From Hybrid Space to Alien Territory

(by Apinan Poshyananda)

Changing channels on Star TV and CNN. Apache Indians writhes rhythmically as he chants the Nuke Vibes songs “Boom Shak-a-lak” and “Caste System”. Madonna reruns her “Sex” music video. Peter Gabriel metamorphoses on the screen. Countless promotional rock video stress a mixture of sadism, masochism, homoeroticism, and androgent. Rap music ripped off from New York and London is performed by Asian rappers in Japanese, Thai, Tagalog, and Chinese. Be better informed. Images of Nelson Mandela, Saddam Hussein, Fidel Castro, Yasser Arafat overlap with faces of Bill Clinton, John Major, Boris Yeltsin, and Pope John Paul II. They, too, seem to effortlessly exchange roles and characters on the new channels. Trouble spots such as Bosnia Herzogovina, Iraq, Syria, Burundi, Cuba, Cambodia, Burma, North Korea, Philippines take turns to hit the headlines. “World-casting around the world around the clock with BBC World.” “Information is the intricate ingredient for a true world order.” Slogans, messages, and texts repetitiously drum into the mind of viewers. Cable TV has undoubtedly become an addictive form of global communication; an extremely effective tool for re-colonization of the mind.

Press the remote button and flip to TV commercials. It is like entering into another time-space. Usually not more than fifteen seconds long, these commercials present the spectacle of seriality. The bombardment of high-tech fragmented images sensuously capture the viewer’s gaze, but sometimes do not even refer to the product being promoted. The dimensions of fictive time has no boundaries while the ‘ecstasy of communication’ seem to focus increasingly on the notion of the simulacrum and the simulation of advertisement which no longer advertises anything. The spread of TV enterprise, both in production and consumption, has raised the question of the ‘real time’ and ‘fictive time’. The creation of a global network by the telecommunications revolution has further confused ‘real time’ for those who actually believe that everyone in the world is connected to everyone else. The power of instantaneous communication has the ability to lock us into a total flow without breaks or distinctions. Digitization, fax, E-mail have shortened as well as warped time. Distortion of virtual reality games create the experience of ‘real’ or ‘surreal’ situations manipulated by the latest computer chips. TV, video, and mass-cultural media offer radical possibilities for the transmission of reality without apparent selection or control, as well as the multiplicity and anonymity that epitomize postmodern culture.

The era of post-Cold War and the New World Order is meant to witness the new age of freedom and prosperity after the fall of the Wall and the collapse of Communism in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Through a mosaic of disjointed cultural styles, a mirage of seamless, homogenous global interconnectivity has been invented. In Asia, cities such as Tokyo, Seoul, Bangkok, Manila, Singapore, Jakarta, Bombay are becoming increasingly similar through free-market democracy, hybrid networks, and cross-border alliances. The age of globalization has resulted in homogenization of products, life-styles, food, fashion, entertainment. To thrive towards the growth of industry, technology, mass communications seems to be the new power game of many governments which indicate a minimal desire for military aggression. There is no more time for fighting. Battle grounds are converted to trading zones. The place for war games seems to belong to the CD-ROMs of futuristic games like “Lunicus” and “Jump Raven”. Despite incredible diversity among Asians they are forced to find certain commonalities through global networks, mass media, and consumerism.

In facing reality, however, one quickly finds cracks, tensions, and dislocations on what at first appears to be a smooth, seamless surface of the New World Order in Asia. In fact, Asia is hot. Disorder and chaos seem to be most evident at places as the 38th parallel between North and South Korea, borders that connect Thailand with Cambodia and Burma, Mindanao and the Spratly islands in the Philippines and East Timor in Indonesia. (2) At the same time, intense economic competition has caused hostility and friction among Asian neighbors, which has been the outcome of the new cold trade war. (3) The more Asians want to emulate the trends of globalization, the more they find that culture is dispersed, fragmented and decentered. While the newly industrializing countries (NICs) push to be in the clique that separates them from the rest of developing countries in Asia, there are many Asians who are calling for the return to ethnicity, kinship, family, language, ceremony, religion, and cult worship which have been essential components in local communities of their ancestors. The demand for the tribal has arisen to counterbalance the universal as people feel the need to re-establish their core identity. Many find that they simply could not adapt to the rapidity and degree of change. Consequently, as they nostalgically lament for the lost past, their search for tradition and tribal manifestations has become the bonding commonality of these people.

