Which Asian artists get into European museums? A close look at Museo Reina Sofía, Madrid

Art Radar has a close look at the case of Madrid’s Museo Reina Sofía and its collection between 2000-2015.

Spain’s population has very few Asian residents or citizens. This is reflected in the limited presence of Asian art in the country’s major contemporary art museum’s programming. But are the museum’s curatorial and acquisitions choices too narrow?

Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. View of the façade of Edificio Sabatini. Photo: Joaquín Cortés/Román Lores.

Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. View of the façade of Edificio Sabatini. Photo: Joaquín Cortés/Román Lores.

Asian art is in the top of the league of non-western art penetrating the global contemporary art market, according to the research paper “The marginal presence of non western artworks in the contemporary art market”. (Van Hest, Femke, “La présence marginale d’oeuvres non occidentales sur le marché de l’art contemporain”, Revue Proteus, No. 8, March 2015, pp. 39-55.) The study by Femke Van Hest concludes that, for the last 30 years, the flow of international art is primarily one-directional: it moves from the periphery to the centre. Western artists and galleries do not do well attempting to move in the opposite direction. In prestigious western galleries, art from Asia is closely followed by art from Latin America, and both these regions are way ahead of art from Eastern Europe, the Middle East or Sub-Saharan Africa. Art Radar looks at the data on a European museum to see what it shows us about their selection of Asian artists.

The Reina Sofía Museum, Spain’s National Museum dedicated to Modern and Contemporary Art has organised well over 300 temporary exhibitions this century alone. The museum in the capital city of Madrid devotes about two thirds of its programming to international art or artists, of which the majority are Euroamerican. Asian artists are among the least shown, and represent around 3 percent of the total programming.

Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. View of the façade of Edificio Sabatini. Photo: Joaquín Cortés/Román Lores.

Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. View of the façade of Edificio Sabatini. Photo: Joaquín Cortés/Román Lores.

The overwhelming majority of the Asian artists chosen by the museum originate from East Asia, followed at a distance by artists from the Indian subcontinent and other regions of Asia. The weight shifts clearly to East Asia: figures show that around 50 percent of Asian artists exhibited are of Japanese origin and another 20 percent are from other oriental countries (Korea, China and Taiwan), followed with some distance by India, then by the Middle East, Southeast and Central Asia. However, the pattern for solo shows and for group shows is quite different. Indian artists received more of the solo shows, generally soon after the turn of the century, whereas Japanese artists appear more frequently in group shows.

In the Permanent Collection

Seven out of the less than thirty Asian artists whose work appeared in exhibitions between the years 2000 and 2015 have work in the Museum’s permanent collection: Shirin Neshat, Anish Kapoor, Yasumasa Morimura, Nam June Paik, Isamu Noguchi, Walid Raad and Yoko Ono. Subsequently to this period, two works by Danh Vo were added to the museum’s collection in 2016.

Danh Võ, "Banish the Faceless / Reward your Grace", 2015-2016, installation view at Palacio de Cristal, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid. Photo: Joaquín Cortés/Román Lores.

Danh Võ, “Banish the Faceless / Reward your Grace”, 2015-2016, installation view at Palacio de Cristal, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid. Photo: Joaquín Cortés/Román Lores.

13 Solo exhibitions

Around a third of the temporary shows organised by the Reina Sofía Museum are devoted to a single artist. Between the years 2000 and 2015, out of nearly 200 solo exhibitions  – big retrospectives or small productions – very few were devoted to artists with Asian roots: Gao Xingjiang (China), Isamu Noguchi (Japan/US), Bhupen Khakhar (India), Atul Dodiya (India), Pierre Le Tan (France/Indochina), Kimsooja (Korea), Kiwon Park (Korea), Chen Chieh-Jen (Taiwan), Alia Syed (UK/India), Walid Raad (Lebanon), Yayoi Kusama (Japan), Danh Vo (Vietnam/Denmark) and Nasreen Mohamedi (India).

It should be noted that the exhibitions by Kimsooja and Danh Vo did not take place in the main museum building, but in Palacio de Cristal, a satellite space in Madrid’s Retiro park. This airy and luminous structure is often preferred by artists working with installation art, though exhibitions in this venue are said to receive less exposure in the media than the more central Reina Sofía Museum.

Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. View of Palacio de Cristal (Crystal Palace). Photo: Joaquín Cortés/Román Lores.

Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. View of Palacio de Cristal (Crystal Palace). Photo: Joaquín Cortés/Román Lores.

It is striking how many of the listed artists have strong links to the West. There are bi-national artists such as Isamu Noguchi, described by the museum as Japanese-American. And Yayoi Kusama is far from being the only artist who developed a good part of her career in the western world. They also tend to be living artists. Showing artists who are alive at the time of organising the exhibitions is a requirement for any contemporary art museum, but it does contrast with the more frequent – and popular – exhibitions of consecrated 20th century artists such as Picasso, Tàpies or Dalí, who get a lot more exposure in this particular museum, and thus have their importance continuously reinforced, as well as serving to situate Western art in a historical lineage. When the only Asian art exhibited is devoid of an artistic background known to the viewer, the public will have difficulty appreciating the full context of the artworks.

