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Asian and Global Artists Re-Imagining Asia in order to Re-Invent Tradition Art History 198 Asian Avant-Garde Art Professor Bert Winther-Tamaki By Michelle Chew June 12, 2012


As of the second half of the twentieth century, parallel realities have been illuminated as an aspect of our new world with the increasing interconnectedness and globalized order that society is continuing to experience. There are plural worlds and layers of worlds that exist on top of one another. As John Clark says in his article The Global, all globalism may have brought to the surface is that we live in a multiverse of many histories, times, and worlds at once. We may have to accept that many aspects of our personal and social cultures were and will remain un-integrated however much they are able to exist in parallel.1 Unlike another art critic and art historian, Jonathan Harris, who defines globalization as our world existing in a single globalized order, Clark says we in fact live in a world with multiple modernities.2 These modernities exist in parallel with one another, with boundaries not always collapsing, but sometimes being reinforced or relocated by globalism. As Clark says, modernity is multi-faced, with one face to the past, one to the future, one to the exogenous, and one to the endogenous. This creates a space for trans-nationality, for artists to cross borders, and for works to circulate with succession of sites.3 Within these multiple modernities that exist in parallel with one another, global artists are creating Asian Avant-Garde art. Avant-Garde is an art movement that began in Europe in the late nineteenth century and it is a militaristic term that means to advance forward. These art movements combined artistic innovation with political dissent and were made up of artists who were activists of progress, artistically and socially.4 The concept of Avant-Garde has to do with creating art with raw energy, and a sense of opposition that is new and shocking. Asian Avant                                                                                                                         1

John Clark, “The Global,” in Asian Modernities, ed. Roger Benjamin. (Sydney, Australia: Power Institute Foundation for Art and Visual Culture and John Clark, 2010), 242. 2 Jonathan Harris, “Introduction: Globalization and Contemporary Art: A Convergence of Peoples and Ideas,” in Globalization and Contemporary Art, ed. Jonathan Harris. (West Sussex, United Kingdom: WileyBlackwell, 2011), 1. 3 Clark, “The Global,” 242. 4  John Merriman and Jay Winter. “Avant-Garde.” Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2006. Gale Virtual Reference Library (CX3447000075).  

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Garde adopted this notion of reinvention. Artists began implementing this concept in Asia in the late twentieth century to create art manifested in materials that redefine institutional rules, and emphasize individuality, and it has continued up to the present. Kanbara Tai writes in his Futurist Manifesto from 1920, Painters be gone! Art critics be gone! Art is absolutely free…say, nerve, reason, sense, sound, smell, color, light, desire, movement, pressure and furthermore, the life itself which stands at the end of all-there is nothing that does not fit the content of art.5 This defines what Asian artists in the second half of the twentieth century, after their era of endogenous and exogenous oppression, want to do with their art. Asian and global artists want to re-imagine Asia in order to re-invent tradition and creating something free, new, and shocking. Shaheen Merali, writer of Re-Imagining Asia, discusses how artists, such as Gabriel Orozco, re-imagine Asia by radically questioning history and existing hierarchies in the realm of the aesthetics. Merali says that, “The Imaginative probabilities associated with cultural signifiers create a floating constituency that can generate images which have been ignored and which recognize a history built on questioning and reflexive debates.”6 Meaning any symbol has the ability to be manipulated and redefined by artists of the Asian Avant-Garde to comment on contemporary society without being restricted to preconceived notions of meaning. Merali continues, Much of the radical questioning of history from a multitude of social groups, including Asian groups and individuals in the western hemisphere, has allowed a re-classification and re-entry within the realm of aesthetics and within culture,                                                                                                                         5

Kanbara Tai, “Futurist Manifesto.” Class Lecture, University of California at Irvine, Irvine, CA, April 10, 2012.   6  Shaheen Merali, “A Great Deal More but Nothing Much…” in Re-Imagining Asia: A Thousand Years of Separation (London: Saqi, 2008), 31.

