The parallel existence of different contemporaneties acts as a reminder that knowledge is—or should be—dynamic.
“The Potential of Asian Thought: Contemporary Art Symposium 1994,” a gathering organized by the Japan Foundation, continues to function as a model for regional exchange. This foundational seminar involved several practitioners from China, including curator Li Xianting and a then-young artist named Cai Guoqiang. It was a critical moment in the history of intellectual exchange fostered by the idea of a shared set of specifically Asian values, and its influence continued throughout the ’90s in the context of larger political shifts such as the end of the Cold War and the rise of Asian economies.
Exhibitions that preface the globalization of art, such as the Third Havana Biennial and Magiciens de la Terre (both 1989), both of which attempted to connect disparate parts of the region, were products of political and cultural policies that began in 1979 with the exhibition Modern Asian Art—India, China, and Japan at the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum in Japan (though at the time, the country had already been providing economic aid and investment in ASEAN [Association of South East Asian Nations] countries for more than a decade). In 1999, the museum, which houses one of the most comprehensive collections of modern and contemporary art from the region, established the Asia Triennial, which it continues to host to this day. And in 1993, Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane followed in these footsteps by founding the Asia Pacific Triennial, which soon became the most ambitious regionally focused exhibition series of its kind, with an impact discernible in, for example, the 2013 Singapore Biennial.
While Japan’s regional cultural activity closely reflects its political and economic interests in Southeast Asia, China’s exists in a state of conflict with that of the United States. And while huaren—people of the Chinese diaspora—dominate the economies of most South Asian countries, China itself remains relatively inactive in terms of broader regional cultural exchange, except when promoting traditional Chinese identity. Though Chinese contemporary artists were featured in all the aforementioned exhibitions (no politically responsible curator could reasonably exclude them), the sporadic nature of their participation did nothing to cultivate interest within China in discourse with its neighbors. Conversely, collectors from Southeast Asia compete to buy Chinese artworks as status symbols.
Based on research that I have been conducting since 2007, I have recently been curating a series of exhibitions that attempts to open up much-needed discussion in China around Southeast Asian contemporary art practice, creating a greater awareness of the fact that these regions and countries share much history but know little about one another today. Other case-study exhibitions related to the region that have been curated since 2008 have not proved influential insofar as none of the art institutions in China has developed any interest in initiating new research or orienting collections towards the region as a result.
China’s contemporary art world is certainly busy dealing with its own issues and conditions, which range from commercialization to institutionalization, but also focuses much of its attention outwards on museums and galleries in the United States and Europe. A similar situation pertains throughout the region, as communication with Western nations appears more dynamic and frequent than it does with closer neighbors. This power game will undoubtedly become more complex after 2015, when members of ASEAN will integrate their economies, making trade, international investment, and labor mobility much easier. Southeast Asian countries will thereby join the political and economic game of the region as a whole, and begin interacting globally at a similar level to China and India.
While we are waiting for this to happen—and hoping that regional exhibitions will find a way to reassert their contribution to global and local scenes—art museums in China continue to grow like mushrooms. But while beautiful on the outside, these emergent institution tend to be cold and empty within, often hosting touring exhibitions, drawn from European and American museum collections, that read more as projections of empire then manifestations of intellectual exchange. Meanwhile, individual beliefs, commitments, and relationships are slowly helping to clarify the degree to which our knowledge of art in a so-called globalized world remains fragmented. The parallel existence of different contemporaneties acts as a reminder that knowledge is—or should be—dynamic. Individual commitments that produce local knowledge as a contribution to global culture reflect the importance of artists’ subjective approaches and the values that are instituted as a result of their practice.
Biljana Ciric is an independent curator based in Shanghai.