East Asian Contemporary Art Forum

On Saturday afternoon, I attended the ‘East Asian Contemporary Art Forum’ event at MOCA Shanghai, in relation to their current exhibition ‘Nostalgia: East Asian Contemporary Art Exhibition’. (I spoke about this exhibition in the previous post). I was hoping this forum event might help to further expand on the concepts that are supposedly visualised within the exhibition. It spoke generally of the pace of change in the natural, economic and social environments in Japan, Taiwan, Korea and China, the developments of social originality and innovation in contemporary East Asian art, whilst examining how artists faced these changes through the roles they chose to act. Furthermore, it spoke of the relationship between the four East Asian countries, and their influence on the development of contemporary Chinese art, and the development of East Asian contemporary art discourse.

I arrived slightly late to the event (this seems to be a running trend at the moment due to jet lag and a muddled mind), and as I had not made a reservation, I had to wait for fifteen minutes before I was allowed to take a seat. Apparently, the seating area was full, when in reality there were over fifteen seats free. This is where systems fail sometimes…or communication. The Director of MOCA, Samuel Kung, saw me waiting and said I could go straight in. The reception staff were suddenly apologetic. Anyway…I digress. Because of this late start, I missed the forum introduction by Kung, and the majority of the first presentation by Japanese artist Tsubaki Noboru, who is also Professor of the Kyoto University of Art and Design. So I thought I’d start at the next presentation that was Chinese artist Ding Yi.

‘Visual Culture and the Visual Construction of Values’ by Ding Yi

I recently went to see Ding Yi’s exhibition at the Minsheng Art Museum. The topic of his presentation was ‘Visual Culture and the Visual Construction of Values’. Ding Yi stated, ‘The curator of the exhibition has her own perspective about visual culture, which is presented in the exhibition. To me, this exhibition is a very good example of East Asia. The artists in East Asia do not have a clear identity…we have a blood language…the content and experience comes from the issues in the Eastern society and this exhibition offers us many things to think about the dual structure of the East Asian values. In China, Korea and Japan we have always been faced with a dual structure…first the Western values and the Eastern Asian values starting from 100 years ago. The East Asian culture system has been an ongoing process of convergence with the Western society where science and technology goes first. The political system of East Asia also began to develop following the Western models. In this process, socially, politically or culturally we have been learning from the West. In the education system, we began to learn from the West 100 years ago in China. So, when we study in the art colleges we would usually study Western art history as well as Chinese art history…as a result for the Chinese art students, we know much more about Western art history than Chinese art history.

Geographically, Beijing, Shanghai and Taipei are relatively closer to Korea and Japan. We have been doing a lot of exchange with these countries. We only know briefly about Japanese and Korean art…that is less about sub-continental art. We know very little about Thai or Indonesian art, knowledge about this art is very limited. So throughout Asia we are all looking at Western art or Western values as our benchmark, that is to say, in this ‘Nostalgia’ in the exhibition catalogue there are four languages.. In the exhibition, the use of English is a problem as well as a social reality for all of us. It is not only targeted at the West but also Asia…Japanese translated in Chinese and English. Furthermore, I would like to give an analysis, the current status and reality of East Asia. We face a dilemma in East Asian art, meaning we have to learn from the West at the same time retain our visual culture. Throughout the art academies in all three countries we have the same issue, we have the national painting, we have the Western painting or sculpture disciplines that we offer in the art academies. In the art museums, especially in the exhibition, we would mainly classify the artworks into Chinese works, Korean works, academy works…most of the academy works are Western works…and of course the contemporary art. In compiling art history, we also classify, for example, there is the post-1985 movement which is dealt with in a different section, and then there is Chinese oil painting, again dealt with in an independent chapter. There is a problem with this. In China, we have multiple art and cultures…we have oil painting, impressionist techniques and contemporary art learned from the West. When we do an exhibition, it does not have a detailed classification. The classification is too general regarding contemporary art and its practices, we are learning from the West. So when we establish art centres, museums, galleries and academies we work on the preparation, construction, development and operations based on the Western models. So actually, this is something we have to think about ourselves. Right now we have found no alternative solution to the Western model. All of the contemporary art and culture is based on the Western model. In the past, we made a lot of effort in East Asia including the efforts made by Japan after 1945 when they began to export art to the West. In the 1980s, when I was a student I found a book about Japan’s top artists which including some of the best Japanese artists, however these efforts are far from enough and are not very effective.

