Dialogue in translocal culture

Young Chul Lee

There was an exhibition entitled TransCulture as part of the 1995 Venice Biennale. Fumio Nanjo, the curator of this exhibition, invited artists from different continents who had been working in relevant areas to create a platform for connection and communication among different cultures. In pursuit of “the third way” (to use Homi Bhabha’s words) through understanding and acceptance of differences and communication among diverse cultures, Nanjo directed his attention to artists with various cultural backgrounds, based on his broad research into the current art of Asia, Africa and South America. The selected artists produced artworks that were intended to bridge at least two different cultures. For instance, Cai Guo Qiang, the Chinese artist, presented a unique work under the interesting title Bringing to Venice what Marco Polo Forgot, which was comprised of ancient junk he brought from China by ship. 1995 marked the 500th anniversary of Marco Polo’s return to Europe from China; and the underlying theme of this work was a celebration of this historical event. Cai mentioned that Marco Polo brought back a variety of objects and stories from China but forgot one thing — “the oriental.” On the opening day, he transported the junk by boat through the Canal and spread it around Piazza San Marco. The long journey by sea from China to Europe and the spectacular event drew enormous attention from the audience, as it led Westerners to reconsider the “location” of Asia, to enjoy new culture and to remind themselves of a historical event. What, then, is the “oriental worldview” Cai Guo Qiang mentioned? This does not necessarily mean the oriental philosophy “reified” by the west, but the activity of bracketing it. In other words, the idea of the oriental is closely related to the issue of recovery and relocation of Asia that has been subjected to suppression, silence and subversion during the process of modernization dominated by the West. So far, the term “Asia” has been used to label a certain part of Asia. When we examine the process of the formation of world capitalism and its relation to the Asian region, Japan is often excluded from “Asia” in order to avoid unnecessary confusion and centralization within a certain part of Asia. Moreover, in our habitual use, “region” implies a territorially defined part of a land, while “zone” signifies a connection between ports, cities, islands and parts of a land with no political, economic and administrative boundaries. To refer to a certain area of an Asian region as a zone of connection encompasses the examination of it as part of a region that goes beyond the region.
This reminds us of the original meaning of the term “geography.” It is human nature to try to leave something behind on earth as vestiges of one’s life. Given that geography is considered in terms of human activity rather than of static and physical entity, it is not a starting point of human activity but its output; this is related to the recovery of the etymology of geography — “earth inscription.” Art is a human activity: to inscribe (-graphy) something on the earth (geo-). In the pre-modern world, people believed that the earth was flat and the sky was round like a vault; and it was likened to the shape of a turtle. Ancient Chinese hieroglyphs were inscribed on the shell of a tortoise symbolizing the earth. Therefore, all human civilization including art can be interpreted as an inscription of their activities on the carapaces of tortoises. In this sense, all art can be considered “geo-art” in John Rajchman’s term based on Deleuzean theory.
Asia is a geographical rather than a cultural idea. Despite the fact that many Asians have been attempting to give a certain cultural definition to their continent for the last 150 years, these definitions were merely the outcome of Asians’ response to western colonialism, not that of their pursuit of cultural homogeneity on a larger scale. To define Asia culturally was a psychological defence against the fantasy of internalized Empire, as the Asian continent once had a great ancient civilization but is now corrupted and jaded. Thus, it becomes clear that Asia is an abstract idea derived from human activity, although it appears as a concrete entity in the form of a physical territory within a certain region. Geographic terms such as Asia, Europe and Africa are an abstract idea. For instance, Asian people had not been able to say they were living in Asia until westerners named and located it in modern times. As a matter of fact, it was not until the name “Asia” was introduced to the Chinese by Jesuit missionaries during the 17th century that they could have possibly known that that is where they were. Nevertheless, there is little evidence that the term itself had any significance to Chinese prior to the 19th century when there was an urgent need for understanding of the new world system that was making a ruthless attempt to absorb China and the whole of East Asia.
