VOICE-OVER: The artists and artworks presented in Individuals, Networks, Expressions, the inaugural exhibition at M+ focused on visual art, form a complex web of connections. At the centre of this web is Asia, a geographic and cultural label that speaks to different identities, histories, and perspectives. Join us on a journey through visual art that unfolds across time—from the 1950s to the present—and explores how artists created their own visions amid the rise of Asia on the world stage.
Presented in eight galleries, Individuals, Networks, Expressions follows a chronology that spans from the post-war period and its reverberations around Asia to our present, globalised era.
We begin our tour in the first gallery, titled ‘Turns Towards Abstraction’. This gallery features artists embracing abstraction, an artistic style that became popular in the 1950s and ’60s. Abstract art typically alters, reconfigures, or reduces references to the visual world. In Asia, artists turned towards abstraction from traditions of landscape painting and calligraphy and were informed by philosophies of Buddhism and Taoism.
LESLEY MA: Lui Shou-kwan is one of the pioneers of abstract painting in the post-war era. Born in Guangzhou in 1919, he came to Hong Kong in 1948 during the Chinese Civil War. In the mid-1960s, he became the leader of the New Ink Movement, a Hong Kong-born collective effort to modernize ink painting. They took inspirations from classical Chinese art and Western Modern painting. This kind of synergy of artistic styles speaks to the cosmopolitan aspirations of Chinese artists in the British colony and also helps them express a strong desire to be rooted in their Chinese heritage.
This painting from 1970, titled Zen, is a signature style of Lui Shou-kwan’s late period. In this painting, you can see multiple layers of ink in various density and wetness covering most of this large-scale painting, except for the very bottom where the artist left it blank. This helps our eyes to travel from the bottom up. And on the way you can see specks of red, yellow, and blue, leading our eyes up to the ray of light signifying enlightenment. As the title of the work suggests, Zen—which refers to Zen Buddhist or Chan Buddhist philosophy—this kind of spiritual dimension, or the energy that’s embedded in the work is a key message in Lui Shou-kwan’s abstract ink painting, where he wants to embody Buddhist traditions and Buddhist philosophy from Chinese ink painting into his work. He also reduced the need for complicated brushstrokes, letting the materiality of ink and paper react to express his feelings. This is a keystone of the abstract ink movement that Lui Shou-kwan champions. In this room, we had covered the Asian contributions to the international movement of abstraction. And Lui Shou-kwan's ink painting from 1970 is a key work in this international narrative.
VOICE-OVER: Times of upheaval can inspire artists to search for new ways of understanding the forces shaping the world around them. Room two covers the period from the 1950s through to the 1970s, which saw the development of important movements that sought to redefine the nature of art and art’s relationship to society. From photography to street performance to abstract painting, artists challenged conventions and pioneered new materials and processes. Members of the Gutai Art Association, founded in Japan in 1954, launched radical experiments that explored the connection between the human spirit and concrete matter.
PAULINE J. YAO: The Gutai Art Group was one of the most important and influential art groups of the post-war period in Japan, and you’re looking at the work of Yamazaki Tsuruko. We have a painting on the wall from 1967 and in front, a very early work from 1955. So Yamazaki Tsuruko is quite unusual. She’s one of the few women that were active in the Gutai Art Group. And she’s the only one who was there from the very beginning in 1954, up until the group disbanded in the 1970s. ‘Gutai’ essentially means ‘concrete’ or ‘concreteness’, and they really embrace this idea of pushing the boundaries of art-making and using different kinds of materials. Sometimes they use industrial materials, sometimes they would even use performance and action and technology in their works, to try to really push. . . push ideas of what could be an artwork, what could constitute an artwork, how to define art, how art was engaging with society in everyday life.
