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(Top left)

MAHA MUSTAFA, Black Fountain, 2008, mixed-media installation at Passagen Linköpings Konsthall, Sweden, 2009. Photo by Sara Ibrahim. Courtesy Mori Art Museum, Tokyo.

(Bottom left)

CAMP, Act II: Hum Logos, 2012, video of projected subtitles and telephonic conversations inspired by those leaked to the public during India’s 2G Spectrum scandal, 50 min. Courtesy the artists.

(Top right)

LIEKO SHIGA, from the photography series “Rasen Kaigan,” 2006–12. Copyright and courtesy the artist.

(Bottom right)

CAO FEI, People’s Limbo in RMB City, 2009, video, 18 min 4 sec. Developed with Vitamin Creative Space, Beijing, and facilitated by Uli Sigg. Copyright RMB City 2009.


Ignition of CAI GUO-QIANG’s Fragile at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha, 2011. Photo by Lin Yi. Courtesy Cai Studio.

Expanding Asia

Expanding Asia: Field Notes From a Changing Cultural Landscape

By Deena Chalabi

Could we be entering a new phase of Asian cosmopolitanism in contemporary art? Certainly the extent of large-scale, pan-Asian curatorial activity this year has been dizzying, with the inclusion of West Asian artists in East Asian art contexts and vice versa on an unprecedented scale. Doha has hosted two major solo exhibitions organized by the Qatar Museums Authority: “Ego” by Takashi Murakami and “Saraab” by Cai Guo-Qiang, the latter of which explored historical dynamics between China and the Arabian Gulf. Yuko Hasegawa, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, was announced as curator of the 2013 Sharjah Biennial in the United Arab Emirates. Wassan al-Khudhairi, former director of Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha, was one of six Asian co-curators for the Gwangju Biennale in September, which featured a record number of West Asian artists, while the 2012–13 Asia Pacific Triennial features a new West and Central Asia section curated by November Paynter from the Istanbul research and exhibition center Salt. The Mori Art Museum in Tokyo also held “Arab Express” in June, the first major exhibition of contemporary art from the Arab world to take place in Japan, or indeed anywhere in East Asia.

I found myself reflecting on the significance of these events while organizing a program of talks in relation to “Arab Express,” which was seen by its curators as an introduction for the Japanese audience not only to the art of West Asia but also to people on the other side of the region to whom they have had minimal exposure until now. This program, “Same-Same But Different: The Role of the Artist in the Arab World and Japan,” was an attempt to create a new, cross-cultural space to bring exhibited artists together with their local peers to discuss a variety of critical issues, including the role of historical materials and narratives in their practice, artistic responses to war and nuclear disaster, and the dual role of feminist artist-activists. A collaboration between Mori Art Museum and Mathaf, the event was also part of a larger diplomatic celebration in Qatar and Japan of 40 years of trade relations and friendship. 

Cultural exchange has always developed in the wake of trade routes and strategic alliances. Today, nations in various parts of Asia are looking to each other for new economic solutions. Increased industrial production in China and India, for instance, has intensified trade with the energy-rich states of West Asia. As these markets grow, creating new dynamics of geopolitical influence, some are beginning to spill over into the world of contemporary art. Structural changes will start to affect not simply the movement and exhibition of art objects as commodities for exchange and cultural diplomacy but also how regional discourse is formed. The moment might just have arrived for mining deeper transnational affinities, reminding us that common sensibilities and critical perspectives, often surrounding history and memory, have tied the continent together at different moments despite the region’s paradoxes and contradictions.

In a world dominated by the globalized art market, the most prevalent sense of Asian cosmopolitanism can often seem closely attached to consumerism at both individual and state levels. But, as author Pankaj Mishra argues in his recent book about Asian intellectual history, From the Ruins of Empire (2012), there have been other important historical moments of cosmopolitan exchange across Asia that tend to be left out of mainstream education precisely because they do not fit within the bounds of the story of the nation state. As the region reels from the many upheavals of the last ten years, we are now at a particularly fertile period for sharing certain kinds of emotional experiences. This also makes it a good time to start imagining how we might reflect on former examples of pan-Asian art history. 

