Words by Alain Zedrick Camiling.
The 8th edition of the Asian Art Biennial (AAB), introducing offline and online programs for diverse publics across regions, returns this year which runs from October 30, 2021 to March 6, 2022 at the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts (NTMoFA)
The biennial is led by a strong curatorial network engaging in prolific gestures and practices comprised of 5 curators from Asia namely Nobuo Takamori (Taiwan), Ho Yu-Kuan (Taiwan), Anushka Rajendran (India), Thanavi Chotpradit (Thailand), and Tessa Maria Guazon (Philippines). Apart from Guazon, three other Filipino artists are included in this iteration such as Catalina Africa, Mark Salvatus, and Alvin Zafra who form part of the 38 artists/artist groups from 15 countries.
The title of the biennial is lifted from Taiwanese architect Da Hong Wang’s English sci-fi novel Phantasmagoria, published in 2013 with a Chinese edition explicating an unworldly life in a distant future. Similarly, the theme sheds light on futurism and science fiction culture across Asia which includes how sci-fi topics and materials have been employed and depicted across modern and contemporary art in Asia. Curators and artists rethink and scrutinize the idea of “Asian Futurism” as they return to their roots.
How do we approach curation and art presentation through large events like biennials during these times when constraints in mobility and modality are ever-present? In AAB, Guazon oversees the biennial’s archival component where accounts and evidence are brought forward as ‘modality for thinking about futurity’ propelling us to reconsider more urgent and potent thinking about the future.
We recently had an opportune engagement through a brief yet insightful and inspiring exchange with Manila-based educator, writer, and curator Tessa Maria Guazon on her involvement at the 2021 Asian Art Biennial and her curatorial practice.
Alain Zedrick Camiling: Foremost, congratulations on AAB! You’ve mentioned that you envisioned the Biennial’s archive as an “enlivening gesture” relating it to “inter-betweenness”. Can you expound on this and share with us your curatorial process for the archival component of the biennale? (e.g. working with and selection of artists, considerations, trajectories, etc.)
Tessa Maria Guazon: I recall mentioning the phrase “enlivening gesture” in the press conference video. Those were very early days of the preparation for the biennial. I wanted to explore the archives through two streams of thought: the archival as a modality in contemporary art and as a mode of thinking about the future. While we often associate the archive with the past, it says much about the future and the attitudes we bring towards it.
I have so far been involved in three exhibitions during the pandemic: the travelling exhibition Notes for Tomorrow organized by the Independent Curators International, the Proto/Para:Rethinking Curatorial Work exhibition at the UP Vargas Museum, and the AsianArt Biennial in Taiwan. The curatorial ideas for all three hinged on the notion of ‘provisionality’ which I think somehow corresponds to this ‘in-betweenness’, a state of being which can also be a condition of the curatorial.
There was very little time to gather all documents I wanted to utilize for the archive section of the biennial, but we had a lot of materials on expositions. I also wanted the archive section to respond to the current political climate in the Philippines; to show what had gone wrong and why we are in this place right now.
Curatorial form is also important and I wanted to show reproductions of the archive materials in a different way – for example, I would show several of them in scrolls weighed down by bricks, overlapped like newspaper. This is challenging because I won’t be installing the exhibition in person. I am grateful to have very efficient and knowledgeable counterparts in Taiwan to render these.
I tend to work with artists I previously worked with, especially if the trajectory of their practice remains interesting to me. What kinds of questions are they asking through art? What materialities are they exploring? What philosophical questions can we both engage in? It is always good to work with artists who take risks, ask intelligent questions, and render ideas proficiently. Of course, the attitudes they bring to the artist-curator dynamic is very important, too. Are they open to a reciprocal exchange of opinions, critique or suggestions, for example? It is important to sustain this creative tension, because curatorial practice is a creative endeavour as well.
Alain Zedrick Camiling: Speaking of working with diverse individuals on various projects and having worked on biennials, both on-site (Philippine Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale 2019) and off-site (2021 AAB), are there any concerns, issues, or constraints that you encounter? How did you overcome these, if any? What is it like working on a big project considering current restrictions on modality and mobility?
Tessa Maria Guazon: Biennial projects are premised on specific frameworks and structures; one works around those parameters. I would say one learns from (instead of ‘overcomes’) these constraints. I was sole curator for the Philippine Pavilion at the Venice Art Biennale in 2019, but I am part of a curatorial team for the Asian Art Biennial. Those are two very different modes of collaborating altogether. Working on the Philippine Pavilion meant working with different teams in Manila and Venice. Working on the Asian Art Biennial meant directly working with museum staff, co-curators, and three artists.
I learned that working across scales and sites is always interesting, as they offer quite different experiences for a curator. The biggest difference now is that I won’t be installing the archive section for the biennial in person, so I have virtually coordinated with counterparts in Taiwan. This allows for many exchanges regarding concepts and ideas, and I did a lot more sketching for the exhibition layout and related specifications. The downside, I guess, is the need to be online quite often. When the pandemic began, I resolved to mute notifications from email or social media (I already deleted Facebook from my smartphone.); I wanted to slow down virtual time and not be part of this frenetic rhythm of overproduction. A practice immersed in long-term projects and ideas is what I am advocating.
Alain Zedrick Camiling: I like how you emphasized differences in terms of collaborative gestures and experiences for both of your recent biennial involvements. You are also Coordinator for Exhibitions and Curatorial Analysis for the Philippine Contemporary Art Network (PCAN), how does this inform your curatorial practice while being an Associate Professor at the University of the Philippines?
Tessa Maria Guazon: My curatorial practice has always been oriented towards research and is informed to a great degree by my teaching and my involvement in the platform Philippine Contemporary Art Network (PCAN). This includes research from when I did fieldwork in Thailand and Indonesia for my Asian Public Intellectuals fellowship and similar residencies and fellowships in Singapore and Japan. More recently, my research project on neighborhoods in Southeast Asia with the International Institute of Asian Studies in Leiden oriented me towards thinking about the collaborative potential of curating itself. I regard the exhibition as a crucial research platform. The exhibition format, the mode of exhibiting, and even the process of presenting propositions through exhibitions, however, are always open to rethinking and restructuring.
Alain Zedrick Camiling: It’s very refreshing to hear about the importance of research in your curatorial practice. I am also particularly curious how the pandemic changed your perception on art, market, and culture relating to your interests on contemporary artistic practices, art and urban development, and art and publics. Can you share with us your thoughts on this?
Tessa Maria Guazon: I take it that the question pertains not only to my perceptions about the art world but also to my practice as well? The pandemic offered this lull, a gap perhaps, a much-needed respite from the overall frenzy of contemporary life. It also allows us to rethink our practices, whether it be writing or curating, and especially more so, thinking. What impact do these practices have on the world around us? Are we cultivating new ways of thinking not only concerning our practices but more importantly, how these practices can be more integral to contemporary life?
Alain Zedrick Camiling: Thank you for indulging us with questions that we can ponder on. I also love that you mentioned about how these trying times serve as opportunity for us to rethink our respective practice. Would you have any advice for aspiring and emerging curators?
Tessa Maria Guazon: Only that we need to reflect on those aspirations periodically, resist the rat race, cultivate our curiosity, and sharpen our thinking. A few months ago, I got hooked on this series that profiled the greatest chefs in the world. Several of them would note a certain rigor, a level of quality to which they aspire – I think we should likewise keep these aspirations close, to keep to heart rigor and quality not just about the work we do, but how we live.