Archiving in Asia and Asia Art Archive with Chương-Đài Võ


Every three years in Brisbane we get a temporal snapshot into the worlds of Asia Pacific arts on a grand scale, collected together with threads carefully woven for audiences to traverse. At the APT8 opening night we ran into Dana Langlois, director of Javaarts and Gallery in Phnom Pen, Cambodia.

Her archive took a massive hit late last year when an electrical fire in a neighbouring property spread to the Javaarts’ art storage and the new public archive. Over 150 artworks were lost in the fire, 100 of which by one artist. The physical evidence of her 15 years of programming including catalogues, flyers and writing, was all but lost. This was significant as Javaarts is one of the first and longest running proponents of contemporary art in Cambodia.

The historical resonance of this was clear, said Dana, ‘I think archiving is incredibly important.’ She spoke about the importance of documentation of localised histories and an understanding of the conditions. ‘(It) leads to a deeper understanding of art practices and the complexities that undo one-sided narratives. Without history and context it is easy to dismiss what is not obvious or familiar.’ Having access to this in-country ‘provides an important resource for the artists for self-determined reflection and criticality,’ she said.

The climate doesn’t agree with technology very well. Dana notes, ‘unfortunately I have (had) a few hard drive issues over the years which have left other gaps. Now I backup on the cloud to hopefully prevent that issue happening again.’ However, electricity and the internet are not always reliable in Cambodia. ‘Besides the technical issues, one of the main challenges of documenting and archiving is having the time and resources. When I first started I was a one-woman operation, running the café, working long hours… in addition to working with artists to create exhibitions and events, archiving was not on my mind. It wasn’t until 5-6 years in, after working with artists like Leang Seckon and Pich Sopheap that I began to realise the value of the program.’

“Untitled”, Chath PierSath, acrylic on paper, 2015, courtesy of JavaArts and the artist. This is one of the few pieces of Chath’s last exhibition Scar that survived the fire.

As luck would have it a small portion of this physical archive had made its way to Asia Art Archive (AAA) in Hong Kong. Langlois, like others working in a developing context face fragile conditions with a lack of infrastructure and resources, AAA fulfils an important role in the region. We spoke to Chương-Đài Võ, researcher at AAA to get their perspective on archiving Southeast Asian Art.


PERIL: When did you join the AAA as their Southeast Asia Art Researcher and what is your background working with Southeast Asian art?

Chương-Đài: I joined Asia Art Archive in February as the Researcher for Southeast Asia. When I was in graduate school, I lived in Vietnam for three years, doing fieldwork for my dissertation on post-1975 visual art, literature, and film in Vietnam and the diaspora in the U.S. The past few years, I’ve been working as an independent curator and writer, often traveling to Southeast Asia. A recent project is an exhibition that I curated for a special issue of The Asian American Literary Review that commemorates the Vietnam War. Invited to create content for a section comprising 60 pages, I saw the periodical as an exhibition space, one that offers greater circulation of work by artists from Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and their diasporas. The periodical as a site of visual art as well as literary production is a project that I’m working on at AAA.

PERIL: Covering a diverse region, what is your focus for archiving the arts across the SEA?  There has been much debate about whether to look at artists work in relation to nationhood or more over individual practices.  This is a proposition that June Yap adopted as a curatorial tension in her 2014 Guggenheim exhibition No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia.  How does AAA negotiate this when approaching archiving and making accessible documentation and research from region?

Chương-Đài: AAA archives material as a way to share knowledge, to make visible the multiplicity of art historical narratives that exist, and to catalyse richer narratives where there is paucity. We look at art figures and art spaces to excavate material that illuminates how art ecologies grow and develop.

We are interested in making connections across regions, and question the construction of Southeast Asia — a concept borne of colonial, nationalist, and Cold War geopolitics. A resource that would be useful to researchers working on these questions is the archive of John Clark, an art historian and emeritus professor based in Sydney. We digitised more than 280 interviews that he conducted with artists and art organisers from across Asia over 27 years. The collection is accompanied by ten volumes of interview transcripts, including Clark’s research notes on chronologies and bibliographies of individual artists. My colleague Michelle Wong conducted in-depth interviews with Clark to contextualise his research practice. These interviews offer insight into how art histories have been written in Asia, and why they have been constructed as such. They also offer the raw material that other researchers can interpret to write new histories and to rethink the construction of Southeast Asia.

