YAEL BARTANA, Kings of the Hill, 2003, still from the single-channel video installation. Courtesy the artist and Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam.

Is the whole world watching?

The depressed global economy has raised the stakes for government leaders around the world as frustrated citizens cry out for political and social reform. Waves of civil unrest in Asia have dominated the international media in recent months. In mid-June, massive protests in Iran followed the announcement of questionable results for the presidential election that pitted a populist incumbent against a liberal reformer. In neighboring Pakistan, the government battles a dangerous insurgency while the international community frets about the safety of the country’s nuclear weapons. Nowhere is the atomic threat more acute, however, than in autocratic North Korea, which with little warning fired a ballistic missile over Japan and tested its second bomb, supposedly “as powerful as Hiroshima,” in May, sending political shockwaves across the Asia-Pacific region to Washington and beyond. Indonesia held peaceful democratic elections in early July, but days later Jakarta suffered a series of suicide bombing attacks on hotels frequented by business leaders and international tourists. Meanwhile, in China’s western province of Xinjiang, simmering tensions between Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese erupted into bloody riots, resulting in some 200 dead, more than 1,000 injured and many more arrested. All this violence underscores the notion that solutions to these problems might better be left to artists, not politicians. A risky thought perhaps, but in ArtAsiaPacific’s September/October issue, we focus on artists whose work engages with politically charged themes and seeks out alternative resolutions to the world’s most deeply entrenched problems. 

The horrifying specter of nuclear war remains a sensitive topic in Japan. Features editor Ashley Rawlings examines how the irreverent Japanese collective Chim↑Pom broke one of the country’s touchiest taboos after skywriting the word PIKA (meaning “flash” and an overt reference to the atomic bomb) in white smoke over Hiroshima. The ensuing public and media outcry led to the cancellation of their exhibition, which was scheduled to open last November at the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art. Rawlings analyzes why the city’s residents found the group’s action unacceptable, yet were able to embrace other interpretations of the 1945 explosions by artists such as Cai Guo-Qiang.

Turning to Taiwan, AAP’s desk editor in Taipei David Frazier looks at the sexually charged paintings and digital prints of Wu Tien-chang while reflecting on the island’s transition from four decades of martial law to democracy in 1987. Curator and scholar Britta Erickson explores the diverse work of Yang Jiechang, revealing how the artist regularly encounters social and political antagonism when he exhibits, not only in his home country of China but also in France and Poland. From the Middle East, AAP contributor and Almanac co-editor Marisa Mazria-Katz considers the ruminative work of Yael Bartana, an Israeli artist who critiques Zionist propaganda in videos that touch on Israeli national identity. Looking north to Lebanon, managing editor HG Masters traces recent developments in the work of conceptualist Walid Raad who, after retiring his project the Atlas Group on the history of the Lebanese Civil War (1975–90), has turned his attention to the development of art and culture in the Middle East, including the massive museum construction projects in Abu Dhabi.

In Profiles, AAP meets instrumental figures in China, Iran and Australia. Vicki and Kent Logan, owners of the largest private collection contemporary Chinese art in the United States, talk about their fascination with Cynical Realism, and how the 1990s movement broadened their understanding of social change in China. AAP’s West Asia desk editor Sara Raza talks to artist, curator, collector and gallerist Fereydoun Ave about developments in the Iranian art scene following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and his recent mixed-media collages portraying heroic figures from Persian medieval poetry. Michael Young sits down with John Kaldor, Australia’s leading contemporary arts patron, who has commissioned major public artworks in Sydney by Christo, Gregor Schneider and others over the last 40 years.

In Projects, NaoKo TakaHashi, a Japanese performance artist who has worked in Jerusalem, tells AAP about how she transformed her experience as an immigrant in London into performances and installations that record social interactions with unwitting participants. For Where I Work, AAP visited Naiza Khan in her Karachi studio, filled with the artist’s haunting abstractions of the female body and her more recent work about urban decay. Reflecting on the history of the Subcontinent, senior editor Don J. Cohn reviews three recent books on India’s passage to artistic and cultural modernity. In My Eight, artist and biting social critic Ai Weiwei lists his favorite governments, and as a reminder that democracies are not immune to the erosion of civil liberties, independent curator Hyunjin Kim, writing in the Point, discusses the South Korean government’s regulation of free speech and deep budgetary cuts to the country’s arts infrastructure.