Kavitha Rao

Freelance journalist, author & trainer

Fusion or Confusion?
Far Eastern Economic Review, February 2003
Contemporary Asian arts try to define being Asian

A fluffy pink bicycle. A bathing man. A rusty old iron. What do these have in common? These are all attempts by contemporary Asian artists to answer the question: What is Asia? It took three years, eight curators, and 43 artists from seven Asian countries to come up with this response—a sprawling exhibition of contemporary art titled “Under Construction: New Dimensions of Asian Art”. The exhibition was conceived by Yasuko Furuichi, exhibition coordinator at the Japan Foundation’s Asia Centre, an organization that aims to introduce Asian art to Japanese audiences. “Japanese art-lovers have always had exchanges with Western artists and curators, but know very little about the rest of Asia. We wanted an Asian view of Asian artists,” says Furuichi. “So we enlisted curators from six other Asian countries—Thailand, China, India, Indonesia, Korea and the Philippines.”

Each curator travelled to three other Asian countries to learn about their art, then held local exhibitions in their own countries. The local shows were then combined in the current exhibition, an ambitious melange of paintings, sculptures, videos and performance art spread over two venues. All the artists are in their twenties or thirties. Some of the exhibits, such as Chinese artist Kan Xuan’s hair-raising video of spiders crawling over naked bodies, may not be everyone’s idea of “Asianness.” Others are more thought-provoking, such as Japanese artist Tsuyoshi Ozawa’s tongue-in-cheek “Vegetable Weapon”, photographs of people posing with “weapons” fashioned from vegetables. Ozawa says it is intended to explore Japan’s uneasy relationship with other Asian countries, demonstrating how everyday objects and tools of communication can be twisted to create conflicts. Philippine artists Alfredo Esquillo and Mike Munoz have teamed with the Paloy Calagat Woodcarving Workshop to create compelling carvings of Christ, which explore the boundaries between “craft” and “art.” Juxtaposed with a gory video of devotees being whipped and crucified, they also powerfully illustrate the nation’s bloody ties with its Catholic heritage.

The exhibition is aptly titled; the jumble of exhibits spread over two venues does have a rather unfinished air. A more concise theme, better organization and coherent explanations by the artists might have helped knit the diverse elements of this show together. Still, the rare opportunity to see a wide range of Asia’s up-and-coming contemporary artists in one spot makes this exhibition worth a visit.

“Under Construction” is showing at the Japan Foundation’s Asia Centre ( 03-5562-3892 )and the Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery (03-5353-0756) until March 2nd.