January 21, 2008

Disembodiment Theory

At the end of Charles Mingus's "Open Letter to Duke," the alto sax player Shafi Hadi blows an apparent homage to Charlie Parker with quotes from Bird's collaborations with the Afro-Cuban band of Machito. When I first heard Mingus Ah Um as a young man I was unaware of Bird's work in Latin-flavored jazz. It was 30 years later as I explored the depths of Bird's recordings that I discovered the South of the Border album that he had made with the Machito orchestra.

I use this anecdotal memory to introduce my topic and illustrate a point: the linear and temporal narrative of influences upon individual artists requires full critical research and interpretation in order to establish art historical precedence and the origins of innovation, art movements and stylistic significance. Without critical and historic analysis, artists and their artworks appear as nothing more than a random sequencing of seemingly unconnected expressions and moments in time. Additionally, the cultural connections and cross influences from one artist to another are lost without this critical appraisal. The result is a mélange of visual and aural artworks that lack substantiation within the history of art.

A particular and recent concern of mine regarding the use and appropriation of Western modern and postmodernist styles by Eastern artists provokes the present essay and prompts a reassessment of contemporary Asian art. Clearly, for many years the West has influenced the East, and vice-versa as evidenced by ideas of spirituality, unity of spirit to matter, and wholeness. Contemporary trends in Asian art suggest an incorporation of Western art theory within the work of Eastern artists that reveals a disembodied conceptual approach through their tendency toward a preference for innovative use of style over theoretical concept.(1)

Obviously, it might prove tempting for some Asian artists to don variants of the “cloak of conceptualism” and simulate the look of current postconceptual, post-minimalist and post-sculptural work. However, without the investment of time and research to understand the preceding histories and theories of these previous art movements the resultant artwork will be uninformed, emptied of theoretical relevance and substantive value.

Certainly there are art critiques available, from the predictably pedestrian and flawed - “Pop Art focused on the impromptu and stood for the interchange of time and space.”(2) - to the generic historical:

“Hong Kong painters today are concerned with finding their orientation in a great metropolis through personal statement. They are overwhelmingly unfussed with orthodox Chinese culture and older generations’ attempt to amalgamate East and West. To their mind the latter is now over and done with; judging from their work, they are now looking for something that is uniquely Hong Kong.”(3)

That there are equal misunderstandings by both a Western and an Eastern writer is clear, as my two citations expose a misperception and confusion about contemporary Asian art’s relationship to the narrative of Western art history. Although Steve Fallon is not an art historian, his view reveals a critical position that permeates Asia and indicates a misunderstanding of Hong Kong painters (and Chinese contemporary art) within the global art world. These kinds of critiques reflect a shallow perception of contemporary Asian art and lack the necessarily exhaustive research that would be required to properly unpack Hong Kong’s infatuation with all things Western. To whit, assuming that Hong Kong’s painters are “over and done with” the Western theories of art that continue to permeate the global stage then they would logically have to “fuss” with Chinese styles a bit longer. Ung’s statement concerning Pop is even more troubling because of the evasiveness of its intent, i.e., exactly how was Pop Art concerned with an “interchange of time and space?”

Ironically, the wholesale manifestation of Pop would occur in the East with the metamorphosis of comic-book imagery and cheesy science-fiction into manga, anime and tokusatsu. “Desire and Consumption: Kaiyodo and Otaku Culture” is a sprawling nightmarish vision of world domination by Japanese toy manufacturers and savvy illustrators currently on view at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. Ranging from the innocent shokugan figurines (packaged with food products targeted at children) to the R-rated bishoujo dolls (beautiful young women of manga and anime), this exhibit sheds little light on Pop as theory, extolling instead the skills and business acumen of otaku culture’s various artisans, including the redoubtable BOME and the ubiquitous Takashi Murakami.

The current exhibition of contemporary painters at the Macau Museum of Art exemplifies the disembodiment of theory in contemporary Asian art. Nearly all of the work in “Macau Contemporary Paintings” represents or depicts earlier Western concerns with “subjective perception and expression” through various interpretations of light, medium or gesture. The work that is most derivative suffocates in the stasis of its Western-inspired visual theories. Choi Su Weng’s Fountain (1998) never escapes from its allegiance to Seurat’s Post-Impressionist points of color, while Fernanda Dias’ Notes from a Cheung-Sam Taylor (2003), with its faux Jasper Johns-ian typography, signifies nothing more than an exercise in graphic design. There is even a Macanese Richard Tuttle in Leong Mou Cheng Bonnie’s Landing (2007) with its idiosyncratic thread stitches running helter-skelter across a draped paper support.

The strongest work in “Macau Contemporary Paintings” opens up the possibility of a release from Western visual art influences through identifiable and indigenous Chinese cultural styles reinvested with theoretical substance. Tong Chong’s Pollock-like Thump (2005) is thus strengthened by its authentic calligraphy; it projects a density of a surface for both “reading” and “looking.” Also concerned with the calligraphic, Mio Pang Fei transforms the canvas support into narrative through scale and writing. Her Track (1986) and Untitled (1990) push the boundaries of comprehension and meaning through the authentic visuality of their calligraphy. Mio’s work has been described as neo-orientalist: “The neo-orientalist painting of Mio Pang Fei is a hybrid of the oriental and western art systems with abstractism (sic) serving as its core. Operating within the realm of modern concepts, it extinguishes the contradictions between oriental and western art. In other words, it is an individual experiment that seeks to go beyond a strictly ethnic stance to rebuild contemporary oriental art using western concepts.”(4)

