Contemporary Asian Art at the Guggenheim

We are following the path that will lead to an international common ground where the arts of the East and the West will influence each other. And this is the natural course of the history of art.

—Yoshihara Jirō, "A Statement by Jirō Yoshihara: Leader of the Gutai," 1958.

Presented as bolded text on the wall alongside the Guggenheim’s recent major retrospective of the Gutai, the above quotation applies not only to the intention of the Japan-based Gutai artists, but also to recent curatorial programming at the Guggenheim. Unprecedented among Euroamerican institutions is the museum’s recent focus on Asia as seen in the four exhibitions it hosted during spring 2013: Gutai: Splendid Playground, Zarina: Paper Like Skin, and No Country: Contemporary Art from South and Southeast Asia, as well as a small exhibition by the latest Hugo Boss prize winner, Vietnamese-born Danh Vo. The museum’s efforts to seamlessly integrate Asian-born artists into a larger canon of world art history is, at times, precarious, but generally successful in acknowledging alternative discourses that go beyond mere recuperation, or art history as "salvage project."

The curators of Splendid Playground, Alexandra Munroe and Ming Tiampo, ask how viewers might renegotiate art history’s long-held Western-centric assumptions regarding the origins and developments of different styles, discourses, innovations, and experiments. Splendid Playground neither exploits a subaltern "otherness" of non-Western, Japanese artists, nor ignores a series of alternative, and sometimes competing, narratives about modernism. While references to Western artists such as Jackson Pollock still make their way into the display, they are not included to authenticate Gutai or suggest it as merely derivative of Western artistic production; instead, Pollock is inserted into the conversation as an artist working contemporaneously with Gutai counterparts like Kazuo Shiraga and Kanayama Akira, who chose to respond to Pollock in the mid-1950s in what they assumed was the international art world.

Other exhibitions concurrent to Splendid Playground also attempt to work Asia into preexisting histories of art without necessarily subscribing to its assumptions. No Country represents the Guggenheim’s broader UBS MAP initiative, one that has enabled the museum to expand its collection of non-Western art. Although the show’s title pointedly suggests a desire to avoid curation by national representation, the arbitrary pairing of South and South East Asia as a region ultimately creates new boundaries and categorisations that compromise the show’s purported intentions. More successful is Paper Like Skin, a retrospective of Indian American artist Zarina, whose work focuses on issues of boundaries, maps, notions of home, and the properties of paper. As an Indian-born artist who lived and trained all over the world, later settling in New York City in the 1970s, Zarina presents a relevant case study of an artist whose claim to international status is concurrently based on her geographical and artistic peripateticism. While these exhibitions move towards the disintegration of definitive borders as a way to integrate Asia into an established canon of art history, questions remain as to whether these efforts at disintegrating borders paradoxically delineate other boundaries as limiting as those these shows attempt to challenge.

Gutai: Splendid Playground

Too often critics, art historians, and curators have framed the early works of Gutainamely those executed prior to their "discovery" by French Art Informel theorist and critic Michel Tapié in 1958as examples of "action painting." Emphasising the performative and gestural aspects of the Gutai artist’s hands, feet, or body, "action painting" as a category misses the extent to which the materials themselves were foregrounded. "Action painting" implicitly highlights the agency of the artist through his or her active manipulation of the materials at hand, thus reiterating the status of the artwork as the inert product of the artist’s labour. This narrative, which repeats the modernist paradigm of the artist-genius applying "his" skillful creativity to a set of raw materials to produce an artwork, effectively loses sight of the degree to which the Gutai artists sought to explore the materials’ virtual agency as inferred from how certain materials resist or challenge the physical efforts of the artist. As Yoshihara Jirō points out in the Gutai Art Manifesto, "When matter remains intact and exposes its characteristics, it starts telling a story and even cries out."

Featuring a collection of accompanying videos and documentary photographs displayed next to the Gutai artists’ final "paintings," the curators of Splendid Playground drew attention to a series of critical interactions between artists and their chosen materials. Murakami Saburō’s Passing Through (1956) is the trace of an exhaustive battle between man and material whereby the artist ran through twenty-one paper screens only to come out on the other end with a concussion. Previous exhibitions have displayed only the torn screens, a curatorial decision that underscored the effort expended in its making. Yet the series of photographs capturing different points at which Murakami exploded through the screens highlights the physicality, elasticity, and resistance of the painting support as the artist’s body is physically battered and transfigured by the paper canvases. Not only is the viewer directed to the resilience of the screens, but in walking alongside the rather large photographic reproduction shown in Splendid Playground, he or she may physically reenact the artist’s battle in real time, noting each impasse, grimace, and forceful shove through the numerous unforgiving swathes of paper. A video of Shiraga Kazuo’s Challenging Mud (1955) offers a similar glimpse into the artist’s confrontation with the materials, as the artist slips and stumbles, pushing and heaving intractable mounds of heavy, slick mud mixed with concrete. Here the material is just as capable of manipulating the artist as the artist is of manipulating it. In like manner are Shiraga’s Foot Paintings, videos of which were placed near Challenging Mud. Viewer attention is drawn towards Shiraga’s lack of control over the paint, whose slipperiness demands that he cling to a suspended rope for supportpaint escapes the painter’s grasp.

