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Recent, new, and commissioned works by artists from mainland China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong are showcased in the exhibition Past in Reverse: Contemporary Art of East Asia, organized by the San Diego Museum of Art. The exhibition’s curator, Betti-Sue Hertz, aims to explore how such art references the past. As the idea of the “past” can mean many things, her thematic focus poses an unusual challenge for the viewer who may lack the requisite knowledge of the region known as East Asia. An illustrated catalogue with essays by the curator and other scholars and critics from mainland China, Japan, and South Korea helps to shed light on the larger historical context. Biographies and analyses of individual works, also included in the catalogue, provide essential information concerning artists and art groups that are not widely known in the West.
East Asia comprises distinct communities and nation-states with shifting hegemonies and disparate economic and political realities. Complicating the situation is each region’s interactions with the West. Japan has the longest history of westernization, industrialization, and modernization since the Meiji Restoration (1868) and has emerged after the Second World War as an economic superpower. In mainland China (i.e., the People’s Republic of China), an open-door policy after the Cultural Revolution has propelled meteoric, albeit uneven, economic growth, but political reform has yet to keep pace with fiscal development. The Japanese occupation of Korea and Taiwan and the British colonization of Hong Kong have accelerated the social, political, and economic growth of these communities. South Korea remains divided from North Korea; at the same time, it has experienced the economic miracle also shared by Taiwan and Hong Kong. Taiwan’s recent nativist movements have complicated its relationship with mainland China. And Hong Kong is still grappling with its new status since returning to mainland China in 1997.
At the San Diego Museum of Art, two modest installations of miscellaneous historical artifacts, whose motifs are linked to objects in the main exhibition, are intended to encourage the viewer to seek out deep-rooted cultural traditions underlying the contemporary artworks. These contextual displays, however, have no internal organization and thus provide only a haphazard introduction. For a crash course on East Asian art history, one is better off taking a tour of the museum’s permanent collection of Asian art, which contains a more coherent account of the region’s cultural history. The regional emphasis of the exhibition is at odds with the fact that many artists are not exclusively localized: they had once lived and worked, were educated, or have taken up residence in the West, primarily the United States and Europe. Not surprisingly, their work demonstrates a wide range of artistic practices and strategies, and their references to the past are drawn from different perspectives as well. If some artists engage East Asian cultural traditions, others explore intercultural transactions between East and West. And for a few, the past denotes the private experience of the individual.
Indicative of the introspective approach of some contemporary Japanese artists, Ryoko Aoki affixed drawings on small pieces of paper in a room, covering all four walls like wallpaper. These images of flowers, trees, and monsters are reminiscent of the semirandom drawings made and/or collected by adolescent girls and pinned up in their bedrooms. A very different urban spatial and tactile form of communication is constructed by Mitsushima Takayuki. Having lost sight at the age of ten, the artist sticks drafting tape and vinyl on overlapping wood panels and acrylic sheets, using his fingers to guide him in creating tactile surfaces and shapes that remind him of his bodily navigation through urban space. The European tradition of theatrically illuminated portraiture is evoked in Shizuka Yokomizo’s video When You Wake, in which elderly persons are photographed in various stages of waking from sleep. (Yokomizo was born in Tokyo and resides in London.)
Some artists indicate a predilection for philosophy and religion. Originally from South Korea, Soun-gui Kim has lived in Paris for more than thirty years. Installed in an unobtrusive corner between two exhibition rooms is her video projection of two flitting butterflies and two scampering frogs on a moon-shaped Korean vase, barely visible by its pale reflection in the dim light. The Chinese associate butterflies with the Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi from the 3rd century B.C.E., whose dream of being a butterfly is widely used as an allegory of the ineffability of reality. Perhaps the replication of identical butterflies and frogs in Kim’s work signifies how both image and reflection are equally ephemeral. But another level of meaning is possible: the moon’s reflection on water symbolizes the illusory nature of phenomena, according to Chan Buddhism (better known by its Japanese name as Zen Buddhism), a religious development in China heavily influenced by Daoism. A popular manifestation of Avalokiteshvara, a Buddhist deity feminized in China as Guanyin (also known as Kannon or Kwannon in East Asia), is the Water-and-Moon Guanyin, a magnificent example of which is a wooden sculpture on the display in the museum’s permanent gallery of Asian art. The frog or toad may allude to Chang E, the moon goddess who was transformed into a toad, according to Chinese mythology.
The city is a natural subject in contemporary art, and different urban histories have inspired widely divergent works. The Flycity Urbanism Research Group, founded in 2000 in South Korea, is motivated by social activism. Using photographs, computer monitors, video presentations, drawings, architectural models, maps, and digital prints, following closely the concepts and methodology of Situationist International, Drifting Producers: Cheonggyecheon Project is a documentary critique of shifting government policies and their impact on a slum community of small commercial businesses in Seoul. In theory and practice, the group demonstrates that the pervasive attitude among contemporary artists in the vibrant society of South Korea is, according to Taehi Kang in the exhibition catalogue, one of anything goes (45).
