Looking Back, Looking Forward: Asian Art and Asia Society

Looking Back, Looking Forward: Asian Art and Asia Society
Melissa Chiu bio

It has become something of a cliche to talk about the rise of Asia. Yet in the latter part of twentieth-century history it is hard to ignore. As one of the leading organisations in the United States devoted to examining Asia, the Asia Society, through its programs in arts and culture, business and policy, and education, as well as the establishment of centers in the United States and Asia, has reflected these dramatic changes. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Asia Society. Although much has changed since the immediate post-World War II period, when the Asia Society was established with a mission to educate Americans about Asia, one might argue that this mission is equally important today. The establishment of our centers, an integral part of the Asia Society’s evolution, and their expansion, is evidence of not just our own growth but also of the expanding need and desire from both U.S. and Asian communities to learn about Asia. Our center in Hong Kong was founded in 1990, and we have plans to open a specially designated building in the heart of Central Hong Kong with galleries and an auditorium, making it a key organisation in the cultural landscape of the city. Other plans include a building in Houston, designed by world-renowned Yoshio Tanaguchi and the recent founding of a center in Mumbai. These developments consolidate the work of Asia Society headquarters in New York and our centers in Washington, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Manila, and Melbourne.

One of the touchstones of the Asia Society's achievements has been in the area of culture. After nearly twenty years of collecting, Asia Society's founder John D. Rockefeller 3rd donated his exquisite collection of traditional Asian art to the Asia Society, which now forms the museum's collection. The Mr and Mrs John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection of Asian Art holds some of the best examples of traditional art, ranging from Indian Chola bronzes to Chinese porcelain. It has travelled the world in exhibitions of the collection and international loans to other museums. Since the establishment of the museum in 1959 (formerly known as Asia House Gallery), the Asia Society has been at the forefront of generating new scholarship by presenting exhibitions of traditional Asian art, often for the first time in the United States. Examples include the now seminal exhibition "The Art of Tibet" in 1969 and "The Chinese Scholar's Studio: Artistic Life in the Late Ming Period" in 1988.

Continuing this philosophy of being at the forefront of new scholarship, the Asia Society embarked upon a program of contemporary art exhibitions in the early 1990s. At a time when few museums in the United States included Asian artists in their exhibitions or collections, the Asia Society began with "Asia/America: Identities in Contemporary Asian American Art" in 1994. At the height of debates around identity politics and multiculturalism, this exhibition featured twenty artists from across the United States in one of the most important exhibitions of Asian American art that defined an artistic movement. The book published to coincide with the exhibition has become an important document for teaching in the field. Now, twelve years later, we are planning a follow-up exhibition to trace the attitudes of a new generation of artists whose relationship to a sense of being Asian in the United States is completely different. The exhibition, 'One Way or Another: Asian American Art Now', scheduled for September 2006, features sixteen artists, most of whom were born in the United States during the 1970s. This factor is a significant influence on how these artists articulate being Asian American in their work, as distinct from a previous generation whose concerns were more focused on an immigrant experience.

"Traditions/Tensions: Contemporary Art in Asia", mounted in 1996, presented works by artists from India, Indonesia, Philippines, South Korea and Thailand in one of the first large-scale pan-Asian exhibitions in New York. It was an important indication that contemporary art centers had begun to emerge in Asia and contemporary experimental works of an international standard were being produced. Artists such as Navin Rawanchaikul, Nalini Malani, Kim Sooja and Heri Dono were at the beginning of their successful art careers. "Inside Out: New Chinese Art" in 1998 was another first - in this case, the first major museum presentation of experimental Chinese art. It marked an important launch for many Chinese artists in the United States. The exhibition traced developments from the early experiments in the 1980s through the mid-1990s and the emergence of 'apartment art' from the unique conditions of artistic production in China. "Edge of Desire: Recent Art in India" in 2005 was the first museum survey of Indian contemporary art since the early 1990s and included nearly forty artists from across India, including urban, modern and adivasi artists in a unique curatorial overview of the visual cultures of India. Alongside our survey exhibitions have been in-depth single artist exhibitions. Notable among them is the retrospective of the late Thai artist Montien Boonma in the exhibition "Temple of the Mind: Montien Boonma", installed in 2003, while other exhibitions have featured new works by Cai Guo-Qiang, Ah Xian and Michael Joo.

