Between 2002 and 2005 I was fortunate to be invited to contribute to programs of the Asian Cultural Exchange Association.
The ACEA is a unique, unprecedented not for profit organization with home offices located in Tokyo. Comprised of an individual membership that includes highly trained professional artists as well as artists who rely on their natural abilities to create for personal enjoyment, artists of senior status as well as aspiring young people, the ACEA produces exhibitions and events internationally. One of the main efforts of these programs, in the words of the association’s remarkable president Etsuko Abe, is to “have contributed to people’s better understanding on Asian Concept of Value and Sensitivity through their (the artists’) unique expression.” This may be an unassuming statement for an independent organization whose programs have spanned successes in the U.S.A., Japan, Hong Kong, and Pakistan, to name a few. The association’s forward-looking transnational imperative has very few peers.
I became acquainted with Etsuko and the ACEA in 2001. She had traveled to New York City to seek practical information of how to produce a public event in the city. The intention of the event was to honor lost souls who perished in the horror of the World Trade Center attack. When Etsuko was successful in gaining permits from city authorities to produce the event, essentially a performance by one hundred members of the ACEA on the street next to the vacant site of the former World Trade Center, I was truly inspired by the total commitment of Etsuko and the large group of association members who had traveled from Tokyo. Lasting several hours, the event incorporated very traditional rites for the deceased as well as short orations and songs delivered by a women’s chorus. It was a collective rite of commemoration and closure. Aside from the purposeful, solemn and uplifting effect of the proceedings, the sight of Etsuko in the middle of the street, in her diminutive stature, waving the permits issued by the city while arguing down face to face a huge New York City cop who tried to stop the event, was electrifying.
My contribution to programs of the ACEA during the years 2002 to 2005 was four essays covering an annual exhibition. The exhibition, ’Asian Art Now,’ took place at the Las Vegas Art Museum. I include here below each of those writings.
Asian Art Now 2002. Presented by the Asian Cultural Exchange Association with the Las Vegas Art Museum. April 25 – June 23, 2002
Since the beginning of the United States of America its urban society has applied culture to conflict and reparation. Here culture is seen as an open forum with authority to make comment upon, and provide a way for coping with, the prevailing conditions of the time. Applied this way, cultural practices have as their main goal establishment of a democratizing equality. To understand the United States and its people, especially their hopes for the rest of humanity, is to understand this cultural willingness to join in. A willingness to accept the validity of voices and ideas that press forward to engage very straightforwardly the nature of the conflict that presents itself. So it is the exhibition of art proposed by the Asian Cultural Exchange Association, designed to confront the results of the September 11th attacks on the United States, that will find an appreciation for its unifying purpose.
Americanization in cultural terms refers to restructuring social practices according to ideas of individual autonomy and rational self-guidance. If one only exaggerates an encroaching domination carried out through commerce that has come to be the main focus of anti-Americanism, what is overlooked are the cultural traits that enhance social enablements to allow creation of communities on other substantive grounds that are not historical, national, economic or political. To emphasize the culture of America, it is instructive to be aware anti-Americanism is in part fear of social progress.
Emergence of post-national, egalitarian, democratic forms of community and solidarity will provide collective identifications for people on a scale called for by our increased twenty first century interconnectedness. If liberty for humanity is to be possible at all then the backward social nexus of destruction –senseless submission with its message of total despair cast in disgusting violence- must be broken.
Solidarity as well as community are based on overcoming aggressive, destructive tendencies. The exhibition proposed for New York City by the Asian Cultural Exchange Association is an instance of cultural innovation required by our still emerging interdependence. This provides opportunity for us to collectively speak out with a purpose as positive as that of each person’s individual creation. In the America of open, socially engaged and collectivized creativity, this is the real practice of cultural freedom.
Asian Art Now 2003. Presented by the Asian Cultural Exchange Association with the Las Vegas Art Museum. April 25 – June 22, 2003
With our celebrity soaked notion of what public display means, with our sense about business and market formations within the professions of culture that serve to deprioritize creativity itself in favor of the star system, the idea of a collectivized association of artists puts us on notice of an entirely different set of values.
