Interlaced Paths

In the spring of 2017, the colloquium of the Institute of Art History grappled with the topic of “Routes and Paths: Knowledge Transfer in Asian Art,” focusing on various forms of knowledge transfer between cultures and continents, as well as between generations and epochs. Through numerous case studies, surprising relationships and interconnections became discernible, making it clear that cultural transport can provide fruitful ground for innovation. The colloquium was organized by Hans Bjarne Thomsen and Alessandra Lardelli.

Henna Keski-Mäenpää

In the keynote address, Madeleine Herren (Europa Institute, University of Basel) emphasized that the routes of knowledge transfer should not simply be described, but rather analytically examined. A “neutral,” descriptive approach can obscure structures and inequalities of power that are not directly recognizable. What is required is critical engagement. This approach means discussing the political, social, and economic presuppositions and conditions of knowledge transfer, all of which is to be illumined from various perspectives.

Most of the colloquium’s lectures addressed the pathways of knowledge transfer in relation to geography. For example, Alexis Schwarzenbach (Lucerne University – School of Art & Design) dealt with the import routes of Asian art in Switzerland, and Francine Giese (University of Zurich) dealt with the transfer of motifs between the Islamic world and Spain. Yet the colloquium also addressed chronological issues. Sofia Bollo (University of Zurich) analyzed how prehistoric, archeological material (e.g., Neolithic ceramics) is displayed in contemporary Chinese museums. Xenia Piëch (University of Zurich) sought to show a certain continuity between early Chinese photography and contemporary Chinese art. Both of these speakers emphasized the importance of considering historical dimensions when discussing knowledge transfer between and among cultures. In a given geographic space, a cultural transformation or even a radical break (e.g., the Chinese cultural revolution) may occur, where the old traditions become lost or survive only in a highly limited way. In such a scenario, a new generation may find that its past native culture is no less foreign than that which is actually “foreign.”

The colloquium determined that knowledge transfer between cultures can occur in the form of objects, motifs, and work techniques. Likewise, it may involve the exchange of expertise or cultural competence. For example, Princess Akiko of Mikasa (Kyoto Sangyo University) pointed out the significance of Japanese scholars’ expertise for the change in conceptions of Japanese art in the British Museum.

Stereotypical representation

The pathways of knowledge transfer can be both direct and indirect. Alexis Schwarzenbach outlined how Japanese sample collections for the Swiss textile industry were acquired in Switzerland indirectly through Hamburg in the 19th century. On the other hand, the expansion of the Swiss textile industry resulted in increased business travel to Asia. Consequently, more (art-)objects were imported directly from Asia. Such direct, personal ties to Asia affected the indirect acquisition of Asian art, since these ties expanded the cultural knowledge of local collectors so that they knew what European traders considered worth acquiring.

Into the 20th century, the main transfer of knowledge between cultures and regions happened over the trade routes. This point is observable by analyzing works of art based on their provenance, which can reveal heretofore unknown or surprising connections. Martin Dusinberre and Christina Thurman-Wild (University of Zurich) showed in their lecture how a painting—in this case, J. D. Strong’s Japanese Laborers on Spreckelsville (1885)—can be a document of global entanglements. The work displays a historical connection between Hawaii, Japan, and the United States. It thus constitutes an argument in favor of historiography from a global perspective and a warning against the typical classification of historical spaces according to continents (i.e., East Asia, Pacific, United States).

J. D. Strong’s late 19th century work Japanese Laborers on Spreckelsville also raises the issue of representing other cultures. Is our perception of other cultures characterized by “othering?” Are the representatives of other cultures portrayed as exotic and primitive? As an American artist, Strong painted the Japanese workforce as sitting on the ground on the sugar plantation and portrayed the Japanese woman with bare breasts, which did not correspond to the self-image of the Japanese as a civilized nation. Furthermore, Strong’s painting contains a mixture of Japanese, Chinese, and Hawaiian traits and objects. For Strong, all island-based and Asian cultures were foreign and exotic: He neither recognized their differences nor understood their meaning. Stereotypical representation of other cultures is typical when something new and unknown is treated. Accordingly, changes in the manner of representation and its diversification can indicate a growing familiarity with the “foreign,” suggesting new pathways of knowledge transfer.

