Guest Author of April 2010
We are very pleased to present the following essay on “Art and Social Change” in the edition of our series of Monthly Guest Authors. The text was first published as introduction to the volume Art and Social Change. Contemporary Art in Asia and the Pacific in 2005 by Pandanus Books, edited by the author, under the auspices of the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies of the Australian National University. The author, the Australian curator and scholar Caroline Turner, is a key figure in the emergence and definition of a new region of contemporary art production: Pacific-Asian art. She was of prime importance for inaugurating the first exhibitions and conferences on the subject which, for GAM, is a proof of the recent attempts to map the global art production by creating the profile of a new institutional and artistic network.
Art and Social Change
The objective of this book is to map the dynamic developments in contemporary Asian and Pacific art. The emphasis in the essays is on linking art to the extraordinary changes that have taken place in this region since the early 1990s.
In the past decade the global geopolitical tectonic plates have shifted dramatically. The turn of the century has witnessed the beginnings of an astonishing alteration in the balance of power towards Asia, militarily as well as economically, signifying perhaps, as many experts suggest, the impending close of five centuries of global domination by first Europe, then the United States. The first years of the new millennium have also led to a rethinking of world relationships, many of which have been transformed by globalisation and more recently by the ‘war on terror’. Art in the region has mirrored and reflected these events.
The geopolitical and economic changes in the world have also been accompanied by dramatic shifts in the international art world. The absolute dominance of the older centres of Western Europe and the United States has been challenged by artists from the peripheries; and artists from these peripheries, in Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, Asia, the Pacific and the Middle East, are now seen in major world exhibitions in increasing numbers. A new international art has emerged in the past decade.
An example of these changes was provided in November 1999, as the world waited for a new millennium. Chinese artist Cai Guo Qiang, one of the new superstars of the international art world, launched an extraordinary work over the skies of the Austrian capital, Vienna — a gunpowder explosion which created in the sky the outline of a Chinese dragon. Cai’s provocative statement may well have heralded what many commentators have begun to call the Asian century. It certainly marks the arrival or re-arrival of Asian art on the world stage. It is not the contention of this book that art is to be confined to a national sphere or artists confined to a national space. Most of the writers address the issue of art and social change through specific local and regional perspectives. In so doing, they provide a logical and necessary comparative framework. They also look closely at contested ground in art production and theory in relation to issues such as multiple and hybrid identities, indigeneity, minorities and multiculturalism within nations and internationalism in art. It is clear from the essays in this volume that the histories of particular countries, as well as contemporary political and social changes within those countries, have had a tremendous influence on the development of art practice. It is equally clear that art is now practiced within regional and global networks which transcend national boundaries and simple local/global dichotomies.
Geeta Kapur, one of the pre-eminent writers on art in Asia today, describes the context for Indian (and by extension, I would argue, many Asian) artists as ‘a civil society in huge ferment, a political society whose constituencies are redefining the meaning of democracy and a demographic scale that defies simple theories China and India are undergoing the most rapid social and economic transformations in history. All other Asian countries discussed in this volume have, in varying degrees, experienced economic meltdown with its consequent social dislocations. All are in varying degrees resuming their economic expansion, with the inevitable attendant aspects of consumerism and materialism. Regime change has occurred in Korea, Indonesia and Pakistan; Thailand has known coup and countercoup; and Sri Lanka has only just attained what may be the close of more than 20 years of civil war.
The late Chinese artist Chen Zhen confronted Asia’s economic imperatives in 1999, when he created a Crucible of Washing Fire, as, in his words, a ‘medical-alchemical treatment for the inner disease of Asia’s success and its crises’. The crucible was constructed of hundreds of abacus beads, old wooden chamber pots from Shanghai, where the artist was born, and broken computers and electronic parts. Chen Zhen questioned the speed of economic growth and urbanisation and asked if this would generate a better life for the people of Asia. Other artists of the Chinese postTiananmen diaspora have addressed issues relating to world communication, such as Wenda Gu (known in China as Gu Wenda) in his remarkable United Nations series consisting of words made from human hair donated by hundreds of thousands of individuals from all over the world.
The Pacific has also undergone dramatic change in the past decade, and the indigenous artists of the Pacific have responded to such change by producing inspiring art works related to cultural survival. Michel Tuffery, a New Zealand artist of mixed Pacific Island heritage, has created a series of works which exemplify this theme, including his magnificent bulls used in street performances with energetic dancers. The bulls are constructed from ‘bully beef’ tins (referring to the devastation of Pacific Island garden economies through colonisation) but in no sense are these performances anything but a vital statement of cultural survival.
