Walker Art Center
Musings on Globalism and Institutional Change

KH: Having visited India with you and seen a lot of modern Indian painting, I want to ask you--and you may think I'm off base with this question--why has so little of it been embraced by the West? Why has so much of it made our curators scratch their heads? Whereas contemporary Indian art is having something of a breakthrough, though I realize that's a loaded term. Why those distinctions?

VND: It's not just in India. The situation is the same in many parts of Asia. Art from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s in many of these countries is very problematic for the West because, often, it looks like a paler reflection of something happening here. Even though it has its own trajectory and its own history of the early twentieth century, most of the time Western curators are not able to see that. The work is seen as derivative and it's very hard to break out of that label. What has shifted in the art practices of the current generation is the level of confidence with which they operate. They don't care what label you're going to assign them. They are of this world and often are part of the urbanized centers. They've gone to art schools and have been trained in Western media. In that sense, theirs is a middle-class to upper-middle-class urban art practice. Many of them travel on their own and are increasingly more connected to the outside world. As a result, their attitude is "I'm going to do what I want to do and I don't care what the rest of the world thinks."

Even in the West, you don't hear the term avant-garde anymore, and there is a greater diversity of practice with less emphasis on "isms." In my opinion, this is a very welcome change. As a result, artists are able to free themselves from prevailing trends and pursue more individual paths of expression.

KH: And to shape new markets. The diminishing of an absolutely dominant canon that was shaping the market is also a welcome sign.

When I co-curated Against Nature: Japanese Art in the 1980s,[3] many people criticized it for having succumbed to an international language of the visual arts, which I thought was peculiarly naive. Many of the critics had no idea of the cultural specificity . . .

VND: Of that visual language.

KH: Or not even so much of the language but of the syntax. Even in our efforts to be global, to be multidisciplinary, there is, as you put it the other day, a particular prism through which our curators are looking. It is a prism that is framed by a certain international language, a formal language, of art, installation, video, most of which is conceptually driven. What do you make of that?

VND: The truth of the matter is that we probably cannot escape our prisms. But it is crucial to acknowledge that such prisms exist and to be aware of what they reflect. For example, we were criticized when we organized Traditions/Tensions[4] for not having a collective curatorship with one curator from each country who would be the spokesperson for that country. I felt very strongly that it was important to have a single curatorial vision. You can knock it down, but at least that vision is articulated clearly.

KH: Did Apinan, being Thai, have any problem being the Asian specialist?

VND: No, because we said he was an Asian specialist. We had a group of advisors, but we were very clear that the decision about what would be in the show was not up to the team. Also, Apinan traveled extensively and multiple times throughout the region to establish deeper relationships with artists and with the advisors.

KH: One of the interesting things about the Walker's global project is seeing how the curators initially described, and then had to redescribe, what this initiative was about to the artists with whom they were trying to work.

3 Against Nature: Japanese Art in the 1980s was co-curated in 1990 by Kathy Halbreich, Thomas Sokolowski, Shinji Kohmoto, and Fumio Nanjo for the Grey Art Gallery and Study Center, New York University, and List Visual Arts Center, MIT, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

4 Traditions/Tensions was curated by Apinan Poshyananda for the Asia Society, New York, in 1996 and traveled to Vancouver, Canada; Perth, Australia; and Taipei, Taiwan.