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Saturday, December 03, 2022
Courtesy of Eric Tadsen / Chazen Museum of Art

Taking sanctuary in a modest Asian art gallery

The Chazen Museum of Art’s exhibition “Echoing Overseas” relates the deeply personal experience of displacement through centuries of East Asian cultural exchange.

There’s this quiet and modest exhibition on the Chazen Museum’s second floor which I’ve been visiting occasionally when I’m feeling restless and missing home. During my time in Madison, I’ve developed a habit of roaming around everywhere vacantly, as if in fielding the long distances I’m somehow collapsing the empty space between San Francisco and myself. 

Shortly after moving back to Madison for the semester and suffering a familiar pang of displacement, I somehow felt drawn to the museum — a space which seemed ruminative in its own quiet, expansive way and which supposedly held an answer for my confusion. It was a kind of personal refuge.

The exhibition, “Echoing Overseas,” takes up a modest room divided into two sections titled “Artworks Overseas” and “Artists Overseas.” Both of these rooms respectively focus on Asian artistic exchange in pre-modern and modern settings. The curatorial statement explains the focus of the exhibition: to “break down the geographical dichotomy of East versus West” and the “cultural opposition of original versus imitation” that pervades narratives of cross-cultural exchange, especially in the context of Western and Asian interaction.

The gallery itself feels less like an ambitious undertaking — like Chazen’s other exhibition currently on display, “Sifting and Reckoning” — than a personal project. Katherine Alcauskas, chief curator of the Chazen Museum of Art, said the inception of this gallery stems from a renewed interest in highlighting Asian art and how the actual curatorial work depended on finding the “right moment, the right fit.”

Chi-Lynn Lin, the leading curator behind the project, is a Ph.D. student in the Art History department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison whose interest and expertise in Asian art made her the “right opportunity” to actualize the project.

“I was really excited because we haven’t had an exhibition of artworks from East or Southeast Asia in quite a while,” Alcauskas explained. “I really wanted to forefront some of our collections in that area. But I myself don’t have the expertise to do that. [Chi-Lynn] had some interest in museum work, and so it was kind of a fortuitous coming together of the right person, the right project [and] the right time.”

In its modesty, the exhibition feels inviting and sincere. Despite spatial constraints, it has a lot to say, which adds to the gallery’s sense of purpose, even if it extends some margin of regret for the curator. 

“I hoped I could do more on the Southeast or South Asia perspective because I [wanted] to include more Indian artists’ works,” Lin said.

Simultaneously, though, she also expressed the constraint in her own expertise of these regions. 

“It’s really hard for me to cover everything from different geographical areas,” Lin added. “When I look back to our scope, it’s more focused on East Asia, like Japan, Korea and China.”

In its division of pre-modern and modern art, the exhibition feels like an evolutionary chronicle, mapping artistic exchange in two very different frames: the cultural and the individual. "Artworks Overseas" centers mostly on the cultural exchange itself as a diffusion of ideas, artifacts or images through trade, through the profusion of interregional encounters. 

“The pre-modern world is more focused on the 14th to 18th century, a time period when long-term trade happens [as well as] the exploration of the world, so many different people kind of encounter each other [at once],” Lin said.

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Pre-modern Asian art, in that sense, seems to center not so much on how similarity indicates cultural appropriation but rather how similarity actually challenges the meaning of "origin" or "authenticity." The stylistic likeness in much of the featured pieces aren't necessarily appropriative but rather appreciative. As folding fans spread from Japan to China, certain distinguishing features in their respective crafts actually mark a difference in their sensibilities and traditions. Even the exhibition's inclusion of English porcelain, supposedly an imitation of Japanese Imari ware by European manufacturers in the 18th century, seems to shift the narrative of cross-cultural exchange as a kind of "stealing" to an assertion of its naturally mimetic condition.

The exhibition's modern-art section complicates the view of cross-cultural exchange by shifting the focus on the artist itself as a metonym for cultural dichotomy. In juxtaposition to the pre-modern section, the modern half of the exhibition demonstrates the flip side of having permeable national boundaries and liberal cultural borrowing. Here, the fluidity and agency of the artwork itself diminishes within the increasingly rigid national lines of the 19th century. Asian artists themselves, then, become the westward-bound emissaries of “the East” seeking modernity in the West. The dynamic feels dichotomous and stilted. Part of the Asian artist’s struggle is negotiating the repudiation of their own traditions and embracing an imposing specter of modernization.