Early cultural relationships were often interrupted, severed and erased by historical events; many were aborted because of the West’s dominance as an economic and then as a political power in the region. Centuries later, anticolonial stirrings led to attempts at more sustained intellectual responses to Western systems. Mishra cites the Japanese defeat of Russia in 1905 as a crucial moment for political camaraderie across the non-West, when modernity was also a pan-Asian project among societies facing the specter of colonial humiliation. He frequently discusses Rabindranath Tagore, whose exchanges with Japanese intellectuals and artists were crucial to the development of modern Indian art, framing it as an avant-garde force of social and political change. 

In the wake of the Second World War, the Non-Aligned Movement contributed to the emergence of new dynamics that again looked at art and culture as a vehicle for intellectual and political affinities, especially between India and the Arab world. In terms of more recent regional discourse formation, Japan has played a leading role—it was the internationalization of Japanese contemporary art in the late 1980s, followed by Korean and then Chinese art in the mid-1990s, that helped to fuel the Asian contemporary art cross-cultural dynamic. The Japan Foundation created an institute to research Southeast Asian art in the 1990s, for example, and organized several pan-Asian shows and projects with emerging Asian curators, many of whom are forces of change today. 

Our six transnational contributors have written short “field notes” reflecting on personal experiences of potential cultural shifts across the continent. Mumbai-based curator and critic Ranjit Hoskote reflects on changing definitions of Asia. Co-curator of this year’s Shanghai Biennale and organizer of the West Heavens project Tsong-zung Chang investigates contemporary pan-Asian exhibitions in the shadow of the modern period, while Auckland-based curator Vera Mey considers the Asian presence in New Zealand. These three remind us that histories, nations and identities are continually constructed and reconstructed. Curator David Elliott, who has worked at institutions in Japan and Turkey, as well as on biennials in Australia and Ukraine, surveys the role of the contemporary artist as social critic in Asia today, and writer Ashley Rawlings highlights the emotional and political connections between the work of two artists from opposite sides of the continent: Lieko Shiga and Wafaa Bilal. Meanwhile, Mumbai- and Cairo-based curator Nida Ghouse ponders why it still feels problematic to assert greater cultural connectivity between her two cities. 

For today’s pan-Asian cultural interactions to amount to more than a reflection of the trade of petrodollars and commodities, curators and artists need to be compassionate readers of histories, mining archives and investigating cultural amnesia. But without proper institutional funding for research, it’s impossible to build these stories to any significant extent. As Mishra points out, the possibility to know what Tagore did in Cairo in the 1920s exists, but the research hasn’t yet been done. The process of archiving itself, however, has been one mode of artistic connection across Asia in the last few years, and it should now start to bear fruit. We need to build more infrastructures that will allow us to look further into the genealogies of thought that inform today’s practices, creating an environment in which we can imagine past connections more clearly, evaluate our present similarities more critically and begin newly cosmopolitan and creative conversations about the future. 

Deena Chalabi is a New York-based writer and curator. Chalabi was the founding head of strategy at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, Qatar, from 2009 until early 2012, overseeing the museum’s branding, strategic development and communications, and co-curating the inaugural exhibition of Mathaf’s permanent collection. She is the co-executive director for public engagement at Alwan for the Arts.


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(Left)

MAHA MAAMOUN, Domestic Tourism II, 2009, spliced footage from Egyptian films that use the pyramids as backdrop,62 min. Courtesy the artist.

(Right)

MAHA MAAMOUN, Night Visitor, 2011, YouTube-sourced footage of citizens storming the State Security buildings in Cairo and Damanhour, 9 min. Courtesy the artist.


Reimagining Asia . . . Again

By Ranjit Hoskote

“Asia” has been an entity with shifting boundaries since Greco-Roman antiquity, conceived for more than two millennia through various European perspectives of military, strategic and mercantile asymmetry, until it became stabilized through the optic of Orientalism. During the age of Asian nationalist awakenings (1850 to 1950), the continent was variously imagined from within depending on the observer’s specific ethnic, religious and regional location.

There is a powerful strand in Muslim modernist thought that views Asia as part of a larger ecumene of circulating ideas, goods, values and forms of social and political organization that stretches from Spain to Indonesia. There is also a modern Buddhist imagination that maps Asia through the routes taken by Mahayanist pilgrims, teachers and scholars from India and Afghanistan to China, Korea and Japan. In Iran and Turkey during the 1920s, an idea of Asia emerged as one end of a bridge connecting Europe with the Far East, claiming both a lineage and a modernity. The Silk Route has long been a trope by which to dissolve the Europe-Asia divide by invoking a thriving transcultural system of exchanges that continually extended itself.

