Territories Disrupted: Asian Art after 1989

Annie Jael Kwan, Mia Yu, Abhijan Gupta and Midori Yamamura

Read our report on this symposium, which explored Asian art after 1989 with a focus on how political and economic changes corresponded with changes in artistic practice and its reception.

Territories Disrupted: Asian Art after 1989, National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA), Seoul, South Korea, 4–5 April 2017 © MMCA

Territories Disrupted: Asian Art after 1989, National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA), Seoul, South Korea, 4–5 April 2017
© MMCA

The symposium was held on 4 and 5 April 2017 at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) in Seoul, South Korea, jointly organised by Tate Research Centre: Asia and the MMCA. Among the issues addressed were democratic movements and their challenges; the questioning of the binary of cold war ideologies; the impact of globalisation arising from the increased economic prosperity of the period; and the proliferation of the representation of non-Western art in exhibition making on global platforms and the emergence of a new generation of artists as well as feminist practice in Asia.

This report is divided into four sections, each written by recipients of the Tate Research Centre: Asia Travel Grant award, which provided funds for early career scholars and curators to attend the symposium.

Disrupting Temporalities as Territory

Annie Jael Kwan reflects on the intertwined spatio-temporal narratives presented at the symposium. Just as the singularity of ‘Asia’ was contested, the year 1989 as a turning point for global contemporary art was also complicated. This ‘temporal territory’ was disrupted through an examination of the diverse local historical developments and contexts of the period.

Neither ‘Asia’ nor ‘1989’ escaped critical reassessment at the symposium Territories Disrupted: Asian Art after 1989. While the various presentations outlined the socio-political changes interlinked with artistic development in different geographies of Asia from the same temporal period – including Japan, Korea, Australia, South-east and South Asia – the designation of ‘after’ also provided an opportunity to examine the connections with the oft-cited temporal landmark for the beginning of global contemporary art.

Dr Sook-Kyung Lee, Senior Curator, Tate Research Centre: Asia, gave an introductory address which mapped out the global landscape of 1989, connecting landmark events in Seoul and the wider Asian region – such as the 1988 Seoul Olympics and the Tiananmen Square protest in Beijing – with the broader reconfigurations of the geopolitical plane, for example the collapse of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall in Europe. This address was followed by an inspiring account from pioneering Korean artist Lee Bul. Graduating in 1987, she began her career as an artist within this precise context, the events of 1989 shaping her artistic formation. Lee recounted that the new international connections fostered by the Seoul Olympics meant that there was an influx of foreign curators in the city, which presented an unprecedented opportunity for Korean artists to become visible on the international stage. This allowed Korean artists to undertake work which went beyond a search for national identity, a popular topic of artistic enquiry and discourse in post-independence Korean art. Instead, her performances explored controversial issues related to gender that contravened conventions of Korean femininity and motherhood. Lee screened video documentation of some of her provocative and ground-breaking performances, including Cravings 1989, Abortion 1989 and Sorry for Suffering 1990.

The first panel, titled Exhibitions and Other Stories, presented three papers recounting significant exhibition projects executed in the same period, further underscoring the artistic developments in Asia around 1989. Curator Rina Igarashi’s paper discussed the Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale and Museum. Igarashi recalled how Japan had experienced significant economic growth before the 1980s, arguing that the establishment of the museum and its inaugural exhibition signified the city’s emergence as an economic power, and the concurrent interest in the ‘ethnic boom’, the latter of which accompanied the influx of migrant labour. For Igarashi, this context permitted a consideration of what constituted ‘contemporary Asian art’; the resulting enquiries would eventually widen the fledgling museum’s acquisitions policy to include outstanding modern and contemporary Asian artworks. Igarashi argued that this shift in focus undertaken by Fukuoka towards the collection of ‘foreign art’ allowed the curatorial team to consider how modern art could relate to the social structure of Japan, underscoring an example of the relationship between the global and the local.

