Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Rewriting Asia: The Global Identity of Contemporary Asian Art

Finally someone gets it!

Rewriting Asia
The Global Identity of Contemporary Asian Art

Ou Ning

Commissioned by Michelle Nicol, Zurich
Translated from Chinese by Yu Hsiao Hwei, Paris

Standing at Antrepo no.3, the main venue of the 10th Istanbul Biennial, looking across the Bosporus Strait forming the boundary between Europe and Asia, I was able to look at Asia for the first time from a European standpoint. My line of sight moved quickly beyond the rows upon rows of buildings on the Asian side of Istanbul, and went onto the map in my mind. It flew rapidly over the territory of Turkey, past Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, got to China where I am from, and finally reached the Korean Peninsula and Japan. All this vast expanse of land that unfolded in my mind’s eye is the so-called “East” for Westerners. It can be subdivided further into the Near East, Middle East and Far East, according to its distance from Europe. For Chinese people like me, even though we are familiar with modern geographical knowledge that has been built up by Europeans through navigation and mapping, we still tend to consider the concept of “the East” as a synonym for China only, while ignoring other Asian countries. It is related to the fact that China has always regarded itself as a great power, the center of the world, but it is also because we haven’t had many opportunities to leave our own land, and to travel to other countries. It is interesting that, for many Europeans, “the East” often means Turkey, the country that is nearest to them; in particular, a city with unique cultures like Istanbul represents the perfect embodiment of “the East” in their imagination. From Gustave Flaubert, Alphonse de Lamartine, Gerard de Nerval to Le Corbusier, they all shared the same fascination (1).

This experiential and cognitive blind spot is due to the limitations of the times. In pre-modern societies, the high costs of and the social standing necessary for long-distance trips made traveling accessible only to a select few; therefore, we were unable to send ourselves to far-flung countries to experience the cultures of Others. In addition to the geographical barriers, obstacles in the form of political systems, languages, cultures and living habits also confined our experiences and knowledge to a rather narrow scope. We have all been tightly stuck in the finite space-time of the local, and have suffered the distances between one another; fortunately, these distances have also safeguarded the differences between countries and regions. Yet now, “all that is solid melts into air” (2), physical distances that were originally thought to be objective and unshakable have been surmounted by the astonishing speed invented in our era (high costs are no longer necessary to attain this speed), new technologies and the internet have started to offer the magic of high-speed compression of time and space, and geographical frontiers have started to disappear. An enormous amount of floating capital has broken through every political rampart and cultural barrier, in search of new places to increase profit in different regions around the world. In the name of eradicating poverty, it tries to get rid of all differences, and is even starting to shake the foundation of national governance, by reducing the political power of a country to “a mere security apparatus” (3). The sense of belonging to a nation-state that people used to have is becoming increasingly weaker as transnational travel and economic and cultural exchanges become more frequent. Nationalism is regarded as a feeling that doesn’t fit the time, while people are starting to construct a new identity based on the city (or more precisely, the district in the city) where they live. This is the era of so-called “globalization”, which we are living in today.

In an era like this, “mobility climbs to the rank of the uppermost of coveted values-and the freedom to move, perpetually a scarce and unequally distributed commodity, fast becomes the main stratifying factor of our late modern or postmodern times”.(4) This new value and stratifying criterion has been determined by transnational capital which, by nature, tends to be nomadic, because it is the real ruler of this world; it has stirred up the world, and turned its own characteristic (mobility) into a universal principle. Artists are undoubtedly one of the social classes that possess more freedom to move in this era. After the end of the Cold War, the former pattern of competition between groups of nations started to make place for competition between cities. Cities not only compete to host top international events such as the Olympic Games and the World Exposition, but also vie with each other for international capital and tourism with the organization of all sorts of cultural and artistic festivals and exhibitions, and by these, seek to further enhance the economic power of and people’s identification with the city. The proliferation of international art biennials is the epitome of this competition. It has created a great deal of opportunities for transnational travel, and has enabled different cultures to look at each other and to change. For instance, it is because I had been invited to participate in the Istanbul Biennial that, as a result of geographical and cultural displacements, I had the opportunity to get a different viewpoint of, to contemplate Asia in a new light, the place where I am from, the so-called “East” for Westerners.