Mitsuo Miura, "Imagined Memories", 2013, installation view at Palacio de Cristal, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid. Photo: Joaquín Cortés/Román Lores.

Mitsuo Miura, “Imagined Memories”, 2013, installation view at Palacio de Cristal, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid. Photo: Joaquín Cortés/Román Lores.

Group shows

The Reina Sofía Museum exhibited circa 75 group shows from the turn of the century to 2015, and these contained the work of around 4000 artists. Some exhibitions are curated around a specific art movement or period, and several put a geographical region at the core. None of these types of exhibitions had a specific Asian focus, whereas Latin America was very well represented in thematic concepts.

Only 9 of the 75 group exhibitions include work by Asian artists. There are 17 artists, photographers and a literary translator (Shigemaru Shimoyama): Tadaaki Kuwayama (JP), Isamu Noguchi (JP-US), Rakuko Naito (JP), Kiyoto Ota (JP-MX), Anish Kapoor (IN-UK), Yasumasa Morimura (JP), Shirin Neshat (Iran), Keiji Kawashima (JP), Tsai Wen-Ying / Wen-Ying Tsai (China), Nam June Paik (Korea), Yoko Ono (JP), Yayoi Kusama (JP), Vyacheslav Akhunov (Kyrgyzstan), On Kawara (JP), Walid Raad (Lebanon), Tiroux Yamanaka (JP) and Masato Nakagawa (JP). At a push, we could also include Kioshi Takahashi (JP), whose work supplements a solo show devoted to Mathias Goeritz.

Over half are of these artists are Japanese origin. This pattern, as mentioned above, also happens in solo shows.

Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. View of the patio of Edificio Nouvel. Photo: Joaquín Cortés/Román Lores.

Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. View of the central patio of Edificio Nouvel. Photo: Joaquín Cortés/Román Lores.

The preference for artists from East Asia

The more visible position that the Reina Sofía Museum has given to Japanese artists may stem from the longstanding Japanese influence in Western artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In Spain at that time there were more private Oriental art collections than there are today. Unfortunately, a considerable number of private collections of Chinese and Japanese pieces were lost or sold over the 20th century, mostly due to the Spanish Civil War or ensuing financial difficulties.

In the present times, Japan has a privileged position in western regions according to a recent sociological study by Alain Quemin. He looks at the international art market to challenge the globality and diversity of art it trades. The findings in his paper “The unequal distribution across nations of success in contemporary art based on the most prized artists in the world” (Quemin, “L’inégale distribution du succès en art contemporain entre les nations à partir des palmarès des «plus grands» artistes dans le monde”, Revue Proteus, N. 8, March 2015, pp. 24-38.) show that artists from so-called peripheral regions outside the United States or Europe, achieve more success if they live in a western city. In particular, he finds that Japanese artists who have lived in the US do significantly better in international gallery trade. The success of Japan seems to correlate with the high number of artists originally from Japan who have been selected to show in Madrid’s well-known art centre, and they are artists that had already achieved some recognition in the United States.

Nasreen Mohamedi, "Waiting is a Part of Intense Living", 2015-2016, installation view at Edificio Sabatini, Museo Nacional Centro de Art Reina Sofía, Madrid. Photo: Joaquín Cortés/Román Lores.

Nasreen Mohamedi, “Waiting is a Part of Intense Living”, 2015-2016, installation view at Edificio Sabatini, Museo Nacional Centro de Art Reina Sofía, Madrid. Photo: Joaquín Cortés/Román Lores.

Not just the pull of the Western market

There is no shortage of critics who believe that the market price of an artwork is more important for an artist’s career than aesthetic or ideological affinity with western culture. Yet the market cannot be the main selection criteria for a public museum. Art galleries are much more able to take risks than museums, especially than large, public museums, which tend to work with artists that are mid-career or have received some internationally recognised award or attention. Given that one of the most important roles of museums is to broaden understanding, the museum has to carefully consider what is shown and how it is shown, in terms of display and of additional information.

Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. View of Collection 3. From Revolt to Postmodernity (1962-1982) display on floor 1 of Edificio Nouvel. Photo: Joaquín Cortés/Román Lores.

Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. View of Collection 3. From Revolt to Postmodernity (1962-1982) display on floor 1 of Edificio Nouvel. Photo: Joaquín Cortés/Román Lores.

Cultural affinity

It is easy to see why the Reina Sofía Museum’s collection of over 20,000 artworks includes a piece by the conceptual photographer Yasumasa Morimura. Because of Morimura’s frequent references to great names in Western art (Van Gogh, Velázquez, etc.), his queer masquerades are easily inserted into western contemporary art discourses.

