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Asian traffic: redirecting the flow

Chris Reid


National and cultural identity are becoming increasingly fugitive concepts as globalisation spreads, which means the theorisation of cultural evolution requires constant reconsideration. Events such as the Asia-Pacific Triennial mounted since 1993 by the Queensland Art Gallery, and the 2002 year of Asian and Asian-Australian Art at the Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia (CACSA), have greatly increased awareness of our region’s rapidly shifting culture. The existence of the Asia-Australia Arts Centre in Sydney has complemented such ventures, providing a forum for exploring contemporary artistic development in the local region.

Conference

The Centre’s Asian Traffic is a series of rolling exhibitions showing from June to September, 2004. It involves 30 artists exhibiting on rotation through 6 phases, each of a few weeks’ duration (hence the term “traffic”). Chinese, Indonesian, Thai, Malaysian, Singaporean, New Zealand and Asian-Australian artists are participating. Elements of the program will travel to CACSA later this year. Artists’ talks, panel discussions, performances and a 2 day conference are part of the wider event.

The central question of the conference, held in June, was how Asian diasporaic experience might be theorised, which included assessing whether cultural theorisation based on the experiences of African or sub-continental communities in Europe is applicable elsewhere.

The speakers took various approaches to these questions. Chaitanya Sembrani (ANU) pointed out that the concept of “Asia” essentialises certain characteristics and argued the idea of “contemporary Asian art” as a product of the imagination. In a panel discussion about her own landmark essay “On Not Speaking Chinese: Living Between Asia and the West” (2001), Professor Ien Ang (University of Western Sydney) noted that the terms “Asian” and “Chinese” are indeterminate signifiers—there is no homogenous experience of “Chineseness.” Many conference participants reported varying experiences of, and attitudes towards, the interpellation of Chineseness or Asianness in Australia and elsewhere. Artist Suzann Victor (the Singaporean representative at the 2001 Venice Biennale) questioned whether an individual’s acceptance of Chineseness—that one has “Chinese blood”—is a surrender of agency, and whether cultural centrality is a form of chauvinism or a nostalgic gesture. The term “Asia” remained central throughout the conference and perhaps remains central to the theorisation of these questions in general.

Associate Professor Leng Lin (Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing) addressed the effect of rapid social, economic and political change on culture, suggesting that globalised systems of cultural production and consumption destroy the traditional sense of social belonging. In the context of developing capitalist economies and rapidly changing societies, personal identity, subjectivity and the reshaping of the self emerge as key themes. Asian art, he noted, is now involved in the globalisation process and artists, whose role in society is itself being transformed, must make choices of form, style and subject which were not previously imaginable.

Several speakers addressed the fundamental concepts of diaspora and hybridity. Dr David McNeil (UNSW) noted that diasporic artists have always been central to evolving international art practice. The term ‘diaspora’ no longer refers only to evicted peoples, but identifies ethnic minority groups culturally linked to home while residing in a host country. He suggested the alternative term ‘sojourner.’ Dual-allegiance sojourners, he suggested, are alienated from both cultures since there are limits to translatability and commensurability. But they also challenge national mythologies of belonging. Diasporic art critiques the idea of an essential originary art, and the presence of the diaspora is a precondition of hybridity, which generates new art forms. One conclusion to be drawn from the conference is that the meaning of hybridity is context-dependent. Terms such as ‘diaspora’, ‘hybridity’, ‘Asian’ and ‘Chinese’ need to be appropriately qualified, even though doing so can itself be problematic.

The speakers also showcased a wide range of artistic developments springing from the movement of artists and communities in and out of the Asia region. Sembrani outlined the Aar-Paar project involving communities in Karachi and Mumbai swapping public art, a project sensitive to the partitioning of India at the time of independence (Sembrani discusses this project more fully in the July edition of Art Monthly Australia).

Paris-based curator Hu Hanrou showed an extensive range of images demonstrating developments in the urban art of Asia. He outlined the concept of “curatorial suicide”, whereby curatorial and institutional intervention is downplayed to permit the art community to self-organise. Dr Alice Ming Wai Jim (Centre A Gallery, Vancouver) noted the current popularity of Asian art in North America and questioned how the idea of Asian art is invoked in galleries where it is shown. Citing Spivak’s view that there can be no non-institutional environment, she suggested that institutions co-opt and polarise cultural debate and that postcolonial discourse can mask class, regional and other concerns that deserve recognition. She outlined her gallery’s potential role in building community in Vancouver, a city of many diasporas with the second largest Asian community in North America.

Suzann Victor suggested that the state can precipitate a condition of abjection in certain inhabitants, including refugees. This condition provoked Australia’s refugees to sew their lips and refuse the government’s food, thereby redirecting the flow of power away from the state. Mike Parr’s face-sewing performance might thus be seen as art that similarly redirects the flow of power. In these accounts, the evolution of art in Asian countries is accelerating and informing rapid cultural change, assisted by a globalised network of exhibition and reporting.

Exhibition

Throughout the Asian Traffic season, the gallery of the Asia-Australia Arts Centre will be continually evolving. Asian Traffic Phase Two (June 22-July 10) included Shen Shaomin’s Unknown Creatures, which dominated the gallery. One was a skeleton of a 3-headed, 8-legged being constructed from animal bones, its ribs inscribed with texts referencing Islam, Buddhism and Christianity. Such an imaginary hybrid was emblematic in this context. Manit Sriwanichpoom’s Pink Man in Paradise is a series of landscape photographs taken in Bali, in which the sole observer is a diminutive pink-suited man pushing a pink shopping trolley: the archetypal consumer. Leung Mee Ping exhibited children’s drawings on McDonald’s paper napkins, referencing the experiences of Chinese children who are cared for by relatives while their parents work.

Performance artists have included Jiang Jie, whose dolls in strollers representing orphans in China, are for sale, and Vasan Sitthiket, whose shadow puppet theatre satirised Thai and world politics. Sitthiket’s show culminated in a hilarious conversation between Osama Bin Laden, Mahatma Gandhi, Hitler and Jesus Christ.

Coda

The Director of the Asia-Australia Arts Centre, Bingui Huangfu, suggested that while Western postmodern art initially influenced contemporary work in Asia, artists of the region now tend to address social issues. Increasingly visual art in many countries of the Asia region appears to be an arena for political and cultural commentary. While there remain conceptual and terminological problems in theorising hybrid and diasporic art, the Asian Traffic program provides a valuable showcase of significant regional artistic developments.


Asian Traffic, Asia-Australia Arts Centre, Haymarket, Sydney, June 4-October 2, www.4a.com.au; Asian Traffic Conference, College of Fine Arts, Sydney, June 25-26

RealTime issue #62 Aug-Sept 2004 pg. 42

© Chris Reid; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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