in Frieze | 02 JAN 97
Featured in
Issue 32

Present Tense

'Traditions / Tensions: Contemporary Art from Asia'

in Frieze | 02 JAN 97

In recent years, a consensus has been building among Western art critics and historians that contemporary art does not reside solely in what Cornell West calls the 'North Atlantic Democracies'. It is still widely felt, however, that contemporary art from outside the West must somehow connect with or incorporate the Western version. Often, non-Western artists attempt to amalgamate something of their own traditions with something of Euro-Modernism, thus maintaining their own roots while still involving themselves in that most famous locus of the process of change.

In India, for example, the Neo-tantric artist K.V. Haridasan combines the Hindu tradition of the yantra with 60s American styles such as colour-field painting and hard-edge Abstraction; Gulam Sheikh incorporates references to Moghul and western Modernist Motifs, as well as other elements. One finds a nationalistic sense in the desire to maintain one's own tradition, combined with a transnationalistic sense that all the cultures of the world are open, available and equal. The work is thus deemed contemporary not only because it is being made today but also because it is self-consciously historicised in an art history that gives some account of its relationship to the West.

Although this historicisation usually involves some incorporation of Euro-derived elements, it need not be viewed as a neo-colonial relationship so much as an effect of the spread of the dynamic of capitalism. For better or for worse, capitalism has tended historically to involve the elevation of the individual over the communal, resulting in a competition of innovation, not only in terms of market commodities but also of sensibilities. It is not so much that artists of these nations are imitating Europe; it is rather that they have been swept up in the same force that has carried Europe along since at least the Industrial Revolution.

The exhibition 'Traditions/Tensions: Contemporary Art from Asia', originated by the Asia Society, recently opened at three venues in New York City; the Asia Society itself, the Queens Museum, and the Grey gallery of New York University. It comprised of 70 works of contemporary art by 27 artists from India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and South Korea, five nations that have recently brought themselves into the foreground of global capitalism. The mere fact that the Asia Society originated the exhibition is significant. That venerable institution has until recently been occupied with the so-called traditional arts from Asian nations. With this exhibition it turned its attention to the contemporary, prompting a major revision of our perception of Asia. Something similar happened in the 80s when the Museum for African Art in New York turned its attention to the contemporary after a long focus on the traditional. This is an historic shift of emphasis which indicates the realisation that, regardless of Hegel's famous remarks to the contrary, the non-Western world - surely, at least, in the post-colonial era - is in fact historical after all.

In addition to providing this significant shift of emphasis, 'Traditions/ Tensions' is a model of post-colonial curatorial strategies. Directed by Vishaka Desai of the Asia Society, it was curated by Thai art historian Apinan Poshyan-anda, who was assisted, for each of the five nations, by a national of the country in question. In Poshyananda's opinion, 'the main problem in the reception of this work in the West will be learning how to pronounce their names. But it must be done. It is your turn now. We learned how to say, Fran-ces-co Cle-men-te; now you have to learn to say, Choi Jeong-Hwa.'

Although for the Western art audience the reception problem may start with the pronunciation of names, it will quickly become more complex; with little compass or chart, the navigation becomes somewhat random. How does one relate to works from outside one's own tradition without abusing the privilege? There is a temptation to relate to these works on the basis of similarities with Western work. One could, for example, compare Indonesian artist Ninditya Adipurnomo's elegant boxes in The Burden of Javanese Exotica (1993), with certain box works by Lucas Samaras. Adipurnomo's hidden worlds are more violent than Samaras', which tend to stop at the threshold of the threatening. Blood-like drippings around the lips of Adipurnomo's boxes both refer to Jackson Pollock and Abstract Expressionism and, in a thoughtful semantic layering, imply some scene of massacre inside. Similarly, one could compare Korean Choi Jeong-Hwa's comic inflating and deflating fabric figures, such as Plastic Happiness (1995), with some works of Dennis Oppenheim, and another aspect of Oppenheim's oeuvre might be brought to mind by Indonesian Heri Dono's Fermentation of Mind (1993-94), a schoolroom with mechanised heads nodding over the desks. One could relate the sumptuously beautiful cow dung and powder surfaces of Indian artist Sheela Gowda's Work in Progress (1996) with Western surfaces from Tapiès to Kiefer, or Korean artist Soo-Ja Kim's accumulations of used clothing and TV sets to works by Michelangelo Pistoletto.

Such comparisons could be extended, but it is not clear how useful they are. Obviously artworks from Indonesia or Thailand will involve references and overtones that cannot be elicited by superficial comparisons with Western works. At the same time, such works often involve references to or influence from Western contemporary art - such as the preponderance of the installation mode.