In the case of the artists in the temporary exhibitions analysed, the only case where the tide runs in the opposite direction is that of Tiroux Yamanaka (the chosen pseudonym of Yamanaka Chiryu), a poet who, without leaving Japan, discovered Surrealism whilst working for NHK, the Japanese Broadcasting Corporation. He contacted French artists and brought Surrealist art to Japan, organising exhibitions and launching publications. Again, there is an evident link here that does not displace the hegemonic position of Western art.

Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. View of Collection 1. The Irruption of the 20th Century: Utopias and Conflicts (1900-1945) display in Edificio Sabatini. Photo: Joaquín Cortés/Román Lores.

Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. View of Collection 1. The Irruption of the 20th Century: Utopias and Conflicts (1900-1945) display in Edificio Sabatini. Photo: Joaquín Cortés/Román Lores.

Of the few Chinese names, the choice of Tsai Wen-Ying (1928-2013) is no surprise. Tsai was a pioneer of cybernetic sculpture, and one of the first Chinese artists to receive early international recognition. Brazilian philosopher Vilem Flusser, in his analysis of Tsai’s work, sees the influence of both western and eastern traditions.

Perhaps it is only when the Spanish museum’s research looks in the direction of Central Asia that an artist with few ties to the western art world surfaces: Vyacheslav Akhunov. Curator Georges Didi-Huberman, commissioned by the Reina Sofía Museum in 2010, picked the Uzbekistan resident to participate in the large show “Atlas”. Akhunov was known during the Soviet era as the ‘official anti-official artist’, due to his work that commented on cultural superiority, the precise concept that the museum’s current director Manuel Borja-Villel claims to challenge as he moves away from traditional and canonical art historical models of exhibiting. Nonetheless, the Asian artists whose work has been selected by the museum are by and large already known in the west. In the museum’s group shows, because of their country of residence or due to the Western galleries that represent them, all Asian artists have some connection to the United States or Europe, or, in two instances, with Mexico.

Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. View of Collection 3. From Revolt to Postmodernity (1962-1982) display on floor 1 of Edificio Nouvel. Photo: Joaquín Cortés/Román Lores.

Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. View of Collection 3. From Revolt to Postmodernity (1962-1982) display on floor 1 of Edificio Nouvel. Photo: Joaquín Cortés/Román Lores.

Different from the West

The national or professional relationship with the Western world by the Asian artists in the museum is a bond that prevents multicultural frictions. Cultural idiosincrasies can cut both ways, working as a levelling point of contact that is shared across frontiers, or becoming a saleable difference that is exotic or unusual. Examining the website texts and leaflets published by the museum, we find that almost invariably some reference is made to cultural differences. These function as a selling point, an original characteristic that is attractive for marketing purposes.

For example, Pierre Le Tan’s solo show in 2004 was described as pioneering (the first solo show of his work in Europe), and highlights his importance in relation to international media (Le Tan’s illustrations have appeared frequently in the The New Yorker, for example). The museum text, rather strangely, also associates Le Tan’s work with Britain’s Arts & Crafts movement. Despite these western references, Pierre Le Tan’s Asian heritage is not left out, although it takes a secondary place in the leaflet. Le Tan’s perspective is described as contemporary and cosmopolitan, and filtered by a refined Asian culture. Similar cultural oppositions lace the museum leaflets for other Asian artists, such as Kiwon Park, who gains importance for having participated in the 2005 Venice Biennale, and whose “concept of space is naturally rooted in oriental thinking”.

Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. View of Palacio de Velázquez. Photo: Joaquín Cortés/Román Lores.

Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. View of Palacio de Velázquez. Photo: Joaquín Cortés/Román Lores.

Cultural and ‘identity reductionism’ results from exhibiting art in a limited way that flattens out complexities, and makes room for concepts such as ‘identity art’. Of course working around the multifaceted aspects inherent to art and making it accessible to a wide audience is a problematic task. With so few museums and galleries in Spain devoted to Asian art, it is hard for the general public to have direct contact with the cultural production of this vast continent. Fortunately, some educational and cultural initiatives have appeared more recently in Spain, such as Casa Asia, an Asian cultural centre created in 2001 to offer exhibitions and activities in Madrid and Barcelona, or Casa India, which opened in the city of Valladolid in 2003.

Due to Spain’s demographics, Madrid’s Reina Sofía Museum does not see Asia as a region on its priority list. The venue is not so much placing a bamboo ceiling above Asian artists as selecting the most accessible artworks for the primary target publics. On the other hand, it is organising more exhibitions of art from Latin America than almost any other contemporary art museum in Europe. This does not remedy the reduced opportunities for people in Spain to get acquainted with Asian art first hand, but, on a positive note, it does encourage plural viewpoints. Giving access to art from distant parts of the world can only help to raise an interest in the multitude of world cultures.

Cristina Nualart

1754

Related Topics: Asia expands, Asian art, museums, museum shows, Madrid

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