And so, this work Tin Cans actually was exhibited in the First Gutai Art Exhibition, which was in 1955. So, a lot of the artists in the Gutai Art Group were using their bodies maybe to throw paint or scratch the canvas or to tear the paper. But Yamazaki was actually interested in looking at a kind of relationship between two different kinds of materials and finding a sort of reaction that would happen by connecting these two things. So, in her case, she uses this aniline dye, this magenta, bright, pink-colored synthetic dye. And she applies this to metal like tin, and it would cause a kind of a chemical reaction. And so, sometimes, depending on the surface of the tin, it might be very thin, or it might get a dark stain colour, or you might see streaks. And so, if you look closer at these cans, you see all these kinds of imperfections. And that was actually part of her idea. She really wanted to show the process of making and to leave that sort of trace of her creating the work. And essentially, it is like a painting that’s created in a 3D sort of manner across these cans unfolding in space. The cans can have different kinds of meanings. Some people equate them with Japan’s history and the war, and they represent sort of a connection to that period where there were food rations, and it was delivered in these kinds of industrial metal cans. They also could have a connection to painting: to house paint or to other industrial types of paints. So, she’s essentially making a painting on paint cans. In any case, a very, very unusual way of working. And actually these cans, we can install them in any different configuration. So, we’ve decided to set them up in this way, sort of stacked very casually, with her painting at the back.
VOICE-OVER: Also in this room are artists who, in their search for meaning, looked inward to their own minds or bodies or to the spiritual world. Among them was Kashmiri painter and poet G. R. Santosh, who merged hard-edged abstraction with mystical traditions and Buddhist themes. His work is characterised by neat lines, a bold palette, and clearly defined geometry. Each shape in his painting Untitled, from 1988, carries a coded symbolic meaning in Tantric Buddhism.
In the early 1970s in Seoul, a group of painters pushed paint, dragged brushes, tore paper, and employed other methods to manipulate materials and change how one could make a painting; this became known as ‘Dansaekhwa’, or monochrome painting. Dansaekhwa artists combined traditional painting concepts and Korean materials with the international language of abstraction. Against the backdrop of authoritarian regimes that posed existential questions to art-making, they strove to develop individuality as they collectively searched for a modern Korean visual identity.
Our encounters with sculptures crafted from commonly found materials and sitting freely in space can be immediate and direct. The works in this room employ a variety of sculptural strategies. Some use traditional materials such as bronze, wood, or glass. Others incorporate industrial or even mass-produced items found in everyday life.
PAULINE J. YAO: So, in this room, we are exploring different ideas of sculpture, and we’re presenting a variety of different approaches by different artists. So, some of them taking maybe a little bit more conventional approach or something like Monir Farmanfarmaian’s Glass Doors which, in fact, was not created necessarily as a sculpture, but we’re presenting it here in this way.
So Monir Farmanfarmaian, very interesting Iranian artist who studied originally design, so she comes much more from a design background, and has also a long-standing interest in Islamic and Persian decorative arts. And what that means and how that relates to her art is through the patterns that she uses and the materials. So, she’s very interested in using glass and mirrors. This particular work just uses glass but has this very beautiful and luminescent kind of a hexagonal design. And in Islamic and Persian traditions, that hexagon is a very important geometric element. It’s quite different than the cube, which is what you find more in Western architecture and design. This work also was created while she was living in New York City. So, it is a work that she made for her own home in New York City while she was living there, a little bit in exile as she was trying to escape Iran during the Iranian Revolution in 1979. And so, these doors, which were created for her home, use a different technique. So, she’s using a sandblasting technique, and she has an interlocking pattern of hexagons on this etched into the glass of these door. And a lot of Monir’s work is very fascinated with ideas of geometry, but also light and reflection and space and volume. So, she is actually, you know, a sculptor who thinks very much in three dimensions. And that comes through even in these doors, which are essentially kind of flat with a surface decoration, because you begin to see a beautiful reflection and a sort of shadow that is cast behind. And that shadow, when it extends out in front, almost creates a sense of space and dimensionality. And for us, this was a very interesting new way of thinking about sculpture.
VOICE-OVER: Inspired by experiences of crossing countries and continents, the fourth room of Individuals, Networks, Expressions presents artists and artworks in dialogue with the contemporary immigrant experience. Their work explores migration as a process of both trauma and transformation. The works of Tehching Hsieh is one such example.
