Frieze Seoul’s Focus section tackles the thorny question: what is Asian art?
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What is the state of artmaking, especially in the wake of the uneven disruptions of protracted lockdowns and restricted borders, across Asia today? A counterpoint to the parade of international blue-chip galleries out in force for the inaugural edition of Frieze Seoul, Focus Asia offers 10 solo presentations from Asia-based galleries (aged 12 years or younger) and the chance to attend to such questions.
I am curious what Focus Asia, curated by Christopher Y Lew of LA non-profit Horizon and Hyejung Jang from Seoul’s Doosan gallery, might have to say about something as knotty as “Asia”. (The curator David Xu Borgonjon once quipped: “You can only be Asian outside of Asia.”) But Lew and Jang aren’t interested in framing Asia through any particular tendency. Their aim “was to show the wide range of artistic practices found on the continent and made by diasporic artists”, Lew says. “We want to demonstrate what it could mean to span geography — from Iran to Indonesia — as well as generations, media and artistic strategies.”
Several artworks enter the uncanny valley between simulation and reality. Seoul’s P21 is devoting its booth to Sungsil Ryu — born in 1993, the youngest of the artists in the section — whose garish films send up the excesses of Korean consumerism. The artist frequently adopts a series of disturbing alter egos, for instance, a squeaky-pitched YouTube influencer who spreads conspiracy theories about North Korea. In the video installation on view, “BigKing Travel Ching-Chen Tour — Mr Kim’s Revival”, Ryu plays a tour guide (or scammer, depending on your perspective) who whisks you around an amethyst-encrusted cave, an aquatic holiday home and a golden palace.
There’s also an interesting “generative tension established through physical works and digital approaches”, Lew says. For instance, he mentions Fyerool Darma, represented by Singapore’s Yeo Workshop, who merges “screen-based imagery with material tactility”. Darma probes aspects of south-east Asian history and identity through glitchy murals, which appropriate both the patterning of traditional Malay fabrics and the backgrounds of videogames.
The Beijing-based artist Tao Hui, represented by Hong Kong’s Kiang Malingue, is concerned with how our memories have been colonised by screen culture. His 2016 film Joint Images involved a troupe of actors re-enacting scenes from Chinese TV shows (with the original playing behind them). Shown in Seoul, Being Wild also stages a strange bleed of temporalities: a woman roller-skates through a series of empty streets (presumably in some locked-down city) in scenes that appear to reference motifs from Chinese soap opera TV, while crooning Taiwanese folk-song hits from the 1980s.
Another noticeable throughline is a focus on the qualities of light and dark. Courtesy of Tehran’s Dastan Gallery, the Iranian artist Ali Beheshti will exhibit a series of gnomic drawings, created out of fine ink lines and bands of powdered graphite, that suggest the detail of architectural studies. Beheshti is working within a lineage of classical ink art — calligraphy and miniature painting — says Dastan founder Hormoz Hematian. But there’s a humbling immediacy to the artist’s spartan palette and his alternating rhythms of surgical and coarse-grained mark-making.
Rana Begum, shown by Mumbai’s Jhaveri Contemporary, is similarly compelled by opacity and colour. The artist’s show Dappled Light, on view at London’s Pitzhanger Manor, a fine jewel box of an exhibition, treats the shimmering sunlight diffused through the stately home’s stained glass as a material in its own right, within which Begum suspends a chain of seemingly weightless clouds, constructed from pastel metal mesh. I have misgivings about how Begum’s luminous works might survive under the cold glare of an art fair. But the art on view in Seoul will be quieter objects: watercolours on grid paper and wall sculptures composed of mirrored tiles that reflect the gaze of their spectators. “We hope we can create a moment of stillness and contemplation in the fair with a minimal presentation,” says Begum’s gallerist, Amrita Jhaveri.
A presentation by Jakarta’s ROH which features the husband-and-wife duo Bagus Pandega and Kei Imazu taps into the art world’s current penchant for collaboration and ecological thinking. Their new series of works emerges from research on the island of Lusi off the coast of East Java, a body of land created out of an erupting mud volcano. Imazu’s paintings trace the local topography: the movement of mud layered over other soils and minerals. Pandega’s contribution is stranger: using the mud as a semiconductor, he will incorporate the material into a video synthesiser.
I don’t envy the task of condensing a region that contains 60 per cent of the world’s population down to 10 booths at an art fair. But I’d still struggle to explain what this selection of artists really tells us. Perhaps it is important to remember that an art fair’s strategy of appointing a high-minded curator to add a splash of selectivity to proceedings is also a tactic of distraction, appearing to elevate the affair from a purely mercantile endeavour.
Still, it feels like a missed opportunity to offer even a glance at the crucial shifts in how art is made and consumed across the continent. While the galleries may be relatively young, most of the selected artists were born before 1990 and it’s unclear what future generations of artists across the region might be concerning themselves with. Moreover, cultural tastes across the region are changing in the afterburn of Covid; one Beijing gallerist recently told me that, after recent isolationism, mainland Chinese audiences “are less and less interested in what is happening in the west”.
You wouldn’t notice such fractures from much of the art on view, whether it’s Osamu Mori’s wood carvings of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis (shown by Tokyo’s Parcel gallery), Kimiyo Mishima’s ceramic casts of trash cans and newspapers (Tokyo’s Sokyo Gallery) or the bold-blocked abstractions of the painter Hejum Bä (Seoul’s Whistle). Indeed, the effect of all these variations on the familiar rather encourages us to think the disruptions of recent years have not happened at all.
The section’s star, though, might well be an 81-year-old painter from Hastings on the south coast of England. Laetitia Yhap, born in 1941 just outside London to a Chinese father and Austrian mother, is shown by Tabula Rasa, which began in Beijing’s 798 art district in 2015 and last year opened another space in east London.
Since she first began sketching on a beach with nothing more than a pencil and a brown envelope, Yhap has spent decades documenting Britain’s seaside towns: intense glimpses of fishermen hard at work, or a boy silently tracing figures in the sand, the flatness of the water beyond, painted on wood and cord sourced from the detritus of the coastal landscape. “We try to bridge art that cannot simply be categorised by geography,” says Tabula Rasa founder Sammi Liu. Yhap’s paintings of home are a reparative reminder that the idea of Asia need not be constrained by territory.