The new recovers the great act of refusal.

–  Simon Soon


Can the new revive a historical act of refusal? Is it sentimental to seek recourse in the 1863 Salon des Refusés as a kind of procedure for the present moment? But first, a caveat. Only when we equate the salon with the exhibition do we foreclose the possibility of radical recovery. For the Salon des Refusés is less an exhibition than kind of spatial politics. It enables an aggregate of minds, a shoring of public and its agonistic potential, unwrought by the curatorial determinism that premises most contemporary exhibitions today. In thinking about the Salon des Refusés as a signpost for a historical act of refusal, one seeks out an attitude more than a form. This is in order to overcome the fear of totalitarianism that has shaped our contemporary aversion to a new kind of new.

Twentieth century flirtation with the new—from futurism’s valorisation of technology to the short-circuiting of humanism’s rational veneer in surrealism to the political-economic-cultural renovation under say the Marcos’ Bagong Lipunan—reached a state of apocalyptic frenzy and mania in the total eradication of the temporal, as the Khmer Rouge rewinds the clock to Year Zero to initiate a form of primitive communism. For this reason, any discussion of the new today bears the trauma engendered by regimes of visionary politics. As a result, artists and curators have opted for a kind of present day micro-politics that speak glibly of intervention. More sound than bite, more the stuff of spectacle and upworthy buzz than a commitment towards actual genuine change.

Under such conditions, is it still possible to revise the terms in which art is engaged, to speak of an energetic and complete upending of an established mode of conduct and the ceremonial vacuity that accompanies the patterns through which art is distributed, while at the same time, avoid the pitfalls of totalitarian thinking?

By the new, I speak of an attitude that is sensitive towards a scale of potentials—temporal, geographic, social, political, technological. In such speculation perhaps it is antithetical to the burden of the contemporary as a kind of overbearing present-ness, an atemporal inertia brought about by a desire to colonise the social sphere as constituting a set of urgencies. The new eschews the pretense of such responsibility and the institutional marketing mechanism that appropriates art as a kind of topical fetish. These are the ruse of capital. The new prospects and allows for the speculative to emerge. Its terms are not didactic therefore it is not populist in its demagoguery sense of the word.

In recovering the moment of the 1863 Salon des Refusés as a temporal collective body, a space in which art is a co-participant in a larger conversation about potentialities, we need to also ask the following: can the new renew the great of refusal? Can the new muster the courage to call out the institutional bankruptcy that is contemporary art? The larger question remains: can we still walk away and revise the rules of the game?


Simon Soon is a researcher and Senior Lecturer in the Visual Art Department of the Cultural Centre, University of Malaya. His areas of interest include comparative modernities in the art, urban histories, history of photography and art historiography. He has written on various topics related to 20th-century art across Asia and occasionally curates exhibitions, most recently Love Me in My Batik: Modern Batik Art from Malaysia and Beyond. He is also co-editor of Narratives of Malaysian Art Vol. 4. He is the Penang Field Director for Power Institute’s “Site and Space of Southeast Asia” funded by Getty Foundation’s Connecting Art Histories initiative. He is also an editorial member of Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia, and a team member at the Malaysia Design Archive, a repository on visual cultures from late 19th to the present day.