Dung, dancers, dilemmas

Contemporary Art in Asia
April 3, 1998

This selection of seven essays is the catalogue of a travelling exhibition of artists from India, Indonesia, the Philippines, South Korea and Thailand, organised in New York to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Asia Society.

Written almost entirely by Asian authors for western readers, the essays set out to expose and dispel the myths and stereotypes that surround "Asianness", such as notions about "Orientalism" and the legacies of colonialism. Their scope is ambitious, encompassing a vast continent of diverse cultures and religions in various stages of development, but several themes emerge.

The dominant one is the juxtaposition of traditional, indigenous elements and ultramodern western themes that form contemporary Asian art and inspire the subtitle, Traditions/Tensions. These come alive in the book's 192 exciting and startling illustrations - not least in the cover, a vivid yellow painting of a man with kaleidoscopic eyes, one blue, one yellow, a hideous grin and an incongruous flower behind his ear. Called Siamese Smile, it challenges every cliche about "smiling, gentle" people. Other images include garishly coloured inflatable sculptures of dying robots, from Korean artist Choi Jeong-Hwa, epitomising the entropic condition of contemporary society. Paintings by Hindu artist Sheela Gowda use cow dung and, as the cow is sacred in India, serve as a poultice on the trauma of a country splintered by religious factions. A video installation by Kamol Phaosavasdi, draped with mosquito nets, show alternating images of classical Thai dancers and topless go-go girls, suggesting that consumerism has transformed the infrastructure of Thai society. Evocative black-and-white portraits of elderly, indigenous people, photographed by Navin Rawanchaikul and displayed inside glass bottles, show how marginalised and isolated they have become in this modern world.

"Traditions imply timeless, ancient practices," writes curator Apinan Poshyananda, a Thai art historian, "while tensions arise from famine, disease, violence and pollution, especially in Asia's megacities." He refers to another recurring theme, the decentred cities with rich, traditional histories, such as Bangkok, Manila, Bombay and Jakarta, which are becoming alternative spaces of exchange and dialogue in contemporary culture. Modern art, he says, should be considered in the context of its sites.

Striving to compete with the technological age, these cities face the dilemma of preserving what is considered their cultural heritage. Tensions arise when museums, influenced by western ideas of exoticism and lamentations about the disappearance of "authentic" indigenous art, try to rescue ancient artefacts. These objects, often revered as sacred images, are denigrated by what Poshyananda calls radical decontextualisation. "More often than not, the source of these artefacts is not contested. How they got from ruined temples and villages in Asia to museum display cases in Europe and America is not usually questioned. Stripped of their social and religious ties and redefined in new settings according to experts and specialists, they are often given priorities and values over works by living artists in Asia."

This paradox is examined by Thomas McEvilley, the only non-Asian author. He traces the museological role by the West in objects from once-colonised cultures displayed initially as primitive trophies, then as ethnographic or anthropological exhibits, then gradually transferred to art museums. This exhibition and book, he writes, is a further step in the development of this phase, and the West is challenged as previously colonised societies redefine themselves, producing a corresponding rising complexity in their cultures. That complexity, claims Indonesian critic Jim Supangkat, is born out of multiculturalism. He cites Indonesia, which has more than 300 ethnic groups. Yet, global television and information technology are gradually restructuring and moulding ideas to universal models.

Ultimately, these are cultures in transition, and the seven essays and artists together provide fascinating insights into the many aspects of that process.

Denise Heywood is a freelance writer, lecturer and photographer.

Contemporary Art in Asia: Traditions/Tensions

Author - Apinan Poshyananda
ISBN - 0 8109 6331 0
Publisher - Abrams
Price - £32.00
Pages - 240

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