The book Influx: Contemporary Art in Asia not only asks poignant questions about the art scene in Asia, it compliments them with bewitching images and explanations that are not beyond the understanding of a non-academic art enthusiast.
Divided into three broad streams, the book includes writings by the best known artists and art writers from around the world. They attempt to burst some of the artistic stereotypes and restore the Asian art scene back to its diverse, ancient and highly complicated reality. It includes works and artists from Kazakhstan to Hong Kong. Indeed it manages to challenge the singular impression of Asia. The Asian art is not restricted to the scene in Asia, but also contains other activities in the Asian diaspora, including exhibitions curated and work displayed by Asians abroad.
The three sections utilize three different frames for analysis. The first section determines what the contemporary Asian art is, especially after Cold-War when the borders were redrawn. The second section questions the stereotypes about Asia, especially in the west. The last section surveys the art presented to the western audience in exhibitions.
The review had to be unfortunately limited to a few chapters due to lack of space.
“The Elephant and the Ant” compares the art scene of China and Thailand in the very happening decades of the 80s and 90s. Both the countries share a history of state control, censorship, corruption, bureaucracy and economic revival. However there is little market for Thai unofficial or radical art abroad, unlike China. The two countries cultural identity and the extent to which foreign cultures permeate them also vary.
Naman P. Ahuja’s chapter called “Tropes and Places” begins with a delightful quote by Thomas D. Kauffman:
“If art has a history, it has also, implicitly, had a geography.”
Ahuja examines how time and place effect art. How this imagined sense of a place is evolves when communities migrate, how globalization and economic growth comes into play and how stereotypes effect it.
Quddus Mirza deals with the enigma of curating art exhibitions in a country where the artistic discourse is dominated by terrorism. He draws the amusing analogy between curating such a biennale and training a terrorist group, since both surpass national boundaries and thrive on the shock value of their piece. Mirza talks of the demand of art that fits a certain stereotype and how the artists tend to play to the gallery. He recalls that miniature art in Pakistan became a “monster” because of its sheer commercial value. And how since 9/11, majority of artists are reflecting on the violence so much that Pakistan has become “ not occupied by terror but obsessed with terror.”
Ranjit Hoskote deals with the “curatorial representation of the house of Islam.”
He quotes the American poet James Merill, who wrote a poem about Islam in 1985, pointing out to Islamic extremism and blind faith in Jihad. Hoskote explains how this bias often effects how Islamic art is observed. Hoskote insists that discourse on Asia is dominated by China, India and Japan, less so other civilizations in the continent, including Islam. And it is this civilization in Asia that faced direct invasion from the United States for many years and continues to be embroiled in conflict within itself.
Hoskote asks: “With this fraught history for backdrop, how can the House of Islam be represented curatorially today?”
Oscar Ho Hing Kay discusses Hong Kong art scene and the “Curatorial Work as Collective Fabrication.” He recollects a visit to Beijing in 1991, where he came across newspapers meant to report through drawings, usually full of ghosts, monsters and what not.
He revisits the hurly burly in Hong Kong’s pre-handover days when the themes of nervousness and horror took over the art scene. He started an art diary on the format of the Ching Dynasty’s newspapers. But eventually the British left and the Hong Kong art scene there has been no looking back since.
The most striking image comes from the chapter “Archival Malpractice and Counter Strategies” by Charles Merewether. The image is of a prisoner in Khymer Rouge, Cambodia, who will remain “unidentified” forever. He is one of the thousands of genocide victims found in Tuol Seng Museum of Genocide. This was one of the 6000 negatives of photos of genocide victims and the author compares them to an “interval in the movement of time and death.” And the backbone of this chapter is the question: “Do they (these photos) provide a means of recovering untold histories… a history of which we have been dispossessed?”
This book is also available as an e-book at Amazon. The book can lead to a deeper artistic appreciation through the sheer plethora of themes it explores. It is begging to be placed on your coffee table so that it can seduce you and your guests with its rich visuals.
InFlux: Contemporary Art in Asia. Edited by Parul Dave Mukherji, Naman P Ahuja, and Kavita Singh. 288 pages. SAGE Publications.
Ammara Ahmad is a journalist with an interest in arts, human rights and literature. She tweets as @ammarawarites.