It's a Bull Market!: Investing in the Future of Contemporary Asian Art

In 2006 the Asia Art Archive's online monthly Diaaalogue columns were inclusive and diverse, which is, after all, part of the organisation’s brief. However, it is human nature to attempt to find a pattern, a thread that binds together seemingly disparate subjects, and indeed I found several themes I thought worthy of discussion.

My first thought was of the writers themselves. As you would expect, there were viewpoints from inside and outside the powerhouses of contemporary Asian art. However, it seemed that there was quite a black and white divide, rather than graduations of grey, when it came to the positioning of the authors: on the one hand, we have pieces written by independent curators and critics based in Asian countries such as Myanmar and Bangladesh, Thailand and Hong Kong; on the other hand, we have essays from movers and shakers such as Caroline Turner (former Asia-Pacific Triennial Project Director, now at Humanities Research Centre, ANU), Alexandra Munroe (Guggenheim), and Melissa Chiu (the Asia Society) — writers firmly entrenched inside influential institutions that can make and break artists’ careers, and, interestingly, all from institutions based outside Asia. Ultimately, this sharp divide in authorship illuminated differences between the viewing of contemporary Asian art in Asia and in the West.

Alongside this well-worn trajectory of 'inside/out', another theme that emerged was that of the extraordinary level of activity around contemporary Asian art at the moment. It was surprising to note that within the discussion about mushrooming biennales and blockbusters, there was the feeling among some writers that in 2006 — and looking forward to 2007 in some cases — there was too much activity. Joe Martin Hill, in his piece on the conference that followed the 2005 Venice Biennale, questioned the sustainability of so many biennales and asked 'what and who are all these events for?'.

Martin Hill and Thai-based David Teh spelt out what many of the writers allude to: it's a bull market. New museums, new biennales, new markets. Art – and not just Asian art – is booming business for cities all over the world, as governments jump on the cultural bandwagon, hoping to gain kudos and tourist dollars from a Guggenheim here; a biennale there. Yet underneath all of this visible activity — the building of super museums, the scouting for exotic new biennale locales, the super-charged atmosphere of big money being spent at auction — are real investments being made in contemporary Asian art? As several writers point out, a lack of education and long-term foundations can have grave implications for the exhibition, curation, criticism and scholarship of art.

All this frenzied attention is somewhat new: for years contemporary Asian art has been marginalised and exoticised. Melissa Chiu refers to 2005 as the 'tipping point' for contemporary Asian art; the year when there was a 'marked, tangible increase in interest' from 'museums, private collectors and the art market, including galleries, dealers and the auction houses'. While Chiu is overwhelmingly positive about this turn of events, seeing opportunities for artists to gain exposure and for the art to reach wider audiences, Jonathan Napack concludes that the booming market for contemporary Chinese art has had a negative affect on artmaking, with artists producing work purely for sale at the big auction houses. Sally Lai makes the similar point: 'This surge in interest in Asian art is of course welcome but what is more important is that it amounts to more than just a passing phase and that the visibility of Asian art in the UK is sustained.'

Alexandra Munroe's piece on the Guggenheim investment in contemporary Asian art is an indication of the seriousness with which the field is now being taken outside Asia. Munroe states that the Guggenheim's program comes out of the board's feeling that 'the museum's commitment to Asia is critical in order to achieve true authority in international contemporary art'. As we read on it's clear the Guggenheim has set itself substantial aims: 'we aim to be a catalyst for the research, exhibition, collection and publication of modern and contemporary Asian art … to stimulate top-level critical discourse, scholarship, and curatorial activity …'

The Guggenheim is currently planning a retrospective of Cai Guoqiang's work — a show that will tour to China to coincide with the Olympics in 2008. Cai and many other Chinese artists who left China for New York or London or Paris in the late 1980s and early 1990s are now heading home to stay, or at least to exhibit their work. As successful products of the western art system, they resemble the system itself in its exporting then re-importing of culture. But, as Munroe also notes, the Guggenheim’s aim is ‘not to amass an encyclopaedic survey of modern and contemporary Asian art: other institutions in Asia are better equipped for this important and necessary work. Rather we hope that the quality of our collection will help establish a canon of art-historically significant works by Asia’s most innovative and influential artists’.

