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Contemporary Art In Asia – A Critical Reader

Contemporary Art In Asia – A Critical Reader

by Melissa Chiu and Benjamin Genocchio, Editors
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2011
320 pp., 38 illus., 16 color. Paper, $29.95/£20.95
ISBN: 978-0-262-51623-5.

Reviewed by Ellen Pearlman
University of Calgary


Melissa Chiu and Benjamin Genocchio have edited an critical reader on Asian Art as a starting point for what hopefully will be more books on the subject. Chiu, Director of the Asia Society Museum in New York, and Genocchio, Editor-in-Chief of the publication Art Info, are a powerhouse duo whose Pacific Rim perspectives propel Asian art studies up a notch in a Western-centric art world. A compilation of essays about the “changing nature and reception of contemporary Asian Art in Asia and the West over the past two decades,” the book strives to be all-inclusive. This creates a somewhat blotchy snapshot of the current state of affairs a some nations are still grappling with that old war horse Marxism, while Chiu's argument about transexperience is timely in light of the hemisphere’s rising economic power. There is an emphasis on the rich cultural traditions that have their own biennials and triennials, museums and alternative spaces with the underlying message being Asians are finally gaining control of their own cultural representation.

Open and Closed Discourses of Modernity in Asian Art (1993) by John Clark is the most pithy piece mapping out Asia geographically as “The Sakhalin Peninsula . . . bound by the Siberian Steppes to the north and the Indian Ocean and Straits of Timor to the south . . . .” Clark disparages those parts of Asia that redefine themselves through contact with the other saying there is “often depredation at the hands of an 'other' . . . privileged  the Euramericanization by denuding of value the Asian interface of modernity,” meaning when you take an art form like English oil painting and move it to 19th century Japan is that “appropriate contextualization?”

A salient and critical point he makes about modernity as the discourse of Asian cultures is that their art cultures are often depriviledged by the fact they did not originate modernism and its recent derivative, postmodernism. He defines modernism as a discourse that privileges a linked series of artistic developments for a group of EuraoAmerican cultures that have modernized according to primary political, social, or cultural criteria.  He adds that when artistic techniques jump across cultural boundaries in ways that are neither apparent nor relevant to the discourse of interpretation from the originating culture, this discourse is often interpreted as “bad taste.” “Newness” can be thought of as “other.”  “The issue ultimately revolves around which and whose interpretative codes are to be sovereign.”  EuroAmerican codes favor rhetoric that privileges interpretation and is opposed to rhetorics that work against clarity. This explanation goes a long way towards explaining the difficult attitude in the artworld towards less developed countries arts practices and is a refreshing and necessary explanation of said attitudes.

In Why Cubism (2006) Takehata Akira declares Cubism was never part of Asian art, but, nonetheless, penetrated into all its major cities. Proffering an invaluable timeline in deconstructing aesthetic styles since colonialism came to Asia, he says Picasso stole it from Africa. The style showed up in Japan and China in the 1920s, Korea, India, and Sri Lanka in the 1930s, and Southeast Asia in the 1940s and 50s. It spawned both urban cosmopolitan and rural aspects that were further reified by ethnic and religious cultural fragmentation and regionalism.

Many essayists take issue with the Western notion of “other” or the “exotic. In The Politics of Curating 'Contemporary Korean Art' For Audiences Abroad, (2002) Young Min Moon questions how  Korea is perceived by Westerners and asks if there an essential quality in Korean Art. He argues that most Western art institutions base themselves on tenants of postmodern nihilism and post conceptualism.  Lots of 'otherness' results in loss of identity. In Radicalizing Tradition (2000) Salima Hashmi examines the tradition of miniature painting at National College of Art in Lahore during the 1980s. The school, set up by British in India in 1875, always distinguished miniature practice from mainstream art. Students are still required to grind their own pigments. They also must take a single strand of squirrel hairbrush, dip it in lamp black and paint under under the tutelage of two Ustands or masters. This practice contradicted the hegemony of oil-based paints brought by British colonizers and particularly encouraged women to use water based painting and printmaking. After the collapse of Mughal empire, miniature painting waned. Since, as Hashmi says, “a visual practice has to justify retaining its vocabulary,” it was reconstructed and now confronts the identity of the Muslim State, Wahabi fundamentalism, dress codes, social behaviour, language monitoring, and the discouragement of figurative art.

Chiu's essay, Theories of Being Outside: Diaspora and Chinese Artists (2007) sets up a new genre of interpretation. First used to describe the Chinese diaspora of the 1980s when artists from the banned Stars group fled to France, England, USA, Japan, Switzerland, and Australia, by the end of 1980s and early 1990s these same artists were tackling what it meant to be Chinese across borders, an experience she refers to as “transexperience.” In transexperience homeland is still prioritized with multiple rather than duel experiences of diaspora. Chiu argues that it summarizes the complexity of leaving one's native place and going elsewhere, adapting to a new environment, and relying on change instead of a static cultural identity. One's homeland is past and the host country is present with no fixed moment of migration.

She cites the recovering of Chinese iconography as a way of juxtaposing memories of China with current reality and the modification of Chinese signifiers (Chinese characters) to make them accessible to non-Chinese audiences. China becomes a current influence rather than frozen in a moment, and the artist, most often not fully accepted by their host society, maintains a collective vision about his or her former homeland.  Transnationalism is a kind of third culture, not a third space. Salman Rushdie uses the metaphor of broken mirror and scattered shards to show its perspective is not a “tool of nostalgia” but an actual reworking of identity. What is most useful about the term transexperience is parts of it can also be applied to Western artists taking the opposite tack, setting their sails to Asia.

Last Updated 4 November 2011

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