Tang Da Wu, “Gully Curtains” (1979) ink and mineral pigment on cloth, 303 × 144 cm, 277 × 134 cm, 236 × 122 cm, 217 × 110 cm, 170 × 105 cm, 138 × 94 cm, 135 × 89cm (courtesy of the artist)

GWACHEON, Korea — To organize around 170 works by 100 artists from 13 Asian countries ranging over 30 years, for the exhibition Awakenings: Art in Society in Asia 1960s–1990s, the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Korea, instead of using chronological order or exhibits arranged by country, divided the work into three sections reflecting a transnational theme — Questioning Structures, Artists and the City, and New Solidarities. “Although there was no direct interaction between Asian countries, I focused on finding unexpected resonances between them,” says Bae Myung-Ji, the exhibition curator.

Installation view, Awakenings: Art in Society in Asia 1960s-1990s at the MMCA Gwacheon (courtesy of The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea)

Questioning Structures offers a framework by which to view Asian contemporary art since the 1960s, emphasizing the new definitions of art emerging at that time. Resistance against tradition forms the foundation of 20th-century Asian art. Arising from political and social upheaval, this rebellious spirit redefined the meaning of art against the grain of the European notion of “art for art’s sake.” Instead, they defined new art boundaries in the context of everyday life. An unprecedented form of art emerged, experimental forms such as burning a painting in a fire or diminishing an artwork over time. Lee Seung-taek’s (Korea, born 1932) “Burning Canvases Floating on the River” (1964) is a clear example of exploring these then new forms. He burned completed paintings and floated them away in the Han River. In his work, Lee rejected the traditional definition of sculpture in favor of sculptures without a consistent shape; in this work, the form changed from oil on canvases to ash, and finally disappeared into the air with the wind.

Lee Seung-taek, “Burning Canvases Floating on the River” (1964) watercolor and gouache on paper, 48 x 60 cm (courtesy of the artist)

The artists in this landmark exhibition introduced new methods and materials to visualize the arts as a natural part of our lives. In other words, “everydayness” links life and art. The artists such as Nomura Hitoshi (Japan, born 1945) who makes sculptures with dry ice, Nakanishi Natsuyuki (born in Japan, 1935–2016), or Tang Da Wu (Singapore, born 1943) investigated the natural state of everyday objects and the interactions among them, rather than arranging them to deliver a certain meaning to viewers. Nakanishi’s “Compact Object” (1963) which contains beads, necklaces, egg shells, hair caps, bottle caps, and other objects embedded in an egg-shaped resin metaphorically visualizes the debris of mass production and consumer culture. Some artists added the concept of temporality to their work made of everyday objects. In Tang Da Wu’s “Gully Curtains” (1979), the natural environment creates temporality. In a ditch in his neighborhood, where all the buildings had been demolished for redevelopment, he buried seven pieces of white fabric for ten days. Soil and rainwater impregnated the fabric, leaving unique patterns. As Tang stated, “I was not trying to dominate the material completely, but was interested in creating a relationship with the material.”

Nakanishi Natsuyuki, “Compact Object” (1963) mixed media, 14 x 23 x 14 cm (courtesy of the artist)

Bodies also became a primary medium. The mechanisms of political agitation and oppression that have occurred in Asia since the 1960s have been embedded in the human form as a kind of collective memory. The artists choose their bodies as metaphorical mediators that capture a complex history. Chang Chao-Tang (Taiwan, born 1943) is known for his black-and-white photograph of a human figure without a head. At the individual level, his photographs seem to reveal a general anxiety about the future of younger generations. However, considering the political oppression of the Chiang Kai-shek regime in Taiwan in the 1960s (including media control), these headless bodies serve as a metaphor for the depressing social atmosphere of the time.

Chang Chao-Tang, “Banqiao” (1962) gelatin silver print on paper, 36 × 36 cm (courtesy of the artist)

In the second and third sections of the exhibition, the scope expands to examine the relationship between art and society, asking “What is the role of art in the socio-political context?” The influx of western capitalism created a culture of consumption and a mass media, particularly in the cites. At the time, artists feared that capitalism would destroy existing communities and the local culture. Consequently, they developed a dialogue resistant to the government that led industrialization. To these artists, the “city” is the center of capitalism and serves as an alternative space to communicate with the public. In 1996, Wang Jin (China, born 1962) installed a 33-yard-long ice wall in the shopping mall square in Zhengzhou. In the wall, he put a thousand high-value consumer goods such as watches and mobile phones. Of course, the crowd began to crush the wall to grab these goods. Wang Jin transformed the public’s desire to possess in a market economy into an unconscious collective performance, and today’s audiences can witness the performance through seven black-and-white photographs on the wall.

Wang Jin, “Ice 96 Central China” (1996/2005) gelatin silver print on paper, 129 × 98 cm each (courtesy of the artist)

Furthermore, the exhibition artists focused on the function of art as a communication tool for social change. This focus was inevitable since student movements, military regimes, democratization movements, and government-led economic development have been shared experiences since the 1960s. The United Artists’ Front of Thailand, Kaisahan in the Philippines and the Korean Minjung Art Movement are representative examples of groups who produced this type of art. For their media these artists chose posters, banners and prints — all appropriate to highlight the participative and practical role of art as messenger. For instance, Hong Seong-dam (Korea, born 1955) created “5.18 series-Dawn” (1983–1989), a series of 50 black-and-white woodcut prints that describe the 1980 democratization protest of Gwangju in Korea. He added poetry to emphasize the role of prints in “saying something.” The function of art in a social context has been broadened in various ways such as the concept of collectivism in artist groups or the creation of feminist art across Asian countries.

Julie Lluch, “Thinking Nude” (1988) terracotta and mirror, 94 × 37 × 116 cm (courtesy of the artist)

Now, in 2019, the primary concern of young artists in Asia is anxieties about individual identity rather than societies. Since the subject of identity can be found in most politically stable societies, it is not easy to understand Asian contemporary art at first sight. Maybe the traumatic socio-political experiences of previous generations have left a subtle psychic wound in individual lives. Because it allows visitors to witness those experiences through the lenses of these artists, and thus to be able to read the context behind contemporary art in Asia, this exhibition is worth seeing.

Installation view, Awakenings: Art in Society in Asia 1960s-1990s at the MMCA Gwacheon (courtesy of The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea)

Awakenings: Art in Society in Asia 1960s-1990s continues at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (313 Gwangmyeong-ro, Gwacheon-si, Gyeonggi-do, Korea) through May 6. It was curated by Bae Myung-Ji. 

Born in Seoul. Living and writing about art in New York. She can be found on Instagram @hayoungchung