Fukuoka Asian Art Triennial


It is still surprising to me how much of the international presentation of art in Japanese museums and art events so tamely follows Western trends. Some might argue these are now better spoken of as “global” trends, but for “global” you can also basically read “Western”—with the last Yokohama Triennial a good case in point. Fukuoka Asian Art Museum has always been an exception in Japan, but it is striking how it is still doing something quite different to other places. This is a very self-styled Asian city, and a lot of the attitude can be linked to the open policies of the city to Asian networking. Fukuoka is a long way from Tokyo, and a long way from the sometimes insular mentality of the capital, enfolding itself in the new “Sakoku” that commentators such as Roger McDonald have discussed. Fukuoka, in contrast, is a city turned emphatically Westwards—with “the West” meaning here Seoul and Shanghai, and Busan just a short trip across the water. The same point was made to me the first time I visited Fukuoka, in an interview with Yoshi Kawasaki, one of the pioneers of putting pop-art on T-shirts with his company 2-K. Kawasaki has a family base here, while networking continually with California and Europe. As he showed me around this stylish and affluent city, he told me that when he flies international, it is a lot easier to just get a connection from Fukuoka via Korea or China, than it is to fly with JAL through Tokyo…

The fourth Asian Art Triennial, which opened recently, sees the Museum staying well abreast of the currents that it has grown with, as one of the very few institutions in Japan that has actually played a part in shaping the new Asian art trends. Past catalogues, which are substantial but a little dull to look at, left me wondering how good the show would be. I need not have worried: the current selection, brilliantly sequenced through the museum and a second site in a renovated building a few minutes walk away, was one of the best group shows I’ve seen in a good while. On paper, the selection of 43 artists seems like it might be playing safe, with the repeat return of Cai Guo Qiang, Xu Bing, Tsuyoshi Ozawa, Subodh Gupta, Michael Lin, He Yunchang, and Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba, all obvious and familiar choices in this kind of context. Several have been included in previous Triennials, and all have a stable international status. Ostensibly they are back as part of a review within the Triennial of the last ten years in Asian art, as the museum celebrates its tenth anniversary. But if all of the works of these artists were good (except Nguyen-Hatsushiba’s rather boring running man videos), they sat alongside and were even bettered by other selections that mixed new discoveries with emerging names since 2005, working in all kinds of media, including performance, electronica, urban design, and large scale installation. There was a strong presence of traditional styles, methods or crafts filtered through a modern technological lens, a focus on urban development and social change, and a refreshing lack of reference to western theoretical currents. I didn’t make much of the stated theme of the show – “Live and Let Live” (“Kyo-sai-sei” in the original) – that was argued to point towards the possibility of different conflictual groups, classes and nations living harmoniously together in the new Asia. More interesting for me was how much of the work was so emphatically post-post-colonial, in the sense that the West in fact was a quite irrelevant reference point for the work shown.

Highlights for me included: the printed wall hangings of Yee I-Lann (Malaysia), combining ancient stitchwork with modern print media images; the vivid political tapestries of Qiu Zhijie (China) and Shahzia Sikander (Pakistan), Angki Purbandono’s bizarre scanned toy animals with their heads jammed in fruits and vegetables (Indonesia); Dinh Q. Lee’s elegiac CGI rendering of American military helicopters falling in the sea of China; the brilliant fur covered street scooters by Sajana Joshi (Nepal, working in Pakistan, b.1984); the strange larvae like foetus sculptures of Davaa Dorjderem (Mongolia, b.1981); the grotesque family life paintings of Lampu Kansanoh (Thailand, b.1983); the Islamic fashion installations by Seema Nusrat (Pakistan, b.1980); and the paper cut outs and prints of Wu Jian’an (China, b.1980). The last five are all unknowns under 30, confounding the idea that famous “explorer” Western curators have already got these new territories mapped out for world art.

