Zhuang Wubin, Photography in Southeast Asia: A Survey
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Zhuang Wubin’s Photography in Southeast Asia: A Survey is marked by multiple motivations. Mainly, it surveys photographic practice in Southeast Asia. The survey unravels comparabilities and resonances which, under the sign of Southeast Asia, assemble into a sense of region. It is within the ambit of these motivations—to survey, to compare, and in comparing, assemble a region—that I read Zhuang’s exceptional book.
Zhuang’s book is the first of its kind. It lays a useful foundation for the study of the field of photography and its histories and paints a comprehensive picture of the practice in the region, which has been largely overlooked in existing art-historical endeavors. The breadth of Zhuang’s scholarship is in itself admirable as it attempts to account for the development of practice even in contexts and archives that are not the most hospitable to historiographic efforts. Also, worth mentioning is that Zhuang’s book covers the varied trajectories of practice from art photography to documentary, along with their multiple modalities of presentation from artist books to exhibitions. Zhuang’s work is attentive to the particularities of each locality and this attentiveness is most apt in accounting for the vitality of practice that is presented in each (national) context. This very same attentiveness however also deserves further attention.
Zhuang is clear at the outset that he opted to consider national frames, instead of a more comparative one, because the national is more accommodating to the particularities of practice that a regional focus might overlook. This is an understandable decision but one that disavows a possibly productive and much needed discussion of the complexity of shoring up regional affinities and trans- or inter-national discourse. Although admirable are the granular historical accounts that the book encompasses and historicizes, there is the danger of invoking the region of Southeast Asia as, precisely as Zhuang warns us, “some vague sense of regional solidarity”—that is, there is the danger of invoking the idea of the region without engaging with the material and symbolic relations that make it imaginable in the first place. An elaboration of how the region has become current, and therefore an interrogation of its currency, must be of priority to a book that acknowledges the shortcomings of the idea but then takes up its currency anyway by way of its invocation. Thus, I find it problematic that a book that looks at “photography in Southeast Asia” insists that “[i]t is beyond the scope of [the] book to unpack the ‘Southeast Asia’ imaginary in great detail.”
Salient in this sense is Patrick Flores’s argument about the idea of art and place in reference to the proliferation of Southeast Asia as frame and premise in recent curatorial projects: “[A]rt and place are situated in a state of interactive production or mutual making, which means that it is not only place that makes the art, it is also art that makes the place.” Grounded by this, I was looking for how Zhuang might stage this mutual making in relation to the region and how what he identifies as vagueness may be translated to vectors both material and abstract.
Zhuang’s Photography in Southeast Asia: A Survey looks at the history of photography and photographic practices in Southeast Asia. In Zhuang’s work, this history unravels by way of national photographic histories (one per chapter) that, in his words, are looked at “sympathetic to the particularities of each country.” This sympathy to the particular proves germane in contexts in which the archive achieves density, such as in the chapters on Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, and the Philippines. This very same particularity, however, also highlights the sheer unevenness of archival availability in the region, among other constraints in historiography, as can be seen in the chapter on Brunei.
In each chapter, themes, practitioners, and their artistic biographies are discussed. For the most part, the artistic biographies show the idiosyncrasy of artistic development and the varied ways in which the practitioners make sense of their practice. However, this procedure has a tendency to delve into detail so much so that the thematic tenor that Zhuang proffers (in the form of subheadings) loses discursive and historiographic friction, or fails to mediate historical accounts. The close reading of works and practices keeps the momentum medium-specific, and exhausts particularity such that a tropic or even thematic imagination is inhibited. This is not to say, though, that zooming in on specific practitioners and their practice is ultimately unproductive, or, looking at the big picture, that the decision to foreground the national has no merit. I think, structured more productively, the national always already informs ideas of regionality and the regional is necessarily inflected by the national.
In his introduction, Zhuang acknowledges the currency of looking at “intra- and trans-regional connections” but then opts for a nation-centric framing because “the sociopolitical, religious, economic and artistic conditions that effaced and surfaced certain photographic practices in individual countries across Southeast Asia are actually quite different.” This imagined dichomotomy between (1) the acknowledgment of the importance of intra- and transregional connections (thus, regionality) and (2) the foregrounding of the particularity of practice in discrete national contexts because of difference (thus, nationality) must be unraveled. The avowal to either region or nation does not need to entail disavowal of the other. As a corollary, to insist on regionality does not mean an enfolding into sameness (of context, of conditions, of historical development). To speak of regionality is to speak of senses of inter-, or even trans-national resonances and relations.
It is at this point that turning to particular moments in Zhuang’s account that maintain the complex “mutual making” of nation and region without forsaking either becomes pertinent. There are certain periods that in Zhuang’s historicization become landmarks in the historical development of photographic practice in the national frame, and whose resonances among certain nations intimate the regional. Two such periods are the 1990s and the 2000s.
