IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 17 | Asian Art

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Visual Art Impressions

This year I travelled to Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, China, and Japan to research the work of young visual artists. I concentrated on young artists who had not yet been absorbed into the local establishment. My research was focused on the preparation of Platform 2 (the second artbook published by Canvas Foundation), in which work of these artists is presented. I met critics, art historians, exhibit organizers, museum curators, art academy teachers, gallery owners and, of course, many artists. I will briefly discuss some of my impressions of the visual art situations in the countries that I visited.

By Martijn Kielstra


The high speed of change in Asia had raised great expectations. In general modernization and a changing political climate are creating better opportunities for modern art. When I visited Tokyo, I expected a dynamic young art scene, as a lot of Japanese artists had emerged on to the international stage during the past few decades, but the studios were hard to find. Not many people in Tokyo were able to give me information about them. Take galleries, for instance. Many of them work with a virtually unchanging set of mainly foreign artists. Young Japanese artists can only show their work in these galleries by paying a high rent.
As a critical statement against this expensive 'gallery on hire' system, the artist Tsuyoshi Ozawa created the Nasibu Gallery, the smallest gallery in the world, in 1993. From time to time Japan's finest young artists are still on show (for free) in this mobile gallery. Galleries which do present young Japanese artists are often not aware of 'young' developments in the rest of Tokyo. The independent curator and critic Fumio Nanjo explained to me that this lack of knowledge about others flows from the insular nature of the Japanese. In other words, you just mind your own business. This may be true, but there are also other developments.
Previous generations had the drive and the ambition to achieve international success; many of them left for Europe or the US. Partially due to the economic crisis, today's youth find it hard to escape the vicious circle of disinterest of their own country. But cream will always rise to the top. Mariko Mori is becoming a new international star. Her photography calls for an 'eternal harmony of human spirit'. I also enjoyed a multi-media rock experiment by Hiroyuki Matsukage and Muneteru Ujino. For the period of one year they are combining (graphic) design, photography, performance, and rock music.

Between layers
In contrast to the Japanese invisibility of young artists, their Vietnamese counterparts pop up all over the place. This is true of both the typical paintings for foreigners, to be found in hundreds of galleries of all sizes in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, and of more progressive experimental art on show at foreign exhibitions. A walk along the commercial 'street-galleries' quickly shows that it is mostly the same artists on show. At international exhibitions outside Vietnam a limited circle of artists is also continuously on display. Catalogues of earlier exhibitions are often the only source of information for foreign exhibitors. In Hanoi I searched for artists between the two visible layers of galleries and international catalogues. But very few young artists explore experimental imagery or themes that deviate from the Vietnamese mainstream art so popular with foreigners. And it is exactly those who do, like Minh Thanh, Van Cuong, and the female artist Dinh Y Nhi, who are welcomed by the international art trade.
'Art from Very Young Artists' was the name of one of the exhibitions I visited. It showed work by artists in their early twenties. As the title suggested, the work was indeed very young. But nevertheless I had never seen their style and way of working before in Vietnam. It goes to show that more and more young artists are finding their own way. The artist Truong Tan has greatly influenced this development. His work unmistakably has homosexuality as its theme; obviously a rather controversial subject in Vietnam. Tan has shown that art can also be used as a medium for engagement.

Social Misery
Engagement or social conflict is the driving force behind the work of many young artists in Indonesia. Their social environment forms an inescapable source of inspiration for their work. According to critic Jim Supangkat, a lot of work is no more than an outcry or a slogan. There is no real social criticism: artists are too much a part of society to be able to step back and comment. Artists such as Agus Suwage and Agung Kurniawan heed this criticism and are trying to identify their position in society. Kurniawan explained to me that he is growing tired of expressing social misery over and over in his work, but at the same time he cannot ignore it.
Younger artists like Isa Perkasa and Nandang Gawe in Bandung and S. Teddy D. and Yustoni Volunteero in Yogyakarta seem to be even more radical. If the political situation in Indonesia ever really 'normalizes', it will be interesting to see how the artistic creativity of these artists will develop. Meanwhile, art critic Dwi Marianto stressed to me that young artists do not confine themselves to this 'conflict art'. Take Diah Yulianti for example. She has just finished the art academy in Yogyakarta and in her work shows the beauty and the diversity of her childhood surroundings, the natural beauty of Kalimantan villages.

Global centre
Although I focused mainly on two-dimensional art, I had the impression that a new wave of art in China highlighting the things which interest and influence the youth of today, apparently without passing judgement. These artists, still in their twenties, were in school when China was opening up to foreign ideas and culture. They see, and make use of, the new possibilities. The English language, pop music, cartoons, and most consumer goods are as everyday to them as to someone in Amsterdam or London.
According to art critic Li Xianting, Fang Lijun's 'Water' paintings, although silently hiding something behind the stillness, marks Fang's movement to a more silent method of dealing with scenes of daily life. These 'Water' pieces were recently on show in Fang Lijun's solo exhibition in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. The representation of daily life charged with a sense of alienation, complacency, and apathy has become a new and more and more recognized visual language to many of these artists.
Meanwhile, China's art world is not only dreaming but also talking about China as the new global centre for modern art. The rapid growth of China as a world power, the new conservatism in art and even the post-colonial placement of China's modern art in the West should make such a development possible. China is teeming with happening, but it is one of those places where the infrastructure still leaves much to be desired yet. In the meantime, young artists worry about their work disappearing into foreign collections and not being available in China when the modern art museums finally arrive.
I was only in Thailand for a week, too short to learn about the most recent developments of the artistic climate. Anyway, in Bangkok I was almost laughed away by young students who heard I was looking for artists with a grounding in painting, drawing, or graphical techniques. I wonder: in a country where interest in and understanding of modern art is so minimal, making foreign attention financially important at the very least, how many of these students will still be exhibiting in five years' time.

Not understood
This brings me to some concluding remarks. One of the great frustrations for many contemporary artists I met is the fact that their work is barely seen or understood in their own country. It is mainly foreigners and art academy students who turn up for exhibition openings. Participating in exhibitions abroad is not satisfying enough in the long run, and leaving their country seems to be the only option for some.
Naturally artists should not be guided by commercial motifs. But, on the other hand, I think it is a mistake for young artists to think that they 'have' to make installations. Bangkok's art academies have some good teachers in the field of three-dimensional art. But in many other countries, like China, courses at art academies still tend to be preponderantly conservative. Many multi-media artists have a 'classical' background. Over the years they have also learned about other media and finally became strong in that area too. Perhaps for many young artists that is still a good 'road' to follow.


Martijn Kielstra and Joris Escher founded Canvas World Art in 1995. This is a Dutch organisation that supports and promotes young artists from Asia and Latin America. Work of the artists is published in books (the Platform series) and exhibited. Canvas also leases the work to companies and other institutions in the Netherlands.In order to present a continuous picture of artists in Asia and Latin America, Kielstra and Escher make regular visits to the artists.

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 17 | Asian Arts