apexart :: Conference Program :: Aki Hoashi

Lost in Translation? — Not if you create an alternative space for exchange
Aki Hoashi

The Urge to Connect and the Rules of Engagement
Cultural exchanges have a long history, although at the official level, they have long been mostly part of cultural 'diplomacy' among diplomats and elites. The importance of cultural 'relations' in promoting culture at mass level, with a touch of propaganda in some cases, was acknowledged after the First World War, and increasingly so during the Cold War. Today, with the surge of new technologies that make communication and exchanges instantaneous, in real-time, cultural 'relations' have become cultural 'exchanges,' encouraging broad and diverse interactions at multiple levels, from high to low, fast to slow, mainstream to alternative.

But with a broader range of exchanges, information has become a tool for competitive edge, and its sources, media, and propagation, effective strategies for communication. Therefore, whether or not one has a platform or forum for exchange becomes inevitably decisive in some ways for the propagation of cultural information and, in some cases, for the establishment of hegemony in discourse.
With particular reference to the Asian region, arts communities in many of the countries have struggled to position themselves within, along with, on a par with, and independent from Western discourses. Academic and practitioner alike have sought to grasp themselves in the contexts of postmodernism, postcolonialism, and other theories so as to make sense of what exactly they are doing, and to present and assert themselves in the face of those who confront them about their identity.

In the case of Japan, its global economic success from the late 1970s to the '80s urged the Japanese on to assert their position and respond to international events. Spending a substantial amount of money in support of the Gulf War was certainly one move towards being admitted to the 'club.'(1) Saying 'no' to the Americans became something fashionable to wear to the argument.(2) But these phenomena tended to be a calling for 're-action' than 'pro-action,' and would never have occurred without referring to the 'West' as a crutch for legitimacy.

This sociopolitical climate affected the Japanese cultural climate. It urged us to voice contemporary ideas, and let the world know that we are not just economic animals, but our culture actually had had a life after ukiyo-e, equally as influential as our mighty economy. Exhibitions like Against Nature: Japanese Art in the Eighties (1989–91), A Primal Spirit: Ten Contemporary Japanese Sculptures (1990), and Japanese Art after 1945: Scream Against the Sky (1994) were organized at a time when such presentations were much in demand. These shows were significant in the way they showed contemporary and avant-garde Japanese art as curated or co-curated by the Japanese, projecting our most recent perspectives on our own culture. But it projected images of Japan that 'corresponded to the flavor favored by the international arts community.'(3) Today, with the manga and anime boom in popular culture and the celebrity of Takashi Murakami on the contemporary art scene, as well as its design and fashion in general, perhaps Japan has finally left behind being a market follower and become one of the market leaders, or at least a trendsetter.

The shifting Japanese attitudes in grappling with the global context and its consequences demonstrate how every non-Western country and culture deals with ‘engaging’ with the world, particularly with the West. What should be our rules of engagement? Should we assimilate to or isolate from them? Could we possibly take the best of both worlds? What are the options?

Many countries and cultures in Asia have to a greater or lesser degree shared this dilemma of 'seeking' the best way of defining and positioning themselves. Little were we 'Asians' aware that 'Asia is necessary for Europe because, without positing it, Europe could not be marked as a distinct and distinguishable body.'(4) The Japanese have always felt the need to shout from the periphery or lure the West with exotic perfume to gain recognition But the fact is we had been acknowledged by the West from the outset, as Naoki Sakai confirms:

And let us not be negligent of a historical verity that such a situation did not exist until the late 19th century, so that, before that time, the majority of residents in Asia did not know they were living in Asia and referred to as Asians by Europeans. Only in the late 19th century did a few intellectuals begin to seriously consider the plausibility of turning the objects 'Asians' into the transnational and regional subjects of Asia.(5)

So why have we been struggling to posit ourselves against the West, when they already know about us? What is the sense of this duplication of effort?

The issue is, thus, one of hegemony, not category, according to Yasuko Furuichi:

Until then, Asia had been seen in a temporal and spatial context, but a hierarchical value was applied as we entered the modern era. As result, an idea of Asia based on Western modernism that perceives it as a region 'other than' the West prevailed over the idea of Asia represented by Asians themselves.(6)

Hegemony is what determines the rules of engagement, and any culture or entity would rather play the game by its own rules than those set by others. Asians very much needed to cooperate so as to make themselves visible, a theme commonly discussed in economic forums like ASEAN. But with so much historical baggage on our backs, it was not until the 1990s, particularly with the postcolonial mood so prevalent in the region, that Asian countries took a serious interest in engaging with their neighboring countries.(7)

Setting the Stage
I have had the opportunity to assist visual arts programs of the Japan Foundation Asia Center (hereafter Asia Center) planned and organized by its exhibition coordinator Yasuko Furuichi since 1997, and have found the experience to be illuminating with regard to the way the programs have been planned and implemented.(8) The Asia Center's mission and efforts have certainly not been to play the hegemony game. Nonetheless, many of the projects were aimed at balancing the cultural hegemony of the West or of Japan in Asia by building platforms and forums for mutual exchanges where peers in the region could find face-to-face engagement.

