Links with Asia.

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Links with Asia.


Carroll, Alison.


Australian Print Symposium. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1987 - ongoing.



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Links with Asia.
by Alison Carroll

I am going to speak briefly on Asia and contemporary printmaking, making some points on this which I hope are of interest. However, I should start by alluding to some of the umbrella issues which arise when discussing such areas.

The first is the question of identify. I had the opportunity to read Clare Williamson’s paper before today, and note her quote on identity: that ‘identity becomes an issue when it is in crisis, when something assumed to be fixed, coherent and stable is displaced by the experience of doubt and uncertainty’. The issue of identity keeps bubbling up in all the countries of South-East Asia and of course in Australia, and on one level, I say hurray. We live in a region experiencing great change and re-evaluation on many levels — one can argue it is an excellent environment for creative people. The Philippines is a country continually analysing its own recent history of indigenous, Chinese, Islamic, Spanish, American and Japanese responses — and in many ways is the least self-assured of nations — and the art produced there at the moment is some of the most exciting, vigorous, thoughtful, wonderful work in the region, perhaps in the world.

One of the great advantages of looking at the recent art of South-East Asia for example, is that seeing the development and the history of the art of our neighbours, it is possible to draw conclusions and see areas more clearly in Australia. The contemporary art of South-East Asia and Australia is based to varying degrees on one, two, three or four centuries of European colonialism. It is based on the premise that we are marginal, second-rate followers by definition. We can never ‘match’ the work of our European colonial masters. When you see an artist in Indonesia or Malaysia coping with that load, and compare it with someone in Melbourne or Brisbane, the various responses become a lot clearer.

Which brings me to the next general point about the diversity of the art of our region. There are various aspects of South-East Asian art which relate between countries, as I noted before, but then each country, and within this each region, and each school of thought, and each generation, and each racial group, and each sex, and each religion, and indeed each individual artist, all respond in different ways. And beyond South-East Asia to the Indian subcontinent and North Asia, well, we repeat this diversity and multiply it over and over again.

Everyone in contemporary art to some extent is part of the international nexus of artists and knowledge of art — globalisation is a reality. The practice however of nations being the divisionary boundary is no longer the issue; rather it is the self-identified groups working with international thoughts or products or information. What is a Japanese or American car now, when the parts of both are made in a dozen different countries, and stopping the manufacture of ‘Japanese’ cars for America puts thousands of ‘American’ car workers out of a job?

However, there are trends in the region — particularly the interest in socio-political issues (including environmental and women’s issues), and very importantly, ‘indigenous’ issues coming through in both content and technique. This can mean a return to pre-colonial stories, or use of locally produced materials, or working with local rituals still apparent and being identified more and more throughout various communities.

Now, some general points about contemporary printmaking, focussing on South-East Asia and Indo-China, the area I know best.

We can simplistically divide ‘European’ — derived, more complex techniques like intaglio, lithography and screenprinting, with ‘Asian’, simpler techniques like woodcut and other relief methods.

The former — the European-derived methods — in this part of Asia are difficult for all concerned. They are difficult to produce, difficult to present, difficult to keep and difficult to promote.

South-East Asia does not have the museum or, in the past, the individual markets for works of art ‘on the wall’, mainly because traditional houses do not have solid walls. The climate means raised floors, ceilings and open spaces are practical; not enclosing, heat-trapping, insect-catching walls.

Grander buildings like palaces or temples of course for the most part were built according to indigenous, traditional tastes.

The physical ‘machinery’ to make these prints, including paper and ink, all had and has to be imported from expensive countries, and most artists cannot afford this. It is difficult to get parts; it is difficult to keep the presses going, producing enough to make their initial purchase worthwhile. It is difficult to preserve the paper in high humidity conditions, without continuous, or for many artists any air conditioning. It is hard to keep this thick juicy paper away from insects. In the Philippines there is no good quality perspex, and all framing is difficult. Keeping the work well is beyond most museums where currently air conditioning and clean, environmentally sound conditions are rare. And presenting such work in an environment where the confusion about prints versus reproductions are, well, not confusions so much as not issues, and persuading a purchaser that multiples are okay and paying a number of times people’s monthly wage for one of these multiples which may quickly be damaged by the environment, is a good thing, is, well, difficult.