While the videos and photographs emphasise the performative aspect of these works, it is important to point out that the works were presented as paintings rather than performances or events. Hung upright on the wall, signed, and referred to as "paintings," these works insist on engaging with questions of medium. But instead of commemorating the artist’s triumph against materials, these works emphasise the materials as themselves capable of confronting and struggling against the artistthese are materials in possession of their own intentionality.

At the beginning of the Gutai show in a separate space of dim light connected with the rotunda is a room-sized, illuminated and suspended red vinyl cube, a refabrication of a work by Yamazaki Tsuruko. A short documentary on the wall explains that the work was originally shown in the 1956 Outdoor Gutai Art Exhibition, where, in opposition to the well-framed cube in the Guggenheim, the red cube was precariously hung from trees. While the original work was meant to invite the viewers to enter the cube "to create shadow plays for spectators standing on the outside,"1 the Red Cube at the Guggenheim exhibition does not project shadows. In the exhibition catalogue, Tiampo observes that "Gutai’s most poetic expression of its commitment to building democratic capacity can be found in its interactive works."2 However, in Splendid Playground, the degree and type of interaction between the artwork and the viewer is far less interactive and playful than the First Gutai Art Exhibition and its partner, the Outdoor Gutai Art Exhibition. Each of the artworks is presented in a partitioned section of the rotunda, and is installed or otherwise placed close to the wall, a decision that implicitly frames the works within a kind of canon in contrast to how the works were initially presented. Although viewers may experience the works from various angles and distances by standing on different points of the museum ramp, audience involvement is limited; for example, a security guard hovers around Tanaka Atsuko’s Bell to prevent viewers from pushing the bell which was originally meant to be pressed freely.

Citing Yoshihara: "the most important thing for us is to make contemporary art the freest site for people living in today’s trying reality, and for creation in such a free site to contribute to the progress of humanity."Tiampo views the Gutai mission in two parts: the first entailed a freeing of itself from wartime totalitarianism between 1954 and 1961, while the second consisted of an attempt to free itself from the excesses of Japan's postwar economic boom between 1962 and 1972.4 This attempt at liberation is not as effectively transmitted through the display of some of the Gutai works, a shortcoming perhaps attributable to the very format of the exhibition. As David Summers observes in his own efforts to define what a "world art history" might look like, it is difficult for exhibitions to convey "a symmetry between our feelings in the face of a work of art and the significance it might have had for its makers and users."5

Splendid Playground also leaves unanswered the question of intergroup dynamics. In negotiating Gutai’s position in the international arena of the avant-garde, the exhibition presumes a group solidarity that glosses over a nuanced understanding of how individual artists worked with, between, and even against, one another. To a large extent, the show still portrays Gutai as a group project sustained by Yoshihara’s ambition and hegemonic leadership. By opening the show with a quote from the Gutai Manifesto, the curators cast each individual artist as an executor, rather than an initiator, of Yoshihara’s goals. This narrative is further reinforced by the prioritisation of works by selected "star" artists like Shiraga, Shimamoto, and Kanayama whose works correspond most readily to Yoshihara’s call for automatism and artistic novelty. Yoshihara’s pivotal role in developing Gutai is undisputed, yet equally, if not more significant was how the members of the Gutai interacted with one another. Such dialogues are richly evident in the 1957 Gutai stage performance, whose video is oddly located at the section "Performance Painting." One first encounters Shiraga’s highly choreographed log cutting performance, followed by Kanayama deflating a giant balloon, and subsequently, Tanaka tearing off layers of her outfit. One wonders about the sequence of these performances and what it says about the Gutai as a function of specific interpersonal relationships. Although some sketches for the stage performance are displayed, they are juxtaposed with other drawings of much later works in the last section "Environment." It would have been useful to have foregrounded these artistic correspondences rather than prioritising individual members whose works best exemplified the ideals stated in the group’s manifesto and other related texts.

