Chen Chieh-Jen, Dysfunction No. 3, 1983, 8 mm transferred to digital video, color, silent, 7 minutes. From “Awakenings: Art in Society in Asia, 1960s–1990s”.

Chen Chieh-Jen, Dysfunction No. 3, 1983, 8 mm transferred to digital video, color, silent, 7 minutes. From “Awakenings: Art in Society in Asia, 1960s–1990s”.

“Awakenings: Art in Society in Asia 1960s–1990s”

Chen Chieh-Jen, Dysfunction No. 3, 1983, 8 mm transferred to digital video, color, silent, 7 minutes. From “Awakenings: Art in Society in Asia, 1960s–1990s”.

“AWAKENINGS” was the latest collaboration between museums in Japan, Korea, and Singapore to loosen the grip of postwar, so-called Western narratives of art. The ambitious curatorial team (Cheng JiaYun, Seng Yu Jin, Adele Tan, Eugene Tan, and Charmaine Toh of the National Gallery Singapore; Tomohiro Masuda and Katsuo Suzuki from the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo; and Bae Myungji and Ryu Hanseung of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul) organized more than a hundred artists from twelve countries across three sections—“Questioning Structures,” “Artists and the City,” and “New Solidarities”—that emphasized attitude and strategy over such off-the-shelf structuring principles as style, nationality, and linear temporality. By focusing on art produced during the political upheavals and democratization movements that restructured Asia between the 1960s and ’90s, the curators charted synergies between the avant-garde and social change.

It is unsurprising, then, that activist artists and cohorts had a large presence: the Minjung artists in South Korea, who sprang from the Gwangju Uprising in 1980; the United Artists’ Front of Thailand, born amid the Thai student movement in the 1970s; the Filipino art collective Kaisahan (Solidarity), which opposed the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos; the “reportage painters,” who emerged in the transition between the Old and New Left in Japan; and participants in the landmark exhibition “Place for People” (1981) at Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai and Rabindra Bhavan in New Delhi. These movements often preferred figuration and public-facing forms such as posters, placards, woodcut prints, and murals. Many were directly involved in political campaigns and mass mobilizations, their visual languages echoing those of prewar proletarian art.

Tang Da Wu, They Poach the Rhino, Chop Off His Horn and Make This Drink, 1989, video, color, sound, 49 minutes.

Paralleling these works in “Awakenings” were more distinguished, “global” actors—that is, artists and groups who galvanized the shift from modern to contemporary art. Japan and Korea, which achieved relative stability and entered rapid development in 1946 and 1961, respectively, were among the first countries to engage with Euro-American art trends. Consequently, their experimental art remained more in sync with that of each other than with that of their Asian counterparts. Scattered throughout the show was Japanese “anti-art” from the early 1960s to the early ’70s (Hi-Red Center, Zero Jigen), including conceptual works that embrace natural objects or the human body as media (Lee Ufan, Yutaka Matsuzawa, Yoko Ono), as well as public performances by Lee Kangso, Lee Kunyong, and Sung Neungkyung that addressed suppression in the daily lives of South Koreans.

Also represented were veteran Southeast Asian artists like Montien Boonma, F. X. Harsono, Apinan Poshyananda, and Tang Da Wu, whose early international debuts established them as pioneers of contemporary Asian art. China’s contributions began with artist group Xiamen Dada (and also featured member Huang Yong Ping’s enormous Reptiles, 1989, an installation of washing machines and piles of newspaper pulp), then moved on to works by Datong Dazhang, Song Dong, Zhang Huan, and Zhang Peili, whose provocations from the 1980s and ’90s would have been familiar to many viewers.

Chen Chieh-jen, Dysfunction No. 3, 1983, 8 mm transferred to digital video, color, silent, 7 minutes.

To position this contemporary canon and its populist counterparts—two camps usually deemed incommensurable by conventional art-historical accounts—on an equal footing and inside a single framework was the curators’ most daring gesture. By putting works on three “trajectories” (“decolonization,” “democratization,” and “anti-modernism”) and adopting loose categories such as urban space, activism, collective practice, media criticism, and gender, the exhibition boldly attempted to bridge social realism and Conceptualism, figurative painting and experimental methods.

Yet, as a whole, the connections and patterns it posited were unconvincing. To generalize about Asian art in the latter half of the twentieth century in terms of strategies or spirits of resistance—whether the opponents were authoritarian regimes, capitalism, or the modern art establishment as shaped by Western imperialism—can indeed be an effective way of linking artistic practices across the continent. But the type of curatorial micromanaging seen in “Awakenings” also risks sacrificing some of the emotional gravity of the works in order to streamline the interpretative process for visitors. Whereas recurring visual symbols such as the Coca-Cola logo, bound bodies, and gas masks may have generated meaningful encounters in their original contexts, here they appeared redundant and overly instructive.

Nick Deocampo, Oliver, 1983, 8 mm transferred to digital video, color, sound, 45 minutes.

Even so, the show had no shortage of beautiful, resonant moments. From Wu Shanzhuan’s white-on-red canvas bearing the nonsensical phrase of its title, Chinese Cabbage, Three, News, 500g, 1995; to Jiro Takamatsu’s English Words, a 1970 print emblazoned with these THREE WORDS; to Cheo Chai-Hiang’s mail artwork 5' x 5' (Singapore River), 1972—in which a square of red tape spanning a wall and floor evoked an empty picture frame inhabiting two axes—the urgent need to question and reconstruct meaning electrified the room. I was moved most by footage of Chen Chieh-jen’s 1983 street performance Dysfunction No. 3, an election protest for which the young artist and a group of his friends donned prison uniforms and executioners’ hoods before marching single file through Taipei’s heavily patrolled entertainment district. Rather than to the procession itself, I was drawn to peripheral entities: the boisterous business owners, the clueless policemen, the throng of onlookers. The faces of these intrigued witnesses aroused complicated feelings. If the history of twentieth-century Asia is one of resistance, and of awakenings born of suffering, those ordinary citizens who were able to form a public amid the modernization processwho constitute what Japanese thinker Yoshimi Takeuchi called seikatsusha—are both the bearers of that suffering and a mighty source of defiance.

This duality was best captured in the Filipino filmmaker Nick Deocampo’s 1983 documentary short Oliver. The technically coarse movie tracks the life and work of the eponymously aliased young man, who lives in a Manila slum and, to support his family, works as a drag queen in local gay bars and provides sex to foreign tourists. Deocampo saturates his film with the chronic uncertainties of poverty, but the tone is not desperate. Instead, what emerges is an attitude—of vitality and creativity—that perseveres in this millennium. 

Du Keke is the editor of and a writer and translator based in Beijing.

Translated from Chinese by Feng Junyuan.