New Geographies of Feminist Art: China, Asia, and the World

Background

Visitor to the 2011 Venice Biennale, photographed by Andrea Basile, published in Domus magazine, 3.06.11, “Another Brick in the Wall,” art report by Simona Bordone.

Intellectual Rationale and Contribution

Many artists working in Asia today imagine a different relationship between art and life than their predecessors, and their practice has transformed notions of the aesthetic and the political. However, male figures, from Cai Guoqiang and Ai Weiwei to Subodh Gupta and Atul Dodiya, dominate the international art world and a focus on their heroic actions has occluded the contributions of women such as Atsuko Tanaka, He Chengyao, N. Pushpamala, and Kimsooja to modern and contemporary Asian art. When female artists receive attention, such as during the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, recognition tends to be short-lived. Moreover, their work is categorized as “women’s art,” which denies them the wider exposure and critical reception accorded to male peers. This categorization contains their achievements, reducing their impact on social life within the nation and beyond.

New Geographies of Feminist Art is an international conference devoted to the often-unacknowledged influences of women on art practice in China and the circulation of feminist aesthetic strategies throughout Asia. Taking gender as a central form of power in the representational politics of contemporary art, the conference will stage an interdisciplinary conversation among art historians, anthropologists, historians, and Asian and cultural studies scholars, as well as artists and curators. It will include presentations on the visual arts in the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan, Singapore, India, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, in order to understand the significance of feminist practices in national and transnational contexts.

The burgeoning market for Chinese contemporary art is often presented as exemplary of social and economic shifts in the globalizing art world, yet there has been little inquiry into the gendered and transnational implications of this phenomenon. Scholars have focused primarily on the relationship between the nation-state and contemporary art practice and on new cultural institutions that have arisen in post-Mao, reform-era China. New Geographies of Feminist Art aims to reorient scholarly discussion away from Western centers toward the production, consumption and circulation of the visual arts in nonwestern centers, like Beijing and Delhi, Taipei and Tokyo, Hong Kong and Hanoi, Seoul and Shanghai, Guangzhou and Jakarta. It does so by examining the role of women artists, the history and future of feminism, and the visual representation of gender and sexuality.

In spite of emergent research on the topic, no major scholarly conference or publication has gathered artists and intellectuals to consider how Asian women have negotiated changes in the art world and intervened in the politics of visual representation. Most accounts of the rise of Asian art in the international arena have neglected or sidelined women artists. Yet their work has reinvented contemporary art-making practices and challenged conventional understandings of culture and society in China, Asia, and the world. Although artists and artworks have rarely been contained by national boundaries, art historical narratives remain predominantly national. From Pan Yuliang and Amrita Sher-Gil to Yayoi Kusama and Lin Tianmiao, women artists in the modern world have cultivated transnational lives and selves. How do we situate their efforts in cultural, social and historical terms? How does their work respond to ideas of the nation and its gendered citizen-subjects in the twenty-first century? Why does contemporary art in Asia demand different critical and curatorial practices than in the past?

At the same time that Chinese contemporary art has dominated headlines around the world, major exhibitions organized in metropolitan centerssuch as Global Feminisms (2007), WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution (2007), and Elles (2009)—aimed to retell the history of feminist art. Despite progressive orientations, they subsumed multiple histories of feminist theory and practice within an overarching narrative centered in the West. This conference and its companion edited volume will investigate the institutional histories and curatorial strategies by which feminist art produced in China and other Asian nations is displayed and discussed in museums, galleries, and classrooms in the West and elsewhere. It will generate a cross-cultural dialogue on the subject of feminist art in East and West, analyzing past trajectories of critical and curatorial practice and suggesting new directions for the future.

Museum-based efforts remain invested in the figure of the woman artist, while academic studies have turned to questions of gender and sexuality. This turn has enabled scholars to examine the shifting social construction of masculinities, femininities, and queer identities. This conference brings together scholars located in the art world and academy to debate this disjunction. Has the academic world let go of the category of the woman artist too readily; has the museum world held onto it too steadfastly? The recent international focus on Chinese contemporary art presents a singular opportunity to pose such questions about gender, sexuality, and the woman artist. Yet, this attention to China has unduly eclipsed art production in Taiwan, the Chinese diaspora, and other Asian nations. Rather than focusing exclusively on the nation-state, we adopt a comparative perspective to comprehend shared historical formations in Asia and the ways they have shaped cross-border discourses and aesthetic practices related to the “woman question.” This comparative approach resists the national domestication of feminist art, bringing together and remaking the disciplines of art history, anthropology, Asian studies, cultural studies, and women’s studies.

Modes of Inquiry

The conference panels and roundtables will be organized around six interlocking themes—the city, the country, art markets, art worlds, structures, and sites. We have chosen these modes of inquiry in order to: 1) reorient discussion of categories with rich and complex Western histories to an Asian context; 2) demonstrate how these categories articulate with particular histories of colonialism, socialism, rural-urban relations, everyday life, and feminist organizing in China and other Asian societies; and 3) explore how art by women engages in multiple social fields beyond the ones to which they are often delimited in national and international contexts.

Two roundtables, one of artists and another of curators, will break up the traditional conference structure and generate a conversation between scholars and practitioners about institutional outcomes in terms of pedagogical and curatorial strategies for the future. We have invited moderators who will also be asked to serve as discussants-at-large, raising overarching questions and drawing connections throughout the conference, and whose own institutional North American Pacific Rim locations will help cultivate a regional core of scholars committed to shared intellectual inquiry following the conference.