The Heart of Asia in New York
In the Asian culture magazine Theme, the Wooster Collective declared that art in Beijing was undergoing a groundbreaking “renaissance,” creating an “exploding art market consumed almost entirely by foreigners.”
It appears that much of the Western art world is now looking to the East; and their gaze is extending far beyond already familiar hubs like Japan. This year, the Guggenheim held its first retrospective dedicated to a Chinese-born artist, Cai Guo-Qiang: I Want to Believe. In the Asian culture magazine Theme, the Wooster Collective declared that art in Beijing was undergoing a groundbreaking “renaissance,” creating an “exploding art market consumed almost entirely by foreigners.” Artists from countries such as Thailand, Vietnam, and India are also receiving critical acclaim in galleries and museums across America. But the Asia Society has seen and been at the forefront of many of these cultural—and political—developments for decades. They are an international non-partisan, non-profit institution dedicated to promoting ideas, understanding and dialogue between Asia and the United States through arts and culture, as well as policy, business, and education.
Melissa Chiu is the Director of the Asia Society Museum in New York and Vice President of Global Art Programs. Previously, she was the Museum’s first curator of contemporary Asian and Asian-American art and is considered a leading authority in the field. Chiu is also a visiting professor at the CUNY Graduate School and lectures frequently at universities such as Harvard. She is the author of numerous books on contemporary Chinese art. We had the pleasure of talking with her recently to discuss Asia Society’s work in arts and culture, the curatorial process, and what this all means in today’s increasingly complex and global world.
Could you tell us about the history and background of the Asia Society?
Melissa Chiu : Asia Society was founded in 1956 by John D. Rockefeller Ⅲ. We hold a collection of traditional Asian art called the Rockefeller Collection. And just last year we announced plans to establish a contemporary art collection. We hold exhibitions of traditional and contemporary Asian art, which tour nationally and internationally.
In terms of the contemporary art initiative, it really began in the early 1990’s. We were one of the first museums to actively present contemporary art from Asia. On the flip side, we also do traditional shows that highlight new scholarship in the field.
I think that we have built a reputation in the field for often presenting new material. The Chinese exhibition Inside Out: New Chinese Art was one of the first major museum shows of the material, as well as Edge of Desire in 2005, which presented Indian contemporary art.
What is the response to Asia Society’s work from inside of Asia, in countries like China?
M : Well, we have an office in Shanghai and we’ve been working with China for a number of years, even dating back to when China first opened up. There was a China Council established that was more focused on the policy side of things. The museum has also worked with the Chinese Ministry of Culture to bring antiquities here to the United States for various different exhibitions. And likewise with the Inside Out exhibition, which for many people in China, is considered a real landmark because it was the first major US presentation.
Would you say that China is one of the key emerging areas in contemporary art right now?
M : I think that people are interested in China right now. We have plans to do a show in the fall called Art and China’s Revolution, which looks at work from the 50’s through the 70’s. We are looking at the modern period, or the period just prior to the experimental art movements of right now. It’s something of a blind spot in Chinese art history right now. And we’re also seeing a lot more interest in India and Southeast Asia as well. There is a general level of more awareness that there is important work produced outside of the usual art centers.
Is that something that you keep in mind when presenting exhibits, to focus outside of parts of Asia that most Americans are already familiar with?
M : Yes. We’re always looking to new areas of focus and not just large-scale survey shows, but also individual artist focus, exhibitions in a retrospective format and profiling emerging artists. Our geographical focus is on more than 20 countrie. There is no set formula. It depends what’s going on. We have an exhibition of contemporary art from Pakistan next May, which I think will interest a lot of people. There is a really dynamic thing going on there, especially in Lahore. So, it’s looking to these areas in Asia where there is really an emerging scene.
There is also a lot of interest in what is going on with artists in Iran. Please tell us more about the recent exhibit Ardeshir Mohassess: Art and Satire in Iran.