It is not only Eastern two-dimensional media that requires our critical reassessment, however, as an ever-growing crop of Asian performance artists are receiving more international attention. He Yunchang continues his stunts of endurance and self-abuse; in 2006 he carried a rock around the perimeter of Great Britain for 112 days, and in 2001 he wrestled 100 people in a row (he got 18 wins). In the introduction to The Rock Touring around Great Britain, the writer strangely neglects mentioning Chris Burden, Marina Abramovic or Vito Acconci, artists whose influence undoubtedly affect at least our own critical perception of He Yunchang, if not his own artistic development:

“Many of his works have more or less different levels of danger, which is like sports of extreme tests. The difference is that sports of extreme tests have a recognized and measurable criteria, for example, difficulty, perfection, no injury while achieving a high level of completion. However, there exist no recognized criteria to evaluate art works.”(5)

Obviously, this is not the case as body artists and their performances have been much evaluated and critiqued in the Western world at least since the 1960s. Yet the indigenous audience for Asian performance is apparently discovering the work of He Yunchang, Yang Zhichao, Ai Weiwei and others with little or no education or precedent for evaluation of a performance modality that has been firmly established in the Western art world.

Among Ai Weiwei’s more infamous work is his systematic defacement and destruction of rare Han Dynasty urns. He has drawn Coca-Cola emblems on them and smashed them up. His performative acts might serve as a metaphor for the Asian artists’ detachment from the standardization of value previously set by art history:

“Always there is friction between what authorities (and the market) have decreed to be valuable and those who, like Ai, rebel against the idea of cultural prestige. It’s something, Ai contends, that must be reassessed ceaselessly, skeptically.”(6)

In similar fashion we must critically reassess contemporary Asian art, particularly with regard to its clear Western antecedents and influence. This has never been more essential than now, for there are vast numbers of Asian artists currently showing work in the East that have a relatively ignorant audience, an audience that knows little of the previous history of art. To avoid further confusion and misrecognition of the art theories behind these contemporary artworks it will be necessary for art theorists, historians and scholars, both overseas and in the West, to negotiate a cultural détente, a theoretical revolution. We must avoid mere superficial appreciation for the artwork and instead launch a vigorous educational crusade about the intellectual and theoretical structure behind the objects themselves. This will be of great benefit to both Eastern and Western artists, and their audiences, as the possibilities for additional comprehension will yield new markets for the works and new explorations within the narrative of art history.

Image: Thump (2005), © Copyright by Tong Chong.


1. In 1975, Joseph Kosuth criticized the “deterioration of the [conceptual] movement into a popular SCA” or “Stylistic Conceptual Art.” He designated the differences between “Theoretical Conceptual Art” (TCA) and SCA in order to privilege theoretical substance over superficial style. See Peter Wollen’s “Global Conceptualism and North American Art” in Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s-1980s, New York, 1999, 79.

2. Ung, Vai Meng. Preface to “Macao Contemporary Paintings,” published by Macao Museum of Art, 2007.

3. Fallon, Steve. “Arts” in “Hong Kong and Macau,” Lonely Planet Guide, 2006, 28.

4. “The Unique Genesis of Mio Pang Fei’s Abstract Art”.

5. Li Xianting. “What I have learnt from He Yunchang’s works,” The Rock Touring around Great Britain, Beijing, 2007, 7.

6. Coggins, David. “Ai Weiwei's Humane Conceptualism,” Art in America, September 2007, 121.

January 16, 2008

Prayer & Menace

"The Buddhist wan zi is an ancient symbol that signifies prosperity and good fortune, yet its meaning was transformed through its usage as the swastika by the National Socialist German Worker's Party. As the meaning of a word relates to its context so my use of the wan zi in Meaning is in the system (2005) considers how the meaning of a symbol can change through its historical, cultural or political context."

From an original writing by MCB; © Copyright 2005.

On Avenida do Almirante Lacerda, oddly just east of the Canidrome dog-racing track, sits Lin Fung Temple. Inside an inner courtyard awash in incense and prayer, I found amazingly ornate furnishings including a sand-filled stand for incense offerings that featured prominent wan zi along its decorative upper border.

As a prime example of the fluctuation of meaning through cultures and history, the wan zi is exemplary of the contextuality of symbols, how the significance of a sign can be diverted through use and cultural, political or social context. The meaning of this ancient symbol was first established as a positive one by Buddhists, Hinduists and Taoists, yet later appropriated by the Nazi Party which diverted the bent-cross to its own political use. The rest, as they say, is history.

Meanings do indeed reside within systems of representation, whether it be art or language. The spiritual essence of the cross with bent arms was cherished by Asians for thousands of years before it was hijacked by Hitler. As an icon of hate it perhaps has no equal, yet it still exists in beatific purity and peace in temples and on statuary across the Eastern world. The wan zi may someday be absolved of its fearful signification but for the present it instills such dread that its presence in the sunny courtyard of Lin Fung Temple produces a surreal ambiance of the juxtaposition of prayer and menace in the Western mind.

January 11, 2008

Oriental Vegas

In 1925 there was a huge explosion and fire in Macau's main fireworks factory. Afterwards, the local officials decided to relocate future fireworks facilities to the south on the less-populated isle of Taipa. Until then, shipbuilding and fireworks were the main industries in Macau but that was before gambling entered the provincial Portuguese colony.

Currently there are thirty casinos in Macau, including Steve Wynn's new monster and the MGM Grand, with twenty more planned. In a country that was returned to the People's Republic of China in 1999, capitalism rules supreme with gambling as its chambermaid. Mao would undoubtedly be stunned at the lavish spectacle that is present-day Macau, second only to Las Vegas in gambling revenue, that circulates $5 billion in capital yearly.

[Look for a longer post on contemporary Asian art when I return to the USA.]

Image: Bank of China (on left) and Stanley Ho's new Grand Lisboa towering over the older Lisboa Casino.