NESTLED IN A SPOTLIT ALCOVE at the Cultural Center of the Philippines for the 1979 exhibition “Five Contemporary Sculptors,” Joe Bautista’s Bubong, created the same year, made for a strange scene. Large sheets of corrugated iron leaned against the wall to create a modest slope, recalling the shantytown rooftops that litter Manila’s skyline. Atop the rickety platform, genteel visitors playfully teetered, the soles of their shoes clacking against the metal. But the first lady of the Philippines, the institution’s most powerful overseer, was not so amused. According to Bautista, when Imelda Marcos saw the work, she proclaimed, “This is not supposed to be here. We don’t have slums here. We are a developing country and I am promoting the Philippines. We don’t have slums here.” In the dreamworld of the Marcos dictatorship, there would no longer be mere buildings—only architecture. Bubong proved too insistent a reminder of the poverty beyond the CCP’s monumental concrete walls. Shortly after Imelda’s visit, the order arrived: Take it down.
Bautista’s story was on my mind when I visited “Suddenly Turning Visible: Art and Architecture in Southeast Asia (1969–1989)” at the National Gallery Singapore, curated by Cheng Jia Yun, Joleen Loh, Seng Yu Jin, and Shabbir Hussain Mustafa. On view were artworks and archival materials related to three institutions that emblematized “modernization’s utopian ideals” in non-Communist states across the region: the CCP (inaugurated in 1969, Manila), Alpha Gallery (1971–88, Singapore), and Bhirasri Institute of Modern Art (1974–88, Bangkok). These professionalized spaces of display, which emerged in tandem with Cold War–era state-led infrastructure projects and economic-development agendas, were designed to match international standards. Through case studies of the three institutions, the exhibition charted the ascendance of geometric abstraction—made possible by that of the climate-controlled white cube—as well as subsequent incursions of more radical practices associated with conceptualism, performance, and social realism.
Yet for a show about high-modernist ideals and the disobedient provocations that emerged in their wake, the atmosphere felt strangely flattened. José Maceda’s irreverent Cassettes 100, 1971, which involved a literal toilet-papering of the CCP’s ritzy interior, was meekly reenacted in a confined section of the National Gallery’s atrium. Vasan Sitthiket’s Coffin for Gorbachev, Thatcher, and Reagan, 1985, was here refabricated with polished plywood in a neat Minimalist idiom that belied its original agitprop crudeness. The unpalatable and the anachronistic had been properly metabolized. In other words, Imelda’s sentiment hung in the air. Rust, noise, and cheapness remain barely admissible in the world-class gallery, for Singapore blushes in embarrassment when memories of underdevelopment come to mind.
At play throughout the show was a deliberate strategy of mediation. Near the exhibition’s entrance, Michael Lee’s “Lines, Planes, Volumes,” 2019, introduced the three institutions through gray cardboard maquettes and, nearby, small tablets that showed the artist zooming into each site with Google Earth and measuring the plot of land with an on-screen ruler tool. These abstractions of space would not have been an issue if on-the-ground experience were not so important to the character of these buildings. BIMA’s abnormally narrow entrance corridor once primed visitors for an intimate encounter with art and contrasted starkly with the CCP’s hulking facade, set against an expansive panorama of sky and sea.
Such idiosyncrasies of design bespeak plans comfortably bankrolled by patrons who allowed genius architects free rein—which makes the virtualized approach even more troubling, as it conceals the real costs of sustaining modernist fantasies. Once touted as “Asia’s Mecca of the arts,” the CCP has fallen into disrepair from chronic underfunding. What remains of BIMA, which closed in 1988, is a tired edifice overrun by weeds and inhabited by stray cats. Visions of a society transformed by new cultural infrastructure have dissipated under economic and political duress. Only in Singapore does the dream live on, thanks to sustained state funding. But the melancholy fates of the CCP and BIMA were not clear in the photographs and news clippings on view, which conveyed instead the excitement and energy of beginnings. Decay—or worse, failure—had no place in this narrative.
