“Reading and Writing about Visual Experience: Tracing Religion and Spirit in the Art of Southeast Asia “
Monday, Wednesday: 3:30-5:00pm
In Southeast Asia, religion permeates everyday life. This pervasiveness is informed by a long history of indigenous beliefs as well as exposure to world religions through centuries of maritime trade and the rapid movement of peoples in the contemporary era. It comes as a surprise, then, that in modern and contemporary art from the region, religion is not prominently thematized. In this course, we will ask why this is the case by engaging with two key questions. First, what does it mean to study “religion” (i.e., Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Catholicism) in relation to histories of modern and contemporary art? Second, how does religion differ from spirituality, understood as associated with but potentially separate from more formal adherence to world religions and thus reflective of what has long been the syncretic character of Southeast Asia? In the first half of the course, we will address traditional stereotypes of Southeast Asia through an analysis of sites like the 12th-century temple complex Angkor Wat, located in present-day Cambodia. We will then look at the impact of anti-colonial movements and nationalism on artistic expression, including the conceptualization of notions like the “visible soul” (jiwa ketok) in Indonesian art. In the second half of the course, we will examine the work of contemporary artists in and from this region who engage with its complicated religious history, articulations of the spirit, and personal meditative practices. Ultimately, we will formulate a stance on what we may gain or lose by using spirituality (as opposed to religion) as a frame for the examination of contemporary art practices across this region.
This course fulfills the second half of the Reading and Composition (R&C) requirement. Throughout the semester, we will engage closely with a variety of texts and works of art, developing strategies to be effective readers, writers, and researchers at the college level. Frequent short writing assignments will draw on visual analysis skills practiced in class and respond to primary sources and methodological texts. In the second half of the semester, students will produce a longer (10-12 page) research paper on religion and/or spirituality in the work of artists in and from Southeast Asia.