MAP Quest: Singaporean Curator June Yap on the Guggenheim's Intrepid New UBS-Backed Non-Western Art Initiative

MAP Quest: Singaporean Curator June Yap on the Guggenheim's Intrepid New UBS-Backed Non-Western Art Initiative
June Yap, Guggenheim UBS MAP Curator, South and Southeast Asia
(Photograph by David Heald / © Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation, NY)

NEW YORK—This morning's classified new Guggenheim initiative turned out to be not such a big secret after all — the details of the new partnership between the Gugg and UBS were already spelled out in the New York Times last night. Still, the official unveiling this morning went ahead in a slickly corporate, highly polished press conference held in the museum’s circular lobby. The New York museum is partnering with the Swiss bank on the terribly named Guggenheim UBS Map Global Art Initiative, an international contemporary art project that will see the museum working with three curators from three different areas of the globe to create exhibitions documenting diverse artistic communities and demonstrating that the “geography of the art world extends to the geographical world’s horizons,” as Guggenheim director Richard Armstrong grandiosely put it.

The three MAP exhibitions (the name is “both a noun and a verb,” according to Armstrong) will focus on South and Southeast Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East and North Africa, and run consecutively over a five-year period. The shows will open at the Guggenheim and then travel to two other locations, with at least one in the area that they originated in. The museum hopes to acquire every work showcased in the MAP exhibitions for its permanent collection with the support of the reportedly $40 million-plus support of UBS, a museum representative told ARTINFO.

The first MAP exhibition is to be curated by Singaporean June Yap, 38, who has worked at the Asian city-state's Institute of Contemporary Arts and the Singapore Art Museum, as well as organizing an exhibition of Singaporean video artist Ho Tzu Nyen for the 2011 Venice Biennale’s Singapore Pavilion. After this morning's conference, ARTINFO spoke to Yap about how her participation in the project developed, her plans for the upcoming exhibition, and how she will work to communicate to both New York and Asian audiences. 

Your Guggenheim MAP exhibition will cover South and Southeast Asia. Are there any particular artists or institutions you’re hoping to work with there?

The project’s just begun so in terms of the artists, we haven't really identified them yet. But it is something that I will be working on together with the Guggenheim museum and with the curatorial team here as well as the education team. As far as our selection process is concerned, we are looking at not just the artworks, but also the context they come from, the issues that they’re dealing with, and how these can be presented to different levels of audiences through the various programs.

The region itself is very diverse, it constitutes many different countries, it’s very heterogeneous, and that’s the challenge. But that’s also what makes it interesting. It will probably be impossible to have some kind of unified perspective on the region — I don’t quite foresee that happening. What we are hoping for is to create dialogue and exchange so that the diversity can be captured through that. I’m from Singapore, so I will be in the region meeting with artists and seeing how we can bring their works, and perhaps themselves, to New York.

Is the exhibition going to be collaborative with local institutions in the region or is it more about the Guggenheim choosing a selection of artists?

It’s essentially a selection of artists and artworks, but the selection is traveling. In that sense, there is collaboration between the venues the exhibition is traveling to.

How will the curatorial selection work on these different levels, communicating both to a New York audience and to an audience in Singapore, for example?

I think that will be the challenge. In New York, the New York City audience is not so familiar with Southeast Asia and a level of historical background and context would be useful for the audiences here. But that same background will be something that’s taken for granted when the exhibition travels to somewhere like Singapore. It’s not as if the artists in South and Southeast Asia have been comprehensively contextualized or represented. So I think there still will be aspects that will be of interest. I guess what might be different would be the types of dialogue it would generate. The different types of dialogue might involve different approaches or different questions. In Asia it might be more internal, more dialogue about what’s happening in Asia.

How will you contextualize this work in New York? Will it be through the education programs or in the exhibition itself?

At the start, the artworks themselves will speak of the region already. The programs create other access points and create means to interact with the artists or to interact with various media or practices or issues of the practices. There will be a varied range of programs for the different venues.

Will you be commissioning new projects for the exhibition?

That is not determined yet.

How did the Guggenheim approach you about this massive project?

I got a phone call. [laughs] A lot of late night and early morning phone calls. An initiative like this has so much potential and so much possibility that it was… these discussions were very private, prior to this launch.

You’ll be working out of New York for two years, at the same time that you are traveling around to prepare for the exhibition?

I definitely have to be in New York for a period of time because I’m working with the teams here and also trying to understand the audiences here, because this is not just an exhibition but also an acquisition process. I'm looking at how these works will become part of the collection as well. There will definitely be a portion of time where I will be in the region to speak with the artists. 

ARTINFO's April 13 newsletter mistakenly referred to Yap's show as the Guggenheim's first South and Southeast Asia exhibition. This error has been corrected.