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Defining “Asian-ness”
The First Asian Contemporary Art Fair ACAF NY 2007
By Dong-Yeon Koh

A Practical Guide To The Contemporary Art Scene >>

By Vivi HE Ying & Tony Fu

Making a Home: Japanese Contemporary Artists in New York
Japan Society >>

By Natane Tadaka



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Defining “Asian-ness”
The First Asian Contemporary Art Fair ACAF NY 2007

By Dong-Yeon Koh


The special performance by Korean-born modern dancer Sincha Hong, presented on opening night, effectively summed up the overall theme of ACAF (Asian Contemporary Art Fair) 2007— an interesting dialogue between the traditional and the modern, or between the unique cultural and ethnic heritage of Asia and artistic idioms shared by contemporary artists worldwide. In her performance, which appeared to be heavily influenced by a Buddhist monk dance, Hong wore a black silk robe covered in traditional floral patterns while holding a skull, the symbol of death that frequently appears in Western art.

In traditional funeral ceremonies and dances in Korea, the skull is rarely used; in fact, it is rarely displayed in public. Moreover, white, not black, is the traditional color of death and mourning in Korea and most other Asian countries, including China and Japan. While Hong’s performance took place outside the fair booths, where the dominant medium was painting, it served to focus the viewer’s attention on the dual tasks that most artists and dealers at this ground-breaking fair needed to manage: How can contemporary Asian artists draw attention to their distinctive traditions, cultures, and other historical circumstances while at the same time catch the eye of international collectors?

Of course, this question is far from being novel; it is limited neither to our time nor to Asian contemporary art. However, the question is particularly relevant today, as an increasing number of Asian artists are featured in international art fairs and auction houses. The more that Asian contemporary artists gain critical attention and financial success, the more complicated and sometimes problematic their relationship with “Asian-ness” becomes. Indeed, different artistic idioms and circumstances of Asian contemporary art—such as the tumultuous history of China under Communist rule, the perception of an exotic Asia emblematized by doll-like women’s images, or the traditional concept of art as a disciplinary process for the artist—appear as both possibilities and limitations for contemporary Asian artists.

The Asian Contemporary Art Fair (ACAF NY 2007) is the first art fair in New York to focus specifically on contemporary Asian art. Other well-known exhibitions of Asian art—the International Asian Art Fair and the New York Arts of Pacific Asia Show—have limited their scope to traditional artistic genres and artifacts. ACAF made its debut at Pier 92 on the Hudson River, a venue made famous by The Armory Show. Some ninety-four art dealers and publications participated, coming from Asia, the United States, and Europe. Most of the dealers came from Asia, with the largest number from Korea; of the twenty galleries from the United States, the vast majority came from New York. A special exhibition called Simulasian: Refiguring ‘Asia’ for the 21st Century, curated by Eric Shiner and Lilly Wei, as well as panels, including a dialogue between Xu Bing, the famous Chinese artist, and Robert Storr, of the 2007 Venice Biennial, rounded out the event. While the fair featured noted artists such as Yue Minjun, whose solo show can be seen at the Queens Museum of Art, most of the emphasis here was on quality works by young artist who have little name recognition—as of yet.

The works ranged from traditional craft—so as not to alienate traditional collectors of Asian art—to the fine arts. Many of the dealers gave voice to the more progressive and dizzying currents in contemporary Asian art. Such works ranged from Warholian adaptations of Mao’s image to Cyborg characters (mostly female), and Japanese animation to pieces illustrated other trendy themes and techniques.

Among the many pop icons in evidence, Mao’s image was the most ubiquitous. Visitors were greeted by Chinese artist Guangci’s stainless steel replicas of the communist leader turned-posthumous-pop-star which were lined up at the fair’s entrance. Mao’s image also replaced the product logo on a famous oatmeal box—not to mention his iconic presence in the backdrops of contemporary Chinese paintings.
Taking a cue from Warhol, who ingeniously adopted Mao and images of consumerism simultaneously, Wang Zi (at 798 Avant-Garde) depicts a provocative allegory of western capitalism and communism; Chinese soldiers are depicted with a blonde (symbol of the West) prostitute; Li Lihong’s McDonald Golden Arches (at Beatrice Chang), rendered in porcelain, also pursue unlikely combinations of the modern (mostly focusing on images of Western capitalism) and the traditional handcraft.

