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3 Defining Moments When Asian Artists Challenged the Audience

Asian contemporary art is a thriving scene, filled with incredible talent and awe-inspiring works. And there are many points in recent history when Asian artists confronted and challenged their audience.

We’ve gathered a few of the most iconic moments when Asian artists generated controversy and changed the art world.

Ai Weiwei and an Urn

Copyright Guggenheim

It’s no surprise that Chinese artist and provocateur Ai Weiwei would land on this list. For the last few decades, he’s been at the center of numerous artworld controversies. But perhaps the biggest was one of the first: his 1995 effort Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn.

The piece is a photographic triptych, showing the artist doing exactly what the name suggests — dropping a 2,000-year-old ceramic urn. By the third image, the urn is in pieces on the floor. These black and white frames are stark and shocking, with no pomp and circumstance.

To add insult to injury, the first attempt at photographing the act was not successful. So to create the piece, Ai actually had to destroy two priceless urns.

Critics were outraged. What right did the artist have to destroy something of so much historical and cultural value? But Ai did not bend to these critics. He famously quoted Mao, stating that to build a new world, you have to destroy the old.

The resulting artwork generated lots of discussion in a society battling with how to negotiate its move into the future while maintaining the past.

Takashi Murakami at Versailles

Copyright Reuters

The Palace of Versailles is a testament to the artistic achievements of France. What began as a small hunting lodge was expanded into a stunning architectural masterpiece starting in 1661 at the behest of King Louis XIV.

Set on a landscape tailored to the neoclassical aesthetic, the Palace bursts at the seams with world-renowned baroque artwork that lines its halls.

Imagine the controversy then, when Takashi Murakami was set to display his manga and anime-inspired sculpture in the hallowed halls of Versaille in 2010. His characters, like the effervescent Miss Ko2, stuck out like a sore thumb to many critics.

This three-month show saw thousands of angry Royalists sign a petition and protest the event, but they were only doing Murakami’s work for him. The resistance to change and the perception of past forms as superior to new ones cemented exactly what the artist was saying all along.

And yet, Murakami’s transgressive exhibition has aged well, with people looking back on it as a bold recontextualization of both Murakami’s manga/anime style and what we revere as part of the European canon. It stands as both a clash of cultures and times, and it cemented Murakami as a trickster artist of the highest caliber.

Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece

Yoko Ono has never shied away from controversy, and her 1964 masterpiece of performance art was so eyebrow-raising that it helped cement the form as a pillar of the contemporary art scene.

In pop culture, the name Yoko Ono is often overshadowed by her marriage to John Lennon of Beatles fame, along with a theory that she helped break up the legendary band. But the truth is, Ono’s work should stand on its own right. Her bravery and inventiveness have made her work some of the best in performance art history.

One of her earliest successes remains one of her best. Cut Piece has a simple concept: the artist sits still while audience members are offered a pair of scissors and are invited to use them to cut off pieces of Ono’s clothing.

Audiences were stunned into silence and had difficulty understanding what they had witnessed. The work was so provocative that even to hear about it today gives us pause.

By putting her own safety on the line, Ono pioneered a fearless form of performance art that has been rarely matched up to the present day.

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