The concern I felt on reading this was not so much with western initiatives such as the Guggenheim's, but with the lack of initiatives taking place in Asia. Monroe's comment that institutions in Asia are better equipped to build comprehensive contemporary Asian art collections sees little evidence of this taking place on any scale. Of course, there are exceptions. As Caroline Turner points out, the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum has been collecting and exhibiting contemporary Asian art for many years.

Indeed, alongside the uber shows and the western institutions with their big budgets, in Asia alternative spaces for art are stepping up where there is little money for traditional forms of exhibition. Andrew Maerkle talked to Roger McDonald about how these alternative spaces operate in Japan to produce opportunities for artists, by orchestrating art events that take place on the Internet or for a very short period of time. Turner also notes that while museums are important, the role of individuals — of artists — in their communities cannot be understated: 'Artist-run spaces are so often the real sites of experiment and creativity.' This is true not only in places where the infrastructure of museums is inadequate.

In cities such as Hong Kong, artists struggle to find space and funding for their art. Jeff Leung notes that the social and the political have been usurped by the personal and the private. He also notes that this individual approach springs from the amateur status of art in Hong Kong: 'the anxiety arising from everyday life in Hong Kong make[s] art creation an amateur endeavour, that is, art as a "production activity" besides daily work. "Amateur" is the exact opposite of daily work in terms of time, space and spirit.'

As the Southeast Asian editor of the Documenta 12 magazine project, Keiko Sei discusses the inclusiveness of this dialogue, with 90 magazines from around the world taking part. However, as inclusive as the undertaking is, Sei comments that, 'in many ways … [the project] is an effort to engage the art community at the core of the western "center" '. And the comparison between, for example, European and Asian publications, is not encouraging: art publications in Southeast Asia suffer from a lack of resources and oftentimes from government control. Many publish online or infrequently to bypass the problematic expense of printing.

While alternative modes of exhibition may take place in Japan for financial reasons, they take place in Myanmar, for example, for other reasons. As Jacquelyn Suter notes, ‘a performance piece is an intangible; there is no evidence once its completed. A painting holds more threat; it can be confiscated and the artists prosecuted.’ Similarly, Internet publications and projects, while being cost effective, often allow the expression of views that would not be permitted in print.

The Internet therefore plays a powerful role in the dispersion of information, and projects like Documenta 12 would be impossible (or at least, unwieldy) without the Internet. The web has no doubt facilitated the profusion of art events by speeding up communication and planning, and by allowing virtual participation by a global audience — or is that global participation by a virtual audience?

The freedom of accessing information brings me to another of the common concerns found in the pieces discussed here: to the subject of the lack of critical writing on contemporary Asian art, and to the quality of the writing that is being done. Several writers including Keiko Sei and David Teh address this issue and note the dearth of opportunities for serious critical discourse within some countries in Asia. Teh notes that critical reviews are not frequent, and that often a review will act more as a marketing or promotional tool, rather than engaging seriously with an artwork or an exhibition. Curatorial shortcomings exacerbate the absence of critical discourse. In Thailand, Teh says, there is a ‘lack of intellectual mentoring and guidance' for curators, with 'curator' often being a 'fancy name for an organiser'. But Teh also finds positives in the lack of infrastructure in Thai contemporary art, with artists exhibiting a healthy ‘inclination to question the role of art — of artist, artwork and art gallery.'

While globalisation and the Internet promote democratisation, opportunity, and exposure, each artist must still operate in his or her own world. The flattening, the biennalisation of Myanmar and Bangladesh is already here, but does anything really change for local artists when the circus packs up and moves on? In countries such as these, the status of contemporary art is not well-established, and this uneven playing field remains an issue for regional cooperation. Jacquelyn Suter, writing on Myanmar contemporary art, asks us to look at the criteria in place for judging art. While most of Myanmar’s art deals with traditional subject matter, Suter finds several artists that offer opportunities for deeper reading of their work, despite their conventional medium. Similarly, in Ziaul Karim’s piece on Bangladeshi art of the 1990s, we find a survey of artists whose primary medium is paint (!) but whose motivations are very contemporary.

Taking my cue from Teh, we could focus on the positives that result in the absence of certain western ideals by championing the art that is being produced in artist-run, not-for-profit spaces, via the internet, in collaborative regional symposia, and through networking. In other words, on the ground. There is no shortage of great art being made: the question is, is it destined for a home in New York.





Wed, 1 Aug 2007

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