The 21st century has been labelled “the Asian Century,” and as the balance of economic and geo-political power shifted from America and Europe to Asia, so too the international art world changed. Asian artists are firmly established in major art galleries across the world and many live and work in leading art world centres such as New York and Berlin. The preceding decades have seen Asian art become a truly global phenomenon, and a few artists establish themselves on a global platform; the multi-million pound canvasses of Yue Minjun or the solemn family portraits of Zhang Xiogang, both painters associated with the cynical realism movement. Others will recognise the photographs of Morimura Yasumasa or the paintings of Masami Teraoka which draw heavily on the ukiyo-e woodblock tradition of Japan. Takeshi Murakami has established himself as the “bad boy,” of Asian art, his iconic and outlandish manga-inspired sculptures and paintings being perhaps the most recognisable works in Asian art today. But for many, beyond a scattering of recognisable names and images, the world of Asian art remains confusing and impenetrable.
Asian Art Now from the Monacelli Press aims to take this art - the modern art produced by more than half the population of the world - and reveal it to us, placing it in context and explaining some of the troublesome aspects of this dynamic and thrilling phenomenon. Who are these artists? What do these works mean? And perhaps most interestingly, how are these artists reinterpreting and updating tradition?
The book provides both an overview of contemporary artists and trends, and a much needed scholarly glance at what is a surprisingly rich tradition of modern art across the Asian continent. And it goes well beyond the obvious modern capitals of Asian art. Here is the Mongolian Chaulun Baatar, Vietnamese photo artist Dinh Q. Le. Almagul Menlibayeva of Kazahkstan, Shirin Neshat of Iran. And the breadth is matched by the depth; from paintings in oils and ink, to new media and installations which are startling in their ambition.
The authors begin by laying out across an introductory chapter a short history of modern Asian Art. Yes, Yoko Ono is here, but so too many other artists and movements sadly absent from many mainstream timelines of modern art; The Gutai Group, Shozo Shimamoto, Liu Guosong, Zhuang Zhe. The book is then broken into four sections; Rethinking Tradition, Politics Society and the State, Asian Pop Consumerism and Stereotypes and Urban Nature. These four sumptuously illustrated chapters offer a headlong rush through the marvels of the contemporary art of Asia. The authors authoritatively identify the key figures and allow us to encounter a multitude of very different artworks while never losing the cohesion of their narrative. This is a recent history written in a sharp and straightforward manner, the general narrative touching down once or twice a page on a short biography or explanatory passage. It is a grand tour that is over before you know it.
There are some exceptional works on show. I wanted to review this book because I hoped there would be a lot here I had never encountered before - I was not disappointed. In particular I have this book to thank for introducing me to two wonderful artists, both of whom featured on the blog last week. Erina Matsui, a precocious and wildly imaginative 26 year old painter in oils who takes inspiration from toys and pop culture in her large scale self portraits and Ah Xian, a sculptor of breathtaking ceramic busts and an artist who fuses tradition and modernity with incredibly simplicity.
“Today, contemporary Asian art is both sympathetic to the cultural and historical frameworks within which it is produced, but also, clearly, attuned to the global networks and international marketplaces in which is it frequently exhibited, bought and sold. To grasp its history we must decode an intense, multifaceted dialogue between cultures not just within Asia, but also in Europe and America.”The book does a fine job of meeting the challenge the authors set. A beautifully illustrated overview of contemporary trends, an investigation of tradition and a reference book with an extensive glossary of artists biographies, lists of museums and galleries. And of course a treasure trove of art which will be unfamiliar to many in the west. If you are ready for the formidable and inspiring world of Asian Art there is likely no better companion than this.
More Asian art on Art Inconnu - India, Iran, Japan, Phillipines, Singapore, Vietnam.