From an art-historical perspective, it is interesting to investigate how transfer occurs from influences. Are motifs and stylistic features adopted as direct citations or are they modified and adapted to one’s own culture? Roger Buergel (Johann Jacobs Museum) spoke of how, as a young artist in New York, Ai Weiwei became familiar with the currents of modern, Western art. He began informing Beijing about the New York art scene, functioning as an intermediary between cultures. Ai Weiwei was himself inspired by artists like Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Allan McCollum, and Sherry Levine. From them he adopted modern, artistic strategies such as the use of “ready mades” and repetitive patterns, which he then combined with Chinese art traditions in his own work. Through artistic engagement with two cultures, Ai Weiwei developed his own individual style for which he is now recognized worldwide.

Cultural transfer

The art of Ai Weiwei is a good example of cultural transfer, whose outcome is a kind of cultural mix. For the writing of art history, it is important to recognize the ambivalence of cultural exchange processes. Alongside noticeable stylistic influences, there may be numerous, subtle characteristics that are still relevant for an object’s full impact. Hybrid forms often emerge as a result of cultural exchanges, and such forms are hard to categorize.

Categorization is one of the greatest challenges of art historiography. Western art history is essentially constructed on uniform categories (e.g., stylistic, national, etc.). The problem of categorization also touches on the idea of a culture as a homogenous unity. The danger of essentialism is always present, especially when speaking about “foreign” cultures (e.g., “That is typically Japanese.”). Just what is typically Japanese or Asian or German or European? Is there such a thing? What role do national or ethnic categories play today? Is art historiography even conceivable without them?

New challenges for museums

The colloquium showed that all of the issues mentioned above pose new challenges for museums and other cultural institutions, which all contribute significantly to the construction of history. For this reason, they need to be aware of this position and the responsibility attached to it. Critically engaging their own perceptions and practices is a necessity. What is the basis of these institutions’ knowledge? Have they consulted native experts of the other cultures? Do the museums try to present a coherent narrative, or do they try to present breaks and discontinuities that highlight history’s ambivalent character?

On the other hand, these cultural institutions must deal with the question of how to regard various conceptions of art. Is an object a work of art or instead an object for use, and how should the museum present it contextually? Frequently in Western collections, objects of Asian art are isolated and presented without any indication of their original function or context. The consequence is that their historical and socio-cultural meanings are sacrificed on behalf of aesthetics. The objects’ potential to recall numerous, alternative histories is thereby starkly reduced.

Moreover, the question of provenance is relevant. An object’s traversed routes should be thoroughly investigated. How did they become part of the collections? Yet it is insufficient to explain only the story of its occupation: The larger context should also be examined. Under what conditions were the objects produced, used, or sold? The political and socio-economic conditions, as well as the power relations within the objects’ history, should be made evident.

Contradiction of ideal and practice

These issues have gained more attention both in museums and among art historians generally. In the area of art historiography and the nature of the exhibition, there is a call for critical self-reflection. But the ideal and the practice often contradict each other. In presentations, it is difficult to overcome the tendency toward oversimplification, coherence, and lucidity. Construing a unified narrative, the “big story,” is easier than showing the parallels between numerous, often disjointed histories. How can one narrate the various, ambivalent, heterogeneous histories behind these objects without falling into the trap of relativism?

All in all, the colloquium posed the question of how the complexity of knowledge transfers and their pathways in Asian art can and should be investigated and illustrated. It therefore revolved around the issue of what a transcultural art history should be. Even though there is no unambiguous, simple answer, the main contours of such an endeavor became clear during the colloquium. The key factors of the new, transcultural art history involve investigating individual case studies; a multi-perspectival and analytic approach; and an emphasis on the heterogeneity and multi-layered character of history.

(The English translation was done by Phillip Lasater.)

(Asia & Europe Bulletin, 6/2017, pp. 35–36)