Much as global political and cultural dominance by the United States prompted frequent reference to the twentieth century as ‘the American Century’, so the phrase ‘the Asian Century’ – associated with an historic 1988 meeting between Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi – signifies a belief that the twenty-first century will be dominated by Asia. To some extent, the implied promise contained in this phrase has already been fulfilled. In the past decade, the balance of geo-political, economic and even military power has shifted away from America and Europe towards Asia. Japan, Taiwan and Korea are at the cutting edge of technological trends, while China and India have re-emerged as international powers. The Chinese economy has enjoyed decades of record growth; India, too, continues to undergo unprecedented social and economic transformation. Both countries are nuclear powers, and in 2003 China became only the third nation to achieve a manned space flight.
The international art world has mirrored these geopolitical changes. In museums and art galleries around the world, observers of contemporary art today will more than likely confront pieces by Asian artists, some of them working in their home countries, others living in art-world centres such as New York, London and Berlin. It is hardly possible to overstate the growing visibility of Asian artists. The fame of Japanese artist Takashi Murakami (b. 1962) has extended well beyond the art world since his 2002 collaboration with the luxury brand Louis Vuitton on the production of limited-edition handbags; in 2008 he was voted one of Time
magazine’s one hundred most influential people. In that same year, Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang (b. 1957) had a retrospective at New York’s Guggenheim Museum. Asian artists are now fixtures at world-survey exhibitions such as Documenta and the Venice Biennale. In this sense, then, contemporary Asian art is not restricted to Asia but is a global phenomenon.
Contemporary Asian art is also an emerging scholarly field. Along with magazine and journal articles and books that have documented this new sphere of study, there have been a growing number of major pan-Asian periodic exhibitions devoted to Asian artists, including the Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art begun in 1993 at the Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane, and the Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale begun in 1999 at the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum in Japan. An increasing number of important international shows have also taken place, complete with catalogues. These include ‘Contemporary Art in Asia: Traditions/Tensions’ in New York, Vancouver, Perth and Taipei (1996), and ‘Cities on the Move’ in Vienna, Bordeaux, Copenhagen, London, New York and Bangkok (1997–99). Courses have been founded at universities, and to a lesser extent museums have assembled collections of contemporary Asian art, notably the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, the Singapore Art Museum, the Queensland Art Gallery in Australia and the Asia Society Museum in New York. There are also several major private collections in Europe, Australia and America. Whereas not long ago critics and historians either dismissed Asian artists as feeble imitators of their international peers, or were obsessed with revealing an ‘authentic’ culture devoid of Western or any other influences, there now exists a growing appreciation for the specific cultural circumstances and references that shape and distinguish contemporary Asian art.
What, then, is it that distinguishes a work of art by a contemporary Asian artist? How is the work understood by viewers in and outside the region? What is its status and relationship to more traditional modes of Asian art? How can we assess its merits in an international or global art-world context? These are some of the questions underlying this book – a broad-ranging study intended to introduce the emerging field of contemporary Asian art from the 1990s onwards.
We will also explore some of the circumstances in which these artworks have been created, and will highlight the artists’ ongoing dialogues with memory, imagination and the demands of everyday life, in the belief that artworks are always as much the product of particular social, cultural and historical circumstances as they are highly individual creative acts.
The book is organized thematically, an approach that avoids orthodox historical narratives (chronology, stylistic transition, a charting of movements and schools) and allows for both an in-depth analysis of the principal issues governing contemporary Asian art and an introduction to a wide range of artists, many of whom will be unfamiliar to readers outside the region.
The art discussed ranges from painting (in oil, tempera and ink) to sculpture, photography, performance, installation, video and new media. That said, it seems crucial that certain distinctions we are making here are understood clearly, for perhaps more so than anywhere else contemporary Asian art takes many forms and encompasses a range of purposes and points of view. National cultural expectations, and the continuation of localized artistic traditions, are of primary concern to a large number of Asian artists: this, however, is not the subject of our book. Rather, we focus on those artists who identify with the experimental language, media and styles of the international contemporary art world. This, in turn, presents significant challenges to scholarly efforts to define contemporary Asian art, much less to survey adequately the variety of artists and art practices in an immense, diverse region that includes nearly thirty countries, and whose three billion inhabitants – more than half the population of the world – speak dozens of regional dialects and languages.
The challenges begin with ‘Asia’ itself. As a term, it is more of a discursive concept than a homogeneous physical, social or even cultural entity. It is an idea more than a location. The word ‘Asia’ is often believed to have been first used by fifth-century bc historian Herodotus, originating from the Greek term for Anatolia (Southern Turkey) to distinguish the Persian Empire from Greece and Egypt. By the Middle Ages, ‘Asia’ was in widespread use across Europe to describe a distinct landmass, though definitions of its parameters varied and have continued to do so over the centuries. Today there are so many definitions of ‘Asia’ that the term remains elusive, confusing and contradictory.
For the purposes of this book, in geographical terms we will concentrate on contemporary art and artists from four sub-regions: East Asia (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, Mongolia and mainland China); South Asia (India and Pakistan); Southeast Asia (Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Philippines, Burma, Thailand and Vietnam); and Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan). Although commonly considered part of the Middle East, Iran is also included here because of its cultural, linguistic, religious and ethnic ties to the Asian region; the Persian Empire ruled for centuries over much of Central Asia, and people living in Iran today have much in common with their Central Asian neighbours, not to mention Persia’s substantial influence on the art and architecture of South Asia during the Mughal period (1526–1858).
Contemporary Asian art, however, is not confined to Asia. As mentioned above, many successful Asian artists live outside Asia, chiefly in Europe, the United States, Canada and Australia. Others commute between homes in different countries. ‘Contemporary Asian art’ in this sense, then, is understood not merely as a set of art objects from a specific geographical area, but as a discursive framework within which experimental art connected to the region can be understood. This approach allows us to identify shared attitudes, ideas, themes and references. Curiously, such an interpretive framework would seem to have greater currency and use outside of Asia than within it, where the people tend to distinguish readily among the numerous different regional and cultural traditions and to identify themselves along national, ethnic and linguistic lines. Some Asian art historians have even argued that the term ‘Asian art’ is not a valid concept. At the same time, contemporary art within Asia has a shared regional history, which it is worth pausing to review briefly, if only to dispel a widespread belief that until recently there was no such thing as contemporary Asian art.
Excerpted from Asian Art Now by Melissa Chiu and Benjamin Genocchio. Copyright © 2010 by Melissa Chiu and Benjamin Genocchio. Excerpted by permission of The Monacelli Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.