Contemporary Art in Asia: Traditions/Tensions, the major new exhibition that opens October 3, 1996, at three New York institutions, is full of surprises.

Organized by the Asia Society, the exhibition will be shown simultaneously in three parts at the Asia Society, Grey Art Gallery of New York University and Queens Museum of Art through January 5, 1997.

The 70 works by 27 artists from South Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and India comprise the Society’s first large-scale showing of living Asian artists, as well as the first major exhibition of contemporary art from selected Asian countries ever organized in the U.S.

Viewers who have come to associate Asian art exclusively with yesterday’s treasures — bronze and stone sculptures, scrolls and ceramics from the classic cultures of Asia — will find themselves face to face with dynamic new interpretations of age-old cultural traditions and unique manifestations of contemporary global trends.

The exhibition is curated by Apinan Poshyananda of Thailand, a leading scholar of contemporary Asian art who has worked closely with an international team of advisors and the Asia Society staff. It is arranged not by country or subject matter but along conceptual lines that emphasize personal reactions to issues that transcend national boundaries.

Living in an era of unprecedented economic growth, the artists featured in “Traditions/Tensions” are keen observers of change and unblinking critics of their increasingly urbanized societies. Their attempts to open a creative dialogue between past and present can be uplifting, upsetting, amusing and thought-provoking — sometimes all at the same time.

The pig, which symbolizes prosperity in Korea, takes on darker meaning in a piece hung in the Asia Society lobby by South Korean artist Choi Jeong-Hwa. This giant yellow-plastic inflatable pig alternately fills with air and then collapses, in a culturally loaded reference to the impermanence of material wealth.

An installation by Agnes Arellano of the Philippines juxtaposes three plaster sculptures that track the female life span — a young pregnant woman, a Buddha-like figure with multiple breasts and the head of a cobra coiling from between her legs, and an emaciated crone. To heighten the links with the past, this group of images will be exhibited together with a Cambodian bronze Buddha (circa 12th century) from the Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection of Asian Art, the permanent collection of the Asia Society.

Despite their confrontational content, most of the works in the exhibition are surprisingly accessible, often drawing on the figurative tradition in Asian art.

Works dealing with religion, forms, functions, and ideas will be on view at the Asia Society. A group of works that deal with challenges to traditional social roles, especially those related to gender, will be on display at the Queens Museum of Art, and works that explore contemporary uses of traditional Asian media will be shown at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery.

Vishakha N. Desai, Vice President for Cultural Programs and Director of the Galleries of the Asia Society, noted that “Contemporary Art in Asia: Traditions/Tensions” reflects the Society’s determination to bring the realities of modern Asia into the American cultural landscape. “For years we in the United States have been schizophrenic about Asia, trying to keep up with Asia’s economic and political dynamism, while viewing Asian art and culture as essentially static,” Ms. Desai said.

“Because Western influences were seen as somehow contaminating the purity of Asian art, everything recent was dismissed as `inauthentic.’ The truth, of course, is that the influences run in both directions, as they have for centuries, and that the most revered art of the past often emerged from innovative responses to older traditions, just as contemporary Asian art does.”

The exhibition will continue at the Asia Society and the Queens Museum of Art through January 5, 1997. At the Grey Art Gallery, the exhibition continues through December 23, 1997.  Following its New York showing, the exhibition will tour at two additional North American venues, including Vancouver, Canada. A subsequent tour in Asia will mark a new era in the presentation of contemporary Asian art in Asia, introducing new art forms to Asian audiences and creating the pathways for its ongoing presentation and appreciation. The exhibition will travel to India (late 1997), Singapore (late 1997 – early 1998), Seoul (mid 1998), and possibly Japan (late 1998).

A fully illustrated catalogue accompanies the exhibition. It includes seven essays, beginning with an overview of regional/global issues and discussions of the individual artists written by curator Apinan Poshyananda. Thomas McEvilley provides a view from North America, and a leading critic from each country represented discusses current issues in its art: Geeta Kapur on India, Jim Supangkat on Indonesia, Marian Pastor Roces on the Philippines, Jae-Ryung Roe on South Korea, and Apinan Poshyananda on Thailand. The book will be distributed in North America and Europe by Harry N. Abrams. Additional works on contemporary Asian art will be featured in the Asia Society Bookstore in connection with the exhibition.

The creative ferment in Asia today will be the focus of a series of programs and performances presented by the Asia Society this fall concurrent with the exhibition.

On October 4-5 artists whose works are displayed in the exhibition will join historians, curators and critics in a multidisciplinary look at the various ways Asian artists are responding to historical trends, political pressures, and local patterns of patronage. This two-day symposium, entitled “Fast Forward: The Contemporary Art Scene in Asia,” will be cosponsored with the East Asian Studies Program of New York University.

Performance works that combine traditional Japanese movement and music with elements of modern Western dance will be presented Saturday evening, November 9, and Sunday afternoon, November 10, by Saeko Ichinohe and Company in the Asia Society’s Lila Acheson Wallace Auditorium. Ms. Ichinohe’s troupe, which has been performing worldwide since 1970, will present her acclaimed interpretation of the classic Japanese novel, The Tale of Genji, and the world premiere of a new work inspired by the paintings of Paul Klee.

On November 4, Arthur C. Danto, art critic and Johnsonian professor emeritus of philosophy at Columbia University, and Robert Storr, curator of painting and sculpture at The Museum of Modern Art, join Vishakha N. Desai, Director of the Asia Society Galleries in a discussion, “Local/Global, East/West: How Shall We Look at Asian Arts Today?” about the challenges and rewards that contemporary Asian art offers to Western audiences.


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