Asian Art in Havana Biennial Face to face with contemporary artistic production in China and Japan by Yanelis Abreu (Translated by Angel Ramon Milan Dobson))

Industrialization and technological modernization do not suffice to refer to Asian countries. The artistic production from these nations has become a point of interest due to its diversity of art and the professionalism of its creators. Several biennial and triennial festivals, as well as fairs, became news headlines in the West over the last few years and brought the art of China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Singapore, mainly, back on the front burner.



Amid the “cultural globalization in the new millennium,” Asian art demands that it be appreciated and respected in its own terms. The art institutions of the West can no longer view it from a purely contemplative position, nor can they mask this production under the veil of monocultural esthetics. Western conceptualization cannot only exist to get feedback on the qualities of an art from other origins. In order to fairly appreciate the artistic production of this important area of the cultural movement, it is necessary to value the great artistic richness of these nations and their centuries-old cultural history.


The art of China and Japan has had a timely inclusion in the exhibits of the 10th Biennial Festival of Havana. These exhibits bring viewers closer to a type of production that is not well known to the Cubans – which is currently experiencing a positive boom in European and American circuits.


For starters, the event pays posthumous tribute to Japanese artist Shingeo Fukuda, whose death last January frustrated his intention to attend the event. The artist had already visited the Island during Icograda 2007, the international design event held in Cuba. Wifredo Lam Center for Contemporary Art, a gallery dedicated to international invitees, is showing Inquietud lúdica [Playful Restlessness], the first exhibit organized outside Japan after Fukuda's demise.


The poster collection displays its questioning and synthetic designs, laden with shrewdness and critical intention. Its images are famous for the accuracy of the signs used. The compositions created from figures and counter figures, the alteration of perspective and the intentional subversion of the figure-depth couple earned him the sobriquet of “master of optical illusion.”


Silk-screen prints, aimed at comprehending the human spirit, depict issues such as wars, the assault on the environment, the shortage of natural resources and music. An artist who set the budget for efficient and highly communicative design said that it was necessary to have 30% of dignity, 20% of beauty and 50% of absurdity.


Tatsuo Miyajima, another great figure of Japanese art, stands out in collective project Punto de Encuentro [Point of Rendezvous], organized by Cuban artist Alexis Leyva (Kcho). He is screening his video Counter Voice in Wine (2000), one of his criticisms of capitalism and, in a straightforward manner, of the colonizing powers that have pillaged the wealth of the world for centuries.


Another author, Satomi Matoba, is included in collective project Tales from the New World, coordinated by artist Humberto Díaz.


Also with works on display is Setsuko Ono, sister of Yoko Ono, John Lennon’s widow. The painter and sculptor, who was not allowed by Washington to travel to Cuba, according to her husband, Italian historian Piero Gleijeses, sent four large canvases designed in Paris and entitled Resistance to Overbearing Force and Dreams of Peace. Displayed at Casa de Asia [House of Asia], located in the historical center of Old Havana, these works express the author’s solidarity to the Palestinian cause and her faith in human values. Inspired by Goya’s engravings with scenes from the Spanish resistance war against the French (1808-1814) and the famous Guernica, by Pablo Picasso, Setsuko Ono recycles familiar forms that evoke pain and courage, while resorting to symbols of denunciation that transcend centuries and countries.


The House of Asia also embraced Lo asiático, lo japonés y lo cubano [The Asian, the Japanese and the Cuban], an exhibit with recent works by three young artists. Originality and diversity are expressed in the abstract pieces on cut paper (handcrafted technique kirie) by Hideo Iwasaki, an expert in making art with biomaterials and biological compositions. Various sculptures by Ryuzo Kawano and Shigeyo Kobayashi complete the selection. The former is a self-taught artist who has modified his motifs and colors influenced by his stay in Cuba. The latter expresses, in his sculpture ensemble, the cultural ties binding the two nations.


On the other hand, Cuban artist Nelson Domínguez invited Hiraku Soto, Takashi Yukawa and Shora Kato, friends he has made from his trips to Japan, to display their works at Los Oficios art gallery. The exhibition entitled Japan Today recreates some of the artists’ latest productions. The piece Cuba, Maru, Room, Beijing (2006-2007), by Shora Kato, invades the space with urban graffiti and video screenings. The ancestral Japanese handwriting takes care of the rest: the dexterity and stylization of strokes leave a portion of Japanese art in Havana for the ages.


China quickly stood out in the 80s of last century, when the economies of Asian countries started to rise. It carved a name for itself in global art with new artistic considerations and the emergence of other themes where the individual recovered his place above the realistic and apologetic presentations of the Cultural Revolution.


The Asian nation is represented by collective project China: arte contemporáneo revista [Contemporary Art in China] and two individual exhibits by guest artists Liu Xiaodong and Chen Xiaoyun.


The ensemble, an unheard-of event on the Island, was originally designed for the Asian Pacific Weeks in Berlin in 2007, now coming to Cuba with a collective exhibition composed of works by five painters: Chen Bo, Qiu Xiaofei, Wang Chengyun, Xiong Yu, Zhou Wenzhong and photographer Wang Qingsong.


The creators, who maintain independent production among themselves, are representatives of China’s contemporary art, resulting from a process of maturity that exists in parallel to the evolutionary process in the social, political and economic fields, says Tereza de Arruda, curator of the exhibit in Berlin and Havana.


Born in 1973, Chen Bo pays tribute to everyday routines and average people. In Tai Chi and Greeting while Meditating, he displays a meticulous form of painting, characterized by long and expressive strokes of the brush, suggestive of motion. Qiu Xiaofei, who is even younger, also relies on what is seemingly ordinary. In Checking the View, he recovers the view of a country with ongoing socialist precepts to explain the current process of political-social crossbreeding. Besides painting, he assembles pieces. Wang Chengyun’s paintings contrast the accelerated urban evolution with its social consequences. Prostitution in young people is one of his most recurrent themes.


Zhou Wenzhong’s paintings move away from Chinese academic training, as they are marked by social realism. In order to represent his country’s history, he resorts to fantastic beings and to surreal scenes, as in Cactus. Xiong Yu prefers fantastic figures, creatures indifferent to the context around them – this is an example of how they [Asian artists] are returning to pictorial representation, to the individual, thus discarding collective ensembles. Highlighting the imaginative and unreal is also part of post-Mao esthetics and of the new context of institutionalized plurality.


Wang Qingsong has been using photography for years now as support for his reflections on his reality and that of the world. The snapshots recreate structured landscapes and scenes, which, in many cases, distort reality with a view to sending an ironical message.




As an individual artist comes Liu Xiaodong, holder of a Bachelor’s Degree in Oil Painting from the Central Institute of Fine Arts of Beijing and one of the exponents of the so-called cynical realism. The artist, who has displayed his work in the United States and France, has come to Havana for an on-site presentation.


For three weeks, he lived with a Cuban family to create his realistic series Armando’s Family. He designed three excellent paintings, including Naked Brown-Skinned Woman and Armando and His Friends. The palette used by the painter and a blank canvas at the vault of La Cabaña fortress, his exhibit venue, are indicative of his incomplete field of work and generally depict the lifestyle of a Cuban family. The environment, the attire and the habits are evidence of an era, memories of a defined social-historical moment: Cuba 2008.


The other guest artist is Chen Xiaoyun, one of the representatives of the most contemporary video art movement in China. His works have been displayed in Italy, the United States, France and Germany; and are now coming to the Havana Biennial Festival as a proposal from US curator Julia Herzberg, a specialist who is also proposing Korean artist and curator Yong Soon Min, on site with a video screening.


*Translated by Angel Ramón Milán Dobson.