Conversely, curator Mark Francis reflected on the seminal exhibition Magiciens de la Terre held at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris in 1989. Citing Chris Marker’s films as a major influence, Francis explained how, through the exhibition, he sought to turn the insular art world towards a broader, global paradigm. Francis’s paper gave a discrete history of the context within which the exhibition was conceived, beginning in 1979, which he argued marked the beginning of a new configuration of global power relations. Francis listed significant events in shaping this context, such as the overthrowing of the modernising Shah of Iran, the election of the conservative Polish Pope and the ensuing upheavals of solidarity in Poland, as well as the fall of the Berlin Wall. Francis also noted that because of China’s ever-increasing economic power the era also saw the breakup of the post-war consensus and the cultural hegemony of the United States.

Territories Disrupted: Asian Art after 1989, National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA), Seoul, South Korea, 4–5 April 2017 © MMCA

Territories Disrupted: Asian Art after 1989, National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA), Seoul, South Korea, 4–5 April 2017
© MMCA

Similarly, curator and art historian Russell Storer recounted the development of the first edition of the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT), which was staged in 1993. Storer recounted that prior to the exhibition, in distant north-east Australia, an enquiry report had been released exposing top level administrative corruption, which led to the election of a progressive new government in 1987. 1988 marked the bicentennial of the arrival of the British in Australia, sparking fierce debates around Australia’s identity as a British outpost and postcolonial space. Storer noted that the following year, Brisbane hosted the World Expo, taking place at the end of a decade that had seen a significant rise in the visibility and awareness of aboriginal art – a result, in part, of wider discussions around the relational tensions between the global and issues of local identity. While Storer’s paper argued that a paradigm shift towards the global occurred in museums and biennials in the 1980s and 1990s, underscoring the main frame for the conference, it also challenged some of the assumptions of this narrative with its account of the complexities of the local context. This was reinforced in the following panel discussion with Professor Ute Meta Bauer, when Mark Francis argued that despite this historic ‘global’ turn, most museums today remain local and provincial in their collecting and exhibiting practices, and very few institutions – Tate and MoMA, for example – have the capacity and real inclination. Lee shared an anecdote which served to further complicate the problem of constructing a global contemporary art history: during the 1980s and 1990s she and her collaborators were not aware of the significance of documentation, and thus many original recordings on VHS were destroyed or had to be restored. This lack of presumption that documentation of their works would become historically significant, despite the opening up of the Korean art scene to international attention, points to some of the limitations inherent within the reconstruction (and recuperation) of different art histories.

After having looked to 1989 as a year of landmark exhibitions, the second panel, The Emergence of the New Generation, considered the impact the attendant social and political changes had on artistic practice in the Asia region. Associate Professor Jung-Ah Woo’s paper discussed how the 1980s brought postmodern theory to Seoul via theorist Fredric Jameson’s writings, impacting on a new generation of artistic practices which offered a more fragmented sensibility in relation to conventional modernism. Woo posited that Korean art of the 1990s reflected a generation that had skipped the democratic struggles of the previous generation and had grown up in a more consumerist society.

Woo’s paper was followed by a presentation from Professor Michio Hayashi, who provided an account of the Superflat movement in 1990s Japan, a postmodern art movement influenced by anime and manga that was founded by artist Takashi Murakami. His paper attempted to open up the conventional narrative that linked Murakami – an artist whose practice is synonymous with this period – with ukiyo-e, a popular art form of the Edo period, by applying a Lacanian reading to his work. Hayashi argued that rather than read Murakami’s works as apolitical, they can be understood as erasing the violence of atomic destruction on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – thus serving to repress the trauma of the event. Hayashi’s challenge to the received reading of Superflat as contemporary pop art also opened up the possibility of flexible application across different theoretical frames, allowing for a richer understanding of contemporary art beyond genres and categories such as ‘modernism’, ‘pop art’ and so on. Similarly, another such reading that challenged the neat categorisations of movements and media in Asian contemporary art could be found in Associate Professor Karin Zitzewitz’s paper on Indian contemporary art in the 1990s, where the rise of feminist participation alongside the installation form and theatricality were used to extend the medium of painting.