If the Warholian adaptation of Mao constitutes one dominant theme within contemporary Chinese art, the message underlying its self-mockery and subtle parody appears to be ambiguous. A scene showing extremely impoverished Chinese children with Mao’s picture in the background by Tiangbing Li (at Kashya Hildebrand) is particularly disturbing. Painted in black and white, blown-up (aka German painter Gerhard Richter), and situated inside a rundown house, Li’s children stir the viewer. Is this work intended as a critique of modernization? Or is Li using the image of poor Chinese children as an exotic spectacle for western viewers?

Equally interesting yet problematic are the images of the Asian Cyborg often found in Japanese animation, or manga (a type of cartoon, originally developed in Japan but popularized internationally). In her series Candyland, Hye-Rim Lee (at Kukje), an artist from South Korea, creates a hybrid character, blending seemingly incompatible features of man and machine. In postwar Japan as well as in South Korea, technology, along with western popular culture, has become highly fetishized. The extremely polished surface of the artificial body in these works might belong to the fantasy world of “candy land.” What is more, despite her cute and innocent face, the character turns out to be quite bold, exposing her body to the viewer’s ogling gaze, and the placement of her image is inside the round frame suggest a view through a peephole.

The Candyland character was but one of many sexually tantalizing images of Asian women in abundance here. Such images comprise another recurring theme in contemporary Asian art. The fair introduced a range of female imagery, including more traditional ladies such as Junghwa Cho’s geishas from Korean history (at Gallery Yeh); Jungman Kim’s Nippie (at Gallery Gong); a futuristic girl by Noriko Yamaguchi (at Mem), also featured in a special exhibition; and the schoolgirl variation represented in works such as Xiuwen Cui’s Angel (at Goedhuis Contemporary) and Kaoruko’s Tokyoko (at Ethan Cohen). The women in these depictions are different in age, appearance, and source material, but they also have something in common—namely, an ambivalence between being modest and bold, distanced and readily available. More importantly, these images derive sustenance for the Western man’s fascination with Asian women as mysterious and exotic.

Kim’s photograph Nippie is the most problematic in this regard, as the work indeed plays with viewers’ voyeuristic fantasies. The woman pictured in Nippie exposes her breast through a small gap in her “Hanbok,” a traditional Korean garment that symbolizes women’s virtue and modesty. On the one hand, the exposed breast could represent her boldness and her desire to overcome conservative sexual mores. On the other, her image does not appear to be liberating, for her dual nature—exposed and hiding—intensifies her tantalizing effect. Compared to Nippie, Kaoruko’s Tokyoro series [The Tokyo lady] has an ambiguous quality. The woman depicted in Tokyoro is less fantasized than humorous. She goes out on her own and appears to enjoy her life. However, her exaggerated “cuteness” and awkward posture are reminiscent of a certain type of Asian schoolgirl, similar to Cui’s Angel, who stands in front of famous tourist attractions in China with half-embarrassed and sometimes half-bold postures.

The third major category at ACAF was art based on traditional techniques. This category was the most comprehensive, for most contemporary Asian artists strive to combine their artistic heritage with images, issues, and ideas drawn from contemporary society and art. For instance, Li Ling’s representation of the McDonald’s logo is a straightforward mixture of western consumer culture and traditional porcelain. Le Quoc Viet (at Art Vietnam) introduced Buddhist symbols and images in a traditional scroll painting. Unlike artists who superficially recycle traditional artistic idioms, Bae Lee (Hakgojae) changed Chinese ink for traditional calligraphy into the combination of acrylic and natural pigments it originated from. Lee’s calligraphy is the result of his search for an innovative artistic medium and process that requires tremendous time and patience—not to mention craftsmanship. In a way, he has creatively revisited calligraphy while observing traditional aesthetics, understanding art as a means for the artist to discipline his or her mind and body. By blowing up the details of brush stroke, he also modified the overall format and shape of calligraphy—drawing the viewers’ attention to energy found in the ending and beginning of each stroke.

