MANABU IKEDA, History of Rise and Fall, 2006, pen and acrylic ink on paper, mounted on board, 200 × 200 cm. Photo by Kei Miyajima. Courtesy the artist and Mizuma Art Gallery, Tokyo.

Re-Imagining Asia

Haus der Kulturen der Welt

The title of this exhibition pinpoints its major flaws. Although the show intended to counteract existing stereotypes and clichés applied to Asia, it actually further supported them by positing Asia as a discernable whole. Moreover, curators Wu Hung and Shaheen Merali failed to present the cultural or political backdrop against which they stage their exhibition: ostensibly showing “other images of Asia,” the curators offered no hints as to what makes them “other.” In fact, all the “standard Asian” images were there: Buddha statues; techno-frenzy; the paraphernalia of mass-consumption as well as its abject opposite, mountains of trash; references to migration, mobility and urbanization.

The exhibition’s structure introduced unnecessary confusion. Displays were divided along four sub-categories, among them “Architecture & Mobility,” a recurrent topic of recent exhibitions devoted to contemporary representations of Asia, and concepts as vague as “Pleasure & Suffering” and “Love & Fantasy.” The latter category, for example, positioned Manabu Ikeda’s History of Rise and Fall (2006), a Tower of Babel-like structure made out of traditional Japanese houses and props from traditional landscape painting, next to Chiho Aoshima’s Japanese Apricot 3 – A pink dream (2007), a digital fairy-tale landscape showcasing an enchanted tree, with cute little girls bound and dangling from its branches.

The exhibition did include some notable works that spoke to current issues in Asia. Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Untitled (Passport No. 3) (2006), a facsimile of his actual passport with pages full of visa and immigration stamps from all over the world, is an evocative symbol of a nomadic existence, and of the freedom and limitation that comes with nationality. A much less privileged idea of mobility is presented by Subodh Gupta’s Everything Is Inside (2004), which consists of the upper half of an Indian taxi with two bulging bundles on its luggage rack, allegedly referring to the unstable working conditions of many Indians and Indian immigrants. Tehran-born Parastou Forouhar’s unsettling installation Count Down (2007) invites viewers to sit down on comfortable bean bags, covered with sacred Islamic patterns and to browse a number of flip books with her drawings of torture scenes. Forouhar thus suggests a strong link between Islamic societies and the violation of human rights. Another redeeming feature of the exhibition is its inclusion of non-Asians whose oeuvre includes Asian subject matter. But why be so predictable here and present Andreas Gursky’s huge, super-documentary photograph Kuwait Stock Exchange I (2007)?

In the end, the exhibition conformed exactly to what it set out to challenge. It became its own stereotypical image by looking like an exhibition of contemporary Asian art designed for a European institution. Maybe the real problem with “Re-Imagining Asia” was that its curators simply underestimated their audience.