In May, we launched ArtAsiaPacific’s special 20th birthday issue, which, instead of looking back on our past, gazed ahead to the next 20 years. However, since we started planning our celebratory issue well over a year ago, we couldn’t help but discuss the important artistic legacies that have shaped contemporary art in Asia, the Middle East and the Pacific.
For our July/August edition, we consider both these seminal figures, as well as the younger generation of artists who are the protagonists in the cultural histories of Asia.
In 2005 or thereabouts, many Guangdong artists began to relocate to Beijing, often in pursuit of exposure and sales. Then, in 2009, Wang Huang-sheng, director of the Guangdong Museum of Art, also headed to the capital to become director of the art museum at the Central Academy of Fine Arts. With his departure, interest in contemporary art began to wane at the museum, and its Guangzhou Triennial, once a power engine for Chinese contemporary art, was no longer pursued with as much ambition as in years past. It felt as if the buzz around the art scene was starting to fade. Without a flourishing market or sufficient funding from the government, or even a vibrant grass-roots scene, could contemporary art still grow from Guangzhou’s soil?
When I started my first gallery in Kuala Lumpur almost 20 years ago, I insisted that its tagline be “Southeast Asian Art.” Of course, there are many who would take issue with the very idea of Southeast Asia as a single geographical, economic, political or even cultural entity. For them, the region is just too diverse and inchoate—a cacophony of different and unconnected voices. However, where others saw vast, unmanageable differences and an intellectual black hole, I saw an opportunity and, indeed, a challenge. I wanted to locate the themes that united the region and make sense of its local art practices and aesthetics.
At the age of 15, during an allied fire-bombing raid, the Japanese photographer who once called his eyes “infamously greedy” lay in bed listening to the roar of B-29 bombers overhead, tilting his mirror to catch the planes’ passing reflections and morbidly admiring “the pageant of light.” At the end of the war, Shomei Tomatsu felt a mixture of abhorrence and fascination toward the Americans that would dog him throughout most of a career spent documenting life in the tawdry bars, pawnshops and souvenir stalls that sprung up around their bases, including in his hometown of Nagoya.
Images can result from accumulations rather than isolated inspiration. Maps, for instance, are refined and redrawn according to use, while religious icons can also evolve and change over time. Indian painter Gulammohammed Sheikh might well say that images are amalgams of the physical and mystical. We met in Hong Kong at an art-deco cigar lounge in the middle of the Central district, which happened to be the closest quiet corner to the gallery hosting his first solo show in the territory. Sheikh described to me his practice of quotation, of reusing images from the canons of various art histories as well as from his own archives, and the permutations that images undergo when transferred across media.
Everyday life is the measure of all things: of the fulfillment or rather the nonfulfillment of human relations; of the use of lived time; of artistic experimentation; of revolutionary politics.
Guy Debord, “Perspectives for Conscious Alterations in Everyday Life,” 1961
The aim of a critique of everyday life is quite different. It is a question of discovering what must and can change and be transformed in people’s lives . . . Critique implies possibilities, and possibilities as yet unfulfilled.
Henri Lefebvre, “Clearing the Ground,” 1961
Mona Hatoum’s original proposal for a show at Anadiel Gallery in Jerusalem—sent in order for me to apply for a British Council grant —was to construct two false walls running parallel to each other, about one meter apart, stretching from the gallery’s entrance all the way to the back, creating a sort of passageway. Nails covering the entire surface of the two walls would protrude, with their pointed ends out into this passage. The nails would be shiny and long so that when seen from afar they would seem to form a lustrous metallic surface covering the entire entrance. But of course, when one approached, pulled in by alluring surfaces, one would find oneself inside a trap—an unsettling perspective of a long, narrow passage and the fear that the walls, with their sharp protrusions, would close in. Mona and I were convinced that this would be the best project to present at Anadiel.
Beyond a shabby wire fence, the scrubby waste of the West Kowloon headland was crisscrossed by slender concrete paths, which occasionally kinked upward to form minimalist benches. Pausing at the entrance, the visitor’s gaze was met by a huge, black lotus slowly inflating and deflating, while behind lurked a squat, shiny pig with cherry-red eyes. Visible in the distance was a colorful circle of ancient stones, and, in front, the jet-black bodies of a cockroach and a woman jutting skyward, their heads buried side by side in the dirt. But, by this point, the immense, brown, air-filled turd directly to the right had probably captured viewers’ attention.
Lebanese artist Rayyane Tabet’s show at Sfeir-Semler Gallery, “The Shortest Distance Between Two Points,” explored the lines of intersection between geopolitics, resource circulation and historical junctures in oil relations in the United States and the Middle East, and their socioeconomic implications in the region. It featured seven sculptural installations, in which Tabet used found, ready-made and manufactured objects—from chalk lines and folding rulers to old letterheads and mail-room tags—to construct linear measurements, mappings and timelines that relay the chronicle of the Trans-Arabian Pipe Line (Tapline).
Yue Minjun’s cartoon-like laughing men are among the most recognizable images in Chinese contemporary art. His paintings from the 1990s have fetched some of the highest prices at auction, setting a record in 2007 at nearly USD six million. Recently, Paris-based Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain sponsored “The Shadow of Laughter,” the first major European exhibition devoted to the artist, which gathered nearly 40 of his early paintings showing Yue in his best light and representing a time when his output seemed less influenced by market trends.
With China’s economic rise has come a reassessment, both internal and external, of its cultural patrimony. “Modern Chinese Art” as a subject area within art history is finally finding its place in Western institutions, where it has been selectively and prudently introduced since 1987 when Joan Lebold Cohen published her survey The New Chinese Painting: 1949–1986. Yet, in the years since Cohen’s publication, the definition of “modern art” in China has remained unclear, its beginnings falling on a sliding scale that ranges from the mid-19th century right up to the 1950s. In addition, various English-language books have picked up Cohen’s narrative and attempted both to elucidate the nature of “Chinese Contemporary Art” in China in the 20th century, and to characterize the relationship of traditional mediums to art’s contemporary incarnations. To date, none has proved successful.
To get to Ashley Bickerton’s home in Bali, you take the congested main road to the southern peninsula of Butik, past the beach area known as Dreamland and on to the massive Pecatu Indah resort, whose entrance is marked by a towering sculpture of Vishnu riding atop the eagle Garuda. You then veer sharp left in front of a steady onslaught of motorcycles overloaded with people and materials and head down the hill toward a comparatively lush, quiet part of the island.
A promising young artist sells her work to a supportive collector for a modest price. Subsequently, the artist’s career develops, with the support of a good gallerist, and prices for her work rise steadily. A number of years later, the collector sells the piece at auction, earning a handsome profit, which,
of course, the collector pockets while congratulating himself on having such a good eye and making such a shrewd purchase all those years ago.