When Japanese Bodies Make Their Mark

by Liz on January 21, 2015

in Art & Design

1. 1961_Chijikusei Gotenrai

Kazuo Shiraga's Chijikusei Gotenrai

If man came from mud, then Japanese artist Kazuo Shiraga was the man who returned to its depths.

In 1955, using his half-naked body as his instrument, Shiraga dug into a pile of clay, constructing abstract, unruly shapes. This performance, later preserved as body sculptures, set the stage for his paintings, which he created with his feet, or sometimes by suspending his body from the ceiling.

1. Shiraga in his studio, 1960

Shiraga in his studio, 1960

The paintings will be on view at the Dominique Lévy Gallery in New York from Jan. 29 to Apr. 4, in an exhibit titled ‘Body and Matter.’

Alongside Shiraga’s moving body paintings, Satoru Hoshino’s finger ceramics will also be on display. For a refreshing change of pace, traces of the artists’ bodies, the source of labor, will occupy the space as much as the art itself.

A prominent member of the postwar Japanese art group Gutai, Shiraga (1924-2008) used his body toward what art historian John Rajchman describes as ‘social dis-identification.’ The act brought out the singular creativity of the artist, expressing individualism in its most raw, and therefore honest form.

It’s a beautiful concept. Shiraga, like his fellow artists, wanted his viewers to stir from their polite amnesia after war, surrender and occupation had transformed the landscape — and a new agenda socialized Japanese bodies for the nation’s next chapter. To that end he engaged in painting as an act that erupts violently from the artist’s body, guiding the gaze back to the power of flesh, blood, bone before it is labeled, packaged and categorized by outside forces.

But the question remains: even as Gutai as an art movement received recognition as an avant-garde event that challenged mass conformity, how much of Gutai was a result of similar movements in abstract expressionist circles in France or the United States? Did the movement correspond to a singular modernity, or did it branch out to new Japanese expressions?

There may be no definitive answer but perhaps one plausible explanation lies in Shiraga’s post-Gutai activities — which included a turn to Zen asceticism and his engagement in painting as a spiritual practice, where paint became emblematic of the artist’s ki, or spirit.

For more information on this upcoming exhibit, visit Dominique Lévy Gallery. (An opening reception will be held from 6 to 8 p.m., and a panel discussion with Koichi Kawasaki, Alexandra Munroe, Ming Tiampo, and Reiko Tomii, moderated by Professor Rajchman, is scheduled for Feb. 15.)


2015 : The Year Of The Body

by Liz on January 20, 2015

in Art & Design

Photo courtesy of Tamara Černá

The body matters in modern East Asia because it is the driving force behind social formations in both capitalist and post-socialist domains. The body and ideas of the body are used to build order — and discipline the masses through the invention of individuality. Put another way, we are individuals because we possess bodies, and we decorate them according to our tastes. Never mind that the concept was not in circulation in the pre-modern societies of China, Korea and Japan, where hereditary rule or rigid class structures meant group form trumped most other forms of identity.

Because now, of course, individuality is everywhere and the way the body is imagined or regarded dominates lives. These lives are represented as ‘liberated,’ but in truth are subject to interiorized discipline that allows bodies to willingly surrender to other forces.

So why is 2015 the Year of the Body for Manifesto?

In part it’s because the rise of the body, and its role in the material culture of the Asia-Pacific, has been largely disregarded. The irony, of course, is that its significance presides over the economies and the emotional lives of those who utilize the inner and outer gaze to adorn their bodies, or stay sufficiently motivated to keep it in good health, whether out of vanity, or simply to stay in good condition in the workplace.

From time to time I’ll call out on instances where too much emphasis is being placed on the body, both in the female and male domains. Yet other times I’ll demonstrate how the modern Asian embrace of the body as a kind of secular temple – has and will continue to bring about new sub-cultures that may be unique to its geography.

Lastly I’ll keep readers abreast of global Asian celebrity culture, and how the faces and bodies of contemporary entertainment reflect changing ideals.

I might even blog about what they’re wearing, ask Seoulites what they think beauty means, or examine art that puts body and bodily anxieties at its center.

So stick around. It’s going to be an exciting year.


Lin Shu Michael Hill

Lin Shu, Inc.: Translation and the Making of Modern Chinese Culture
by Michael Gibbs Hill
Oxford 2012, 320 pages

Imagine, if you would, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin written with a late 19th-century Chinese reader in mind. How would it play out?

That is one of the more intriguing finds of Michael Hill’s intellectual history Lin Shu, Inc.: Translation and the Making of Modern Chinese Culture, a must-read for those of us dabbling in modern China studies or comparative literature.