The turbulences that we have experienced since the late 1990s have had the specific effect of shaking up the relatively settled significance of “Asia” as marking a generic “non-West” with well-defined civilizational centers. The new Asia is seen to shuttle unpredictably between economic ebullience and religious warfare, throwing up both new forms of entanglement with the global economy and new forms of intransigent cultural difference vis-à-vis the West. The recent rhetoric and tropes of the successive mappings of this Asia from a Western perspective reveal this uncertainty—for instance, while various East Asian economies were celebrated, for a period, as the “Asian tigers,” West Asia was seen as a “hotbed of sectarian violence.”

All nationalisms forget—or actively suppress—the centuries of hybridity, of continuous exchanges between Self and Other, of transcultural miscegenation and transfer, from which all societies and cultures have historically generated themselves. The phenomenon of the Arab Spring—that singular name that covers a multitude of specific and non-identical local scenarios—has reminded us of the complex cultural politics of West Asia, situated as it is within a larger zone in which Islam has in some places the dominant and in other places a major presence. Importantly, we must address the specific articulations of freshly politicized consciousness in this transcultural zone, which includes various parts of Asia as well as of North and West Africa. These articulations have arisen in response to the long-term military presence of the United States in these regions and to US alliances with discredited and tyrannical regimes (the Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein in Iraq before he fell from grace, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and so forth), and manifest themselves as self-assertions against the American Imperium. Such self-assertions may appeal to a secular and renovated Islamic modernity, or they may invoke and speak in the name of an Islamic traditionalism. As they do so, they summon forth responses that range from enthusiasm to rejection in each of these societies, creating an intricate tapestry of expressions that is far removed from the banal, generic “Arab street” or “Muslim mind” pictured by the mass media. The artistic positions that emerge from such contexts are to be valued as testimony to this complexity. They are an archaeology of predicaments that have been eclipsed by media misrepresentation and academic miasma, a voicing of histories negated thanks to the denial of autonomous subjectivity to their bearers by dominant narratives of policy and history-writing.

Such mappings, in particular, miss the degree to which—through voluntary migration, forced diaspora or the transnational exchanges that sustain globalization—“Asia,” with its special predicament of globalization-era anxieties layered over the dilemmas of the postcolonial condition, is spread unevenly everywhere on the planet. Asia is present in West Europe, North America and Australia, where significant Asian communities are now settled. In Africa, considerable swathes of agricultural land have been leased by China and India, where food crops are grown at subsistence wages for these population-heavy giants, whose own agrarian economies now prioritize cash crops.

For most postcolonial and postimperial societies, the primary relationship of comparison and even validation has long been that with the West. This is changing fast, if only because newly evolving economic and political bonds among emergent actors such as the so-called BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) states are underwriting a reconfiguration of transnational relationships through alliances, treaties and programs of exchange.

There is a growing interest in alternative internationalisms among cultural practitioners, who have begun the project of retrieving non-Western “claims to globality” that have been abandoned or consigned to the eclipsed history of lost socialist experiments. Panjak Mishra’s From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia (2012), for example, retrieves the Asian intellectual renaissance of the early 20th century in India, China, Iran and Turkey. The exponential growth of the biennial and other perennials as venues for the production and viewing of contemporary art has also instigated a curiosity that sidesteps the traditional circuits of colonial or imperial relationships between West and non-West. I would cite the work of Rasha Salti, who draws on the criticality of positions developed by writers, artists and filmmakers in the Arab world against the backdrop of the indigenously achieved modernities of the pan-Arab movement; and also Nancy Adajania’s remapping, most recently in her section of the ninth Gwangju Biennale, of the confident departure from bloc-oriented Cold War thinking and the embrace of “transitive conceptions of solidarity and collective action” that was staged under the utopian sign of the Non-Aligned Movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

Ranjit Hoskote is the author of many books, including Confluences: Forgotten Histories from East and West (with Ilija Trojanow; Yoda Press, 2012). Hoskote was co-curator of the seventh Gwangju Biennale (2008) and also curated India’s national pavilion at the Venice Biennale (2011).