Consider the relationship between Shiraga Kazuo and his wife Fujiko, whose relationship has never been fully addressed in any Gutai exhibition to date. In Splendid Playground, Shiraga Fujiko can be seen in one of the videos actively engaging with the colouration and execution of Shiraga’s feet paintings. Yet her mixed media work from 1961 is located near the enamel paintings by Yamazaki without further explanation, as if the only aspect binding them together is that they were among the very few women artists in the group. By downplaying the interaction of the artists, the exhibition reinforces the myth of Shiraga Kazuo as an autonomous hero-creator.6 Notable too is that despite the frequent appearance of documentation accompanying the works, none of the photos recording the early Gutai shows at the Ashiya City Museum of Art before 1957 are reproduced in the exhibition. The architectural setting of the Guggenheim further reinforces this image by showcasing each artist and their works within isolated cell-like spaces. It is thus ironic that all Gutai retrospectives insist on portraying Gutai as a group, even as the artists worked both jointly and severally. Splendid Playground inadvertently foregrounds the need for a future Gutai exhibition that also considers the question of what it means to be part of a group.

In contrast to previous Gutai shows at Lugano and Tokyo, Splendid Playground usefully de-emphasises chronology in favour of a thematic grouping of works, a shift of focus that enriches our understanding the artists’ innovative approach to established categories of medium. Such a shift facilitates an understanding of Gutai as being parallel with, rather than derivative of, its Western counterparts. The stress on materiality and the formal specificities of artworks make the case for the agency of the group’s artists, an argument necessary in challenging the tendency to think of cultural encounters in terms of grand narratives.

Paper Like Skin: Zarina Hashmi

Tucked away in the peripheral galleries at the Guggenheim Museum, Paper Like Skin is a retrospective of Zarina Hashmi’s subtle prints, drawings, and sculptures. Her work has often been described as minimalist because of its simplicity and grid-like iteration of forms; Shadow House (2006), for example, is one of Zarina’s larger works on paper that consists of neat rows of vaguely house-shaped cutouts arranged in a grid. The cutouts allow the paper to cast distinctive shadows on the wall, giving the work a certain sculptural quality. Although similar adhesion to a grid format or serial organisation can be seen in the minimalist works of Carl Andre or Donald Judd, Zarina is careful to note in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition that she "never thought of the grid as a modernist invention."7

Paper Like Skin includes work by Zarina from the 1970s until the present. Avoiding a strict chronological approach, the exhibition presents a selection of her work from the 1990s and 2000s in the first room. Directly across from the entrance of the retrospective is a large, glaring gold work, appropriately titled Into the Blinding Light (2010) and made out of Japanese okawara paper gilded with 22-karat gold leaf. Most of the first room is filled with recent works that include an array of ambiguous and abstracted map-like prints and the aforementioned Shadow House (2006) and Shadow House II (2006). The center of the room is occupied by a large, circular display that serves as an archive of miniature-like prints titled The Ten Thousand Things. In a semi-circular shaped room in the back of the exhibition are two distinct but serial works: a series of prints called Home is a Foreign Place (1999) and one of the few objects in the exhibition not composed of paper, Crawling House (1994). While Home is a Foreign Place, a series of thirty-six prints of abstracted forms that include Urdu calligraphy, resembles many of Zarina’s prints in the adjacent room, Crawling House consists of sharp, angular metal forms that are mounted like a flock of birds against the curved wall. The juxtaposition of these two works, both of which refer to home and travel, reflect a tension between materials, Zarina’s notions of home, and her personal history of travel.

The most compelling works are those from the 1970s, made when the artist first relocated to New York City. Placed together in a dimly lit room towards the end of the exhibition, these works include paper that has been torn, scratched, poked, or even knotted through. Untitled (Pin Drawings), 197677, consists of twenty framed pieces of BFK paper through which the artist systematically poked embroidery needles of different lengths and thicknesses. The result is a series of stunning, textural pieces of paper that range from very ordered grids to more chaotic and ambiguous formations. Made during Zarina’s early years in New York City, the works bear the trace of gestures that mimic those involved in the production of crafts associated with feminist explorations of pattern and decoration in the 1970s. Yet these works were decidedly abstract, their insistent whiteness recalling painting of other artists engaged with the possibilities of monochromy, including Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Robert Ryman. In her choice of gesture, materials, and affiliation, Zarina provocatively throws into relief the tension between identitarian and formalist approaches to artistic production in a way that vigorously resonates with present struggles over the interpretation of art recognised in the wake of the "global turn."

