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Greet the Asian invasion

By Morgan Falconer, The Times, January 28, 2006

From China to tiny Bhutan, there’s a feast of East Asian art waiting to be sampled, and it’s coming to Blackburn

Paul Flintoff may have finally silenced those who scoff at publicly funded research junkets. Some time ago, the head of the Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery was flown to Japan by the Arts Council, notionally in search of some woodblock printmakers. What has he returned with? Almost every exhibit in Parallel Realities: Asian Art Now, the third exhibition from the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum in Japan, a dazzling and ambitious survey that takes in 50 artists from 21 countries across East Asia. Indeed, Flintoff’s booty is so vast that exhibits have had to be placed in venues right across Blackburn.

This man is so bold that he has organised for video art to be projected during half time at Blackburn Rovers games — a children’s animated adventure set in Cambodia, and a video in which an ecstatic middle-aged man wanders the city by night kissing passers-by.

Indeed, when Manchester United come to play Blackburn on Wednesday, he has arranged for the Indonesian performance artist Tiarma Dame Ruth Sirait to expound her philosophy of “synthetic love” and, as he puts it, “parade around in one of her pink outfits”. “Is she really ready for the fans?” I ask, sceptically.“Are they ready for her?” he replies.

Flintoff is justly proud of the exhibition, as it puts his museum at the fashionable vanguard of the recent explosion of interest in Asian art. There can be no surer sign of this style credibility than that Selfridges in London has also been luring Chinese artists. Two who recently figured in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s wellreceived exhibition of new photography and video art from China, Between Past and Future, are coming to decorate the store. In February, Song Dong will be constructing an elaborate confection entirely from sweets and biscuits. And, when I visited, Wang Qingsong had already created an installation that spread the length of the 19 storefront windows. Some mannequins appear to fly through the air, others engage in a crowded tug-of-war, and all are dressed in clashing ensembles of Western fashions and traditional Chinese outfits — Qing dynasty kitted out by Vuitton.

There are Chinese emperors, soldiers, figures from traditional opera, as well as Wang’s selection of Western icons, such as Snow White, Santa and mermaids. And many of the figures appear to be trying to lay their hands on the hotch-potch of consumer durables rigged up on a spider’s web at the centre (Wang had razor wire in mind for this; Selfridges talked him out of it).

Wang’s enthusiasms may be largely in harmony with Selfridges, but one might wonder what the connection is between the borough of Blackburn with Darwen and the provincial Japanese port city of Fukuoka. Flintoff, joking that Fukuoka now regards Blackburn as its own “parallel reality”, believes there are echoes. “Well, 15 per cent of Blackburn’s population is Asian,” he says. “And we’re very conscious of our historic links with Asia through the cotton and textile trade. But also, Fukuoka is an area that is regenerating, much as Blackburn is, and in the process, both towns have been attracting high-tech industries.”

But one needs few excuses for importing such a rich survey of Asian art. Its range alone is remarkable: works from a pro- ject called VAST, based in Bhutan, show sophisticated work coming out of impoverished countryside where there are no established art schools. Meanwhile, the rainbow-coloured installation Sponge City, by the Vietnamese Tiffany Cheung, imagines an entirely artificial urban life. The show also presents aspects of Asian life now familiar even in the West: Abdus Salam’s paintings are scabrous satires of Bollywood cinema; and the Thai artist Deang Buasan evokes the rainy season in an installation that also recalls the childhood drowning of his brother.

The East’s convulsive embrace of capitalism, and the new attention lavished on Chinese art in the West, might give the impression that all Asian art is fixated on the relationship with the West. Parallel Realities shows us not only the difference in approach in its many countries, but also that they have more on their minds than us. Sometimes they are trying to recover their past: a series of works by Ho Tzu Nyen resurrects the mythical first king of the Malays and the pre-colonial founder of Singapore, Sang Nila Utama, a figure forgotten today. Other times they seem advanced into the frightening future: one essay in the catalogue notes how sales of mobile phone ringtones now equal a third of Japan’s sales of CDs.

But for Wang, dressing the mannequins in the windows of one of London’s temples of capitalism, the relationship between East and West is clear as day. “Who do you feel closest to?” I ask him. “Your Eastern neighbours, or your old Western enemy?” He laughs: “We feel closest to the richest one!”

Parallel Realities: Asian Art Now is at the Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery, Museum St, Blackburn (01254 667130), until Apr 9. Window displays by Wang Qingsong will be at Selfridges, Oxford St, London W1 (www.selfridges.com), until Feb 26.

The don’t-miss list at Blackburn

  1. Chakkrit Chimnok finds 101 uses for the banana skin. They are sometimes used for thatching roofs in Thailand, but this selection of clothes and furniture, including tailored jackets and trousers, sofas and lamps, is something very new.
  2. Disturbed by his relatives’ religious squabbles over the proper way to mourn his grandmother, the Malaysian artist Chang Yoong Chia has taken to embroidering images of the dead he finds in newspaper obituaries in an ongoing project called Quilt of the Dead. It’s ritual without religion.
  3. Zai Kuning started to visit Bintan Island in 1999 to get to know a settlement of sea gypsies who live among the 3,000 islands of the Riau Archipelago off the coast of Singapore. His documentary is an invaluable record of a little known people.
  4. The Bangladeshi painter Nazlee Laila Mansur has evolved a vividly coloured magic realism to speak of the injustices against women in her country. Her pictures have shades of Paula Rego and Frida Kahlo, and some capture Louis Kahn’s extraordinary National Assembly building.
  5. The Chinese film-maker Yang Fudong showed a striking love story in Tate Modern’s recent Time Zones show. Here he presents a new two-screen film based on traditional folk tales which are populated by peasants and fools, intellectuals and snakes.
  6. Masooma Syed’s sculptures have an appealing decorative quality from a distance. Hard curved shards are arranged in lines like writing, or strung on threads like necklaces. They just aren’t so appealing when you learn that they are made of human nails.
  7. The Cambodian artist Ly Daravuth combines photographs of contemporary children with those of children who acted as the messengers of the Khmer Rouge. All look innocent, but, as Daravuth suggests, the lines of guilt and innocence are never too clear.