Tracing the routes of Marco Polo’s journeys in Asia, we find that the Venetian explorer came in contact with various strange and exotic people in alien territories. His travels and sojourns in Asia, which took some twenty-five years, helped to bridge the gap between the worlds and civilizations of Europe and Asia. Marco Polo must have experienced all kinds of exchange through acculturation of religious and ethnic groups such as Muslims, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Mongols, Persians, Turkish, Indians, and Chinese. Accounts of his journeys in the book Il Milione known in English as The Travels of Marco Polo opened new vistas of the medieval mind of distant places including Cathay (North China), Mangi (South China), Champa (Vietnam), the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, Ceylon, and the Nicobar Islands. (4). It can be argued that communication and understanding between Westerners and Asians are still as difficult and strained today as in the time of Marco Polo. Curiosities work both ways. European travelers must have been fascinated by these Asian ‘barbarians’ while their counterparts saw these visitors as ‘foreign ghosts’, ‘hairy, red-nosed barbarians’, and ‘overseas devils’. However, in the Medieval period these ‘foreign ghosts’ were not in abundance; they came and went and hardly settled in Asia. Yet, contacts were made and travelers such as Marco Polo attempted to cross barriers and boundaries in order to bring new ideas and experience from as far as the courts of Kublai Khan of the Mongol Empire.

As part of Western dominance, Asia has been stereotyped as the exotic Other. People living in the placid realm of tranquility where stagnant societies of developing countries are seen to be constantly catching up with advanced technology and civilization of the West. However, it must be realized that many experiences between Westerners and Asians frequently overlap. (5) They coexist and share knowledge even though at times the balance can be lopsided. Transculturation, it can be said, flowed mainly in a West-East direction, especially through the early period of colonization. The colonizers imposed certain values on the colonized and brought back with them goods and treasures which reflected their power and ability to conquer weaker races. The advanced military and technology of Europeans caused tremendous pain and hardship in Asia, where most places had to kowtow to ‘overseas devils’. Colonization was not confined to trade and expansion of colonies but was also found included in faith, religion, and art through missionaries who traveled to India, Japan, and China. Italian painters such as Giuseppe Castiglioni (called Lang Shih-ning by the Chinese) expanded Western art to distant shores in the Far East while studies of Andres Pozzo were translated into Chinese. The primary concern in the early days of the colonial period was to make art a vehicle to convert the souls of Asians to the faith of Christianity. Later, on several occasions, European artists worked directly under patrons from Asia. (6)

In the past, Western travelers called Bangkok, “Venice of the East”. It is doubtful, however, that Asian tourists today can make the comparison of Venice as the “Bangkok of the West”. For the past decades, Bangkok, has had several major facelifts which transformed serene, tranquil communities into horrendous concrete jungles with labyrinthine networks designed to confuse and frustrate. Vices from drugs and dames are in abundance. In contrast, Venice has hardly changed. Although the canals are more polluted and the water taxis are noisier, Venice hardly fails to live up to the visitor’s expectations. Gondola flotillas crammed with ecstatic Japanese tourists float leisurely on the Grand Canal with the Turneresque outline in the hazy background. Compared with Bangkok and many metropolises in Asia, Venice is isolated in a time warp. With its absence of motor cars and subways and the de Chiricoesque long shadows on peeling damp exteriors, Venice offers glimpses of undisturbed past. Yet, the corrosion of tourism has brought various kinds of ‘internationalism’ including countless Asians with snapping Nikons and Canons, Coca-cola, and fast food culture. Once they have seen enough of San Marco, Bellini, Titian, Tintoretto, and Canaletto they return to their ‘real’ world of sushi and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Venice in winter is cold, murky, and deserted; the town awaits the next tourist season so that the selling of the past may regurgitate once more.

