Things Fall Apart; The Center Cannot Hold

Over the past decade, Asian and Pacific artists have received increasing attention from events and institutions that have long reflected the viewpoint of a presiding Euro-American cultural establishment. The current presence of these artists in curated exhibitions as well as at newly-established national pavilions at the Venice Biennale speaks both to the relevance of art from the Asia Pacific today and the disintegration of the very notion of establishment itself. Instead, East, West and all points in between are closer than ever to operating on the same platform, aided by developments in communications technology, travel economy an the efforts of curators who have broadened existing paradigms of cultural value.

Last year, we celebrated the rise of Asia’s biennials, but this year all eyes are fixed on Europe and the once-in-a-decade alignment of its most prestigious art festivals: the Venice Biennale and, in Germany, documenta in Kassel and sculpture projekte münster. While these festivals no longer have the power of validation they once held, they still exert influence on the direction of contemporary art. Their curators have the opportunity t either reinforce boundaries within the Western art historical canon, or turn those boundaries inside out. Will this year be a benchmark for redefining contemporaneity?

We took our question to the curators themselves, arranging a dialogue between Robert Storr, the director of this year’s Venice Biennale, and Hou Hanru, director of the Istanbul Biennial, which celebrates its 10th edition in September. While Storr and Hou come from different generations and backgrounds, they share a passion for challenging viewers to question and experience art to its fullest. Deputy editor Andrew Maerkle ties together Venice, documenta and Münster by conversing with Ruth Noack, curator of documenta 12, Kaspar König, who has been working on Münster from its inception, and Israeli artist Guy Ben-Ner, who represented Israel at Venice in 2005 and is now participating in Münster. And our international desk editors and contributors preview Asia Pacific pavilions at the Venice Biennale, providing details on what to expect and on the factors that shaped the national entries.

While documenta is notoriously close-guarded about publishing its artist list, we profile two artists you might encounter this summer. Gregory Galligan reviews the career of Nasreen Mohamedi, whose minimalist drawings and conceptual photographs are part of profound poetry or, as Mohamedi once described, “What geometry one finds on a beach.” Charles Merewether, currently working on a book about Ai Weiwei, provides insight into the artist’s unique perspective by revisiting the crucial “Fuck Off” exhibition coinciding with the first international Shanghai Biennale in 2000. Counter to this, Philip Tinari ducks away from the festival hype to visit Hangzhou, home to the China Academy of Art and a thriving creative community.

For State of the Art, Roger McDonald, deputy director of the non-profit organization Arts Initiative Tokyo, discusses Japan’s institutional framework and the social pressures driving arts development there. The Point, inspired by the recent spate of large survey exhibitions of Chinese contemporary art, questions the relationships between artist, curator and audience across cultural differences. One on One touches down in Bangkok to talk with Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, included in ZKM Center for Art and Media’s 100-artist, 18-country survey “Thermocline of Art: New Asian Waves,” celebrating the institution’s 10th anniversary. Projects in the Makin spotlights emerging Indonesian artist Eko Nugroho, who’s Daging Tumbuh (Diseased Tumor) serves as an alternative space, an artists’ collective, an artwork, a ‘zine and an act of resistance. And for Where I Work, the artist team of Laurent Gutierrez + Valérie Portefaix, representing Hong Kong at Venice this summer, drop in on painter Liu Wei at his home and studio outside of Beijing.

It is tempting, in advance of the European festivals, to dredge up histories of marginalization between hegemonic Western institutions and Asian artists. But what makes covering contemporary art so exciting right now is that the old dynamics of center and periphery no longer hold. The truest testimony to great creative energy is that it refuses to be summed up in one exhibition, or in the mind of one curator. It moves too quickly. Ultimately, Guy Ben-Ner leaves us with the message: “The big shows, either you fight them or you try to enjoy them . . . People go and suffer but what you can get from them, especially this year, is a general feeling of energy.”