The Asia Center's visual arts programs, whose the actual contents ranged from exhibitions to projects and symposiums, aimed not only to introduce the contemporary art of the region to Japan, but also to make efforts to foster a platform for earnest mutual exchange. It goes without saying that the success of these endeavors in the later stages were the fruit of trial and error. I would like to highlight some of those activities of the Asia Center as I describe the process of building platforms, and at the same time touch on concurrent events that created synergy in promoting the region.

Breaking the Mold: Alternative 'Discoursing'
Whereas the exhibition programs were mainly intended to put different aesthetic and curatorial concepts into practice,(9) the symposiums were organized to complement these practices and provide a framework for discourse. Four international symposiums, bringing together prominent and active members working in the field of Asian contemporary art have been organized in the past decade: the Contemporary Art Symposium in 1994, The Potential of Asian Thought; the Symposium in 1997, Asian Contemporary Art Reconsidered; the International Symposium in 1999, Asian Art: Prospects for the Future; and the International Symposium in 2002, Asia in Transition: Representation and Identity.

The first symposium concluded with the participating panelists completely exhausted from being 'lost in translation.' Hideki Nakamura, a Japanese art critic who chaired two sessions, analyzed the causes of his exhaustion as the difficulty of translating or interpreting the complex discussion simultaneously into three languages, Japanese, English, and Chinese, the differences in the participants' backgrounds, and the complexity of establishing a common context for concepts like 'modernism' and 'realism.'(10) Modernism and realism were discussed at times as philosophical ideas, and at others as an artistic style accepted and appropriated from the West by Asian countries. The participants were unable to reach a consensus in how these terms were to be used in their debate. For example, Ichiro Hariu, a prominent Japanese art critic, frustrated by what he observed in the sessions, criticized the use of the term 'realism' as follows:

[T]he 'contemporaneity' of art in Asia comes from the contradiction of reality, and the center of sociocultural contradiction. In effect, it tries to reflect these social contradictions. Furthermore, it is not trying to fulfill empty wishes of paintings and sculptures, but trying to become an art of reality. I see realism as exactly that, and not as an artistic style…. I am very frustrated with the fact that realism has been described as a 'school'…. (11)

The participants thus urgently needed to define the terms they introduced into their debates before they could even begin to exchange ideas, and make those exchanges worthwhile. Some of the participants accepted these terminologies in a dichotomous framework of East and West, while others resisted such a simplification of perspectives around this issue. Having acknowledged the problems with initiating the symposium by seeking to establish 'the potential of Asian thought,' Toshio Shimizu, a curator who chaired one of the sessions, commented in the post-symposium session, 'There is a need to establish definitions (of terminologies and ideas) through a collaborative process.'(12) The organizers acknowledged this, and sought a new starting point, as well as a new direction, for the forum.(13)

To reassess how this kind of forum should be managed, and to further pursue the potential for mutual understanding and exchange of ideas, a second symposium was organized in 1997. By then, the Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art had been held twice (in 1993 and 1996), Singapore Art Museum had been inaugurated (1996), the first Kwangju Biennale in Korea had been held (1995), and the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum in Japan was in the preparatory stages for its opening in 1999. Such developments at the institutional and local-government level had encouraged more frequent exchanges within the region and improved the level of communication among members working in the field. Accordingly, the main theme of the second symposium was examining how Asian contemporary art was regarded in the exhibition and museum systems of the late 1990s. Curators were identified as 'cultural sentinels'(14) by Apinan Poshyananda, who described them as mediators, selectors, who, in the worst cases, were criticized for being 'brokers whose power and position allow them to mediate in areas of economic exchanges, namely cultural goods.'(15) The main thrust of his assertions contained two layers. First, he pointed to cultural hegemony in Asia, mainly exercised by Japanese institutions, who gathered from neighboring Asian countries to 'show works for "their" Japanese audience.'(16) They were then joined by Australia and Singapore who contributed to multiplying the gazes in this region. Secondly, he pointed out the fact that the financial hierarchy had affected representations of Asia in the international art circuit, particularly as funding ‘tends to be confined within the scope of the nation-state.'(17) He went further, proposing that cultural institutions in Asia 'combine their efforts and improve the representation of Asian artists in international art circuits.'(18) Debate about whether or not this would create another cultural hegemony followed.