JAE HOON LEE, Chinese-Korean, 2011, mixed media, panels: 30 × 41 × 8 cm each. Courtesy the artist.

New Zealand as Another Asia

By Vera May

The best way to describe Asia within New Zealand is not in terms of ethnic lineage or geographical specificity, but rather in terms of a shared experience that crosses over multiple nationalities and generations. Being Asian in New Zealand essentially means not being of European, Pacific Islander or Maori descent: it is inevitably tied to an offshore repository of signs and signifiers, and its local presence alludes to a peripheral identity. In Auckland, New Zealand’s biggest city, one in every five inhabitants has some Asian heritage. While the country has taken ownership of its position as a major player in relation to the Pacific Islands, the question remains how the nation can engage with the larger power structures of Asia. 

Being a country at the edge of the world, New Zealand has an art context that provides no obvious geographical conduit for Asian countries in any literal sense, but it does seem to provide a symbolic one because of the country’s colonial history, subsequent commonwealth relationship to a Western power, and its facility with contemporary art’s lingua franca, English. “Asia” has been constructed historically as distinct from the New Zealand experience, but, given the prevalence of non-European groups within New Zealand’s lively art scene, it holds the most promise in terms of productive exchange and conversation. 

My own position as an insider and outsider to Asia—born and raised in New Zealand to Indonesian and Cambodian parents—always results in constant negotiation between center and periphery. During a recent curatorial research trip sponsored by the Arts Council of New Zealand to Tokyo, Gwangju, Shanghai and other cities, I experienced the tremendous diversity that exists under the umbrella of “Asia.” For the first time, I heard the term “Northeast Asia” to designate China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, as distinct from the countries of Southeast Asia. There is plenty of movement between all these different nations, of both ideas and people, as well as a dialogue of interconnected histories and cultural and political relationships. I can’t help but wonder what sort of agenda is behind such a demarcation and how this reflects changing dynamics within the region. 

Asia’s meanings are fluid, which opens up possibilities but also suggests limitations—it can be too conveniently ambiguous for a decent engagement with its meaning. There seems to be a sense of disassociation with the term. It almost feels that the hosts of the party don’t want to be there but those who aren’t hosting want an invitation. 

In New Zealand’s national imagination, the external Asia still exists as a large unified entity with expansive borders, from Japan to Central Asia, which leads to a certain fluidity in terms of the relations between and understandings of different Asian ethnicities within New Zealand. This prevailing vision is mediated by a common encounter with minority status, creating a far more homogenous Asian experience than within Asia itself. The probing works in Auckland-based Korean artist Jae Hoon Lee’s exhibition “Code Unknown” (2011) in Wellington reveal these ambiguities around identity and signs of origin.

When I visited the Mori Art Museum’s “Arab Express” exhibition in Tokyo, I was struck by its description of the Western perception of the Arab world as one that results in inflammatory stereotypes. In this case, the position is aligned with a Western articulation of another Asia, that being the Arab world. I was further confronted with this when I co-curated an exhibition at the Dowse Museum in Lower Hutt, Wellington, looking at lens-based artistic practice and its relationship to documentary. Sophia al-Maria’s For Your Eyes Only (2007) is a video piece showing women getting ready for a wedding in Qatar and was viewable on the condition that only women could see it. Unfortunately, despite detailed curatorial framing, its gender specificity became front-page news as local mainstream media claimed it violated the rights of the male population. This pandered to the worst stereotypes and hinted at systemic racism. A Western and distanced perspective around this geography was taken without identifying it as part of an expansive notion of Asia and therefore within grasp of empathy and understanding. 

While New Zealand refocuses toward Asia and the countries of the Pacific Rim as a contributor to art-world discussions, it still has some distance to go before claiming itself as an Asian country. New Zealand’s relationship with an internal Asian presence has been ongoing since initial settlement by British colonials during the 19th century, but it is still fraught. Its contemporary artists are exploring questions of geography, identity and historical record, but now the country’s art infrastructure needs to follow suit. To deal with the external Asia effectively, New Zealand must first have a critical examination of its own Asian history from within. 

