I don’t normally visit exhibitions in company, but this time I made an exception and press-ganged a female acquaintance to join me. The reason for this was that the show I visited, “Women In-Between: Asian Women Artists 1984-2012” at the Tochigi Prefectural Museum of Art, is an exhibition of female artists’ work. As a mere male, I didn’t quite feel equipped enough in my own right to deal with this.
Introducing identity issues is problematic enough when you do it into the wider society, against a background of, say, social justice or inclusivism; but it is even more of a problem when it is done in an area like art, which should essentially be meritocratic. What we really want when we visit an exhibition is to encounter genius and talent, and that should be regardless of the number of Y-chromosomes involved.
It could be argued that concentrating on women and Asian artists may help create a sense of narrative and meaning. However, the group in question is such a vast and diverse one that it can’t really be summed up in a coherent narrative, even if you refer to some of the feminist shibboleths about the general oppression of women. And whether such gender despotism is a fact or not is beside the point, because nothing stifles art as surely as didacticism and an earnest, heavy-handed message — even if it is justified.
So, while the exhibition strives for a meaningful narrative, the diversity of the different artists — and they are very different — luckily defeats this overarching purpose. And this makes for a more confused, but interesting show.
The artworks that work best are the ones that resist the grand feminist narrative, either by their subtlety, playful abstruseness or by appealing to aspects of humanity that simply transcend gender.
An interesting example of the latter is the work of video artist Chiharu Shiota. Her video installations “Bathroom” (1999) and “Wall” (2010) are so elemental that they move beyond gender into universal themes. In “Bathroom” she repeatedly washes herself with extremely filthy water, making a larger point about how humanity in general exists in a closed circuit with its environment.
“Wall” seems to show her own blood pulsing around her in a spaghetti-like jumble of tubes. Although she is naked in both videos we soon forget she is “a woman” and start to see her instead as a human being.
We get a similar sense from one of the most impressive works at the exhibition, Chinese Artist Lin Tianmiao’s “Spawn #3” (2001). This shows the artist connected to dozens of different balls of thread. Although inspired by her experience of motherhood, it also has a wider resonance, referring to our sense of connectedness with things.
Other worthy works include Chinese artist Cao Fei’s entertaining hand shadow plays, Vietnamese artist Le Hoang Bich Phuong’s charming zoomorphic paintings and Kumi Machida’s tangential but always evocative ink paintings.
But preachiness is definitely one of the notes sounded by this exhibition, with artworks spoiled either by all-too-obvious messages or an apparent embrace of ugliness to escape a supposed “tyranny of beauty.” Indian artist Nalini Malani’s large, messy canvases are an example of both tendencies. They throw up sweeping but indistinct accusations of male brutality and leech out aesthetic qualities to strengthen the depressing mood of victimization.
There are also art works that look like the box-ticking products of positive-thinking feminist workshops, such as Singaporean artist Amanda Heng’s photographs of her and her mother that seek to “affirm” their relationship in the most dull and deadpan way possible.
Another point that might grate after a while is that this feminist critique of society fails to address women’s own collusion in the social order. Women are, after all, a massive part of any society, and some endorse and drive its fashions, lifestyles and moral atmosphere. The feminism here, however, often claims that sexism is the fault of a tiny minority of powerful men, who are by implication pure evil.
Mao Ishikawa’s photos of Philippine women drawn to lives of prostitution and semiprostitution in Okinawa seem to oscillate between a sense of prostitution as female victimization and affirmation, and appear to gloss over moral ambiguities. While prostitution has long been a road out of grinding poverty for many poor women, it should also be remembered that it is not the only road, is not one that men have much access to, and that it can be, at times, a voluntary choice by the individual.
But that’s just the viewpoint of a male reviewer, so what did my female companion think? Although deeply interested throughout, her final conclusion was more damning than I expected. According to her, the show lacked what she regarded as that most essential of feminine qualities: emotional warmth.
“Women In-Between: Asian Women Artists 1984-2012” at the Tochigi Prefectural Museum of Art runs till March 24; open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. ¥800. Closed Mon. www.art.pref.tochigi.lg.jp.