In contrast, Associate Professor Iftikhar Dadi’s reflections drew directly upon the local context for his development of ‘Karachi Pop’. His presentation mapped how new technologies, institutions and legal and linguistic frameworks impacted upon the diversity of labour and life practices of local cast-delineated communities. These transformations paved the way for the development of art schools and a distinctive mode of commercial pop art that was reflective of the urban and vernacular in the specific site and era.

Finally, in the last panel, Decolonial Conditions, Professor Patrick Flores traced intersections during the period in South-east Asia. These included the 1987 Baguio Arts Festival, the establishment of the Baguio Artists Guild in 1987, and a collegiality formed around art historians such as T.K. Sabapathy and Redza Piyadasa in Singapore and Malaysia, who worked closely to develop the field of art history in South-east Asia. This exposition was supplemented by artist FX Harsono’s reflections on how the Indonesian New Art Movement of 1975 experienced an increasingly repressive regime under President Suharto and, as a result, the contemporary art institution only began in 1988 after the riots and massacre. These accounts of artistic activities, all taking place within a relatively short time-span, together traced a rich and complex conception of ‘Asian art’, outlining its emergence and development both locally and globally. As a result, the symposium connected the critical debates on global contemporary art with specific local accounts, complicating any singular overarching narrative of practice.

‘Asia’: Between Discursive Framework and Individual Practice

Mia Yu looks at how the theme of ‘Asia’ was addressed during the symposium. Speakers examined how ‘Asia’ was framed and contested through institutional, curatorial and artistic practices since 1989. From various perspectives, the presentations unpacked layers of complexities across different constructions and imaginaries of ‘Asia’ and demonstrated the importance of understanding ‘Asia’ as a critical method in relation to specific social, political and personal contexts.

During the symposium’s first panel, titled Exhibitions and Other Stories, Igarashi Rina and Russell Storer traced how their institutional histories – Fukuoka Asian Art Museum and the National Gallery Singapore respectively – were entangled with the conception of Asian art. Igarashi presented the historical trajectory from the first Asian Art Show organised by Fukuoka Art Museum in 1979 to the establishment of Fukuoka Asia Art Museum (FAAM) in 1999. She situated the pioneering practices of FAAM and the Fukuoka Asian Art Triennial in relation to the context of the Japanese economic boom and the rebranding of Fukuoka as a nodal point for intercultural exchange in Asia. Partly driven by the need to differentiate FAAM from other museums amid a museum boom in Japan, the curatorial team made a strategic decision to use ‘Asia’ as a framework to exhibit and collect contemporary art, a positioning which had neither major market appeal nor critical purchase prior to this moment.

With regard to the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT), while Storer acknowledged that the exhibition had come into existence through a matrix of external forces including government-led initiatives towards internationalisation, he also emphasised the challenge to the centrality and authority of the Western art canon, a force that had been gaining momentum in the field of art history since the 1980s. In the Australian context, this had also led to efforts to give due recognition to marginalised art practices such as aboriginal art. These efforts were intimately tied up with a critical reflection on the shifting Australian identity in the wake of the bicentennial of the arrival of the British to Australia in 1988. It is noteworthy that in providing exposure for emerging artists from Asian countries, both FAAM and the APT’s activities in the 1990s facilitated the growth of contemporary art in countries with minimal exhibiting opportunities for artists.