“Many Asian artists [in this time period] had this anxiety not only about their cultural identity but also in thinking about their tradition [during] a time when many [countries] are developing their national traditions,” Lin said. “They are not just looking at [the] West, but they are also looking at modernization and thinking [about] the tradition or the essence of their own culture.”

None of this is to say that cultural exchange in our contemporary reality is somehow bad. In fact, the exhibition’s whole message seems to be that the artist, the uprooted and diasporic, exercises their own agency when nations or empires or the world deprive art of its reflexivity, its capacity for self-determination. Yet, the exhibition doesn’t rebuke anything either. It doesn’t seek to vilify the West as the culprit in essentializing art to nationalist terms. It doesn’t level an attack, necessarily, or advocate a return to the purity of artistic traditions, whatever that means. 

In one featured piece, Chinese artist Zao Wou-ki paints a reminiscent water scene in Abstract Expressionist form, which the label description explains is suggestive of “cultural tension,” of “resistance and reconcilement” in the artist’s use of western medium and technique to present what might be read as “Chinese.” In another featured piece, Hiroshi Yoshida explicitly paints the El Capitan monolith of California’s Yosemite National Park using Japanese woodblock print techniques, avoiding a rigid traditional landscape aesthetic to appeal to American markets and revitalize a “fresh feel” for the artform.

There’s virtues to be found in these exchanges. 

“The message of this exhibition is to find that we are not so different,” Lin said. 

The whole point is to unearth this grounding notion that beneath the lasting imperial subtext, art is still just art in the same way that language communicates even through difference.

In contemplating these pieces, however, there’s still the need to reckon how Western audiences ultimately consume Asian art. As far as how artists represent themselves in the West, Lin said, “Sometimes I think it almost reflects the international student in the Western campus … We are often very cautious when people ask us about Asian culture [because] we become a representative of our own culture, and it’s sometimes really terrifying.” 

We share an acknowledging chuckle. 

“Because maybe we don’t know much, or we cannot be representative of all Asian culture,” she continued.

For me, museums have always seemed to represent the transplant’s mode of cultural instruction. I was too young when I immigrated to be culturally aware of things back “home” in Shanghai. 

So, Asian art in museums seemed close enough to truth that I used it as a mode of learning and keeping up with my imagined, “original” self. My mother sometimes seems wary of any ethnic representation on American soil because it’s kind of tainted, inauthentic and maybe dogmatic. But Asian art exhibitions sometimes abstract away cultural specificity precisely for the appeal of a distinctly Asian-American sensibility, one that maybe generalizes identity or culture as a protective framework against Orientalism or Western stereotyping. It’s why in viewing exhibitions like these I feel less fraudulent or self-conscious about not knowing enough. The representation, here, doesn’t seek authenticity per se but rather solidarity and rapport, even when it agitates our awareness of mutual disconnection and difference.

This is why I think the museum bears a personal note, that the chosen pieces and the thematic arrangement feel reflective of Lin’s own displacement, which by extension feels connected to the larger experience of immigration, of transplantation, of removal. For me, there's a deferential inner yearning for a storied past which often leaves me precariously wary of my pretenses about being culturally valid or authentic. 

Over the years I’ve inherited this deep desire to trace my lineage back to something I don’t know but which nevertheless feels more truthful or authentic. By growing up elsewhere, my heritage had somehow gotten fractured and I’d become just a roaming fragment abroad. In my own family there was constantly this almost mythic invocation of my grandparents and other relatives in stories my parents would tell me regarding their life before they left Shanghai. Those stories are still like fiction to me, dreams that fantasize about undoing our deracination, maybe even fielding bitter complaints against being culturally misunderstood in America as foreigners.

I stand in the gallery sometimes in a purely observational or appreciative spirit, as if in being there I’m provoking a sense of kinship or commiseration with the long-deceased and the still-alive artists of these works, themselves living in negotiation of their identities. Or maybe it’s not as sentimental as I’d like to believe. Perhaps the exhibition just makes me feel less anxious in its quietude, its personal note, in the comforting fact that it’s there and visible.

“Echoing Overseas” will remain open until Nov. 28 in the Chazen Museum of Art.

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