PAULINE J. YAO: I’m standing in a room that we have dedicated for Taiwanese American artist Tehching Hsieh. And so, this room replicates the size of his cage that he was living in for one year in this work, which is known as the One Year Performance 1978–1979. But it has a nickname of Cage Piece because he was living in his studio for an entire year. So Tehching Hsieh is a very unusual figure, a very unusual artist, someone who was really a pioneer of performance art, and came from Taiwan to New York City in the 1970s. So, he’s also unusual because he created only six artworks in his entire lifetime. Five of these were one-year-long performances. One other work was a thirteen-year-long performance. So, his sort of background and story to this particular piece, which—this piece, Cage Piece is the first of his one-year-long performances. So, we have all of Teching Hsieh’s works in M+ Collections, so we decided to exhibit this one as his first one-year-long performance, but also a very interesting story that has to do with being an immigrant, displaced in a new country in a new environment.
He was interested in furthering his career as an artist, and that’s what brought him to New York City. And he was living initially as an illegal immigrant, so he was washing dishes and kind of just generally trying to survive as well as to stay out of notice. And he decided to create this work, this one-year-long performance, really as a way to give himself time, you know, to think and have nothing else to do but to think about his art and what he wanted to do as an artist. So actually, it’s very unusual because you would think that he puts himself inside a cage that this represents something like being imprisoned, but for him it was actually a space of freedom and gave him the freedom of time to think and to develop ideas as an artist, and he documents this one-year-long performance through photography. You can see the photograph of him marking the wall; you can see him sitting in his studio. And you can also see these portraits where he has very short hair in the beginning, but then the hair grows longer over time to really show that duration of time. And you can also see this calendar, where he allowed certain days for people to come and watch his performance. But, in a way, it didn’t really look like a performance because he’s really just living his life in his studio, and that’s really his idea and interest as an artist was to explore what life is and what it means to pass time.
VOICE-OVER: In recent decades, China has experienced urbanisation and redevelopment on an unprecedented scale. These transformations have recalibrated the relationship between people and their surroundings. The works in this gallery, all drawn from the M+ Sigg Collection, bring together two enduring concepts in traditional Chinese art and culture: landscape and environment.
PAULINE J. YAO: So, you’re looking here at a painting called Purple Air by Chinese artist Liu Wei, and it belongs to a series of paintings that he made with the title Purple Air that began in 2005. So, this one is from 2007. It’s relatively early in that series, and it’s a very horizontal composition. As you can see, it’s actually two canvases combined. And it’s something of a landscape, you know; it’s a landscape, but it also brings in elements of the city.
So, Liu Wei is born in 1972. He’s one of those artists who grew up in Beijing. At a time when there was massive urbanisation, there were massive changes happening to the cities all around China. And he was of that generation of artists who would have witnessed this firsthand and would have had a lot of impact on their sort of visual understanding of the world. And this comes through very much in this painting. In a way, it is a landscape: you can see the tree branch coming in here, and something looks like a moon or a sun. But you also have—along with the horizontality, you have very strong vertical elements and these vertical stripes that come through. And here at the end at this right edge, it almost looks like a cityscape, you know, something like skyscrapers rising up from the ground against something like a post-apocalyptic moon. So, there’s a sense of this scene being, on one hand, it is a landscape, but it also has a kind of digital feeling to it, because you have these vertical lines and almost pixelated look at that tree branch. And there’s also these horizontal elements that come through little thin lines that make it look something like a computer screen that is having a flickering kind of effect. And, you know, it really is a representation of Liu Wei’s hometown Beijing, which is a city that’s gone through so much change, and especially in the urban landscape. And it’s a scene that you know, really captures all that kind of flux, and change over time.
VOICE-OVER: The far-reaching political, economic, and social changes of the late 1980s set a new course for contemporary art. Artists in the last three rooms of Individuals, Networks, Expressions distil the experience of an era defined by greater social mobility, accelerating markets, and new technologies.
In the late 1990s, artists leveraged the immediacy of the camera for self-representation, using performance and video to tackle issues of cross-cultural identity. Patty Chang’s Fountain begins with a startling and perplexing image of a woman staring at her own reflection. As she moves in closer, her lips part, and she sucks and slurps as though attempting to consume her own image in an extended kiss. The artist casts herself experiencing an identity split, whereby interior and exterior selves are locked in an intense battle of seduction.