As result of these exchanges of views regarding institutional support for contemporary art in Asia on a practical level, this time the organizer was able to conclude that communication had improved:

Although the views and positions of the participants still differed, the clarification of these differences, and the heightened awareness of the issues that resulted, made the discussions both lively and profound. Communication between participants was much smoother than in the previous symposium. This was also largely due to the tremendous effort in the intervening years on the part of a number of countries to mount more exhibitions of contemporary Asian art and to make information on the art of this region more available.(19)

In the rapidly changing environment of Asia, three years had provided the opportunity for a leap in terms of mutual exchange.

Jim Supangkat's presentation in the 1999 symposium in pushed the exchanges further, to a more pro-active discussion of 'discoursing.' He took the case of Indonesia, where 'in the early 1990s even the term contemporary art was still confusing to most artists and critics, let alone a vision on contemporary art in Indonesia.'(20) He described how the understanding of contemporary art improved as Indonesian artists came to be more represented in regional exhibitions, and explained how understanding of contemporary art had been deferred from its initial emergence, commonly identified with the Indonesia New Art Movement in 1975, to the 1990s.(21) The argument for 'discoursing' was emphasized by Supangkat's recognition of its importance, as exemplified by the Indonesian artists 'brought in' to regional forums initiated by Japanese and Australian institutions. Their inclusion heightened the awareness and consideration of discourse among Indonesian artists, and perhaps those of other Asian countries as well.

The symposiums from 1994 to 1999 initially highlighted issues of representation by seeking to assert 'Asian' thought. But too many disparate elements were being considered, and participants could not reach a point where these issues like identity could be debated in a constructive manner. But by 1997 discussions of curatorial intention, strategy or tactics emerged from common experiences shared in participating in these regional endeavors. Debate gave way to considering cultural hegemony and the financial hierarchy that influenced representations from a practical standpoint. Instead of trying to share a common definition of ‘modernism’ or ‘realism,’ the realities of exhibitions and practical issues provided examples that shaped the definition of these terms. As realities and examples of Asian contemporary art accumulated, a need was felt to establish a forum for ‘discoursing’ and find a framework to understand these realities were much in need.

When the International Symposium 2002, Asia in Transition: Representation and Identity, was organized, it aimed to further develop such a theoretical framework. 'Asia,' its representation as well as its identity, were to be discussed from multiple perspectives so as to establish a reference point for our practices. The symposium opened with Naoki Sakai's presentation, entitled 'Asia: Co-figurative Identification,' which provocatively stated, 'It is safe to say that today the West as an analytic concept is bankrupt and generally useless in guiding our observation about certain social formations and people's behavior in many loci in the world,' a position based on the understanding that the West is 'far from being unitarily determinable on empirical grounds,' and thus 'a mythical construct.'(22) Tony Bennett described how identity is relational, and how it was being questioned not only in Asia today, but also in Europe, as a result of the enlargement of the European Union.(23) This particular symposium not only provided intellectually stimulating exchanges, but also a forum at a level high enough that issues could be examined from the point of view of various disciplines, including cultural theory and sociology. It is also true there was a complete lack of awareness of religious factors prevalent in the region, as David Elliott pertinently pointed out in the post-symposium comment.(24) But the new level of communication and the breadth of topics it covered was significant, especially compared to the earlier discussions.

Reconstituting the Mold: Networking among 'Alternative' Spaces
In the late 1990s, contemporary voices of younger generation of Asian artists became more visible because of their activities in alternative spaces. In many parts of Asia, public and private financial support for contemporary art had been generally scarce, and in countries like Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines, where a solid and established infrastructure to support the arts endorsed by the State is not available as it is in Japan, Korea, and Singapore, artists have pursued ways of expressing contemporary ideas and ideals in independent spaces. Their will to survive was demonstrated during the turbulent climate of the late ’90s, when they weathered the Asian financial crisis, which started in Thailand in 1997 and hit South Korea and Indonesia particularly hard, concurrently triggering the fall of the Suharto regime in Indonesia in 1998, and reinforcing the long-lasting economic decline of Japan.

