Guest Author of September 2008
Our third guest author, John Clark, asks how to understand the role, or the absence, of local history for an audience either Asian or Western. Furthermore, he dealt with the way of curating seemingly global exhibitions and the problems arising from a limited choice of curators.
Modern Asian Art
The Contemporary as a Site in the Absence of History
In the increasing number of exhibitions of contemporary art in Asia and beyond1, the position of modernist discourse has often been situated outside the culturally essentialist discourse within a particular culture, which would call into question the legitimacy of modern art as being representative of that culture. This lack of historical consciousness of the Asian modern may reflect simple ignorance, the lack of scholarship until recently in this area, or varieties of intra- and extra-discursial prejudice. But modernity in all Asian art cultures has its own history, and this history is highly determinative of many kinds of contemporary art practice. If the twenty-first century will have a future, it will have the twentieth and nineteenth centuries as its pasts. Perhaps this will be increasingly acknowledged in exhibitions of contemporary or near contemporary art in Asia2, as Asian art discourses become more conscious of their own historicality.
Indeed what can the reason be for historical amnesia? The justly and much criticized Japanese historical amnesia about Japan’s colonial past and wars of aggression in Asia is a rather good model showing why such amnesia takes place. Japan asks its neighbors to forget what Japan did to them so that its own population will also forget which Japanese rulers and what kind of Japanese regime were responsible for what happened to them. It is precisely because some political regimes in Asia are aware of the political danger of memory that they wish the past to be set aside. For exactly the same reason many artists are concerned on a personal level with remembering, whether the memory is of specific events or of a censored but still present situation. It is also a claim that the destroyed and discarded pasts are present to current understanding and that they imply a different approach to current practice. A clear example of this is Zhang Jun’s 5th April, 1976, 1985, which was published in Meishu (Art) in July 1985.
Zhang Jun, 5th April, 1976, 1985, oil on canvas, 118×88 cm, published in Meishu Yanjui, July 1985
The event remembered is the first Tiananmen incident when a demonstration, which had begun the previous day, had been put down by forces acting on the orders of Jiang Qing and others. More than 100,000 people were said to have laid wreaths on the Monument to the Heroes of the People to commemorate Zhou Enlai, who had died on January 8. The publication of this image in Meishu may have been cause for comment in Beijing at the time, but one should associate the political shock to memory, with the explicitly modernist discourse of the replicated images within frames and the startling flow of blood over the image surface. 1985 was the year the Xinchao Yishu Yundong (New Currents in Art Movement) came to prominence. Shao Dazhen, an establishment liberal, became editor of Meishu in January. The provocation of memory, particularly of public events, and the refusal of amnesia forcibly join the work to the world. Thus much modern Asian art that is not concerned with explicit stylistic innovation is often implicitly avantgarde because of the contesting position it adopts towards the allowable public range of art discourse. In this, the general discourse of historical interpretation plays a considerable role.
The same may be said for the introduction of historical subjects into modernist art discourse by Wu Tianzhang and Yang Maolin in Taiwan even before the lifting of martial law in 1987. Wu, in particular, started integrating events from ancient Chinese history into historical subjects, as well as more dangerously referring to events concerning the failure of the Nationalist party, on the mainland before 1949 with his portraits of four eras in the life of Jiang Jingguo, then president of the Republic of China on Taiwan. Wu then extended this series to Jiang Jingguo’s father, Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kaishek), Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, the four rulers of the four ages of modern China, as Wu saw it. This was a bold and risky declaration of historical equivalence between the regimes of mainland and Taiwan China, and an assumption of the right to portray their various leaders as historical figures rather than as propaganda icons. Yang Maolin essayed a similar direction; only he looked at military service and the pressures of everyday life in Taiwan. The first was a refusal to ignore the violence implied in the regime’s control of young lives, the second a bringing back into memory of the pain that industrial and commercial expansion had caused for ordinary citizens.
