I spent a few weeks in Europe this June going to the Venice Biennale the Basel Art Fair, and the opening of the Alors la Chine? exhibition of contemporary Chinese art at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. This caused me to reflect a bit further on the role contemporary Asian art in world art discourses and what this might mean for re-defining modernity in art as such. I have written some reviews which will appear elsewhere so this is a kind of overview. By the way, unlike some curators, I think the modern comprises the contemporary which is thus sited in history, and not the other way around. Of course that history can be plural.

If modern and contemporary Asian art is a set discourses which goes beyond, travels between, or is found in common between different Asian state-units – in which grouping I for one include Australia – then there does seem to be a range of strategies for circulating art works within and outside this grouping.

Type One is the entry into the power centres, chiefly the Euramerican Biennales like Venice, or the art markets like Basel. Another strategy attempts to position parts of this grouping in Euramerica, like Traditions, Tensions, in New York in 1996. Some contemporary Asian art may even be included, under a flag of convenience as it were, in attempted inversions of hierarchy from an internal Euramerican problematic such as The Other Story in London in 1987. In addition, there is always room for the state-focussed retrospective of recent art such as the various Korean shows overseas in the 1980s introducing the Seoul School, or much of the positioning of the so-called ‘unofficial’ Chinese art in the 1990s, as well as recent Chinese state support for exhibitions like Living in Time in Berlin 2001 or this year’s Alors, la Chine? All of this art makes a claim for membership of the great club of modernism, and demands acceptance of its masterworks in side those monuments.

Type Two, in parallel, and sometimes counter to this move into Euramerica, is the attempt to make Euramerica come to Asia, by the founding of Biennales and Triennales which position Asian art on a world stage sited in Asia. Kwanju and Yokoahama belong to this type.

Type Three, alongside is the attempt to make a Biennale or Triennale which redefines and brings into contact Asian or sometimes Asia-Pacific art as in Brisbane from within, without invitation of the grand names from Soho if their bearers cannot be identified as ‘Asian’.

Types Two and Three are slightly disingenuous in practice, however grand their principles, because they are at least partly intended to make Euramerica pay attention to Asia, and to ‘our’ contemporary art being the equal of ‘theirs’. Transparently many of the Asian Biennales and Triennales are outwardly directed in this way.

Fukuoka, which unfortunately I have been unable to see, has been the bravest in continuing to expand its definition of Asia - although unfortunately not far enough South to include Australia. It is also, like Brisbane, trying to extend the definition of art practice out into the street and include many artefacts which are the subject popular or mass aesthetic appreciation which do not fit into a Euramerican derived ‘fine art object’ category. This tendency is important because it works along with the exhibition policies of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore at Venice, and this year of Indonesia and Iran, to place works from their own art discourses into international circulation which would not otherwise receive such exposure. The long-term possibility will be to redefine the canon of art works definable as monuments or datum works of modernity, as well as, in future to expand the notion of ‘modern art’ as such by the incorporation of the quotidian. If China and India were both to exhibit at Venice this trajectory could be greatly reinforced.

But if all this happens, will the definition of modern art change away from that originating in Euramerica? It should because the range of works and the range of historical experiences modern art works are based will have immeasurably broadened. We may also begin to see works which emerge as modern other than from the reflexive relation of Euramerican modern art to the academy. The frame of the set of modernities will be broadened, thus re-defining any particular modernity within it, and relativising that of Euramerica.

But caution needs to be exercised. Art works enter exhibition spaces because a special class of mediators called curators says they may. Even ‘popular art’ exhibitions would be organized through the same group of selectors. Unrestricted invitation of the audience to curate their own exhibitions would break the discourse called ’art’ which depends on restricted rules to generate open interpretations, not open rules to generate the restricted interpretation of each audience/curator. Curators, however innovative their proposals, are habituated to recognizing audiences, and even if they expand or vary the audiences they think their exhibitions will appeal to, they will still be engaged in making pre-selections against assumed criteria of taste or, these days, expected patterns of interactive ‘participation’ in the art work. And curators talk to curators as much as they talk to artists, so we may expect views once haphazardly varied by distance, communication speed, state policies and patterns of cultural exchange now to become more, not less homogenous, even at the international level.

If we may now, after Beuys, all be able to become artists, or after Duchamp, say what is to be an art work, we are not all able to become curators. Maybe a modernity re-defined in parts of Asia (or Dakar or Mexico or ….) will be able to re-define the contemporary itself, but it is too soon to say.




John CLARK, 姜苦樂

Fri, 1 Aug 2003

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