In recent years, even in countries like Japan and Korea, the withholding of public spending for museums, and on art in general, because of fiscal constraints, has affected the attitude of such spaces to artists’ practices. While capital spending for the construction of museums decreased (and program budgets dwindled) in these countries, public spending shifted towards supporting less costly independent spaces. In Korea, three new spaces, funded by public bodies, Alternative Space Loop, Alternative Space Pool, and Project Space SARUBIA, were initiated in 1999, forerunners of the many successful alternative spaces that were to be established after them. In Japan, a 'Law to Promote Specified Nonprofit Activities' was promulgated in 1998. It encouraged the non-profit organization (NPO) as a means of providing for alternative spaces and services at various social levels. A number of arts organizations seized this opportunity and established such NPOs. In October, 2003, ART NPO Forum was held to encourage exchange among arts-related NPOs, which came from all over Japan.

In the case of Japan and Korea, public support, however small, has always been available to support the contemporary arts. But in countries like Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines, alternative spaces have always been the main avenue for contemporary art. If one wished to do research in these countries, public institutions would hardly be useful resources; one would be encouraged to visit individual artists and curators who run alternatives spaces.

Such a situation had prompted the Asia Center to publish Alternatives: Contemporary Art Spaces in Asia in 2001. This booklet introduced some of the contemporary art spaces in Asia that could be the base for research and networking among young artists and arts professionals in the region.(25) The publication coincided with other activities in the region that heightened awareness of these spaces. For Example, Hou Hanru and Charles Esche co-curated 'Project 1: Pause' a component of the Gwangju Biennale in 2002, and invited alternative spaces to be part of the 'works' showcased in this international exhibition. Jonathan Napack summarized their attempt as follows:

Hou and Esche seemed to want to subvert both Eurocentrism — with its fellow traveler, a certain patronizing exoticism — and 'the museum' as an institution. In much of Asia, these two issues are deeply intertwined. Recent years have seen a proliferation of artist-run or alternative spaces; they fill the gap left by museums, which occupy a less central position here than in the West.(26)

He attributes this trend to the position of the arts in the Asia as compared to the West:

Museum-going as a habit — long connected to peculiarly European notions of urban planning and leisure — never took root in most Asian societies, where secular public space is associated with commerce, not culture.(27)

Many of the alternative spaces filled a gap for young emerging artists, allowing them to find places to exhibit their work, as well as explore new ideas with fellow artists, and they have also attempted to build a network for further collaboration with each other. The first large-scale conference of alternative spaces, IN-BETWEEN: International Conference-Exhibit Program on Independent Art Space 2001, was held in Hong Kong, followed by a second one in Seoul in May, 2004. The first meeting was complemented by a 'suitcase' project (where participating organizations were to represent themselves using only one suitcase), and the second was complemented by a video exhibition. In both years, the conference was well attended by organizers of alternative-spaces, who convened to present their activities and propose projects and workshops for collaboration. Between 2001 and 2004, some of the spaces have shifted their interest from organizing exhibition series and workshops to running residency-oriented programs, as with Big Sky Mind in Manila and BizArt in Shanghai. This trend they are starting to commit themselves to becoming spaces where production, discussion, and experience are combined to build a firmer and more stable basis for artistic development — and a commitment to realizing exchange at a profound level.

The Urge to Connect Revisited and the Ubiquitous Nodes of the Network
If theoreticians on Asian contemporary art have been attempting to break the mold of discourses constructed by the West, practitioners have been picking up their own pieces among the grassroots to construct images of the realities of Asia. A monolithic image of Asia was abandoned long ago, but creating a new shared vision have been a struggle. The inclusion of alternative spaces in the Gwangju Biennale in 2002 heightened the awareness among Asians that such spaces could be platforms for expressing individual identities. This new construct encourages the devolution of power once enjoyed by a few select arbitrators and provides a potential for more democratic representation. Alternative spaces could function as ubiquitous nodes that do not require strict protocols or rules of engagement. Exchanges at this level should minimize the risk of contexts being lost in layers of translation within the hierarchical construct of the arts system. Yet much remains to be done to reinforce such platforms, and financial and linguistic gaps remain a barrier to entry by some countries. We must continue to explore a sustainable space that best demonstrates the capacities of our experimental and creative minds.

