Asia can still sound exotic to many Westerners, but it’s less distant than in the past. These days, every major German city has Chinese and Indian restaurants, as well as movie theatres showing Japanese films, and households with Korean cars in the driveway.
For all that, though, the image of Asia as a savage expanse filled with inhuman hordes remains strangely popular here and in the rest of the Abendland – as the West is often poetically described in German. The recent Hollywood movie 300 even presented the Persian army as a force composed of four-meter tall ogres with crab claws for arms.
These kinds of paranoid stereotypes serve as the principal fodder for Haus der Kulturen der Welt’s new exhibition Re-Imagining Asia. The brainchild of both the HdKdW’s own Shaheen Merali and his long-time collaborator, art historian and curator Wu Hung, the show unfolds a vast and expansive historical cartography, stretching from the black iron ships that opened-up Japan to the bills of black gold and green currency that fuel the Kuwaiti stock exchange.
Re-Imagining Asia is loosely divided into four separate sections: “Love & Fantasy,” “Architecture & Mobility,” “Pleasure & Suffering,” and “Doubts within the System.” Each of these incorporates both an exhibition and a film programme. The cinematic part started in early April and includes amongst its highlights Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s widely-praised feature Syndromes and a Century, a film which has never been shown in Thailand due to censorship laws there. An accompanying literature festival, meanwhile, as well as a number of dance events, have also been scheduled to run alongside the main programme, making the exhibition a truly multi-level experience.
In the show’s catalogue, Merali writes that the one of the principal aims of Re-Imagining Asia is to explore the more overlooked and suppressed aspects of Asia’s historically-vexed relationship with the West.
This ambition comes across strongly throughout the show. In his composite corner-relief Offshore Accounts, the Pakistani photographer Rashid Rana intersperses a hypnotic seascape assembled from photos of land-fill material with tiny romanticized pictures of European sea voyages. The effect is to establish a tack between the classical age of colonialism and our contemporary epoch of global consumerism. Elsewhere, the Chinese artist Zhang Dali’s finely-conceived study of Mao pictures A Second History queries the details that have been airbrushed from the archive in order to shore-up a properly heroic image of the Great Helmsman.
These works take their place alongside a series of unnerving sculptural pieces – three predatory-looking, militarized baby carriages, a wooden Japanese house converted into a tank, and a Bond-villainesque fantasy of the secret series of bunkers buried beneath Tiananmen Square’s Forbidden City – underscore that both violence and globalization are phenomena connecting the West and Asia.
It all somehow comes together to contribute to a much larger picture. In his own contribution to the catalogue, Wu Hung speaks of Asian art as “an open landscape, less located in a physical place than a mental one.”
Of course, a show like this is all about getting your bearings. It’s as much about how we define ourselves as others. What fabulous foreign entities – Asian ones in this case – are we compelled to fabricate in order to hold-down our own fragile identities?
This dilemma is dealt with in several unique ways – perhaps most succinctly by Korean-born and New York-based artist Sun K. Kwak’s site-specific installation Untying Space. A jet-black and air-light liquid paint cascade, unfurling and encircling the Haus’s “pregnant oyster” architecture – speaks of the speed and fluidity of the contemporary world where everything that was once solid melts into air.
Other works in the show address this same basic condition: London-born, New Delhi-based sculptor Bharti Kher’s The Skin Speaks a Language Not Its Own – is a life-like rendition in fibreglass of a dead Indian elephant. It offers a perspective on both collapsing tradition and ongoing ecological tragedy. Elsewhere, the Japanese artist Manabu Ikeda at once flies into the future and escapes into fantasy with his Howl’s Castle-like megastructure History of Rise and Fall.
In many respects, this exhibition raises more questions than it answers. Nevertheless, if there is one central theme which emerges here, it’s probably garbage and waste.
The vast installation Waste Not is a maze-like confection of neatly catalogued rubbish that occupies the entirety of the HdKdW’s central foyer. Assembled by the artist Song Dong in partnership with his mother, the piece at once recalls Martin Kippenberger’s similarly-sprawling The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s ‘Amerika’ – a work based on an unfinished “failed” manuscript which Kafka himself ordered burned – and the novelist Don DeLillo’s even more supersized paean to trash, the literary doorstopper Underworld. Beyond all cultural differences, maybe, deconstructed or otherwise, the one thing Asia and the West share is our trash.