Works in the final category at ACAF were replete with various displays “Asian-ness,” from Warholian Mao paintings to animation characters. If “Chinese” pop art or Cyborgs consistently reject stereotypical images of Asia as meditative, quiet, and spiritual; then traditional aesthetics-driven art continues to dwell upon such fixed and pigeonholed notions. In either case, presenting distinctively Asian culture and Asian art can be selling points for potential buyers as well as challenges for contemporary Asian artists. Certainly, Chinese contemporary art influenced by western pop art idioms has garnered attention in international art markets. Yet, the appropriation of Mao’s image by itself is not enough to make an effective political statement, though such a theme was originally the major point of attraction for western art critics.

Similarly, while provocative Cyborgs and other animation characters certainly defy the traditional image of the Asian woman, her actual rebellion turns out to be less successful. Such images inevitably end up as modern-day fetishes for the West’s imagination of an exotic Asian femininity. That does not mean a nostalgic return to tradition can be solution. Given the huge influence of Eastern philosophy and Eastern aesthetics on artists from the West; such as John Cage and Abstract Expressionists in the 1950s, conventional distinctions between East and West, where contemporary art is concerned, seem mute. On the contrary, defining Asian-ness in contemporary Asian art— in terms of popular trends or tradition—becomes increasingly risky business. If this fair is any indication however, that’s a risk worth taking.


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A Practical Guide To The Contemporary Art Scene

By Vivi HE Ying & Tony Fu


What does the city of Shanghai have to offer in terms of contemporary art? Before the late 1990s there were not many places here to see art, aside from in traditional art institutions. But the last decade has seen a proliferation of galleries and art spaces opening up as the city’s economy kicked into high gear, following the the start of China’s market based economic reforms in 1992. With a population of over 16 million, the world’s busiest cargo port and an economy growing at 12% plus a year, a serious cadre of art collectors has begun to emerge. Hench the new generation of often quite young gallerists, curators and artists vying for their attention, and perhaps a shot at becoming the next art star. Fortunately, for the art savvy visitor, most of these galleries follow a similar pattern of development as in other major urban centers of art and commerce; they are concentrated in a hand full of self-styled art districts.

First, let’s “visit” M50, (No.50 Moganshan rd.) Shanghai’s best known art community to date, located amidst a complex of converted factory buildings on the southern bank of the Suzhou river. Once the Xinhe Spinning Mill, an enterprise of the Zhou-family, which supplied merchants from Huizhou, Anhui province, the complex was renamed Xinhe Cotton Mill, Shanghai No.12 Woolen Mill (1962), and Shanghai Chunming Woolen Mill (1994). In 1999, the industrial park reorganized its assets and began leasing out the former factory spaces. Today this area has become a hot spot for contemporary art, and boasts over 100 galleries, design studios, architectural firms, and the like.

Walking into the open space at the entrance of the former industrial park, now known simply as M50, you find yourself immersed in the hustle and bustle of cafés, restaurants and bookstores. And when you venture further, galleries and studios are interspersed throughout all of the 21 blocks. Yes, 21 blocks.

To be sure, the quality of the art shown here varies, but quiet a few of the city’s top galleries can be found in the mix. For example, there is ShanghART, one of the oldest contemporary art galleries in Shanghai. They moved here in 2005, and soon thereafter opened a second space, H Space, nearby. Another pioneering gallery, Eastlink, is also located here. These galleries are known for strong, challenging exhibition programs. There is also Bizart, a non-profit art center located in block 7. They are known for organizing avant-garde exhibitions and events for young artists. Recently they split their exhibition space in half, to make room for a full production studio for artists-in-residence from other parts of China, as well as from abroad.