M : It's work mostly from the 70s and 80s. The curators of the show, Shirin Neshat and Nikzad Nodjoumi, were both artists of a younger generation who grew up in Iran looking at Mohassess’s work. They approached us to do a show to recognize his contribution to the idea of politics and art and satire, which really comes together in his work to tell an interesting story of Iran pre-revolution.
It seems like similar themes and context will appear in Art and China’s Revolution:
M : Yeah. So much of what gets shown right now from China is really an experimental, younger generation of artists. And there is very little appreciation of what actually went before that. In fact in much of my research, many of the mid-career generation Chinese artists in their early 50s, would say to me: “if you really want to understand my work you have to go back to the Cultural Revolution,” because that was a really formative period for that generation. And it’s become a reference point for younger artists who never experienced it as well. So, with that in mind, we wanted to show this kind of work to actually connect what is essentially the Maoist period to what is going on today. I think that once you start to look at it more closely, you will see a lot of the iconography and references are still in usage in China even though the politics have changed.
Asia Society seems to have a rather extensive focus.
M : Yeah. I think our reach is far beyond New York because of our centers. We have eleven centers across the United States and Asia, so we are increasingly thinking of ourselves as a global organization rather than an American organization.
But your mission remains the same, to build a bridge?
M : Exactly … to truly connect Asia and America.
And would you say that you are attempting to do this mainly through arts and culture?
M : I think that is one way. We are a very multi-disciplinary organization. Arts and culture is perhaps one of the most visible presences here in New York. But we also do business and policy events and education. In terms of education, we’ve been responsible for establishing international schools in the United States as well as teacher education.
Asia Society also seems to have a concentration on cinema, for example, hosting the Asian-American International Film Festival.
M : That’s right. It’s grown from a longtime collaboration with Asian Cinevision, which is an Asian-American organization. We really want to have connections with more community-minded organizations.
Is that something that Asia Society is striving to do, build relationships with the Asian-American community?
M : Definitely. You might remember our show, just the year before last, which is still on tour actually, called One Way or Another: Asian-American Art Now. It was one of the major shows that we mounted for our 50th anniversary. So partly, it’s as much about connecting with Asia, in terms of our mission, as connecting with the Asians who reside here in the United States, the Asian-American community. We thought it important to do an exhibition that recognized the diversity of that artistic community here in the US.
What are some of the challenges and barriers the institution has encountered over the years?
M : I think for a long time, there was very little interest in contemporary art from Asia. Until even five years ago, we were really in the process of building audiences and support for our activities. However, I think things have really changed now and we’re working a lot more on educating people about where and how these artists have developed, what the basis is for their success, what it means to work in Asia and things like that. If anything we have increased our educational activities on that side of things while, at the same time, increasing the number of exhibitions of contemporary artists. So, we are, on the one hand, responding to levels of interest, but also building and consolidating on our early work in the field.
So, do you feel that there is a certain “Asian” aesthetic? I mean what does “Asian” really denote?
M : I mean, it's still kind of a construct that is used outside of the region rather than inside of it! Very few people think of themselves as "Asian". They think of themselves as Chinese, or Malaysian, or Vietnamese. But I think that there are certain shared or common experiences within Asian that help us to explain what the experiences might be. I think that one of the interesting things about being in an institution that is based in America, but concentrated on another part of the world, is that it often takes that remove from the region to fully understand it. In fact, many of my colleagues visiting here from Asia often say that they learn things about Asia that they could never in Asia! That’s because we have a very pan-Asian expertise within a lot of different Asian countries. We are not just focused on one. So, we are able to, I think, see trends within the region or see things that perhaps you’re not able to assess fully living in the region.
What is in the future for Asia Society?
M : There are a couple of things: to increase the activities in our centers and integrate them more with New York, and also to see the establishment of museum facilities in other centers. I think that really lends itself well to us in terms of real cultural exchange, but also taking into account local needs. So I think it’s about connecting the institution globally to what we are doing and being able to draw a truly international audience.
[Editor] Mark Lee