If we take as a premise the above senses of remembering, elements of which do not have to be the same for the artist and the audience—although some collective recognition of the contents referred to is needed for them to be remembered—what kind of comparative, cross-border concerns can be identified in modern Asian art now?
The conditions under which national and regional mythopoesis have taken place in Asia in the past involve the accession of the regime to power in most states. References to these conditions have been highly charged, and only allowed representation without discursial intervention by the state or its rulers when there was remarkable unanimity between them as patrons, the artist and the purported audience for the work. Dong Xiwen painted the grand commemorative picture that celebrated the foundation of the People’s Republic of China, The Ceremony of Declaring People’s China in 1953. This image, which hangs in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, was enormously important as an icon defining this historic moment. Its acceptance in part secured the approval of the leadership for efforts to create a realistic oil painting. The work was physically taken to Chairman Mao’s quarters to be approved in the spring of 1953, and a photograph published later shows that both the leadership and the art world were aware of the significance of this occasion. This picture was so important that it had to be re-painted in around 1969 to remove the figures of Liu Shaoqi and Gao Gang who were then in political disgrace during the Cultural Revolution. Liu Shaoqi died from privations in a party prison in 1969 and the artist Dong Xiwen died from fatigue and illness in 1973. At some time after the Cultural Revolution, possibly around 1977–78, Jin Shangyi and others re-painted it3. Here is starkly and mortally revealed the real cost of caesura in the modern art discourse of one Asian country. The contemporary without history, even without the very recent past which founded the contemporary, only occurs in a context of empowerment for some, whether such hegemony is that of the rulers who have figures elided from memory because of their disfavor, or foreign viewers in a “representative” exhibition of the art whose patterns of consumption allow them the luxury of eliding the hidden costs of its production.
Strategic memory also has more political expressions in terms of other-recognition. Semsar Siahaan tried with one work to bring the forgotten images of Euramerican culture into a domestic Indonesian domain and then to turn the tables on the elite audience4. He tried to make this audience remember what and who they were. His shocking Olympia, Identity with Mother and Child (1987) shows what this elite would have left behind or avoided.
Semsar Siahaan, Olympia with Mother and Child, 1987, oil on canvas, 145×295 cm, Robert Sumendap, Jakarta, photo: M. Firan-Ichsan, courtesy the artist
Semsar has brought it back into focus with tabooed objects, such as a sarcastic comment on Euramerican culture worshipped by that elite in Manet’s Olympia, the poor and possibly fatherless family outside the window, and in the reference to animality in the pig, which one presumes would be disgusting to Islamic believers in his audience. He carried forward this systematic trajectory in another work of the same year, Transfusion (1987), in which workers are held in a cage and others, possibly tribal people, are trapped in flames. Significantly Semsar’s eschatology is not of heaven and hell, but of hell and yet again hell. The feeling of exclusion and of there being no way out conveyed by these works does not permit viewers to forget the lives enclosed.
Most of the issues excluded from the subject matter of art discourse can be characterized in one sense or another as political, with the countervailing tendency to include these issues being framed in the content of artworks.
There are other kinds of amnesia, which are less willed and more insidious, since, unlike the explicit political taboo and its implicit sanction—for example, insulting the head of state in Indonesia or Thailand5—in these art cultures such taboos are rarely discussed.
Let us take an interesting Japanese situation that indicates how art, history and the political constraints on the circulation of images construct historical amnesia. It has frequently been remarked how apolitical Japanese art became after the 1960s, and in 1995, the fiftieth anniversary year of the defeat of Japan in the Second World War, very few artists foregrounded the question of the responsibility of the ultra-nationalist regime or the war guilt of the Shôwa emperor6. Yet information about the historical context is available to the public and it was clear this amnesia was not felt by Japan’s neighbors. In August 1995 the Korean government chose to complete the destruction of the former national museum, which had been the headquarters of the Japanese colonial government-general. The destruction ceremony, which was attended by the Korean president, was broadcasted on Japanese television news.
