Asia in the global art compass . . . but where is Vietnam?
by Paul Harris
The Global Art Compass: New Directions in 21st Century Art by Alistair Hicks, Thames & Hudson £18.95
Alistair Hicks should know his way around the art world. He is Curator to the Deutsche Bank where he buys contemporary art for the Bank’s extensive collection. Extensive is possibly an understatement: it has some 60,000 works of art from all continents. It is difficult not to suspect that to some degree the Bank is hedging its bets and its acquisitions represent investment potential as much as support for artists. Nevertheless, Hicks avers that ‘I am meant to locate art, but also to help others to relate to it.’
The world is now global thanks to the digital and communications revolutions. However, rather than making the art world easier to understand, we are assailed by so much information, images from so many places and the requirement to assess so many artists. The object of this new book is to help the reader make his or her way through this confusing panorama. It is not trying to tell you “Why should I like this?” Rather, in Hicks’ words, it “seeks to encourage you to use artists to help you understand yourself and those around you.” He repeats Gombrich’s opening salvo in the ground-breaking The Story of Art (1950), ‘There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists.’
The author deals with his mission on a continent-by-continent basis. Approximately a quarter of the 224 pages is given over to Asia. Essentially, he deals with the impact of artists he has come into contact with on a professional basis and there are well known names like Ai Weiwei, Cai Guo-Quiang, Yan Pei Ming and Wang Qingsong. He is not intimidated by any startling new media. He relates much of new Asian art to the collision of cultures and relates the dramatic fireworks which opened the Beijing Olympics to the tradition of gunpowder drawings. Recent seismic changes in the political and economic structure of China has, he believes, led to dislocation and a growing remoteness from the legacy of the past: the role of the violent and disruptive Cultural Revolution, which features in many artists’ work today, is rightly highlighted. And so, history dominates much of contemporary Chinese art.
I have no real quarrel with the views and assumptions formed by the author. It is a highly useful tool in seeking perspective on the role of art today. However, as an active collector of modern Vietnamese art, I am, of course, disappointed to find that no Vietnamese artist features in the book. That is a failure derived from the ‘personal experience’ model adopted by Hicks. Hopefully, this book will be updated in the future. By that time, I hope Hicks will have found his way to Hanoi and will have discovered the vibrant and exciting work emanating from Vietnam. Strongly influenced by the troubled country’s colonial past, it fits his model.