Overall, Paper Like Skin leans towards works that Zarina made within the last twenty years, featuring her interest in home, borders, and maps over some of her more interesting paper works from the 1970s. Perhaps this emphasis occurs because these later works allude to her identity as a diasporic artist; her abstracted maps and geometric rendering of floor plans can be connected to Zarina’s dislocation and compressed sense of space, the presumed response of an artist for whom physical movement and mobility acts as a kind of support, or medium. By having Zarina’s later works emphasised at the beginning of the show, the retrospective seemed primarily concerned with linking Zarina to ideas of global displacement as a means of conforming to certain consensus views of international art where an artist’s physical mobility is a necessary condition for acknowledgement. Works like Untitled (Pin Drawings), 197677, or Fence, 1976, in which the artist scratched a border around a piece of paper, explore the material properties of the paper support over the presented image by highlighting paper’s ability to withstand, as well as call attention to, its pulpy, fibrous qualities. Giving more attention to these works would more effectively place Zarina in conversation with the larger Splendid Playground exhibition of Gutai art, thus opening up the potential for broader discussions about abstraction outside received mainstream histories.

No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia

No Country: Contemporary Art for South And Southeast Asia is the first exhibition of the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative at the Guggenheim Museum. The Guggenheim UBS MAP series is an initiative backed by UBS that will allow the Guggenheim to expand its collection in three broadly defined geographical regions: South and Southeast Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East and North Africa. As a part of the MAP series, the Guggenheim will not only expand its collection to include artworks from these areas, but has also planned educational programming around this expansion that includes a series of lectures and a curatorial scholarship from regional scholars and curators. June Yap, the Singaporean curator chosen for No Country, is the first of three regional curators recruited by the Guggenheim under this initiative. Featuring the work of twenty-two artists from India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam, the exhibition "proposes an understanding of [South and Southeast Asia] that transcends physical and political borders,"8 by focusing on regional and intra-local cultural practices, networks of influence, and histories that inform ethnic and cultural subjectivities.

As both the date of the exhibited works and their sheer diversity attest, all of the works featured in No Country are recent acquisitions. Indeed, so overwhelming was the diversity that the only common ground shared by the artists was that their national and ethnic origins happened to fall within the regional boundaries of "South and Southeast Asia" as imagined in the West. While the diversity was likely intended to reflect a laudable desire to be as expansive and inclusive as possible, it also doomed any chance the show had at visual or narrative coherence. On some level, the absence of coherence read as a deferred throwback to the 1990s, in particular of the sprawling style of curation championed in such exhibitions as the influential Cities on the Move. Yet where the chaos of Cities on the Move felt purposeful, the effect here was less controlled. One wonders whether it would have been less burdensome and more forthright to simply call the exhibition Recent Acquisitions.

There is a clear distinction in the rhetoric used by the Guggenheim Museum and UBS Bank to frame the joint MAP Initiative. Yap and the Guggenheim explicitly position No Country and the MAP Initiative within existing critical academic frameworks, highlighting the importance of the project in challenging "Western-centric [views] of art history," and providing space for a more inclusive and truly global view of contemporary art practices. In contrast, when praising the global outreach of the MAP Initiative, UBS representatives often emphasise the economic vibrancy of these regions and the myriad investment opportunities for their clients; Jurg Zeltner, chief executive of UBS Wealth Management declared as much, stating that "art is becoming more and more of an asset class, [and] UBS is looking to increase our profile in these kinds of special fields of interest."9 While many observers will find the disparity between these institutional articulations unremarkable, the need to explore the symbiosis between museums, the art market, and corporate interests is especially urgent given the accelerated rate at which both the market and infrastructure for contemporary Asian, especially contemporary Chinese, art has expanded in the past decade. That the installation of No Country bore more than a passing resemblance to an art fair made the exhibition a good point from which to think about the relationship between the market and institutional decision-making.

It was ironic that although No Country hoped to direct focus away from differences between countries, the overall effect did just that, an effect partly exacerbated by the lack of space given to the show as a whole. Large-scale works often spanning whole walls crowded the small gallery space and the rich discourse evident in the public programming accompanying the exhibition was all but absent from the show itself.