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where that which was so readily dismissed as secondary and contrived in the late 20th century has been successfully decoded, helping to displace western ideological drives.7 Artists want liberation from a centered perspective of art that is deeply embedded in hierarchies of artistic production, so they are breaking down rooted ideological structures and imagining them in a new light. Merali says that it is the Asian Avant-Garde artists that propel this reclassification of existing hierarchies. Gabriel Orozco is an example of an international artist who is participating in reimagining Asia. Orozco is not Asian, but Mexican, and re-imagines Asia in Ping Pond Table from 1998. He brings life to a ping pong table that consists of four courts and a small pond in the middle. Orozco imagines his own set of ping pong rules in order to define the piece. Ping Pond Table correlates to how Asia is attempting to define itself, Asia is undergoing a much-needed cultural leveling that has started the redistribution of value and the beginnings of contiguity. It is offering grounds for coexistence and neighborliness, creating opportunities for further resistance to the oppressions of the past, and providing a necessary direction of tolerance and comprehension which works towards a larger structure of narration.8 Artists, such as Orozco, are globally participating and collaborating in this larger structure of narration to resist oppressions of the past. Orozco’s Ping Pond Table rules are a framework to understand the artwork in, it is a world inside of a world. In other words, Ping Pond Table is a metaphor for the re-imagining of Asia because Orozco re-imagines the regular rules of the universally known game, ping pong, and makes it into something new. Although Orozco is not Asian, his Mexican nationality is very important in this notion. As Merali says, “contemporary art and thought from and about Asia are neither confined to a single geographical sphere nor

                                                                                                                        7 8

Merali, Re-Imagining Asia, 38.  Ibid., 40.

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defined by the artist’s ethnicity or gender.”9 As Orozco’s Ping Pond Table demonstrates, it is a worldwide collaborative effort of artists, who may have everything to do with Asia, or absolutely nothing, but contribute in order to bring Asian art to a new direction of tolerance and understanding. Orozco’s piece dominantly demonstrates how artists in the Asian Avant-Garde are re-imagining and re-inventing tradition within the interconnectedness of the world, whether Asian or not. The juxtaposition of the past and the present creates complexities with re-imagining Asia due to tradition. Stephen Vlastos helps see how this juxtaposition can be played with and resolved by Asian Avant-Garde artists in his chapter Tradition from his book Mirror of Modernity: Invented Traditions of Modern Japan. Vlastos defines tradition using social scientists’ two conventional notions of it as, a temporal frame (with no clear beginning)…tradition…represents a continuous cultural transmission in the form of discrete cultural practices of “the past” that remain vital in the present…tradition is far more than the frequent reoccurrence over a succession of generations of similar beliefs, practices, institutions, and works…the core of tradition is strongly normative; the intention (and the effect) is to reproduce patterns of culture.10 In summary, it is a temporal frame with no beginning and represents historicized practices that remain vital in the present. Furthermore Vlastos refutes a comparison between customs and traditions, The signifying functions of traditions are variant over time. Traditions are shaped by everything from capitalist markets to technological innovation in the ongoing process of incorporating and reorganizing new knowledge and information…Adjustments are more likely “sticky” than continuous and may provoke moments of resistance. Nevertheless, it would be difficult to                                                                                                                         9

Ibid., 28.  Steven Vlastos, “Tradition” in Mirror of Modernity: Invented Traditions of Modern Japan (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1998), 2.

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differentiate tradition from custom on the basis of rigidity. Customs and tradition appear remarkably flexible.11 Tradition accommodates innovation because they are fixed practices with flexible customs. Vlastos refutes the idea that traditions are invariant, and in fact are variable, and says that customs and traditions are highly flexible, and not rigid, due to changing social climates. Vlastos says all tradition is highly malleable, these modern times, not the past, the mirror of modernity means the invented traditions are invented in a form reflective of our times, needs, conditions, and environment today…They mirror society’s anxieties, fissures, ruptures, and conflict in national society”12 He is saying that something from the past is pulled up and mirrors society’s problems now. Tradition is old, but the concept is new, customs fluctuate, are not continuous, older, or linear, and they are responsive to modern needs. Pakistani artist, Shahzia Sikander, is an artist who re-invents tradition and creates art that pulls something from the past and manipulates it so that it mirrors issues that she deems necessary to address. Sikander also exists in this “multiverse”, coined by Clark, as she is Pakistani, but lives in New York. She takes the tradition of Mughal miniatures and reinterprets and modernizes them, thereby reinventing the tradition of miniature painting. She takes a traditional mode of painting and conflates it with political, social and religious issues like gay rights in Pakistan, and conflict between Islam and Christianity.13 Her piece Perilous Order from 1997, 26x20cm, is a hybrid form. The focal man is her gay friend in Pakistan. Sikander takes the concept of mythology and infuses it into her miniature painting. A recognizable motif is that her gay friend’s leg is turning into a tree. This calls to mythology, when the nymph Daphne                                                                                                                         11

