• U.S.

Art: The Rise And Rise Of Asian Art

8 minute read
Richard Lacayo

It’s the middle of the day, and I’m in a large room in a warehouse district of Queens, N.Y., where I’m beating a pair of heavy sticks against animal skins. The skins are stretched like drumheads over the seats of a couple of old chairs, a stool and the odd bed frame. These “drums” are then suspended from a timbered support that fills most of the room. As everyone knows, pounding on stuff is fun, which may explain why all around me there are people banging their own chairs and bed frames, plus one or two security guards who don’t look all that happy about being stationed here. Did I mention the enigmatic bowl filled with rocks that hangs in the center? O.K., you guessed. I’m at an art exhibit.

Three years ago the Chinese artist Chen Zhen died at 45 after a years-long struggle with an autoimmune form of anemia. The work of his last years is the subject of a moving show this month at P.S. 1, the Museum of Modern Art affiliate in Queens. Jue Chang–Fifty Strokes to Each, from 1998, is typical of Chen’s mix of Chinese traditions and modern-art formats, in this case a massive installation work. The title refers to a Buddhist maxim–50 blows to both opponents in any conflict. That’s supposed to be a way for them to acknowledge and then settle their differences. It’s just days before the invasion of Iraq, so believe me, I’m drumming.

Is this art? Nearly four decades of installation and performance pieces have answered that question. Art is anything that happens in an art gallery, plus a whole lot that happens elsewhere. Is it Asian art? Absolutely, and especially because this is the work of a man born in Shanghai who relocated to Paris in 1986 and spent his final years everywhere. Everywhere is exactly where Asian art is these days, particularly in the U.S., where it appears at last to be claiming real space for itself among the Van Goghs, Picassos and Warhols.

This week 10 or more sizable exhibitions devoted to Asian art are under way or about to open in American museums. There are Himalayan bronzes and paintings in Chicago, Mongol ceramics and carvings in Los Angeles, and Japanese animation figures in West Palm Beach, Fla. If you go online before March 29, you can snag a fair example of Totalitarian Kitsch at the Sotheby’s/eBay auction of Maoist artifacts www.sothebys.com) At last glance, $172.50 would get you three red plastic badges with cameo silhouettes of the Great Helmsman. And when the new and improved Peabody Essex Museum reopens in June, it will feature on its grounds an early 19th century Chinese merchant’s house, which the museum has moved in its entirety from the Huizhou region near Shanghai to Salem, Mass.

The Puritans, who saw the devil’s hand in almost anything foreign, would have run for their torches. But if they saw the U.S. museum calendar these days, they would not have known where to run next. Immigration has produced larger Asian-American communities all over the country, which have not only heightened the demand for their cultural patrimony but also produced the prosperous donors and collectors who slap the money down for the shows. Add to that the opening up of China over the three decades since Richard Nixon’s visit, a process that has made more Chinese work available while allowing younger Chinese artists to travel and make a name for themselves.

Asian art had a foothold in the U.S. as early as the 18th century, when blue and white Chinese porcelain was a mark of wealth and taste in households, like Thomas Jefferson’s, that could afford it. Commodore Matthew Perry’s arrival in Tokyo Bay in 1853, which forced Meiji Japan to open itself to Western influence, led to a concurrent craze in Europe and the U.S. for all things Japanese. By the turn of the century Ernest Fenollosa and William Sturgis Bigelow, learned Bostonians infatuated with Japan, were assembling the great collections of furniture, scrollwork, carvings and prints that now fill whole galleries of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

But it no longer requires the enthusiasm of a few artists and intellectuals for Chinese scrollwork and Korean statuary to make their way across America. In San Francisco last week, the Asian Art Museum celebrated the opening of a sizable new home in the city’s former main library, a 1917 neoclassical building reconceived by Gae Aulenti, the Italian designer who updated the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. It’s no mystery why the largest American museum devoted to Asian art should be located in a city where some 40% of the population is of Asian descent, chiefly Chinese and Philippine, but including Indian, Pakistani, Lao, Vietnamese and Korean too. “We also know all of the 30 Mongolians in the Bay Area personally,” says Emily Sano, the museum’s director.

That community provides both demand and enhanced funding power. Ten years ago, when the museum was in difficult straits, Chong-Moon Lee, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur born in Seoul, was invited to lunch by South Korea’s consul general in San Francisco, who told him the museum desperately needed $1 million to stay afloat. “The consul general was crying,” Lee recalls. “Then I started crying. I was so emotional, I wrote him a $1 million check on the spot.” Two years later, when the museum set out to raise money for its new, $160 million home, it began with a $15 million gift from Lee.

There is still a lot of spadework to do before Americans are as familiar with Hindu goddess figures and Mongol textiles as they are with Impressionist oils. Two weeks ago, the Houston Museum of Fine Arts opened the first full survey in the U.S. of the history of Japanese photography. It’s a superb show full of work that will mostly be new to Americans, proceeding from lustrous 19th century geisha portraits to the post-Modernist shenanigans of Yasumasa Morimura, who makes heavily stage-managed pictures of himself decked out as Western icons of both sexes–sort of the Japanese Cindy Sherman. Anne Wilkes Tucker, the Houston MFA’s influential chief photo curator, says she decided to organize the show when she realized how little Americans knew about the field. “What interests me is what we don’t know,” says Tucker. “Japanese photography is a whole tradition of which we are totally ignorant.”

Is there any way to generalize about Asian art? Not usefully, which the Houston show makes clear. There’s no master key to both Kuichi Uchida’s stately Portrait of the Empress, from 1872, and Daido Moriyama’s feral Stray Dog, from 99 years later. The sheer multitude of Asian sensibilities is the first lesson that the explosion of Asian art has to teach. Perhaps because they come from traditionalist cultures, even many younger Asian artists produce work that, like Chen’s, acknowledges the history and long-standing cultural practices of their homelands. But preconceptions about the Japanese gift for wabi–refined simplicity–will get you nowhere with the dancing cartoon mushrooms of the post-Pop artist Takashi Murakami. A very visible figure on the international art circuit, Murakami decked out Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal last year with giant balloons covered with eyeballs that owed more to the Japanese obsession with cartoon animation than to tea ceremonies and lacquered trays.

Back in Queens, in the enclosed gravel courtyard outside P.S. 1, there is a large work by Yoko Ono. Yes, that Yoko Ono. Freight Train, 1999, consists of an actual railway freight car on a short length of track, pocked all over with what look like bullet holes. Hidden speakers emit strange ululations, clicks and keenings, sounds that approach the haunted music of Noh plays but fall short of melody as Westerners customarily think of it.

The piece is overexplained by a title card from Ono that calls it, among other things, an “atonement” for the sufferings of the 20th century, a syntactical slipknot that implies that she inflicted them. Never mind–she’s not the first person to remind you that the sentimentality of the hip New York City art world can make Norman Rockwell look like Voltaire. What matters is that this bullet-riddled freight car has a rough force. With its big steel undercarriage and its wounded sides, it has the injured presence of a Spanish bull. Its weeping tonnage can speak for all kinds of grief.

Is this art? Spend a minute with it, put aside any reservations about Ono’s overstated explanations, and you have to say yes. Is this Asian art? It’s enough to say it belongs to all of us. Does all of this mean that the future is a place where the U.S. finally opens itself to what Asia has to give? Bring it on. –With reporting by Chris Taylor/San Francisco

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