Eastern Promises

by Eric Chang
International Director, Asian Contemporary Art and Chinese 20th Century Art
March 2009

The development of animation has been intimately connected with contemporary art in Japan, exerting great influence in recent years. Hisashi Tenmyouya’s RX-78-2 Kabuki-mono 2005 Version was among the top Japanese Contemporary works offered in Christie’s Spring 2008 Evening Sale and melds traditional Japanese painting forms with images from animated cartoons. In Tenymouya’s work the traditional culture of Japan has been absorbed and projected with a new, contemporary face. This major work was among the best representations of the artist’s work to date to appear at auction. In 2007 it was one of the very few works by contemporary artists chosen for inclusion in Japan’s travelling Gundam exhibition. It more than doubled its pre-sale estimate to sell for HK $ 4,807,500.

Contemporary Japanese Art

Contemporary Japanese art reaches far beyond the often incorrectly stereotyped works of wide-eyed prepubescent girls rendered in intoxicating colors; in fact contemporary Japanese art’s roots are embedded in the post World War II era when, as a deeply dispirited nation, artists and civilians alike sought guidance and hope from the well-developed foreign avant-garde art movements.

Before long, rumbling underground, beneath the formal art movements of the 1970s and 1980s such as the prevalent Gutai and Mono-ha (developed in the 1960s), were the now prevalent sub-cultures of anime and manga. Only in the 1980s when the worlds of otaku, anime and manga were acknowledged as true expressions of contemporary Japanese culture itself, were these subjects accepted as high art. Thrust at piercing speed into the 1990s, Japan’s economy rapidly developed, endured and, arguably, remains in a steadfast hi-tech revolution. The centuries-old traditions instilled in the Japanese were suddenly swept aside by modern technology, distorting the daily lives and creative inspirations known to date.

The sizeable impact of this rapid industrial and economic advancement cannot be underestimated; some artists were repelled by the country’s abrupt desire to build a utopian society while others wholly embraced it. Conflicted between the new age and custom, contemporary Japanese artists articulate probing sentiments regarding Japan’s ever-transforming society. Critical of society yet introspective, contemporary Japanese artists have presented an extensive array of works and styles, often being averse to the formal domestic or foreign movements that previously inspired them. Now, much of Japanese contemporary art is an extension of the artist’s struggle to find a comfortable place within and outside him or herself, sifting through those childhood experiences that often demarcate moments of self revelation.

Japanese contemporary art embraces subcultures such as manga, anime, fantasy and technology of the post-war period as high art. Displaying an obsession with fantasy, these contemporary works address the fine balance between mass production, eroticism, science fiction, heritage and the identity of Japan as a nation. The market for Japanese Contemporary Art has seen an incredible explosion in interest as of late, growing threefold from a total of HK $ 12,522,000 in the Spring 2007 sale of Asian Contemporary Art to HK $ 36,165,000 just one season later in Christie’s Fall 2007 sale.

Contemporary Korean Art

Among the top lots in Christie’s May 2008 sale of Asian Contemporary Art was Hong Kyung Tack’s Library II , a dizzying work of flamboyant colors that upon closer inspection reveals the artist’s contemplation on religion and pop culture. His technical proficiency and shrewd dexterity in painting enables him to create an almost synthetic surface to the work. Religious icons, including an image of the Crucifixion of Jesus, white doves, and countless colorful books, amass to create a shrine that toes the line between kitschy arrangement and religions devotion. This work sold for HK $ 4,567,500 against a pre-sale estimate of HK $ 2,000,000 - 4,000,000.

Since 1957, when various art groups began to form to advocate their intuitive response in expressive rebellion against authority and institutional conservatism, Korean art has advanced rapidly. Heavily inspired by abstract art, these pioneers soon paved the way for creative liberation by forming the first post-war generation that rejected structured tradition and instead embraced the gestural freedom of brush strokes and experimentalism generally.

This Art Informel movement allowed limitless exploration, particularly seen in young artists today, who have overturned the significance of material from its conventional value into a vital element of conceptual connotation. Although this liberalisation has drastically accelerated a greater expansion in creativity, it has also left individuals perplexed by their identity. Korean artists still strive to retain the passive beauty of the traditional Korean aesthetic. Their tendency to balance conventional artistic execution with modern critique is what makes Korean contemporary artists unique. They have an ability to mirror their society’s psyche; striving to preserve their valuable past from the speed of cultural hybridity and yet driven to be a part of modernisation.

Artists from Korea are known for their exceptional technical abilities, a skill most clearly expressed in hyper-realism, and for their innovative experimentation with materials. Korea possesses a rich cultural history that has resulted in a unique approach to art that embraces revolutionary and contemporary practices while retaining a connection to traditional heritage. This market too as been experiencing growing interest from collectors throughout Asia and beyond, and each season Christie’s offers a series of the most cutting-edge works from the region.

