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Asia-futurism

Mamoru Oshii, Ghost in the Shell, 1995, 35 mm, color, sound, 82 minutes.

IS IT POSSIBLE to be othered across time? For almost a century already, the myth of an Asian-inflected future has infiltrated imaginations worldwide. Vivid tableaux of the continent’s cities in hyperdrive, fueled by tech-enabled consumerism, come to mind with ease: Think of the vertical neon signs, the sleep-deprived gamers, the flesh-meets-machine of conveyor-belt sushi. Meanwhile, recent art history serves up examples of Asian artists (and East Asian artists in particular) whose pieces lay ground for even more fantastic futures to come: narratives populated by cyborg love and virtual-reality metropolises. In previous decades there were, of course, Nam June Paik’s televisions and robots, then Lee Bul’s cyborgs; now one finds the trippy digital self-portraits of Lu Yang, and Transmedia Lab’s robot arm programmed to duplicate Buddhist scripture.

In 1986, describing the United States, Jean Baudrillard touched on what the country was not: Japan. Specifically, a Japan that had managed “an unintelligible paradox, to transform the power of territoriality and feudalism into that of deterritoriality and weightlessness.” “Japan,” he continued, “is already a satellite of the planet Earth.” Taking up where he left off, David Morley and Kevin Robins laid out an articulation of techno-Orientalism a few years later, observing that Japan’s path to modernization had become a crucial aspect of its exoticized image as an Oriental other, an image construed to reflect the same Western anxieties that drove the historical violence of colonialism, racism, and exclusion. Yet even as their words set the stage for many a conversation about the formation and transformation of Asian identity through the channels of diaspora and distance, ever-newer avatars of techno-Orientalism continue to be reflected in both high art and low culture. Perhaps, critic Toshiya Ueno suggested, techno-Orientalism loops back on itself or serves as “a kind of mirror stage or an image machine” whose effects ultimately touch everyone. Focusing on Japan, Ueno wrote, “It is through this mirror stage and its cultural apparatus that Western or other people misunderstand and fail to recognize an always illusory Japanese culture, but it also is the mechanism through which Japanese misunderstand themselves.”

As the worldwide preoccupation in the 1980s with Japan’s unassailably ascendant technological dominance has given way to worldwide consternation over the still-unfolding effects of neoliberal globalization on an array of Pacific Rim nations, the idea that East Asian countries have any exceptional claim to futurity has grown more complex. But if the nuances of techno-Orientalism evolve with the times, visions of Asia-futurism continue to be mirrored, magnified, and distorted in the Western world toward complicated ends, with complicated effects on both contemporary art production and an already troubled construction of Asian American identity.

Amid the contentious identity politics of this year’s Academy Awards, host Chris Rock introduced three children of Asian descent to the stage as accountants and smartphone makers. If stereotypes were writ large (child laborers! Numbers savants!), what went virtually unnoticed was the fact that these children were, on some level, embodied archetypes of Asia-futurity: The only truly visible Asian people at the Dolby Theatre that night, they will reach their prime in coming decades. This, in turn, seemed to reflect a larger fact of Hollywood casting. Putting aside the more prominent discussions around the mass media’s outright erasure of actors of color (exemplified by Scarlett Johansson’s casting as the protagonist of the upcoming Ghost in the Shell remake), the TV narratives that consistently cast Asian actors are still primarily science fiction and fantasy. When real Asian Americans—by which I mean people and not stereotypes—appear in media, we do so in the future, but not the present; in alternate realities, but not this one. As underscored by many critics of techno-Orientalism, Joss Whedon’s early-aughts cult television show Firefly imagined a world in which China and the US had evolved into one empire, with not a single Asian actor in a major role. Whedon’s more recent portrayal of a sci-fi universe—the ongoing (and highly entertaining) Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.—demonstrates some progress: It includes a Chinese American actress and another of mixed-race Chinese heritage as leads. The latter character turns out to be a sort of special egg: a member of the Inhumans, a genetically advanced race whose full powers must be triggered by the Terrigen Mists. She is someone who, much like the Asian children at the Oscars, is awaiting Life, Phase Two.

At the most recent Association for Asian American Studies conference, critic and curator Ryan Lee Wong noted a renewed interest in such Asian colossi as Pacific Rim (2013) and Godzilla (2014): “Nowhere, in these depictions, is there agency on the part of the Asian characters.” Wong has spoken about an Asia-futurism that draws inspiration from Afrofuturism. How? Perhaps the agency he invokes is key: If Afrofuturist thinkers have created speculative realms of their own accord, carving out counterfactual worlds that might cast the shortcomings of our current one in high relief, might there be analogous ways for Asian artists to recast techno-clichéd trappings toward more generative ends?

