All at Sea: Piracy and the Trade Routes of Art History

March 21–23, 2012

Sydney, Australia

This inaugural event, convened by Kavita Singh, Jawaharlal Nehru University, brought together scholars that specialize in the visual arts and culture of South East Asia. Scholars from the Indian Ocean littoral, South East Asia, Asia, North America, and Oceania met to discuss questions of economic, cultural, and artistic exchange. The discussion foregrounded 'piracy' as a metaphor to think about art history and it generated a range of important themes. This event was in partnership with the Power Institute at the University of Sydney and made possible by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s grant to the Clark.

Session topics included:
  • ‘Piracy’ as a metaphor for modernity, exchange, and art history
  • Global art markets and global art history
  • ‘Temporality’ and other critical concepts, such as ‘locality’ and ‘materiality,’ as new entry points into historical and contemporary narratives of art
  • Issues of comparative historiography
  • Historical formations of the region and their impact on cultural traditions and changing art practices
  • The validity of different forms of art historical knowledge
  • Conceptions of ‘the nation’ and colonial/postcolonial experiences
  • Contemporary art and its references to ‘transition’, ‘movement,’ and ‘trade’ as a pre-modern, and modern issue also
  • The antagonism of language(s)


In order of discussion

Wednesday, March 21
Welcome and Introductions
Kavita Singh, Mark Ledbury, Michael Ann Holly
Session 1: “Begging, Borrowing, Stealing”
Session lead-ins: Sarat Mahara, Aamir Mufti
On the ways in which we take ownership of the discipline: by begging, by borrowing, or by stealing. This session asks us to consider the terms on which art histories written in/for the Indian Ocean are ‘owned’ by these locations. Does the metaphor of ‘piracy’ help recalibrate the relation between Euro-American centers and Asian ‘peripheries’? Can non-Euro-American narratives compete against those already in place? Do they need to? 
Session 2: “The Tilt of the World”
Session lead-in: Gao Shiming
As Asian economies prosper, they become new markets for industrial products and luxury goods. They also become new centers in the global art world, with museums, biennials, fairs, and art markets emerging in new places. Different centres – Japan, Korea, Singapore, and China at different times- have staked a claim for Asian cultural leadership. As new institutions emerge in new centers, does the art world change? Or does art history do the same thing everywhere, and does art history promote capitalist values?  Is art history guilty about this, overcompensating by looking for heroic, anti authoritarian artists, only to end up lionizing some of capitalism's most successful entrepreneurs as heroic figures of critical resistance? Will the major art history surveys/textbooks be published and distributed differently? Will museum economies change? Will there be an "October" in Singapore?
Session 3: “Temporalities”
Session lead-ins: Keith Moxey, Shelly Errington, Chaitanya Sambrani
Art history is narrative. Does the temporal structure of narrative privilege chronology?  If so, isn’t chronology too deeply identified with the triumphalist teleological narrative of Western culture?  Are there other literary forms that might be used to challenge the status quo?
Session 4: “Latitudes”
Session lead-ins: Patrick Flores, Gao Shiming
How is geography to be construed? Places can be connected to each other for many reasons and in many ways: by proximity, by shared histories, by joint economies, by sympathetic ideas and ideologies. Thus, Mumbai might be 'closer' to London than Karachi; or Manila-Bangkok-Jakarta may be an archipelago within which artists have moved. This panel asks participants to think about the lateral migration of ideas, artists, and ideas about art within locales, as well as ways to construe locality. Thus, for instance, is "region" to be understood in the colonial or political sense or in a more geographical sense that will include Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau, some parts of China and India, and so on?
Session 5: “Other Colonialisms”
Session lead-ins: Frederick Asher, Aamir Mufti
Looking at Asian art histories from a vantage point in the west, one is impelled to ask questions about the West's hegemony over the rest. But art historical 'colonialism' doesn’t only originate in the West: From a vantage point within Asia, one may ask: what about the narratives imposed on the region by India and China? The hegemony of their art histories over the art of Southeast Asia is almost complete: visual imagery produced in Southeast Asia – imagery both past and contemporary – is always seen as linked to somewhere else. Can we overcome this? How and to what end?
Day 1 Final Thoughts
Thursday, March 22
Session 6: “Can There Be a ‘Poor Art History’?”
Session lead-ins: Jill Bennett, Chaitanya Sambrani
Borrowing from Grotowski's formulation of a 'poor theatre' that eschewed expensive costumes and sets, in favor of an intense engagement between actor and audience, we ask: is art history – which requires access to internationally dispersed collections of objects of high monetary worth, image banks, libraries, illustrated publications, etc – a luxury commodity? Can art history be produced in conditions of poverty and institutional lack? Or is it the case that ‘source countries’ for artifacts can be poor, but the centres for the production of art history must be rich? Can we imagine what a ‘poor art history’ (written from the ground in Cambodia, Vietnam, and Myanmar for example) would be?
Session 7: “Everywhere, the Nation”
Session lead-ins: Frederick Asher, Shelly Errington
Despite the real changes wrought by globalization, we do not live in a 'post-national' world. The nation-state exerts a strong influence on the art world and on the shape of art history, through ideology, official policies, legal frameworks and other forms of governance. How is ‘the nation’ experienced by art historians across Asia, and how is their field of operation defined by it?
Session 8: “Is the Contemporary Art World Flat?”
Session lead-ins:  Patrick Flores, Jill Bennett, Shigemi Inaga
When art history addresses pre-modern arts of Asia, it looks for local meanings – via traditions, texts and contexts that are tied to place of origin. Post modern art is seen as naturally belonging/legible to a globalised art world, produced by and for a nomadic transnational art sphere. Is the art history that is written for contemporary art no longer tied to locality?
Session 9: “The Voice of Art History”
Session lead-ins: Shelly Errington, Sarat Maharaj
What language does art history speak? English? French? German? What art histories have been written in Asian languages? If Asian-language art history follows a different trajectory from the art history written in European languages, who is speaking it and who is listening to it? What are art history’s voices and patterns of hearing? What role can translation play? On the other hand, has art history’s voice been taken away by other, neighbouring disciplines – anthropology, history, literature, cultural studies? In the case of India, the most compelling work on visual studies is emerging from these disciplines rather than art history.
Day 2 Final Thoughts 
Friday March 23, 2012
“Charting Course”: Planning for 2013 and 2014
Public Symposium, “All at Sea” 

Participants included

Frederick M. AsherUniversity of Minnesota
Jill BennettUniversity of New South Wales
John ClarkAustralian National University
Shelley ErringtonUniversity of California, Santa Cruz
Patrick D. FloresUniversity of the Philippines-Diliman
Shigemi InagaInternational Research Center for Japanese Studies
Mark LedburyDirector of the Power Institute at the University of Sydney
Aamir MuftiUniversity of California, Los Angeles
Chaitanya SambraniAustralian National University
Kavita SinghSchool of the Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University