Hill’s monograph doesn’t quite align Walter Benjamin’s theory of translation to Lin Shu’s intellectual labor. (A little context here – Lin was a Chinese man of letters, best known for translating literature from the West in the late Qing period, an exceptional feat given that he did not know foreign languages and employed assistants as needed.) If Benjamin believed “Translation issued from the original—not so much from its life as from its afterlife,” Hill takes that afterlife of Lin Shu’s work to task — prodding it with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Hill, who teaches Chinese and comparative literature at the University of South Carolina, addresses Lin’s ‘suspicious labors’ and his ‘questionable methods of translating text,’ and indeed, he should. As he points out, Chinese translations of original works of foreign fiction would add new plots, which the author more or less views as tampering with the integrity of literature. Lin took great liberties, for example, with the character of George Harris (from Uncle Tom’s Cabin), who takes on a new afterlife in the Chinese translation, as he emerges as the “hero and as the vessel of the (Chinese) translators’ hopes for national salvation.” According to Hill, Harris’ search for a national identity and his “choice to identify with African-Americans and the state of Liberia” (in Lin’s translated rendition of the story) resonates and serves the interests of the Chinese translators who saw in Harris China’s own modernizing future, and perhaps an answer to its crisis in the wake of encroaching Western imperialism. So an afterlife existed in Lin Shu’s enterprise, but also produced a translation that misconstrued the original work for Chinese, or more specifically, to Lin’s ends.

Hill’s monograph excels when taking a penetrating look into the relationship between translation and Chinese national subjectivity, the latter convincingly depicted as vacillating in a perpetual state of negotiation. The Chinese translator’s choice of identities and identifications across textual life cycles, then, draws attention to the experience of a destabilizing modernity wherein concepts in opposition can roughly coexist, a key condition for China’s then burgeoning ‘linguistic market’ that was part of the process of the building of a nation, or the forming of a “consciousness of the Chinese nation and the world.”

Aside from the fascinating insight into a tumultuous period in Chinese history, the book serves as a reminder nations are constantly being rewritten and reinvented, as our intellectual needs and moral imagination guides, and at times, misguides us.


Traffic Officer In Pyongyang, North Korea

For those of you in the news business — and maybe for some of you outside of it — North Korea just may be the gift that keeps on giving.

And, speaking of gifts, Chad O’Carroll and his talented news team at NK News in collaboration with Global Asian Culture is giving away one free 2014 North Korea Calendar — featuring the photography of Eric Lafforgue — to a lucky winner!

January NK news

So here’s what you need to do to enter.

1. Follow @nknewsorg and @GlobalAsianista on Twitter.
2. Tweet the giveaway (Enter to win a 2014 North Korea Wall Calendar from @nknewsorg and @GlobalAsianista http://tinyurl.com/otojylu)
3. Leave a comment in the comments section at the end of the post, telling us you entered.

September NK News

I will draw the winner on Thursday, January 2, 2014.

Have a Happy New Year!

[Photo Credit: Eric Lafforgue]

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The Clash of Empires: The Invention of China in Modern World Making
by Lydia Liu
Harvard, 334 pages

As an avid reader of non-fiction books about East Asia it’s come to my attention academic works rarely cross over to enjoy the popularity of a Thomas Friedman bestseller or a Malcolm Gladwell paperback.

The most common complaint is academic books are dry, boring or hard to read.

While this may be true for some, it’s also increasingly the case I find works that are not only fascinating to read but are ferociously relevant to the present.

Lydia Liu’s The Clash Of Empires was published in 2004, but with its insights into the construction of ‘China’ in the 19th century it does astonish the reader with a completely overlooked episode in history.

According to Liu, mistranslation and appropriation of key Chinese words enabled European powers, and specifically Britain, to extract unfair treaties from relatively reclusive Qing China.

Through the reconstruction of the Chinese term ‘Yi‘ and misappropriating it into the false equivalence of the English word ‘barbarian,’ Liu argues that the diplomatically mediated British empire was able to bring Chinese writing under Western control.

It’s a flicker of an episode but one with catastrophic consequences for the Qing, because once philology was colonized even the Chinese elite was at the mercy of a new kind of control.

An event from such a distant past may not sound too relevant today but as Liu demonstrates that’s only because the hidden powers of political technologies have been kept out of view for so long.


Blonde Asians

August 3, 2013

There’s a new breed of Asian trendsetters in fashion magazines and on the streets, and they seem to pop up everywhere. Asian blondes are probably nothing novel. No matter where you go these days almost all people dress as they please and dye their hair to their tastes. It’s a bit harder to say why […]

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Myeongdong Encounters

May 25, 2013

First of all, a disclaimer: I am not a photographer. But I like taking photographs. For years, I shied away from taking photographs of actual people. Which is ironic, because people are the only subjects actually worth photographing. Last year in my first semester of graduate school, and thanks to great teachers at NYU, I’ve […]

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Qingdao Beach | Katharina Hesse

April 28, 2013

About a year ago, I was immensely lucky to interview photographer Katharina Hesse for AsianTalks, and speak to her in length of her work with publications like TIME and Newsweek. Her projects have taken her to Bangkok, around Asia, and recently to China’s northeast where she has photographed North Korean refugees who are fleeing the […]

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South Korea’s Disgraced Power Structures

February 6, 2013

Democracy : demo from studio shelter on Vimeo. What is democracy anyways? According to this tongue-in-cheek “video game” by South Korean outfit, Studio Shelter, it’s just another platform for repression. In under three minutes, a video simulating a MIDI game found in penny arcades takes you through 20th century Korean history, marked by protests, uprisings, […]

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Cultural Symbols and Nationalism

January 29, 2013

With all the buzz about the clash of nationalisms in Asia today, I found my attention slowly turning towards less newsworthy but visually arresting items. Like this captivating photograph of a Japanese geisha, whose finery, grace, and beauty underscores an important point about gender: because in Japan, even if men are politically powerful, it is […]

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