Architecture and its material consequences were supplanted by art-historical narration as one moved through the show. Some fifty works associated with the three institutions were intermixed and hung chronologically. Nifty curatorial sleights of hand created visual relationships between otherwise unrelated objects. In one corner, Arturo Luz’s 1972 gridded plywood relief, Eng Tow’s 1975 checkerboard-patterned pleated textile, and Ithipol Thangchalok’s 1974 painting reminiscent of storefront blinds formed a family of experiments in hard-edge abstraction. David Medalla’s 1971–72 newspaper collages decrying capitalism, paired with Pratuang Emjaroen’s painted 1976 commentary on working-class labor, made a claim to leftist solidarity across national borders. The whole arrangement’s stress on contemporaneity may have been a well-intentioned attempt to move away from the questions of belatedness and influence that often afflict comparative projects. But such synchronicity can also, perniciously, keep one convinced of the validity of period style. Diverse lives and incommensurate artistic practices are thought to share a singular epoch: the age of developmentalism.
Notwithstanding this overarching emphasis on periodization, several works in the exhibition troubled chronology. In the photographic suite Conceptual Art: Folk-Thai-Time, ca. 1985–86, Pramuan Burusphat pictured a scrap of paper with the word phuenban—a homonym that can mean either “folk” or “ground”—nailed to parquet flooring, toying with the material’s associations with middle-class living and upward mobility. Ofelia Gelvezon-Téqui’s etching Predella, 1984, showed a scene of protest framed in the base of an altar. At the top of the tableau, an enthroned figure whose arms are spread in a benevolent gesture simultaneously evokes multiple figures: Marianne, the allegory of Liberty; the blessed Virgin Mary; or even the beloved Inang Bayan (Mother Country). Produced two years before the toppling of the Marcoses, the image paints the eve of revolution not as a period of progressive change, but as the outcome of a historical trajectory made possible by messianism. Art encodes time in nonlinear ways, confounding the state’s pursuit of progress.
Rather than attempting to arrange the art of the 1970s and ’80s along a neat time line, the exhibition could have simply admitted the messiness and variety of what was gathered under the fresh banner of the contemporary art institution. So much was evident from these works, as well as from archival materials on view. We learned, for example, that the CCP’s initial purview encompassed prehistoric Philippine pottery and Catholic and Muslim artifacts in addition to contemporary art. Images of the 1971–72 exhibition “Peasant Painters from Bali” at Alpha Gallery spotlit works often relegated to the realm of the ethnographic or touristic. Ink painting made multiple appearances across the decades. The exhibition catalogue shines in this regard, with interviews revealing the myriad interests—from wood carving to textiles—of the architects behind the three institutions. The proposed coexistence of such divergent cultural practices suggests that a drive toward greater synchronicity with international currents was never the only way forward. Other trajectories of belief were available, and it is crucial to recognize their coexistence with the cult of modernism.
The proposed coexistence of divergent cultural practices in these institutions suggests that a drive toward greater synchronicity with international currents was never the only way forward.
What would a story of postwar Manila, Bangkok, and Singapore look like if it began not with “modernization’s utopian ideals” but with a simple admission of fact? We have slums here. Recognizing the conditions of poverty and refusing the illusions of parity means reevaluating the terms of the region’s assimilation into the global contemporary, which may be the first step in recalibrating the scales of value that underpin the production of art history. With that shift, might there be more room for the experience of those who are economically disadvantaged and those who do not enjoy open expression of individual subjectivity? The end result may be a narrative of vastly different textures and tones, one that will likely displease technocrats who are intent on promoting Southeast Asia on the global stage. Perhaps then we will have shed the developmentalist desire to catch up with the world.
Chanon Kenji Praepipatmongkol is an art historian, curator, and writer based at the University of Michigan.