In the same context, the idea of Europe and, needless to say, the homogeneous entity of the “west” including Europe, North America or America in general should be challenged too. Geography was a notion of territory that had represented the interests of empires since the advent of modernization as well as the distance and the boundary between opposite powers. This idea continues to exist today, in the sense that “Asian” or “East Asian” values are often prostelysed as a means of resisting the dominance of the U.S. and Europe. Today, newly established biennials in many Asian cities are exposed to the general request for “Asian-ness.” Such an emphasis on “Asian-ness” seems erroneous. The emphasis on the Asian tends to lead to the misunderstanding that the self-internalization of otherness based on the fantasy that east may meet west on equal terms by revealing “Asian-ness” is a resistance to or an alternative discourse to the west.
Nevertheless, the image of the cultural homogeneity of Asia has nothing to do with a historical conceit that East Asia may be united by any means. East Asia has never been a unit of world politics, economy or culture, and Asian culture has never attained universality in terms of religion or capitalist economy. Nation states of East Asia have developed through different stages, whilst forming an imaginary community in the belief that they share the common origin of civilization. In the second half of the 20th century, interdependency and changes in world order based on economic growth provided a vision for integration. However, it seems that the “effect” of integrated cultures formed on the basis of an imaginary community can only be explained through an illustration of the basis of integration. Culture does not necessarily mean a restoration of the past or tradition. As a matter of fact, the possession of a cultural tradition is one thing while the practice of culture is another. It is impossible to define the Asian region because of its unbelievably diverse “hybridity” that goes beyond our comprehension. Below are the primary aspects of the hybridity and uniqueness of Asian cities.
• High density (in terms of population, space and usage).
• Speed of change.
The speed of change is high and the period of change is short. This speed is closely related to rapid changes in the economy.
• Size of intervention.
Size of intervention is large as is seen in redevelopment and new development projects. Large corporations and governments are conducting mastodontic development processes.
• Parallel formality and marginality.
The rich and the poor exist alongside one another.
• Extreme contrast of scale.
Gigantic high-rise blocks and small buildings coexist in a single landscape.
• Limitless elements in one scene.
In particular, elements of information and communication. Signs, typography, colours and so on.
• Disorder/chaos? (a quotation from Korean architect Kim Jinai’s text1).
It may be relevant to say that these are fragmented aspects of Asia; however, there is no one Asia that integrates all of them. There exist false versions of the “one Asia” as various fantasies of Asia. The principal features of the 20th century  — fundamentalism, imperialism, colonialism, nationalism, the cold war, civil wars and revolutions — have all affected Asian countries. Even today, the memory of the past century has left us traumatised; at the same time, an eruption of vehement desire to be the top dog has turned into a lust for abundance in the midst of the rapid development involving a modified form of western modernity throughout Asia.
Arjun Appadurai defined “ethnoscape” as the landscape of people who are living in the changing world. Trans-local culture represented by travellers, immigrants, refugees, invited artists and other people or groups on the move has become a topic of contemporary Asian art. Younger artists in Asia are fascinated with documenting their environments and making use of mass products. It seems natural that there should be differences between regions and nations, because they do not have any historical, cultural, political and economic background in common. We always insist on “dialogue” between heterogeneous cultures; nevertheless, we often lack or miss a consistent viewpoint about the term. Dialogue between cultures is not necessarily about art produced by nomadic artists living in diverse cultures. What we need to pay attention to is the dialogue between the artists and the audience.
As a reaction to the violence of simplifying or “orientalizing” the local culture, Surasi Kusolwong relates the inner dialogue to local morality and turns a tactic of the material condition and life into a form of production. What is important to him is an organic unit and a dynamic notion of community. On the other hand, Wang Du  the Chinese artist in exile who moved to Paris after the Tienamen massacre, interpreted the September 11th incident in his work for this project. For him, communication is not neutral but is influenced by a relationship of power. He produced a “mediascape” with ceramics, which functioned as social technology to remind us of the political events of the world. Also, we should not overlook dialogue with the inner consciousness of artists. This last in particular has been often ignored in art since modern times. Art is not a place for everyday conversation, it belongs to a virtual place separated from reality — the starting point of a search for the Self. Shimabuku bridges two cultures across the ocean by inviting Savona’s fishermen to learn a traditional Japanese fishing method. Many of Shimabuku’s works start with a playful observation or a seemingly simple idea, such as Passing Through the Rubber Band, in which he invites gallery visitors to pull a rubber band from their heads past their feet, or The Story of the Travelling Café, in which he dressed up as a functional café and approached potential customers. He wrote “Somewhere, just as someone is thinking, ‘I feel like a cup of coffee. Is there a café around here?’ he will see a café coming towards him up the road.”
