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Asian Contemporary Art: An Introduction

Melissa Chiu

Dinh Q. Lê: Untitled (Ecstasy in Blue) from From Vietnam to Hollywood series, C–type print and linen tape, 1.0×1.9 m, 2003 (New York, private collection); photo courtesy of Shoshana Wayne Gallery, Santa Monica, CA
Dinh Q. Lê: Untitled (Ecstasy in Blue) from From Vietnam to Hollywood series, C–type print and linen tape, 1.0×1.9 m, 2003 (New York, private collection); photo courtesy of Shoshana Wayne Gallery, Santa Monica, CA

Since the 1990s, Asian contemporary art has grown exponentially due to a mushrooming of regional biennials and triennials (drawing attention to Asian cities as alternative art centres), the building of new contemporary art museums and the international recognition and success of Asian artists such as Chinese-born Cai Guo-Qiang, Japanese-born Mariko Mori, and the Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija.

The sudden rise and international popularity of Asian contemporary art raises many questions for art historians, students and art critics. How, for instance, does one define Asian contemporary art? How does it differ from artwork produced in art centres such as New York and London, especially when several major Asian contemporary artists live and work in these cities? Are there differences in the work of Asian artists living in the West to those living in Asia? And, perhaps more importantly, what underpins this new field of study? It is not possible to provide an exhaustive survey of contemporary art in Asia—a region that is almost one-third of the world's land mass and home to two-thirds of the world’s population and a huge range of languages. However, even a general overview, such as this, provides evidence of the recent rise and astounding diversity of contemporary artistic practice in the region.


There is no single, unified history of Asian modern art, which is largely defined by a series of overlapping engagements with Western art and cultural influences. This engagement was less of a wholesale adoption of foreign art styles than a history of selective engagement based on relevance to local circumstances (see Asian Modern and Contemporary Art). The same applies to Asian contemporary art, which is more of a catch-all term for diverse contemporary, avant-garde, experimental or non-traditional art practices by Asian artists (regardless of where they were born, live, or work) than a viable geo-cultural category. Coverage of Asian contemporary art in Grove Art Online focuses mostly on experimental art practices, such as installation art, video art, photography and performance art. Painting is also discussed, though mostly works executed in oil and acrylic.

Experimental media was preferred by many younger generation artists during the 1980s, many of them curious about Western culture and art history, which seemed more progressive, exciting and liberating than the type of activities conventionally regarded as culture in their own, often tradition-bound, societies. This same spirit also influenced other art forms, such as music (Asian pop) and film and television (e.g. MTV). The exceptions were Japan and Korea, where experimental art groups developed much earlier. Examples include Gutai, a Japanese avant-garde group formed in 1954, and the Korean Avant-Garde Association, formed in 1969. Through the adoption of experimental media, Asian artists were able to engage with an international art world: they began to be included in large thematic survey exhibitions outside Asia, as well as art magazines and popular studies of contemporary art.

It is also important to note that this interest in new forms of representation was not embraced by all contemporary artists in Asia. Many artists, in some cases the vast majority, continued to advance local artistic traditions: for example, patra painting in India, calligraphy in China, or lacquer painting in Vietnam. Their work was frequently overlooked by international curators interested almost exclusively in artists working in experimental media, which matched their own ideas of more progressive contemporary art. Thus parallel art worlds emerged in many of these countries, where those who worked in experimental media tended to sell and exhibit their work in the international art world, while those who specialized in more traditional or established media remained confined to local and national arenas.


The knowledge of experimental contemporary art was transmitted to artists living in Asian countries through multiple channels. One obvious route was imported foreign art magazines and books, which provided much needed historical and visual information. Another route was provided by exhibitions of foreign art. However, there is little direct evidence for the influence of these exhibitions of Western art, because although they travelled to Asia starting in the 1960s and were particularly important catalysts for change in local art worlds—one need only look at the exhibitions that toured China during the 1980s and the debates in art circles that these generated—they were rarely exhibitions of contemporary art. A much more important influence was individual artists returning from study abroad.

During the 1980s and 1990s, transmission of experimental art came from artists who had returned from study overseas. This pattern of transmission has historical precedents in countries such as China and Japan in the early 20th century, where the return of artists from abroad prompted wide-ranging artistic reform linked to discussions of modernity. The dissemination of information was transmitted from artist to artist, rather than through art academies and art schools, since these were subjects not formally taught until the late 1990s. The most important of these forums for the exchange of ideas about experimental art were artist-run initiatives—informal gallery spaces founded and funded by artists (see Alternative Spaces in Asia).

