I have been asked to look back over the past year and to make a review of reviews, to analyze and comment on the monthly op.ed. 'Diaaalogue' that appears in AAA's monthly newsletter. And all of a sudden I'm part of it - no longer looking from the outside but adding my own ideas, prejudices, concerns… And this makes me wonder, 'what kind of conversation is this - a dialogue or a monologue? To whom exactly are we addressing all our words? Each other, to fellow archivists and art specialists, or to a cyber vacuum that is capable of swallowing and digesting almost anything?' Maybe if you fill a room full of monologues, lock the door and throw away the key, they will eventually start to talk to each other. But the reverse can always happen - they could coagulate into a vast incoherent monolithic monologue lasting for days, weeks, months, years …

My impression while reading and rereading these reports was that they are more 'Letters from the Front' than dialogues - reports that emanate from many different places and throw a fresh, sometimes quirky, perspective on aspects of Asia and its culture. And of course it's an impossible category - Asia that is - in that it is so diverse, wide-ranging, and rich in culture that anything you say or write can be immediately contradicted. I guess that's the point.

But before discussing content, - let's look at the distribution of where the different pieces come from and, sure enough, the essays reflect a mixture of news n' views about significant ideas, exhibitions and events relating to Asia throughout the year. In all of this South East and Eastern Asia do rather well with the exception of both Koreas, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar, and then of course there is Siberia, Eastern Russia, the former Soviet Central Asian Republics, The Himalayan Kingdoms, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, the Middle East, Turkey, and I've probably missed some out. It's an impossible category - Asia.

The general tone of the essays is informative but opinions are also expressed - sometimes strongly. In this respect I liked Lee Weng Choy's piece on 'Criticism and "the essence of contemporary Asian art"', which started the year. In this he unpacks some of the trickiness in ideas of cultural 'asianness', particularly when these are co-opted by governments - in this case Singapore - for promotion and hype. Good criticism should be lifeblood of art but unfortunately in Asia, as in many places elsewhere, it can be extremely difficult to find.

The majority of other essays did not have the theoretical ambitions of Lee Weng Choy and tended to be more reports on a status quo that was not so widely known. Brian Wallace wrote about how The Red Gate Gallery in Beijing had helped set up residencies at the Art Academy, initially for Australian artists but then with other institutions and for other nationalities, including Chinese. The speed with which things have changed in Beijing becomes clear in his narrative, which also follows the rapid development of artists' spaces. Robert Lee's piece on the Asian American Arts Center, which for over thirty years has been working in Chinatown in New York, was complete news to me and although I have no doubt that 'Asian Americanness' must be a pretty inclusive church, I was particularly impressed by Lee's discovery of the Philippine painter Vernancio C. Igarta, who stopped working in the early 1960s and nearly destroyed everything. He has been working again since the early 1980s and has now become a cultural icon back in his native country.

Matthew Turner's well-argued piece on the West Kowloon Cultural District in Hong Kong touched on my own experience, as I was one of the assessors of the tendered proposals for the competition. It was clear to all that the scheme had been badly conceived from the start and Turner's analysis of the dangers of unreflective 'value extraction' from culture and creativity hit the nail on the head. There's never such a thing as a free lunch - whoever's paying. In April Simon Winchester introduced us to his new family - or that's what it felt like - as he described his new baby, the relaunched quarterly Art AsiaPacific. It was a spirited read, as one would expect from such an established writer, but the metaphor of making a baby permeated the essay to such an extent but I was left in complete confusion as to what kind of relationship the mummy and daddy actually had.

This was a about as racy as it got during the year and in the following month we were presented with emerging 'scenes and scenarios' from Ho Chi Minh City by Sue Hadju. It was useful to learn the extent to which the city had changed since I was last there in 2000 with more commercial galleries and an artists'-run space and studios, but I had heard that yet another biennale was planned for the city and it would have been good to have learnt whether this was just another ugly rumour.

In June Oscar Ho bade a temporary farewell to Hong Kong as he headed off to run the new MOCA in Shanghai and, in the process, made, although from a different perspective, similar points on the Hong Kong art climate to those already made by Mathew Turner. After opening the new museum he returned to Hong Kong because the building and staffing resources there were not adequate to sustain it. Unfortunately, the same is true of visual arts infrastructure throughout a large part of Asia.

A similarly sad infrastructural story permeated Peter Nagy's account of setting up the first Pavilion of Indian Art at the Venice Biennale. Initially a group of enthusiasts wanted to show the human face of India against the background of the BJP's hysterical Hindu fundamentalism. When the government changed and the Congress Party again took control it seemed that there was a glimmer of hope that the government would also put its weight behind the pavilion. But then the tradition of centuries of Mughal and British bureaucracy took their toll and according to a carefully worked out policy of masterly inaction no answer was received from the government. It is to be hoped that by the 2007 Biennale at least some moral support will be forthcoming.

