A few years ago, at the press conference for Taiwanese artist Lee Mingwei’s solo show at the Mori Art Museum (MAM), Fumio Nanjo, the museum director, talked about the direction the museum would be taking from then on; they were no longer so interested in “the West” and were aiming to focus more on Asia.

An outcome of this policy is the show “Sunshower: Contemporary Art from Southeast Asia 1980s to Now,” and it’s a very big affair. Hosted by The National Art Center, Tokyo (NACT) as well as the MAM, the exhibition coincides with the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. It also represents the result of 2½ years of preparation by staff of the two institutions working with four independent curators — from Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand and the Philippines — and the support of the Japan Foundation, 10 foreign embassies, six media chains, two airlines, Champagne Pommery and four corporate sponsors (one of these, the construction company Obayashi, recently announced it’s going to build a space elevator).

Apart from communism, several other specters haunt this exhibition: colonialism, modernity and the relationship between the local to the global, especially as regards the vernacular versus the gallery art object as a symbol of cosmopolitan sophistication. There is also, of course, the specter of Japan’s historical relationship with Southeast Asia; this is the other elephant in the room besides the life-size model of one hanging forlornly on its side in the MAM atrium, created by Apichatpong Weerasathukul and Chau Siris.

Across the two venues nine sections have been devised to highlight particular themes and break up the nearly 200 exhibits into manageable chunks. As many of the works deal with several issues at the same time, and sometimes in similar ways, this division is more about introducing various issues to the audience in a comprehensible sequence than dividing the work into genres.

Liew Kung Yu’s grand, brash and energetic photo collages of urban landscapes in Malaysia, from his series “Proposals for my Country,” fit well with the section “Growth and Loss,” which focuses on the effects of globalization and modernity on traditional culture. Anggun Priambodo’s interactive, bric-a-brac “Necessity Shop,” which questions how much stuff we really need in life, could have appeared next to Liew’s work, given that they both comment on the homogenizing effect of global capitalism. However, Priambodo’s shop appears over at NACT as the last exhibit in the last section, “Day by Day” — the joke of having to exit via a gift shop of dodgy merchandise must have been too good for the curators to pass up.

Before that light-hearted touch, though, the NACT portion of the show generally has a more serious tone than that at MAM, which starts and ends with fun, tinkling kinetic sculptures that delight and hurt not. There are haunting and quietly eerie pieces in between, such as Cambodian Vandy Rattana’s 2009 photographic series “Bomb Ponds” and Bang Nhat Linh’s “The Vacant Chair,” an installation that features a beat up North Vietnamese Air Force seat, but these works, in part, are effective for what they leave unsaid.

Exhibits that appear in NACT, such as Norberto Roldan’s social realist anti-Marcos banner combined with the words “Dialectical Materialism,” the confrontational use of archive photography from the Khmer Rouge era by artists Svay Ken and Ly Daravuth, and Thai artist Vasan Sitthiket’s unflinching portrayal of beatings and murder from the 1976 Thammasat University massacre are less equivocal. That’s not to say serious is good and fun is not, but if you get the impression from the MAM show that Southeast Asian art is all kitsch and folk caboodle, then the curation of the NACT portion shows that the use of local and everyday materials is a guerilla move born out of resistance to various kinds of oppressions, colonial and domestic.

With this overall tone of “supporting” the voice of the subaltern, it should be a matter of concern that public and private institutions in Japan do not have a convincing track record of being able to see foreign cultures other than as a resource within a social Darwinist paradigm of competition and ranking. The very act of creating a major event such as “Sunshower,” which imagines itself to be acting as a central metropolitan hub drawing in material from disparate and diverse cultures, is contrary to the spirit of critiquing globalization that informs many of the pieces. We can add to this the paradox of white cube spaces being used to display works that, in many cases, aim to challenge the notion of the museum as the primary site of cultural discourse.

Meanwhile, in the “West,” art professionals have been mulling over whether the time of large-scale international exhibitions is over. Critic and writer J.J. Charlesworth, in a recent article in Art Review titled “The end of the Biennale,” for example, makes the point that “the large international exhibition is inevitably a top-down structure which, by definition, cannot be reformed.”

Against these issues it must be considered that “Sunshower” is dutiful and respectful in presenting narratives, histories and perceptions that audiences might not have been exposed to otherwise.

Really bringing the exhibition to critical life, however, would entail a discussion of “Why here?” and “Why now?” — not in an attempt to squeeze out some contrition for Japan’s wartime history, but because the drive to create an authoritative inventory of recent and contemporary concerns in Southeast Asian art, in an economically advantaged metropolitan center of an ex-colonial power, should be more rigorously examined.

“Sunshower: Contemporary Art from Southeast Asia 1980s to Now,” at The National Art Center, Tokyo and the Mori Art Museum runs until Oct. 23; NACT: 10 a.m.- 6 p.m. (Closed Tue.); MAM: daily 10 a.m.- 11 p.m. (Tue. until 5 p.m.). Tickets are ¥1,800 for both exhibitions (¥1,000 to see one exhibition). The exhibition then moves to the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum from Nov. 3 to Dec. 25. For more information, visit sunshower2017.jp/en.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.