New York

“Contemporary Art in Asia: Traditions/Tensions”

Despite the growing presence of Asian artists here, Americans have been slow to focus on the explosive art scenes across the Pacific. The Asia Society’s unprecedented fall show, “Contemporary Art in Asia: Traditions/Tensions,” exposed the New York art community to these sites of artistic activity and the changing and turbulent cultures, economies, and nationalisms the work indexes and reflects. Cities such as Bangkok, Bombay, and Jakarta have spawned in a decade what it took Tokyo a century to develop: a cultural modernity that is autonomous with respect to Western modernism even as it encompasses an authentic mastery of the forms, styles, and ideas that define the international mainstream.

Organized by Vishakha N. Desai, director of the Asia Society Galleries, and Thai guest curator Apinan Poshyananda, “Tradition/Tensions” presented some seventy works by twenty-seven artists staged in three separate venues—The Grey Art Gallery, Queens Museum of Art, and the Asia Society Galleries. Both Desai, who is Indian born, and Poshyananda are well-versed in contemporary multiculturalist and postcolonial discourses, and it is identity politics and the resistance to the hegemonic legacy of Orientalism that shape their show’s thesis. What links the countries represented—Thailand, the Philippines, South Korea, Indonesia, and India—is their shared postcolonial condition.

The task of addressing art within Asia in a single show, whatever the parameters, is as daunting and problematic as that which faced the curators of the Guggenheim’s “Africa: The Art of a Continent.” Asia holds three quarters of the world’s population, several races, a myriad of languages, all four of the world’s major religions, and countless local faiths. Culturally, the five countries represented in “Traditions/Tensions” derive from three different historic spheres of influence, China, India, and the islands of the South Pacific, and their respective modern histories are equally divergent. There are monarchies, democracies, and dictatorships; countries such as India with centuries of colonial rule, and Thailand, which has never come under foreign dominion. It is perhaps a testimony to Poshyananda’s curatorial skills that the show has such visual coherence—the gaps between different nations and cultures all but vanish. Yet it is precisely a certain consistency of style (Poshyananda favors installation work and allegorical painting) that inevitably elides some of the tensions and crises that exist amongst any group of modern Asian countries, and this is cause for a note of caution.

The aim of the exhibition, Poshyananda writes in the show’s excellent catalogue, is “to link the overlapping issues of nationalism, postcolonialism, gender, race and ethnicity evident in contemporary Asian art.” To this end, it seeks to “to reveal aspects of cultures in transition that may shift stereotypes and fixities of ‘Otherness.’” The Asia Society’s catalogue cover and the show’s virtual logo is thus Chatchai Puipia’s Siamese Smile, 1995, a grizzly self-portrait of an overblown yellow face whose demented, Big Brother look is intended to destroy the notion of Thailand promoted by the tourist board as “The Land of Smiles.” Thailand, Poshyananda explains, is no longer dreamy Siam but rather a hell on earth devastated by AIDS, political corruption, and pollution. He and Desai seem determined to dismantle, one by one, the Orientalist stereotypes that have dominated the reception of Asian art in the West: the work highlighted in “Traditions/Tensions” is not “contem plative” but confrontational; not “exalted” and “mysterious” but gritty, urban, and explicit; not “erotic” but in a number of cases explicitly antipornographic. And yet doesn’t the assault against clichéd colonialist binaries of East/West, traditional/modern, simply perpetuate these terms?

The best work in this strong show circumvents this problem by stepping outside these theoretical schemes altogether, drawing on Asia’s modern histories and a certain classical formalism, like Indonesian artist Dadang Christanto’s Kekerasan I (Violence I, 1995). Several hundred terracotta heads are arranged in eight pyramidal tiers echoing the ninth-century Buddhist monument of Borobudur near Yogyakarta. But their gaping, vacant eyes and mouths, suspended as if in a dumb scream, and their distorted shapes lacking foreheads, also recall the endless rows of skulls piled in abandoned caves and school buildings, the grim remains of the Khmer Rouge terror in nearby Cambodia. To Christanto, Indonesia’s totalitarian state, with its longtime reign of fear and repression, has created a culture wrecked by a dehumanizing violence tantamount to genocide. Formal beauty and intellectual content are perfectly balanced in this elegant, terrifying, and stoic stupalike sculpture.

From installations by Thai artist Araya Rasjarmearnsook to politicized sculptures by India’s N. N. Rimzon and Indonesia’s FX Harsono’s The Voices are Controlled by the Powers, the work in “Traditions/Tensions” deals less with the age-old specter of Western imperialism than with more immediate issues of cultural survival in the face of domestic tragedies including religious warfare, bloody civilian uprisings, the economic and sexual oppression of women in patriarchal societies, and the loss of traditional culture to nationalistic ideologies or capitalist consumption. It is less the politics of identity vis-à-vis the West that generate the most significant work on view, than the attempt to respond directly to and address critically the tumultuous complexities and socio-economic disparities of contemporary Asia.