While industrialisation and globalisation have inspired artists to work in new media, many of them chose the traditional medium of ink and paper to express their feeling toward nature and to push the possibilities of ink painting. South Korean artist Shim Kyung-ja collages ink rubbings of tree bark to experiment with pictorial compositions, and Taiwanese artist Yu Peng creates a lush, idyllic scene to capture the longing for a bygone way of life.
LESLEY MA: The Letter Writing Project by Taiwanese artists Lee Mingwei is an installation that invites visitors to participate. The idea of the work came from his personal experience. When his maternal grandmother passed away, he was very sad that there were so many things that he couldn’t say to her while she was alive. He started writing letters to her as part of his mourning and grieving process. So, that experience is transported into this artwork. Visitors who come into the gallery can pick a writing station to compose a letter to their loved ones. They can leave them after they’re done on the shelf, or they can seal it. If they leave an address, the museum will help mail it forward. Conducting and performing this kind of very private activity in the museum’s public space is a long-standing theme of Lee Mingwei’s participatory works. You can also see that he asked the visitors to choose whether to kneel, stand, or sit as one of their writing postures. And that is how Lee Mingwei gave his work a context of rituals. Essentially, Lee Mingwei’s sharing his own experience through his artwork, giving his audience members a piece of the artwork in their memory and experience. The act of gift-giving and generosity is the underlying theme of Lee Mingwei’s participatory installations.
VOICE-OVER: In recent years, the frontiers of artmaking have widened to include intangible experiences in the digital realm, as artists increasingly draw inspiration from our screen-based culture.
American artist Avery Singer is known for her large scale, digitally assisted paintings. Robespierre (Assassination) belongs to Avery Singer’s most recent body of work, made in 2020 during the pandemic. Using 3D modelling software and commercial airbrush techniques, her compositions merge references to art history, rap culture, video games, and American politics.
PAULINE J. YAO: So, I’m very happy to introduce you to BOB. He is our first and only lifeform in this exhibition. And you can see, BOB, he’s moving around here on the screen. He’s this kind of red, spiky, spiny creature with different arms and limbs. He stands for ‘Bag of Beliefs’, and he’s an invention of Chinese–American artist Ian Cheng.
Ian is an artist who originally had studied cognitive science and then began to bring some of these ideas of software and technology and scientific patterns into his artmaking.
And so, BOB—which Ian calls as his attempt to use a creature to create a compositional space—BOB is sort of powered by artificial intelligence: essentially, machine learning. And Bag of Beliefs refers to all these different factors, different motivations, and different systems that govern his life and his behaviors. So, what you’re seeing is really BOB in his sort of digital terrarium; this is his home. And he lives here, and he moves around and grabs charms from the different offerings that are up here in this cloud above. And he’s alive and living, even when the museum is closed. And we can interact with him as well.
So, if you want, you could download an app and interact with BOB by making offerings to him through the shrine. And then you usually tag your offerings with different kinds of values and attributes. And over time, when he takes these offerings and he ingests them, they affect his behavior, sometimes immediately and sometimes in a more long-term way. But essentially, he’s sort of powered by the interactions that we give to him. So, Ian is one of the first artists really to use AI in this kind of way for creating contemporary artwork. And I think, really, [it’s] a sort of sign of the times of, you know, increasing changes in the contemporary art world and how artists are increasingly using different kinds of digital technologies and software to power their art.
VOICE-OVER: Visual artists have long been on the forefront of change. Their experiments with materials, techniques, and approaches evolve and morph in step with the changing societies around them. Individuals, Networks, Expressions bears witness to some of these key moments when artists forged new vocabularies of painting, carried out interventions and actions that brought artmaking in closer conversation with everyday life, and brought personal narratives to bear on new forms of artistic expression. Whether it has been responding to new political circumstances, commenting on fast-paced urban growth, or fighting to define themselves and their art beyond the boundaries of dominant Western perspectives, artists in Asia have become valuable contributors to an interconnected worldwide system of art. Their works can reveal the profound social and political shifts they experienced in the last five decades, but also how these shifts have opened up new opportunities for envisioning the world.