Vera Mey is a curator and currently assistant director of Auckland University of Technology’s St Paul St Gallery in New Zealand. She was recently selected to go on a three-week curator tour to South Korea, Japan and China, which is supported by New Zealand Foundation and Creative New Zealand.


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(Left)

MAKOTO AIDA, Space Shit, 1998, oil and gesso on cotton mounted on panel, 230 × 330 cm. Private collection. Courtesy Mizuma Art Gallery, Tokyo.

(Right, top)

MAKOTO AIDA, Azemichi (A path between rice fields), 1991, mineral pigment and acrylic on paper mounted on panel, 73 × 52 cm. Collection of Toyota Municipal Museum of Art, Aichi. Courtesy Mizuma Art Gallery, Tokyo.

(Right, bottom)

HALIL ALTINDERE, First Lady, 2010, oil on canvas, 100 × 150 cm. Collection of Leyla and Arif Suyabatmaz, Istanbul. Courtesy Tanas, Berlin.


The Artist as Social Critic

By David Elliott

Activism and art are not quite the same thing, but they can certainly be related. For a start, to be worth considering, art has to be ethical. Whatever any individual artist may claim, without ethics the whole aesthetic-value system collapses like a house of cards. But good morality alone does not make good art. In Germany during the 1930s, Emil Nolde, a hardcore Expressionist, was also a sympathiser of the Nazis—but they still banned his work. Fluffy old Carl Hofer, a soft Cubist if ever there was one, stood out for liberty and human rights. Yet his paintings were also banned. With Nazis, as with Stalinists, Maoists and most other “-ists,” an artist who is simply good in his or her own right just cannot win. I always expect good artists to be smarter than most other people, and certainly much more so than politicians. But cleverness alone is not enough either. Artists also have to be really good at making art, whatever form that takes.

Even though the phenomenon of “avant-garde” was finished in the West by the mid-1970s, this idea energized a whole generation of artists from the 1980s in post-Cultural Revolution China and is still alive there, as well as in many other parts of Asia (and Latin America). If you are “A-G,” this means you have to be ahead of the rest, but it’s a fine line between the artist being a critic of society and being just purely a critic. The one is avoidable, the other is not. If it is to have any authority whatsoever, criticism has to begin at home. Unfortunately, the clichéd history of the avant-garde in the West mixed all this up: radical art = radical politics. Sorry, this was never true, historically or now, and looking across the whole world, politics would appear to be the least radical activity that humankind has ever managed to invent.

Currently in China, as at this year’s documenta, activism is definitely “in.” Ai Weiwei has generated huge exposure, irritating the government by highlighting its censorship and violations of human rights. Cao Fei has continued her virtual critique of the New China in RMB City (2008– ), a virtual version of a capitalist Shangri-la where avatars of past and present meet like Olympians to decide the future. But is the “a-word” just another fad or part of a much more deeply rooted change? Could it be a powerful and considered response to the cataclysmic shifts of power that have taken place throughout the world during the past 30 years?

In Turkey, where strong economic growth has been accompanied by a swing toward a more conservative implementation of Islamic values, it is difficult to predict exactly where politics are going. In her videos and installations, Gülsün Karamustafa, who was imprisoned by the military government in the 1970s for her political beliefs, continues her exploration of memory and desire by musing on the unique attraction and power of women as they teeter between Ottoman-era cosmopolitanism and Turkish contemporaneity. In the continuing sterile furor about whether a woman should be “covered” or not, such an approach is a breath of fresh air.

The fragmented, dizzying strips that make up Canan Tolon’s black-and-white paintings elegantly reflect intensifying paranoia in the fuzziness of surveillance cameras as they capture moving bodies. The constrictions of panic continue in her mirrored installations, which create disorientation and vertiginous anxiety as floors, ceilings, horizons—and your own image—are all cut into shards.

Halil Altındere, whose solo show “Infinity Has No Accent” is running at Tanas in Berlin, touches more directly on the social and political ruptures that so evidently disfigure Turkey, as well as the territories beyond. Silicone facsimiles of marginal figures create feelings of strangeness throughout the space, unsettling and “commenting” on visitors as the latter become acutely aware of their own reactions. In films and objects, Altındere lays bare the taxonomies of power, authority and control, sardonically suggesting how nationalism, chauvinism and cultural identity are cynically used by governments as instruments of control.