Not surprisingly, other important art communities can be found near M50. There is, for example, M97 and Island6, located on the same road, and nearby in a back alley along the Suzhou River you have, in a seven-story former warehouse, Creek Art.
The Bund, an upscale tourist niche that defines the city’s historic waterfront, is also vying for the attention of serious collectors. Alongside top restaurants and luxury brand retailers some good art galleries are turning up. Upstairs, above the flagship for Giorgio Armani, you find Shanghai Gallery of Art. Located at Three on the Bund, this gallery shows mostly established artists. Walk further along the Bund, just in the next block, and you have a little, unassuming gallery called Studio Rouge — on Fuzhou Road. This gallery offers a fine selection of art works from both established and emerging artists, and they also have a second space in M50. Then there is Contrasts, a large gallery on nearby Jiangxi Road. Founded in Hong Kong by Pearl Lam, daughter of Lim Por-yen, a Hong Kong textiles tycoon and banker, the premise of Contrasts references the relationship between oriental and occidental culture. The Bund is fast becoming Shanghai’s newest destination for contemporary art.

And of course, where contemporary art leads, museums soon follow. Shanghai’s art museums, once seemingly relegated to history, are now in the business of making history.

Housed in a former race course club building, which dates back to the 1930s, the Shanghai Art Museum at People's Square — just behind the Grande Theater, links classical architecture with contemporary art, design and function. Their collection of over 4000 artworks ranges from the Shanghai school of traditional Chinese art to modern oil and pop art. The Shanghai Biennale which takes place here next year, coincides with the newly launched ShContemporary, the city’s first world-class international contemporary art fair which held its debut earlier this year.

Next door to the Shanghai Art Museum, you find The Museum of Contemporary Art Shanghai (MoCA Shanghai) — located inside the People’s Park. Originally the park's greenhouse, the building that houses MoCA Shanghai retains its clear glass exterior, allowing for lots of natural light. This was Shanghai's first private, non-profit contemporary art museum. Since opening in 2005, the museum has gained a reputation for mounting serious, quality exhibitions.

Finally, there is Duolun Museum of Modern Art, located on Duolun Road. The street leading to the museum is both narrow and short, edged by little buildings of various old styles, row upon row. Though in city maps it can hardly be found, this area has a significant literary history. Compared to the other buildings on this ancient street, Duolun Museum has very modern architecture. And as the first professional museum of modern art in China, this institution is uniquely tasked with supporting Chinese contemporary art. As such, it also serves as a platform for the exchange of culture and art between China and foreign countries.

Ed. Note:
Vivi HE Ying and Tiny Fu are contributing writers for M, who live in Shanghai and are active in that city’s contemporary art scene.


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Making a Home: Japanese Contemporary Artists in New York
Japan Society

By Natane Tadaka


Two years after the exhibition provocatively titled Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture, New York’s Japan Society presents another group show that focuses attention on Japan’s newest artists. Making a Home: Japanese Contemporary Artists in New York, features the work of 33 Japanese-born and New York-based artists. Curated by Eric C Shiner, the show represents a departure from the didactic survey of subculture in Little Boy, and examines the Japanese “migrated aesthetic” from a less intimate perspective. This exhibition is more like a chaotic, tongue-in-cheek parade that sweeps long in its path various types of artworks — Sound installation, video art, photography, drawings, sculptures, wall paintings and even some relatively conventional paintings. All the artists share one thing in common — they moved from Japan to New York to make art. Yet everything else about them, on an individual level, is as different as can be. The show is structured to give each artist his or her own booth, and each work is juxtaposed ironically or privately.

Much of this work is personal, introspective; Nobuho Nagasawa’s rocking chair suggests a metaphor for the artist’s heartbeats, with her umbilical attached. There is Momoyo Torimitsu’s installation, Willingly or Unwillingly You Are Welcome, where a cooperate office space rebuilds, blurring the boundaries between personal and corporate space. Satoru Eguchi’s installation, Studio, is essentially a reconstruction of his Brooklyn studio space, made from cardboard, paper and photographs. This work plays off of the nearby black and white photographs by Mayumi Terada, depicting miniature furniture she made with paper and cardboard. While Eguchi reconstructs a tangible, three dimensional reality, Terada delves in the unreal; yet it is Eguchi’s work that effects an unreal ambience. We understand, after all, that photographs are “real”. Throughout the exhibition, deliberate and radical juxtaposition of artworks heightens the effect. There is suspense. This is in fact very much in keeping with the image of New York—unpredictable, independent, and yet powerful.