In the recent year, the Chinese government has been trying to promote the Chinese culture and the cultural image. These efforts tend to project a positive and proactive Chinese cultural image, however this is not systematic and it is hard to achieve an effective result. Thirdly, I wish to share with you my ideas about the recent construction of East Asian art and how we are now faced with a totally different reality, multi-lateralism and globalism. It is hard to say that the USA remains the superpower…there are many centres worldwide. So multi-laterialism is the main theme…competition is everywhere, interaction happens every single day. East Asian contributes a major force to economy worldwide, which contributes to a cultural phenomenon as well. In many cases we have seen we could see the rise in Greece and the Roman Empire has a lot to do with their economic power and political power. Furthermore, the passion for the construction of museums in non-western countries…Qatar, China etc…there is a cultural reconstruction going on in these places as the foundation for a new cultural outlook. There is a passion going on in East Asia for the Biennale. We have Biennales and Triennials that originated in the West in the 1990s. Right now the biennales are everywhere here in Asia. They are no longer purely Western, they are global. The globalism and global cooperation are more prevalent. There are no boundaries. Because of globalisation cross border communication happens everyday. The influence of post-modernism has become more commercial. In this commercial context, can we have a new way to restrict our subjective awareness? Do we have this opportunity at hand? Eastern culture is complicated and we need to build a new sophisticated model. We need to reflect on this. There are four aspects. We need to get rid of the nation single-minded view, we need to transcend nation borders and nation states, we need to know how we could see our transition for our cultures to a more universal set of values. We need to think about the current situation of the current art community. We need to think about whether we are going to achieve this transition. We have to break away from existing boundaries and build new frameworks that come with complications. We need to discuss and talk about common experiences in the West and east that should be based on a set of universal values. We need to be able to achieve a set of consensus where we can communicate with each other.

[I must state I liked Ding Yi’s concept of multi-lateralism…another manifestation of the notion of the “transcultural.]

‘In the way of art’ – Wang Chunchen

Next was Wang Chunchen with his presentation ‘In the way of art’. Wang states ‘Today we are faced with a common challenge, why has the art today has taken this outlook? Historically speaking in China and the West the concept of art originates in the West and was translated to China through the Japanese. Both from original and global perspective, we are faced with this reality of the world being a global village. No one can escape the influences of each other. We change each other. Our cultures our influenced by outside forces. We don’t look at art for art’s sake…a proposition by Western modernism. Modernists proposed art had to be independent and pure, that we should look at it for its own sake. An important perspective held in art history. Today, the development of art…we are in this globalised space where things are changing rapidly where the art is questioned, what is art? We have already transcended the boundaries of arts for arts sake. It has returned to its starting point.

In China, we have been greatly influenced by outside forces. Before we think that, we can’t do non-artistic things in the name of art. What is an artistic thing? Global warming. If affects us all. Is this art? Can artists talk of issues of global warming? This is a way for art to be bound to common issues of today. Have artists changed their roles to deal with contemporary issues? Do they have similar roles with people who do other jobs or roles? People are talking about the role of the artist…people think artists can express themselves and common issues. Tomoko Sawada’s work in the exhibition speaks of the identity of the person. Everyone today is interested in how to make their identity better…look better…plastic surgery. Now could that be artistic practice? If a normal person did this it would not be seen as art. But if an artist did this, recorded the process for the audience to see this could be art, commenting on identity. Art has become an integral part of our life. Artists have the ability to change the surroundings around us whilst having the ability to change themselves. Art, the communication process is something that can be facilitated through art. The artists think art is a good way to make changes, which is why we encourage people to do more cross boundary artistic practices. Everyone has the opportunity to do artistic things, they don’t have to be an artist to do this. This is why it is related to our daily life…it is perpetual.’

