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Negotiating Tradition and Modernity in Contemporary Malaysia and Southeast Asia
Keynote Speaker: Prof C. J. W.-L. Wee, Nanyang Technological University Singapore
Prof C. J. W.-L. Wee is Professor of English at the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He was previously a Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (now the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute), Singapore, and has held Visiting Fellowships at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi, India, and the Society for the Humanities, Cornell University, among other institutions. Wee is the author of Culture, Empire, and the Question of Being Modern (2003) and The Asian Modern: Culture, Capitalist Development, Singapore (2007), a co-editor of Contesting Performance: Global Genealogies of Research (2010) and the editor of The Complete Works of Kuo Pao Kun, vol. 4: Plays in English (2012). He is a board member of the journal Modern Asian Studies. His recent research interests are in: the formation of contemporary art practices in theatre, the visual arts and literature; curatorial practices in showcasing modern and contemporary Asian art in the region; and the circulation of pop culture in the larger East Asia region.
KEYNOTE ABSTRACT: Contemporary Art, the Modern, and Historicity:
Neo-Traditional Theatre in Kuo Pao Kun and Krishen Jit
What is the place of culture and, broadly taken, contemporary artforms from the 1980s within the present global dispensation –one within which the attempt to obliterate temporality transpired, as witnessed in the Hegelian revivalism that marked Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man (1992). Fredric Jameson has commented that the 1980s “seem to mark the end of the modern in all kinds of ways, from communications technologies and industry all the way to forms of art”.Do all forms of contemporary art inevitably embody the “end of temporality” that, Jameson argues, is endemic to a general condition of postmodernity? This lecture will suggest that the contemporary of contemporary art in our region is less a period style but more differing artistic responses in various (though linked) contexts of desired economic growth to the end of temporality as a situation. The theatre practices of Singapore’s Kuo Pao Kun (1939-2002) and Malaysia’s Krishen Jit (1939-2005) manifest what might be called, contradictorily, a neo-traditional contemporary in which historicity, cultural memory, and interpretations of traditional art forms were thought necessary to depict the plural identities of 1980s Singapore and Malaysia, with their related commitments to globalised development – the regional modernising imperatives that in 1993 were named by the World Bank as the East Asian Miracle. Kuo’s theatre after 1980 resisted the socio-culturally homogenising thrust of the Singapore state’s intense modernisation, and he rejected his own 1960s-70s social-realist theatre (albeit with Brechtian inflections) for a multilingual theatre that drew inspiration from classical Chinese sung theatre to better capture daily life. Jit rejected both his 1960s Western-realist and 1970s nation-building Malay-language theatre for an English-language practice that emphasised cosmopolitan-yet-local cultural disjunctures and coincidences that could be read positively. Historicity and its imaginable utopian futures are conjoined with the pluralist possibilities of the contemporary moment: these are the complex results of older vanguardist and realist art being transformed into what is, arguably, an incomplete contemporary cultural formation. But that incompletion may represent the lasting consequences of a colonial modernity that marks the creation of modern Asia – and that cannot be forgotten, even given deterritorialised capital’s volatilisation of temporality in today’s Global Asia.