The current spate of Asian names included in the roster of exhibited artists in the United Kingdom is perhaps a sign of the regnant influence of the East in present-day geopolitics. This can be beguilingly, encouraging and invigorating if one desires to read this gesture as indicative of the true arrival of the East, although this engagement could be in equal parts fear and fascination. But the questions put to me for the purpose of this column betray traces of suspicion and unease, a worry that the ‘favour’ shown will be withdrawn should the economic ascendance prove not to be so. This is especially tied to the perception of the business cycles of rise and decline in the art market bubbles, where the art of one nation will be superseded by its metonymic other as collectors, investors and speculators move to find the next new big thing. Nowhere is this better evinced than in the series of Asian shows at the Saatchi Gallery, which includes ‘The Revolution Continues: New Chinese Art’, ‘The Empire Strikes Back: Indian Art Today’ and ‘Korean Eye: Moon Generation’.
Yet I am more sanguine about the prospects than the prognosis given by cynical market watchers. Often have I been told that the study of global art history is the history of the global art market, but I do not believe that the latter wholly determines the former. Indeed, with the recession the auction price bubble has burst for contemporary Chinese art, but mainland Chinese critics and artists have opined that the subsiding of speculative fever may not be a bad thing as focus can now return to the more serious study and critique of art making. Aside from this post-market observation, one significant reason for my optimism is that there is already a perceptible drift in disciplinary boundaries for art, one that is not entirely the doing of the market but also a reflexive reconfiguration of politics and internal renovation within the study of art. The market publicity might have provided an all-important accelerating push, and one cannot be naïve about the abundant funding that this has created for the showcasing of Asian art, but to say that interest will come to a halt after the market juggernaut wanes gives little credence to efforts undertaken by academics, curators and artists to change the dynamics of interaction and critical landscapes. The more crucial task now is to track how the trajectory will move (i.e. the quality of the attention given) and to map out the next challenge in making, presenting and historicizing art in and from Asia.
And if the other geopolitical centres are truly emerging, then China, Japan, Korea, India and even Southeast Asia will themselves also be stepping up to the plate and picking up the slack. There is still plenty of room to play for inter and intra regionally. These Asian countries should, in any case, be displacing old concerns with Western perception and reception with another strategy that is about their own decentred self-fashioning, to use Stephen Greenblatt’s term, which is not in tune with constructions of identity according to a prevailing set of accepted standards, but with a motive to change the framework of construction itself.
This growing attention to Asian art has been spawned as offshoots in post-colonial studies and the accretive impact of visual and cultural studies and, as such, it is more difficult to put the gears into reverse as momentum in adjacent fields gathers apace. The concerted intellectual labour put into addressing the previously inadmissible or neglected is now very visibly part of discursive production. The capacious, heterogeneous embrace of visual studies towards other subjects (the non-artistic, the everyday and popular culture) and its commitment to the levelling of cultural hierarchies has helped gather more Asian production into the purview of exhibition and scholarship. The interdisciplinarity of visual studies comfortably accommodates the intercultural dimension, particularly if visuality purports to encompass ways of seeing the world and other practices. Academics such as W.J.T. Mitchell and James Elkins, who have usefully clarified the raison d’être of visual studies in their individual accounts of the field, both agree that its advantage is in its occupying a supplemental position to the straitjackets of art history and aesthetics, carrying a potential objective to make everything we look at now be estranging and filled with wonder and question. Hence Asian art is not the exclusively exotic object that it was before, but part of a new project that strives to make everything visual more exotic than before.
It must be said that the voracious appetite for Asian art has been mostly sited within the contemporary, driven by a misjudged fixation with what Terry Smith has termed the ‘condition of contemporaneity’. Smith’s more complex understanding of the multiplicity of meanings inhering within contemporaneity (the fissiparous social reality) and its relationship to the retreat of the historical meta-narrative is, however, usually forsaken for the anodyne translation of showing what is happening now, at the same time as the rest of the world. For Smith, contemporaneity is replete with antinomies; it is the difficult suturing of the local and the global, the persistent structures of a specific culture that somehow can have universal resonance, or the failure of broad strokes to connect with smaller constituencies. The concept, as a pathway into deep engagement with the present, also marks a turning away from the old social contract of the modern, where artists and society maintain a respectful distance and give each other what they want.