Best of all, perhaps, were the two videos by Korean artist, An Jungyu, also young (born 1979) and not seen before. In one, school children sang, one-by-one, out of tune notes of the music scale (do-re-mi-fa-so etc), one at a time when you played the keyboard of a piano in front of the video. It was great fun. In another, the artist filmed through several cameras, the death and destruction by bulldozers and workmen of an old high school, cutting and splicing the images and soundtrack of industrial noise, bangs and metallic grinding, to emphasise the rhythm and syncopation of the whole operation. It was by turns funny, danceable, and ultimately very sad, as the building eventually crashes to the floor like a slaughtered buffalo. Over at Reizensou Renovation Museum, an alternative art space in a renovated listed building, some of the video rooms didn’t seem to be working, but one room featured an extensive presentation of Tsuyoshi Ozawa and friends, the Xijing Men, and their very funny didactic presentation of a constitution, economy and bizarre national history of an Asian utopia. It is a work, of course, that ties together the whole ethos of the Triennial in a sunnily charming, always humorous way. Their “western city” of Asia must surely be the place of which post-post-colonial Asian artists dream.

The only disappointment of the show, perhaps, was the slightly muted Japanese selection, that had been handled by Mizuki Endo of the ARCUS project. I sympathise with his aggressive critique of mainstream pop art in Japan in the catalogue, but the selection fell short of the rhetoric. He was determined to go for documentary and performance style work, and had apparently been under some pressure to include a painter. This role was eventually taken by 28 year old rising star Asai Yusuke. His massive wall mural in the museum café was another excellent example of this very promising young artist’s work (I saw him at Akasaka Flower last year) who does very pop style work but always in a street context. But the musical video of Makoto Nomura splashing around in a sento fell flat, and the street life documentary work by AHA! (Archive for Human Activities) was worthy but dull.

The overall quality of the show clearly owes much to the influence of chief curator Raiji Kuroda, whose intensity and commitment when you meet him is immediately apparent. He has a thirty year involvement with Asian art in Fukuoka, as well as a rasping critique of much of what goes on in the Japanese art world. Explaining the history of the event, and the open curatorial network based methods of selecting works, he underlines how Fukuoka has always tried to present something different from Asian art market boom artists, while still linking new discoveries with names that have broken through internationally. Thus, we might get Cai Guo Qiang, but it will be a retrospective of his key “Chinese” fireworks based works that link to his time in Japan, and we are spared his more bombastic western oriented installations. Works in the show are juxtaposed across national distinctions, so we are sometimes looking at works that seem similar or to be speaking to each other, while coming from vastly different parts of the region. There is a strong presence of art that evokes the present Asian political/economic situation, as well as artists who have been internationally mobile within and across Asia, rather than educated in the West. There is also still a search for the connection of art and community, quite separate from art and economy, that Kuroda himself has specialised in, with his long standing curation of political Korean art. Artists in Korea have always been so much more obviously activist that anyone typically is in Japan. Despite worsening financial problems, the museum is able to acquire a good number of the works on show here, as it has in previous years, thus functioning as a key archive of emerging Asian art trends. The results are still as diverse, multi-vocal and as vividly colourful and sensory as Asian art might be imagined to be. Yet the strength of the Triennial lies elsewhere: in the fact that the networking efforts it is built on, lead to discoveries and new synergies, both for the curators who have had to learn to transcend national cultural boundaries, and for artists who can participate in the residency program and get a new angle on their creative motivations.

The final impression is how well this show fits together and works as a quote-unquote “Asian” show. Many people in the art world are rightly critical of always presenting national work in a national frame: the obsession with group shows and pavilions of new “Japanese” or “Chinese” artists, and so on. The “national” might well not be a viable category in a post- or trans-national, globalising world for presenting art, but the category of “region” most certainly is. Asian art, as a collective regional experience, can and should be quite distinctive to European or American art. To pretend otherwise is just to fall back into another kind colonialism, equating the “global” with opinions and valuations coming our of the same old centres of power in New York, London or Switzerland, still ordering things for the natives as the West (or Western educated) see it. I’m left thinking about Hardt and Negri’s word “multitude”, and what it might mean. There are many clichés circulating around the work of their abstract postmodern Marxism, but if the concept does have any practical meaning in global art, it must point towards art that speaks from and for its own locality—and not (just) the western/global art market or western/global art theory. The fourth Fukuoka Art Triennial is a triumphant assertion of just how good some of that art is.







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