The power of government seems even more authoritarian in the former Soviet Central Asian Republics. In Kazakhstan, the painter Rashid Nurekeyev remarks on the cult of the leader in a series of direct and hard-hitting images. Sometimes, President Nazarbayev appears as if he has been projected like a cosmonaut into the futuristic world of Astana, his new capital city, but in a series of seven watercolors he appears merely as the cipher “0.10”— number one—reimagined and spelled out repetitively, the detail of each manifestation more disrespectful than the last. These embodiments of the great leader range from a “thankful” round sun and red numeral, through a fried egg and a hammer on a floral ground, to his final apotheosisas a distinctly feculent circle of ice cream with a fancy spoon. In Uzbekistan, veteran artist Vyacheslav Akhunov has achieved the unlikely feat of being both an official and a dissident artist by hopping between and over the fine lines of humor, gravitas and critique.

Yet some of the most imaginatively critical work of the moment is being made in Japan. Here is just one example: Makoto Aida’s first retrospective will open in Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum this November and will show at last the whole breadth and quality of his work. At different times, Aida has taken on perverted gender politics, arrogant nationalism, vapid conservatism, pretentious artiness, unquestioning capitalism and all the clichés of perceived “Japaneseness.” The work of this artist alone completely belies the notion that Japan is only concerned with itself. His bittersweet criticisms of rabid nationalism, abuse of power, obeisant salarymen, sexism and the cult of celebrity begin at home but they have a much wider resonance.

David Elliott is a curator and writer who has directed contemporary art museums and institutions in Oxford, Stockholm, Tokyo, Istanbul, Sydney and Kiev. He is currently the artistic advisor for CPS, a new contemporary arts hub in the former central prison and police station in Hong Kong. Elliott is also honorary president of the Board of Triangle Network/Gasworks in London and on the Asia Advisory Board of the Guggenheim Museum.

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(Left)

Camera surgically attached to the back of WAFAA BILAL’s head for the year-long project 3rdi, 2010–11.

(Right)

WAFAA BILAL, Domestic Tension, performance at Flatfile Gallery, Chicago, 2007. Courtesy the artist.


Drowned Earth, Scorched Earth

By Ashley Rawlings

What does it mean for an artist to work on the “front line” of a crisis? What equivalence is there between one artist whose life and home has been upended by an act of nature, and another who watches family members die in a faraway war waged by remote control? Having grown up knowing only peace and relative prosperity, the majority of young artists in Japan have been spared the trauma of warfare and natural disaster. However, that changed on March 11, 2011. The unprecedented earthquake and tsunami that struck the Tohoku region left the nation reeling, and the hidden effects of radiation leakage—which are by no means contained—continue to gnaw at the mind, gradually reshaping Japanese society and politics in ways that will not be understood for years to come. When faced with a disaster of such magnitude, how can artists here respond in a meaningful, responsible way? 

One of very few contemporary artists based in the affected region, Lieko Shiga narrowly escaped the tsunami when it destroyed the coastal village of Kitakama. She has lived there since 2008, gaining the elderly residents’ trust by working as the official village photographer and gradually inviting them to take part in her own work. Inspired by local folk tales, traditions and histories, Shiga’s Tohoku photographs were always psychologically charged and morbid, laden with an ominous sense of the occult and the supernatural. But now, with their starker lighting and even stranger scenarios, they have taken on a deeper sense of immediacy and urgency. Shiga’s determination to give back to the local community remains paramount: together with a team of volunteers she has recovered tens of thousands of photographs from the debris and is cataloging them. Though she regularly travels to Tokyo to take part in the antinuclear demonstrations, her art is not motivated by the desire to protest. It is an act of resistance and, above all, a statement of solidarity with a community whose government has so badly failed them. 

By contrast, the original moment of crisis in Wafaa Bilal’s life came 20 years ago, when he fled Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s crackdown on antigovernment insurgents. After two years in a Saudi refugee camp, he moved to the United States and has lived there ever since. Yet, the persistent conflict between Bilal’s two countries has continued to torment him. In 2004, a missile fired from an unmanned Predator drone killed his brother Haji in their hometown of Kufa. A few weeks later, his father died of grief. Bilal responded to his loss with Domestic Tension (2007), for which he spent a month in a gallery under fire from a paintball gun controlled by anonymous online users. By putting himself in harm’s way for the whole world to see, he brought the immediacy of the Iraqi front line back to the US—onto viewers’ computer screens—exposing how remote military targeting dehumanizes the victim. Appalled by what they saw, some viewers intervened, hacking the gun to prevent others from shooting at the artist. 

