Mellow Fever: Some Notes on the Rhetoric of the Asian Image and the Temporality of Realism

Mellow Fever, Group Exhibition curated by Simon Castets
Galerie des Galeries, Paris
April 23–June 14, 2008


Modernism is dominant but dead.
–Jurgen Habermas

In 1980, when Habermas first delivered the paper “Modernity—An Incomplete Project,” in Frankfurt, Germany, Western modernist culture had long been demonstrating a ceaseless retreat and negation of, and rebellion against, all that was generated from the irreconcilable nature of the aesthetic and social spheres. Yet, since the very inception of the project of modernity, formulated by eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosophers as a total program in which science, morality, and art would have prompted the betterment of world- and self-understanding with the utopian promise of happiness for human beings, everyday life has incurred massive transformations: globalization has expanded the geography of modernization itself, brought in formulas of societal and cultural development from new corners of the world, and mapped out the emergence of transnational and diasporic public spaces together with new political subjectivities.

In the almost thirty years since Habermas’ talk, we are still dealing with the consequences of modernization. Improvements in the technology of communication and mobility have favoured, on the one hand, the accumulation of ideological diversity and the validation of Otherness beyond multiculturalism into the liberal fervour of cultural hybridity, but, on the other hand, they have also exacerbated the perception of difference—be it political, ethnic, religious, or aesthetic—pushing it into the suspicious confinement of exception under legislative control, militant activism, social paranoia, and nationalist extremism worldwide. As a result, the politics of reality—the complexity of human relations and governmental policies and, thus, the “global” state of existence— have indeed imploded the dilemmas of modernity into the tyranny of the everyday: in the urban proximities of neighbourhoods, in the translational space of language, as well as in the temporality of informational immediacy.

It is with this expansive image in mind that the recent economic and cultural exuberance taken up by the continental drift towards Asia should be reconsidered and analyzed from a different perspective. The Asiatic fever that has penetrated biennial and museum agendas in the West seems to motivate, both for virtue and utility, an understanding of a region that is no longer a borderline geography of autochthonous traditions, but, rather, an iconic trademark of cultural imagery that has now entered the realm of global visibility and its visual currencies.

Countering the eulogistic tone of grand survey shows, Mellow Fever is a contemporary art exhibition of eleven Asian artists held at Galeries des Galeries, an art gallery supported by the commercial venture of Galeries Lafayette, the nineteenth-century mecca of haute couture and its historic flagship department store. The exhibition, commissioned to curator Simon Castets, is caught up within the framework of a two-week Asiatic frenzy promoted by the store as a marketing campaign popularizing a cultural bonanza from gastronomy to architecture from the Far East. The gallery, accessed independently from the department store, is the site of Castets’ wellconceived conceptual statement that defies conventional and market-favoured choices of artwork, and succeeds in bringing together an authentic grouping of creative personalities rather than countries that, as the curator states, evokes a subtle, unexpected, and complex vitality originating from Asia. The selected artists do not necessarily represent national or geographic characteristics yet, overall, Castets’ selection remains sensitive to aspects of their Asian origin that signify a specific territorial reality and transcontinental expanse. With a few exceptions, most of the artists are in their thirties and at a mid-career stage, and their artistic paths reveal an intricately subtle yet composite subjectivity: while the immediate encounter with the visual impact of the seemingly sober, complacent, and quiet artwork might temporarily leave a lingering sense of blandness, it is only through further contemplation that the depth within its apparent simplicity presents itself as a perceived experience.

Centred within the spatial architecture of the exhibition is On Kawara’s Today’s Series No.12 (Feb. 8, 1982) displayed conventionally in its own handmade cardboard box together with two newspaper clippings from the same year. The quiet and cryptic temporality buried beneath the messages in the artist’s oeuvre embodies a quintessential quality that is found in each of the works exhibited, a discrete yet intrinsic connotation of time consciousness. As with On Kawara’s poetic interventions that stretch life and death onto the self-imposed, proportionate surface of the painted texts—of what he himself calls “pure consciousness”—the other younger artists in the exhibition seemingly manifest a propensity for methods of depiction that convey the discrepancy between the real and our actual experience of it, regardless of their aesthetic object.

