Can art act as an ambassador? Can it spin a web of connective tissue across chasms of mutual mistrust and misunderstanding? Should we expect it to?
When I asked Melissa Chiu, museum director of the Asia Society, whether she felt a quasi-missionary impulse for her work, she was uncharacteristically silent for a moment.
Understandably: the remit of this New York-based foundation dwarfs Genghis Khan’s empire, stretching as it does from Iran to the Pacific islands, and encompasses an intimidating artistic and cultural range – as well as an unusual number of places on most people’s Least Favourite Holiday Destination list. Chiu talks airily of her travels in Pakistan, for instance – and, most significantly, is planning to mount an exhibition of Iranian artists in New York this September.
It was this that prompted my question about what art can do – if anything, that is – to remake international relationships. The US still has a full embargo in place in relation to Iran, and the reasonably easy movement of people and ideas to and from Iran that we are used to in Europe looks very different from that side of the Atlantic.
But Chiu, whose Chinese-Australian parentage must fit her perfectly for complex multicultural negotiation, takes the long view. That she is an optimist became clear when she began a sentence: “When the situation in Iran normalises ...” When. Not if. And her diplomacy goes without saying – it is part of the society’s remit to be absolutely non-partisan. Founded in 1956 by John D Rockefeller III, it now has 11 centres around the world, and exists to further understanding and links between Asia and the US: a mission probably well served by Chiu’s attitude that many of the places with which she is involved are “new nations but old cultures”. Arts old and new – both the cultural heritage and the contemporary creative energy – concern her more than political boundary lines.
Chiu’s obvious optimism may also stem from her own experience of the Chinese art scene. The speed of that change is, after all, something that surely only Pollyanna could have predicted. Some 15 years ago, when Chiu wanted to study contemporary Chinese art for her PhD at the University of Western Sydney, her professor asked her whether there was any point. Appointed to the Asia Society in 2001, she became the first curator of Chinese contemporary art in the US. In the light of today’s thundering market for new Chinese work, it is astonishing to realise what a new field that still was.
The rate of that growth is something that Chiu does not mistrust as much as some other experts do. She points to the advantages: that the development of a domestic market means new infrastructure, education and the chance for once-impoverished artists to support themselves properly by making art. That they are not the legatees of a stratified gallery system: Chinese artists can leapfrog directly into new ways of selling their work and relating to the market – and to commercial success, if they find it.
And – this is something that seems to please Chiu the most – successful Chinese artists are themselves quickly becoming philanthropists, generous towards other practitioners and programmes, in a place with no such tradition.
Elsewhere in New York last week was the opening of an installation whose significance also echoes across a political chasm. Pakistani artist Imran Qureshi has covered the roof of the Metropolitan Museum with what look at first like shocking splashes of blood, the vermilion-spattered floor of an abattoir, the deadly-bright aftermath of a massacre. The Met has a lively programme of commissioned installations on the flat roof overlooking the treetops of Central Park and its ring of fiercely elegant skyscrapers – one of the greatest city-gardens in the world; rus in urbe.
Echoing that unique location, it is the garden tradition of the Mughals that is the powerful reference of Qureshi’s work here. Each of these sanguineous splodges, on closer inspection, grows an explosion of flowers, delicate misty petals painted directly on to the concrete in the neo-miniaturist tradition this artist has made his own.
It is magically beautiful – more so, even, in the aftermath of a Manhattan downpour that left most of the bloody blossoms gleaming through puddles. The title of the piece, “And How Many Rains Must Fall Before the Stains are Washed Clean”, took on an extra spin. You can’t tell whether the intricate petals and leaves are emerging from the redness like a slowly developing photograph, or whether they are gradually dissolving and disappearing into the brilliant sludge. You can’t stop looking.
Sheena Wagstaff, the installation’s curator and chairman of the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, first encountered Qureshi’s work on a visit to Afghanistan. A student of the rigorous techniques of 16th- and 17th-century Islamic miniature painting, Qureshi makes meticulous, painted and gilded works with a contemporary twist: his 2006 “Moderate Enlightenment” series, disconcertingly and half tongue-in-cheek, gorgeously portrays friends and family members (sometimes in flip-flops or trainers, pulling off a T-shirt or holding an umbrella) within the formalised tradition.
And painted installations similar to the Met’s have drawn rapt attention in places as disparate as Oxford and Sharjah. It’s work in which eastern ornamentation and western abstraction melt easily into each other, to produce a powerfully distinct new mood that harnesses its own contradictions and makes a virtue of the crossplay of past and present.
Wagstaff is quick to realise the possible implications of the Met installation – “especially after Boston”, she tells me. But Qureshi himself, she says, was not to be swayed. In so much of his work – although there is no overt political statement-making – he is nudging us towards the delicate tissue of thought and beauty that links us, across cultures and across time, without ducking the punches that his imagery so elegantly delivers. A Pakistani in the heart of New York, an Islamic garden at the edge of Central Park: here is proper courage.