The view of the past twenty years of contemporary art in Asia varies according to one’s cultural background and standing point. I have been watching or taking part in it from the inside in the 1990s and from the outside in the 2000s, when I moved to France from Japan at around the turning of the century. Although fragmentary and subjective from my personal path, I trace here some major points about the question of contemporary Asian art in Europe, giving clues for further consideration of the view of ‘Asia’ from Europe over the past two decades.
The 1990s were, without doubt, the most active years for contemporary Asian art. It is probably no exaggeration to say that everything started in that period. Of course contemporary art existed before but there was very little ‘eye-opening’ of interest in this area and no regionally framed project existed – well, with a few exceptions like the project in Fukuoka. The notion of contemporary Asian art emerged in contemporary art discourse after 1990, although its definition is always left very ambiguous.
The newly set-up Asian projects by the Japan Foundation Asia Center, the Asia-Pacific Triennial, Asialink, and ArtAsiaPacific magazine were certainly key actors in this development. These projects provided new opportunities to artists presenting their works and establishing inter-regional exchanges and networks among the institutions and professionals, as well as knowledge about the lesser-known art scenes of the region. The situation was further activated by the foundation and internationalisation of other biennales and triennales such as Taipei, Kwangju, Fukuoka and Pusan, and later in Shanghai, Yokohama and Singapore, along with the globalisation of the world, and eyes on the peripheries and multicultural discourse.
In this atmosphere of enthusiasm, more Europe-based, particularly so-called ‘Biennale curators’ (Harald Szeemann, Nicolas Bourriaud, Hou Hanru, Hans-Ulrich Obrist...), started looking at artworks in Asia and inviting some artists from the region for the international biennales like Venice, Lyon and similar events. While it was very much limited to artists from certain countries, above all China, and tended to focus on specific kinds of works – especially the ones featuring explicitly spectacular or traditional aspects (though different from the ethnocentric approach or magical aspect seen and discussed in the 1980s) - these exhibitions enabled many Asian artists to see their works in the international context for the first time. The exhibitions worked out their own curatorial vision rather than functioned as a platform of dialogues between different voices of Asian projects. Towards the end of the 1990s and later, several large-scale exhibitions focusing on Asia, like Cities on the Move (1998) or Thermocline of Art (2007) were organised in Europe. These initiatives were meaningful in raising the diversity and complexities of Asia by taking such grand regional frameworks without slipping into stereotyped mysterious images. Nevertheless, many have aroused different kinds of Asian exoticism or eccentricities and brought out the difficulties of making art exhibitions with such a broad regional framework. Gradually, the Western curiosity for new discoveries has shifted to other regions like Africa, then to Arabic countries, and recently Latin America.
Now, many European museums acknowledge that they cannot ignore non-Western art including that of Asia in dealing with art of our time. However, serious attempts are limited for programs and collecting, and even these are still in the process of trial and error. The exception is the number of exhibitions focusing on the art of China and India, the economically rising countries of BRICs, at the major European museums throughout the 2000s. Many tried to focus on the diversity of the scene, so they were not as much about ‘national identity’ as was the case in the 1990s. However, the question is whether the commodification of art and rapid expansion of the art market both in these countries and abroad was behind the number of large-scaled works in them. In the 1990s, there were only a few European collectors of contemporary Asian art such as Uli Sigg for Chinese art, but now they line-up in many big collectors’ holdings, like Charles Saatchi, Victor Pinchuk or François Pinault. In fact, one of the biggest changes around contemporary Asian art in the past two decades may be the rising market value of the works of some artists like Takashi Murakami, Cai Guo Qiang, Subodh Gupta, and so on, many represented by powerful Western galleries.
I am not trying to be cynical or pessimistic about the situation. Although few and in small scale, there have been recent initiatives looking at the lesser known scenes of, for example, Indonesia and Central Asia. Further, whereas there is no clear tendency or characteristic which stands out from the art scenes of the region now, some younger generation artists like Raqs Media Collective, Apichatpong Weerasethakul or Junya Ishigami are developing unique means to explore new artistic territories and alternative values. Through social practices, or dematerialised or invisible practice, they cross between disciplines or fields which cannot be easily absorbed in the traditional art market system and which cannot be categorised in stereotyped ‘clichés’.
Instead of being viewed as odd or other or exotic, the view of Asian art is gradually diversifying and being appreciated for its freer expression (without being oppressed by a heavy Western art history) as well as a kind of accessibility: it is not too inclined either to formalism or conceptual discourse compared to Western art. In the future, the inter-regional collaborative projects developed in the past in Asia among professionals and institutions, should be extended to Europe. This should create a variety of projects with different approaches based on common ground, apart from nation-to-nation relationships.
It is needless to repeat Edward Said’s point that the term ‘East’ primarily denotes the Near East for Europeans, but it is still true that (further eastern) Asia (of such a vast area with so many countries with a huge range of language and religion) is far from Europe and it is still unknown or ‘abstract’ territory for many European curators.
It is encouraging that more European curators have started working in Asia (such as David Elliott at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, Jérôme Sans at the Ullens Centre in Beijing or Lars Nittve at M+ in Hong Kong), and I hope there will be more cases vice versa. These professionals, including the younger generation, with their multiple perspectives, can create a more collaborative dynamic by taking one step further to become free from the phantom of ‘otherness’ (as well as ‘nationalism’) in this time of multi-dimensional matrixes for both organisations and thinking.
Akiko Miki is Senior Curator at Palais de Tokyo in Paris. She has also curated exhibitions at Barbican Art Gallery, London; Taipei Fine Art Museum; Mori Art Museum, Tokyo; Yokohama Triennale 2011 and others.