In the 1990s, the emergence of practitioners in Malaysia who “shied away from being called ‘photographers,’ and labeled themselves as artists who use and manipulate photography in a conceptual manner,” around which time what Zhuang identifies as a “Post Photography” aesthetic also emerged, coincided with a turning towards the contemporary in Indonesia, which Zhuang productively discusses in relation to the different localities in the country that frustrate the national frame (Jakarta, Bandung, Yogyakarta, East Java); a gesturing toward diverging practices in Thailand; and, the emergence of photographic practice in Cambodia.
And in the millennium: the year 2000 signaling a conceptual turn in Singapore or marking the autonomy of practice in Laos; and, in Cambodia, the movement of certain practitioners away from commercial demands. These events unfold around the same time frame and reveal overlaps in and common concerns and aspirations of photographic practice. They make one think of how the region is actualized not by its pre-existence but by the currents and currencies of discourse that resonate among contexts that are national but nonetheless are contemplated by the region “Southeast Asia.”
In addition to resonances in temporal turns, attention could be turned towards a number of other ideas. For one, there is the possibility that collectivities and groupings sharing the same institutional and practical tenors, such as those that Zhuang has identified in Indonesia (Forum Fotografi Bandung, Ruang MES 56, Ruangrupa, Cephas Photo Forum, and Kelas Pagi Yogyakarta, and Insomnium) may or may not exist in other national contexts. Focus could also be directed to the pedagogical aspects of photographic practice, or the development of artistic practice, technological know-how, aesthetic concerns in schools, programs, trainings, and apprenticeships. Zhuang identifies figures such as Bùi Xuân Huy in Vietnam and Chabet in the Philippines as crucial in this aspect.
Exhibitions can also illuminate: The exhibitions (most of them global in tenor) that Zhuang points to as sources of photographic discourse and watersheds in artistic, practical, and discursive developments in photography in Southeast Asia intimate how the region is imagined, especially as gleaned from its place in these exhibitions’ curatorial decisions and design. Modalities of interdisciplinarity, such as photography in the visual arts and in performance, or the emergence of aesthetic concerns, such as in “post photography,” or the development of “ultra-personal photography,” could also motivate a turn to the regional. The various developments of documentary could also be discussed (in relation to what Zhuang identifies as the central tension between “art” and “photography,” or in relation to Doi Moi in Vietnam, Martial Law in the Philippines) as a regional phenomenon.
Inasmuch as these possible framings point to trajectories for further and more pointed itineraries of research, they also interrogate received ideas about and formulate new conceptualizations of not only Southeast Asia in particular, but also of the valency of regionality in general.
These are developments that already resonate among Zhuang’s national historiographies. Even the introduction and afterword already elaborate possible trajectories in proffering a history of photographic practice that is based on moments of regionality: he cites Norman Soong and the Pan Asia Newspaper, efforts of the ASEAN Committee on Culture and Information in the early 1980s, and arguably the first photography festival in Southeast Asia, the Philippine Photography Festival in 1981. In this, there is a certain disjunction between the book’s organization and design and what the national accounts manifest. It is this disjunction—the material lending itself to a reading that is complex and dynamic, maybe unruly and daunting, and a structure that is too tidy and designated—that I find discomforting.
The introduction and afterword point out possibilities of reading moments of regionality in the history of photography in Southeast Asia, but then these bookends touch on the barest moments of regionality that the national accounts have already surfaced. The structuring of the book into nation-centric chapters strains the possibility of foregrounding resonances, contact, and comparisons that enact the mutual making of place (here, the region) and practice. The introduction and the afterword fall short in mediating the granular histories of the national into the possibility of the regional. I foreground this possibility not only because it is the project that the book intends itself to be (by way of its inaugural invocation as a book about a region and not just a group of countries), but also because it is precisely these moments of resonance that may shed light on national narratives that are only surfaced in regional platforms.
Last, and more importantly, the production of the discursive field of “Southeast Asia,” because it has seen currency in the last few decades, all the more requires critical engagement and interrogation. If “Southeast Asia” has been co-opted by the market or has been deployed as the next scholarship niche, as Zhuang suggests, I think it is with greater reason that scholars should frustrate any efforts to capture it as something that is fixed and unquestionable or, equally, to dismiss it as mere buzzword, neglecting the vital interventions and germane interlocutions of other scholars in the region.
Carlos Quijon, Jr. is a graduate student at the University of the Philippines in Diliman. He is currently writing his thesis on the democratic trope in Philippine visual arts after the return of democracy via the EDSA Revolution in 1986. In 2017, he was research resident at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) in Seoul, South Korea and was also a fellow in the Transcuratorial Academy (TCA) both in its Berlin and Mumbai iterations.