What is the significance of the presence of Asian artists at Europe’s grandiose art extravaganza? The history of the Venice Biennale epitomizes the Eurocentrism of the Western art establishment. With the exception of the Japanese pavilion, Asian artists have had limited chance to wave their nation’s flag. After all, these pavilions reflect a certain status and ‘face’ of nations selected. Exclusivity sometimes rubs off as quality. Artists from the Third World lack the infrastrucrure of an art system according to the Western consensus. Therefore, it is presumed that they deserve no pavilion. Their subordinate role has been as the onlookers who should admire and try to catch up with ‘the privileged’. The problems of the New World (dis)Order has coincided with the slump of the economy and politics in Europe (notably Italy). Asia, on the other hand, has played a vital role in the rise of economy and politics in the Asia-Pacific region. While the validity and hierarchical system of the Western art establishment (Venice Biennale) has been seriously questioned, attention has shifted to Asian exotica. Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Thai, and Loatian names appeared in the previous Venice Biennale, which added a little more spice to the stale Italian palette. This year the Korean pavilion will be opened while numerous Korean artists will also display works at the Palazzo Vendramin Calergi and Palazzo Vendramin ai Carmini. Let’s celebrate Venice Biennale’s centenary year with kimchi!

Has the recent emergence of Asian artists been the desire for alterity? A need to look at the Other? A compulsion for contact between Western centers and those groups and races on the so-called “periphery”? Or, has he wonder of Won and yearning for Yen been the boost for cultural events in order to let privileged Asian countries to koin the art bandwagon? Like switching on a CD-ROM game of Marco Polo whose mission is to explore Asia, these artists are brought over to display their exoticized images to gaijin, gweilo, or farenghi. Their art could be interpreted as transculturated objects that comply with the concept of ‘the Orient’ resulting from the construction of academic and imaginative Western discourses. On the other hand, these art works could be seen as signifiers of cultural and ethnic identity, which are not necessarily based on notions of exoticism. They display culturally-hybrid objects of societies which are heterogeneous and extraordinarily differentiated, lacking in unitary and homogenous whole.

The exhibition “TransCulture” includes several artists from Asia who have been creating works that reveal transactional transculturation. Guo Qiang Cai, Alwin Reamillo, Symrim Gill are emerging artists whose hybrid objects can be seen as signs of processes of cultural assimilation and transformation. Instead of discussing their works represented in “TransCulture”, I will focus on the earlier site-specific works and installations by these artists which have been shown in Asia, Australia and Africa.

Born in Quanzhou, Fujian Province, China, Guo Quiang Cai lives in the metropolis of Tokyo. Known for his works with explosives and fireworks, cai has created site-specific installations which deal with identity in constant flux and transformation. At Africus: Johannesburg Biennale ’95, Cai was one of the artists selected to represent Japan ( a new kind of hybridization for the Japanese, who have earlier determined to view their culture and race as monolithic and homogenous ). Instead of displaying some slick exotica which typifies the façade of contemporary Japanes art, Cai created memorable works which reflect hybridity within Asia that can be paralleled with many African nations. Violence is a familiar subject among Third World countries. Cai wants to express that in the era of global violence, genocide, and terror, art can be catalystic for human communication and understanding. Cai’s experience of suppression and violence in China must have been incentive for his gunpowder drawings for the African people. In Restrained Violence-Rainbow, 1995, Cai made explosions on the walls and windows of the derelict Turbine Hall Power Station witnessed by thousands of viewers at the opening ceremony. His concept is an attempt to utilize gunpowder, which throughout the history of mankind, has been predominantly in warfare, as a means of violent destructions. For Cai, if restrained and controlled within limits, violence can be transformed into creative force. In Moxacautery for Africa, 1995, instead of violent heat Cai manipulates slow fire and smoke from burning Chinese herbs placed over the vital parts of the wooden human figures that symbolize the African continent. Thus, ancient Chinese medicine is transformed into a complex process to heal the wounded nations of Africa. Snake Bag, On Multicultural Country, 1995, contains printed images of the snake from three continents (an African snake, Chinese dragon, and Michaelangelo’s serpent on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel) superimposed on one-way mirrors suspended on balancing scale over a bag containing a live snake with its excretions. As light flashes the viewer glimpses the reflection in the mirrors of the hissing snake which seem to metamorphose into Afro-Asian-European hybrids of snakes once the lights go off. (7) On the wall, skin shed by snakes is suspended as part of Cai’s work.

