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Takashi Murakami, “A Picture of The Blessed Lion Who Stares At Death” (2009), Acrylic on canvas mounted on board (image courtesy the artist)

MÉRIDA, MEXICO — Over the past two years planet art has born witness to a drastic metamorphosis. The mental apparition of “Asian Art,” inhabiting its blanket concept, was once as innocuous as Casper the friendly ghost. Westerners were at leisure to muse and amuse themselves with its mysteries and exoticisms, with the fleeting attentions of a visitor into another lord’s cabinet of curiosities.

Today our imaginations and anticipations have fed it to megalithic proportions. And the economic boom of contemporary art in the 21st Century continues to relentlessly close the gap between the world’s cultures of expression, to the point where the bedsheets of West and East have begun to rub up against one another — sometimes roughly. There is even talk of the voracious appetite of the Yellow Peril of Asian Art, positioning its markets and state-ordained “cultural industries” to consume planet art altogether.

Let’s not fool ourselves; when we say “East,” we mean China. This is not to say there are no other important works or artists in the region, but that most of them are derived from the indomitable cultural swagger of the Middle Kingdom. This is becoming a badly-mediated tragedy within the region.

Of course, Japanese artists like Takashi Murakami and the Superflat movement have recently made enormous contributions to discourse, bringing us Asia’s answer to Andy Warhol, but these men and women see themselves as mercantile artisans, not artists. Their contributions have been to steer us back into Warhol’s brillo box, away from the direct engagement with such esoteric components as the spirit. They prefer to pull off the bed-sheet, dust off the apparition and polish up the artefact beneath.

The opening of China has not only brought us the other half of the equation to a more rounded notion of “global contemporary art,” but an entirely different lens through which to view our own. So much of Western art has been influenced by the East, to the point where the closer you look, the more blurred the distinctions become. To take an example, we can find the genesis of the 17th century craze for the landscape painting genre as a product of Chinese scroll paintings, not to mention the mimicry of Europe’s Chinoiserie movement. It is not hard to find and be fascinated by.

Liu Yan, “The Man World” (2007) (image courtesy the artist)

Like Alan Watts, and so many of us, my first exposure to Asian art was not in a gallery or museum, but on my plate at dinner time, when I lay on my bed looking at the painting on the wall. We come into adulthood highly dosed with many of the images and iconography we would encounter if we had grown up in Asia — sometimes even more.

Despite all this, we are stunned to realize that this mysterious land of the Orient does actually exist. And by the time you get there, the most amazing part is the reality that the place is almost the complete opposite of the art and images its traditional heritage flouts.

The integral power behind Chinese art is that it comes from its own independently consolidated tradition. There is no such thing as a tabula rasa for Chinese art. After toying with much of continental philosophy that has shaped contemporary art today, Chinese critics such as Xue Wei have begun to parody Nietzsche, writing articles like “who killed postmodernism?” and laying to rest much of the leftovers of contemporary art theory. There is no way to start from scratch. Whatever is brought in is set to bear against the fortified digestive juices of the culture.

The excitement of the Asian Art world is precisely that it is looking forward. As the Western art market felt the pinch of economic recession two years ago, the Chinese were just getting started. At ShContemporary 2009, commentators and gallerists remarked with enthusiasm how the burgeoning domestic interest in China was propelling them above and beyond the Western slump, and pioneering Western galleries of Chinese art such as Eli Klein Fine Art in New York have begun to see their names on the New York Times and CNN.

The influence of Marxism on contemporary art has until recently been the mainstay to the saleability of many Chinese artists on the international market. But now the old guard have begun to make way for the youth, who bring new ideas and renewed enthusiasm to push the government’s buttons. Ai Weiwei‘s politics have encouraged Chinese artists to find a voice in art that is unavailable to them under the censorship of public life.

That voice is beginning to dictate the future of art throughout the world.

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James Donald

James Donald is a writer based in Asia and has worked as chief editor of Taiwan's national art and leisure weekly PrimeTime. James is an avid blogger and regular contributor to art magazines and journals including Frieze, C-Arts,...

One reply on “What Is So Asian About Asian Art Today?”

  1. …and when we say Asia we don’t include India, or middle-East/North Africa… or for that matter most of Russia. It’s a dangerous word 🙂

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