I hasten to say that this is the current position. South-East Asia and its potential as purchasers of art and preservers of art is about to, as they say, explode. In ten years my sorry tale above will truly seem the bad old days.

However it is the current situation. Why do they do it? There are two main reasons: one historic and another a new practicality. The historic one is that the art school in South-East Asia, in all cases modelled on Amsterdam, or Madrid, or London, or Paris, has been and remains the strongest centre of art practice. In these institutions the major artists command some salary and certainly a ‘position’; they are the centres for discussion and action; they serve as reference points in all the cities of the region. They often have functioning, important galleries for display of local and international work. Often their staff are the only people I, for example can work with, on a serious, on-going basis. And because these schools — founded from the early nineteenth century (as in Manila) to World War II (as in Singapore) are so firmly based on European practice, the practice of printmaking in intaglio, lithography and screenprint are for the most part firmly ensconced as part of their program.

The second reason is a new one: the new grand hotels and the new middle class, air conditioned, enclosed condominiums need works of art on the wall. Somporn Rodboon of Silpakorn University talks about the major new market for printmaking in Bangkok as a result. And no doubt this will grow.

Beyond this it seems to me the issues of printmaking in Asia, particularly in South-East Asia, are the same as those pertaining to other issues of arts in each country. In Bangkok there is interest in neo-traditional Thai forms in prints as in other works; in Indonesia sometimes narrative issues related to the Wayang appear; in the Philippines some of the strongest work relates to socio-political concerns of the country.

One of the most interesting Filipino printmakers is Ofelia Gelvezon Tequi who works with ‘Viscosity’ prints: relatively small colour intaglio works referring to the early Italian artist Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s work on good and bad government, translated into Filipino forms. It is quite subtle at first, but intriguing to see the issues she alludes to. The choice of the subject itself of course is a very nicely relevant one to the Philippines, with Marcos, Cory Aquino and now Ramos included.

I recently spent a morning in Fil Delacruz’s studio in Manila, a small shed really, in a beautiful green garden, with louvres open to the absolutely pouring rain coming down outside. All quiet except for the fan. He told me there were some fifteen printmakers in the Philippiines — from a population of 50 million, but I think he meant intaglio printers like himself. He told me his story of seeing a Swiss artist’s postage stamp-sized mezzotint, and trying to copy it, then going to Europe and realising yes he had been able to do it. On his shelves were Imprints and David Dolan's book on Charles Bannon. Fil saw himself as part of an international brotherhood of ‘fine art’ printmakers, where the process was as important as the image, and he felt the need to proselytize this, building a small portable press which he took on teaching excursions into the country.

However, generally, the most interesting work in printmaking that I keep seeing in South-East Asia is that cheaply produced, locally driven form of wood or lino — or ‘rubber’ as they are called — relief prints. Right through the region strong political contemporary works, for example by Noel Doloricon, in this media are as powerful and relevant as anything else.

It is the ‘indigenous’ form. Of course with the history of woodcuts coming from China, being so important in Japan, and even being used in the first European books cut by Chinese artisans in 1590s Manila, and the availability of the materials to make the work, and their cheap price, there is added support for the general possibilities of making strong images in this medium.

Vietnam is a good example of this. Woodcuts are seen in two strands of art: the popular village folk printmaking — relating to similar works made in China and its diasporas — a couple of cents from the printmaking village near Hanoi; and images regarded as ‘high art’, by known, named artists including one of the Hanoi College of Fine Arts professors, Huy Oanh.

There are numbers of wonderful images made over the last few decades in Vietnam, including work by To Ngoc Van, Do Huu Hue and Hoang Dao Khanh.

They are vital, responsive images, done cheaply and easily, obviously reliant on Soviet and Chinese antecedents, but as relevant to those artists and their audience's conditions as one could hope for.

© Alison Carroll, 1992.
Paper presented at The Second Australian Print Symposium, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1992.