The theme of ‘Asia’ carried through to the second day of the symposium, which comprised two panels. The first looked at the generation of artists that emerged during the 1990s and the second looked at the decolonial condition within which they were working. Presentations from both panels provided in-depth investigations of self-organised artist networks as a key characteristic of contemporary art in Asia. Taking place in the latter panel, Decolonial Conditions, Patrick Flores gave a paper titled ‘Coincidences in Place’, in which he discussed the Baguio Arts Festival organised by Filippino artists after the end of President Marcos’s dictatorship in 1986. Flores argued that all these ‘horizontal engagements’ of artist-organised festivals, artist collectives and artist-designed biennials constructed matrices of relationships within regions and beyond. This peer-led model formed an organic network of local contemporary artists, creating a rather different art landscape than that fostered by art institutions and biennials. More fluid, ephemeral, personal and contingent, these ‘co-incidents’ proved vital for artists in the formation of their individual practices in the years to come.

Territories Disrupted: Asian Art after 1989, National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA), Seoul, South Korea, 4–5 April 2017 © MMCA

Territories Disrupted: Asian Art after 1989, National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA), Seoul, South Korea, 4–5 April 2017
© MMCA

In the first panel, the presentations by Iftikhar Dadi and Michio Hayashi shed light on artists’ different approaches to the established art-historical canon. Dadi’s paper provided an account of the artistic practice that first emerged in the 1990s and was later characterised as ‘Karachi Pop’. Karachi Pop was inspired by the everyday experience, in particular the vernacular form of material and technology in Karachi at the time. Dadi, himself one of the key artists associated with Karachi Pop, argued that the movement simultaneously referenced and problematised the canonical language of pop art. Michio Hayashi’s talk, which looked at the practice of Takashi Murakami and the Superflat – a movement which he promoted in the West through exhibitions such as Superflat, Coloriage and Little Boy in San Francisco, Paris and New York respectively. Hayashi argued that this was Murakami’s way of presenting Japanese so-called ‘postmodern art’ to a global audience. Dadi and Hayashi’s presentations prompted reconsideration of contemporary variations of pop art that emerged in the 1990s both with reference to and beyond the canonical category of pop art of the 1960s.

Finally, the category of ‘Asian’ art was further expounded through two artist presentations from Jitish Kallat and FX Harsono. Both artists’ practices are concerned with negotiating identities within the global-local nexus. Resisting containing his identity within a single category, Kallat said that he preferred to adopt a flexible operation across various adjectives of the self, ranging from ‘a local Bombay artist’, ‘a global artist’ to even ‘an artist of the Milky Way’. This approach to identity affords Kallat the fluidity and freedom to work beyond national boundaries. By comparison, Harsono’s practice never attempted to address a broader notion of ‘Asian’ art; rather he chooses to focus on evoking the pluralities of Indonesian histories and the subject of his own ethnic Chinese identity.

In presenting divergent perspectives, the presentations given at the symposium painted Asia as a contested terrain, irreducible to fixed types or national identities. ‘Asia’ is neither an overarching concept that only appears in the European imagination nor a stable geographical category with pre-defined boundaries; it is always contingent, plural and in flux. It is notable that the artist networks formed through friendship and solidarity played an important role in shaping the art landscape alongside the museums, galleries and biennials. It is the inextricable connections between the local and the global, between the individual and the collective, between artist-built networks and institutions, between various imaginaries of centre and periphery that the rich and complex terrain of ‘Asian art’ continuously shapes and mutates.

Although the symposium presented a wide range of case studies from Korea, Japan, Australia, India and South-east Asia, it lacked perspectives and discussions on contemporary art from China. The 1990s witnessed a plethora of innovative exhibitions, unauthorised publications and spontaneous art happenings organised by artists in China. Demonstrating an impulse for network formation and a desire for self-circulation, the organisational approach of these projects emphasised a collaborative work ethos and an organic approach for artistic autonomy in the wake of the political events in 1989. These artist networks and individual practices could provide interesting parallels and comparisons to the artists discussed at the symposium. China’s social, political and cultural complexities as well as the influx of global capital to China’s expanding art market and the booming private art museums also present a different set of difficulties and challenges when we think about China in relation to ‘Asia’. Moreover, Chinese artists and curators’ active involvement with Asian art institutions in the 1990s and Chinese art institutions’ lack of engagement with ‘Asia’ as a critical method also deserve our critical reflection.