If the ill-tempered existentialism “placed on the transitory, the elusive and the ephemeral,” recalls Habermas, “discloses a longing for an undefiled, immaculate, and stable present,” these subjective languages seem to master a seamless relationship to their own time and its dynamic hypermediated synchronicity.2 Architect and designer Megumi Matsubara, one half of assistant, the Japanese studio that realized the architectural design of the exhibition, explains that the chaotic cacophony and aggressively dynamic image of Asia that is frequently said to be characteristic of large cities like Tokyo, Hong Kong, Beijing, or Seoul belong to a Western-manufactured anticipation of an imagined future—which Asian youth does not relate to—one often fantasized in sci-fi literature or appropriated from manga stories. The architectural intervention devised for Mellow Fever consists of a series of hanging rice paper panels in the shape of round-arched thresholds reminiscent of those found in Chinese hutongs and Tokyo’s urban laneways. This physically translucent environment offers a discrete yet poignant interpretation of the exhibition: a landscape of temporality and a suspension of time where meaning is made available yet never obvious. In the introduction to the show, Simon Castets alludes to Barthes’s “obtuse meaning”: as Barthes himself explains, “obtuse meaning” is “theoretically locatable but not describable, it escapes the articulation of language, blurring the limit separating expression from disguise, it nonetheless allows an “elliptic emphasis, a complex and extremely artful disposition (for it involves a temporality of signification).”3

It is this rhetoric of the unexpressed that dominates this new form of visibility. Japanese artists Yuki Kimura’s and Yukinori Maeda’s installations both venture into visual orchestrations of elements that extend their spatiality beyond their immediate symbolism. Respectively, Yuki’s Picture of a Man and Yukinori’s Light are constructed with found objects, photographs, and appropriated images meticulously repurposed from the realm of reality into the fabricated space of a “parenthetical” universe, be it reminiscent of a disturbing story or demonstrative of a recreational atmosphere. Between the facts of life and the fiction of art, the visual experience that constitutes these images is the very place of artistic agency: the relationship these younger artists try to maintain with the complex and ever-changing reality of twenty-first century Asia, which for some is more traumatic than for others, is not one of interventionist criticality, but one of pragmatic exploration of finding ways of relating to it. As curator Sumitomo Fumihiko explains, some Japanese artists search for “physical expression to refuse being swallowed up by the systems of centralized control that have become more dominant in society in this period of uncertainty.”4 These constructed scenarios are not to be confused with positions of evasion or refusal; the imagination is not utilized here in order to forge an illusionary alcove of isolation. The new realism these works appeal to suggests that what is to be seen is not in the document of the represented image, but in the tension it connotes in revealing itself as an object of subjective consumption. The architectural vestiges portrayed in Shao Yinong and Muchen’s photos of assembly halls from the revolutionary era, or the chance banality depicted in the hyper-realistic canvases of the Korean artist Lee Jie-Song, both engage with the paradoxical temporality of historical renewal and duration, disguising its dynamic progress behind the immediacy of photographic texture. The aesthetic objective of these works, captured in the Barthesian puncutm, takes as its target an aesthetic consciousness of passive, yet associative, visuality where the work of art opens up a participatory “space” for the viewer to intrude upon and complete/perform its meaning as an object of subjective consumption; thus, the connection between the art and the public is kindled.

The last quartet of artists in the exhibition conveys meaning via irony and the deconstruction of the logic of interpretation and the categorization of knowledge. Sun Xun, a young artist from Dongbei now living in Hangzhou, works with the painstaking medium of hand-drawn animation and juxtaposes often intricate inquiries revolving around the ontology of history and humankind with the deception of moving images in the photograms. Jeon Mee Yoon, who integrates the lucidity of photographic documentation and staged portraiture (be it of objects or living subjects), also exposes the obscurity of behavioral and structural forms of classification. Libraries, animals in zoos, museums, and children—her subjects—are repetitively arranged into a clean composition that, while seizing the attention of one’s eye, equally provokes a sense of doubt.

Heman Chong and Xu Zhen share a penchant for ironic subversion and the disruption of cultural objects and their ability to sustain belief. Heman’s Advanced Studies in Totalitarianism and Xu’s 8848-1.86 are fictitious rehabilitations of cultural and historical icons presented in the guise of possible truths. Often fishing for material from the seductive literature of sci-fi and cinematic obsessions with end-of-the-world human catastrophes, Heman Chong delivers to the viewer the prospect of possible alternative realities. The posters here presented are reinventions of those for four landmark movies—Alien, Alphaville, Battle Royale, and Funny Games. Xu Zhen’s conceptual deconstruction of an existing myth (the claim of what Mount Everest’s actual height is) happens via fabricated documentary video material chronicling the artist’s expedition to Everest to literally “capture” the pinnacle of the world’s highest peak.

With social readjustment, economic disparity, ideological confusion, and political unrest incessantly present and offering no promise of abating, the fatal course of uninterrupted transformation that characterizes Asia today is the reality of our contemporaneity, a flexible non-cumulative form of existence, and a new chapter in the history of modernity. Whether intended as documentary or fiction, the artworks in Mellow Fever reflect the nature of alternative transformative gestures, and in their resistance to power, hierarchies, style, and taste, they evade the quick formulas of historical narrative, popular conventions, and myths of genre.


Appearance: Yishu Journal, July 2008

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