무엇이 ‘아시아 여성’ 작가들을 ‘아시아 여성 작가’
들로 만들고 있는가?
What makes 'Asian women' artists 'Asian women artists'?
Dongyeon Koh (Art Historian)
We must bear in mind that, historically, universal or pan-communal claims to identity
have just as often stemmed from acts of colonization (cultural, territorial, economic) as
from genuinely utopian endeavors.
— Fuyubi Nakamura, Morgan Perkins, Olivier Krischer,
Asia through Art and Anthropology
Is it possible to define the 'Asianness' or 'femininity' that can encompass the experiences of Asian women from every part of Asia? The answer can be both yes and no. Rather, to be more precise, that before discussing a universal identity. Who is this process for? Who demands such attempts? Why and how the identity is defined or denied? In other words, what makes Asian women artists Asian women artists?
My initial idea is that either position of defining or denying Asian femininity is no different from each other. The attempt to designate the experiences shared by Asian women is naturally based upon the dichotomy between the Western and non-Western, Asia and non-Asia, men and women. Such categorizations are already inherent within an individual’s awareness as well as within artistic outcomes, regardless of acknowledging such categorizations of Asianness and femininity or not.
Thus, it becomes more imminent that to figure out how the controversy over identity arises before begin discussing Asian women’s identity itself. Although every definition of identity is a process to find essential common denominators within a certain social group, yet it also grows out the group member’s resistance against the given circumstances under which these other individuals have shared with each other. Therefore, in arriving any definition of identity, it is indispensable to examine actual, historical conditions that these woman artists should deal with in advance and their survival strategy within them. We have to infer the common circumstances of the women artists of Asian countries out of historical, political, and religious diversity.
Debate over femininity and its historical and cultural contexts
We generally label the two different attitudes towards femininity as “the first generation” and “the second generation” based upon the women’s art that has been dominantly evolved in North America from the 1960s. Of course, the existing categorizations that divide “the first generation” as “essentialist” and “the second” as “deconstructivist” or “postmodernist,” do not necessarily correspond with all participating women. Such categorization is closely related to the art world’s geography in the 1970s and afterwards, rather than to the diverse philosophical attitudes toward identity or gender issues among women artists and critics. The endeavors to strive to define gender, the relationship between gender and sexual orientation, and further the relationship between Western and non-Western women are more to do with the strategies that these women artists adopted for their survival within different art worlds, which has been historically dominated by male artists and critics.
For example, Judy Chicago, a pioneer of the feminist movement (in the first generation) submitted an installation Rainbow Picket to Primary Structures in 1966, a notable exhibition in the history of Minimalism, with a purpose of revolting against the old taboo in fine arts in which any personal elements of artists should be omitted in artworks. In her first solo exhibition catalogue, she also chose to include an image of herself as a boxer and changed her name to Chicago to clarify the fact that she was a woman, a tough woman, out of her desperation in the late 1960s art world. The title of her 1969 works was Click Cunt to reflect her feminist viewpoint, and according to her, she decided to change her name to Chicago to refuse to use her given name as the symbolic inheritance of a male dominance over her identity.
Those social norms also embodied the critical standards of fine art at that time. Of course not all female artists or theorists from the Feminist Art Program at the California Institute of the Arts (the first female art program began in 1971 under Chicago’s lead), A.I.R.Studio (the first exhibition space for female artists found in New York, 1971), and groups like Women Artists in Revolution (WAR), agreed to the single definition of femininity. However, concepts like “women’s own sensibility,” “quilt,” “handcraft,” “female laborers forgotten in history,” “‘the nude chosen by women themselves, not as playthings for men,” “the effort to restore the great women’s history” cannot help but being confrontational, if not being too blunt, in proclaiming women artists’s solidarity. Although the cultural circumstances are not identical, yet it is comparable to the imperative that underlined pioneering women artists’ collectives such as “Alternative Culture” (1984) and exhibitions like Woman: The Difference and The Power (1994) in South Korea; these women artists took of an initiative in having pride in being woman and defining their condition in their own ways.
The Western art world of the 1980s witnessed the ambivalent standards toward social diversity when the second generation of artists such as the American artist Cindy Sherman or Barbara Kruger emerged. Here, the notion of “ambivalency” implies the contradicting circumstance where everything was allegedly allowed, but in reality, only one side’s diversity was acknowledged. Therefore, it should be noted that Sherman had close relationships with the notable Post Modern artist groups of New York, including Robert Longo. How Sherman “adorned herself beautifully or disgracefully” in her photographs was linked to the complex, temporal, and individual situation she encountered at the time: regardless of her graduate school education, the female artist had to accept that her male artist friends made much better careers for themselves than her. In that respect, it was natural that women artists who learned feminist theory or various critical theories under the name of Post Modernism came to develop a complex awareness about what it meant to live as a woman in contemporary society, rather than pursuing a fundamental femininity.
