The Arts

Under Construction

Tokyo art show
New Dimensions of Asian Art Installations on view at the "Under Construction" exhibit at Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery, showcasing the work of artists from seven Asian countries (Photo: Keizo Kioku/Courtesy Tokyo Opera City Gallery/Japan Foundation).

Think about “Asian art’’ and what comes to mind? Traditional handcrafts? Ink paintings on scrolls? Or perhaps the more contemporary, chaotic free-for-all installations of Thai artist Surasi Kusolwong? Ready for a surprise? Well, whatever it is that constitutes Asian art for you, chances are it can be traced back to the West. In fact, most of the things we know about Asian art, we know because a Western curator, critic, or historian decided at some point in time that we ought to know about it. Recent phenomena like Kusolwong are no exception.

However, over the past five to 10 years there has been a push throughout the region for Asians to take back control of their artistic destinies. In Japan, institutions such as Fukuoka’s Asian Art Museum and The Japan Foundation’s Asia Center [in Tokyo] have been at the forefront of this movement, organizing exhibitions and educating a generation of Asian scholars to curate the art of their own region.

As the Asia Center’s arts manager, Yasuko Furuichi, puts it, “A search has begun for Asian art that does not represent a Western definition of Asian art, but which is something that is defined by Asians themselves.”

Part of the Asia Center’s search has involved an ambitious project called “Under Construction,” which is now drawing to a close with a large exhibition at two Tokyo venues. “Under Construction” is a unique project. Less an exhibition than an experiment in intellectually crossbreeding young Asian curators, its goal was to give them a reason and a means to think together about Asian art and thereby approach a homegrown definition of the concept.

The project consisted of two stages. In the first, eight curators—Patrick D. Flores of the Philippines, Gridthiya Gaweewong of  Thailand, Ranjit Hoskote of India, Asmudjo Jono Irianto of Indonesia, Sunjung Kim of the Republic of Korea (South Korea), Pi Li of China, and Atsuo Yamamoto and Yukie Kamiya of Japan—were charged with producing exhibitions in their own countries. The “local exhibitions,” as they were called, were varied in content, though similar in form. Most featured a number of young artists from the curator’s home country, as well as some from abroad.

The deep pockets of The Japan Foundation allowed the curators to travel to three other Asian countries for research. During these travels the crossbreeding began, as each curator was forced to rely on the others for local expertise and intellectual repartee.

The second stage was the compendium show that is currently under way. All the curators were again brought together, this time to reconcile their exhibitions into a unified show. Interestingly, the curators were astute enough to give themselves an escape route, and from the slightly disjointed exhibition that has resulted, one certainly gets the feeling that the all-important definition of  “Asian art” is still very much “under construction.” Either that, or perhaps they decided that Asia is just too complex to be defined—even by locals.

One of the problems is the apparent lack of consensus on how to deal with the Western institutions and values that have already infiltrated the local art scenes. For example, do you include artists who have been educated or worked in the West? After all, the whole exercise would be pointless if the Asian definition of Asian art was found to correspond with (i.e., include all the same artists as) the current (Western) one.

Indonesia’s Asmudjo Jono Irianto avoided established artists. He chose six who were born in the 1970s, with little experience overseas. Sculptor S. Teddy D. scribbled the words “WTC is falling down” on a wheeled bridge made from steel construction pylons. Perhaps reaching out to bridge the gap with the West, his ambiguous equation of the World Trade Center with London Bridge was, however, disturbing.

Artist/designer Sofwan built a temporary exhibition space that was put to use for the local exhibition in Bandung. A thought-provoking reaction to the availability of exhibition spaces in Indonesia, and at the same time a tongue-in-cheek reference to the project title, Sofwan’s work comments on “Asian art” on a number of levels.

Other curators elected to include artists despite their affinity or compatibility with the West. Two of the Japanese artists, Saki Satom and Rika Noguchi, fell into this category. Saki made a two-piece video showing people mysteriously appearing and disappearing through elevator halls and revolving doors. The bottleneck nature of these places allowed the artist to focus closely on the people’s movements through them, resulting in an eerie sense of uniformity and determinism. Noguchi took photographs of members of a Beijing swimming club paddling through an ice-covered lake in winter. Like her past work of underwater divers and mountain climbers, the work is so perfectly surreal that it could have been taken anywhere on the planet—or elsewhere.

“Under Construction” has not yet resulted in a unified Asian definition of Asian art. That is still in the making. The admirably farsighted Asia Center has placed its hopes in the curator subjects of its ambitious experiment, who will continue this challenge in the future. In the meantime, the current exhibition gives us a diverse mixture of new art from all corners of Asia, and considering the diversity of the region itself, we might just have been mis-taken to hope for anything more in the first place.