One of Yap’s goals for No Country was to create alternative visions of the region that break away from hegemonic representations of South and South East Asia as clearly defined spaces. Explaining in her curatorial introduction that, "contrary to what the exhibition title appears to assert," the true focus of the exhibition lies within the highly personal biographical experience of the artists, and that reductive views of culture and community overlook complex exchanges of dialogue, resistance, and assimilation. "Television Commercial For Communism," by the Propeller Group, is a one-minute video envisioning what would happen if the five remaining communist countries hired a publicity firm to rebrand communism. The inclusion of the Propeller Group illustrates the futility of classifying artworks according to arbitrary national boundaries. A group formed in California and based in Los Angeles as well as in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, it is impossible to classify the Propeller Group as simply Vietnamese. Projected onto the overhang of the entrance to the exhibition, Tran Luong’s Lap Lòe shows a red silk scarf typical of the uniform worn by Vietnamese school children under communist rule whipping against a man’s bare chest. Tran’s work is meant to illustrate the oppression that Vietnamese people faced under communist rule. The young man embodies the rationale of No Country, whereby history and culture are literally inscribed upon the bodies of men and women. But such immediate legibility frequently compromises the possibility of more involved engagements with the works. Perhaps as these recent acquisitions are integrated into the Guggenheim’s collection, future scholarship can exhibit works by artists from South and South East Asia not by region, but by shared commitments to particular issues that could then aggregate into more inclusive views of contemporary art. The UBS MAP Initiative satisfies the important first step of acquiring works of contemporary art from outside of Europe and the United States, yet one asks whether geographical expansion must necessarily mean the prioritisation of certain kinds of content, certain sets of expectations, and by extension, certain audiences. For whom are such exhibitions intended and why?

The Guggenheim substantially invested in new acquisitions of artwork from South and South East Asia as well as organising and hosting an impressive array of educational programmes related to the new and coming exhibitions in New York and throughout the world. All this suggests a serious intention to "catalyse dialogue and creative interaction both regionally and globally, fostering lasting relationships among institutions, artists, scholars, museum-goers, and the online community."10 The discrepancy between how No Country was framed and the experience of actually seeing the exhibition unintentionally illustrates a key dilemma underwriting the field of contemporary Asian art. Are artworks served by the rhetorics deployed on their behalf or are they made to conform to the political agendas such rhetorics serve? Must artworks be primarily justified as symptoms of some broader social or cultural issue or in terms of their market value? How do we also consider the actual experience of encountering the artworks?

Beyond Mere Expansion

As a whole, the three exhibitions reflect the Guggenheim’s effort to offer different approaches to framing contemporary art outside a Eurocentric framework. All attempted to reconceptualise the direction of artistic exchanges without privileging any nation or culture as the ultimate reference point to varying degrees of success. In trying to engage with and problematise the very notion of "world art" by disintegrating cultural borders and highlighting artistic agency through a sustained focus on artists’ engagement with materials, all three exhibitions demonstrate the challenges of historicising contemporary Asian art through the medium of the museum exhibition. There is still a crucial need to reflect on such questions as the reenactment of ephemeral performances and artworks, the need to pay close attention to the issues raised by what we see of the artwork and the challenges of upholding the ideals of "borderlessness" without sacrificing curatorial vision. That an institution previously devoted mainly to Euroamerican art should feature contemporary Asian art so extensively, however, is a bold and encouraging step towards bringing the idea of a global art history to fruition.   



1. Ming Tiampo, "Please Draw Freely," in Gutai: Splendid Playground, eds. Ming Tiampo and Alexandra Munroe (New York: Guggenheim Museum, 2013), 55.
2. Ibid., 55.
3. Yoshihara Jirō, "For Publishing this Pamphlet," Gutai, vol. 1 (January 1955): 33.
4. For the details of the two stages, see Tiampo, 45.
5. David Summers, Real Spaces: World Art History and the Rise of Western Modernism (London: Phaidon, 2003), 33.
6. For a discussion of Fujiko Shiraga’s role in Shiraga’s feet paintings, see Tomii Reiko, "Shiraga Paints: Toward a 'Concrete' Discussion," in Kazuo Shiraga: Six Decades, eds. Tomii Reiko and Fergus McCaffrey (New York: McCaffrey Fine Art, 2009), 26.
7. Sandhini Poddar, "The Garden of Dark Roses: Zarina in Conversation with Sandhini Poddar," in Zarina: Paper Like Skin, ed. Allegra Pesenti (Los Angeles: Hammer Museum, 2012), 168.
8. The Guggenheim Foundation, Guggenheim UBS Maps Press Release, 21 February 2013.
9. Quoted in "Guggenheim Project Challenges ‘Western-Centric View,’" New York Times, 11 April, 2012.
10. See the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative description and overview at


At the time of writing Rachel Chamberlain, Chun Wa Chan, Gerui Wang, Tina Le, Steven Apotheker, David McClure were graduate students with Joan Kee, Assistant Professor, in the Department of Art History at University of Michigan.



Chunwa CHAN




Tina LE

Gerui WANG

Sun, 1 Dec 2013

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