FANTasia looks at feminism and women’s socio-political issues both from a universal viewpoint, but also from a distinctly Asian one, highlighting some of the unique histories, struggles and perspectives of women and women artists from East Asia. Each artist brings a new perspective, a different approach to the discourse around feminism and global as well as local women’s experiences.
The work included addresses a wide range of current and historical issues: the (female) body, fantasy, abjection, gender roles, sexuality, idealism and societal pressure, oppression, labor inequality, rape and women’s fate under foreign occupation (in this case Japanese), as well as issues of development and globalization. FANTasia pertinently and astutely points to current issues while also revisiting historical realities.
The first thing that struck me as I walked through the exhibition was a confidence of sufficiency rarely seen in contemporary art nowadays; there are no unnecessary artifices, no flashes of grandeur or ego. Each work manages to juggle effectively complexity of concept or meaning, cleanliness of the medium, and refined aesthetic. The work is rich in meaning and engages personal experiences while carrying on a larger discourse, without ever feeling overdone, overworked, or cheap.
Some of the artists, such as Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, show newer work. Rasdjarmrearnsook’s video installation departs somewhat from her older work, which evokes themes of death, loss, the body and isolation. Here she focuses on her identity as an artist by de-constructing herself as she carries out interviews with Thai critics, a reminder of the enduring poverty of discourse and art criticism in East Asia, especially female criticism.
Chiharu Shiota has also created a new installation, After the Dream, in which the reoccurring theme of the thread-wrapped white dress is expanded. Shiota creates a dreamy cave-like experience for the visitor as she engulfs a whole room and a whole row of white dresses in layers of black thread. The dress stands as a symbol for the unattainable idealism that cultures and societies force upon a woman’s identity, life and body. So as the viewer advances through the room, the white dresses give the impression of being preserved or protected, but also taken over by an unchecked incursion of black thread which keeps them captive, suspended, between the air and the ground, not belonging to anything, to neither person nor time.
One of the most impressive works in the exhibition is Lin Tianmiao’s installation, More or Less the Same. It is an installation of sculpture-objects made from a combination of real and synthetic bones with everyday objects, wrapped in silver silk thread. The objects are displayed as an artifact collection, each on a stand, evenly arranged. The installation as a whole, as well as each object in particular, is both intimate and dramatic. The objects and bones become new objects, with new meaning or non-meaning, and it seems that they are arranged and ready to be re-documented and re-catalogued, while the silk thread works like a shroud, preserving the new ‘artifacts.’ Each object-sculpture seems forced to take on a new identity, receive a new definition, a new task. These are not merely sculptures, but acts of endurance, as are many of Tianmiao’s works. The act of winding and re-winding the thread has been the core of her work. It suggests time and the grinding intensity of manual labor but also points to the tension between tradition and modernization, a continuous point of struggle for the artists in rapid developing countries.
Another impressive installation is Kyungah Ham’s Three-dimensional Mona Lisa, an installation consisting of several commissioned embroideries of the Mona Lisa and of videos in which the commissioned artisans, all North Koreans, give oral accounts and share memories of their encounter with the iconic masterpiece—with which they had no prior acquaintance. Ham began the Embroidery Project in 2008 and through it she reflects, sometimes critically, on past and present histories of the Korean Peninsula. North Korea has been a phantom-like presence for its southern counterpart, and perhaps for the whole world. By using the distant, invisible hands of the North Korean artisans in creating her work, Ham brings into discourse the real presence of the issues concerning North Korea, including the tense divide between the two Koreas. Three-Dimensional Mona Lisa is a powerful installation, and perhaps Ham’s most complex and ambitious project yet, both visually and conceptually.
A new work by Airan Kang is also included in the exhibition. It is one of her poem installations, in which words are projected throughout the whole room, creating a moving, living, changing poem. In this latest installation, Re-Voice, the text is projected onto video projections of interviews of women sharing their testimonies and experiences of rape, abuse, and violence under Japanese occupation. Alongside, Kang is also showing the primary sources: two videos of interviews of rape victims under Japanese occupation as well as an array of historical photographs showing the conditions of women from East Asia during that time. Kang is known for her use of text and for expanding the idea of text and poem beyond its conventional confinement to the two-dimensional page. In this installation she is also perhaps playing with the idea of poetry as oral tradition and of story as oral history.
Sheela Gowda presents another stunning textile work that recalls to gender politics, labor inequality and her country’s rapid industrialization and urbanization, so injurious to local craft traditions.
Also commenting on issues of rapid development, forced globalization and the loss of the cottage industry, Yin Xiuzhen’s impressive sculptures of a fabric-covered airplane wheel and highway take over the room as monuments of modernization and the profound changes that countries such as China have undergone in recent decades.
Issues of sexuality, gender relations and social constraints are addressed in Chikako Yamashiro’s video installation A Woman of the Butcher Shop. Her work is one of the most poetic in the exhibition, and one of the few that ends with a positive theme of regeneration, purification and solidarity.
A few works by Ming Wong (the only male in the exhibition) have also been included, which comment on specific issues of gender roles, sexuality and exoticization of the Asian body, as well as on broader artistic issues of representation, appropriation, “pla(y)giarism” and perhaps a little bit of theater of the absurd.
What is impressive about the exhibition is that there is no obvious or apparent common narrative. As women’s art lived for many years (and perhaps still lives, in some cases) under the assumption that women use a personal, intimate language (rather than a universal one, as in the case of a male) and therefore the product or message would inherently have limitations, an exhibition such as this one helps to de-mystify the misconception that women’s art has no access to meta-narrative. FANTasia shows an impressive range of both thought and aesthetic, of approach, narrative(s) and concepts, and points to how feminist art, and feminism in art, continues to stretch the boundaries of art and to re-define it, allowing it to deepen in concept, aesthetic, and interpretation, and widen its direction and perspectives.
And I have discovered more and more that the vibrant art scene in East Asia plays a vital role in making and sustaining culture and in maintaining both artistic and political discourse, locally and globally. A lot of the art that emerges out of Asia has now a level of authenticity that in the West has died a slow and unmourned but well-funded death.
In the same way, feminism and feminist issues cannot be reduced to their Western instantiations. In East Asia, women’s issues are battled on a different ground, and they differ from continent to continent, from country to country. We cannot expect feminism and ‘feminist art’ to be reduced to an exclusively white experience. Rather (and I do refer here to Kristeva’s understanding of feminism), there needs to be a total overhaul of the politics and aesthetics of women’s issues, and these artists are doing just that; they are among the pioneers in their contexts, forging fresh insight, discourse, and liberation. This is where art and artistic practice varies from West to East: here, as FANTasia demonstrates, art is not a commodity, but a living voice, as it should be.