Undoubtedly, all modern experiences and pedigrees of knowledge that we share today are mainly Western (in particular, European); Asia and other regions haven’t yet played much of a role in the historical process of the construction of global modernity. In the Western-centric eyes, Asia (the East) has always been the far-flung Other, the object of colonization, the cultural imagination of the West at the other end of the earth, and a reference that the West from time to time has recourse to based on its own discursive need. This long-standing attribute of the Other has resulted in Asian anxiety; it was present throughout nearly a century of Asian history, as Asia lived through changes and turbulences from the end of the nineteenth century onwards –the successive collapse of feudal monarchies, the continuous expansion of colonialism, the arduous establishment of modern nation-states, etc. Take the two Eastern empires, China and Turkey, for example, they almost coincided and shared astonishing similarities in the process of looking for their own modernity: the Chinese Qing dynasty and the Turkish Ottoman dynasty fell at about the same time, and Sun Yat-sen and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk emerged at roughly the same moment; both people were firm advocates of westernization, were deeply worried for their chronically weak countries, and in order to learn from the West and to catch up with it, they established a republican regime in their own country. The difference between these two countries is that, in the wave of globalization of today, Turkey is still eager to “leave Asia and join Europe” (5), to throw itself into the embrace of the European Union; on the other hand, after having experienced the collapse of the communist value system around the world, China still adheres to centralization, and is becoming stronger and stronger in the global economic framework with authoritarian capitalism that is proper to Asia.

Asian politicians have also made similar alliance-forming attempts. The ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), founded in 1967, implemented the ASEAN Free Trade Area in 2003, with the hope of creating the ASEAN economic community, so as to enhance the competitiveness of the region; the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation), founded in 1989, is an economic cooperation project that involves even more Asian countries and regions. These alliance-forming efforts reflect the enthusiastic embracing of global economic integration by Asian countries. However, it is a pity that they remain content simply with collaborations in the economic realm, and haven’t gone beyond that to form common “Asian values” on political and cultural levels. Singapore’s former leader Lee Kwan Yew, who is familiar with Western culture, fervently pleaded in favor of the construction of “Asian values”. He believed that this was the only effective way for Asian countries to avoid and resist the risks arising from their integration into the globalization process. However, the “Asian values” formulated by Mr. Lee only concerned such Confucian values as blood relations, family ties, fair hierarchy, the importance of authority, frugality, manners and protocol, etc. Although these values are shared by countries within the Confucian cultural circle, such as China, Japan, Korea, Singapore, etc, they fail to embrace Islamic and Hindu values. Due to the fact that Asia represents a rich diversity of races, cultures and religions, that each country is at a different stage of development, and that some countries still hold profound historical grudges against others, Asia has not been able to contend with the West by forming a highly integrated political, economic and cultural community that goes beyond national forms, like the European Union.

In the cultural realm, contemporary Asian art has gradually emerged over the past twenty years, but has largely relied on the predominance of the West, and to a great extent, it has benefited from the prevalence of globalization and multiculturalism in the Western world. In the late eighties and the early nineties of last century, along with the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe and the disintegration of the USSR, the ideological opposition between the two camps came to an end; after having won its final victory, capitalism went further in its advance across the world by speeding up its pace and increasing its intensity, thereby inaugurating the movement of globalization. The political iron curtain having been torn open, not only could Western capital enter the once antagonistic third world countries, but the art of third world countries could also be brought to the West. In 1993, in an article entitled “Clash of Civilizations” published in the American Foreign Affairs quarterly, Samuel P. Huntington argued that in the post-Cold War world, the principal conflicts of global politics would occur between different civilizations, that the Confucian civilization in Asia and the Islamic civilization, in particular, would represent the most serious challenges to Western civilization. This argument has sparked a sense of crisis in Western civilization, and has further helped to turn multiculturalism into the widespread “political correctness” in the West, and the adoption of the cultures of the Other a key strategy for the reconciliation of conflicts between civilizations. France is the first Western country to bring in contemporary Asian art: after the large-scale Le Japon des avant gardes: 1910-1970 show in 1986, the Pompidou Center organized Les magiciens de la terre in 1989 which, other than showing a great number of contemporary African artists, presented works of contemporary Chinese artists for the first time in Europe. From then on, contemporary Asian art has frequently appeared in various important museums and biennials in the West.