‘East Asian Mapping: A Creation of Tradition’ – Qiu Zhijie

After a short interlude of bite-sized food and liquid refreshments, the forum continued with contemporary Chinese artist Qiu Zhijie, who is the curator for the Shanghai Biennale 2012. According to my PhD supervisor Jiang Jiehong, Qiu refuses to call himself a curator and does not want to be one…yet he has taken on this role. An artist-curator perhaps? But perhaps he doesn’t want this role either. Qiu’s presentation was ‘East Asian Mapping: A Creation of Tradition’ – ‘in other words lets create a tradition. In the past I have invited a lot of people to map out an Asia as an independent island. They eliminated Russia or the other worlds, so their notion about Asia is Islamic free, Russia is out of the picture as are the Eastern part of the Caucasian mountains.’

He presented a series of maps, which showed the historical development of Asia, educational maps and political maps. He then went on to show a series of maps he had developed specifically for the presentation, which all indicated how relationships have developed between the East Asian countries. This included shipping maps, tea trade routes, the development of colonies and the emergence of new cities, a colonial map in relation to Communism, oil pipes and supplies, American military bases…all of these in relation to Asia.

‘Asia and East Asia are very unique concepts. People would say you are Asian…we are from different provinces, but some people would say you are all Asian.  where is Japan, does it belong to the West or East. Asia and East Asia represent a future story. I am more inclined to look at the complicated cultural and economic reality rather than the shared commonalities…Asia as a concept is a very important concept…this identity or this body exists. Asia is very important as it contributes a cultural civilisation community.’ Qiu then goes on to reference a series of Chinese characters that represent the different types of people in China and the ideas behind this year’s Shanghai Biennale. He stated ‘For the upcoming Shanghai Biennale, I suggested offering city pavilions as a concept. Other Biennales have country pavilions like Sao Paolo and Venice, whereas we would like to offer city pavilions as it is harder to invite artists say from Taiwan. It also shows that Shanghai is a tolerant city and culture. Migration and the urbanisation of Shanghai, it is only natural to establish city pavilions. In fact, people identify more with the cities they are in rather than the country they are in. We want to work with organisations for the various cities and if it succeeds then it will continue for the next Biennales.

‘Environmental Changes Reflected in the Self Production’ – Kim Sunhee

Finally the curator of the exhibition ‘Kim Sunhee’, gave a presentation ‘Environmental Changes Reflected in the Self Production’. She stated ‘East Asia is one world. On the other hand we have lots of controversial issues in Asia. At the same time we have lots of potentials and possibilities in the construction of a “new Asia”…as a curator I have been concentrating in Asia in the last 15 years. The condition of East Asian contemporary art s not the same as other regions. We see special situations but East Asia, China including Taiwan, Japan and Korea, have shared the same things for thousands of years. When we talk about contemporary art…Ding Yi spoke of Eastern power…these issues also come up. We also have a similar history of contemporary art….Global is too small a world in the universe…This time I am showing East Asian contemporary Asian art. The artists shared friendship and moments…this kind of moment is very meaningful for me. The good thing in art, is art is something beyond politics. I feel pity as we cannot bring North Korean art here…this is something we have to think about. There are general tendencies in art…this is contemporary time and art is everywhere…The meaning of contemporary and the way to express the contemporary is specific to the region to the area, to their history. So by the artists knowing each other, the global attitude. I hope we have more positive attitude and ideas to understand each other. This time was very meaningful. I want to do more of these exhibitions…Somehow the artist can participate more to solve these kind of issues. The issues we are confronting at the moment…Asian issues and global issues, the issues of nuclear war, hunger and poverty, sex slaves of youngers, crisis in cities. The artists create new roads to communities. Art can become a strong language and world. Art I believe something more than the physical, it has to be a good thing with a good spirit.’

