Asian art challenges Western museums’ way of thinking

by Jeff Hammond and Jeff Michael Hammond

Art from Asia has enjoyed increased global interest in the past few decades, which has brought major changes to the way in which the art scene now views this hitherto neglected region. In a special symposium, “How is the World Engaging with Contemporary Asian Art?,” at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo on Feb. 17, directors of a number of the world’s most renowned art museums explained, through short individual presentations and a discussion forum, how Asian art is being reflected through their institutions’ programming and acquisitions, and what further work needs to be done.

As members of the Mori Art Museum’s International Advisory Committee, established in 1999 with the aim of exchanging ideas and collaborating on exhibition projects, all the guests at the symposium have worked closely with the museum, as well as with each other.

China, currently experiencing an unprecedented art boom, was of course high on the agenda. A number of panelists stressed that while contemporary Chinese artworks are fashionable, the role of museums is to provide a “critical perspective” on whether the resulting high prices of such works are valid. David Elliot, founding director of the Mori Art Museum and more recently Artistic Director for the 17th Biennale of Sydney, pointed out that despite the current fad for Chinese art, there is still limited knowledge in the West of the history of China’s art production before and during the Cultural Revolution.

With art outside of Europe and North America, Sir Nicholas Serota, renowned director of the Tate Gallery, London, admitted that his institution was a “relative novice,” but with the creation of the Tate Modern in 2000 (dedicated to modern and contemporary art) and the Tate Liverpool, it has expanded its range to acquire and exhibit works from Latin America as well as the Asia Pacific region.

The Nationalgalerie, Berlin, also started out with European art the mainstay of its collection. Its director, Udo Kittelmann, acknowledged that though the gallery now collects and displays international art, this only began in the 1990s and “it’s still only the beginning.”

Illustrating stronger ties to Asia, Dr. Glenn D.Lowry of The Museum of Modern Art, New York (MOMA) commented that MOMA’s very building, designed by Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi, signifies its relationship with Asian art. Some of MOMA’s research groups have also been exploring Asian art practices and the museum has employed two curators to concentrate specifically on Asian art. In line with these developments, he mentioned that 15 percent of the museum’s collection now comes from Asia — not only China, Japan and Korea but also relative newcomers such as Vietnam and Thailand.

Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, who has 12 works in MOMA’s collection, will also soon be the subject of a full retrospective at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. Alfred Pacquement, from the center’s Musee National d’Art Moderne, highlighted the organization’s commitment to “art in Asia” — an expression, incidentally, that he prefers to the term “Asian art” — by pointing out that of seven major exhibitions planned for the next 12 months, two will be devoted to Asia: As well as the Kusama show, the center will hold “Paris, Delhi, Mumbai,” a large-scale survey of art in India, exploring the country’s contemporary culture “in dialogue with Paris.”

But the Pompidou is no newcomer to the art of otherwise under-represented cultures. It was the center’s 1989 cornerstone exhibition “Magicians of the Earth” that opened the door to a more diversified reflection of global art production in exhibitions and museums in the West.

Although Pacquement acknowledged that the exhibition had its critics, he said that, up until then, artists from outside of Europe and North America had been presented as simply “second rate practitioners” of Western art movements, and this exhibition counteracted such ” ethnocentric practices” within the contemporary art world. The exhibition is considered to have not only presented non-Western alongside Western art but also raised the important issue of how this art should be presented to the public.

Elliot noted that learning more about art from other cultures challenges our preconceived notions of the development of art, especially modernism. Contrary to established wisdom that there has been a single and Western-orientated modernity, he asked the panelists how they “negotiate” in their museums the idea that there are “competing modernities, other modernities.”

Serota from the Tate said that the problem is largely a “generational issue” and that his institution has younger curators with a mind-set “a lot less fixed.” Lowry from MOMA told the Japan Times after the symposium that the biggest part of the challenge of exhibiting contemporary art from Asia “is in creating the intellectual and psychological conditions (which have to do especially with presentation and interpretation) that allow what is currently being made in Asia to be seen on its own terms.”