Bilal further developed his unflinching approach to art-making with the 3rdi (2010–11), for which he had a small camera surgically attached to the back of his head, where it took photos every minute and uploaded them to the web for one year. Out in the public realm, his body and movements became a legal liability, and a visceral critique of government and corporate surveillance. In times of crisis, perhaps the only art that matters is made by those who are unafraid to stand up for others, even if it means putting themselves at risk. More than that, however, Shiga’s and Bilal’s acts of resistance help us transcend the temptation to lash out, and make us focus instead on our collective humanity, dignity and compassion. 

Ashley Rawlings is the director of Blum & Poe’s Tokyo Office and a contributing editor for ArtAsiaPacific. A specialist in postwar and contemporary Japanese art, he is the editor of Art Space Tokyo (2008), a compilation of interviews with key figures in the Japanese art world, and the co-editor of What is Mono-ha? (2007), the catalog for a major group exhibition of the late-1960s conceptual group held at Beijing Tokyo Art Projects.


The New Asian International

By Tsong-zung Chang

Across Asia, from west to east, north to south, there is a fever for contemporary art, seen in the rising number of international exhibitions, biennials and art fairs, which often freely mix cutting-edge art and commerce. Contemporary art has also been invited into traditional museums to make relevant historical materials, redefining the norms of museum practice. The anxiety of cultural definition is increasingly articulated through international contemporary exhibitions. But why through “international” exhibitions? 

Asian modern histories are slowly being revised to reflect changing attitudes toward the early modern past, but the hint we get from contemporary art is: This is not only a national project. Both the understanding of the new age and readings of Asia’s own national histories are internationally defined; the “national” is ineffective. The “national,” as the sovereign subject of a modern state system, interferes with the “civilizational principle” that most premodern Asian states were based on, and it has embedded the seed of strife
in these countries since the beginning of modern statehood. 

Today, the stigma of ethnicity still lurks as a divisive force in many of these countries. Then comes ideological difference, which leads to competing proposals for modern statehood. Looking back over the past century, we might conclude that the nation-state concept still blocks our way back to history. The Cold War is a further obstruction. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the West celebrated the end of the Cold War, and with it the End of History, it was then that the shadow of the Cold War in Asia started to sharpen its contours. 

From the 19th century onward, nationalism has been the dynamic that mobilized Asian countries to political self-determination against foreign domination. To maintain the modern political apparatus of the nation-state, great swathes of sociohistorical experiences have been suppressed and cultural knowledge discarded. Asian countries such as China and Taiwan and the two Koreas—countries with both civilizational and “national” affinities—continue to be divided today by ideological politics. The legacy of the ideological divide of the Cold War is a reminder of the necessity to move beyond the constriction of the nation-state, to eventually recover Asia’s own national and even subnational histories, and ultimately develop civilizational principles based on Asia’s own realities.

This historical recovery, the shattering of Asia’s wall of amnesia, cannot be achieved by any country alone, as the Korean scholars Paik Nak-chung and Baik Youngseo remind us in the “Asian Circle of Thought” conference at this year’s Shanghai Biennale. Asian nations are now part of the global interstate system, and any negotiation must necessarily involve global partners. Apart from Asian neighbors, this involves accommodating the capitalist system and Western powers. Only in the “international” context might different Asian experiences of the divisive Cold War be compared and understood. 

This dilemma is perhaps what the Asian public instinctively understands, and it flocks to contemporary international exhibitions to experience the spirit of its own times. International exhibitions reveal not only secrets hidden by the Cold War: at these sites for aesthetic articulation and heterotopias of alternative sensible orders, regional sensibilities from international sources converge and the clash of paradigms generates new knowledge. Or perhaps, more accurately, the lack of paradigms of all these incongruous aesthetic presences presses us to rethink existing paradigms. The real world comes forward with alternative ways of ordering experience, putting into question the assumptions of the dominant order. 