Asia-as-Method and Art After 1989

Abhijan Gupta reflects on the idea of Asia-as-method as a possible paradigm from which to think about the art history of Asian art after 1989. He asks how indigenous art histories might be foregrounded in our conceptions of transnationalism, and how their exclusion has coloured our conception of the framing of the contemporary. Further, he looks at the continuing importance of the non-aligned movement during this period, orienting us away from the centrality of the post-Cold War narrative and of the institutions that fostered south-south connections.

Landscapes weigh heavily on the writing of histories – can one speak of Fukuoka in the same tones in Seoul and in Dhaka? To think Asia, in its many densities, becomes a dispersion of the narrative of ‘postcoloniality’, or indeed of the Global South – how for example, do we situate Thailand, Tibet or indeed Japan, within this framework? What we become forced to face are terrains of intersecting imperialisms and multiple, often dialogic processes of ongoing decolonial work. Writing from Asia, we are invited to occupy simultaneously contradictory positions and contingent alliances.

Thinking about the context of the production of an ‘Asian’ imagination in the 1980s and into the 1990s, in Bangladesh, we are forced again to contend with the position of Japan, and in multiple registers. First, informing the Bengali modernist idea of a ‘modernism-oriented-eastwards’, emerging from the thought of the poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore in conversation with the Japanese curator Okakura Kakuzo,1 and again in the exchanges between Dhaka and Fukuoka, which led to the establishment of the Asian Art Biennale in 1981. Syed Jahangir, then director of the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, travelled to the Asian Art Show in Fukuoka in 1980, which inspired him to begin what is now Asia’s longest continuously operating biennial, and participation in the conversations in Fukuoka gave him access to a network of artists such as Raymundo Albano and Redza Piyadasa, who became early supporters and contributors to this exhibition. The project of ‘Asia’, which has sometimes been critically described as appearing only in the imagination of Europe, even within anti-colonial publications such as Third Text or indeed, as Russell Storer remarked, on the banks of the Brisbane River, must be thought across these various valences and always from a multiplicity of positions.

How do practices of collecting figure in the making of these canons and the formation of new Asian imaginaries? The Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale, the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art and indeed the Asian Art Biennale of Dhaka, were all platforms for the formation of collections. Can we speak of an Asia-as-method of collecting? And whose transnationalisms do these acts of collecting serve? I was struck in Igarashi Rina’s presentation by the notion of collecting Asias and the idea of not differentiating between collecting modernist art from the regions within the remit of the Fukuoka Asia Art Museum (FAAM) and objects of what has been termed ‘folk’ or ‘minor’ practices, especially because of the resonances this might have in thinking about collecting indigenous art and cultural artefacts between countries outside the West. Igarashi states that questioning definitions of what constitutes fine art practice was an impetus in the formation of the collection of the FAAM, always attempting to address the question: ‘How do you localise Asian art?’ Could this be a generative space for thinking of ways to address the collection of indigenous art in Asia? An urgency is leant to the need to imagine these alternative models for the collecting of indigenous modernities in institutions which do not have a colonial history – criticality towards the histories of collections in formerly imperial institutions in western Europe has thankfully begun to emerge – by the apocryphal story of the Gond modernist Jangarh Singh Shyam. Shyam was a participating artist in Magiciens de la Terre – which was discussed at the conference by Mark Francis – and was championed by figures in India such as J. Swaminathan and Jyotindra Jain, who sent him on a residency to produce a new body of work at the Mithila Museum in Niigata, Japan, where other indigenous artists such as Ganga Devi had also been invited to produce work. During the course of his residency, Shyam committed suicide, under mysterious circumstances, writing painfully of his longing to go home. What then are the limits of this particular mode of framing the transnational and how might we begin to imagine otherwise?

