Light / Dark mode

New Histories of the World: Mori Art Museum brings Southeast Asia to Tokyo

What to expect of an art museum that lives on the 53rd floor of a skyscraper in Tokyo’s busiest business park? Perhaps that it is a space full of donated artwork intended as investment, or that aspects of the museum are so commercialised as to become kitsch. These assumptions ring somewhat true at the Mori Art Museum. When I visited, the queue for their 20th anniversary exhibition was eclipsed by the queue for an immersive Disney experience connected to the museum. 

Yet, entering the galleries where WORLD CLASSROOM: Contemporary Art through School Subjects was located, corporate gaudiness quickly faded away. Instead, I was met with an exhibition that earnestly explored new possibilities of understanding the world. The show uses different subjects—“Language and Literature,” “Social Studies,” “Philosophy,” “Mathematics,” “Science,” “Music,” “Phys. Ed.,” and “Transdisciplinary”—to guide viewers through hundreds of works. Though contemporary art can be considered being opaque, the familiarity of this school-based framework provided an accessible entry point into each artwork. 

Bold promises

For me, a good exhibition is also generative. It opens up multiple perspectives of understanding for viewers to make unique connections and reflect on their ways of thinking about a topic. This exhibition’s claim was that visitors would walk away having encountered new perspectives on our world at large. 

Undoubtedly, some would dismiss the generality of this bold promise. But I began to think about the ways in which these artworks could break down old world orders to create them anew. Here in Tokyo, the breadth of artworks created by Southeast Asian artists was astounding. The museum’s location in Asia presented an opportunity to centre the region’s art history as essential on the global stage. Could the exhibition situate these works, from a region so long placed on the periphery, in a radically new way? 

In some ways, no. The exhibition opens with Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Shovels (1965), a work that has long been heralded as marking the birth of conceptual art in the West. By hanging up an image of a shovel, an actual shovel, and the dictionary definition of a shovel side by side on the wall, Kosuth prompts us to think about the differences between these three representations. 

But beginning with Kosuth marks a desire to stick with a history and definition of contemporary art that privileges the male American artist as pioneer, as genius. This is in spite of the fact that different forms of conceptualism were evolving in Asia around the time Kosuth conceptualised his work. It feels like a missed opportunity that the exhibition did not immediately resist these dominant modes of understanding conceptual art. 

Still, to see Yee I-Lann’s The Dancing Queen so soon after was a treat. Well-known for her collaborations with Dusun, Murut, and Baja Samau Dilaut women weavers across Malaysia, Yee here works with them to integrate lyrics of global pop hits, all sung by women, into the bamboo-pandanus leaf mat hung on the wall. 

As part of a series of Karaoke Mats,  she here showcases how music transcends cultures to be integrated into the daily lives of women from all over the world. At the same time, these art forms—popular music and indigenous weaving—which are so often dismissed as commercial enterprises or crafts, become equals to other forms of ‘fine art’ historically showcased in museums. 

Yee’s work for me is emblematic of the new understandings of world history the exhibition wants to uncover. It reconceptualises what art can be. The work is almost-universally relatable and still a celebration of a uniquely Southeast Asian medium. This represents a shift from rigidly Eurocentric views of art history, which makes the claim that universality only exists if a work appeals to Western sensibilities of fine art. 

At the same time, Yee’s use of Western pop hits acknowledges the cultural impact Western music has all across the world. It implicitly contends with the troubled histories of European influence and intervention in Southeast Asia, but the work remains fun. It opens up these questions and connections with an impressively deft lightness. 

Shifting perspectives

Not to say that the heavier works in the exhibition aren’t enjoyable or effective. Elsewhere, works by Vandy Rattana and Dinh Q. Lê deal with the Vietnam War in sensitive and affecting ways. They decentre the perspective of American soldiers to depict the conflict through the eyes of Vietnamese soldiers and the civilians who live in its aftermath. 

Indeed, global conflicts like World War II (WWII) were explored through curatorial choices that presented multiple perspectives of history. Though post-WWII shifts in the world order typically focus on the victory of the Allied Powers (led by the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union) and the political and economic rehabilitation of the Japanese state, this exhibition included artworks that reflected the postwar socio-political tensions that arose in Southeast Asia too. 

