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Goenawan Mohamad, who was invited to speak at the international symposium "Asia in Transition", held in Tokyo at the end of last year, began his presentation with the following statement.
"Asia" is like God; you cannot categorically deny or affirm
its existence. No one knows where it begins, where it ends, or whether
there is a way to define it. Maybe it is, to use John Lennon’s line
about God, "a concept by which we measure our pain."
Mohamad's statement is also of interest when examining Japan's process of modernization that, unlike that of Indonesia, managed to avoid, politically at least, colonialization by the West. The sentiment of returning to Asia (Japan) as "a concept by which we measure our pain" was expressed by Hagiwara Sakutaro, who represents modern Japanese poetry, in the following poem from the Taisho period (1913).
I would like to go to France
What lies behind this poet's return to the region of his own cultural roots (his "leisurely journey") is his sorrowful yearning for the West and the abandonment of his wish. However, it is clear from the words "so the least I can do is put on a new suit" that modernity isn't being relinquished and if anything, the sense of angst in this line makes this poem the very assertion of modern awareness.
A "universalizing scheme that self-aborts" and "an agonizing cultivation of the self" were one and the same for Hagiwara. If the journey he embarked on involved wearing "a new suit" (Western costume), then it could be nothing other than a modern journey filled with contradiction and discord. However, this doesn't mean that the journey represents a weakened modernity, a trivialized modernity or an unsatisfactory modernity.
Certainly, Japan's modern age has, by necessity, been on the outskirts, on the fringe. Despite this, however, we can't deny the fact that it remains a manifestation of modernity and it can even be interpreted as a very typical manifestation of modernity. In my opinion, "modernity" doesn't refer to the illusive hold of universality. If anything, it is a word that points to the unavoidable discord that is generated amongst unique regions and histories as a result of applying the schema of universality. Remember that Baudelaire who brought the value of modernity to the fore, personally experienced modernity as a tremendous discord. And, while praising individualism in the criticism on the one hand, he also argued that the anarchistic individuals represented the lowest of human beings.
In that case, we would have to say that Japan's modernity isn't trivial but that it is a modernity of greater intensity. This might seem paradoxical at first. However, it is only when modernity lies on the geographical and cultural fringe that its painful and grotesque nature, and the fact that this in itself is nothing other than a single, massive discord, is revealed to us.
There may be objections to the theory that Japan, and Asia, lies on the fringe. It is a fact that through its process of modernization, Asia has always regarded the West as being the center. We have recognized Asia only through the confrontist way of thinking to the center. However, today, cultural pluralism is discussed as though it were something self-evident. This applies equally to multiculturalism in art. Although the era of a discord of values hasn't ended, there are new attempts for a positive reexamination of multiculturalism as a manifestation of a parallel and co-existential diversity, that is, not as something discordant that ought to be subjugated, but as a healthy and normal manifestation of culture.
That multiculturalism is politically correct is undeniable. The problem lies in whether the positive acceptance of diversity can be incorporated into an attitude of tolerance towards "cultural others". If multiculturalism develops into a justification of the uniqueness of one's own culture, then this will no doubt provide relief from the pain of the discord that lies within. However, this could also result in the illusion of universality being replaced by the illusion of the purity of cultural tradition. This could lead to an insular moralism that forbids one from wearing "a new suit" (Western costume) when going on a journey to one's own region.
If one were to apply the habitat-segregation theory - the maintenance of cultural purity by region and by ethnic group - to multiculturalism, this would then mean the acceptance of the principle of exclusivity of one's own culture even though other cultures are recognized as being equal to one's own. An attitude of active recognition of diversity, stratification and multi-modality is necessary for multiculturalism to represent tolerance. Otherwise, the result will be the replacement of internal discord by regional discord.
It is well known that multiculturalism in art has developed around large-scale international exhibitions. It is of concern, however, that art doesn't appear to be very multicultural in venues other than the exhibition. Arguably it represents nothing more than a curating method and isn't necessarily a reflection of the true state of art.
