Going Glocal – FOCUS ASIA at Art Toronto

Reviewed in this article: Beyond Geography, flagship FOCUS ASIA exhibition for Art Toronto

“Cloudscapes” by Xiaojing Yan
2009, paper and natural reed

It’s no coincidence that Art Toronto, Toronto’s biggest international art fair, chose “Focus ASIA” as it’s theme this year, inviting galleries from Asian countries including China, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, and the Philippines to show. The rise of the museum in China occupies a large amount of mental real estate for anyone involved in the contemporary art world. A bourgeoning “middle class” (and I use this term as a catch-all phrase out of convenience) is feeding into the development of a luxury market designed to supply the demand for status object – fine art (both of the classical and contemporary variety) is one such object.

“Beyond Geography,” the flagship exhibition of Art Toronto’s FOCUS ASIA programming, was curated by Shengtian Zheng, independent curator, scholar, and Managing Editor for Yishu Journal of Contempoary Chinese Art, and Katherine Don, independent curator and founder of Red Box Studio (Beijing). Taking on as broad a rubric as “Asian Art” as a theme is risky, but the works in the small exhibition stand their ground. In their statement, the curators ask the viewers to consider what kind of art they expect from artists who are of Asian descent or happen to work in Asia.

There is a distinct thread in the exhibition of an interrogation of Western art and culture as read in an Asian context. In Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s series of video installations, “The Village and Elsewhere,” the artist engages Thai locals – Buddhist monks, villagers – to view and discuss iconic pieces of Western art. Texas-born Rutherford Chang’s video installation “Cheng Zhan De Fan Nao” (2012) takes the pilot of the television show Growing Pains (one of the first Western programs aired in China) and dubs it in non-native English; the installation is played on a 80s-vintage television set as viewers sit on a well-loved den couch.

Not all the works are so obviously about cultural exchange. Xiaojing Yan’s evocative “Cloudscapes” (2009, paper and natural reed) references the forms of classical Chinese landscape, using traditional materials of natural reed and paper, while placing it within a (Western) installation context. But there is a common visual thread between these works: an absence of distinctly “Asian” motifs, and an aura of internationalism.

“Cheng Zhan De Fan Nao”
by Rutherford Chang, 2012
Video installation

This point was further illustrated by “Beyond Geography” curators at an accompanying panel where they discussed the topic, “No More Westerns: How are Artists Creating Art for Consumption?” Shengtian Zheng described the breakout of Chinese art onto the global scene in the late 1990s, and the correlative shift in artists away from creation based on art practice and towards a practice based on market demands. This resulting “international” style avoids the direct political references of the 1980s and instead focuses on individual or personal concerns. The works presented in “Beyond Geography” certainly conform to this thesis but, if you spend a bit of time with them, an undercurrent of geographic (and political) specificity surfaces.

Art Toronto 2012 was held October 26-29 at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.