Two ongoing projects come to mind. Last year, the Japanese collective Chim↑Pom staged “Don’t Follow the Wind,” a group exhibition in Fukushima, Japan, home of the 2011 nuclear-reactor disaster. Three years before that, the Ho Chi Minh City– and Los Angeles–based Propeller Groupbegan The History of the Future. To call either of these endeavors “ongoing” is an understatement; they are literally impossible to experience until the present draws to a close. Chim↑Pom’s exhibition comprises a selection of works by artists that the group has secreted away within the perimeter of the radioactive Fukushima zone. Meanwhile, the Propeller Group has buried a wooden version of a Star Trek phaser rifle—intricately carved using old Vietnamese techniques—in a location whose GPS coordinates will be disclosed only in 2112. Both projects investigate the dark underbelly of technology—its environmental fallout, its military applications. But they also work toward more subversive ends: Rather than merely delivering visions of othered, futured Asian lives for a present-day global audience, they perform an exclusion that, when viewed from the West, thumbs its nose at the systemic erasure of Asian faces in non-Asian narratives. Here, no one is allowed in.

While projects like these might loosen “the grip social reality holds” over techno-Orientalist clichés, and “[free] them from their fate” (to appropriate the words of Paul Chan on the power of art), it would be unfair to expect all Asian artists, on an individual level, to make work that explicitly counters problematic perceptions of Asian technofutures once it reaches Western shores. But what if curatorially driven endeavors could be asked to carry more of the burden, given their larger scale and more direct dealings with inclusion and exclusion? Indeed, much is made of the international art festival as a method of decentering and recentering our preconceived notions of identity, and in recent years, a critical mass of Asia-based biennials, triennials, and art festivals have adopted themes that embrace a future tense, or at least an atelic one—all while (thankfully) placing artists from their regions in ever-greater focus. The most recent Yokohama Triennale came with a title, “Art Fahrenheit 451: Sailing into the Sea of Oblivion,” which referred to an oppressive fictional world and then evoked a poetically speculative end. It found opportunities to subvert high-tech tropes, as with Yuko Mohri’s lo-fi machine apparatuses or Shinro Ohtake’s riotous trash-art-mobiles. Meanwhile, the forthcoming Gwangju Biennale promises to explore art’s “projective and imaginative qualities—art’s active relationship to the future.” And the Shanghai Project, curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Yongwoo Lee, literalizes its interest in the next century: Its title, “2116,” refers to the year when 76 percent of the cosmopolitan Chinese port city is projected to be subsumed by rising sea levels. It’s as if these art exhibitions work to refute Baudrillard’s depiction of Asia as a distant satellite of Earth. Remember, they murmur: Asia is Earth, too.

But what of Asian people living elsewhere? Biennials and art festivals are still inherently responding to place, whether by embracing or explicitly subverting it. And so, too, Asia-futurism itself: How often do its narratives relish the landscape and texture of a specific (if imagined) metropolis as much as the inner lives of its inhabitants? In contrast, many scholars have noted that the Asian American experience continues to grapple with the unease that comes with sitelessness and the ongoing threat of encountering the phrase go home—a partial inheritance of a history of immigration bans, internment camps, and indentured servitude in America’s not-so-distant past.

The relative invisibility of Asian people in America often seems refracted throughout international contemporary art exhibitions. Take, for example, the many Asian artists featured in “All the World’s Futures” at the most recent Venice Biennale (or in the past several hundred solo shows staged in New York’s major museums, for that matter). Only a handful of these artists have permanent roots in the US. America, as a geographic place, is certainly a necessary component of Asian American identity. But it’s hardly sufficient. For all the recuperative potential behind these recent biennials—for their power to rework clichés and to position futuristic constructions of Asian identity as original vantage points rather than responses to Western fears—many of these exhibitions nonetheless have situatedness as an inherent point of departure. As a result, there remains a disconnect between the reparative dialogue they may stimulate, on the one hand, and the sitelessness of Asian American communities, on the other. Curators and artists may be fruitfully laboring to reposition Asia as a true part of planet Earth. But here, perhaps it’s me and my diasporated cohorts in the US who are satellites, unmoored from the Asia our predecessors left behind. And maybe this has something to do with the reason I leave most art shows still looking for my own face in the present.

Dawn Chan is a writer based in New York and an associate editor at Artforum.com.