In the course of the first post-Cold War decade, the exhibition of contemporary Asian art by the West still followed, to a certain extent, cold war thinking, that is, it preferred works that were ironic about local politics and identified with capitalism and global values, using them as evidence of the victory of the West. After 9/11, when it experienced a lasting sense of shock and fear, the Western world has further adhered to Huntington’s prophetic theory of a clash of civilizations. The strong sense of defeat has magnified the image of the Other coming from the other side of the world; it has never been this clear and near, and is ever-present in all aspects of everyday life. With his Enemy Kitchen project (2006), the Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz, who was born in New York and currently lives and works in Chicago, offered the young generation of America an opportunity to learn Iraqi cooking in a kitchen as a way of making sense of the “enemy” of the country. This work shows that the desire of people to understand other civilizations on the planet is becoming increasingly concrete. In the new millennium, the argument that globalization will inevitably result in cultural convergence is being reconsidered; the concept of “the other” that smacks of egocentrism is greatly losing effectiveness. In the meantime, as the economies of many Asian countries continue to grow, cultural coherence is being strengthened; regional group shows, exchanges and collaborations in contemporary art are becoming more and more frequent; artists of new generations are constantly emerging, and their psychological distance with the West is continually being reduced. All this results in a drastic change in the global art scene.

If “Asian values” remain hung in the balance under the efforts of politicians, what about the attempts made by the artists? In the era of globalization, are they also trying to create an Asian identity in the artistic landscape? Wong Hoy Cheong is a Chinese-Malaysian artist with a strong Asian consciousness. Since 1993, he has created a whole series of works to focus on issues of colonial history, political conflicts, immigrant identity and family traditions in Asian regions. As a fifth-generation Chinese immigrant in Malaysia, Wong Hoy Cheong was born in George Town; his mother tongue is Hokkien, but he received a British colonial education and then went to study in the United States. He speaks Chinese, Malay and English: he is himself a product of Asia’s diverse histories and cultures. Consequently, his early works showed typical traits of “Asian-ness” through the exploration of personal memories and family histories. For the Kwangju Biennale in 2000, his project consisted in collecting a great number of books on Asian history, and after burning them, reforming the pulp into paper tiles to pave the floor in the exhibition space, thus allowing the audience to step on different versions of Asian history and to discern blurred images of those political figures who had once influenced the fate of Asia. The construction of all identities has to rely on history; only history can define who you are, where you are from, and where you are going. In terms of the exploitation and utilization of historical resources, artists are more effective than politicians, because they always speak from a personal position, and place great stress on experiences; consequently, they are more likely to make people identity with them.

For his participation in the 10th Istanbul Biennial, Wong Hoy Cheong focused on the historical district of Sulukule in the center of Istanbul. Sulukule is the oldest existent Romany district in the world, gypsies have come here since 1000 AD, and have offered entertainment to this city with music, circus, story-telling, fortune-telling, etc; however, the Romany are now being confronted with the destruction of the district and are being asked to move out. Wong Hoy Cheong gave cameras and camcorders to children of Sulukule and taught them the basics of filming and animation, allowing them to express their memories, knowledge and imagination of this district; by doing so, he has tried to make an appeal for the protection of this district. Sulukule resembles a great deal the Dazhalan district near the Tiananmen Square in Beijing(6): they both have a long history, but gradually fell into oblivion during the process of searching for and development of new spaces of the city, and plunged into decline before turning into slums in the end; now they are going to be entirely wiped off from the landscape. The fate of these historical districts is intertwined with the fight of different interest groups for space to survive in the era of globalization, and implies the clashes between the two cultural forces of convergence and differentiation. The disadvantaged slum population is not only the manifestation of social stratification caused by floating capital, but also a metaphor for the desperate conditions of local cultures in their confrontation with strong global cultures. For those artists who refuse to be reduced to a component of the homogeneous culture of globalization, to stand up for history is the key to the preservation of local differences and the construction of local identities.

Similar efforts are also seen in the works by the Vietnamese artist Jun Nguyen Hatsushiba. For the Yokohama Triennial in 2001, after his original intention to create a cyclo (cycle rickshaw) museum, had been compromised due to a shortage of space, he invited Vietnamese fishermen from Nha Trang to pull cyclos in the water, and made a video film of it for the exhibition. As the oldest and principal means of transport in Vietnam, cyclos embody the life memories of the Vietnamese people. However, they now may have to fight for the right to survive against the global city transportation system that is synonymous with efficiency and order—the image of cyclos moving forward with difficulty under the sea, is “a striking metaphor for struggle and survival” (7). In comparison with the convergence of imagination, the impulse for differentiation they have aroused seems to become reality in a more widespread manner. Objectively speaking, homogeneity is a partial concept of globalization, whereas difference is its essentially profound characteristic. We have already seen that, with the progress of globalization, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, “signaling a new freedom for some, upon many others it descends as an uninvited and cruel fate” (8), and that instead of being rejected with contempt and disappearing from the world, nationalism is gaining ground day by day. Although most artists are reluctant to attach a national label to their identity or works, it is hard for them to go beyond their personal growth experiences, historical imprints, and linguistic and thinking sets. Difference is the essence of this world, and cannot be obliterated or altered by any capital-related, political or other man-made force.