Incidentally, there seem to be two approaches for exhibiting contemporary Asian art and asserting its contemporaneity: either the cultural identity remains dominant, as in the nation-centric cases of ‘Indian Highway’ at the Serpentine Gallery in 2008 and ‘The Real Thing: Contemporary Art from China’ at Tate Liverpool in 2007, or it remains subsumed under an exhibition theme, such as the three Japanese artists (Yayoi Kusama, Yoshimoto Nara and Chiharu Shiota) in the Hayward Gallery exhibition ‘Walking In My Mind’. That having been said, international biennales behave as exceptions where the visible geo-cultural distribution of artists is important but the artists do not necessarily have to be reduced to ciphers of their countries. This rush to tell the stories of art from Asia is also not divorced from our preoccupation with urban-techno systems, economic flows and migration patterns. Yet seldom have national surveys won critical acclaim; the billing of ‘Indian Highway’ as a “snapshot of a vibrant generation of artists working across a range of media” comes across in many reviews as a compromised ambition, of showing many but saying not much. The shortcoming here is the laxity of curatorial vision rather than any fading of commercial attention. As such, it is strictly more imperative that creation and curation meets or surpasses its own standards of ambiguity, complexity and innovation.
But my hopefulness in this predilection with all things Asian does come with some provisos, particularly with issues and problematics that get tucked under the radar. The contemporary bias within Asian art at times unfairly eclipses the wider historical spectrum of aesthetic production (the ancient and pre-modern) and ignores past and longer histories of global interactions or the synchronic but autonomously produced work in other time periods. We are frequently missing the bits in between and narratives of Asian art are poorer for it. More often than not, artefacts of yore are kept and arranged by national demarcations, rather than explicated within an integrated setting with other antipodean objects. The pressure exerted by the contemporary may have advantageously delivered Asian art out of the safe nooks of ‘Asian collections’ and dedicated spaces such as Asia House and the Asia Society, but the pressure to answer to the needs of the present can sometimes speciously bend historicity to suit other exogenous criteria.
Craig Clunas puts this best in his LRB review of ‘China: The Three Emperors 1662-1795’ in 2005 when he writes:
It is inevitable that this contemporary relevance [the high Qing era’s parallel with the modern Chinese state] will be gestured at by anyone trying to make the exhibition ‘meaningful’. But this is the old Orientalist/Sinological trap, whereby anything Chinese stands for ‘China’ as a whole, and everything is connected to everything else. The objects and images on display at the Royal Academy were made to address their own audiences and needs, and it is patronising to make them serve ours too blatantly. Few of those who go down the road to see Rubens at the National Gallery will tease out the parallels between Rubens’s diplomatic career and the European Union. His work does not have to bear that load. As well as learning to pronounce their names properly, we have to let the Qing be the Qing.
Similarly, with ‘The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army’ at the British Museum in 2008, he again observed that the Qin dynasty artefacts were calculated to make analogies and allusions to the not-so-appealing but still edifying aspects of modern Chinese politics, despite the separation of two millennia. A man had in fact leaped over security lines to cover the figures with paper dust masks to protest China’s bad emissions record. Wilful readings of the terracotta army have again tended to project the figures as results of artistic individuation (portraiture) rather than the composition from an antiquated system of mass production by modular forms, which can be “combined and recombined and combined again into a simulacrum of diversity”. Clunas also objected to how the figures have been presented, whereby the homologies that run between calligraphic script and the human body were severed by the division of the exhibition into those distinct halves.
In a related point, Elkins has lamented that visual literacy and competencies for non-Western art have not grown in tandem with their visible inclusion, especially urgent since we no longer assume that aesthetic experience is derived from a universal response. He notes the lack of interest in non-Western methodology and narrative forms, a sustained effort in reading outside the West, which results in applied Western methodology such that the objects accord with Western norms. Instead he wishes for approaches to become more profoundly and radically multicultural (in concert with his plea for visual studies to become more obdurate and ferociously difficult), with constant crossings of disciplinary and imaginative lines. In his words:
A consistently multicultural practice should also be open to texts that cross two or more lines, becoming non-Western not only in subject matter but in the theories that serve as models and in the form of the writing itself.
