““Asia” is the theme of OPEN, the 7th International Exhibition of Sculptures and Installations this year. With this theme, the first question that comes to mind would be: what do we mean by “Asia”. Where is it, in fact? East Asia and Southeast Asia may have relatively closer cultural and economic ties because of historical influence from the large continental cultures of China and India, but Central Asia and the Middle East feel as distant from the Far East as they do from Europe. “Asia” is a European idea; people living in Asia did not know that they were “Asians” until the 19th century, unlike that of a self-conscious cultural, geographical Europe that has been gradually nurtured since early historical time. So what does Asia mean?
Asia first emerged on the horizon of European imagination with the Greeks, and in later centuries took its modern shape from the Renaissance as characterization of the powerful Ottoman Turks. European thinkers since the Enlightenment developed this imagination of Asia into the shape of an ancient “starting point” of history that is stagnant, despotic and pre-capitalistic, contrasting with Europe as the latest development of history. In the recent century, sophisticated ideological refinements of this view have worked together with colonial invasion and industry to persuade eastern countries that the “modern” option of Europe was the way forward. Then the idea of “Asia” caught on in Asia itself; countries newly re-established as national republican-states since the late 19th century seized the concept of “Asia” to imagine a geographical and political identity that might rival the West. Asian countries either joined the race for colonies or rose against it, and each competed for capital and industrialization. So the imaginary map of Asia grew and took root, becoming a reality under the shadows of colonial wars and civil strife, inspired by imaginations of history that originated in Europe.
Remembering Hegel’s configuration of Asia as the “starting” point of history, today the source of history and its latest development meet face to face. Many Asian countries are equipped to compete in the contemporary world of capital, material production and information exchange. So what is Asian about Asia today?
Unlike Europe, Asia is still not a coherent entity that can be readily defined; for one, it is not easy to envisage an “Asian Union” or Unions. There are numerous religions still claiming vast populations; strikingly different customs and ways of life; dissimilar systems of doing business and managing affairs. Most Asian countries have hung on to vestiges of their historical cultures, providing rich diversity and new scope for creativity. Asia is still a destination for the imagination. It is still rich lore for travel magazines. There is not one Asia but many Asias.
There are also many faces to each Asian country, and the face that best illustrates its robust energy is contemporary visual art. In this face is concentrated the aspirations and the anxieties of the people, where abstract socio-political issues are condensed to particular personal expressions. In the past decade many Asian cities from Middle East to the Far East have started to organize art events along the line of biennials, opening up public spaces for the intervention and interaction of culture.
Contemporary art in Asia has become cultural diplomacy, as well as a laboratory for exploring ideas and modern identity. Furthermore, in its engagement with the West, contemporary Asian art is also the platform on which imagination about the West finds full expression.
If “Asia” as a corollary of the project of modernity was launched by challenges of the West, in turn European modernity was funded, made possible in the 19th century by the market and profits provided by Asia. Therefore, Europe’s imagination of Asia has historical consequences that reverberate to this day. Under our globalized world it is now evident that the modernity originally sought by either side was dependent on the other, they are neither the source nor end of history except that the two coil around each other, not able to let go.
OPENASIA 2OO4 takes the opportunity of this annual forum to invite artists, both Asian and otherwise, to re-visit the historical imagination about this part of the world, to consider the vast social and cultural experiments being conducted there, or simply to imagine afresh the complexities and opportunities of foreign cultures that are just within sight on the horizon. Therefore, artists need not be themselves Asian, and they need not even focus on a theme of Asian origin. The artist may simply be inspired by the allures of a distant shore, a shore that glimmers with distant memories and promises.
The OPEN International Exhibition in Venice, initiated by Paolo De Grandis in cooperation with the City Council of Venice, has steadily progressed into its seventh year. As the years accumulate one sees the horizon of this event expands, opening into geographical territories uncharted by previous representation on the renowned platform of Venice. The openness of OPEN lives up to its promise, and it takes a spirit as enthusiastic and full of curiosity as Paolo De Grandis’ to draw together these far away places. In a sense the original European imagination of “Asia” is embodied in this project of OPEN International
Exhibition, in that the “Other” beyond the eastern shores of the Mediterranean constitutes a seductive mystery that promises both riches and threat. It is with a sense of adventure and love of the exotic that organizers of the event have sought out new participants, so that in OPENASIA 2OO4 this year there are over a dozen Asian artists, and most of them from the Far East. In all, over the past seven years sixty countries have taken part in the event, and among the artists are many illustrious names.