There are six sectors to the show, these are vaguely divided as follows: Building Environments; Intimacy and Identity; Coping with Loss; Meditative Space, The process of Making and Referencing the Landscape.

The first thing that greets the viewer is a large-scale, colorful sculpture by Misaki Kawai, Space House. Made from nondescript materials such as paper, wood, wire, plastic, this funky colorful flying boat or dream house is populated with many small dolls, whose faces are affixed with the artist’s friends’ photographs. There are also small light buttons that flash, here and there. Is this piece meant to suggest a kind of fantasy escape from the busy city? Or perhaps the artist is recreating one little fragment of New York? There is an innocent, fun feeling to the work that only someone coming from afar could muster. Juxtaposed with Kawai’s whimsical world, on the other side of the space, Kaihatsu’s Happo-Tei Teahouse, assembled with polystyrene foam, looks like an upgraded homeless container from New York’s bad old days. This is actually a tea house, as the title suggests. Here, Kaihatsu recreates a Japanese tradition in a contemporary context, turning cheap materials into something meaningful, where tea and intimacy are offered. Nestled between two large-scale installations, Rain Forest, by Yuken Teruya, modestly swings in the bamboo grove. From toilet paper tubes, make-believe tree branches were cut out and hung with the tubes shooting up vertically. Teruya uses everyday objects as an apparent critique of consumerism.

On the second floor, the exhibition continues with the Intimacy and Identity sector. Painted by Aya Uekawa, A Safety Crown, stands out for its uncanny and cold facial expression. The woman depicted in the painting wears a black mink-like fur coat, and braided hair, which forms a crown on the top of her head. She seems completely detached, suggesting a Noh mask in Japan, though her ethnic origin is unclear. There is a sense here of a John Currin painting, in the depiction of the woman's slightly elongated torso. The painting suggests a mixed, globalized identity. Hiroshi Sunairi’s White Elephant, a life-like albeit fragmented body of an elephant, rendered in white clay, references the city’s most catastrophic event—9/11. In Asian history, the white elephant is revered as a symbol of peace. Here, in this context, the sculpture takes on a more nuanced meaning. By placing Uekawa’s paintings of loss and detachment nearby, the disembodied elephant parts affect a feeling of loneliness and despair.

In the Meditative Space sector of the show, the placement of two works — Akiyoshi’s psychedelic room and Sugiura’s Monochrome room — again proves crucial to their respective interpretation. Huge flowers and branch-like lines, colored in yellow, pink, orange and red fill the installation space (on the walls, ceiling and floor) of Akiyoshi’s Flower Garden. In Sugiura’s room, her series, The Artist Papers, shows portraits of significant living Japanese artists, along with her colleagues, rendered in monochrome prints; only the silhouettes of the subjects in white appear against a black background, with identical objects for each artist.

Hentai culture versus pious culture in Japan? In the entrance area of the Japan Society, Yoko Ono’s installation, Wish Tree, gently asks visitors to note a wish on a piece of paper (provided) and to put this note on the tree branches. This gesture can be seen in the shrines and temples of Japan today. Whether the wish concerns romance, health, family or friends, it is Japanese custom that holds on, even as the true meaning of religious faith has largely dissipated.

Juxtaposed from Wish Tree, diagonally set on the second floor, Hiroki Otsuka’s black-and white wall painting, Evening Calm Union, adds a devilish twist. Catatonic girls are painted against the New York City skyline; they look sexy and tough, and they spit out some sort of fumes that appear to cover the whole city, like in a Japanese monster movie. The work seems to suggest a not-so-hidden desire by the artist to conquer the city in a big way. Here, Japanese innocence for making a simple wish to place on a tree, and Super-Vixen Eros coexist as never before.


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