‘City_net Asia’: too ambitious?

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‘City_net Asia’: too ambitious?

It may be a terrible insult to use food as a metaphor for art. But the experience of gorging oneself at a buffet seems the only fitting comparison to seeing “City_net Asia 2003.” There is nothing wrong with the meal itself, but the sheer magnitude of it saps your appetite before you even begin.
“City_net Asia,” a giant display of mixed-media artworks by 42 Asian contemporary artists at the Seoul Museum of Art, was potentially interesting in that it attempted to establish common ground among Asian countries by raising issues like the effects of modern economic development, the Internet and globalization.
As its title indicates, this is a project that deals with regional issues in four major Asian cities ― Seoul, Tokyo, Shanghai and Taipei. It is organized by curators of metropolitan museums in those cities. The show’s chief curator, Rhee Won-il, says the exhibition was originally aimed at “embracing Asian perspectives by moving away from systems set up by the Western powers.” By doing so the organizers seek to establish their own standards. Indeed, the artists in the show faithfully tackle a wide range of issues from an Asian point of view.
Yang Zhenzhong reproduces the Shanghai cityscape from memory in his video installation “Light as F---,” juxtaposing the speed of urban development in China with the personal experience of someone living through the change. Yao Jui-Chung, a native mainlander transplanted to Taiwan, confronts his hybrid identity by depicting the experience of migrating in “Long March ― Shifted the Universe.” He displays 10 photographs of himself performing handstands at various historic sites where Communist marches were held in the past. These photos are displayed upside down, as if to show the artist’s attempt to reverse history.
Japan’s Ryoko Suzuki combines the face of a celebrity with exaggerated female bodies from Japanese animation in the “Anikora ― Sweat” series. The lamda print on a wood panel illustrates how human desire is manipulated in the interest of consumerism and masculine power is utilized in this process to victimize women.
In “Aesthetics of New Craftsmanship,” the Korean curator Lee Eun-ju brings together artists who employ intensive manual labor as an important part of their works.
If the show did not insist so much on defining “Asiatic values,” perhaps the individual works would generate some interesting discussion. The strange tensions arising from each work allow viewers to sense the push-pull between traditional values and modernity many developing countries in Asia are experiencing.
It was, however, a bit of a stretch to include Japan in the same category as the rest of the countries. The Japanese artists represented prove through their dry, politically nihilistic overtones that when it comes to struggles with development they have nothing in common with their Asian neighbors. Perhaps it was a challenge to find common threads among nations that share such dramatically different political histories.
But most of all it seems like an impossible task for the organizers to develop an autogenous Eastern perspective through contemporary art when the practice itself emerged out of Western tradition. This is not a simple matter, but for a show that tries to generate a unifying theory on authentic Asian identity, “City_net Asia” is not persuasive enough.
On the other hand, it’s questionable whether one can independently develop any theory through contemporary artwork at all. Contemporary art increasingly seems to rely on the same vocabulary, with the same theorists and philosophers being quoted by curators around the world. As if there were universal codes beyond language and cultural barriers, most artworks in major museums today look very familiar. Many artists produce works about conspiracies behind the face of globalization, but looking through the titles of some of the major shows on exhibit worldwide, it becomes quite evident that the notion of taste within the art world, too, is being controlled by something outside of the artists themselves.
It’s difficult to say what’s behind this. But it seems that art is increasingly treated by museums and cultural elites as a commodity, which leads to the creation of similar works with similar styles and tones. And perhaps that was what made the “City_net Asia,” despite the show’s vibrance, seem superficial and predictable.

by Park Soo-mee

“City_net Asia 2003” runs through Dec. 14 at the Seoul Museum of Art in Jeong-dong, central Seoul. For more information call (02) 2124-8941.
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