The Power of Concealment in Asian Contemporary Art

Abstract: Contemporary artists are confronting a tougher and more repressed social reality today no matter where they are located. Apart from keeping their courage and staying alert between common ignorance of the people and hubbub of the media, they must also defend their dignity in the arena of market and disciplines. Whether contemporary art could get its turn and play a real part in leading the culture depends on the continuous revolution in various aspects. Fortunately, we can sense such powers.

Though Western art system predominates in current circumstances, Asian Contemporary Art goes with the stream of multicultural boom and becomes widely exposed. In international platforms which seem to be liberal but actually contain layers of screening in order to be correct, Asian artists have presented more thought-provoking questions through their artistic practices.


We the People of Vietnamese-born Danish artist Danh Võ, Waterfall Evolution of Chinese emerging artist Wang Englai and On the Hopeful Field of Chinese artist Chu Hongrui based in France, as proactive art creations, together reveal the power of concealment in Asian contemporary art. The characteristics of such concealment are subtle behaviors, simple process and clear relationships among the details. They are originated from poetic restraints in Asian culture as well as acute intuitions that can grasp the common fate of humankind today.

#The Restoration of Cultural Fragments
We the People, Danh Võ

We the People, the representative work of Danh Võ, got its title from the first sentence of the Unitied States Constitution “We, the people of the United States”. The artist delegated a foundry in Shanghai, China to model the Statue of Liberty of equal size and then cut the cast into more than 400 thin pieces of bronze sculptures.

The Statue of Liberty is a national monument in the United States. It stands upright at the harbor and holds a torch high, looking down at comers of different identities and cultural backgrounds.

In 1886, the people of France gave the Statue of Liberty to the United States as a gift symbolizing freedom. However, the epitome of freedom in the past has become one of the cultural hegemony.

These cold body parts were restored in casting or transporting scenes and showed directly in exhibition spaces of Western institutions, just like reappearances of the process when cultural relics were manufactured or transported. Danh exposed the hollow and crude inside of the statue to the public to reveal sham and fragility. Such approach of restoration is not only a strong satire on American politics but also a sharp question of colonialism.

If the symbol of false liberty is regarded as a true relic, do these crude shells have the same cultural value?

Danh Võ, We the People, 2011-2013, Musée d'Art Moderne de Paris, Photography: Pierre Antoine

In Chinese characters, goods (Huo货) looks like money carrying culture. In the face of art market and capital manipulation, Danh’s works are specially submissive under the promotion of top institutions, galleries and collectors within the industry which results in their popularity and high market prices.

It is not difficult to imagine these cultural fragments, through capital manipulation and time, becoming witnesses of today’s broken history.

Danh Võ, We the People, 2011-2013, Kunsthalle Fridericianum, Kassel, Photography: Nils Klinger

Danh Võ was born in Bà Rja, Vietnam in 1974. At the age of 4, he and his family fled South Vietnam and settled down in Denmark as refugees. The experience of escaping the war and assimilation into European culture enable him to seize this agitated epoch. With his acute observation, Danh keeps looking dialectically for the intersections of love and separation, of individual experience and human history.


He expanded his thinking on the subject of territorial identity and relocated objects that had political backgrounds and historical significances by the means of duplicating, cutting and transporting. Behind the light treatment— carry culture here and there— is a grand narrative that crosses territories and connects history. Moreover, it strongly questions American militarism which is whitewashed by the calling for liberty from the standpoint of postcolonialism1.


At the beginning of 2018, Take Away My Breath, a large retrospective exhibition of Danh Võ, was held in Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. To the western people, Danh’s works are poetic and clever but also with the characteristics of simplicity, depression, acrimony and cunning, which exactly match a radical viewpoint that Asian culture, is like hiding a dagger inside. Danh transports culture in different territories with various identities. Cultural institutions in the United States exploit his works to satirize themselves completely. But behind such tolerance might be the strategy of building a higher wall to terminate criticisms from outside.

Note: Postcolonialism is the academic study of the cultural legacy of colonialism and imperialism, examining the social and political power relationships that sustain colonialism and neocolonialism, including the social, political and cultural narratives surrounding the colonizer and the colonized. This approach may overlap with contemporary history and critical theory, and may also draw examples from history, political science, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, and human geography.

