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Xu Bing's Phoenix hangs in the nave of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine during Asia Week New York

Asia Week New York As Seen by Asia Society Texas

Asia Week New York, which concluded March 22nd, is a forum for the burgeoning markets in Asian art and the interest in Asian art from museums both encyclopedic and contemporary. Bridget Bray became Director of Exhibitions at Asia Society Texas Center in Houston in February 2014. She joined ASTC from the Pacific Asia Museum where she had been curator since 2005. She talked about Asia Week New York, which she visited.

Help Us Understand Asia Week: Is it a version of armory show centered by an art fair?

Asia Week is an international gathering in New York of Asian art curators, collectors, scholars, dealers and others who use the week to connect, discuss projects, visit exhibitions, attend auctions and the like.

Are the auction houses at the center of it? Are there divisions or distinctions between where to see antiquities or historic art versus contemporary art?

The auction houses are an important component of the week but with so many elements, it’s tough to declare a center. It’s more like a moveable feast. Certain exhibitions at museums like the Metropolitan, the Rubin or Asia Society New York may focus on pre-modern or contemporary work, or sometimes those elements in combination. Galleries may specialize in a certain region or time period and be presenting related materials.

What really caught your attention among the shows?

The Densatil exhibition at the Asia Society New York is a must see (and that’s not nepotism, I promise). They’ve brought together for the first time a gathering of objects from a Tibetan Buddhist monastery that was dispersed when the monastery was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. The exhibition design wonderfully supports a sense of actually gauging the scale of what the original buildings must have been like.

Interest in contemporary Chinese art remains very strong and the Met’s major exhibition Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China captured the ongoing impact of the “ink aesthetic” in China for contemporary artists over recent decades. I think it’s a critical survey coming at an important time in the growing appreciation for ink-based works. Ink’s importance culturally in China over the millennia is bearing interesting fruit in contemporary expression.

I also admired the installation of Xu Bing’s Phoenix at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and recommend that for anyone visiting New York, regardless of their interest in contemporary art from China. The sculpture has been on view before in the U.S. (at Mass MoCa) but this is a completely unique experience seeing these forms with their massive scale soaring through the nave of the Cathedral. The themes Xu Bing presents resonate with the religious setting, perhaps against expectations, and are supported by additional materials such as video interviews and the history of the creation of the works. Viewers are invited to think critically about the rapid urbanization in China and what it may mean on a global scale. Plus it’s just an amazing feat of engineering.

As the Art Newspaper reports that Asia Week corresponds to $200m in sales are those export sales from the Asian countries? And who are the buyers?

Sales are both domestic and foreign in terms of both buyers and sourcing, with objects not just coming from Asia to New York but also third party sales from American and European collectors and galleries. The buyers represent a broad range: from institutions adding to their collections to young newly-wealthy private collectors coming from China to buy at their first auction.

Talk a little bit about overall art museum trends in collecting Asian art. Who are the biggest players? Do their become areas of “hot” concentration similar to say big-name auteur paintings in contemporary art circles?

Museums are interesting in that Asian art and contemporary art departments tend to be separate in most of the “org charts.” Curators in Asian art may specialize in contemporary work exclusively and have to navigate how that works at their home institutions in terms of collecting activities and exhibition scheduling.

For many years the focus has been on China but there’s broader attention now to contemporary art from South Asia (my own interest) and Southeast Asia. The Met, as an example, currently has work from Sopheap Pich in their Khmer Gallery, juxtaposing Southeast Asian classical and contemporary art.

Were you there to collect in part? If so, did you buy anything and what?

This trip was not a collecting trip and so we did not make any purchases.

Speak a little bit to how to understand the vastness of this territory: China, India, Korea, Japan… when it comes to presenting new shows of work such as you will be doing in Houston? Curatorially, do you situate the material culture in the history? I.e., do you have to explain the politics that attended the art?

I think you’ve hit it squarely with the question of scale. For Asia Society, we span a vast region that is so culturally diverse and historically complex as to almost defy description. “Asia” as an entity has all sorts of attendant unpacking that can be required, depending on the context. Certain exhibitions may demand more of that kind of framing than others depending on the works and artists included. The key motivation is to present the highest possible manifestations of visual culture to bring our visitors into a greater appreciation, and in some cases also awareness, of these art traditions. This will hopefully have the follow-on effect of raising cultural or global competencies.

Trends in Korean art?

I was lucky to have the opportunity to work with a number of Korean artists while at Pacific Asia Museum. Trends are always difficult to talk about without sounding like over-generalizations but I’m looking closely at digital, video and time-based art in that area.

Are giant galleries like Gagosian now devoting sections to Asian contemporary art?

I think wherever there’s a strength both in the quality of the work and the market reception, there will the galleries be. Entities like Pace and Gagosian certainly seem to be responsive to this.

We recently had the death of writer Peter Mathiessen and, as was widely reported, he was Buddhist. Is there a large market for Buddhist material in the US?

There is a large market for Buddhist material in the US but maybe of equal interest is the strength of the market for it in China, which might defy certain expectations of an officially Communist nation.

Last but certainly not least. Your plans for Asia Society Texas Center. 

We’re looking forward to two exhibitions this year. The first, which opens on May 2nd and runs to September 14, is Transcendent Deities of India: The Everyday Occurrence of the Divine which draws attention to the ongoing impact of classical Hindu material on both modern and contemporary artists. How does early religious and artistic culture in the region inspire but also challenge artists working more recently? The rich range of programming, whether that be classical dance and music in the actual gallery space, an artist talk, or a writing workshop will help expand the conversation with our visitors.

The planned fall exhibition will continue this approach with a presentation of the work of contemporary artist Bidou Yamaguchi who draws deeply from the Noh theater tradition for investigations centered around identity, East-West connections and the resource that heritage continues to present for some Japanese artists. This will allow us to hopefully tap into contemporary theater in interesting programmatic ways.

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