Works by the Sabah artist collective Pangrok Sulap explored how MAPHILINDO, the concept of a federation between Malaya, Indonesia, and the Philippines centred around racial resonances, came about as a response to the retreat of the West from Southeast Asia after WWII. They were put in conversation with Kazama Sachiko’s Prison NUKE FISSION 235 (2012). Kazama was reacting directly to the Fukushima nuclear disaster, but put her reflections in the context of Japan’s longer historical relationship to nuclear power after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

These presentations were fruitful. It was enriching to see how the medium of woodblock prints were used by both artists as poignant expressions of political sentiment Given the Communist undertones of many woodblock prints produced in SEA during the 1960s, for example, its use by Pangrok Sulap to depict anti-Communist MAPHILINDO ideals is interesting.

But both artists also tapped on specific traditions in using woodblocking techniques. In Japan, for example, woodblock printing dates back to the mid-1600s, when it became popular as an inexpensive medium for artmaking. The result is a curatorial celebration both of unique cultural contexts and of the pan-Asian resonances that have existed across time. 

‘Far from tokenistic’ 

There is also something to be said about the sheer scale of the Southeast Asian works presented. Arguably, some of the highlights of WORLD CLASSROOM are the floor-to-ceiling installations by Jakarta Wasted Artists and Yee I-Lann. Southeast Asian representation is far from tokenistic (as I find it often can be in ostensibly ‘global’ exhibitions), these works are central to the exhibition. 

The work Graphic Exchange (2015) by the former comprises real signboards collected across the Tebet district in Jakarta, a visual history of this urban environment. Aside from being visually striking, the work touches on key themes that many works in the exhibition explore: development and modernity, individual histories, transactions and politics.

Hung relatively near Sulap’s works, the work also prompted reflection on the nature of collective artistic work in Southeast Asia (since many of the artists in Jakarta Wasted Artists also participate in ruangrupa, another prominent artists’ initiative in Indonesia), as well as the broader social contexts in which such collectives can flourish. 

Yee I-Lann’s TIKAR/MEJA was another feast for the eyes. Various silhouettes of tables, seen by the artist as a symbol of colonial power, are woven against a backdrop of brightly coloured mats.  Tensions between the rigid authority of the table and the relative comfort of a mat made for sitting are brought to the fore. By hanging the mats high above the viewer, however, new hierarchies were introduced. 

Museum studies 101

At this point, I was struck by how the curation of WORLD CLASSROOM also raised questions about the politicisation of Southeast Asian art. That most of the works by Southeast Asian artists  dealt explicitly or implicitly with colonialism and regional politics stood in contrast to works like Kosuth’s that were presented without the same political framings. Divorced from their social contexts, viewers were likely to view these works as universally relatable. 

I wondered if it was even possible to spotlight Southeast Asian works (or works from communities on the global periphery more generally) without politicising their existence.

More broadly, in an art museum, a place created to entrench colonial power, was the endeavour to rewrite history doomed from the start? Could we truly achieve new definitions of the world in a space made to conserve what was past? 

Though perhaps unintentional, it was unfortunate that the exhibition’s close pointed towards the contrary. The last galleries presented several culminating commissions, labelled as transdisciplinary pieces, that were intended to show possible new directions of contemporary art. It was again works by artists that were either from or worked in the West that were shown as exemplars of how boundaries in art could be pushed, since they were the only artists featured in this section of the gallery.

Despite the fact that many works in the exhibition represented diverse forms of experimentation, it was ultimately works like Jacob Kierkegaard’s Permanent Cloud (2023) that were crowned—by the wall text and its placement in the gallery—most transcendentally radical.

This criticism doesn’t detract from Kirkegaard’s piece—the installation, incorporating the bird’s eye view from the museum itself, is a breathtaking meditation on humanity’s physical and digital memory.

Yet, it seemed out of place in an exhibition that had till now convincingly advocated for a view of contemporary art that prioritised and included Asian and Southeast Asian works as drivers of change in historical and artistic narratives. 

Walking through the show felt at times like a whirlwind, as work after work prompted a flurry of questions about the roles of museums, contemporary art, and artists across the globe in renewing narratives of power, culture, and authority. So, the exhibition is imperfect, but that is not to write it off as worthless or stale. I thoroughly enjoyed my time at the Mori Art Museum. Despite WORLD CLASSROOM’s shortcomings, it presented an opportunity to celebrate the educational function of the museum, which despite fraught histories lets us open up possibilities of change in the first place.


WORLD CLASSROOM: Contemporary Art through School Subjects runs at Mori Art Museum, Tokyo till 24 September 2023. Click here for more information. 

Support our work on Patreon