The presentation by Karin Zitzewitz situated the practices of artists such as Nilima Sheikh and Nalini Malini in the context of radically left-aligned theatre practices in India, producing a vivid ecology of practices. She addressed the transnational encounters and the sites of deployment that created the context for some of their seminal pieces, locating the Second Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT2) at a particular moment in the career of Nilima Sheikh (her work was accompanied by a catalogue essay by Geeta Kapur), as well as the central place occupied by the Goethe-Institut in Mumbai, considering the role that it played in the cultural dialogue of the city, in the context of a discussion of a seminal exhibition by Malani held there. In doing so, Zitzewitz opened up the genealogies of artistic production, beyond the national-regional-feminist framework within which they have been viewed. In a similar vein, Lee Bul discussed the development of her practice within the context of post-war Korea, in a landscape similarly devoid of institutional support, locating her early performance work – which was often realised along with other members of the Museum Group collective to which she belonged – within the context of experiments in expanded cinema in the country.

Patrick Flores’s paper provided a further model for thinking through the negotiation of regionality within the framework of transnational art histories and the importance of transversal artist networks. Flores engaged the histories of the establishment of the Baguio Arts Festival by the Baguio Artists Guild in 1989, and of VIVA EXCON in the Visayas (which for the first time has a Manila-based artistic director for its 2018 iteration) as models of parallel institutionality, operating at a different register from the often Manila-centred (and the Cultural Center of the Philippines) narrative of the Philippines. Flores spoke also of the Cry of Asia project in 1989, which took on a caravan format, bearing resonances with the itinerant, politically-aligned exhibition Art Against Apartheid and of the artworks amassed for the Museum for Palestine collection,2 which had toured through parts of Asia in the preceding decades and to which many artists from the region had donated works.

Flores and Zitzewitz’s presentations also hinted at how the particular strands of artistic practice, rooted in artist-led movements that were tied to leftist political ideologies within the countries of origin of the artists concerned, were becoming linked via Non-Aligned networks.3 Non-Aligned networks also served to undo questions of geographical determinism and ‘regions’ built primarily on perceived proximities. Just as London, Paris, New York and Los Angeles have been emplaced in Asia, the Non-Aligned framework also allows for a movement that recognises constellations not only with Johannesburg and Havana, but also Baghdad, Tehran and Ljubljana. Events such as the Tehran Biennale and the Baghdad Biennale had been important markers of cultural dialogue and very much part of Third-Worldist imagination.

In this context, FX Harsono’s presentation became an important rejoinder against the new romanticisation of the Non-Aligned Movement, reminding us of the actual fates of these supposedly emancipatory ideologies, which often led directly or indirectly to periods of repression or instability in many Non-Aligned countries. Harsono’s practice has long engaged with the genocides perpetrated against people of Chinese heritage in Indonesia by Suharto – he himself was forced to relinquish his Chinese name, an act he attempts to come to terms with in his seminal work Writing in the Rain 2011.

To develop Asia as method, to draw from the work of the Taiwanese historian Kuan-Hsing Chen,4 in art historical discourse requires a re-orientation of methodologies, to recognise contingent nomadic modes of building institutions and infrastructures through friendship and solidarity, in weighted terrains whose currents often pull in contradictory directions. It is to think the archive otherwise, and propose an often speculative imaginary, in the manner investigated by artist, filmmaker and theorist Trinh T. Minh-Ha in her lecture performance. In her talk, she revisited her practice as a filmmaker, beginning with a discussion of her 1983 work Reassemblage and tracing certain strands of investigation into the ‘archive’ which continues to inform more recent projects such as Forgetting Vietnam 2015. She explored spaces of hybrids of identity, which exceed hyphenation, and proposed a mode of nomadism that allows for a reconfiguration of methods of narration – performing a radical de-centring of subjectivity which sees the self as a series of flows, ebbs and intensities, rather than molar positions. The archive, thus, is bid to sing, to become immaterial, to become an unresolvable many, always in process, always only finding temporary anchorings. She introduced water, as waves, as history, as fog, as a conceptual territory, summing up her position with an allusion to an old Chinese saying: ‘What is miraculous is not to walk on water, but rather on land.’ She provided a fertile ground from which to rethink the narrative of ‘Asian’ art histories of the recent past, and which necessitates the occupation of positions which are always in excess of themselves.

