Art Radar visits an interdisciplinary exhibition featuring 30 exemplary Asian artists in the United Kingdom.

OBS Gallery in Kent, United Kingdom, exhibits the work of thirty artists from China, Tibet, Japan and the diaspora. “East by South East” is curated by Emily Glass, running from 19 September to 2 November 2014.

Gallery view of "East by South East"

Gallery view of “East by South East”. Photo by Rachel Marsden.

The gallery

Established less than a year ago, the Old Big School (OBS) Gallery is located on the Tonbridge School campus, approximately 30 miles South East of London. Tonbridge is a school for boys aged 14 to 18, occupying a site of about 150 acres on the northern edge of the town. It is a nonprofit space providing a creative platform for school staff and students, exhibiting the work of emerging, as well as established local and international artists. Scheduling three main exhibitions a year, with smaller interim wall-based shows, the OBS Gallery aims to attract audiences from within the school and the wider community.

The gallery is also a functioning space for the school, used for exam facilitation and other events. The temporary nature of the space makes curating of exhibitions more testing, as shows have to be moveable and easily changeable. As such, the gallery is usually only open to the general public on weekends. Curator Emily Glass told Art Radar that

As a starting point, I think about what is going to be of interest to the students, what would be exciting to them. This is also why I choose works of many different media and digital medias to create diverse programming. However, it is tricky to programme in the gaps between the main exhibitions and in terms of hanging as you have to disrupt the space.

The OBS Gallery aims to develop a sustained engagement and education with the arts. At present, says Glass, “a QR trail is in development to lead students and the public around the exhibition and also videos are made to document the shows with interviews.”

Gallery view of "East by South East"

Gallery view of “East by South East”. Photo by Rachel Marsden.

Art from “the East”

East by South East” is the second exhibition at the gallery, showcasing thirty artists from China, Tibet, Japan, and their diasporas in Australia and the United Kingdom, spanning from the 1990s through to 2014. These countries are categorised as the global region of the ‘East’, so “the exhibition’s context could be easily understood by audiences”, said Glass, acknowledging that the term ‘East’ is “increasingly meaningless”. The works in the show speak of more global contexts and issues. In a time when boundaries between countries and locations have become diluted, it is hard to know what “East Asia” means today.

This exhibition provides a starting point to decode this problem of definition – the “push and pull of ideas” between different cultural contexts, to see what artists think of and their relationship to the ‘East’ and its wider global place. Furthermore, as the works span almost a generation, the twenty years of art practice on show visualises the distinct developments in socio-political, commercial, economic and cultural parameters of East Asia.

For this exhibition, Glass consulted Katie Hill from the Office of Contemporary Chinese Art (OCCA), Oxford, United Kingdom; Tony Scott from China Arts Projects, Australia; collector Wayne Warren, from whom many of the artworks were borrowed; and Chinese artist Zhang Huan.

Visitors at the "East by South East" exhibition.

Visitors at the “East by South East” exhibition. Photo by Rachel Marsden.

An interdisciplinary show

“East by South East” embraces a wealth of interdisciplinary media such as photography, print, painting, installation, found objects, ceramics, sculpture, fragments of site-specific installations, film, works on paper, design (books and book illustration), branding and more.

The show investigates themes of Buddhism, spiritualism, meditation, ritual, identity, divination, semiotics, symbolism, the power of a visual language and visual translation, the influence of the traditional process on contemporary practice, the influence of design, commercialism through advertising and branding such as Louis Vuitton – which is not only the subject of works but also a commissioner of new works.

Artists on show include Chiho Aoshima, Liu Bolin, Lao Dan, Dedron, Gade, Li Gang, Gonkar Gyatso, Beijing East Village Artists, Zhang Huan, Anthony Key, Yayoi Kusama, Kesang Lamdark, Luo Brothers, Takashi Murakami, Mad for Real, Nortse, Gao Ping, Sheng Qi, Hu Qinwu, Tony Scott, Ang Tsherin Sherpa, Tsewang Tashi, Penba Wangdu, Guan Wei, Ai Weiwei, Wang Wen Ming, Zhang Xiaogang, Huang YanHuang Yong Ping and Liu Zhuoquan.

Liu Bolin, 'Hiding in the City - Puffed Food', 2010

Liu Bolin, ‘Hiding in the City – Puffed Food’, 2010, digital colour print. Image courtesy the artist.

Notable works: Sunflower seeds and snuff bottles

Chinese artist Liu Bolin is represented by three works: Hiding in the City – (Intrepid) (2011), Hiding in the City No, 98 – Info port (2011) and Hiding in the City – Puffed Food (2011). Abstract, illusionary portraits, they show the artist painted and camouflaged – hidden in the landscape within which he stands. Bolin’s work makes reference to war and conflict, to Mandarin as a visual language set within the urban landscape and to the impact of branding, commercialism and globalism in the food manufacture industry. This series speaks of the relationship between the individual and the state, prompting questions about the safety of the individual, and whether it is wiser to blend in or stand out.

Chiho Aoshima, 'City Glow', 2005

Chiho Aoshima, ‘City Glow’, 2005, silkscreen print. Image courtesy OBS Gallery.

