussion are as rich in Asia as they are in other regions. What's missing here is that we don't have the developed infrastructures and markets, and we don't have the power and influence that others may."
To select less than 30 artists from possibly thousands of deserving ones proved to be a Herculean effort that required countless meetings with Guggenheim's curators. But ultimately, one major consideration for the suitability of any work was its "ability to be meaningful in a way that it can be juxtaposed with other works and in other contexts," says Ms Yap.
"We looked for artists who were significant in the sense that you can understand how artistic practices evolved through their works."
That said, many pieces in the exhibition could be said to be less experiments with artistic forms than work that speaks specifically about the cultures from which they come.
Paradoxically, Ms Yap had given the exhibition title No Country - a nod to WB Yeats' poem Sailing To Byzantium - to emphasise the need for the viewer to "look beyond national boundaries, and not use borders as a reference point to thinking about art. The historical narrative of South and South-east Asia, after all, stretches from the era of its ancient kingdoms and empires, before the creation of nation states and national boundaries."
One of the most memorable works of the exhibition, for instance, is a huge 7m-long Bollywood-style billboard poster titled Places of Rebirth. It is painted by Thai artist Navin Rawanchaikul whose family were originally Indians but were forced to seek refuge in Thailand during the violent partition of South Asian in 1947. The painting's visual narration of his family's migration from one country to another is, in a way, emblematic of No Country's attempt to question the privileging of nation and national narrative as a basis for understanding the world.
UBS's Edmund Koh, who is the Singapore Country Head and CEO of UBS Wealth Management, South East Asia and Asia Pacific Hub, says: "UBS is increasingly committed to supporting contemporary art in Asia. At least 40 per cent of the annual acquisition budget for the UBS Art Collection is currently dedicated to the region. We believe that this (collaboration with Guggenheim) offers UBS an opportunity to gain insights into these regions in a more holistic way."
Meanwhile, the Guggenheim says it remains committed to expanding its Asian art collection. Dr Alexandra Munroe, Guggenheim's first senior curator of Asian Art, says: "(We've) had a 40-year history of engagement with Asia and we were the first modern and contemporary art museum in the West to establish a curatorial programme of Asian art with my appointment in 2006... We recently launched the Robert HN Ho Family Foundation Chinese Art Initiative to make possible the commissioning of new work by Chinese artists, which will enter the permanent collection."
No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia opens 10 at the CCA (Centre for Contemporary Art, Singapore) in Gillman Barracks and will run till July 20