Fellow: Awarded 2013
Field of Study: Theatre Arts
Competition: US & Canada
It has been twenty years since I first traveled to Vietnam for my doctoral dissertation research on the history of Vietnamese painting from 1925 to 1995. Since then, the country has undergone tremendous economic and social changes. Artists have also been affected by these transformations and I have spent the better part of these twenty years trying to account for the contexts in which Vietnamese artists produce art and how their work is seen and exhibited both inside and outside of their country. My research produced a monograph, Painters in Hanoi: An Ethnography of Vietnamese Art, published by University of Hawaii Press in 2004 and reprinted by the University of Singapore Press in 2009, as well as numerous articles and exhibition-catalogue essays.
Since 1997, I have been teaching; first at the National University of Singapore, then at Arizona State University and UCLA before landing my current position at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Teaching art history at an art school has been a career turning point for me. It has allowed me to witness the process of art-making up close. It has also given me the opportunity to work with students from Southeast Asia, who subsequently have become research subjects.
Several years ago, I embarked on a project to research the rise of experimental art in Vietnam, in particular performance artists who seem to challenge the commercial art market’s definition of Vietnamese art. Thanks to my students at SAIC, I have immersed myself in the world of performance art and pursued this line of research further. Triggered by the reperformance of an iconic Singaporean protest performance by a student at SAIC, I have been looking at the ways in which artists in the region use performance as a way of drawing attention to political situations in their country. For my Guggenheim fellowship, I will be looking a performance art practices in Singapore, Vietnam, and Burma as a strategy for survival, not a reaction against mainstream art practices but rather, the only medium possible in environments that are hostile to contemporary art. Specifically, I will be examining performance as narrative and an alternative to official political discourse; performance as event, as time specific punctuations based on oral traditions of transmissions and as a medium for community building. The purpose of this project is not meant to privilege performance art. Rather, it is part of an overall goal to bring Southeast Asian artists into the greater discussion about contemporary art worldwide.