Esse est percipi: art media, criticism and the need for a digital criticism archive in East Asia

"Esse est percipi" (to be is to be perceived) is a quote from the 18th Century Irish philosopher and clergyman George Berkeley. The playwright Samuel Beckett was so enamoured of this phrase that he used it at the beginning of his only movie screenplay FILM. The art world in countries outside Europe and North America is also obsessed with the idea that it needs to affirm this edict. In the past it has gone without saying that the audience it needs to be perceived by has been in Europe and North America. Because of this other art worlds have become intent upon making English the language of their own country's art media.

However before taking on such a heavy commitment, each place has had to wait until its economic power increases and (the markets in) Europe and North America direct their attention to its art. In this manner, in East Asia at the beginning of this century, first in Japan and then in South Korea, and then in China, English language or bilingual art journals appeared in quick succession, only to fold as the economies in these countries stalled. In Japan, ART iT, which I founded, is currently an online-only affair. In South Korea, art in ASIA, headed by Kim Boggi, is going strong, but this is a miraculous exception. I can think of no art media worthy of recognition in Taiwan, while in China the journals that have survived are all overly market-oriented, except Leap with its growing digital review archive.

When it comes down to it, the Asia-focused journals worth reading can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and include ArtAsiaPacific, which is now based in Hong Kong, the above-mentioned art in ASIA, and Yishu which hails from Vancouver. The first two place importance on information rather than criticism, while the third focuses solely on China (rightly so, given that this is its goal). Because space is always limited, it is inevitable that the emphasis is on information. The problems are that criticism is not circulating, and that a disproportionate number of the few writers of criticism are writing in English. In every country there are talented contributing writers who write in their native language only. It is in the nature of things that their articles cannot be read by foreigners, as a result of which discourse at the highest level in these countries cannot be communicated or shared overseas. One shortcut to solving this problem might be the creation of an online archive of criticism.

Unlike the situation with print media, articles of any length could be kept on record. Leaving aside the translation fees, the cost would be relatively insignificant. Adopting a setup whereby not only the original text but translations could also be uploaded would make it possible for people everywhere to gain access to these articles. Given the surprising (to some) number of people in the art world who cannot understand English, support for the four languages of Japanese, Korean, traditional Chinese and English would be welcomed across the entire region. If participating countries administered the system individually, contriving to cover the expenses by way of grants and so on, and seeking assistance from volunteer translators, for example, the number of texts available in translation would gradually increase, eventually making it a worthy archive.

Art insiders around the world have a wealth of information on the art world in London, Paris, Venice and New York. Information on art in countries outside of Europe and North America, however, is not being shared, even within the region concerned. This is because people generally only follow what is happening in their own country and in Europe and North America, and have little interest in the art scene elsewhere. In a sense, a tree-like structure has become firmly established with Europe and North America at the top, and although we may know what is happening at the trunk, there is no interaction among the different branches. I want to reform this tree-like structure and turn it into a rhizome. REALKYOTO, which launched September 2012, has already made a modest attempt at initiating such a project. It is a digital archive set up in line with the Japanese saying “Bear a small child and raise it big”. Only time will tell if we, or if East Asia, or even if countries outside Europe and North America, can mutually 'be perceived’, and as a result mutually ‘be’.

(Translated into English by Pamela Miki)

Ozaki Tetsuya is Publisher and editor-in-chief of REALTOKYO/REALKYOTO. He comments on the urgency of a digital archive in East Asia for commentary and reviews on contemporary East Asian art in Japanese, Korean, traditional Chinese and English, and on the website REALTOKYO has made a modest beginning at such an archive.

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