#Individual Tragedies in the Group
Waterfall Evolution, Wang Englai

Waterfall Evolution of Wang Englai was also accomplished by appointed producers but the ongoing process took place in an exhibition hall. As the artist said, “physical and cultural properties of this space stimulate me to complete the work.” A sloping wall formed by thousands of red soaps was placed in a large water pool. In the function of pumps, the soaps were washed again and again so the pool was gradually fulfilled with foam. Under the soak and erosion of water, color differences appeared on the wall since each soap turned white in varying degrees.


As water flowed down randomly from the wall in the light, the whole work, with a sense of motion, seemed tranquil and melancholy. It felt like the wall were breathing. But at the same time the dense permutation of soaps, the sound of running water and penetrating odour at the scene built the tension in the space, kept reminding viewers the existence of danger.

Wang Englai, Waterfall Evolution, 2016, Today Art Museum, Beijing, Photography by artist

The artificial waterfall, just like a large production field following prescribed rules, had a majestic appearance but failed to conceal the individual tragedies of the soaps. Every single soap was nothing but a tiny part of a sparkling view and never able to move. Their existence could only be proved by the shimmering water. Naturally and without struggling, they melted with each other, turned into foam that gathered in the pool and was brought back to the rest of the wall by the cyclic force.

Hence tragic individuals went to their doom out of choice.

A new generation of Chinese artists distinguishes itself from the last one due to the lack of obvious political symbols in the works. Moreover, a broad range of objects, materials or combination methods endows the works with more subtle emotions and more diversified interpretations.


For all that, however, viewers can easily observe the feeble individual demand and expression of continuous tension. Waterfall Evolution not only implied the relationship between itself and the other works in the space, but also served as a typical example of narrating systematical landscape. 


This work was produced and dissolved under the comparison of duplicated individuals and entire scene. It drew people’s attention to the details so they could go further to think about the intention behind and reflect on the current social conditions.

Wang Englai, Waterfall Evolution, 2016, Today Art Museum, Beijing, Photography by artist

#Cruel Judgment in a Psychedelic Wonderland
On the Hopeful Field, Chu Hongrui

Differ from the tragic landscape of Waterfall Evolution, Chu Hongrui’s work, On the Hopeful Field, was a plain revelation of depressed status quo.


The artist reformed LED lights from a commodity shop in China into colorful nooses that were hung randomly from the gallery ceiling around the bearing pillar to reproduce an execution spot. The lights moulded a paradox between psychedelic colors and a dangerous situation, elicited
confrontational emotions in viewers and expressed directly the coexistence of entertainment and violence.

Chu Hongrui, On the Hopeful Field, 2018, Galerie Liusa Wang, Paris, Photography: Hai Lin

The hanging nooses, by generating the ambiance of judgment, not only implied the unstable state of art creations but also pointed out that art has been circularly utilized by capital manipulation. So to say, the nooses were tightened around the creators, the sellers, the collectors, the viewers blocked on the outside, and moreover, art itself. This work intended to confront human desires with power and disciplines as well as repair people’s cognition of art.

Danh Võ’s work raised a question on true or false, Wang Englai’s work highlighted the ongoing experience between the group and the individuals while On the Hopeful Field doubted the functions of art by presenting the dialectical relation between gorgeousness and crisis.

Since art had become a propagandistic tool of media, these nooses straightforwardly expressed that behind the prosperity was indeed a capital-led, dehumanized and cruel punishment.

#New observation and expectation
The Power of Concealment in Asian Contemporary Art

The action of returning in We the People concealed a sharp question for colonialism; the changing esthetic effects in Waterfall Evolution concealed pathetic individual destiny; psychedelic lights in On the Hopeful Field concealed the cruel truth of the nature of art. The three artists are different in ages, experiences and identities, but the similarity of their works and questions they pointed out push us to make new observation and expectation on Asian contemporary art.

Contemporary artists are face with a tougher and more repressed social reality today no matter where they are located— apart from keeping their courage and staying alert between common ignorance of the people and hubbub of the media, they must also defend their dignity in the arena of market and disciplines as well as find balance between life and art.

Artworks are epitomes of culture, some of which satisfy political or commercial interests and become famous products while the rest will be buried as sacrificial offerings since they are not accepted. Therefore, true art spirt is particularly valuable.


The advancements of art do not rely on the number of exhibitions and the price of works, but on those overlooked factors such as retrospects on the creations, constructions of theories and comprehension of the overall context. The fierce rivalries on short-termed gains and lack of professionals only lead to poorer exhibitions, inane conversations and analyses, rigid innovations.

Whether contemporary art could get its turn and play a real part in leading the culture depends on the continuous revolution in various aspects. Fortunately, we can sense such powers.


Translator: Truecurl