This year we are fortunate to have Yoko Ono with us again. In 2002, for the theme of Imaginaire Feminin, she presented the wonderfully emotional and elegiac Ex It 2002; in a similar spirit of universal compassion the artist has created Onochord to represent her non-national realm of Nutopia. Her presence reminds us of the ideals and values that truly make the mysteriousness of strange lands worth attending to; it is the love of humanity that warms us to other cultures. A generous spirit when he lived, Chinese émigré artist Chen Zhen was always aware of the dangerous liaison between the shamanist business of art and the fragility of living organisms, and his art is a testament to the enduring glory of life. This year we are fortunate to have a major work by him in the exhibition.
The idea of the walk in nature has furnished Richard Long with projects for over forty years, and these self-defined, disciplined exercise of the mind and body find echoes among English Romantics and Daoist spiritualists alike. The idea of being on the move has a totally different significance in the Cuban artist Kcho whose art takes the trappings of voyaging and the debris of voyage as proof of the human. Kcho’s Jungle deals with the drama of a country that is caught in the dynamics of an ideological historical destiny and the natural tropical powers of nature; the story has a familiar ring to non-western countries now entangled in the linear temporality of a determinist modernity. Hu Xiangcheng’s Way of the Way dramatizes just such a situation with his convoluted highway.
The idea of travelling between Asia and the West in cultural imagination, with its consequence of identity, is explored by works like Gli Etruschi in Oriente, Melita Couta’s Bazaar in Cocoons and Virginia Ryan’s Pot of Gold. The project Isola di Pasqua attempts a symbolic bond between East and West through a work dedicated to Easter Island, geographic “navel” of the globe, which will in fact include a performance of dancers from the islands. Travelling beyond the familiar transform the eyes and canonizes the artwork, and this form of travel is Marianne Heske’s Homage to Pierre Restany, which is a boulder relocated from Norway to Lido. Addressing the theme of this year’s OPENASIA directly is Rape of Europa by Nikos Kouroussis, whose anthology of historical pictures of this theme is being treaded on the ground as the audience passes through it. The story of desire and abduction that plays out its drama in this myth symbolizes the grand classical wars between Europe and Asia, and today this dynamics is being played out in the display, seduction and visual apprehension of artworks on the platform of Venice.
Poetic text features in a number of works this year. First of all the Fluxus hero Ben Vautier and his familiar rope-like script will appropriate the territory of Lido with his proclamations; Isola di Pasqua presents sculptures engraved with poetry; Alain Arias-Misson’s Angelical Poemobile carries in it transparent cut-out images of human figure covered with poetry to hint at a platonic humanity within a world of machination; Ye Fang’s Sails are pierced with phrases from a poetry game that is both literary diversion and visual decoration; finally, from Tan Swie Hian, a man of letters comes the witty work Prosperity Cake, which refers to a simple pun that underlines the common man’s simple wish. The lightness of words, its linear graphics and its intellectual dimension transform the three-dimensional sculptural object. Writing also turns objects into a kind of banners, so that they proclaim power, magic and orientation. They confront the viewer with claims and pronouncements so as to declare a sphere of influence. Here it is interesting to note a Far Eastern, especially Chinese, cultural appreciation of the incarnation of the word in public space. This is because in China a literary tradition within the political order has literally canonized the written word, so much so that the written word has come to represent concrete presence as much as the object itself.
The myth of “Asia” is not always shared by those living within Asia itself, especially when this idea of Asia starts to demand a multinational allegiance. The concept of Asia is inseparable from 19th century western colonialism, hence artworks that tackle socio-cultural issues generally take a bipolar view with the West as imagined interlocutor. Otherwise the “Asian” imagination often concerns the state of fall from grace. Chinese artist Hu Xiangcheng’s Way of the Way satirizes the mad logic of development, while Liu Jianhua’s Memory Transformation laments the devastation of a cultural space undergoing modernization. The veteran Balinese sculptor Nyoman Nuarta has explored a wide range of themes, but always revolving around Indonesian modernity and its spiritual crisis. The young Chinese artist Ye Hongxing simply revels in the narcissism of contemporary commercial culture.