The Asian Cultural Exchange Association is a trans-national collective. The programs it produces have a purpose to relate locality, nationalism and globalization through collectivity. In this the association is a communicative entity, a group that transcends limits of human curiosity- limits in part defined by specific locations- to transform the conditions of our cultural orientation through the field of art and its means of presentation. The benefits derived from this artists’ association are many.
Collectives are virtually a human custom. They act to be socially transformative ways to negotiate with publics and agencies, and in the instance of the Asian Cultural Exchange Association, serve to internationalize both our and their own sense of the local through the initiative of their autonomous representation in Asian Art Now 2003. This artist collective provides guidance to the public toward appreciation of culture by amplifying the interests of individual artists, and their viewing public, into common interests.
One of the most consistent and important results of this exhibition is its exercise of initiative to focus appreciation of art into the neutralization of political, cultural, economic and national barriers. The outcome is the growth of a broad positive discourse that mobilizes our readiness to enjoin the experience of appreciation.
Asia, geographically vast, culturally diverse, has a social history emphasizing the collective sensibility in ways very different than the West. Individuals are taught to see the world without human concepts such as comparison or differentiation. One of the most stressed values in this is the dropping of the ego. This emphasizes awareness beyond fixed, defined, familiar cultural beliefs. It is an effort to regain contact with the original, authentic self, a way to teach by unmasking.
As we disengage ourselves from the self, our individual and national selves, we collectively come to know about us, not the binds and distortions of our individual motives and purposes but our collective response and appreciative abilities. In this way the collective has a singular capacity to unfold a new world hitherto unperceived. Not the world of our differences but the new twenty first century world of our understandings.
Asian Art Now 2004. Presented by the Asian Cultural Exchange Association with the Las Vegas Art Museum. April 23 – June 20, 2004
In its short history the Asian Cultural Exchange Association has already proven to be a collectivized, cooperative of artists that is remarkably adaptive. The association has attained the ability to define its own rules and shape its own matrix of possibilities for the success of its programs. The performance of a commemorative series of acts upon the streets of lower Manhattan at the site of the former World Trade Towers, a program of performances and displays at large U.S. military bases in Japan, and the recently completed major Ikebana exhibition in Hong Kong all are demonstrations the association has in its possession a model for the society its members want to create.
To realize positive abilities for favorable social influence that creativity can instill, to apply those abilities to change cultural circumstances, the association has utilized the strengths of autonomy and self-determination that cultural collectives have brought to bear with increasing frequency. The association has done so not simply to control their own resources and capabilities in order to structure opportunities for their advantage, but to invigorate and strongly promote an engagement with culture that constitutes a part of the continued global dialogue. In the instance of the third exhibition at the Las Vegas Art Museum this does no less than change the very context of the museum. It has become a very forward-looking institution in its partnership with the Asian Cultural Exchange Association.
The immense cultural history of Asia is at the core of the association’s motivation. Throughout its history Asia’s own cultural diversity was the source of regional cross-influences. Asian artists continually adopted aspects of their neighbors’ traditions, altering them to suit their own national, social and cultural environments. Historically, strong social hierarchies in Asian national societies were a condition that had artists serving different parts of society, giving rise to both formal and popular culture. However, the source of creativity was understood to be the same. Whether the artist was an educated, skilled technical master or one who created out of self-reliance emphasizing their natural abilities in pursuit of personal enjoyment. This is why we can see in Asian art pursuit of self-perfection as well as forthright, un-self conscious work, traditional materials, iconography and themes along with progressive incorporation of new techniques using modern images, the preservation of tradition as well as emphasis on contemporary trends. This is the acknowledgement of creativity’s common source that is perhaps one of the most Asian of characteristics promoted by the association. This is also one of the association’s greatest declarations of optimism for the human condition.