Artists can, through their work, reflect the values and aspirations of their own society and of humanity. While some react with cynicism and even despair, others produce an art of resistance. Over the past decade, many artists in the Asia—Pacific region have protested colonialism and neo-colonialism; global environmental degradation; cultural loss; illness due to poverty; sexual exploitation; social and political injustice; war; violence and racism. Their work is in the broad area of social justice. In confronting such issues, artists have addressed their art to, and involved, whole communities in order to help them confront poverty and trauma (caused by both natural and human disasters) and preserve traditions and values: in other words, their art contributes to cultural survival.
Art is important to communities in many ways. Artists can transcend and perhaps even change society as well as reflect its tragedies. This is so even though, as Masahiro Ushiroshoji from the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum Japan, has recently suggested, it is no longer possible to believe naively that art is all that is needed for achieving an understanding of other cultures and values or to heal rifts between societies and people.
While cultural exchanges are not always on terms of equality, the long histories of engagement, which have occurred over the centuries in the Asia—Pacific region, show that all dynamic cultures draw on ideas from other cultures. Art and creative practice cannot be isolated, locked into a set of traditions or frozen in time. Too often discussion of tradition is related to outdated claims of the ‘authenticity’ of tradition. Cultural interaction is no new phenomenon in the region. Distinguished Thai art historian Apinan Poshyananda has written of cultural syncretism as a key element in art, and we have seen this in formation over the centuries. Some examples: Buddhist artistic styles from India adapted within a century in China to Chinese aesthetic sensibility, Tang dynasty painting from China adapted by the Japanese to create the yamato-e style of Japanese painting; Indian, Khmer and Chinese influences in Thai art and Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam synthesising with Javanese mysticism in Indonesia. Today’s contemporary art in the Asia—Pacific is undoubtedly a product of long centuries of tradition, historical cultural encounters and, in more modern times, the confrontation and engagement with the West.
Western colonialism (which of course did not affect all countries in the region) and Western modernism made a great impact on art in the region, but the cultures and countries in the region have differing histories of traditional art production and have also developed their own versions of modernity as Professor John Clark has demonstrated in his seminal work on modern Asian art. Contemporary art cannot be understood by looking only at the engagement with Western modernism that set art in the region on a new trajectory. Contemporary art in the Asia—Pacific region cannot be judged, defined or confined by a dominant ‘EuroAmerican paradigm’. Perhaps the most conspicuous feature of the art of the region today is its rejection of a hierarchical internationalism in art, particularly that aspect which was a feature of United States foreign policy during the Cold War.
The 1990s witnessed an energetic rethinking of such cultural hegemonies and the then still dominant ‘Euro-American paradigm’. T. K. Sabapathy, writing in 1996, pointed out that there had been in the region “a wariness towards accepting or succumbing to orthodoxies emerging, imposed or acquired, from the West”1. In Beijing in 1994, Chinese artist Xu Bing offered a brilliant analysis of Western cultural hegemonies in a work called Cultural animals: a case study of transference, in which a pig whose body had been painted with Latin words, representing the West, was sexually mounted by a male pig covered with Chinese writing2. Malaysian artist Wong Hoy Cheong, like many other artists in the region, has also treated the issue of colonisation in a video which turns Western colonialism on its head and in which an imaginary Malaysian colonial empire ruled, and continues to exert control over, Austria.
The region has developed its own forums for art and there has been an explosion of biennales and other such recurring exhibitions in the Asia—Pacific region, particularly in the past ten years. Three of the earliest, beginning before 1990, were the Indian Triennale, the Bangladesh Asian Art Biennale and the Fukuoka Asian Art exhibitions in Japan. Most include international art along with Asian art; some, such as Fukuoka, the Pacific art festivals and the Asia—Pacific Triennial in Brisbane, Australia, are defined by their specific focus on the region. All provide a forum and space for artists from the region. The Asia—Pacific Triennial which began in 1993 is an example of development of a regional consciousness that encompasses countries such as Australia and New Zealand3. Zhang Qing, one of the curators of the 2000 Shanghai Biennale, wrote in the catalogue to that exhibition: “Art exhibitions are springing up everywhere: Yokohama Triennale, Kwang-ju Biennale, Asia—Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (i.e. Brisbane), Singapore Biennale, Taipei Biennale, opening up new possibilities on the international stage. Each show with a unique perspective and approach, vigorously examines the status quo and discusses the future of Asia—Pacific culture”4.
What is Asia—Pacific culture? This question is complicated by the fact there is no homogeneity in the region. The Asia— Pacific is a problematic construct, which encompasses less a geographical definition than a means of communication between neighbours. It can only be used a similar way to a definition such as Latin America, not implying an historical or cultural identity5. A recent (2002) Japan Foundation forum concluded that Asia is also a problematic concept. Professor Mizusawa Tsutomu speaking at that forum said: “Nationalism and Asian self-awareness came together over a century ago and, as it were, caught fire, leading to the formation of many theories of the identity of Asia. The existence of these theories, besides raising the question of what Asia is in real terms, demonstrates the historical fact that Asia has been a form of discourse”6. Many speakers at the same forum suggested that Asia is not so much a geographical entity as constructed as an idea in counterpoint to Europe or the West. But many contemporary writers — for example John Gray — have suggested that there is also no such entity as the West, which, it can be argued, has ceased to have a definite meaning except in the United States.
