Despite the growing presence of Asian artists here, Americans have been slow to focus on the explosive art scenes across the Pacific. The Asia Society's unprecedented fall show, "Contemporary Art in Asia: Traditions/Tensions," exposed the New York art community to these sites of artistic activity and the changing and turbulent cultures, economies, and nationalisms the work indexes and reflects. Cities such as Bangkok, Bombay, and Jakarta have spawned in a decade what it took Tokyo a century to develop: a cultural modernity that is autonomous with respect to Western modernism even as it encompasses an authentic mastery of the forms, styles, and ideas that define the international mainstream.
Organized by Vishakha N. Desai, director of the Asia Society Galleries, and Thai guest curator Apinan Poshyananda, "Tradition/Tensions" presented some seventy works by twenty-seven artists staged in three separate venues - The Grey Art Gallery, Queens Museum of Art, and the Asia Society Galleries. Both Desai, who is Indian born, and Poshyananda are well-versed in contemporary multiculturalist and postcolonial discourses, and it is identity politics and the resistance to the hegemonic legacy of Orientalism that shape their show's thesis. What links the countries represented - Thailand, the Philippines, South Korea, Indonesia, and India - is their shared postcolonial condition.
The task of addressing art within Asia in a single show, whatever the parameters, is as daunting and problematic as that which faced the curators of the Guggenheim's "Africa: The Art of a Continent." Asia holds three quarters of the world's population, several races, a myriad of languages, all four of the world's major religions, and countless local faiths. Culturally, the five countries represented in "Traditions/Tensions" derive from three different historic spheres of influence, China, India, and the islands of the South Pacific, and their respective modern histories are equally divergent. There are monarchies, democracies, and dictatorships; countries such as India with centuries of colonial rule, and Thailand, which has never come under foreign dominion. It is perhaps a testimony to Poshyananda's curatorial skills that the show has such visual coherence - the gaps between different nations and cultures all but vanish. Yet it is precisely a certain consistency of style (Poshyananda favors installation work and allegorical painting) that inevitably elides some of the tensions and crises that exist amongst any group of modern Asian countries, and this is cause for a note of caution.
The aim of the exhibition, Poshyananda writes in the show's excellent catalogue, is "to link the overlapping issues of nationalism, postcolonialism, gender, race and ethnicity evident in contemporary Asian art." To this end, it seeks to "to reveal aspects of cultures in transition that may shift stereotypes and fixities of 'Otherness. …