In 2005 in Fukuoka Japan I stood transfixed by an art work describing in horrifying detail the chilling scenario of a US 'pre-emptive' strike against North Korea followed by a North Korean nuclear attack on Seoul and the subsequent devastating effects on that city's population.
The text and web-based work by the duo of artists who comprise 'Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries' was displayed as part of the "2005 Fukuoka Triennale".(1)
The horrific effects posed by this art work we hope will never actually happen but art does not exist in a parallel universe separated from society. The theme of the Fukuoka exhibition, "Parallel Realities", with its focus on new and digital technologies and communications in a changing world, emphasized this fact and, at the same time, demonstrated that museums and art spaces do have a vital role in allowing artists to present and perform experimental work and to explore and debate complex ideas related to the realities of our world and of fundamental significance to communities and to humanity.
Among the many transformations in the Asia-Pacific region in the last decade has been the emergence of a dynamic contemporary art supported by museums, artist-run spaces, international exhibitions and critical networks for scholarship such as the Asia Art Archive. One of the most significant developments has been the growth of major exhibitions in Asia and the inclusion of artists from Asia in Biennales and world exhibitions. Undoubtedly, a new intellectual framework for art is under construction and the world has recognised that some of the most exciting contemporary art is created in Asia. This is hardly surprising considering the long history of superb creative production from Asia. Historical Asian art has of course long been admired and collected around the globe.
As I suggested in my 2005 book, Art and Social Change, overdue recognition of Asian contemporary art has paralleled geopolitical changes and the new economic and political power of Asia.(2) But are the very concepts of 'Asia' and other regional divisions, most notably 'the West', now outdated? Asia has always been a problematic term and scholars such as John Gray have suggested that the concept of 'the West' may no longer have any definite meaning outside the United States. The world continues to be divided ideologically as well as geographically but in art I think we are moving to a new way of seeing the world which transcends regional boundaries and outmoded stereotypical labels.
At the same time, while many art historians have argued that artists are now more globally directed and therefore it is not necessary to look regionally at parts of the world such as 'Asia', I argue that regional and local perspectives are still important but that these need to be explored with much more sophistication than in the past. This is not about building a wall around a region as Hou Hanru once famously argued – it is about understanding context: both historical and of the present.
What role do museums and artist spaces have in this?
Cross Cultural Exhibitions
In 1993 distinguished historian of Asia, Wang Gungwu wrote: 'I would like to believe that artistic exchanges enrich the cultures involved. How enriching, however, depends on whether the imaginative and sensitive exponents of any art receive the respect of those who support and judge them.'(3)
Cultural exchanges are not always on terms of equality but they can be a means of working towards greater mutual understanding.
Cross-cultural exhibitions such as the "Fukuoka Triennale" at the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum or the "Asia-Pacific Triennial" exhibitions which I was involved in developing in the 1990s at the Queensland Art Gallery in Australia, provide platforms for exchanges, for debates about contemporary society and for envisioning the future as well as presenting exciting art.
I became involved with international curating when I first went to Japan in 1982 and China in 1984. This initiated and led to a contemporary art exhibitions exchange between the Museum of Modern Art Saitama and the Queensland Art Gallery in 1987 and 1989 and other projects with Japan as well as a major historical exhibition for Australia from the Shanghai Museum in 1990. I also worked with a number of French museums from the mid 1980s on curating exhibitions from France for Australia. Networks and friendships have endured over the years and I am convinced that working cross-culturally is the most exciting way to curate exhibitions and to undertake research.
Working with the Shanghai Museum at a time of such transition in China in the 1980s and early 1990s was an extraordinary experience and I keep returning to Shanghai, most recently for the opening of the 2006 Shanghai Biennale. Working on contemporary art exchanges with Japan brought in another side to the equation: the excitement and challenges of curating exhibitions with living artists. In each case there is an audience to be considered. In some ways it was more difficult to explain to Australian audiences the philosophy of mono-ha in post war Japanese art than taotie on ancient Chinese bronzes. Past societies are easier to comprehend because strangeness is not confronting while the meaning of contemporary art from a different culture can be challenging.
Fukuoka Triennale and Asia-Pacific Triennial
The "Fukuoka Triennale" and the "Asia-Pacific Triennial" are two examples of how museums can provide a platform for fruitful artistic exchanges and for education programmes to help their communities understand different cultures. In the process both projects have transformed their respective museums.
Fukuoka has been a pioneer in exhibiting contemporary Asian art. The series of exhibitions begun in 1980 encapsulates a mission to overcome Japan's traditional isolation from Asia (and contested history when it did engage with Asia) in a radical and culturally inclusive art program which has helped to change perceptions about Asia in Japan. Research, artist exchanges and educational components are critical to the museum's mission and Fukuoka is almost unique in the world in being a museum solely devoted to contemporary Asian art and is thus helping provide a platform for Asian artists as they define new directions for art.
The "Asia-Pacific Triennial" (APT) was initiated by the Queensland Art Gallery in the early 1990s with the stated objective of informing Australians about the dynamic and changing societies of Asia and the Pacific, to initiate a dialogue among artists, scholars and writers in the region and to build bridges to Asian and Pacific cultures, including within Australia's own multicultural society. Nothing could have been more logical than for Australians to attempt to learn more about the societies and cultures of our near neighbours and of the backgrounds of so many of our immigrants. The project has become so popular with audiences that it is a key focus for the Queensland Art Gallery which will open a splendid new building in December 2006.At the same time the Fifth APT will open. This parallels the Fukuoka experience of opening a new specialised museum to house its Asian contemporary collections in 1999.