Over the past decade important exhibitions and their catalogues as well as books and journals have documented Asian and Pacific art in new ways. Important new resources for the study of art have developed within the region. An impressive range of publications have been produced in the decade. Academic courses in Universities have begun to examine modern and contemporary Asian art (much less emphasis has been placed on contemporary Pacific art) and collections have been formed of the contemporary art of the region (examples are the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, the Singapore Art Museum and the Queensland Art Gallery collections7). Asian, if less often Pacific, artists are now seen in world survey exhibitions including at the Venice Biennale and Documenta in Kassel, Germany. Nonetheless, despite the professions of inclusion, they are seen in lesser numbers than would reflect the dynamism of the region artistically. Many exciting and important exhibitions have provided new frameworks for understanding world art which do not rely on old hegemonies of exclusion or outworn paradigms. Examples are the exhibitions of the Asia Society, New York under Dr Vishakha Desai and Hou Hanru and Hans-Ulrich Obrist’s Cities on the Move held in several European cities, New York and Bangkok from 1997-99.
It is certainly possible to argue, as Hou Hanru has done, that global perspectives are now increasingly important in contemporary art. But that does not mean that regional perspectives are not equally significant. There is no doubt that understanding local contexts is still vital in analysing the links between art and social change. The importance of specific contexts comes through most clearly when we examine one specific issue: human rights.
It can be argued that human rights has already emerged as the most critical issue of the 21st century. At a conference I convened in 2003 at the Humanities Research Centre at The Australian National University, the effects of globalisation were examined in relation to issues such as indigenous reconciliation, ethnic conflict, new religious divides, war, and the situation of refugees and asylum seekers. There is without question at times a clash between individual and community rights, and between national interests and universalist values in the contemporary globalised world. The divide between the have and have-not nations throws up new challenges. The limits of tolerance are being tested by these issues.
At the conference, Mbulelo Mzamane, South African poet and activist, spoke of the need for human rights definitions to be broadened to encompass issues such as cultural survival and health life and death issues for the inhabitants of poorer countries — and for artists and writers through their art to build communities committed to a vision of what Christine Chinkin, a human rights lawyer at the London School of Economics and a judge in the ‘comfort women’ Tribunals in Tokyo, has called the dignity of all people.
Hilary Charlesworth, Director of the Centre for International and Public Law at The Australian National University, pointed to the `silences’ in international human rights legal frameworks for marginalised groups subject to disparities in power, including — in many societies — women, children and indigenous peoples8. The rights of women and children are often subsumed and lost in discussion of broader issues of community rights. Of course, this situation is not confined to developing countries. But for the developing world in particular, the framework of rights as posited by the West can be seen as a rhetorical mask for neo-colonial oppression.
We do need then to acknowledge the significance of historical contexts and the reading of so-called universalist principles or ideas in specific local contexts. Indonesian artists, for example, have over the past decade produced a powerful body of work opposing human rights abuses in their country, and have often faced personal danger in so doing. Dadang Christanto is one such artist who has been passionately committed to creating work exposing horrific human suffering, not confined to Indonesia, in order to illuminate our humanity. Christanto, along with three other Indonesian artists, participated in the Indonesian pavilion in the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003 under the theme ‘Paradise Lost: Mourning the World’. This theme, as Commissioner Amir Sidarta noted, had been adapted from Nehru’s reference to Bali as `The Morning of the World’. The works in the pavilion commemorated the Bali bombings in which over 200 Indonesians, Australians and other nationalities died. The theme of Christanto’s work `raining tears’ was both specific and universal.
Human rights and human freedom are critical issues not only in Asia and the Pacific but in the world today. Many of the writers in this volume demonstrate the strong commitment to such ideals in Asian and Pacific art. Vasan Sitthiket from Thailand recently addressed the issues of war in Iraq and corruption in Thailand in The Truth is Elsewhere, a work utilising shadow puppets. After the coup in Thailand in 1992, he had expressed horror at events in his country in a painting entitled If Buddha Returned to Bangkok, showing the Lord Buddha amidst scenes of corruption and social dislocation. Thailand, the ‘land of smiles’, provides us with an example of a country where art has generally been thought to be divorced from social issues but where artists have, nonetheless, produced extraordinarily passionate and committed work about political and social corruption, sexual exploitation, Aids, and ecological destruction. Cultural and spiritual values were invoked in the protest art of the 1980s and 1990s, with artists opposing themes of Buddhist philosophy to the rampant consumerism and materialism of the age. Thai women artists have created work focussing on poverty and social oppression, an illustration of another important theme in this book: the immense contribution of women artists and curators, even in countries where the dominant ethos is still profoundly male.