At nearly the same time, in commemoration of the thirtieth anniversary of the normalization of relations between the two countries, Japan issued a postage stamp with designs by Serizawa Keisuke based on Korean motifs. The Korean government issued a postage stamp that showed the sixth-to-early-seventh-century Bodhsattva Maitreya (Miroku Bosatsu) sculpture kept in Kyoto’s Kôryû-ji temple. Japanese commentary did not underline that this sculpture, beloved of the German existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers and the first object to be classified as a Japanese national treasure, is actually Korean and that the original temple was almost certainly that funded by a clan of immigrant Korean nobility. This small anecdote of regional cultural politics points revealingly to the way the absence of a category of practice articulated around a historical aporia can only be overcome with great difficulty. But such an aporia is actually possible through the refusal of local discourses to accept the structural exclusions of their neighbor’s. Within one art culture it is difficult when the whole trajectory of cultural discourse is to occlude or deny the existence of the aporia itself7.
However, by opposing amnesia and revealing its structure for a particular set of reasons related to censored history, the elided representation of gender, or the anger and disenchantment of the dispossessed, art may appear more amenable to cross-cultural reception and interpretation within Asia. Art that deals with such issues is peculiarly open to understanding and empathy outside its discourse of origin. It is why some quite determinedly formalist discourses such as installation sculpture can appear to be the transfer of the formal concerns of such discourse, but with local coding for the interpretation of content.
Contextualizing or verbally signing the range of meanings for installation work is a complex exhibition procedure. There is a basic dichotomy that needs to be addressed. When the spectacle of revising the forgotten or repressed is enacted by the work alone, or accompanied by a performance in its originating cultural context, the spectacle cannot remain just a spectacle because only the most obtuse of the viewers would not see the absent ghosts or feel their haunting presence. Taken to an exhibition site in another culture, the viewer may be enjoined by the form and the enactment but, since the amnesia foregrounded or released is not that of their culture, the work cannot possibly have the same quality of resonance nor indeed the same type of operative aesthetic force. This experience is of broader reference. To use an extreme example, it is like Vietnamese veterans watching Oliver Stone’s Platoon, an oppositional film made by an American veteran about the same conflict the Vietnamese had also fought in, and one of the few American films they could identify with8. If we have had the same or a similar shared experience, the emotional charge may be similar to that generated by the form that refers to it. But if not, the emotional charge is part of a sympathetic reading into the form of emotions that may have been experienced elsewhere but not in the same kind of circumstances. In non-Asian contexts, even where Asia meets Euramerica in Brazil or Australia, I think we must be aware there is a narrow line between engaging with others’ experience or expression at a distance and simulating this experience as our own in some consumer fantasy of primal participation, since the experiences that led to the work are often of a much graver kind than the aesthetic emotions we can draw from it.
International Sites and SpectaclesThe Parisian mega-show of 1989 Les magiciens de la terre (The Magicians of the Earth) was regarded by its organizers as a breakthrough in the exhibition of non-Euramerican art in a country at the center of Euramerican modernism9. Perhaps this was so. Certainly the policy of buying one French overall curator, European sub-curators and local critics as initial referees ensured a far wider and more artistically interesting set of exhibitors than would have been the case if the exhibition had been organized through national ministries of culture. Unfortunately this structure was absolutely hierarchical, with the principle that the funding country had the final decision through its nominated curator or sub-curators.