Contemporary Indian Art

Christie’s sold Subodh Gupta’s Saat Samundar Paar (10) (‘Across the Seven Seas’) for HK $ 9,280,000 – far exceeding its presale estimate of HK $ 1-2million, and setting a record price for the artist at auction at the time. This work is part of a series of works undertaken by the artist on the theme of migration and the return home. Luggage, luggage carts and airport conveyor belts become overarching metaphors for the hopes and dreams invested in these journeys, as well as the psychological baggage borne by the immigrant/migrant worker vacillating between homesickness, alienation, and assimilation.

Recent art from the Indian subcontinent is part of an unbroken tradition that goes back centuries but, as with contemporary art across Asia, much of it also bears influences from the merging of cultures and styles emanating from both East and West. The effects of colonisation, Partition, rapid industrialization, globalization, technological advances, homegrown politics, religion and caste/class warfare as well as the heady pace of modern life tend to find root in the concerns of many 20th- and 21st-century practicing artists. The geopolitics of war and terrorism, a new set of identity politics that have arisen from the racial profiling of South Asians post 2001 also had an impact.

The early 20th century was dominated by the British Academic painting school in the works of Raja Ravi Varma and his followers, who first used oil as a medium and created realistic but fanciful tableaux often taking mythological figures out of the context of the miniature painting and into a much larger scale while experimenting with perspective, light, and shading.

In Bengal, a new movement in Indian art and the founding of Modernism began concurrently at the Santiniketan school under the tutelage of the Tagore family. Eschewing overt Western styles and influences, the Tagores and their followers looked both inward and Eastward and combined the styles of calligraphy, Japanese printmaking, and Art Deco into a uniquely Indian mode of expression. This can best be found in Bengali artist Jamini Roy who reclaimed the folk art style of the Kalighat painting as his own after training in the West in Impressionist painting.

The year that India gained its Independence from Britain, 1947, saw the founding of the momentous Progressive Artists Group who in their manifesto adopted international Modernism from Kandinsky to Klee and Picasso and from Cubism to Abstract Expressionism as a visual language. Artists such as Francis Newton Souza, Syed Haider Raza, Maqbool Fida Husain, Vasudeo S. Gaitonde, and Tyeb Mehta became the predominant masters of Indian art in the 20th century by rejecting the sentimental and bucolic themes that prevailed in their day and by implicitly claiming independence from the British Academy.

However, the economic boom in India propelled by reforms and privatisation in 1994 certainly caused ripples in the art scene over the last 15 years. Today’s contemporary artists have benefited greatly from their Progressive predecessors who have laid the groundwork for the attention and success of Indian art on the global stage. As they travel farther and gain wider exposure from their inclusion in the international art scene, they break barriers without having to leave their home countries. Key exhibitions in 2005 such as Indian Summer at the École de Beaux Arts in Paris showed more avant-garde artists such as Atul Dodiya, Subodh Gupta, Jitish Kallat, N.S. Harsha, Bharti Kher, Shilpa Gupta, amongst many others, and highlighted a new generation of very individualistic artists. There is not an overall defining movement to describe the 21st-century artists as there was with the Progressives in the 1950s. Some work in traditional media while others use technology and adapt techniques from Photorealist or Surrealist motifs. It is however, the elevation and exposition of popular culture or ‘Pop’ perhaps serving as the most unifying theme to describe the worldview of many artists working today.

Contemporary Indian art is at once autobiographical and at times phantasmagorical, yet an overriding theme to their distinctive style is the addressing of national and philosophical concerns: social reality, traditional gender roles, empowerment and relationships. The Indian modern and contemporary art category has also grown exponentially. Increasing global demand is seen in every one of Christie’s sales in New York, London and Hong Kong. Since launching Modern and Contemporary Indian Art sales in New York 2000, worldwide sales in this category at Christie’s have grown from US $ 656,000 to US $ 45million in 2008.


CLCB said...

I am a bit unclear as to why you would have a breakdown of contemporary Asian art without including its engine of growth and epicenter, China. I feel that contemporary Chinese artists are among the most creative and innovative in the world right now, and the huge pool of talent in that country, increasing competition and collection on a global scale, and continued attention from institutions around the world indicates that Chinese art will be a growing force in contemporary art for years to come. While Japan, Korea, and India present dynamic markets as well, I think a post like this warrants attention to China, as it is evolving and maturing extremely rapidly, and the new and historical artists producing works in China now are some of the most exciting in the world.

Art Futures Kolkata said...

There i another article, written earlier, by the same author, that you will find if you scroll / click to earlier pages of this blog. Thanks.