From the beginning we conceived the APT as more than an art exhibition. It was equally, as was the Fukuoka Art Museum, concerned with the education of audiences, creating a network of contacts with artists and art institutions, building a research base for further exhibitions and a permanent collection and serving as a forum for discussion about the art of the region. The project was always seen as a national project and, while it changed and evolved over the decade of the nineties, there were consistent elements to the first three exhibitions in 1993,1996 and 1999 for which I was, when Deputy Director of the Queensland Art Gallery, privileged to be APT project director. A key facet of the first three exhibitions was the principle of co-curatorship with curators in the region, a concept developed to avoid closed curatorial viewpoints. This also included younger curators being mentored as part of curatorial teams. An important component was the series of conferences held in the 1990s and developed in conjunction with scholars and artists from throughout the region. A critical emphasis has been on artists coming to Australia and engaging with local audiences in a programme similar to the Art Exchange Programme at Fukuoka. The enthusiasm of school teachers to use the Triennial to create a positive understanding of our neighbours undoubtedly derived from a motivation to combat racist elements in Australian society. More than 30,000 children aged 3 to 12 participated in the 'kid's APT' in 1999 alone with many more involved through the online activities and school visits.
In many ways the "Asia-Pacific Triennial" in the 1990s occupied the interstices of borders and time, encompassing the dreams, hopes, continuities and uncertainties of a world changing before our eyes. It was a revelation to curators like myself and to Australian audiences, as I believe the Fukuoka exhibitions have also been to Japanese audiences.
Contemporary cross-cultural exhibition projects such as these, whether or not initiated by museums as happened with Fukuoka and the Queensland Art Gallery, are important but museums also have the opportunity to provide collections and exhibitions which provide historical context, such as the current excellent exhibition on the art of the 1970s at the Singapore Art Museum, or to curate exhibitions such as proposed by Alexandra Munroe in a previous Diaaalogue. Her concept of an exhibition about the influence of Asian art on US art, 'American Art and the East', is excellent and overdue.(4)
I am currently working on two major research projects at the Humanities Research Centre at the Australian National University which involve a study of the role of museums in society: the first on art and human rights and which is about the role artists and institutions can play in shaping our hopes for a culturally tolerant and diverse future. The second is on Asian cities and cultural change. The latter is a project with Professors Meaghan Morris and Stephen Chan at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, also involving distinguished Hong Kong curator and artist Oscar Ho, and funded by an Australian Research Council grant. The project looks at the way that the cutting edge of change is now found in new cosmopolitan societies such as in Shanghai, Mumbai, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Seoul and Singapore and examines the proposition that the creation of a new imagined urban space is a 'major site of constructing identities, negotiating ways of living together, and both defining and staging community…'
I have been looking at the role museums can play in response to the needs of communities. This has included such issues as cultural inclusion and inclusion of indigenous and minority cultures within museums as well as issues of multiculturalism and the limits of tolerance within societies.
Are Museums Important?
Yes, but so are the initiatives of artists who have often in Asia been the most active forces for cross-cultural understanding.They provide the vital human dimension in terms of people-to people exchanges. Many artists are deeply committed to their communities and to exploring ways of helping those societies and humanity as a whole.
Just as important as the role of museums in my experience is the commitment of artists. 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.
An example is Cemeti Art House in Yogyakarta, founded in 1988 by artists Mella Jaarsma and Nindityo Adipurnomo.(5) Many of the artists associated with Cemeti took very significant risks during the Suharto period in producing work about social justice in Indonesia. Cemeti has also always been concerned with issues faced by the local community such as the recent natural disaster of the 2006 earthquake. In response the artists worked to set up relief stations and ran workshops for traumatized children.(6)
It is after all artists who make art.
As French artist Christian Boltanski has said: '…art is to do with our relation to the time in which we live. So if we want to understand society we should look at society's artists'.(7)
Jaarsma's work in the 1999 "Asia-Pacific Triennial" Hi Inlander (hello native) provides an example of the way artists confront issues of significance to humanity. The work consisted of hooded costumes covering the wearers except for their eyes and made from skins of chickens, kangaroos, frogs and fish. Those who wore the costumes were from different racial backgrounds and were thus invited to experience 'another skin'. The artist has said, 'I really wanted to create a work which could open up discussions between different kinds of people and to get people interested in different cultures, different religions and so on.'(8)
What is critical for the future is that avenues for such discussions continue. For this reason I am greatly looking forward to participating in discussions on cross-cultural projects and the future role of museums and artist spaces in responding to the needs of communities at the important Cultural Ecologies Conference in Hong Kong in November 2006.
(2) Caroline Turner, 'Art and Social Change', Caroline Turner, ed., Art and Social Change: contemporary art in Asia and the Pacific, Canberra, Pandanus Books, 2005.
(3) Wang Gungwu 'Foreword', Caroline Turner ed. Tradition and Change: contemporary art of Asia and the Pacific, University of Queensland Press, 1993, p. vii
(4) This large-scale exhibition 'American Art and the East' she wrote 'will illuminate the dynamic and profound influence of Asian art and philosophical concepts on American artistic practices of the early modern (ca. 1900-1945), postwar avant-garde (1945-1980), and contemporary periods (1980-present)'.Munroe's past record of superb exhibitions make this a project to anticipate as groundbreaking.
(6) 'CEMETI ART HOUSE WINS ACC AWARD, SPURS QUAKE RELIEF
NEWS/NEW YORK AND YOGYAKARTA' ,Art AsiaPacific http://www.aapmag.com/news-2.html
(7) Christian Boltanski 'Tamar Garb in conversation with Christian Boltanski' in Didier Semin, Tamar Garb, Donald Kuspit, Christian Boltanski, Phaidon London and New York,1997, 2001, p37.
(8) Quoted in the catalogue 'Witnessing to Silence: art and human rights', Australian National University 2003 (http://www.anu.edu.au/hrc/ahr/artists_jaarsma.shtml)
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