Elkins cites Ken-ichi Sasaki’s exploration of the verb miru (to see or to have sexual relations) with the noun me (eye) from which Sasaki posits a compound expression of the seeing/eye that is active. Unlike the Western theory of perception that hinges on the passive reception of light, the Japanese notion conceives of perception as the intense experience of the searching out of objects, almost fusing the subject and the object in the act of forceful looking. Working out other hermeneutic entry points is perhaps not so appealing for exhibition makers and goers, but in the very least we can attempt to leaven the increasingly uninspiring and superficial spins in contemporary exhibitions. The obverse side of this approach to enfold non-Western methodology is that we might inadvertently be persuaded that there be some intractable native or national line that cannot be crossed. Gao Minglu’s Yi Pai theory that Chinese art now continues to uphold traditional transcendental principles against representation is a case in point. The theory tries to seek out the fundamental differences in aesthetic mentality between the Chinese and the West and provide Chinese art with the continuity of thought and practice. This is inculcated with ideas of synthesis and harmony from the time of the Tang dynasty. That is not to say that Gao’s point can be entirely dismissed out of hand but that we might be vigilant about the ways we close down on other avenues and vitiate genuine opportunities for new modes of inquiry.
The other oversight when talking about Asian art and artists is that we tend to elide the presence of Asian artists who have been living and working within the Europe and America for a long time, and therefore more understandably resist or eschew the ethnic or cultural bracketing with some vehemence. This pertains to artists who were working with the international modernist vernacular in mind and their desires to be critiqued via equitable standards of aesthetic quality and value. The sting of ‘derivativeness’ and being ‘not good enough’ possibly hits this group hardest. I have in mind ‘The Other Story’, an exhibition of Afro-Asian artists at the Hayward Gallery in 1989 curated by Rasheed Araeen and the brickbats it received from establishment critics like Brian Sewell. This group was galvanized by some common experiences and purposes, that of the struggle with racial politics in metropolitan centres and a sense that they contributed to the development of modernist aesthetics from within, that they participated within the mainstream. The inclusion of the Japanese artists at the recent Hayward exhibition might be seen as part of the larger trend of aesthetic rapprochement but these isolated examples are unsatisfactory in addressing the problem from an historical standpoint or in ascertaining the actual achievements and contributions of Asian modernists.
And if there is ever a legitimate reason to feel anxious about the institutional clamour for Asian art it should not be for the possibility that it will be fleeting. The trenchant issues relate not so much to the viability of Asian art and its public profile but what problems the new high profile paradoxically perpetuates. Arif Dirlik’s incisive analysis proves instructive here, for he makes clear that the multi-culturalist paradigm as a corrective to past Euro-centrisms is but a smokescreen for the continued operations of Euro-centrism dissipated through other capitalist requirements. Asian art may have found a base at the centre but is preoccupied with recognition from the Euro-American other and with accommodating its systems. It will indeed be a spectacular failure (in contrast to the failure to produce spectacular works) if Asian artists and the discursive production around them deny past revolutionary moments and consciousness and squander the chance to challenge existing structures and values of profit, power and domination.
Clunas, Craig, ‘At the Royal Academy’, London Review of Books, 1 December 2005, <http://www.lrb.co.uk/v27/n23/clun01_.html>
Clunas, Craig, ‘At the British Museum’, London Review of Books, 3 January 2008, <http://www.lrb.co.uk/v30/n01/clun01_.html>
Dirlik, Arif, ‘Is There History after Eurocentrism?: Globalism, Post-colonialism, and the Disavowal of History’. Cultural Critique, No. 42 (Spring, 1999): 1-34
Elkins, James, Visual Studies: A Skeptical Introduction, New York and London: Routledge, 2003
Mitchell, WJT, What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2005
Smith, Terry, ‘Contemporary art and Contemporaneity’, Critical Inquiry 32 (Summer 2006): 681-707
Adele Tan teaches and writes on art and art history, in particular contemporary art and performance in China and Singapore. She holds a PhD from the Courtauld Institute of Art (University of London) and was a recent Global Art and the Museums fellow at ZKM, Karlsruhe. For several years she was also Assistant Editor of the British journal Third Text.
- Thu, 1 Oct 2009