Asian art ‘madness’ a la mode

by Edan Corkill

“Sometimes I think they’re all too young to remember what it was like 20 years ago,” said Australian curator-turned- academic Caroline Turner at the 3rd Asian Art Museum Directors’ Forum, held in Tokyo last week.

In fact, 20 years ago almost the only Asian art you’d find in Western museums was from before the 20th century. In the late 1980s, when Turner and others started working on what would become the Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, in Brisbane, “people thought we were mad,” she said. Who would want to look at contemporary Asian art, their detractors had wondered.

Today, as auction houses worldwide prepare for another round of contemporary Asian art sales, it is becoming ever more clear that the genre has acquired its place in the pantheon — and hence the forgetful confidence Turner referred to at the forum.

“Who could possibly conceive of art now without thinking about Asia?” Turkish curator and forum speaker Vasif Kortun had wondered.

Indeed, in an odd coincidence, Tokyo this past weekend hosted six symposiums, meetings, forums or talks on the subject. If there was anything to unite all the talking — about 29 hours of it, I reckon — it was that perceptions and views have changed, significantly. By stringing together a number of quotes from all the discussion, it’s also possible to plot the direction of the changes.

Let’s start with Turner’s line: “people thought we were mad.” Twenty years ago, when “modern art” still meant what was in New York’s famed museum thereof, there was simply no place for Asia. As a speaker at the Japan Foundation’s 4th Asian Museum Curator’s Conference (on Friday) noted, MoMA didn’t get its first work of Chinese art until 2000.

The next quote is from Hiroshima City University academic Kenji Kajiya, speaking at the Japan Foundation’s “Count 10 Before You Say Asia” symposium (Saturday): “The term ‘Asia’ is often used in Japan to refer to all other Asian countries except Japan.”

Japan actually got a head start on “mad” Western curators in introducing Asian art. Kajiya explained that Fukuoka Art Museum began dedicating exhibitions to the subject in the early 1980s. But when they did, Kajiya said, they included Japan in their definition of Asia — an important step reversing this country’s post-1868 Meiji Restoration self-perception of alignment with the West.

Another quote: Japan’s most sellable artist in the last decade, manga-inspired Takashi Murakami, makes art that is “clearly distinguishable as something unique to Japan.” That’s from Musashino Art University academic Masayuki Tanaka’s presentation to the same “Count 10” symposium. He was holding up Murakami as an example of an Asian who skillfully capitalized on his Asianness to succeed in the West.

Next — a question raised at the Asian Art Museum Directors’ Forum: “So we now make collaborative exhibitions together; what more can we do?”

After several years of having their art curated (by “mad” Westerners), Asian curators began curating it themselves in the 1990s. The question at the forum was looking for the next step. What else can, or should, Asian countries do together?

Several ideas emerged: more thematic collaborative shows, such as “Cubism in Asia”; more exchanges between scholars, academics and younger curators.

But why should Asian museums collaborate within their region? Why do we need so many discussions on “Asian art”? An answer came from Mohamed Arif Bin Zaini, a young curator at the Asian Museum Curators’ Conference: “Western art is important, yes, but before we look at that, we need to cultivate our own art without distraction. Asian art is different to Western (art).”

He cited Tino Sehgal’s performance at the current Yokohama Triennale, in which the British-German artist has two Japanese dancers embrace passionately in a stately old teahouse. “The performance is interesting, but even for me — and I’m not Japanese, I’m from Singapore — I can recognize immediately that the intimacy depicted in the work is Western. Asians wouldn’t do it like that.”