Alwin Reamillo’s use of layering reveals the hybridity of the post-post colonial period in the Philippines. In the “P.I. for Sale” exhibition in Manila, Reamillo made a series of photomontages and collages of cartographic diagrams, popular icons, text, and legendary figures of the Philippines. Like skin grafting or tattooing, Reamillo builds “ layers of reconstruction/deconstruction” that interweave myths and texts into a jumble of new metaphors.(8) “Thinking”, he wrote, “becomes discovering connections between constructs about the past, relating it to the present to be able to live a conceptual future”. By mixing fact and fiction-Mickey Mouse and Jesus, Ronald MacDonald and Dr. Jose Rizal, the Japanes flag and Marcelo H. Del Pilar- icons and product advertisements blurry images of propaganda and mass culture. Old vessels float on maps of the Philippine archipelago. “Philipp penis” scratched on the surface refers to the accidental discovery of these islands in 1521 by Ferdinand Magellan. Named after King Philip II of Spain, “ Filipinas” for Reamillo sounds more like “Philip’s penis”; the erection of the Spanish flag on the islands became a symbolic rape of the local inhabitants. “ Christianity”, wrote Reamillo, “found fertile ground and like cancer continued to spread for four hundred years.” Like peeling layers of camouflage, hybridisized images and double-entendres in “P.I. for Sale” sadly reveal Mother Filipinas worn out and battered after an endless ‘gang bang’ by Spanish, Japanese, American colonization. And not to mention Hong Kong Chinese and Singaporeans. While Cai experiments in repressed violence, Reamillo focus on creative dissent.

In a conversation over dinner with an Indian family on the Malibar Hill overlooking Bombay, I was told the proper Indian table manners, Indians only pick and eat food with their right hand; the left is for wiping arse. In contrast, on the sidewalks of Chinatown and Bangkok, eating habits are comprised of leaning over almost into the food and then shoveling it directly into the mouth with slurping noises. Who cares about ‘proper’ table manners and cutlery? In Symrin Gill’s installation Silver (Forking Tongues), 1991, in Perth, Australia, hundreds of silver forks, knives, and spoons were arranged on the floor with reddish-orange chilies in intersecting spirals. Like a ceremony or a feast one is tempted to pick up these eating utensils in order to consume food. Except that there is nothing to be consumed but hot spices. Gill uses mateials which might, at first, have fixed and clear identities. With closer investigation, however, their ambiguities and dubious authenticities are revealed. (9)

Gill’s Silver contains objects that refer to their original function, which may be taken for granted, The proper, civilized way to eat. The imposition of Western colonizers brought all kinds of strange behaviors and mannerisms to Asia. ‘Barbarians’ were made to cover up their breasts and genitals in public places. ‘Heathens’ were trained how to be decorous with table manners. Knives and forks should be held properly; spoons should not be licked; chilies are too spicy and hot for taste buds of the pale faces. Of course, farting and burping at the dinner table should not be allowed. The ritual and ethnicity of Asian food and eating habits have lost much of its richness and potency through the rigidity and decorum enforced by Western standards. Worse, many Asians from the privileged classes and sectors still feel that mimicking Western manners is the sign of high culture and ‘international-ness’. The cutlery and chilies in Silver can be interpreted as signifiers loaded with layers of meaning related to the colonizer and the colonized. The utensils and spices are transformed. Their meaning arouse further investigation into how Asians have adapted through various stages of modernization , colonization and post-colonization. On a more personal note, the eating instruments chillingly ‘pick’, ‘cut’, and ‘scrape’ Gill’s past experience of changing identity and self. A fourth generation Malaysian, whose ethnic background belonged to Punjabi, Gill has lived in Malaysia, England, Australia, and Singapore. Married to a Chinese who does not share her citizenship, Gill’s family has sojourned and shifted homes. Origins, identities, roots, ethnicities, subsequently changed according to estranged environments. Cutlery evokes European origins while burning hot chillies symbolize zone of the non-Western. Both components share the same space as they interweave in whirling spirals. The motions blend diverse cultures and traditions. At the same time, they separate the boundaries and the peripheries from the center.