Is there a single type of a woman? In a group or as an individual, does a woman always have to be a woman insisting on one single identity? One might misunderstand that the second generation's feminism opposed feminist movement all together or that Judith Butler's Gender Trouble (1990) deconstructs the classical notion of femininity overnight. However, women's art of the second generation is actually the outcome of consistent self-criticism — just like many other minority movements — and it was the result of women artists who transformed the definition of femininity in accordance with different historical circumstances.
The debate over Asianness and femininity calls for similar historical and cultural contextualization. Moving away from the first and second generations’ tactics, current exhibitions and theories on women’s art focus on reviving the feminist movement’s spirit by incorporating studies in anthropology and other social sciences as well as by developing solidarity with regions other than Western Europe or North America. For example, for the “International Women’s Day” on March 8th, major art museums of Western Europe and North America have held events for collecting archives related to women’s art from 17 countries. Also in 2007, Brooklyn Museum of Art held the group exhibition Global Feminism and launched a women’s art archive on the web, while in 2010 the Museum of Modern Art, New York, hosted a symposium titled “Art Institutions and Feminist Politics Now.” As for Asia, in 2012 the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum of Japan hosted Women In-Between: Asian Women Artists 1984-2012.
The current movement reflects contemporary art’s extended theoretical horizon and its active exchanges with various fields of study in general and women’s art in particular. Politically, socially, and religiously diverse backgrounds for Asian women also corresponds with the concerns of recent female artists or theorists who aspire to deconstruct the notion of femininity and propose “to embrace different circumstances of women” as much as possible. In addition, Asia's strong patriarchal tradition (which, of course, is not limited to Asian countries) becomes a particular point of contention that has spurred an increasing number of exhibitions and theoretical debate on Asian women's art. Today, a woman's position in the patriarchal system becomes one of major thematic concerns for both female and male artists in Asia Im Heung-soon's documentary Factory Complex won the Silver Lion at the Venice Biennial this year by portraying South Korean female laborers from his mother's generation to the present day.
More importantly, discourses about Asian women's art are actively pursued with the hope that such a trend may practically benefits Asian women artists and theorists. As the thematic sources in contemporary art has been limited and strictly controlled and the critic’s world is still dominated by male politics in most Asian countries, ongoing international exhibitions and international critics' interests in Asian women become, indeed, new outlets for female artists in Asia. Siren Eunyoung Jung's 8-year project on women’s “Gukgeuk (Korean traditional musical),” beyond being an important part of women's history, deals with all the important issues of Korean cultural history in the 20th century, notably colonialism, modernization, industrialization, and the emergence of a hybrid form of popular culture. Nevertheless, it is not a theme that comfortably fits into the framework of contemporary art criticism in South Korea due to Gukgeuk’s confusing gender and sexual roles of characters in both arts and life. In a similar context, despite her reputation as a renowned female artist from India, it was almost impossible for Sheela Gowda to deal with the sensitive historical memory of Kashimir alone, which goes back to the history of labor under Great Britain's colonial rule in the Indian art world. During her interview at the Walker Art Center in 2003, Gowda explained how she changed her primary artistic means from painting to other media that could well express social, political circumstances when fundamentalism and nationalism has struck the northern India in the early 1990s. She also grew an interest in local women's traditional craftsmanship afterwards. In And Tell Him My Pain (1998-2001), Gowda installed almost 360 feet of red thread on wall and ceiling that has passed through the eyes of thousand silver needles. This is a metaphor for the situation of the female handcrafters in the city of Banglore, who since the 1900s became excluded in the wave of industrialization as well as in Islamic culture.
Consequently, discussions on Asian women’s art become more heated than ever after the 2000s, due to the western critic’s interest in globalized labor and the economy, the solidarity of female critics and artists across borders and cultures, and the understanding of the isolated situations of Asian women artists within their conservative domestic circumstances. For women artists including Marina Abramović’s pupil Melati Suryodarmo (who also participated in this exhibition), who learned western feminist and deconstructivist theory from graduate school and studied with well-known western theorists and artists, their cultural background is a useful means to escape from the limited scope of art world that Asian countries can offer.
Representing the collective experience of Asian women
The attention on Asian women's art is beneficial in many ways for the globalized art world and Asian women artists alike. However, it does have some debatable issues. Here, I would like to introduce my favorite art work that can illustrate my point, namely Two Planets (2007-2008) series by the Thai artist Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook. For this participatory series, the artist presented famous European paintings from the 19thcentury to ordinary Thai people in Thailand’s forests an drivers (their everyday workplaces) for educational purposes, and then filmed the whole process. In the middle of the forest, the artist sets chairs and hangs a painting in the center like a stage. Similar to an educational setting in a western art museum, the artist convinced people from the different cultural and historical tradition, or who are in the first place unfamiliar with the notion of fine art at all to sit and focus on the well-known paintings representing major styles, including 19th century’s Impressionism.