In 2001, I was appointed by the Asia Society as the first curator of Asian and Asian American contemporary art in an American museum. This was an endowed position and a major commitment to shifting contemporary art towards the forefront of the museum’s activities, with its long-standing reputation for exceptional traditional art exhibitions. One of the first projects I undertook was the establishment of Asian Contemporary Art Week, a city-wide project begun in 2002, together with the Asian Contemporary Art Consortium, a group of collectors, dealers, scholars, curators and museum directors whose mission is to promote the work of contemporary Asian artists. This year, with a focus on Asian video art, the event is larger than ever with the participation of many new institutions, museums and galleries - testament to the fact that Asian artists are receiving the international critical attention that they deserve. The Asia Society has curated an exhibition to coincide with this event, "Projected Realities: Video Art from East Asia" that features works by leading artists from Korea, Japan, China and Taiwan.

With all of this, you might ask what does the future hold? I have often called 2005 a 'tipping point' for Asian contemporary art. If we look at the art world - museums, private collectors and the art market, including galleries, dealers and the auction houses - there has been a marked, tangible increase in interest across all three areas. No longer the sole domain of Asian galleries, museums in the United States, including general encyclopedic museums, are now mounting with increasing regularity exhibitions of Asian contemporary art. Up until five years ago, collecting Asian contemporary art has been the domain of a handful of devoted and passionate collectors; now a large number of new players who come from directions of traditional art or Western contemporary art have begun to show interest in developing serious collections. And finally, market foundations, especially for Indian and Chinese contemporary art, have been established through regular showings of Asian artists in galleries in New York as well by auction house sales in the last two years. This same year, The Grove Dictionary of Art published by Oxford University Press commissioned me to edit their first-ever inclusion of Asian contemporary artists in a special chapter. This marks one of the first scholarly endeavors and I hope it is the first of many more to come.

Parallel to these shifts in the United States is the growing recognition of experimental artists in Asia. This has been most dramatic in China where the splintering of the art world into official and unofficial (or experimental) artists, which defined the art world throughout the 1990s, has dissipated almost completely. With the first official China pavilion at the "Venice Biennale" last year, curated by overseas Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang, unofficial art became official art. If the Venice Biennale is any measure of the maturity or aspirations of a nation’s contemporary art scene then it is notable that China, Central Asia and India staged exhibitions for the first time in 2005, while Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea and Japan continued their representation at this significant contemporary art event. This is evidence of a desire to showcase contemporary artists in an international context. Other new developments in the region include the establishment of new museums, such as the Museum of Contemporary Art in Shanghai and another planned for Beijing (both under different management), and the emergence of a greater number of galleries and alternative spaces for artists to show their work. Our center in Hong Kong sits alongside these new developments. Collectors have also begun to collect contemporary art and some with notable collections are planning to open private museums. Biennials and triennials have also played a valuable role in establishing the notion of art centers outside the Euro-American axis and they continue to increase in number with the launch of the Singapore Biennale this year and plans to launch a Saigon Biennale. Yet in my view, one of the most important developments within Asia in recent years is the forging of new connections between the art worlds in Asia. I have observed museums in Asia collaborating on exhibitions together and artist exchanges within the region. For example, the Singapore Biennale and the Gwangju Biennale have been working together to promote and present their exhibitions. This is a clear signal that things are changing and a regional network of exchange is emerging.

Taken together, these developments in the United States and Asia bode well for the future of contemporary art in Asia. They demonstrate a greater recognition of artists and a receptivity to cultural differences that can be attributed to changes within the discipline of art history, which has felt the impact of globalization through a focus on a horizontal rather than vertical conception of art and history. It is my ultimate hope that through this we see Asian artists included in an international art history.


Melissa Chiu is Director and Curator of contemporary art at Asia Society Museum in New York. When she was appointed to Asia Society in 2001, she was the first-ever curator of Asian contemporary art at an American museum. Previously, she was Founding Director of the Asia-Australia Arts Center in Sydney, the first non-profit, multi-disciplinary center in the country to present an ongoing exhibition program of Asian contemporary art. She has taught at Rhode Island School of Design and was recently awarded a Getty Curatorial Research Fellowship. Ms Chiu has curated contemporary art exhibitions over the last ten years that include artists from Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, China, Hawaii and the United States, and has published widely in journals, magazines, and exhibition catalogues, including Art Asia Pacific Magazine, for which she was a guest editor in 2001 and 2003. She is a founding member of the Asian Contemporary Art Consortium in New York, and organized their annual city-wide event called Asian Contemporary Art Week from 2002 through 2004. She is Guest Editor for The Grove Dictionary of Art chapter on Asian contemporary art by Oxford University Press. Her PhD was awarded for research on contemporary Chinese art.


Editorial disclaimer - The opinions and views expressed in the Perspectives column do not necessarily reflect those of the Asia Art Archive, staff, sponsors and partners.



Melissa CHIU, 招穎思

Sat, 1 Apr 2006

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