But perhaps the single most important influence was the international and regional biennial and triennial exhibition. These events not only brought significant international art and artists to Asian cities, often for the first time, but they also fostered a new sense of a regional contemporary art identity. First, they united the work of contemporary artists from different countries in one place, and second, they created spaces in which artists from these countries could meet, see each other’s art and discuss shared issues and concerns. Subsequent exhibition catalogues remain some of the most important primary documents for Asian contemporary art. Akira Tatehata discusses the phenomenon of biennials and triennials in Asia and explains how they influenced the types of work that Asian artists began to produce—mostly installation art, video and performance art (see Asian Contemporary Art and Internationalism).

The sheer number of Asian cities hosting periodic exhibitions—which includes Jakarta, Taipei, Yokohama, Pusan, Gwangju, Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Fukuoka and Singapore—is striking. However, the most influential of these exhibitions have been the Asia-Pacific Triennial (begun 1993) at the Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, Australia, the Asian Art Shows, and later the Fukuoka Triennial (begun 1999) at the Asian Art Museum, Fukuoka, Japan. The Shanghai Biennial (begun 1996) in China and the Gwangju Biennale (begun 1995) in Korea played an important role in the advancement and dissemination of contemporary art in their respective countries.

The emergence of periodic contemporary art exhibitions across Asia coincides with growing regional prosperity. This is more than coincidental, particularly as most, if not all, of the Asian biennales have been funded by ambitious local city governments eager to promote themselves as regional cultural hubs. Substantial new museums devoted to contemporary art, many of them linked to or hosting these biennales, have also sprung up across the region, something that was unheard of ten years earlier.

Beyond Asia

Just as Asian biennales sought to bring non-Asian contemporary artists to Asian cities, non-Asian biennales increasingly sought to bring Asian contemporary artists to the attention of international audiences. The São Paulo Biennial has a history of exhibiting Asian artists, as has the Venice Biennale, the world’s oldest continuously running periodic contemporary art exhibition. (Japanese artists have exhibited at the Venice Biennale since 1952.) Through the late 1980s and early 1990s, thematic and national exhibitions in Europe, Australia and the USA also sought to introduce contemporary artists from Asian countries to international audiences. For example, Magiciens de la Terre at the Centre Georges Pompidou in 1989 was one of the first exhibitions to bring together artists from non-Western countries (including many from Asia) in an international contemporary art exhibition (see Exhibitions of Asian Contemporary Art in the West). Exhibitions of Asian contemporary art have also fuelled a growing art market in and outside the region.

More recent developments in Asian contemporary art are less easy to categorize. This is because there is now a much more fluid and dynamic flow of people and ideas both inter- and intra-regionally, partly due to globalization and partly because wealth and success have fostered a new level of artistic mobility. Many important Asian artists now live outside the region (the Chinese post-Tiananmen Square generation moved to New York, Sydney and Paris), while others have shuttled between various Asian and non-Asian cities (Rirkrit Tiravanija between Thailand, Germany and the USA, Michael Lin in Paris and Taipei, and Navin Rawanchaikul between Fukuoka and Chiang Mai), or returned to their countries of origin to make work (Chinese artists Xu Bing and Gu Wenda). Still others have lived and worked in non-Asian countries for years before returning to their homes (Ai Weiwei, Lin Tianmiao and Wang Gongxin lived in New York and returned to China, and Michael Shaowanasai lived in Chicago before returning to Bangkok). In the early 21st century Asian contemporary art reflected this plurality of transnational identities and experiences (see Transculturalism and Asian Diasporic Art ).


J. Clark: Modern Asian Art (Sydney, 1998)

C. Turner, ed.: Tradition and Change: Contemporary Art of Asia and the Pacific (St Lucia, 1993)

Art in Southeast Asia 1997: Glimpses into the Future (exh. cat., Tokyo, Museum of Cont. A.; 1997)

Inside Out: New Chinese Art (exh. cat. ed. M. Gao; New York, Asia Soc. Gals and P.S.1 Contemp. A. Cent.; San Francisco, CA, Asian A. Mus. and MOMA; Monterrey, Mus. A. Contemp.; Seattle, WA, Henry A.G.; Tacoma, WA, A. Mus; Canberra, N.G. and Hong Kong, Mus. A.; 1998–2000)

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