HAMRA ABBAS, installation view of Kaaba Picture As A Misprint 1-6, 2014, archival pigment print mounted on dibond, 137 × 110 cm each. Courtesy the artist and Lawrie Shabibi, Dubai.

Growing with the Times

Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

Although a decade has past since we published the first edition of the ArtAsiaPacific Almanac, the work continues to present new challenges and new pleasures. Ten years ago we were an editorial team of five, assembling something out of nothing, based on phone and email conversations with people in the art world in the 67 countries that comprise our editorial remit. We gave ourselves four months to complete the task of tracing a year of developments in contemporary art across Asia, the Pacific and the Middle East. Each of those days in front of the computer and on the phone bled into the next. But during the last few months of 2005, the excitement, or sometimes shock, of sharing what we learned—the Qatari royal family’s quiet accumulation of art for an eventual Arab Museum of Modern Art; a Mongolian artist’s outrageous proposal to create a 400,000-hectare sculpture park with a 96-meter monument of a wolf at its center; a Nanjing mattress manufacturer’s investment of USD 24 million in contemporary Chinese art; the Chinese government’s announcement of plans to build 1,000 new museums by 2015; and an art fair in the works in Kabul—kept us enthralled and emboldened through many sleepless nights. 

What a topsy-turvy ten years! While the Mongolian sculpture park—roughly the size of Dubai—was not realized, China quickly surpassed its museum construction target, with 451 institutions having opened their doors in 2012 alone. We also witnessed art galleries shutter in Syria in 2011 amid a bloody civil war. And in 2005, we never guessed that in 2012 Myanmar would relax the creative shackles it previously had placed on artists. 

Over the years, we have tracked all the players in the field: artists, curators, collectors, galleries, art fairs and auction houses. We also mourned the loss of the mentors and other figures who helped shape a cultural landscape that nurtures experimentation and tolerates a diversity of voices when it was—and in some cases continues to be—prohibitive to do so. Many of these courageous pioneers encouraged us in our endeavor to create the Almanac, year after year; some through thoughtful contributions, others privately in conversation as we did our homework. 

While the editors grumble about the flood of information that threatens to submerge us—the endless press releases, email announcements, tweets and Facebook posts—piecing together the Almanac reminds us of just how little factual information is available in many parts of the world, and why the Almanac remains essential. Sometimes the lack of art-related data is due to fledgling infrastructure. In other places, where free speech is perceived as a menace to social stability, censors scrub information on certain works of art and their creators from the internet. Thus we continue to rely on the goodwill of artists, curators and scholars in places such as Sri Lanka, Laos, Uzbekistan, Iran and North Korea, who share their knowledge with us in person or via Skype, WeChat and email. These efforts illustrate the role publications such as the Almanac can play in documenting the artistic histories unfolding in far-flung parts of the world today. 

The “Reflections” in the 2015 Almanac contributed by Ute Meta Bauer, curator and founding director of the Center for Contemporary Art in Singapore, and Aaron Cezar, director of the Delfina Foundation in London, both show how neighboring, like-minded, yet distinctive art communities can generate momentum through convergence. Elsewhere, art scenes can remain stubbornly segregated and marginalized, often fighting for recognition—a situation that Japanese artist and artistic director of the Yokohama Triennale, Yasumasa Morimura, and Australian artist Tony Albert write about poignantly. In their reflections, arts patron Abdelmonem bin Eisa Alserkal from the United Arab Emirates and Jitish Kallat, Mumbai-based artist and Kochi-Muziris Biennale artistic director, speak from the perspective of homegrown pride, particularly the collective efforts to realize something that appears almost insurmountable. 

The Almanac was initiated at a time when many of the contemporary art scenes across Asia had first shown their potential growth. Ten years later, it seems that some of these scenes, especially in India, China and Turkey, have achieved midcareer status, while contemporary art in Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand continues to build on more solid foundations that extend back to the postwar era, and new prospects are germinating in places such as the Philippines, Oman and Azerbaijan. It is our task to keep up with the emerging developments, while gazing with a broad perspective on those who are due for retrospectives. Because of the constant evolution of these various art scenes, our desire to play an active role remains the same as when the Almanac came to life in 2005.