An arts and cultural leader, curator and festival programmer, Boon Hui Tan has come a long way from his early position as an editor at a book publisher in Singapore to heading an esteemed Asian art institution in New York. After playing a major role in the development of the contemporary art scene in Singapore, Tan was named the Vice President of Global Arts & Cultural Programs and Director of the Asia Society Museum in 2015. Since that time he has been evaluating the museum’s mission and collection while charting the next course for its cultural programming. Clear on the new direction, he recently met with artBahrain contributing editor Paul Laster to discuss the experiences that got him to where he is today and his plans for the future of the institution he now leads.
How did your experiences in Singapore prepare you for your current position at Asia Society?
A lot of what I did in Singapore was about rebuilding. When I came to the museum it had already been there for 13 years. How do you restart it? Asia Society has 60 years of tradition, but I bring my experience of working across all disciplines. I want to create a program that is truly multidisciplinary, which really follows the line of investigation of today’s Asian artists. I’m interested in artists who want to take creativity to new places, to rub against the institutional boundary. I want to establish a place—as far as the art and culture are concerned—for institutional critique, of challenging the white cube.
Now that you’ve been in the job for 16 months and had the opportunity to study Asia Society’s history and the museum’s collection, how do you think the institution has evolved since John D. Rockefeller 3rd first founded it in 1956?
As far as Asia goes, this has always been a visionary institution. Regarding Asian art and culture, it has a tradition of entering where angels fear to tread. When it presented “Inside Out: New Chinese Art” no one anticipated that these artists waould become so big and important. And with “Edge of Desire: Recent Art in India” it was the first time we had seen Indian contemporary art in such a thoughtful configuration. Contemporary Asian art as a critical tool, in which the artists of Asia interrogate and try to make sense of what’s happening in the rapidly changing world around them, continues and it’s our strength.
I want to focus on contemporary Asian art that’s up there in the thick of things, where artists are trying to make sense of the changes that are happening in their societies. I’m not interested in projects like “Surrealism in Asia,” or such formalistic concerns. I’m more interested in the current moment and the role of artists in society—how that is impinging upon artistic thinking and how the artists as citizens, residents or cultural participants are reacting to their situation. What the biennials have shown is that contemporary art is a tool for thinking through the complexities of the day. I think that’s what contemporary art in biennials has really brought to the fore. It’s not just something that you admire in a white box; it’s something that’s about something out there. Artists are trying to disentangle it and say look at this—it’s important; I don’t have the answer, but look at it.
One of the current shows at the museum is “Masterpieces from the Asia Society Museum Collection.” What is the range of art in the museum’s collection that came from the bequest of Rockefeller and his wife, Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller?
It’s mostly traditional Asian art—pre-modern material. There’s a focus on three-dimensional work—ceramics and metal sculptures. There’s very little painting and calligraphy. The range was a little tight; it didn’t have Middle Eastern work. However, after that initial bequest the curators and directors before me tried to round out the collection. Before I arrived, in the late-2000s, the museum also started a collection of contemporary Asian video. We have a contemporary collection. So now we are looking at the 2.0—after the video collection, what is there to do? With that in mind, we are interested in the future of Asia through its art. It can be new mediums or something that is inherited, with a fresh point of view—for example, the interest in contemporary ink works now. The Chinese are trying to recover this centuries old legacy—trying to discover what ink can say now.
How difficult would it be to assemble a collection of this calibre today?
For the traditional material, the time is over. It’s not only the lack of available supplies; the ways to track provenance is much more difficult now. There is more breathing space when it comes to modern and contemporary work. T=here are only five museums in New York that have—more or less—permanent displays of Asian art. It’s the Met, The Rubin, Japan Society, China Institute and Asia Society. Of course, the Brooklyn Museum has a collection, but its galleries have been down for a long time. It’s not that many for a city of this size and certainly not many for the most globalized city in the United States—especially when one considers the diversity of the city’s population.
Does the museum collect any contemporary work in depth?
Video and photography have been widely collected, but we are not an encyclopaedic museum. We don’t collect to archive or store. We collect to tell the story of Asia and connections between our cultures. One of the main things that art must do is to fight and resist the silo mentality—this idea that there’s a kind of linear development that has no relationship to what’s going on outside of its container.
Because we collect to show, we want to keep our collection small, but very tight and focused. Because of the legacy of the Rockefeller Collection—even in the contemporary—we try to maintain our focus on collecting sublime masterpieces. We want the pieces that move us. For example, in the video collection we have the entire set of Yang Fudong’s “Five Films,” which are extraordinarily beautiful.
What have you been able to accomplish in the almost year-and-a-half that you’ve been at Asia Society?
Most importantly, we have decided on a direction. It really starts from there. As I said, we are not an encyclopaedic museum. We are an institution that looks at the arts across the genres and at how they are connecting. At this present moment, we are interested in using the arts as a way to create empathy for the other—and I really use the words “the other” because we are in that kind of age and I feel strongly that it’s the role of the arts, and especially this institution. When this institution speaks about its legacy of promoting understanding, the manifestation of it in this current moment is about teaching people how to look at the world through the eyes of the other.
What we’ve done, in a sense, is to shift the exhibition program to focus on this idea that the world is connected—no matter how different we are. For example, our recent spring show of traditional Asian art, “Secrets of the Sea: A Tang Shipwreck and Early Trade in Asia,” was not about China, it was about commerce in the 9th century—without TPP and international agreements—and China and Islamic countries having incredible trade with one another. At a moment when Rome had fallen and Europe was battling its way into the Renaissance, which was still a few hundred years away, these two cultures somehow found their way to each other. It wasn’t an imperial thing; the show proved that it was by private sectors. Even in the traditional arts, it’s possible to drive this message that we don’t live in a silo and that we never have. Art shows that man by nature is global, is communal. That’s the lesson that we are promoting.
The fall show, “After Darkness: Southeast Asian Art in the Wake of History,” looks at artists that have lived through political transition in Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar. The title of the exhibition originates in the phrase “after darkness comes the light” from the writings of Raden Adjeng Kartini, the daughter of the Regent of Jepara in Java and an icon and champion of women’s emancipation in Indonesia. The show reveals that art is never separated from life—that art is part of life in Asia—and hence if you are going to understand the complexity of Asia you need to look at the artists. We’re focusing on these types of shows rather than solo shows—at least for the moment—because we find ourselves in a time of drawing connections. And, overall with contemporary art, we are reorienting toward work that is multidisciplinary, toward a critique of work that’s just on the proscenium stage.
We’re trying to take art to new places. In the end it’s about trying to push the programming toward a more faithful or honest depiction of how Asian artists are working right now. Because you must remember, in most parts of Asia you don’t have well-established public institutions of culture. It’s not like the West. They don’t have the MoMA, or Tate, or Louvre or British Museum. That’s not how they operate.They find their own ways and means, and our programming needs to capture this freewheeling flexibility of today’s artists now.