Q&A session…

It was then time for the Q&A session. Firstly, the other artists in the exhibition were asked to respond and ask questions.

Q: (The first question was about the city pavilions to be included in the Shanghai Biennale to Qiu Zhijie). Is it possible to have artists outside the city inside the city pavilion?

QZ: You could have 500 cities or 50 cities, for our schedule we have 20-30 cities and the criteria is the same as my exhibition on the theme of regeneration. We actually want to look for artists who are generators, artists who are not just objects, they have a power for the place they live in. A power generator for that city. The theme of the Biennale is Regeneration…City and its Thinkers. We want to have a group or one single person who thinks about the destiny of the cities…to think about why we did not live in the trees but on the land and ground, share with each other, why we build walls and cities, why we barter and trade and exchange ideas, why we talk to each other rather than fight with animals. The city pavilions are about the existence of individual cities. I might even draw a city power…maybe a city can be small in size but with huge power, or large in size with not much power. We might choose some international cities like Berlin, San Francisco, Mumbai…along with neighbouring cities to these like a small city next to Berlin.’

Q: (For Tsubaki Noboru) In Japan I notice that you have organised many activities for them to be part of society, community and charity activities. When you organised these did you have any problems or challenges and what were the reactions of the artists?

TN: Artists have to make progress. Artists should not create artworks within a certain framework. An interesting example is the evolution of creatures. In the process of evolution, creatures, when put in a desperate situation, will evolve…they will only involve when faced with this fear. People should come first in art…this is a new kind of art. Before this they are public artists…that is also another form of art. The artworks displayed along the side of the street are the ugliest form of art. So an artist will not create these kind of works. The works by these new artists are spontaneous ones. For example, my work is a huge installation of the cockroach and can be transported easily from one place to another. Future artists need to have a flexible way of thinking…they also need to have friends that are excellent designers and architects, or even politicians, and bankers are good friends for the future. The artists need to have support from a number of forces.

Q: In Japan, artists live in a unique cultural and historical environment. This question is for the three Chinese panelists…in the art community, do we have similar community, voluntary and charity activities in China? If so what are the response from the participating artists.

WC: I think there are similar activities in China. Artist working with a community in the Shaanxi province…an artist who is also a business owner. He doesn’t create art but organises artists to visit villagers…The Phoenix project…Another is a green countryside project in Hubei province…Currently, there are not a lot of these projects in China and they are funded by the artists themselves….Artists need to get out of their studio and be part of the larger society.

QZ: There are many such programs in our studio at the China Academy of Art. We helped villagers revitalise their local art, we’ve worked with a house for the elderly in Hangzhou…theses projects have now stopped. Why isn’t there a high level of awareness of this? All they are interested in are the huge paintings with faces on them. They are not interested in the other projects. How can we get these voices through? Why are galleries interested in getting hold of this stereotypical Chinese art.

Audience: In rural areas cultural life is almost zero, dying or almost dead. Traditional culture is gone, there is no new culture or alternative there. I think we could run pilot programs that are cross-disciplinary to create a new culture in the rural areas. Like Chinese people have done many years ago. China is still as agricultural country..however the cultural life in these areas have been overlooked, we have focused too much on urban culture and the cities…In China, we have been trying to see the evolution of original culture and how it evolves and what are its driving forces. These are locally relevant. In other words art should not be for art’s sake, it should consider the social dimensions too. We have to retain our tradition and at the same time innovate.


  1. interesting to watch evolution of “regionality”, a pan-asian identity.

    i know the art doesn’t travel, it is people. that is the only way i know about the art of various countries.

    1. I think art discourse is now more about documenting the creative networks, the conversations, the relationships, the dialogues the “guanxi” than looking at the art itself…I could be wrong but so many exhibitions and research strands, including my own, are looking into universalism, the cross-cultural, the trans-cultural, ‘multi-laterialsim’ that Ding Yi speaks of…but where is the art is all this?

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