Five Asian artists to watch – John McDonald

Shi Zhiying, High Seas, oil on canvas, 200 x 800 cm, 2008. Image courtesy of the artist and White Rabbit Gallery.

Shi Zhiying, High Seas, oil on canvas, 200 x 800 cm, 2008. Image courtesy of the artist and White Rabbit Gallery.

In the Imperial age of international art, about fifteen years ago, there were very few Asian artists included in biennales and other large survey exhibitions. Those who made the cut were usually long-term residents of cities such as Berlin, Paris or New York.

How very different it is today, when Asian artists have come to dominate the contemporary art scene. China is the powerhouse, Japan has always had a residual presence, South Korea is a formidable cultural force, India has begun to invest heavily in contemporary art. Taiwan, Thailand and the Philippines have produced a succession of highly original artists, while other nations such as Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore are starting to make their presence felt. The fastest rising centre is Indonesia, where artists have benefited from a more liberal political atmosphere, unleashing a new wave of subversive pop.

The only country in the region that seems to have fallen behind is Australia, which is not quite Asian and not quite western. However, the forthcoming Moscow Biennale features 9 Australian artists, and this may herald better days to come.

Here are five artists whose work has struck a chord with me over the past couple of years.

Shi Zhiying (b. 1979)

As with so many outstanding Chinese artists, I caught a first glimpse of Shi Zhiying’s work at the White Rabbit Gallery in 2011, where her monumental painting, High Seas (2008) was a highlight. This panoramic black-and-white view of the ocean painted with a dry brush, has a meditative quality, but also a strong feeling of arrested motion. All is flux, but paradoxically, all is still. It ties in with Shi Zhiying’s Buddhist beliefs, which provide the “inner calm” she needs to create such works.

I’ve since visited Shi Zhiying in her Shanghai studio, and seen an exhibition at the James Cohan Gallery in the same city, where she showed a multi-panelled work based on Italo Calvino’s novel, Mr. Palomar. In this show Zhiying came across as highly focussed and much more versatile than first suspected. She may be non-materialistic in her beliefs, but she has the world at her feet.

Koo Bohnchang (b. 1953)

In South Korea one is spoilt for choice when looking for excellent artists. If I single out Koo Bohnchang it’s not because he is an emerging star, but because I’ve got to know him and appreciate his work. In the National Museum of Korea, Koo’s photographs of ancient vases are hung on the walls next to the actual artefacts. Although he has taken on a wide range of subjects, he is best known for his ability to capture objects such as white vases, worn cakes of soap and old gloves, in way that conveys a tremendous sense of presence.

Koo’s abiding influences were German photographers such as August Sander and Albert Renger-Patsch, but he has added a metaphysical dimension to these pragmatic traditions. An ongoing series features mothers who have lost sons in war, along with objects that belonged to the deceased soldiers. He started with the memorable image, Park Weayon: Age 101, She Lost her son during the Korean War (2010), and is continuing to add to the series in different parts of the world.

Koo Bohnchang (Korean, b.1953) 'Vessels' 2006 Digitalized print, h: 116 x w: 79 cm / h: 45.7 x w: 31.1

Koo Bohnchang (Korean, b.1953) ‘Vessels’ 2006
Digitalized print, h: 116 x w: 79 cm / h: 45.7 x w: 31.1

Jose Legaspi (b.1959)

If the Philippines has made a distinctive contribution to the contemporary art scene it may be in the resurgence of interest in that ambiguous category, the Gothic. We think of works of this ilk as being dark, morbid, concerned with supernatural themes or states of fear and anxiety. One could nominate Filippino artists such as Louis Cordero or Miguel Ocampo as representative of this tendency, but I’ve settled on Jose Legaspi because his work has a particularly chilling quality.

Legaspi’s drawings were shown in the 2002 Asia Pacific Triennial at the Queensland Art Gallery, where they stood out from many larger, more spectacular works by sheer force of personality. His pastels of wide-eyed figures doing unspeakable things with knives, or simply looking traumatised in a bare room, are genuinely disturbing. They emerge from an anarchic culture steeped in Spanish Catholicism, but with a psychological impact that owes everything to the artist’s own imagination.

Jose Legaspi Phlegm 2000–02 Chalk and charcoal on paper 1000 drawings: 22.8 x 30.5cm each

Jose Legaspi ‘Phlegm’ 2000–02, Chalk and charcoal on paper 1000 drawings: 22.8 x 30.5cm each

Yume Akasaka (b. 1985)

Video art is an overcrowded field, with endless repetitions and dead ends, but every so often one finds a really fresh talent. I came across Yume Akasaka’s work, Stories – House, in the courtyard of an old, abandoned farmhouse on the island of Shodoshima, during the 2013 Setouchi Triennale.

In one room Akasaka had placed a shadow play of farm animals. In another, a fish swam silently in the darkness, while a colourful Buddhist wall hanging seemed to liquify and slip off the wall. There was a simple poetic idea behind each installation which related to the life of the farm and the community. These works were impressive because of their delicacy and their receptiveness to the local environment. Above all, there was a sense in which each piece could have been made much bigger and more complex. The Shodoshima installations felt like preliminary sketches for greater works still to come.

Yume Akasaka Photo: Kimito Takahashi

Yume Akasaka, Photo: Kimito Takahashi

Heri Dono (b.1960)

Indonesian art is currently enjoying a surge of popularity, being shown in biennales, museum surveys and art fairs around the world, while being heavily promoted by internationally-minded dealers such as Matthias Arndt. One can hardly go anywhere without encountering works by new wave artists such as Agus Suwage, Eko Nugroho and Entang Wiharso. This could be a signal that one should also look to a handful of established Indonesian artists who have already made a mark on the world stage.

Chief among them is Heri Dono, who has major works in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia and the Queensland Art Gallery. In Canberra, his Flying Angels (2006) is a favourite piece, on seemingly permanent dsplay. Dono’s unique mixture of painting, sculpture, puppetry and mechanical arts is as fresh as ever, while being strongly redolent of Indonesian traditions. As Indonesian art rises in the world’s esteem, Dono’s work will remain somewhere near the top.


Heri Dono – Flying Angels, Part of Negotiating Home, History & Nation: Two Decades of Contemporary Art in Southeast Asia 1991-2011

John McDonald is art critic for the Sydney Morning Herald & film critic for the Australian Financial Review