This curatorial structure was adopted for the 1993 Asia-Pacific Triennial in Brisbane, which also had an inner directorate of Australian curators but, instead of a triumvirate of traveling curators, it had an outer roving panel of Australian curators and designated local advisers. The second triennial in 1996 compensated for the Australia-centered nature of this structure by having two consultatory conferences in Australia, one international forum in July 1995 and another in December 1996, when the Australian selectors met with the Queensland organizers. It also took the radical step of inviting an Asian curator to select the Australian work. In the event his text was censored out of the catalogue. The 1996 exhibition used Australian selectors who were mostly chosen for their curatorial experience and for their prior contact with Asian cultures, although very few (perhaps around three) had any working knowledge of Asian languages. There were signs from the foreign advisers chosen and the art eventually selected that the national or inner committee was principally engaged in institutionalizing the Asia-Pacific Triennial as a site on an international exhibition circuit. This privileged both the Asia-Pacific Triennial within Australian art discourses, and the Australian curators involved in exchange relationships with Asian and other international peers. The organizational dynamics of the museum and the central government policy objectives, which underlay the very considerable federal funding the project received, may be seen to have taken over from any initial possibility the exhibition had as a site for more broadly conceived cultural exchange and for exploring new kinds of critical knowledge about art across cultural boundaries.
A similar but differently motivated late-1995 case in Japan was the Ajia no Modanizumu (Asian Modernism) exhibition in Tokyo, which tried for the first time to bring works from the earlier history of academic oil painting and modernism into an exhibition of contemporary work from three countries10. For this extremely well thought-out exhibition two Japanese curators and one critic consulted curators from the three countries on two visits of two weeks each. This thoroughness also meant the Japanese curators had some stance by which to insist on the selection of some works against the opinion of the local adviser and the relevant national cultural organization. It was unfortunately not very popular with the public and only received a very small number of attendances compared with some previous exhibitions sponsored by the Japan Foundation11.
It is very difficult to regard such exhibitions as something new, other than in some consumerist rhetoric of spectacle. But such exhibitions do include Asia in the practice of the representative thematic stylistic shows which have been a feature of curatorial practice in Euramerica since the Council of Europe exhibitions in Paris, London and other sites since the 1960s. They have now been followed by revitalized survey shows outside Euramerica, particularly the annual ASEAN art exhibitions and in the Fukuoka Asian art exhibitions held in 1979 and 1980 (I), 1985 (II), 1990 (III), and 199512. These were followed by the 1995 post-Cold War Non-Alignment Movement exhibition in Jakarta13.
In the 1990s the time may not have come for radical or presumptive solutions to the potential claims of such a critique latent already in the discourse of works. This Euramerican problem may not be resolvable since art discourses in contact have hitherto been articulated through Euramerican hegemony, or at least relative dominance. The feature of twentieth-century art history is to have brought discontinuous cultural spaces if not times—into contiguity. It will only be after several decades or more of realizing this contiguity, and of accepting it through the co-situation of contemporary works from discontinuous cultural spaces, that their possibility of co-locution will become clearer.
Possibly the real universal human benefit of the contiguity of previously discontinuous cultural spaces, and of the clashes of the codes of interpretation they involve, is that history in general, and the history of what is modern in art for a particular culture, cannot any longer be forgotten. The disjunction caused by such works’ contiguity raises the historical reasons for those disjunctions in a manner avoidable or occludable in a colonial or immediately postcolonial situation. The clash implied by the notion of an other but not deterministically antithetical notion of modern art means that the historical reasons for those disjunctions have now to be faced. This is true within the art cultures that produced those works and also on their reception in other-than-Asian cultures. The artist claims the world is other than what you make it to be, or that I am other than what You construct me as.
In this very widely generalized situation for Asian artists, history becomes a ferocious domain of subjectification in their work. History cannot be put around the corner of a postmodernist category, or a critique of consumer culture in a shopping mall, nor art discourse constructed around such concealment.
1 Jose, N. (ed.), Mao Goes Pop: China Post 1989 (Sydney: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1993); Jose, N. & Yang Wen-i (eds.), Art Taiwan (Sydney: Museum of Contemporary Art & G+B Arts International, 1995).