Asia is the exotic, erotic, eclectic, barbaric, high tech, high-low , a go go, authentic and copy cat. Like Africa, America, Australia, Asia is comprised of these qualities and more. Asia is where tribalism and universalism, global and local, capitalism and barbarism live side by side. Multi-faceted societies in Asia reflect countless layers of hybridity, crossing and intermixture of species that belong to different ethnic, racial, religious groups. Yet, too often the image of Asia is perceived from restricted viewpoints. The monolithic repetition of hybridity is usually seen as an encounter between the West and the Other. (10)

The reassertion of ‘difference’ frequently flows in a one-way direction. Asian contemporary artists are preconceived as producers of sensuous, exotic images of Zen, Buddhism, yin-yang or derivative third-rate art objects made from the Third World. Such stereotypes owe much to culturally constructed images of ‘Otherness’ according to Western paradigms as much as self-exoticization by artists living in Asia. There are those artists, however, whose ‘cross-breeding’ works may not fall into stereotypical categories. Living at nodal points of transculturation some artists find difficulty in expression according to the construction of national imaginaries of Asian identity. Their works become transculturated objects that transgress beyond the norms of national and exoticized art. By trespassing into boundaries of spiritual void, implicit myth, post-colonial anxiety many Asian artists are reflecting glimpses of ‘real’ time in the disrupted, dislocated, disoriented New World (dis)Order.

(1) Steven Connor, "Postmodern TV, Video, Film", Postmodernist Culture: An Introduction to the Theories of the Contemporary, (New York and Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989), pp.158-172.

(2) Michael Dobbs-Higgenson, Asia Pacific: Its Roles in the New World Disorder (London:Mandarin Paperbacks,1994), pp.3-20

(3) John Naisbit, Global Paradox (London: Nicolas Brealy Publishing,1995),pp.9-51.

(4) Manuel Komroff, The Travels of Marco Polo (New York: Boni & Liveright, 1926), pp.183-243.

(5) Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (London: Chatto & Windus, 1993), pp. XI-XXX.

(6) For instance, King Chulalongkorn (1868-1910), who visited Venice Biennale in 1897 and 1907, was an enthusiastic admirer of Italian art. His taste was inclined towards academic work and expressed his dislike towards many paintings he viewed in Europe which he noted were "like dyed macaroni". Galileo Chini, the Florentine painter whose work King Chulalongkorn saw on display at the Venice Biennale in 1907, was commissioned to paint historical/ allegorical scenes of the reigns of Siamese kings on the domes of the Ananta hall in Bangkok. Chini displayed technical virtuosity in grand perspectival illusion and figurative painting while his small oil sketches executed in Bangkok reflect enormous interest in the effects of glittering light on rivers and canals of Siam.

(7) Poshyananda, discussion and interview with Cai Guo Qiang, 14 October 1994, Tokyo, Japan and 1 March 1995, Johannesburg, South Africa.

(8) Apinan Poshyananda, interview with Alwin Reamillo, 17 August 1994, Manila, Philippines. Reamillo collaborated on several works in "P.I. for Sale" with his wife Juliet Lea.

(9) Poshyananda, discussion with Symrin Gill, 10 April 1992, Perth, Australia. Letter from Gill, Singapore, 4 April 1995.

(10) See discussion with Annie Combs, " Inventing the 'Postcolonial': Hybridity and Constituency in Contemporary Curating," New Formations No. 18, Winter 1992, pp. 39-52

text reprinted from the exhibition catalogue TransCulture/ La Biennale di Venezia 1995