Spatial Territories Disrupted: Connectivity, Transnationality and Interpretability of Post-1989 Asian Art

Midori Yamamura discusses how a network of Asian artists began exploring novel forms of art after 1989 by taking up the symposium papers that dealt with Japan as a case study. She then follows the move from Asian art into the global scene, charting the conscious effort made to cater to Western audiences, establishing a new transnational genre. Still, some Asian artists focused on grappling with a local socio-political reality. The text concludes with a discussion on the interpretive space of Asian art.

‘The East is [the new] North.’ This is how curator Russell Storer described the leading exhibition of contemporary Asian art, the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT), which began in Australia in 1993. This spatial shift within Asia and beyond, along with the resultant creative output, was just one of the many fascinating cultural vagaries discussed at this symposium.

Storer explained that, as a result of the thriving Asian economy and postmodern discourses on plurality, some momentous changes occurred around 1989 – including the Seoul Olympics in 1988, the Centre Georges Pompidou exhibition Magiciens de la Terre in 1989, and the research for the first APT which began in 1990 – all of which helped incorporate Asia into the global contemporary art scene. This resulted in the introduction of regional Asian art exhibitions, an opening up of dialogue among artists and the creation of a new form of expression for their generation.

Connecting Spaces

On the first day of the symposium, the curator Rina Igarashi described how, as part of a cultural exchange programme, Fukuoka Art Museum began staging the Asian Art Show (1979–). Its fourth edition in 1994 was particularly important, with the curators focusing on a single theme, ‘Realism as an Attitude’, which examined how artists from diverse Asian countries grappled with their socio-political reality. In the final years of the Japanese economic bubble (1986–1991), an ample budget enabled the museum to invite twenty artists from across Asia for an on-site installation and performance. Through direct communication with the artists, the show ignited an ‘Asian contemporary art boom’ in Japan and established a first-hand and lasting network for exchange among artists. Just this April [2017], one of the 1994 exhibition participants, Masato Nakamura, invited another, the Singaporean performance artist Lee Wen, to exhibit his latest work at Nakamura’s community-based space 3331 Arts Chiyoda in Tokyo.

Although the friendship between Lee and Nakamura was not referenced in Igarashi’s paper, Lee’s street performance Yellow Man 1992–2004 treated his own body, painted yellow, as a mask to pose a question: Do people know the true Lee Wen beyond his stereotypical appearance? Lee’s distinctive expression and intellectual vigorousness must have drawn Nakamura’s attention, who initially became interested in Asia due to the Olympic fever in 1988. As the first study-abroad student who went to Korea from Japan in 1989, Nakamura began to see the westernised aesthetic standard as a means of effacing local culture. His effort to invent a new art that circumvented this cannot be separated from his encounter with Lee Bul and Choi Jeong Hwa, which took place after enrolling in Hongik University. At the symposium, Lee spoke of her struggle to find a new visual language that was different from Korean modernism and Minjung art [art of the masses]. Lee Bul, like Lee Wen, ended up bringing art to the streets to reach a wider audience.

Parallel development occurred in Tokyo, when Nakamura summoned his generation of artists and staged the outdoor guerrilla exhibition GINBURART (4–18 April 1993) at the famous commercial gallery district, Ginza, and explored new visual strategies, including a festival with a mikoshi [portable shrine]. Like Nam June Paik and Yoko Ono before them, among the Asian artists born around 1960 there was a penchant for performativity and staging works at atypical venues. One of the participants in GINBURART was Takashi Murakami, whose practice art historian Michio Hayashi critically re-assessed in his symposium paper.

