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What Can Art Tell Us About the World? Southeast Asia, China, the West, and the Rest

English | Chinese (Simplified)

Tiffany Chung, Enokiberry Tree in Wonderland, 2008

Tiffany Chung, Enokiberry Tree in Wonderland, 2008. Performance view, Strategies from Within: Vietnamese and Cambodian Contemporary Art Practices, Ke Center for Contemporary Art, Shanghai. Photo: Courtesy Biljana Ciric

The parallel existence of different contemporaneties acts as a reminder that knowledge is—or should be—dynamic.

Eko Nugroho, site-specific installation at Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art, mixed media, 2012

Eko Nugroho, site-specific installation at Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art, mixed media, 2012. Photo: Courtesy Biljana Ciric

Jompet Kuswidananto, Cortege of the Third Realm, 2010

Jompet Kuswidananto, Cortege of the Third Realm, 2010. Mixed media, dimensions vary with installation. Installation view, Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art. Photo: Courtesy Biljana Ciric

“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.

Should the globalization of art be considered a positive development?

  • MichaelJWilson

    Ciric relates that, with regard to the issue of globalization, she considers herself a follower of the idea of mondialité. Counter to globalization as a homogenizing force, writer and critic Édouard Glissant coined this term to denote “globality,” a form of worldwide exchange that recognizes and preserves diversity. Glissant called attention to means of global exchange that do not homogenize culture but produce difference from which new things may emerge.

  • Paula Tin Nyo

    Globalization of art is inevitable and the degree of positivity depends largely on how it is developed by curators, dealers and the media. As Biljana Ciric mentions in her article, a museum can be beautiful architecturally, but in order to have a soul, it requires human insight. As Southeast Asian countries enter the international art world and market, it is essential that a bilateral dialogue develop where the context of inquiry is defined by the artists’ direct
    experiences. Each of these countries and the individuals within have endured and risen to unique socio-political challenges that have stamped their personal lives. Then, too, they bear the legacy of ancient artistic and cultural
    traditions that inform their work, even as they emerge into a contemporary vernacular and discourse. If the focus is active listening, then a true dialectic can occur and globalization will increase the consciousness and quality
    of artistic endeavors. The downside, of course, is that globalization could possibly lead to homogenization, or even worse, cultural fetishism, where countries are artistically pigeonholed. – Yone Arts