Telling global stories, one at a time: the politics and poetics of exhibiting Asian art

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Compared with other ‘peripheral' art, exhibitions of Asian art in the United States remain depoliticized and unscrutinized. This essay examines recent exhibitions against the long trajectory of collecting, classifying and displaying Asian art in the US, and argues that, despite their efforts to venture beyond conventional museology, art institutions today still tend to prioritize poetics over politics, ‘tradition' over modernity, homogeneity over heterogeneity. Such lingering Orientalism can be attributed to reasons ranging from logistical difficulties to conflicted interests, but above all to a lack of historicity: the intentional or habitual shunning of contextual complexities, the inclusion of which may deprive the artworks–and their hosts–of their pretense to neutrality, transcendence and aura. The critical approaches taken by contemporary Asian American artists and curators, on the other hand, are also fraught with contradictions and ambivalence, but they point to more historicized, nuanced and illuminating ways to display Asian art. Contemplating the unexplored directions and hidden connotations of Asian and Asian American art exhibitions in recent years, this essay contends that restoring and explicating historical specificity is crucial for building and propagating meaningful accounts of world art history, in which issues such as the appropriation of as well as resistance to modernity, the migration of objects, personae and techniques, and the experiences of the global diaspora can serve as governing themes and guiding principles, replacing a taxonomy based on nationality, ‘culture' or chronology. Those accounts of world art history are destined to be fragmentary, yet only through such stories can we envision substantive (if ephemeral) connectivity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)307-330
Number of pages24
JournalWorld Art
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Visual Arts and Performing Arts
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)

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