ARAYA RASDJARMREARNSOOK, The Village and Elsewhere, 2011, single-channel video, 25 min 30 sec. Courtesy the artist and Gimpel Fils, London.

Best of Times, Worst of Times

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Never before in the seven years of compiling the Almanac have the editors of ArtAsiaPacific had so much change and upheaval to write about.

It began in January 2011 in Tunisia, when the young fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire, and ushered in what has since been dubbed the Arab Spring—a revolution of the people demanding political and social reforms that has spread to many of the countries in West Asia. Toward the close of the year, the Assad regime in Syria clings to power despite sanctions from the Arab League and Turkey, and Yemen is still embroiled in violence. It remains too early to tell what long-term change in the region might look like, but we remain hopeful.

Natural disasters shaped the year around the Pacific. In February, Christchurch, New Zealand, was hit by a major earthquake that caused significant damage to the country’s second most populous city. The destruction put much of the central business district off limits for months. Less than a month later, one of the world’s most devastating earthquakes hit northeastern Japan, which remains crippled, particularly in the area surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Just as the Christchurch art community rallied to find alternative spaces for damaged galleries, Japanese artists combined forces to highlight the dangers of nuclear energy, as well as to organize relief efforts for victims. 

In 2011, shockwaves also originated from central governments. On April 3, China sent the world a strong message as it spirited away one of the country’s most recognized artists and social activists, Ai Weiwei. The communist government claimed that his secret incarceration was due to “economic crimes,” bigamy and “spreading pornography.” The international outcry against the Chinese government was remarkable, with major museums from London’s Tate Modern to the Guggenheim in New York signing petitions for Ai’s release, and fellow artists such as Daniel Buren and Anish Kapoor canceling their Beijing exhibitions. In an amazing turnaround, Ai was released on bail 81 days later. Chinese tax authorities have since handed him a bill for USD 2.4 million in alleged back taxes and fines, and in an astounding show of protest, Ai received contributions from thousands of supporters by international wire transfer, online payment services and, when those were blocked by the government, via paper money airplanes soaring over the walls of his studio compound in Beijing’s Caochangdi district. Ai’s predicament highlights all the other missing and detained people in autocratic regimes.

During this period, ArtAsiaPacific made the trans-Pacific journey to be closer to the numerous sources of our editorial content. At the age of 19, after eight years in New York, we relocated our  editorial office to Hong Kong. The move has given us the sense that we are starting all over again: adjusting to different time zones, staying up late to talk to our old friends in North America and Europe and reconnecting in real-time and face-to-face with artists on the ground in Asia. In Hong Kong, we find ourselves in the vicinity of countries where citizens do not possess the same rights, in particular, freedom of expression.

The move to Hong Kong has also helped ease the production of our seventh edition of the Almanac. Here we have our ear even closer to the ground, guided by Istanbul-based editor HG Masters, who has helped steer this important record of the region since 2007. He had the editorial support of Don Cohn, Olivier Krischer, Hanae Ko, Nadja Kirchhofer, Ashley Lee, Kathy Zhang and Michael Lacoy. We are grateful to our many contributors and desk editors who tapped their local connections and shared their firsthand knowledge. We are also indebted to the many individuals and organizations that continue to share their insight and resources with us.

In each edition of the Almanac we invite influential art world figures to contemplate the major cultural events that have shaped the past year. This year, Japanese artist and scholar Minato Chihiro and Sydney’s Art Space executive art director Blair French each discuss art’s role in relationship to the region’s natural disasters and human crises. New Delhi-based collector Kiran Nadar, who recently debuted her private museum, as well as a branch in the Indian capital earlier this year, shares with us thoughts on her favorite exhibitions from the Subcontinent in 2011. From Beirut, Marwa Arsanios, an artist and co-founder of the independent art space 98 Weeks sheds light on a senior artist’s retrospective that neglected its local context in the curatorial process. Georgy Mamedov, co-curator of the Central Asia Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale, and artist and Singapore Biennale artistic director Matthew Ngui, reflect on the function of art in society from their unique perspectives.

The design of the Almanac was overseen by art director Danielle Huthart, designer Debbie Poon and photo editors, Alis Atwell and Ann Woo. Together they created an elegant mix of text and illustrations in 175 pages of content.

This year’s cover was designed by Singaporean artist Heman Chong, whose work is familiar to many AAP readers. Like his paintings, the cover is a mosaic of images of nondescript places in Asia, making it difficult to decipher whether it is Istanbul, Baku, Kuala Lumpur or Tokyo. In the spirit of the Almanac, Chong describes the diagonal stripe as a form of erasure, which suggests an emerging situation as well as the interconnectivity of all the elements in this annual volume. That very interconnectivity is what we want to be part of, now that we are in the neighborhood of the most exciting developments in the world of art.