A deep concern with existing social situations persists within the ongoing social and economic transformations, as Asian and Pacific artists use their personal experiences and those of society at large as inspiration for their art and as a means of resisting injustice. Many artists have dedicated their work to themes of healing, as in the art of the late Montien Boonma, one of the great artists to emerge from the region.
Tragically, over the past decade many of the most talented artists working with their communities in Asia and the Pacific have passed away at relatively young ages: Montien Boonma, Roberto Villanueva, Santiago Bose, Chen Zhen, Lin Onus, to name a few. They have been a great loss to the region.
Australia is another country in the region where artists have responded to recent events. The traumatic events of the past few years — 11 September 2001 in the United States, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and their aftermaths, and all the on-going events surrounding the `war on terror’ — as well as in Australia the continuing issue of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and the refugee crisis, have created among Australians both a heightened awareness of our own vulnerability and an urgency of response. In the last issue the greatest security for a nation lies in the belief among its component communities and internationally that individual rights for all are acknowledged with tolerance and understanding. Many Australian artists have confronted disturbing events, using the episodes of the Tampa (a ship that picked up asylum seekers from a sinking boat but was denied entry to Australia by the Australian Government) and the `children overboard’ affair (another incident involving seaborne asylum seekers who were falsely accused of throwing their children overboard) and Woomera (a detention centre for asylum seekers in the Australian desert) to create powerful images of a common humanity. Examples are the paintings of Pat Hoffie, John Cattapan, and Juan Davila.
Australian artists have dealt with the continuing and universal themes of war and migration — for example, Ian Howard and Guan Wei. Howard has created a strong body of work on the military-industrial complex and society’s relationship to war. Guan Wei’s painting Dow Island, is a magnificent statement about the movement of people from land to land in all cultures in all times and the fortunes and misfortunes of these migrations.
At the recent conference entitled Asian Traffic, which sought to examine critically the issues of cultural movement, `global itinerancy’ and diaspora, Binghui Huangfu, Director of the Asia-Australia Art Centre in Sydney, stated:
... I am often asked if there is a definable difference between contemporary Asian art and contemporary Western art. The more and more I consider the question the more I realise there is difference and the difference in the motivation of the artists. Contemporary Asian artists come from an environment that is undergoing extraordinary change. This background influences their work and is underpinned by a belief that what they are doing has a real possibility of participating in those changes9.
Whether or not Asian and Pacific artists can make a difference, there can be no doubt that many are committed to doing so, as the essays in this volume demonstrate. Almost all the studies of national and regional art scenes presented here support the proposition that many artists in the region are critically involved with their societies and communities. Nothing is more striking than the expressions of passionate social engagement that they record. This is the case in countries with regimes that might be described as relatively authoritarian, as much as in countries more readily identifiable as democracies. Optimism may be modified, but hope is not.
1 T. K. Sabapathy, ‘Developing Regional Perspectives in South-East Asian Art Historiography’, The Second Asia–Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (Catalogue, scholarly editors Caroline Turner and Rhana Davenport), Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, 1996, p. 13.
2 Quoted in Claire Roberts, `The Revolution Reinvigorated: art as cultural strategy — Chinese art in the 1990s’, in The Second Asia–Pacific Triennial, p. 40.
3 For a comparison of the Asia–Pacific Triennial exhibitions and the Fukuoka Asian Art shows, see Caroline Turner, `Cultural Transformations in the Asia–Pacific’, paper presented at the conference Our Modernities: positioning Asian art now, Asia Research Centre, Singapore, February 2004. http://www.ari.nus.edu.sg/conf2004/asianart.htm
4 Zhang Qing, `Beyond Left and Right’, Introduction, Catalogue of the Shanghai Biennale 2000, Shanghai Art Museum, 2000, page unnumbered.
5 Gerardo Mosquera, `Good-Bye Identity, Welcome Difference: from Latin American art to art from Latin America’, Third Text, Vol. 56, 2001, pp. 25-32.
6 Mizusawa Tsutomu, Session I Introduction, Asia in Transition: Representation and Identity, The Japan Foundation 30th Anniversary International Symposium 2002, Japan Foundation, Tokyo, 2002.
7 Examples of resources are the Asia Art Archives in Hong Kong; of critical writing, the work of John Clark in his seminal studies on modern Asian art; and of new types of academic courses Amareswar Galla’s courses on sustainable cultural heritage through the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at The Australian National University.
8 Speeches delivered at the Art and Human Rights Conference, Humanities Research Centre, The Australian National University, August 2003. Unpublished.
9 Binghui Huangfu, Asian Traffic Conference, University of NSW (COFA), June 2004. Unpublished communication with the author.