Walker Art Center
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Musings on Globalism and Institutional Change


VND: I'm not sure it can be attributed solely to current forms of globalism. In Asia, it goes back to the rise of twentieth-century Asian nation-states and their desire to differentiate from the West and from one another. There is no way to talk about that without examining the specific political history of each country. The cultural discourse in many of these countries is extremely complex. On the one hand, there are strands that focus on what makes them different from the West, choosing to stand up for themselves by re-creating tradition, whether it is the mingei movement in Japan or the resurrection of miniature-painting traditions of the early twentieth century in India or ink painting in China. Simultaneously, the discourse pushes in the other direction, saying, "Wait a minute. Why are we being so conservative? We must also look at how we participate in the artistic practices of the world, because art knows no boundaries." Of course, these advocates also bought in to some Western notions about the authorial voice of the artist and other modernist trends, which didn't exist in most Asian countries before.

KH: How did that acceptance come about?

VND: Given the Western imperial or nearly imperial presence in much of Asia in the twentieth century, it would have been hard to avoid. Western forms and ideas were developed in Western-style art schools, whether in Thailand, India, or Japan. It couldn't have happened without the British, Italian, French, and Dutch influences in various Asian centers.

KH: These influences had a lot to do with the shift from privileging collective aspirations to honoring individual effort. How did it happen that rather than prizing the refinement and expansion of tradition, artists came to prize the "original" and the new?

VND: I can speak for India much more than for other places, but I believe the disruption of that collective sense was pretty dramatic, and coincided with the imposition of colonial power. It was violent in some ways. At the same time, however, you have to realize that in the early twentieth century the modernization process was equated with the advancement of a civilization, so there was a certain feeling of not wanting to be perceived as "backward." Then again, in China, it's an entirely different matter because the notion of individual artists goes back as far as the fourth century, long before the West ever thought about prizing individual achievement. People were writing about individuality and art theory in the tenth century, not just in the twentieth century. So the Chinese had this notion of scholarship around style long before anybody else did, including the West. Whereas in other parts of Asia, that's not true, particularly in India and in Southeast Asia.

KH: This gets back to the idea of this huge continent we call Asia, which for many in the West remains largely undifferentiated. There have been violent ruptures between countries that still linger today. There are religious ideas that separate as well as bind. You've just described something happening in China in the fourth century that didn't happen in Japan until much later. How do you talk about these cultural differences at the Asia Society? How do you interpret them? We can't assume that because one is Asian one understands all of these cultures. Here we are, at the Walker, trying mightily to bring work from various parts of the world back to our own community, recognizing that we are not scholars of any of these cultures. We are appreciators. We are perhaps slightly better informed than novices, but we're really just beginning to forge relationships. When you don't have representatives from all of these cultures on the curatorial team, how do you help clarify the distinctions not only for your Asian audiences, your Asian-American audiences, but for all the other audiences you have?

VND: There are so many different models. In my institution, there has been a history of utilizing guest curators, recognizing that no one person is an expert with a foothold in all of these countries. Interestingly, until I arrived on the scene, most of the curators were Western or American. I very consciously decided to seek out, whether in examining traditional work or contemporary work, curators who had practices based in Asian countries, partly because I wanted to change that voice.

KH: Were there curators in abundance?

VND: No.