In August Raiji Kuroda, Chief Curator at the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, brought us up to speed on the 3rd Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale. This and the collection of the Museum have become important landmarks on the contemporary Asian art scene and the selection of artists this time seemed to be more consciously cutting edge than merely representative. Here there were works from Pakistan that touched on issues of Islamic fundamentalism as well as on other significant political and social events in the region over the previous three years. Another theme that emerged was the pervasive, seductive and possibly pernicious influence of popular culture in many parts of the region.

For ten years now Thailand has been one of the most dynamic and impressive producers of art in South-East Asia and Phatarawadee Phataranawik's article reprinted from The Nation on the new Art and Cultural Centre planned by the city for Bangkok's central Siam Square was good news. Activist artists' groups have been lobbying for this for years. Let's hope that this does eventually get built, as well as the new National Museum of Contemporary Art, also planned for Bangkok.

Bettie-Sue Hertz's essay about solo endurance performance art in contemporary Asia highlighted a category to which I had not previously given much thought. It has certainly become a significant element in contemporary Chinese art - although the writer refrained from recounting some of the more disgusting examples relating to the consumption of human tissue. But in the fast moving Chinese art world this tendency seems to have peaked about three years ago when the artistic community itself seems to have decided not to push the boundaries further. I am a little doubtful, however, about including Japanese artist Kazuo Shiraga in this category as, although the documentation of Challenge to the Mud 1955 looks as though it was an act of endurance, in effect, I think that the ‘performance' had more to do with the aesthetics of American action painting.

In November Hu Fang, Curator of the Vitamin Creative Space in Guangzhou, informed us about the 'Great Leap Forward' of culture in the Pearl River Delta. The jump, however, to which he referred was not to that of Mao Zedong but to the title of a book by Rem Koolhaas, a more recent ideologue, which provided a theoretical starting point for the curators of the second Guangzhou Triennale. Personally I find such slogans unusable unless suffused by a lacerating irony, but there was little sign of that here and Hou Hanru, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Guo Xiaoyan, the curators of the show, were well advised to use the more open title 'Beyond' for their new project. The exhibition was visualized as a process or discourse - as an urban, cultural and aesthetic laboratory informed by a series of workshops on such issues as urban sustainability that could continue as long as there was a need for them.

But the renewed cultural activity in the Pearl River Delta did not stop in Guangzhou. The annual international photo festival in Lianzhou set out to complement the Triennale in a more traditional way by revealing 'the duality in historical and humanist development through an image-based visual display that contains different types of media… '. Part of this included a selection of the war photographs of Shao Fei, a Chinese equivalent of the Soviet photographer Dmitri Baltermans, who documented the Eighth Route Army's skirmishes with the Japanese. Again I wondered 'is someone trying to be ironical?' because the terminology evoked echoes of a previous, almost forgotten age. I guess probably not. Although some of the nuance may have been lost in translation, Chinese art cannot, and perhaps should not, be completely expurgated of its Maoist past. In the New Economic Development Zone of Shenzhen, however, a different scent was in the air - the OCT Contemporary Art Terminal, a new industrial-type space, hosted former Hangzhou Art Academy enfant terrible, New York-based Gu Wenda's vast installation Forest of Steles - Retranslation & Rewriting of Tang Poetry. No humanist dialectic there.

The year closed with Binghui Huangfu, the Director of the Asia Australia Arts Centre in Sydney, who compared methods of cultural control in Cultural Revolution China, Singapore at the beginning of the millennium, and Australia now. The moral seemed to be 'better the devil you know than the one that dissembles', as well as the fact that the seemingly liberal multiculturalism of the west grows fat on mechanisms of exclusion and isolation - particularly now when our new enemy is terror itself, which is surely deep inside every one of us. She is right to be critical of all our capacities for stereotyping and suggested that the exhibition 'Asian Traffic', which started in Australia and travelled throughout the region, was a paradigm for avoiding this by promoting diversity as one of the greatest strengths of Asian culture. Rather than diluting any exotic Asian essentialism, diversity reaches out by increasing the possibilities for interaction of all kinds.

I found her sense of sense of mission and avowed intention of 'continually challenging the status quo' an infectious shot of energy at the end of the year. But the fact that she managed to organise an international touring show on a cash budget of $87,000 should be rapidly suppressed. Sydney should be able and prepared to pay a better price to get to know its Asian neighbours.

David Eilliott is the Director of Mori Art Museum, Tokyo. This piece was originally written for the AAA's annual printed newsletter.




Sat, 1 Apr 2006

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