City Glow (2005) is a silkscreen print by Japanese artist Chiho Aoshima. Her interdisciplinary practice of graphic design, illustration, manga and architectural design show a merging of the organic and technological, creating fable-like visions of the imagination and urban utopias set in the future.

Zhang Xiaogang, 'My Dear Friend', 2005

Zhang Xiaogang, ‘My Dear Friend’, 2005, lithograph on paper. Image courtesy OBS Gallery.

My Dear Friend (2005), a lithograph on paper by Zhang Xiaogang, also features on the cover of the exhibition catalogue. The catalogue is available both in print and digitally as a free download. Taken from his series “Bloodlines”, the artwork represents a different experience of ‘family’ as an icon of the national, political, emotional or intellectual. This work speaks of memory, documentary, history, intimacy, lost emotion, a freeze-frame of a moment of time past, where the harsh lines and spatial interruptions on the portrait refer to a shift from a historic to a contemporary era.

Dedron, 'Pond Life', 2006

Dedron, ‘Pond Life’, 2006, acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy OBS Gallery.

Tibetan artist Dedron depicts her surrounding environment in Pond Life (2006) through the use of traditional motifs and materials inspired by Guge mural paintings of an ancient Buddhist civilisation. The works are to be seen as spiritual, with their own spirit. It is also clear that her practice shows a distant influence of aboriginal and outsider art from Australia.

Anthony Key, 'Home II', 2014

Anthony Key, ‘Home II’, 2014, mixed media. Image courtesy the artist.

Artist Anthony Key is of Chinese descent, born in South Africa, who then emigrated to the United Kingdom. His multimedia sculptures and installations are mainly concerned with the experience of Chinese identity in the United Kingdom, often subverting cultural stereotypes with a desire to get away from notions of “Chineseness” and Orientalism. This is clear in Home II (2014), a minimalist, cylindrical sculpture constructed from chopsticks, creating a plinth-like structure that reframes, re-orders, represents and re-interprets an everyday and well-known East Asian object.

Gade, 'Untitled', 2009

Gade, ‘Untitled’, 2009, acrylic on handmade Tibetan paper. Image courtesy OBS Gallery.

Untitled (2009) by Gade shows the artist’s confidence in, and openness to, embracing other cultures. His work is to inform the wider world of the changes that Tibetans have faced in recent years due to globalisation. Using icons of popular culture – in this case, Ronald McDonald and the China Mobile logo – he creates his own semiotic visual language by merging illustration and drawing, text and calligraphy. Through his practice, Gade attempts to highlight the possibility of losing depth, spiritual meaning and tradition.

Ai Weiwei, 'Sunflower Seeds'

Ai Weiwei, ‘Sunflower Seeds’, 2010, hand-painted porcelain. Image courtesy OBS Gallery.

Beijing-based Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is now globally renowned, having been put on a pedestal by the Western media, thereby becoming an icon of what stands for contemporary Chinese art. A selection of his mass-produced, hand-painted porcelain Sunflower Seeds (2010) has been collected by Tonbridge School, initially lent to the gallery by Tony Scott. The installation was originally exhibited in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall and was seen “as a tool to set up new questions”, to question the West, manufacturing industries, the power of the individual and the making of everyday life.

Wang Wen Ming, 'Sunflower No. 2', 1995

Wang Wen Ming, ‘Sunflower No. 2’, 1995, woodcut. Photo by He Qi. Image courtesy the artist.

Presented alongside Sunflower Seeds (2010) is a series of woodcuts by Chinese artist Wang Wen Ming. These black-and-white images talk of a journey through the modern Chinese period, showing a contemporary take on a traditional printing process, referencing internalised feelings experienced during the Cultural Revolution and, at that time, the power of the print movement.

Liu Zhuoquan, 'Medicine Chest', 2010

Liu Zhuoquan, ‘Medicine Chest’, 2010, mixed media. Image courtesy OBS Gallery.

Medicine Chest (2010) by Chinese artist Liu Zhuoquan uses the ancient Chinese technique of “inside painting” to create motifs on the inside of snuff bottles. The technique was prevalent up until the Cultural Revolution, and Liu Zhuoquan revived this tradition. This work shows detailed images of a foetus, a wounded hand, a severed finger, insects, a diagram of a male torso and more, all placed within a first aid box that was used by his father during the Cultural Revolution. It is part of a larger installation of over 100,000 bottles.

Huang Yan, 'Bone China', 2004.

Huang Yan, ‘Bone China’, 2004, painted porcelain. Image courtesy OBS Gallery.

Finally, Huang Yan’s Bone China (2004), a piece of painted porcelain, is cast from a bone on which motifs and designs are painted. Made from what ultimately are seen as waste materials, it is creating a new object that references the Western art notion of the “multiple”, creating a contemporary version of traditional ceramics that made their way to Europe throughout the Opium War era, and which would eventually influence Western design.

Rachel Marsden


Related Topics: nonprofits, Chinese artists, Japanese artists, Korean artists, Tibetan artists, exhibition reviews, Asia expands, events in the UK

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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