Currently sweeping the frenzied city of Shanghai, with its seemingly endless demolitions and new constructions, is a nostalgic yearning for the old metropolis of the 1920s and 1930s. Unlike the commercially released film Shanghai Triad by Zhang Yimou, which attempts to recreate a glittery, romantic urban legend complete with gangster violence, the Shanghai-based artist Yang Fudong’s fourteen-minute film Liu Lan presents the same city as an enigmatic site of desire and memory. A young woman ferries a city man across the lake in a fishing boat as an old woman watches. Nothing else happens. The film begins with a standard movie title screen page designed in the style of a woodcut print, the art form championed by the satirist Lu Xun in 1928, while the lyrical scenery in the rest of the film recalls the classical Chinese tradition of monochrome landscape painting. The disjuncture between the stark black-and-white title page and the muted tones and hazy silhouettes in the main part of the film is one of several incongruities embedded in the narrative. As in a dream, the film’s plot remains elusive.
As a resident of Hong Kong, Wilson Shieh grapples with a different historical condition. Using fine contour line, flat color, undifferentiated background, and the small silk album leaf format, the artist exploits the descriptive and narrative potential of the classical gongbi tradition to articulate various social and cultural issues faced by the city’s populace. Paintings from one series depict groups of delicately interlocked human bodies in various modes of undress. Using their own and one another’s bodies as musical instruments, they create harmonious concerts whose music may be altered by the slightest shift in bodily pose. Another series of paintings by Shieh portrays human bodies in various interactions with ceramic vessels or sculptures that are widely recognizable as cultural icons of China. One work shows a swimmer donning goggles and vinyl cap, flaming dragon tattoo on one arm, hanging a towel on a coat rack after taking a dip inside a gigantic blue-and-white porcelain cup decorated with a pattern of splashing waves. If this contemporary swimmer demonstrates how the past can be adroitly put to good use, another painting alludes to the uneasy ties between the past and contemporary existence. A terra-cotta archer without head and right hand, resembling a member of the buried army from the imperial tomb of the First Emperor of China, is shown in kneeling position. On the ground sits a cardboard box, with the archer’s head still packed in Styrofoam. A man behind the box seems to be superimposing his head over the socket where the archer’s head would be; his hair is coiffed in ancient fashion, but his bare, flesh-toned shoulders are visible behind the archer’s armored torso. He positions his bow-wielding right hand just under the archer’s right forearm, though it appears miniscule next to the statue’s much larger left hand. The man’s left hand also grasps the archer’s left elbow, and one of his naked feet rests between the archer’s legs.
The desire to push drawing to new and unexpected heights is the concern of another artist, albeit on the opposite end of the scale. If Shieh’s intimate paintings invite close observation, Cai Guo-Qiang uses modern technology to perform public spectacles. Known for his pyrotechnical stunts and theatrical deployment of modern technology, Cai is the most internationally known artist featured in the exhibition. Born in Quanzhou, China, Cai moved to New York after an eight-year stay in Japan. For one of two contributions to the exhibition, he used six T-34 skywriting planes to create Painting Chinese Landscape Painting during the Miramar Air Show at a San Diego military base on October 15, 2004. The limitless sky became his picture space as the white trailing vapors of the planes “drew” a waterfall cascading down a valley between two mountains, then separated into two opposite streams. While the actual performance is displayed on a video monitor in the exhibition, the digital rendering of the original proposal is illustrated in the catalogue. In this image, the bright-white trails strongly contrast the intense, digitally enhanced blue sky, and a line of dwarfed spectators in the foreground suggest the miniscule figures seen in the classical monumental landscape tradition. A similar landscape drawing was created with gunpowder explosions, executed before onlookers in the museum’s courtyard. While the monumental skywriting exists now only in memory, albeit videotaped, the pyrotechnical event is a commanding presence in the exhibition, a permanent residue of intricate burn marks on paper suspended vertically in the manner of a monumental hanging scroll.
In ancient Chinese cosmology, qi is the life force that animates the individual as well as the rest of the universe. Brush drawing, according to traditional Chinese aesthetics, is an extension and externalization of the qi within oneself in response to the outside world, and monumental landscape painting evolved as a means of extending the self to the cosmos. Cai tantalizes his audience to visualize this qi as trailing white vapors in the sky or as random burn marks from gunpowder explosions, refreshing this ancient Chinese concept for the contemporary viewer. This qi is what Cai uses to extend his individual self to the world.
Not every piece in the exhibition shares the level of conceptual sophistication and technical finesse as some of those described above, but the exhibition has certainly accomplished a major feat by bringing to the Western viewer an exhilarating opportunity to sample works from a region whose impact on this side of the globe is no longer in question.
Judy Chungwa Ho
Associate Professor, Department of Art History and Ph.D, Program in Visual Studies, University of California, Irvine