Ai Weiwei, With Wind (2015)
What are we to make of the Orientalist motifs in recent high profile global art? Among examples to list here are Zhang Xiaogang’s monochromatic family portraits seemingly set during the Cultural Revolution, Ai Weiwei’s paper dragon for Alcatraz, and Cai Guo-Qiang’s references to historical figures from first millenia China. These pieces exude East Asian motifs and references that are highly particular and likely unfamiliar to a non-Chinese audience, yet they are filling museums and auction halls in the West with a frequency that begs further examination. And for foreign buyers, who are paying escalating amounts for these works, what value do they have other than a monetary one in a flourishing global art market?
In order to answer these questions, in this essay I link them historically to what I identify as a reinvigorated wave of Orientalism in American avant-garde art during the post-war period, paying specific attention to its most integral phase, 1950 – 1960s, when Asian artists started to become a part of the American avant-garde. I focus on Nam June Paik, who has become one of the best known American artists of Asian descent working during this period. NJP has been very influential on art today. Referred to as the “father of video art,” he experimented not just with the Sony Portapack but a wide range of communication technologies as experimental media for artistic expression, thereby laying the groundwork for new media art. In addition, Paik contributed to the ongoing late modernist project of breaking down formal limits in art making, especially the wall between life and art with his spectacular pop art extravaganzas for satellite television.
This is the first in a series of three essays to examine critically NJP and his significance to contemporary art making and reception. In this essay I consider NJP’s artwork in the context of transforming strategic interests and public attitudes towards East Asia that contributed to the construction of what Christina Klein has referred to as an American “Post-Orientalism.” In the aftermath of major world wars that brought America into extended and violent contact with East Asian countries, America’s foreign interests moved to integrate the region into a nascent global economic and political empire. NJP’s status and identity within the American avant-garde must be read alongside of the policy of containment and integration in East Asia. In his Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon bemoaned the pitfalls in the construction of a viable independent identity in former colonies. Too often the danger is to assume a mask of white culture in a masquerade that it has been indigenously produced. Against research that has celebrated the hybrid or boundary-crossing nature of Paik’s work, I maintain that a notion of masquerading or mimicry needs to be reinstated in any critical investigation of NJP’s work. Paik is celebrated precisely because of his assimilation into markers of difference that were being managed and constructed in post-war America. Though much has been written about Post-Orientalist motifs in popular culture, it has not been applied to the American avant-garde. Only by attending to the interplay of power and identity in the post-colony, can we have an understanding of how a resurgent post-war avant-garde and its nascent fascination with East Asian culture contributed to the creation of markers and markets for difference in global art today.