CHAITANYA SAMBRANI. Illustration by Sungyoon Choi.

Blowing in the Wind


1993 saw the fortuitous coincidence of several developments in contemporary Asian art. Near the western edge of Asia, the government of the United Arab Emirates initiated the Sharjah Biennial with the intention of positioning the city globally in the burgeoning field of contemporary art. And just past the southeastern margins of Asia, the Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane, Australia, embarked on the first of the Asia-Pacific Triennials (APT), while a little further to the south, the Sydney-based journal Art and Australia sprouted Art and AsiaPacific as a supplement to the main publication. The magazine’s first supplement, a 50-odd-page publication, carried a two-page advertisement for the 1993 Singapore Art Fair. The banner text declared, “The Winds of Change Are Blowing Through Asia — Go with the Flow.” Just in case there was any confusion as to the fair’s intended market, there was the edifying subtitle, “Art for Asians by Asians.”

That same year, the nascent academic discourse about Asian and Pacific contemporary art resulted in the publication of two introductory volumes, Modernity in Asian Art edited by John Clark (Sydney, Wild Peony Press), and Tradition and Change: Contemporary Art of Asia and the Pacific (Brisbane, University of Queensland Press) edited by Caroline Turner. North American interest in the field followed over the next decade with the touring exhibitions “Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against the Sky” (1994-95), “Contemporary Art in Asia: Traditions/Tensions” (1996-97), “Inside Out: New Chinese Art” (1998-99) and “Edge of Desire: Recent Art in India” (2005-07).

Looking back on the past 15 years, this developing interest in Asian contemporary art by museums, publications and academia can be seen as heralding a realignment in notions of the international and, inevitably, as signals of shifts in ideas of centrality and marginality. The effects of these processes have of course been uneven, and degrees of emphasis have varied depending on both the formal aspects of art practice within a country or region and that area’s economic viability. The APTs in Queensland have sought to highlight the dynamism and diversity of contemporary art from Asia and the Pacific at a time when both academia and museums paid little attention to non-Euro-American modernist art. It was, however, not until the second APT that South Asia made an appearance with the inclusion of Indian artists. Other South Asian countries had to wait until 1999 when Sri Lankan and Pakistani artists were included in the APT for the first time.

Despite the expansion in areas covered in the APTs during the 1990s, countries such as Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan continually failed to attract curatorial or scholarly attention. Is it that there is no contemporary art in these places? Or is it rather a question of the kind of contemporary art? I suspect the latter is the case, specifically in relation to the kind of art practices that are routinely glimpsed in the plethora of biennials and triennials that now dot the globe. For all the rhetoric of diversity, the situation remains skewed in favor of artists whose work is considered avant-garde and can be assimilated and appreciated within a critical framework that remains indebted to Euro-American theorizations. To generalize, the prerequisites of post-modern irony and referentiality, or the post-conceptualist strategies of object- and installation-oriented practice must be met before conversations proceed.

It is intriguing—but not inexplicable—that there is a close tie-in between a country’s economic vigor and notions of formal innovation among artists who live there. Regimes of commoditization are inevitably attendant with notions of progress according to the logic of global capitalism. The inexorable rise of post-1989 Chinese art is a case in point. Various actors in the art industry have made use of the rhetoric of “progress” in the general theorization of styles that follow each other in a grand parade of evolutionary proportions, from the political pop of Wang Guangyi to the cynical realism of current market favorite Yue Minjun. The neo-conceptualism of Ai Weiwei or the multimedia Daoism of Cai Guo-Qiang are similarly recognizable in terms of the tremendous efflorescence of recently liberated societal energy. What results is a teleology of “democratic” forms that challenge the might of Euro-American hegemony, while being understood within contemporary art theorization through its endemic mobilization of methods borrowed from a post-Duchampian (and thus Euro-American) tradition of art making. The challenge to Euro-centrism works best when it is backed up with new seductions of political freedom, creative energy and the riches on offer in a giant economic boom.

The carpet-bombing of news stories, advertisements and propaganda proclaiming the rise of China and India as the superpowers of the 21st century have been accompanied by stellar performances by several blue-chip painters, such as Zhang Xiaogang, Ram Kumar and Tyeb Mehta, in the secondary and tertiary markets. There have been high-profile acquisitions by international collectors and subsequent inclusions in global art festivals, as in the case of Subodh Gupta’s 1000-kilogram skull made from aluminum pots Very Hungry God (2006), which was acquired by François Pinault, who prominently displayed it during the Venice Biennale of 2007. The 1993 declaration of “Art for Asians by Asians” has been rendered redundant as a consequence of the triumphant march of commodity culture and the “discovery” by curators, collectors and art-fair impresarios of the “young and the restless.” In turn, this has triggered frenzied investments in commercial and museum shows, private and institutional collections, and publications. By comparison, Southeast Asian artists seem to have been set aside, if not forgotten, for the moment save for the isolated cases of international stars such as Heri Dono.

To return to my suggestion of the link between commercial escalation and formal excitement, consider the “Best of Discovery” section of the inaugural ShContemporary art fair initiated by European entrepreneurs in 2007. Under the slogan of “Discovering New Talent in Asia,” the organizers proceeded to introduce European galleries and collectors to Asian contemporary art, and vice-versa. This year’s “discoveries” include five artists each from China and India, with significantly smaller representations from other Asian nations. Interestingly, the five Indians listed on the ShContemporary website figure under “Indian subcontinent.” Clearly, other countries in South Asia are at best unable to produce enough excitement (formal and commercial, or should it be commercial and therefore formal?), or at worst become new hearts of darkness whence only a glimmer from Pakistani multimedia artist Rashid Rana can occasionally sparkle on the scene. Of the two Indonesian artists being “discovered” this year, one is Agus Suwage, a veteran of several important exhibitions in the region. One wonders whether to congratulate Suwage or to send him commiserations.

The winds of change are certainly blowing in Asia, but they are capricious, and contingent on what the historian Dipesh Chakrabarty has called “inequalities of ignorance,” themselves a function of perceived economic might.