PERIL: What do you see as the needs of region in terms of archiving and conservation?  Do these defer across the various countries? What does AAA see as their role in meeting these needs?

Chương-Đài: AAA is a platform that collects physical and digital material to make it accessible to a wide range of people; promotes research and writing that draws on and re-imagines the role of the archive; and creates public programmes that enrich and complicate existing art historical narratives. Our public programmes include talks, symposia, residencies, workshops and learning and participation initiatives. To promote the circulation of material and new possibilities for knowledge production, we build community by collaborating with collectives and organisations, such as Raking Leaves, National Gallery Singapore, SOAS, University of London, and Myanmar Art Resource Center and Archive.

A recent project is a translation collaboration that we did with Indonesia Visual Art Archive (IVAA). In the 1980s and 1990s, artist groups created what would become known as “new Indonesian art”, practices that engage with social issues, interdisciplinary connections, and unconventional frameworks. Working with IVAA, we translated from Bahasa into English 30 texts from five key exhibitions that illuminate how the histories of art exhibitions circulate and establish institutional structures. We hope these translations will help the material gain wider circulation.

PERIL: As a curator what has been your approach to uncovering ‘histories’ in-country? Has there been challenges doing this?

Chương-Đài: I’m influenced by Foucault’s notion of excavation. Rather than linear, coherent narratives, I approach histories as processes of legibility and illegibility, the constructed and the accidental. I’m interested in why so and so narrative has been constructed and what tools of inquiry we can create to make room for other ideas and voices.

PERIL: How do you think archiving and conservation challenges impact international collection practices?

Chương-Đài: Archiving and conserving are different processes with different priorities. We do not conserve material; we archive select material to make them available for wider circulation and to instigate new research.

Collection practices are a type of archiving. Like the archive, an art collection is not a neutral space. A critical engagement with archiving asks what works are collected and why. These questions can help us think about the writing of art histories, what gets taught, exhibited, debated, valued.

PERIL: What is the image would you have choose to respond to this topic and why?

Chương-Đài: I chose an image from the Salon Natasha Archive, an important resource about the art scene in Hanoi in the 1990s. This photograph offers a glimpse into the multiple functions of the space—an art salon where Natasha Kraevskaia and Vu Dan Tan hosted artists and intellectuals, Vu Dan Tan’s studio, workshops for children, the couple’s home with their daughter, and exhibition venue for experimental art. There’s a mix of aesthetic genealogies and interpretations of the past.

Family and Friends in Salon Natasha. Early 1990s / Image courtesy of Salon Natasha and Asia Art Archive


Chương-Đài Võ is Researcher at Asia Art Archive. She is a former Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Massachusetts Institute of Technology; in addition, she has received fellowships and grants from Asian Cultural Council, Fulbright Program, National Endowment for the Humanities, and University of California Pacific Rim Research Program. She has a PhD from University of California, San Diego, and a BA from Johns Hopkins University.

Dana Langlois is a curator, creative producer and cultural entrepreneur with a background in visual arts. For 15 years, she has been actively involved in curating, researching and producing contemporary arts in Cambodia. Her focus has been in Cambodia where she works with Cambodian and diaspora artists in a time of intense creativity and reconstruction that followed the tragic destruction of the country’s cultural identity.   She has produced hundreds of exhibitions and launched well-known artists through the JavaArts platform (est. in 2000). From 2008 until 2014 she founded and directed Our City Festival, a nation-wide art and urbanism festival. Prior to that she ran Sala Artspace, an experimental gallery and studio (2006-7), in collaboration with artist Pich Sopheap. Her work with artists has been shown and collected in established museums and galleries in Singapore, France, Australia and the US.

Kate O'Hara

Author: Kate O'Hara

Kate O’Hara is a curator and writer with a specialization in Australian and Southeast Asian art. Kate was the curator at Romeet Contemporary Art Space in Phnom Penh from its opening in 2011 through to 2014; producing local and international exhibitions and programs. During her time in Cambodia Kate has worked with a range of other arts organisations as a curator, researcher and trainer, including Khmer Arts, Heinrich Bolle Foundation, Javaarts and the Our City Festival. Prior to her move to Cambodia, she worked on independent projects with emerging and established contemporary Australian artists. Kate also works as part of collaborative lab, artXprojects (with Natalie Pace), which focuses on the creation of relational and participatory art.