Artists who celebrate the beauty of refinement often turn to traditional art as they seek forms that have been distilled by the trial of time. Lucia Cheung from Macao has a delicate femininity that shields its love of luxuriance behind a stylized design. By comparison the rich organic structure of Fathiya Tahiri’s jewelry brings out the Moroccan exuberance in form. Both artists bring to us the magic of distant cultures. A more conscious use of indigenous language is the religious icon of Taiwanese artist Li Chen, whose full bulbous forms suggest lightness, like floating clouds. The Vietnamese artist Trinh Tuan celebrates the ancient art of painted lacquer objects, and his sensitivity is cultivated by the agrarian patience of his country. Formal beauty is the subject of Carmel Mooney’s glass birds, as are the glass heads of Ursula Huber; both artists making good use of the superb craftsmanship of glass in Venice. In terms of western classic forms, Vittore Frattini owe his taste to the Italian tradition as well as Cornelia Kubler Kavanagh’s sense of form is also disciplined by classical sculpture, while Luigi Ontani creates hybrids using Greek mythological forms. Even artwork with architectural rigor like that of Emanuele Viscuso cannot fail to take into account the beauty of reason so engrained in the culture. Ricarda Peters is influenced by the rhythm of European architectural structure, and her chromatic installation defers to the cosmic mystery of light as expounded by Goethe in his theory of colors. The world of architecture has also guided the imagination of Venetian master Ludovico De Luigi, here as a realm of dream that hovers from the Renaissance to early industrial revolution. From Middle East Esther Naor has brought a large cube of rice; enigmatic as an impenetrable riddle, it symbolizes home, but a home that is fated to sink, even though it is made of the most ancient sustenance of mankind.
Two artists this year have taken on the realm of sound as sculptural work, one literally, the other metaphorically. Max Neuhaus’ Moment creates sonorous definition of the sculptural space, and Lim Hyoung Jun refers to sounds suggested by sound-producing instruments used in his social critical installation.
Since 2000, each OPEN exhibition has been organized around a specific theme. 2000 was the Humanist Face in Global Culture; 2001 again emphasized the phenomenon of globalization, this time cultural globalization, as a response to the subject of that summer’s Venice Biennale. 2002 was devoted to female artists with the title Imaginaire Feminin, and it brought a very different group of artists to Venice than would otherwise. 2003 was dedicated to the 60th International Exhibition of Cinematic Art in Venice. This year the gaze roams to Asia. Even though it will never be possible to bring every artist around to a specific subject, neither is it always possible, nor desirable, for the most inventive curator to bring the interpretation of an artwork around to a predetermined angle, yet the idea of a thematic show provides a locus for the creative mind to explore, if it so chooses. It also provides coherency to an event so that discussions and debates may be reasonably structured. The theme of Asia is a vast one, not only does the subject itself deserves further investigation, the geographical vision conjured up by the word Asia also means there are many more countries to draw into this activity. Here one senses the scope that lies in store for this annual event, and the vast opportunity for it to become a major center of cultural exchange. The indefatigable energy of Paolo De Grandis is again to be congratulated, and compliments are also due to the organizational expertise of Paivi Tirkkonen and the management of Carlotta Scarpa. Lastly, one should not forget the context of each year’s OPEN exhibition, which is held during celebrations of the Film Festival. The plastic art of open air sculpture and the dramatic art of cinema occupy mutually exclusive territories, one is principally spatial and stationary, while the other is temporal and sealed in its magic box, so that they form complimentary allies on the same platform. Where the two arts do come together is their claim to public imagination; they both occupy public spheres that are civic and social, and accord fresh dimensions to our public life. Through cinema we learn new narrative languages that open onto the multiple lives of others, while in the urban setting public sculptures provide new visual orientations. OPENASIA 2OO4 is the first edition of this series of annual events when the magnanimous guiding personality of Pierre Restany is absent, and it is with warm memories I here pay tribute to his gift to art. In the current exhibition, I am pleased to point out, Pierre Restany has continued to lend us support through several essays previously written for exhibiting artists, so that we know his spirit is yet with us.