Consequently, regardless of its content or subject matter, or the medium it uses, we can always perceive a distinguishable trait of “Asian-ness” in a work by a contemporary Asian artist — this characteristic is sometimes consciously performed by the artist, but sometimes goes beyond his or her intentios. Recently, Jun Nguyen Hatsushiba started a project series entitled “Breathing is Free: 12756.3”. The artist intends to run the physical distance of 12756.3 km, the diameter of the earth, in different parts of the world within a certain period of time, and have the whole process filmed by others. This time, he won’t hire any actors, but “will be the one to move and struggle” (9) himself, to measure and experience the distance of the earth with his own body. In this project, the idea of using the body as an artistic medium is different from that of many Western artists: here, the body is not to be stripped bare or to be displayed, it is not used to challenge taboos, either; instead, it is the vehicle through which the artist aims to train his will, it is the arena where spirit confronts material. This penance-like artistic practice has also been undertaken by other Asian artists: The US-based Taiwan artist Teh-ching Hsieh carried out a series of one-year performances in New York in the seventies and the eighties, for instance, living in a cage for one year, punching a time clock every hour for one year, living outdoors for one year, etc. Chinese artist He Yunchang picked up a rock in a small town called Boulmer on the Northumberland coast in northern England, and carried it all the way around the coast of Great Britain and finally went back to Boulmer to put the rock back in the same place. Besides using the body as a medium, the biggest characteristic of these works is to show meaning through meaningless behavior, showing typical Asian thinking.

Nevertheless, just like the way that political practices have failed to reach unified “Asian values,” the global identity that contemporary Asian art has tried to construct is also fragmentary; even the most brilliant observer is unable to sum up a complete attribute suitable for every Asian country. Maybe we can say that fragmentation is in itself an appropriate image for Asia (like its geography), because as a matter of fact, its diversity fits in with the formula of energy production in the globalization era. No matter which description we use, today’s Asia has certainly opened up a road of modernity that is different from that of the West, and on the negotiating table among global powers, it is no longer an irrelevant other; and people can no longer neglect the voice it has. Asia is no longer the orphan of the world, the progress it has accomplished today cannot be compared with the past: it is the moment to rewrite history.

December 5, 2007


(1) In his Istanbul: Memories of a City, Orhan Pamuk quotes a great deal of the travel notes on Istanbul of these French writers and poets and their impressions of “the East”. Le Corbusier is the author of Le Voyage d’Orient.

(2) Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto.

(3) Subcomandante Marcos, the leader of Mexico’s Zapatista rebels, wrote in the French monthly Le Monde Diplomatique (p4-5, August, 1997): “In the cabaret of globalization, the state performs a striptease, at the end of which it is left wearing the minimum necessary: its powers of repression. With its material base destroyed, its sovereignty and independence abolished, and its political class eradicated, the nation state increasingly becomes a mere security apparatus in the service of the mega-enterprises…”

(4) Zygmunt Bauman, Globalization: the Human Consequences, Chinese translation “quanqiuhua: renlei de houguo”, the Commercial Press, 2001, page 3.

(5) Turkey has submitted an application to join European Union since 1987, but up to today, its candidacy has still not been accepted. The idea of “leaving Asia and joining Europe” had already been put forward by the Japanese Fukuzawa Yukichi during the Meiji period.

(6) The Dazhalan project that Cao Fei and I collaborated on also took part in this Istanbul Biennial. For more on this project, please visit:

(7) Jonathan Napack: Vietnam’s Artists Try to Break Free of Their “Velvet Prison”, The International Herald Tribune, June 9, 2005.

(8) Zygmunt Bauman, Globalization: The Human Consequences, Chinese translation, the Commercial Press, 2001, page 71.

(9) Uda Motoko: Interview with Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba, ARTiT, Summer/Fall, 2007

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