Polygon Gallery's Third Realm exhibit takes viewers into Asia’s art explosion

Curator Davide Quadrio draws photo and video work from crucial era in China and beyond

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      Curator Davide Quadrio traces his fascination with Asia and its artworks back to being 13 in Italy, when two magazine spreads caught his eye. One was of Japanese butoh dancers, “moving around Tokyo like corpses”; the other, in National Geographic, showcased ornately costumed Tibetan dancers.

      Later, as he entered adulthood, he became hooked on studying Mandarin.

      “When you start to look at the letters—it is art,” he says, speaking over Zoom to the Straight from the countryside outside Milan. “For me, Chinese was the perfect language.”

      Quadrio has been holed up in Italy with his family during the pandemic, marking the first time that he’s spent more than three weeks away from Asia in decades. He’s reflecting on what took him to Shanghai and the Far East as a young man in the 1990s—a journey that would coincide not only with a time of unimaginable, warpspeed sociopolitical change in Asia, but also with one of the world’s greatest contemporary- art explosions. And he brings some of the highlights of his work with groundbreaking artists from across Asia to the Polygon Gallery this month as part of the exhibit Third Realm.

      Studies in Chinese art at university in Venice led Quadrio to China, first exploring remote parts of eastern Tibet that were still closed to most foreigners, then heading to Shanghai, where he held exhibits in temporary places while establishing himself as a painter. By 1998-99, Shanghai was not only entering a period of unprecedented growth, but it was ground zero for a new movement of young media artists in their early 20s. Their work reacted to and captured the momentous shifts and economic prosperity around them.

      Quadrio founded and directed the first not-for-profit independent creative lab in Shanghai, Bizart Art Center, as a platform to foster the local contemporary art scene. A decade later, in 2007, he helped establish the Shanghai-based FarEastFarWest, which commissions and acquires contemporary artworks from China as well as Thailand, Japan, Korea, and other parts of Asia. Its collection is housed at the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College in Chicago. Its exhibits—including Third Realm—show around the globe. Third Realm will showcase pieces from the crucial period of 2004 to 2019. Included in the exhibit are works from such now-big names as Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and China’s Cao Fei, Lu Yang, and Zhou Xiaohu.

      Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Ghost Teen (detail) refers to a bloody history of oppression in northwestern Thailand.
      Art courtesy FarEastFarWest collection

      “You really felt like something was happening at the time—there was excitement,” says Quadrio of his early Shanghai days. “It was a city on steroids. Shanghai had a lifespace cycle of two years—so literally every two weeks there was an entire neighbourhood that was pulled down and rebuilt, to a point where you couldn’t remember what was there before. One skyscraper was built in six months—two floors a week. Imagine visually what that means!

      “And art: there was no commercial value to it then,” he recalls of that boom period, “but there was a beautiful, real energy in relationship to the idea of creating something new.”

      The connections of Chinese contemporary art to the work of young artists elsewhere in East and Southeast Asian countries go deep, he argues. “Young people were grappling with change that was so radical—a push through the stagnation of post-imperialist Asia,” Quadrio explains. “When the mother dragon woke up in China, it had a massive presence economically and culturally.”

      But ultimately, what links Third Realm’s works together is a less tangible artistic sensibility. Quadrio says the exhibit’s title plays on liminal spaces, between the historic and the present, the local and the global, the secular and the sacred. In a few works, there are also references to those realms in Buddhist rituals.

      Amid the diverse, provocative, and sometimes bitterly humorous photo and video works, Cao Fei uses Second Life virtual- gaming tech to create an artwork set in the fictitious RMB City, making for a critique of China’s rampant consumerism. In the video Writing in the Rain, FX Harsono speaks to the discrimination of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia, painting his own name in Chinese characters in a downpour, the ink slithering, streaking, and dripping away. Lu Yang animates video-game-styled Tibetan Buddhist deities and integrates brain-mapping technology in Wrathful King Kong Core. And Weerasethakul’s Ghost Teen, which features a boy in a track jacket, his cool rectangular blue-tint sunglasses perched over a rubbery zombie mask, addresses the brutal history of oppression in northwestern Thailand, reshaping the younger generations’ memories of the tragedy into a kind of horror-dreamscape.

      Video: FX Harsono's Writing in the Rain.

      What Quadrio wants to avoid at all costs is oversimplifying what Asian art is—that’s reflected by his thoughtfully worded captions in the exhibit.

      “It’s important not to make that simple mistake of thinking of what is presented as a crystallized idea of what Asia is,” he begins. “It really is about not talking per se about a time but about a narrative that is much more important than getting a satisfactory vision of what Asia is now.

      “This gives an opportunity to see Asia in a much more complex way,” he continues. “I hate this idea of simplification. I find it dismissive of other complexities. For a lot of us working on the ground in Asia for so long, there’s a lot of frustration about how the Guggenheim or the Met or the British Museum are simplifying what Asian art is. So my reaction curatorially is trying to do something very powerful that brings you to a territory of discovery.”