Needless to say, one of the roles of the exhibition is to indicate the direction that art should be taking. That the context of the exhibition is a creative one also means, in one sense, that it takes the lead in creating an illusory context, in other words, that it fabricates. And in fact, this is how curators (myself included) have presented, through the exhibition, what Asian art ought to be. Although much research is carried out towards this, this doesn't mean that the multicultural exhibition shares a parallel relationship with the real situation of art today.
The potential danger here would have to be our insufficient awareness of the fact that the exhibition is attempting to indicate the direction for an art that transcends modernism without transcending the format with its modernist restrictions. To put it simply, we are attempting to bring the issue of the fringe into the "center", that is, the exhibition (one of the cultural devices generated in the West). This in itself can't be avoided and still has productive potential. Introducing Asian art via the format of the exhibition shouldn't be rejected per se. There is always the possibility of a stimulating scenario being created within the exhibition format.
However, a multicultural exhibition can only indicate multiculturalism as an exhibition and doesn't deal with the issue away from the unifying place that is the exhibition. This is something that we should be aware of. The curator puts on a "new suit" and not an ethnic costume when going out on a research trip. The curator doesn't necessarily become immersed in the purity of his region.
An exhibition where many works are brought together is, as Adorno points out, a place where works robbed of their first life (its life in its original context) live a second life. This is the essential and undeniable nature of the exhibition. No matter how innovative the "Magicien de la Terre" exhibition (1989), the result of detailed field studies and curated by Jean-Hubert Martin, regarded as a pioneer of the multiculturalist exhibition, at the end of the day the group of works exhibited in the cultural devices of La Villet and the Pompidou Center could only create a venue for the magicians who had lost their land ("Magiciens sans la Terre"). Martin's cultural anthropological study didn't simply transform the venue into the magicians' terra firma.
I would like to stress, once again, that I do not reject this type of exhibition. However, in the way that Sakutaro is aware of the emotion of sadness, I believe that we, too, mustn't make light of the fact that exhibitions dealing with Asia are unavoidable and represent a duality.
If anything, once the phrase "Asian contemporary art" is mentioned, it may already have lost its neutrality. This is because Asian contemporary art is clearly a concept generated by the exhibition. The concept of Asian contemporary art foremost in the minds of curators today doesn't necessary reflect the situation of artists and sculptors who represent mainstream art in the major cities of Asia.
As far as I am aware, the reality of Asian art is not so multicultural like in the international exhibition. We can only discover magicians by focusing our attention on quite a specialized sector of Asia art, and, in the majority of cases, once these artists receive this attention, they then move to, and base themselves in, the West.
Naturally the recognition they receive as a result of their international exhibitions is fed back to their original countries. And it is a fact that this is stimulating Asian contemporary art. This is something that should be welcomed and something that curators should be actively working towards. Furthermore, the boom in Biennale and Triennale-format exhibitions that began in the 1990's has focused on Asian cities such as Taipei, Kwangju, Shanghai, Yokohama and Pusan (arguably this would also include the cp open biennale in Jakarta) and the era of the West as the center of international exhibitions is disappearing.
However, this doesn't necessarily mean that the format of the exhibition has overcome the restrictions posed by modernism. Regardless of where the exhibition is held, the exhibition venue doesn't necessarily completely reflect the "terra firma". Whether a good or bad thing, it can only present, in fragments, the original context to which the work of art belonged.
That is why I raised the issue, at the same symposium where Mohamad gave his lecture, of the need to objectively address the multiculturalism phase and to make light of the political aspect that is generated as a result. Otherwise, the international exhibition, the intended purpose of which is to provide a venue for reconciliation and communication, is in danger of ending up being a "Trojan Horse".
There are pitfalls in a purism that is based on a naïve sense of
justice. And no doubt, there is also a need to examine diversity as a
personal issue. The words describing Asia as "a concept by which
we measure our pain" should also be an indicator for the difficulty
and complexity of this discord that must never be ignored.
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