Is it possible that we consider an attempt to bring out energy derived from or hidden behind dialogue to be a search for the Self that is different to the western notion of the Self? Though having interest in dialogue in art is important, it is necessary not to confuse art with everyday conversation. Conversation in daily life can be employed as background to art; nevertheless, it is clear that art itself is, first and foremost, a potential space where we can discover the Self away from the reality of daily life. Hong Myung Seop produces a geo-psychological circumstance by creating a site-specific work with broken “eggs of life.” Along with this, he exhibits photographs of reflections of his work on yolks of the eggs, which he arranged where springs or fountains used to be in Albisola and Savona. In this case, a dialogue is formed by an invisible relation. When it comes to locality, it is related not only to geography but also consciousness or unconsciousness. A community is formed around water, and then locality is created from the human relationships within it. In Hong Myung Seop’s work, art functions as potential space in which we are invited to discover the Self removed from reality through a certain relationship and placed within the geo-psychological Self.
It is interesting that a new and alternative type of biennial involving artists from all over the world is held where a centuries-old ceramics tradition and the Italian avant-garde came together. Ceramics can be considered the most important resource of the geography of culture and the Esperanto of human culture. In the field of material science, the material revolution is being led by electronic ceramics. In my opinion, this new project involving invitations to contemporary artists to produce ceramic works should attain a more profound level of bio-political creation — in other words, production and the transformation of life itself. Ceramics is not merely compensation for the silence of commodified art objects in the market economy, but can recall history and provoke critical reflection on the present. In addition, this event of great significance puts forward a unique model for unconditional collaboration between local artisans and artists from all over the world. For the curators, artists and local artisans who still believe in the possibility of progress, the alternative choice is a dialogue from the ground up, that is to say, continuous opposition to the reification of national, geographical and continental cultures while continuing to dialogue with people from across the world. In a sense, this kind of choice results in transference of the phenomenon of “globalization from the ground up” to the whole world.
During the preparatory period, I conducted an audience-participation project with the citizens of Albisola and Savona including the mayor, kids, artists, teachers, curators and ceramicists. I gave out clay to hundreds of participants I encountered everywhere — in the street, cafés, the mayor’s office, schools and shops — and invited them to stamp their palms on a lump of clay and their names while making a wish.
This grass roots dialogue and identification of the corporeality of one’s self provided the Biennale with sense of solidarity as well as pleasure. The discrimination of labour has been invalidated through the horizontal relationship between international artists and local artisans who communicated and collaborated with artists on an equal footing rather than mere providers of physical labour. This can be viewed as further development of social collaboration and autonomous value of production in art production, while blurring the boundary between experts and non-experts that has been differentiated through the process of modernization. The concentrated and complex experiences including intimate encounters between individuals, change of the Self, trial and error, and the joy of discovery during the project, guarantee an invisible place of production, which is tentative but very concrete and self-sufficient. When social and independent collaboration becomes a precondition of production rather than an outcome (result) and when our very lives appear to be virtual wealth, the Biennale exhibitions will obtain a new meaning those of the past have never achieved.

1 Kim Jinai, Un-Paradigmatic practice in Architecture and Urbanism in the East Asian Part of the World, International conference on the East Asian Studies, Seoul, September 30, 1999.

Text published in the catalogue of the 2nd Biennial of Ceramics in Contemporary Art, Attese, Albisola (Italy), 2003.

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