2 Two recent exhibitions which have paid attention to a fuller historical construction of the contemporary have been: Munroe, Alexandra (ed.), Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against the Sky (New York: Alfred Knopf & The Guggenheim Museum, 1994); Tatehata, Akira; Misuzawa, Tsutomu; Shioda, Judichi; Supangkat, Jim; Guillermo, Alice, G., and Rodboon, Somporn (eds.), Asian Modernism: Diverse Development in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand (Tokyo: The Japan Foundation Asia Center, 1995).
3 See the article by Chen, Yingde . ‘Shiping Dong Xiwen Youhua’, in: Mingbao Yuekan, January 1986, no. 241.
4 For a discussion of Semsar’s work see: Miklouho-Maklai, B., Exposing Society’s Wounds: Some Aspects of Contemporary Art Since 1966 (Adelaide: Flinders University Asian Studies Monograph no. 5, 1991).
5 On the Thai taboos about representation, which might insult the institution of the monarchy, and the political use of such charges see: Streckfuss, David (ed.), Modern Thai Monarchy and Cultural Politics (Santi Pracha Dhamma Institute, 1996). There is also a very perceptive analysis of the function of public figures in public displays in Bunmi, Thirayut, 20 pii 14 Tulaa, ‘Ruup Taay naa Raan Taay Ruup’ (Bangkok: Winyuchon Publishing House, 1994).
6 See: Shalala, Nancy, “Censorship Silences Japanese Artists”, in: Asian Art News, vol. 4, no. 5, September–October 1994.
7 See my paper: “Artists and the State: The Image of China in Japanese Painting, 1890s–1940s”, in: Tipton, Elise (ed.). Society and State in Interwar Japan (London: Routledge, 1997).
8 This was explicitiy mentioned as a film he could understand in a NHK interview with the Vietnamese film director Thanh Nuat Min broadcasted in December 1995.
9 The exhibition was held between May 18 and August 14, 1989 at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, with a catalogue under the editorship of Jean-Hubert Martin. Despite the counter-Euramerican centered intentions of its organizers, the structural location of its concerns is simply given by the titles of two of the catalogue essays: La planète toute entière, enfin (Finally, the Whole Planet) and Ravissantes périphéries (Bewitching Peripheries); classic examples of re-constituting a discourse by attempting to criticize it via its central terms. For reactions see Buchloh, B.H.D., “The Whole Earth Show” (interview with Jean-Hubert Martin), in: Art in America, May 1989. For a reaction to the earlier exhibition curated by William S. Rubin, Primitivism in Twentieth Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1984), 2 vols; and McEvilley, Thomas, “Doctor Lawyer Indian Chief”, in: Artforum, November 1984, reprinted in McEvilley, Thomas, Art & Otherness: Crisis in Cultural Identity (Kingston: Documentext/ McPherson, 1992).
10 The full title was Asian Modernism: Diverse Development in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand at The Japan Foundation Asia Center (Tokyo: 28 October to 3 December 1995). The exhibition then toured to Metropolitan Museum of Manila, National Gallery, Bangkok, and Gedung Pameran Seni Rupa, Jakarta, during the first half of 1996. For my review see: Asian Art News, vol. 6, no. 1, January—February 1996.
11 As of January 1995 the Japan Foundation was not yet prepared to release attendances at the Asian Modernism exhibition, but I was given to understand that they were somewhat disappointing, and no works were singled out for attention, as had been the case with Japanese-artist exhibitions. As an index of interest in modern Asian art in Japan the officially published figures for attendance at the New Art from Southeast Asia exhibition in 1992 were 25,000 in seventy days, at four different sites, or about 357 attendances per day, but the rate for Tokyo was considerably less than provincial cities at 200 per day over ten days.
12 For a survey, of these and some other Asian art exhibitions in Japan, see: Endô, Nozomi, “The Asian Art Show: Problems Involved in the Planning of Exhibitions of Contemporary Asian Art, Tokyo”, in: Dai 4-Kai Ajia Bijutsuten (Tokyo: Setagaya Bijutsukan, 1995).
13 See my review in Art and AsiaPacific, vol. 2, no. 4, 1995.