I am introducing Two Planets because I am concerned with the issue of representation as a few Asian women artists should reproduce the collective circumstances of Asian women in general in the era of globalization. Of course, Rasdjarmrearnsook makes her artistic intention clear through her forest museum. Like people from completely different planets, Asians have created not only totally different artistic styles, but also different tradition from that of westerners in terms of art appreciation and social significance of art. From the beginning, fine art itself is foreign for Thailand’s farmers. But modernization and westernization in non-western countries have forced Asians to learn “this new thing— Western art,” regardless of their unique cultural tradition or backgrounds.
What should be noted here is the artist's relation with these Thai farmers in the forest. How could Rasdjarmrearnsook’s critical view grown out of her familiarity with postcolonial theories in the West be comprehended by the actual Thai farmers? More importantly, how can those prominent Asian female artists, including Rasdjarmrearnsook and others of this exhibition, be able to represent Asian women? Most of the women artists of this exhibition and other international exhibitions reside in foreign countries or are well-acquainted with theories of western contemporary art through their studies in graduate schools in the West. Of course, the idea of representing the collective experience of a certain group in art is a very challenging, and it may sound unrealistic to emphasize this. Nevertheless, to reiterate, we have to clarify this issue as we are in the position of defining “Asian women” as a separate category.
In the process of presenting and enlightening the others’ story in a new world, in other words when translating the social situation and circumstances of Asian women to viewers of different cultural territories, the particular position inevitably prevails. And as a result, situations and experiences of others as represented by that prevailing perspective should be inevitably limited and abridged. Moreover, in this process, if the colonized is not able to use their own voices, but to borrow the voice of the colonizer (namely that of the globalized art world dominated by the westerner’s perspective), it can be considered as another form of symbolic colonization.
Current studies on Central America’s colonial history, for instance, prove that the colonized are still participating in the history of symbolic colonization by internalizing and following the knowledge system and naming as established by the colonizer. And a similar problem arises when Asian women artists translate isolated Asian situations with “knowledge and naming” that they borrowed from the colonizer. It is to acknowledge that any attempts to define as well as to deconstruct Asianness or Asian femininity can be a useful foundation for strengthening Asian women’s solidarity, but it can be also used in the symbolic colonization process of taming others as aforementioned. This is the exact reason why more discourses on Asian women and women artists needs to be invigorated, in broader areas other than women’s study and art criticism. The more discourses, exhibitions, and other channels in transnational settings for Asian women artists we have, the more likely the needs that Asian women artists have in domestic and international art worlds can be satisfied, and this controversy over “representing the collective experience of Asian women” can be alleviated.
"Introduction,” in Asia through Art and Anthropology: Cultural Translation Across Borders, ed. Fuyubi Nakamura, Morgan Perkins, and Olivier Krischer (London and New York: Bloomsbury Pub., 2013), p. 10.
The women’s art movement, which arose since the 1960s, divides the post war women’s movement into the first-wave and the second-wave. In the history of women’s movement for social rights, the first-wave dates back to the 19thcenturywhere the movement for female suffrage bared the fruit.
Judy Chicago, Through the Flower: My Struggles as A Woman Artist (New York: Penguin Books, 1975), p. 63
It is true that the women’s movement, under conservative social climate in 1980s in the US, has been diminished to a theoretical practice. Madonna’s “Material Girl” was referred to as a motto for successful women in the 1980s as women’s liberation is simplified and substituted for economic stability.
In 2015, almost 400pages of data on women’s art were gathered through the participation of the general public during Art+Feminism’s second event, Wikipedia Edit-a-thon.
Participating institutions included MoMA in New York, Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, Los Angeles County Museum of Art in Los Angeles, the Dowse Art Museum in New Zealand, the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. However, the main participants were still limited to the boundary of English speaking countries or Western Europe and North America.
“Artist Interview: Sheela Gowda,” in conjunction with exh. How Latitudes Become Forms: Art in a Global Age (Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2003); http://www.walkerart.org/channel/2003/artist-interview-sheela-gowda (Aug. 29, 2015).
David V Trotman, “Acts of Possession and Symbolic Decolonization in Trinidad and Tobago,” Caribbean Quarterly, Vol. 58 Issue 1 (March 2012), p. 21.
고동연, “무엇이 ‘아시아 여성’ 작가들을 ‘아시아 여성 작가’들로 만들고 있는가?,” 『동아시아 페미니즘: 판타지아』, 서울시립미술관 전시도록, 2015년 9월 15일-11월 8일.
Dong-Yeon Koh, "What makes 'Asian women' artists 'Asian women artists'?," in East Asia Feminism: FANTasia, Seoul Museum of Art, Exh. Cat. Sept. 15-Nov. 8, 2015.
© 2018. Koh, Dong-Yeon