New histories start to emerge as a host of Asian nations and traditions seek ways back to their diverse pasts (and futures). If these pasts have shapes worthy of the future, they must necessarily incorporate aesthetic sensibilities and communal forms built upon
an international, and inter-Asian, framework. There is also the vain hope that out of this medley of aesthetics perhaps Asia’s new forms of the social, its politics of communal participation, may gradually emerge. The emergence of these future communal forms will not be just an Asian asset: their configurations will contribute to the resolution of the atrocities of the modern during the 20th century. The power of art’s current status and its level of visibility in society should be used to turn the current accumulation of international heterotopias of conflicting aesthetics into one contesting commonwealth. 

Tsong-zung Chang is founding director of Hong Kong’s Hanart TZ Gallery, board member of Asia Art Archive and a guest professor at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou. Chang is also co-curator of the 2012 Shanghai Biennale, alongside Qiu Zhijie, Jens Hoffman and Boris Groys.


Establishing Shots

By Nida Ghouse

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HASSAN KHAN, Read Fanon You Fucking Bastards, 2003–ongoing, artist statement accompanied by caption, various formats, handwritten by Nida Ghouse, the author of this article. Courtesy the artist. 


In turning to the term “pan-Asia,” so as to consider what, if anything, it could offer, were I to attempt the sorry project of reconciling my place across Mumbai and Cairo—two contexts in which I have come to live and work—I recall a conversation I had, not so many years ago, with one of India’s prominent commercial gallerists. He had recently attended the Abu Dhabi Art Fair, perhaps for the first time, and had become increasingly curious about what he called the “MENASA” region, covering the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. Having felt a vague sense of cultural affinity to some of the work he had seen in the Gulf that November, mixed with an unexpected surge of self-identification with the history of this wider geographical area, he was contemplating expanding his base beyond India to include artists from across the region. He asked me if I could recommend anyone from Cairo that he could represent, keeping in mind that the work would have to appeal to the taste of local collectors, which, when I asked that he be more specific, he explained as: a) not so much video, and b) the work shouldn’t look “too Islamic.”

In that moment I just went blank. I had no idea how to respond. Not because I was averse to the question, but because I found myself completely unequipped to deal with the confluence and collapse of all these various kinds of categories. Nevertheless I tried, in all earnestness, to think about artists and friends in Cairo, recall their various works, and decipher—first and foremost, just for myself—which of their practices I would dare to offer up to this task of speaking to the sensibilities of this “idea of India,” of appeasing the inclination of art collectors in this place where I sometimes say I am from. And while, yes, certainly, there was a fair amount of video that I had to run through in my head, oddly enough, the somewhat stereotypical concern of it being “too Islamic” wasn’t even an issue. The niche of contemporary cultural production that I am familiar with and part of in Cairo doesn’t preoccupy itself much with motifs of religion. 

Left to myself with this stalemate, and now halfway through writing this text about an “expanding Asia,” my mind darts and I start to think about the problems of panning in films. Of the many critiques that have yet to be made of how that horizontal camera movement has been used “to structure space and time into semantic worlds” over the course of cinematic history, it strikes me that there may be something that could be said, quite obviously insofar as etymology, but also by way of structural analogy, about these pan-Asian tendencies that seem to be on the upswing across the global landscape of contemporary art. 

In filmmaking, the panoramic shot involves a lateral rotation of the camera around an imaginary vertical axis. Crucially, the gesture of panning does not require any change in the location of the camera or the cameraman. That is to say, the relative positions of “what to see” and “from where to see it” remain practically the same. As a result, that which is produced for the spectator through this radius of linear frames is a scan of the scene, or, as in the case of an extreme long (establishing) shot, an overview of the space or the territory, the lay of the land from a fixed point. Survey shows of “Arab” and “Indian” art aside—some of which have in any case by now become so self-reflexive that even their critiques come inbuilt and ready-made—what the impasse with the gallerist now has me thinking about is the fixity of that imaginary vertical axis. 

Nida Ghouse is a writer and curator. Her recent projects include the series of discussions, “14 Proper Nouns,” with artist Hassan Khan (London, 2011) and “Untitled Exhibition # 1” with dancer Padmini Chettur and curatorial group Clark House Initiative (Mumbai, 2011).


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