Negotiation Between the Local and the Global

Once the artists’ network expanded to include ‘curators, scholars and critics in the region’, Storer observed that contemporary Asian art became ‘its own transnational category’. Within this category there existed a ‘carefully established postmodern art targeted at the Western audience’, as Hayashi explained. One example is Murakami’s Superflat aesthetic, which he roots in the Edo period’s ukiyo-e tradition. Like American pop art, ukiyo-e was an art movement that drew its aesthetic from popular visual culture. Adopting the ‘flat and smooth application of colours, mass culture and commodity’ aspects of ukiyo-e, Hayashi argued, Murakami presented himself as the legitimate successor of Japanese popular culture and strategically promoted his invention by curating the so-called Superflat trilogy: Superflat, Coloriage and Little Boy in San Francisco, Paris and New York, respectively. Adopting motifs which referred to historical events, such as the mushroom cloud, Hayashi argued, Murakami predicated his aesthetics on Western ‘symbolic’ value, which facilitated an easier acceptance of his work in the art markets of the West.

Pop and anime images characterise the Superflat artists that Murakami promotes today from his Kaikai Kiki Gallery, but not all Asian artists of his generation embrace this sensibility. For example, one of the conference’s participants, Lee contended that, despite being once included in an exhibition of anime and manga, her art does not focus solely on those genres because she ‘was not exposed to it’. The tension between Lee and Murakami’s art brings us to the poetic question asked by Mark Francis during his presentation on Magiciens de la Terre – the ground-breaking exhibition that introduced contemporary art from Africa, Asia and Latin America to Paris – when interpreting these artworks: How do we ‘look at African art with quality’?

Territories Disrupted: Asian Art after 1989, National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA), Seoul, South Korea, 4–5 April 2017 © MMCA

Territories Disrupted: Asian Art after 1989, National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA), Seoul, South Korea, 4–5 April 2017
© MMCA

Interpretive Space of Asian Art

In order to interpret Asian art with ‘quality’, it needs to be understood beyond the Lacanian idea of the symbolic. At the conference, art historian Jung-Ah Woo associated Lee Bul’s pop-ish, brightly coloured, cheap materials with female sweatshop labour, a result of Lee’s feminist grappling with the history of the Korean women who became a cheap source of labour when Korea entered the global labour market.

Such deeply personal feelings similarly motivate Chinese Indonesian artist FX Harsono’s erasures. In President Suharto’s Indonesia (1967–98), the ethnic Chinese citizens were oppressed. Harsono had to abandon his Chinese name, Fufung Son, and was banned from practicing his religion, writing Chinese characters and attending Chinese school. Through his research he discovered the 1965–6 Chinese massacre. In one of his video performances, Writing in the Rain 2011, Harsono repeatedly writes on a large pane of glass ‘My name is Fufung Son,’ only for it to be erased. The futility of his repeated action simultaneously reminds us of Harsono’s erasure, and that of the wider Chinese Indonesian culture and history, spotlighting the government’s injustice towards the ethnic Chinese.

‘Modern art in Indonesia’, Harsono explains, ‘came from the West’. However, as briefly discussed by Patrick Flores, as part of a contemporary artistic practice, artists in postcolonial countries make a conscious effort to relearn indigenous culture, as is the case with the Filipino filmmaker Kidlat Tahimik, notably in his film Perfumed Nightmare 1977, where the protagonist finds value in the old way of life as an antidote for urbanised capitalist society. In order to fully appreciate the new trend, we need expertise in both local culture and the wider social milieu. As seen in the cases of Lee, Harsono and Tahimik, one of the benefits of interpreting contemporary Asian art is to gain new knowledge through multiple facets of reality that ultimately shift our notion of the symbolic. This symposium was just the beginning of this revolution of the mind.