1. The Japanese government disbursed $13 billion in support of the Gulf War in 1991.
2. The Japan That Can Say No, co-authored by Akio Morita and Shintaro Ishihara (Kobun-sha, 1989). Akio Morita is the former chairman of Sony, and Shintaro Ishihara is currently governor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and known for his right-wing nationalist stance.
3. Comment by Apinan Poshyananda in his presentation for the Contemporary Art Symposium 1994, The Potential of Asian Thought, Report, p. 76.
4. International Symposium 2002, Asia in Transition: Representation and Identity, Report, p. 224.
5. Ibid., p. 223.
6. 'Asia: The Possibility of a Collaborative Space — Under ConstructionProject,' Under Construction, exhibition catalogue, p. 13.
7. Yasuko Furuichi, ‘The Future of Arts Exchange in Asia,’ presented at the Asialink Arts Forum in 2002 (for transcripts see: http://www.asialink.unimelb.edu.au/arts/projects/forum2002/furuichi.htm).
8. The Japan Foundation is a semi-governmental body attached to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (reorganized as an independent administrative agency as of April 1, 2004 under Prime Minister Koizumi’s governmental reform). Accordingly, its mission of cultural exchange has always had a political edge. The predecessor of The Japan Foundation’s Asia Center, the ASEAN Cultural Center, was established in 1990 with the purpose of introducing the cultures of Southeast Asia to Japan. It received government funding to invest in ASEAN-related projects. In 1995, it was reorganized as The Japan Foundation Asia Center in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, and together expanded its mandate to include other countries of Asia (for details of its history and organizational mission, see http://www.jpf.go.jp).
9. As exhibitions are the most common and effective way of introducing contemporary arts in Asia, the Japan Foundation Asia Center organized one to two of them a year. Up until 2000, thematic group shows were a well-worn device for introducing the multifaceted aspects of the arts in this region. But after a decade of showcasing Asia at a somewhat superficial level, observing the creativity at a more profound and individual level seemed necessary, and a solo-exhibition series was planned. This coincided with the long acknowledged fact that Asia is not monolithic, and individuals residing in the region each have different perspectives and creative languages for express their contemporary lives.
Also, curators were identified as those who shape the contemporary-arts landscape, and programs were devised to involve them in different ways. One was to invite Asian curators to show Asian artists in the solo shows, so as to bring an ‘Asian’ perspective to the exhibitions. Until the solo show of Heri Dono curated by Apinan Poshyananda in 2000, the shows had been curated by Japanese curators, as they were naturally considered more knowledgeable about the Japanese public.
Another was to invite curators of younger generations who grew up listening to the same kind of music and watching TV programs popular in the region. To work with a generation of similar sensibilities was particularly important, as more up-to-date exhibitions were needed to present an 'Asian' view that was not a reflection of the West, often the approach by more senior curators, but as a self-projection of the realities in Asia.
The most ambitious and experimental project was Under Construction, a project which spanned two years and involved 9 curators from 7 countries (China, Korea, India, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand). This was a long-term project which consisted of both research and exhibition components. Since the very final output, an exhibition in Tokyo, was a collaborative effort on the part of all the participant, members had to deal with not only the concept, but also budget, gallery layout, logistics, catalogue production, and all the actual steps involved in putting together an exhibition. To work together at this level of task-sharing was not easy, as working styles and individual interests varied, but it offered a platform for negotiation at both the regional and national level in a true sense.
10. Comment by Hideki Nakamura, Contemporary Art Symposium 1994, The Potential of Asian Thought, Report, p. 123.
11. Comment by Ichiro Hariu, ibid., p. 104.
12. Comment by Toshio Shimizu, ibid., p. 128.
13. The organizer commented that this symposium ‘confronted the reality that the participants could not find but one commonality among them for the discussion, and experienced an unexpected level of difficulty.’ Ibid., p. 134.
14. Symposium 1997, Asian Contemporary Art Reconsidered, Report, p. 177.
15. Ibid., p. 178.
16. Ibid., p. 177.
17. Ibid., p. 179.
18. Ibid.
19. Ibid., p. 221.
20. Jim Supangkat, 'Discoursing in Regional Contemporary Art in Asia — The Case in Indonesia,' International Symposium 1999, Asian Art: Prospects for the Future, Report, p. 119.
21. Ibid.
22. Naoki Sakai, ‘Asia: Co-figurative Identification,’ International Symposium 2002, Asia in Transition: Representation and Identity, Report, p. 229.
23. Comment by Tony Bennett, ibid., p. 341.
24. Comment by David Elliott, ibid., p. 442.
25. The spaces listed wre not necessarily ‘alternative’ spaces, as we also included commercial galleries. The booklet was published with the aim of guiding visitors to places where they could find the most recent developments in the contemporary arts in each country.
26. Jonathan Napack, 'Alternative visions: in a provocative curatorial gesture, this year's Gwangju Biennale was largely dedicated to — and determined by — independent artist groups and alternative spaces — Report From Gwangju — Critical Essay,' Art in America, November 2002.
27. Ibid.