Past in Reverse: Contemporary Art of East Asia

According to, the term globalization means “growth to a global or worldwide scale,” from the root word globalize, which means “to make global or worldwide in scope or application.” This concept was precisely the subject of the Past in Reverse exhibition at the San Diego Museum of Art – an exhibition which featured over twenty artists from various East Asian countries whose works focused on the relationship of this concept of globalization, or in some cases, more aptly called Westernization, to their own traditional cultures. Four such artists will be discussed in this paper.

Wang Qingsong’s photographs connect the past to the present in several ways. His piece entitled Knick Knack Peddler is scaled to evoke traditional hand scrolls, and depicts a seemingly typical traditional scene. Similar to an historical piece in the exhibition depicting a basket peddler, Qingsong’s photograph shows a peddler (actually the artist with a few blacked-out teeth) with his wares surrounded by children and a few parents in exaggerated traditional costume. The primary difference here, though, is that this peddler is selling items from the global market, such as Coca-Cola, candy, toys, and other imported and equally useless and consumerist goods. The traditional idea of a peddler bringing useful things to small towns has been convoluted by modern consumerism. Ironically, the artist does not exclude himself from this market culture, and in fact has postcards of his own work to sell. By looking into the camera lens in Peddler, the artist seems to be peddling to the viewer the idea that his culture has been significantly diluted by the influence of the Western global economy, and daring the viewer to look closer at the effects of such globalization.

Qingsong’s other photographs in the exhibition are of a similar tone, but employ traditional flower arrangement and the peony, China’s national flower and a symbol for prosperity (according to the artist’s statement), to convey the message. At first glance, this series of large scale digital photographs appears to be of one’s garden-variety flower arrangements set into a rock base, but actually these “flowers” are constructed of slices of raw meat. The second half of this series was a re-shoot of these arrangements after they had been frozen for a week, and the decay was beginning to be evident.

According to the artist’s statement on his website,, these works depict “a transition from prosperity to decay and [his hope is] to freeze such materialistic decadence made out of fleshy desires.” His work is a statement against what he sees as the dissolving of his traditional culture into the global sweep of Western consumerism.

Another artist in the exhibition was painter Hee-Jeong Jang. Her work is a combination of traditional floral motifs, indeed the same motifs as in Qingsong’s peony photographs, painted on stitched-together scraps of mass-produced western floral fabrics, assembled into a sort of make-shift canvas. She sews these pieces together and then paints certain aspects from each pattern, partially obscuring the rest in a misty haze reminiscent of the traditional motif. According to a review of the exhibition by the Union-Tribune, Jang’s work “is a running metaphor for the way the East seeps into the West and vice versa” ( She incorporates modern cheapened versions of a tradition into a rendering of that tradition itself, but each is a part of the other.

According to the San Diego Museum of Art’s quarterly publication which included this exhibition, Jang’s work also evokes European vanitas in her work, as well as the traditional folk painting mentioned above. These vanitas were still-life paintings typical of art of the seventeenth century in the Netherlands, intended to symbolize the transient nature of human life and of “earthly pleasures and achievements” ( With Jang’s work, it would appear that mass production and the global economy are inextricably linked to this sense of futility and isolation common among the global population. Her work manages to point out the relationship between the beautiful and traditional and the modern and meaningless and how they have become inseparable within the marketplace.

Cai Guo-Quang’s public events seem to take on a more positive note than the works of the two artists mentioned above. His work has been to produce a traditional and very simple Chinese landscape, namely a waterfall, by using, for one event a traditional material in a non-traditional method, and for the second modern aircraft. His waterfall was made at the Miramar Air Show this October by two skywriter planes, and again at an event in front of the San Diego Museum of Art where he ignited a trail of gunpowder to mark a large sheet of paper with the same design.

The decision to use gunpowder refers not only to the fact that the material was invented by the Chinese hundreds of years ago, but also to the constant need for new artistic media, according to a review by the Union Tribune ( Guo-Quang’s use of gunpowder differs from the traditional firecrackers, however, in that he uses it as a drawing medium – the charred trails left on the paper become his lines. Also, the use of modern western aircraft as yet another medium in the other production of this traditional motif further connects his work to both the past and the present. Guo-Quang’s work seems more to celebrate the expanding possibilities brought about by global technologies than to criticize as do the other two artists mentioned, but his work does not deny that changes have been brought about by globalization.

The last of the several artists to be discussed is Michael Lin, whose architectural paintings, or installation-type pieces, evoke traditional Taiwanese wedding linens in their bright floral patterns. Lin’s piece in this exhibition was a large expanse of wood flooring painted with a large scale version of these traditional floral prints, with a few matching pillows strewn across it. The idea behind the piece was for the audience to interact with the space by walking across, sitting on, or lying on it. According to the museum’s provided text on the piece, Lin’s work is meant to “domesticate public space,” and brings the traditions of Taiwanese hand-crafts to large metropolitan arenas. One might venture to say that Lin’s work suggests that the integration of traditional culture can bring comfort in the chaos of modern life. Modern materials in a modern setting have been employed to pay homage to a ceremonial and traditional craft.

The remaining eighteen artists featured in the exhibition explore similar themes surrounding the effects of globalization on their own individual traditions, making for an effective and telling conglomeration of work. The exhibition had its impact on me, in that I now see East Asia as being much more connected to the western world than I had previously. I used to see Asia as though the Japanese isolationism of old were still intact, not to mention applicable to all of the cultures of the region. Even though I frequently saw examples of Western clothing integrated into modern eastern society through film and other media, I didn’t realize just how much of an impact Western consumerist culture had until this exhibition. I assumed that the traditions of those cultures had been better preserved by the general population than our own diverse Western background has been, and I suppose I envied them that. This exhibition, however, has helped me to see that for most East Asian people, the situation is not so different from that of the West – except that we seem to responsible for that corrosion. Our competitive business culture and capitalism have managed to pervade these several cultures that started out so vastly different from our own, and to replace many of their traditions. Many of these artists have managed to depict just how negative that permeation’s effects have been overall, and one can hope this exhibition is as eye-opening for others as it was for me.

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