The Rise of Asian Art

Courtesy of Wing Shya

Between a skyrocketing auction market and the top art fair, Asia’s art future has never looked brighter.

As little as ten years ago, the mere mention of contemporary art from Asia drew blank stares from all but a handful of cognoscenti. Admittedly, Takashi Murakami was already a brand, and a few Japanese artists may have been plying their trade in New York or Paris. While corporate giants, economists and politicians were proclaiming the Pacific Century, few took notice of the cultural currency quietly being minted by a new generation of artists throughout the region.

What a difference a decade makes.

Now, there’s hardly a museum on the planet that hasn’t showcased some facet of contemporary Asian art. Galleries scour the East, searching for the next big name. Collectors from all corners are in pursuit. Asia is no longer a stalking ground for the adventuresome sort but a true complement to the global art community. (Though the speed with which all this developed prompts a number of legitimate questions, including: Is this boom the real deal?)

As the communities in Asia develop and become more engaged with the rest of the world, issues of history and culture come to the fore. Like anywhere else, it is the artists who grapple with the past, present and future. The complex histories and dynamic changes affecting their political, social, cultural and economic landscapes provide a backdrop for new ways of thinking. A first-time visitor to the art district 798 in Beijing or the M 50 Creative Garden in Shanghai could be forgiven for thinking that today’s art in China is all about pretty young pioneer girls or babies in Mao jackets. Dig deeper and there’s an entire generation that seeks to understand and explain the seismic shifts occurring in the Middle Kingdom now.

Flush with cash and a nexus for all things Chinese, Hong Kong hosts an annual art fair that is the epicenter. And with galleries like Gagosian entering the scene, things are poised to reach critical mass—but not yet. Pricey real estate keeps all but the galleries with the deepest pockets at bay. Coupled with the fact that collectors are loathe to park their Rolls-Royces much beyond the Central District, Hong Kong’s creative sparks are not always easily found.

Surprising to know is that Korea has one of the most developed and sophisticated contemporary art scenes. Everything from international blue-chip to up-and-coming talent can be found in the sprawling city of Seoul, now home to more than 500 galleries.

With its newfound, if tenuous, political stability, Indonesia has some of Asia’s top collectors, whose interests are truly international but also honed to regional and local contemporary art. Contemporary art here is now The Next New Thing, and a number of artists have the ability to command six and seven figures. Collectors and galleries are primarily in Jakarta, but the artists themselves are in little-known cities like Bandung and Yogyakarta, where the best art schools are located.

Last, but certainly not least, is Singapore. While the Lion City has never been considered a hotbed of contemporary art, sea changes over the past few years have taken place as the city-state seeks its place as a cross-cultural nexus. Government support coupled with private initiatives has led to unprecedented developments nurturing a variety of art projects. The expansion of an already impressive museum infrastructure, numerous art academies, gallery and artist enclaves and the introduction of international art fairs all add to a feeling of growth and excitement.

From these Asian countries, Departures assembled 13 works to be auctioned at Sotheby’s New York to benefit the Asia Society Museum this September. While it’s just a glimpse, it powerfully illustrates that Asia is neither easily categorizable nor monolithic. The only single thread that ties the pieces together is their creators’ attempt to explore history—ancient and recent—and tell the story of Asia today.

Asian Artist Ayoung Kim

Korean artist Ayoung Kim’s foray into multimedia began in 2006, when the 32-year-old transformed a Guardian op-ed chastising Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions into a photographic work, shown here, of an almost cartoonish post-apocalyptic scene with rockets jutting out of a gravel-lined sidewalk flanked by rice shops and clothing stores. At the center a lone pedestrian stands, head cocked, looking at the empty road before him.

“I think of myself as a mediator,” says Kim, who left her native Seoul at 25 to study art and photography in London. “I absorb issues, filter them through my open point of view and create a third meaning. I want my spectator to be aware, in a deeper way, of certain slices of human life.”

Her breakout year was 2009, when her “Ephemeral Ephemera” series was featured in the buzzed-about Saatchi Gallery show “Korean Eye: Moon Generation,” in London. Her critically lauded collection, which included the above, was inspired by grim headlines—murders, suicides—that she recreated into three-dimensional photomontage stage sets and then photographed. Her works are spellbinding and playful, but also layered with political overtones.

In just five years, Kim has exhibited in museums and galleries around the world. Her photographs are in the permanent collections of Korea’s National Museum of Contemporary Art and the Museum of Modern Art of Rio de Janeiro, and private collectors from London to Beijing own her work.

Her success speaks to a larger shift happening with younger Korean artists worldwide. As Patrick Lee, co-owner of Seoul’s One and J Gallery, says, “Kim’s exposure and rapid ascent is emblematic of what’s going on in Korea now. We’re coming into our own rather than being squashed between the cultural behemoths of Japan and China.” Indeed, though Korea’s art scene has long been considered one of Asia’s most established, the past few years have been nothing short of a boom. “Kim is part of the younger generation of Korean artists who excel in working in new media, reflecting the country’s leading role in the sector,” says Melissa Chiu, director of New York’s Asia Society Museum.

Kim’s next solo show, in Berlin in 2012, will focus on Britain’s two-year occupation of a small island off the coast of Korea in the late 1800s. “Exploring our history is a way for me to embrace and reckon with Korea’s rapid modernization,” she says. “It’s an important story that needs to be told.” —Marisa Mazria Katz