5 Asian Artists
That Inspire Us
To celebrate Asia Art Week, we're looking at some of the contemporary Asian artists that have shaped recent art history and inspired people worldwide.
Yayoi Kusama is a Japanese contemporary artist who works primarily in painting, sculpture, and installation, among a wide range of other media. Known for her series of hypnotic Infinity Nets paintings and her buoyant, brightly colored pumpkin sculptures, Kusama has produced a rich cornucopia of artwork, yet the seemingly joyful quality of her pieces belie a troubled psychology. At a young age, Kusama began to experience frequent hallucinations of dense fields of dots swallowing her whole, a feeling she referred to as “self-obliteration.” She turned to making art to seek solace from these visions and went on to study at the Kyoto Municipal School of Arts and Crafts. She eventually moved to New York, where she became inspired by the Abstract Expressionist movement and went into a period of hyper-productivity. It was during the early 1960s that Kusama made her first Infinity Room, a room covered entirely in mirrors, in which neon-colored balls or lights would hang suspended from the ceiling at various different heights, to create the illusion for the viewer of standing on an infinite plane engulfed by fields of dots. Through these Infinity Rooms, Kusama has constructed worlds of breathtaking beauty and sublimity, and yet, has also offered us a glimpse into the internal world which simultaneously afflicted her and drove her to create.
Image: Yayoi Kusama, Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity, 2009 © Yayoi Kusama. Image from Hirshhorn Museum.
Rirkrit Tiravanija is a Thai contemporary artist whose practice goes far beyond simple performance or installation, breaking down the barrier between artwork and viewer so that the medium of the artwork itself becomes human participation. He rejects the concepts of art objects and focuses instead on the potential of social interaction within an architectural, man-made space. Tiravanija’s early works in the 1990s consisted of the artist cooking and serving dinner for gallery visitors, beginning with pad thai (1990), during which he prepared the titular dish, and culminating in Soup/No Soup (2012) where he took over the Grand Palais in Paris and prepared numerous vats of tom kha soup which was then served to exhibition visitors during a twelve-hour banquet. As his interest in architecture began to grow, Tiravanija began to explore notions of public and private through his work as well. In a series of works beginning in 1999, he constructed lifesize replicas of his own apartment and invited strangers to visit for tea or even move into the apartment itself. In 2005, he was awarded the Hugo Boss Prize by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and he continues to push social boundaries and encourage human collaboration as a reminder that we are all united by our foundational impulses to eat, to talk, and to connect.
Image left: Rirkrit Tiravanija, Soup/No Soup, 2012 © Rirkrit Tiravanija. Image from Wordpress. Image right: Anish Kapoor, Cloud Gate, 2006 © Anish Kapoor. Image from Millennium Park Foundation.
Anish Kapoor is a British-Indian artist known for his sculptures and large-scale installations that explore concepts of space, distortion, and the void. His works continually investigate our relationship toward physical and psychological spaces. Kapoor gained recognition for his early works that took biomorphic forms and were made from naturally-derived elements. As his works grew in size, he began to refer to them as “non-objects;” these pieces, characterized by perfect finishes and reflective surfaces, transform the environments where they are installed and almost disappear into the realm of visual nothingness. These monumental sculptures have captivated audiences in both indoor and outdoor spaces, such as Cloud Gate, colloquially known as The Bean, in Chicago and Sky Mirror that was installed at Rockefeller Center and Kensington Gardens. Kapoor has said, “Void is really a state within.... This void is not something which is of no utterance. It is a potential space, not a non-space.” This concept of void has preoccupied the artist that it compelled him to experiment with (and even acquire the exclusive rights to use) the blackest pigment known to man, Vantablack, which absorbs 99.96 percent of light.
Lee Ufan is a Korean painter, sculptor, and philosopher who is best known for being a crucial practitioner of the Japanese avant-garde moment, Mono-ha (The School of Things). Mono-ha developed in postwar Japanese society as a reaction toward the increasing Westernization and modernization of the country. This movement rejected the importance of representation and media manipulation and concentrated instead on raw, natural materials and their relationships to their surroundings. Ufan’s series of Correspondence and Dialogue paintings are composed of just a few brushstrokes, allowing the paint pigment and the natural canvas to convene directly with minimal intervention on the artist’s part. The act of leaving large expanses of the canvas untouched can be likened to Asian calligraphy practices, and similar to the masters of ink painting, Ufan learned to control every movement of his body as he painted, down to his breathing. Through his simple, deliberate brushstrokes, Ufan seeks not to create symbol or figure, but rather to facilitate an encounter - between the brush and its surface, and later the viewer and the painting. He has said, “When I make a brush mark on the canvas, I hold my breath, I concentrate and I pray that my hand, the brush and the canvas will be in harmony.”
Image above: Lee Ufan, Dialogue, 2007 © Lee Ufan. Image from Christie's. Image right: Xiangdong Chen, The Spirit of All, 2017 © Xiangdong Chen. Image courtesy the artist.
Xiangdong Chen is a Chinese contemporary artist who works in painting and ceramics. Chen is widely recognized as one of the first contemporary artists to master the combination of ink and porcelain. Chen has painstakingly developed a process that begins with a careful selection of clay and continues through the firing process to produce a body of work that simultaneously reveals a novel combination of media and references ancient techniques. He has mastered the delicate dance between these two unwieldy media and strikes a balance between the elements he can control and what he leaves to chance during the firing process. Chen’s series of ink paintings also depict symbols of traditional Chinese ink painting through more recent concepts. Ranging from small works on paper to large scale, multi-panel pieces, Chen paints lotus flowers and other natural elements, such as mountains or rocks, to express his internal meditations just as ancient Chinese artists would paint imagined scenes of nature to reflect convey emotion and poetic musings. His unique style through both bodies of work, which elegantly cite the icons of traditional China, bringing deeply rooted symbols of Eastern cultures into a distinctly contemporary context.