Continuing a process that increased throughout the 20th century, Asian artists have confronted the massive influence of the West, which was initially identified with the modern and everything not of tradition. The influence of the West is an insistent challenge for Asian artists, Partly as a result, for too long the West in general regarded Asian culture as being closed, a view taken too far at times. For though Asian culture is inward-looking it is a vision come by from the necessity of applying outside influences where they could reinvigorate and nurture internal cultural practices. This is the unique moment the Asian Cultural Exchange Association has taken up.
From the standpoint of culture that is increasingly internationalized, art is now more a part of a moment in history where creativity becomes an essential component of how we understand one another. In this the Asian Cultural Exchange Association continues taking important steps to change not only the orientation of Asian culture from one which receives but does not exchange, but is also changing the dominant overseas attitudes toward Asian art, attitudes that prioritize a nostalgia for traditional skills and themes or an expectation of startling new avant-garde forms. This leaves us all with the same question: Do we share the same definition of this social situation?
When we enter a new condition, a new situation, when we find the terms of our lives newly reorganized, it is not enough to inhabit that new way of being. If a contemporary truth is that we all are now distinctively more interdependent socially and culturally, then we must all, as Asian artists have long known, nurture; we must all open out the true person inside ourselves as a way to engage the truth of the interdependence of everyone.
Asian Art Now 2005. Presented by the Asian Cultural Exchange Association with the Las Vegas Art Museum. May 27 – July 24, 2005
Made possible by the imperative exercise of autonomy, control of its own resources and the creation of its own opportunities, the Asian Cultural Exchange Association has now progressed through the ongoing successes of its transnational programs to established grounds for realizing wider ambitions.
Much the way artist, and artist-run organizations in the U.S. did during the 1960’s, the ACEA exists as a collective self determinedly freed of market forces in order to leave its artists free –collectively- to interpret for the wider society. Market forces and institutions with their restricted discourse are left behind. In a domestic art world increasingly considered an adjunct to the entertainment or fashion industries, we are instead presented here with an instance of cultural pragmatism. By this exhibition the museum in effect admits a wider society and forgoes a vulgar pedagogy dominated by commercial values in favor of a diplomacy, which is an unlikely role for a museum in the United States and a purpose that consistently meets resistance. Perhaps it is the very fact of the ACEA’s foreign status that enables such resistance to be overcome so graciously.
With this exhibition we have a bridge between general culture and art world discourse in a different way. That way is by applying a meaning insistent upon recognition of interdependence between societies, a meaning insistent upon need for an engaged audience. An exhibition not as spectacle but as a continuous process of building relations. This reclaims a purposiveness for art through closer ties of real world and art world concerns.
When we see these artworks then what world are we affirmed to be occupying? What is that place to which this art takes us and from which it invites us to see? On what terms do we engage this art? The ACEA does not come to us as a group of international visitors. They arrive as partners however be it from a society other than our own. All of their differentness affirms our multiplicities to show us we are spectators of a shared condition in the world. An artist collective that is as much practical adaptation as it is the result of emphasis on a shared vision that prioritizes collective well-being –not well-being imposed or instituted the way other human social organizations do- but well-being learned and grown in to, the ACEA has removed barriers to culture that would have required we see in the limited terms of internationalism. True cultural vision is achieved when such mediation is removed. Then we are face to face with ourselves. Positing our situation as one in common, in an exhibition then comprised of works by many individuals the very idea of individual vision, of personal sensitivity, skill, insight, growth and development are prioritized as the primary values. The validity of each individual, the respect for personal, un-self-conscious thought contributes to the sum of our humanity. Our isolations have been replaced.
Together with the artists of the ACEA this exhibition is our way to communicate with the world. These artists for years now have actively promoted conditions under which such communication may appear. They have been holding the world open. It is an act that does not so much transform the public but reclaims the enlargement of a polity through art that collectively enjoins a concern with guiding the total complex of relations between people. The ACEA insists that in this way we realize our shared ability to create the world with our lives. In a time of war, torture, terror, moral confusion and natural disaster that subdues our measure, we should encourage ourselves instead towards human progress with more such efforts as this exhibition.