Vlastos, “Tradition”, 6.  Ibid., 9. 13  Shahzia Sikander, Class Lecture, University of California at Irvine, Irvine, CA, May 22, 2012. 12

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transforms into a tree to escape being raped by Apollo in Ovid’s Metamorphosis. While Daphne is escaping rape, Sikander’s male friend is growing into a tree to escape the law. His ignorance of the women that surround him indicates that he is gay.14 Another aspect of Sikander’s reinvention of tradition is that she incorporates layering and larger scaling into her miniatures.15 She modernizes the miniature by making it huge. The layering surfaces intersect each other, interrupting the frames and creating a kinetic movement that is attempting to establish balance. All the frames move into each other and are not distinguished by boundaries. This layering aspect of Sikander’s art mirrors the concept of the globalized world that these Asian AvantGarde artists participate in. As Vlastos says, Sikander takes from the past, but turns it into something unrecognizable to the ancient source. It becomes a mode of social control with political agency and function. Artists, such  as  Gabriel  Orozco,  Mexican,  and  Shahziah  Sikander,  Pakistani,  whether   Asian  or  International,  participate  in  the  Asian  Avant-­‐Garde  art  of  re-­‐imagining  Asia  in   order  to  re-­‐invent  tradition.    They  are  part  of  many  who  are  searching  for  identity  within  a   highly  globalized  world,  after  emerging  from  a  recent  history  of  oppression.    Orozco  and   Sikander  create  Asian  Avant-­‐Garde  art  that  combines  innovation  with  political  dissent  to   create  a  socially  active  art.    Orozco’s  Ping  Pond  Table  uses  Merali’s  concept  of  re-­‐imagining   Asia  by  creating  a  metaphor  with  the  universally  known  game  ping  pong  and  creating  a   new  set  of  rules  or  definition  for  a  universally  known  Asia.    Sikander  uses  Vlastos’  concept   of  tradition  and  re-­‐invents  the  tradition  of  Indian  Mughal  Miniature  painting  by   incorporating  layering  and  larger  scales  into  her  art.    Both  artists  exist  within  the   multiverse  of  many  overlapping,  intersecting,  and  parallel  realities  that  John  Clark                                                                                                                             14

Sikander, Class Lecture.  Ibid.

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emphasizes about  the  existing  world.    Though  Asian  Avant-­‐Garde  art  is  an  extremely   complex  concept,  and  is  not  easily  defineable,  there  are  many  avenues  to  explore  to   uncover  what  it  truly  means  to  be  Asian  in  this  day  and  age.  

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Works Cited Clark, John, “The Global,” in Asian Modernities, edited by Roger Benjamin. Sydney, Australia: Power Institute Foundation for Art and Visual Culture and John Clark, 2010. Harris, Jonathan, “Introduction: Globalization and Contemporary Art: A Convergence of Peoples and Ideas,” in Globalization and Contemporary Art, edited by Jonathan Harris. West Sussex, United Kingdom: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. Merali, Shaheen, “A Great Deal More but Nothing Much…” in Re-Imagining Asia: A Thousand Years of Separation. London: Saqi, 2008. Merriman, John and Jay Winter. “Avant-Garde.” Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2006. Gale Virtual Reference Library (CX3447000075).  

Sikander, Shahzia, Class Lecture, University of California at Irvine, Irvine, CA, May 22, 2012. Tai, Kanbara, “Futurist Manifesto.” Class Lecture, University of California at Irvine, Irvine, CA, April 10, 2012. Vlastos, Steven “Tradition” in Mirror of Modernity: Invented Traditions of Modern Japan. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1998.

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Asian Avant-Garde Art Thesis  

Analyzing and developing a theory of what Asian Avant-Garde Art is.

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