I’m interested in discussing two issues about how discourses on Asian contemporary art are disseminated. First, what role is the internet playing as a source of information for the art community? Second, how does (and can) a magazine document contemporary Asian art?
The internet is an interactive, highly visual medium very much suited to showcasing contemporary art. Museum and gallery sites are perfect for finding exhibition programs and artist biographies, and purpose-built sites such as Chinese-art.com can provide information on exhibitions taking place anywhere in the world, as well as offer expert texts on contemporary Chinese art. A large part of a magazine’s role is to review and preview exhibitions and events, and today this role is being challenged by the internet. Many artworks have already left the ‘real’ 3D world for the virtual 3D world. How long will it be before internet-only exhibitions are the norm, and before ‘webzines’ replace the magazine?
The internet, however, has several hurdles to leap before it can really compete with print media. The magazine offers long-term perspective and a currency that the internet does not yet possess, and even today magazines and books continue to have an aura of value the internet cannot compete with. The magazine is also far more user-friendly and attractive; as an object people can hold and own it. However, magazines are expensive and time consuming to produce and distribute. And the magazine cannot compete with the internet on quantity and frequency of information, where text can be put on a website very quickly, and then accessed around the world in seconds. Also, the magazine cannot offer free access to information, as the internet mostly does. The only aspect that remains unaltered between these two mediums is authorship. Or is it? The language of the internet is sometimes more casual because its content is perceived to be ephemeral and information is so readily available that its value and validity are sometimes questioned. Another issue is that of copyright; the author’s ownership of text seems more often at stake when reproduced on the internet.
So, the magazine might be under threat from the internet as people’s preferred source of information, but there is a great deal of difference between information and a magazine. How many websites profiling contemporary Asian art – or any art – are actually webzines? Many sites are little more than online advertising billboards, with little and poor editorial content. Alternatively, online versions of print titles offer quick content guides and sample articles, acting as advertising teasers for the print version of the product, rather than as discreet entities. It seems the perception is (or is it fact?) that most people still prefer to do their reading in magazines.
So how does (and can) a magazine document contemporary Asian art? The success of any contemporary art magazine is dependent on a number of different factors. Most often magazines published exclusively for local/national audiences are the most successful. Korea and Japan are countries with strong art publications targeting domestic audiences. They are also wealthy states, with well-developed art infrastructures, and large populations. On the other hand, Hong Kong and Singapore, while wealthy, have not so well-developed art bases, small populations and therefore few publications. Because English is widely spoken, readers are able to access international publications. The resulting situation is a lack of locally focused material in print. Indonesia has a more contradictory set of circumstances. It has a large population and, despite widespread poverty, a large and prosperous middle class. However, historical limitations on social and political freedoms and a lack of government assistance have meant poor art infrastructure and few local-focused contemporary art publications. Australia is an interesting mix of the above examples: it is wealthy and has a small population like Hong Kong and Singapore (although not as small), but its art systems are well established and broad based, like those of Korea and Japan. It boasts a number of home-grown, locally focused publications, as well as several that include coverage of Asia and the Pacific (in particular, of neighbours such as Indonesia and New Zealand).
So, a country’s wealth (and support from private enterprise and/or government), population size, language and art systems all impact on the success of an art magazine. The common link between Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea, Japan and Australia is wealth; yet Hong Kong and Singapore lack commercially viable, local/national-focused art magazines. Population size and therefore, audience, is crucial to the success of a publication; that is, the available number of people interested in such a product. Also crucial is the sophistication of the local/national infrastructure: commercial galleries, artist-run spaces, non-profit spaces, festivals, biennales, triennales, symposiums, research facilities, etc.
The point of looking at the conditions present in the above countries is to emphasise that each country has its own unique set of circumstances which impact the kind of publication that is available, and the kind of publication that is successful. It is important to recognise the differences between a publication representing the art of one country – whether Japan, The Philippines or China – and one covering the art of a region; in this case, Asia. Suddenly Japanese, Filipino or Chinese art has transmogrified into the moniker ‘Asian’. This occurs because of a shift in focus and audience; the audience is no longer local/national – it may not even be regional. It is global. Yet, even as the contemporary Asian art magazine must overcome geographical boundaries and position itself as a global product, paradoxically its content must be perceived as ‘local’. That is, each country and its artists must be represented, and feel some degree of ownership towards the publication. At the same time, to assume that all Chinese, Japanese or Indonesian readers are tuned into, and interested in the ‘contemporary Asian art’ phenomenon – largely a western creation – is misleading. Additionally, an English-language publication is not going to reach everyone. Realistically, any publication that seeks to cover contemporary Asian art will find it next to impossible to be everything to everyone. Inevitably, it will also find it difficult to be everywhere at once: a magazine’s psychological heart is dictated by its physical home, no matter how many correspondents dotted around the globe.
This global–local conundrum is a lesser problem for websites or ’zines covering contemporary Asian art. Although information still originates from a particular location, the speed and frequency with which material can be gathered from around the globe – its availability – means multiple viewpoints can be assembled quickly and easily. In this sense the internet is truly the child of globalisation: in cyberspace no one cares where the author is; precisely because the author could be anywhere and because almost everywhere is accessible. The internet is therefore very much suited to the task of presenting the discourses of and developments in contemporary Asian art. Its ability to transmit voices from around the world, to simultaneously exhibit and review artworks and to keep pace with the art of the region makes it an ideal medium. The challenge for online magazines and art sites is to change people’s perceptions about what they can expect from such a medium, to raise the quality of material, and to work hand in hand with ‘real’ art spaces and communities.
- Mon, 1 Sep 2003