What is an animate image?

Opening: 22.05.2014 @6:30pm
Location: RMIT Saigon South campus, Melbourne Theatre
702 Nguyen Van Linh, District 7
Ho Chi Minh City


This lecture is about the poetics of mediation. It proposes a theory of the ‘animate image’ – an image that moves, that breathes, that remembers. I begin by considering the encounter between contemporary art and an older, ‘traditional’ kind of image, at an animist festival in Thailand’s northeast. The encounter serves as an entry-point into some of the challenges I have faced as a curator and a theorist, doing research on contemporary visual art in Southeast Asia. In Western scholarship, histories of media tend to be linear and teleological, each medium given a time and a place in a succession, before becoming obsolete; media theories tend to be techno-centric and determinist – media technology is thought to shape society more than society shapes it. But we know that these media are not the same everywhere. And in the art of Southeast Asia, we may be struck by a general disregard for formal limits or specifications, and by the general ease with which new, electronic media are integrated with what Rosalind Morris has called “indigenous technologies of transmission”. Photographs can have ritual functions, and accumulate ‘aura’; video gives rise to new kinds of performance and new connections with the past. As producers, critics or students of visual culture, how do we make sense of a contemporary image that mobilizes all the powers of mechanical reproduction, yet without surrendering a much older valence, grounded in local attitudes and practices? This challenge demands the revision of our basic media vocabulary – value, repetition, the archive, perhaps the very concept of the medium itself – but while the tide of images swells around us, locally informed art theory is hard to find. Fortunately, artists and anthropologists offer us some answers, and I shall introduce several who have guided my own thinking. Along with better description of Southeast Asian art, their insights provide critical perspectives on how the ‘animate image’ is framed and assimilated under the would-be global rubric of ‘the contemporary’. With reference to some recent, large-scale international exhibitions, I will challenge popular curatorial assumptions about how artworks exercise their claims on the past.

You can download the audio record of Teh’s lecture here.


David Teh participates in ‘Encounter’, a lecture series which is part of a large artistic endeavour called ‘Conscious Realities’, initiated and organized by San Art in partnership with Prince Claus Fund.