Lingga-Yoni, (1995-96), by Indonesian artist Arahmaiani, is a painting that makes overt allusions to Indonesian tradition such as the Malay Arabic script and the Hindu icon of sexual intercourse. Etalase (1994), also by Arahmaiani, is a different matter. The basic structural principle is the combination and recombination of found objects: a display case contains a photograph, a Buddha icon, a full Coca-Cola bottle, an edition of the Koran in Arabic, a pack of condoms, and various other objects. There seems nothing made by the hand of the artist. Rather, it is the artist's mind sifting through cultural objects and noting connections and disconnections amongst them. While the arrangement of found objects is a characteristically Western method, going back to Duchamp and surviving as the basic means of neo-conceptual sculpture from Haim Steinbach to Rosemarie Trockel, the objects involved in the arrangement reflect the mixed reality of the Indonesian situation today. The Coca-Cola bottle has become a global symbol not only of Westernisation but of commodification and capitalism. Immediately after World War II it began to appear in Japanese culture as an intrusive but necessary provocation. In Ozu's Late Spring (1949), for example, one sees, in a traditional Japanese neighbourhood setting, the Coca-Cola logo on the wall of a building. In The Gods Must be Crazy (1980), it represents the end of traditional societies and their sense of community. In Etalase it balances the Buddha icon, the only other free-standing sculptural object in the vitrine. A comparison of Asian and Western cultures is implied, with Asia appearing as spiritual, the West as commercial.

Poshyanda, writing in the catalogue, notes that, 'for radical Thai artists, a favourite issue is the national identity crisis brought on by the influx of foreign culture ... Until recently, installation, performance, conceptual and site-specific art have been characterised as Western influences that might degrade the purity of Thainess.' But cultures in which temples and ritual spaces are still alive, and in which substances may be regarded as semi-sacred, have an easy entry into these modes. Montien Boonma's installation sculptures Sala of the Mind and Alokhayasan: Temple of the Mind, both 1995-96, point many ways at once. Both are interactive in the sense that the viewer is expected to enter a small chamber for focused viewing, hearing, and feeling. These are meant as contemplative spaces, like mini-stupas the size of voting booths; within them one encounters the smells of Thai medicinal and religious herbs and simple humming sounds that are appropriate as 'Kasinas' or concentration objects. While the piece invokes ancient and traditional aspects of Thai Buddhism, its visual presence is late Modernist and contemporary. References to Minimal sculpture seem to coexist with references to indigenous tradition.

Philippine artist Imelda Cajipe-Endaya also used the well-worn elements of recent American and European neo-conceptual art - Filipina: DH (1995) is a large installation with found objects, projected images, texts and sound. Some of the found objects relate to the theme of travel - suitcases, a small airport trolley, a sleeping mat. These motifs have a double edge in this context: while they bear the generalised Postmodernist associations of nomadism and cultural hybridity, they also carry the more specific and unpleasant associations of Filipina women migrating as domestic servants throughout Asia and the Middle East (the 'DH' of the title means Domestic Helper as in a newspaper classified ad). Domestic tools from the Philippine environment also point towards this role; texts commenting on the status of women occupy wall and floor mats. Various photographs reinforce the idea of a womanhood that, while on the move, is somehow caught between its past and its future.

Another found-object installation, Korean Yun Suknam's Day and Night (1995), contains painted wooden figures, a plastic doll, chairs, and various bits of metal. The antique European chairs point back to the imperial period and the sumptuousness of their facture focuses on misappropriated wealth. Some of the chairs have metal blades rising from their seats suggesting the perils, perhaps the impossibility, of really changing one's position in the world. Within this chilly, somewhat foreboding ambience a little family is presented. the father is shrouded in black and isolated. The mother shelters the child - the oplastic doll - whose arms have been replaced by wings which are opening and rising. The child, it is implied, may fly away from this dilemma or rise above it.

Indian artist N.N. Rimzon's Inner Voice (1992) presents a slightly larger-than-life fibreglass figure standing within a semi-circle composed of 40 cast iron swords, all pointing toward it. The statue is identified as a tirthankara, or Jain saviour, by the posture in which he is standing, known in Jain tradition as the 'abandoning-the-body posture'; it is the pose in which several of the last tirthankaras are said to have attained kevala or enlightenment. The figure is upright, feet slightly apart, hands hanging straight down but held slightly outward so as not to touch the body; the practice is to stand motionless in this posture for long periods of time. The unmoving Jain saint meditating silently symbolises inner space while the swords arrayed around him represent the threatening confrontation with outside space. The saint holds off the warring impulses by the power of his mind and his passivity.

In their traditional life-rules for monks, the Jains, more than any other sect on record, have emphasised ahisma or non-violence. One reason for the motionless posture is to avoid accidentally harming any insect or microbe. The figure, by his extreme withdrawal from violence, balances the circle of swords and wards them off. The sculpture seems to be depicting the moment of stalemate.

There were other types of works in the exhibition, including paintings and figurative sculptures. But for the time being, installations and found objects have become the primary means of the globalising trend in world art - Marcel Duchamp seems to preside over the end of this century to an extent that he would hardly believe. That a period of art history fuelled by capitalism should be signatured by the store-bought commodity seems appropriate. And installation art has become so iconographic that it does feel like a kind of international language in which ideas and attitudes beyond the aesthetic may be clearly stated. It is through this vehicle that the international art scene has become a wide-ranging conversation that crosses national and linguistic boundaries; perhaps more than at any time in the past, art today functions as a diplomatic network linking disparate cultures through acts of simultaneous self-discovery and self-revelation. It is actually performing a role, and a crucial one, in the social and geopolitical reorientation that is still dealing with the fallout of the end of the colonial era.