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Splashing around in the exotic

Asian Art - Michael Kerrigan

So this book is a primer - if you know little about any art made in Japan, China, Thailand, Burma/Myanmar, Tibet, Java, Cambodia, Indonesia, Korea or Singapore (South Asia, the Middle East, Central Asia etc are not part of this Asia) ever at any time in history, you can begin to find out a little bit about them here.

My contention is that it is an unmodernised stuff-in-glass-cases museum in book form, grouping works by type (painting, ceramic, statue etc) rather than by culture or theme (most of the figures are Buddhas, and it is very interesting to compare them) with contextualising information and appreciative comment, but few handholds or hooks to link them to other works. This makes it hard to get hold of any meaningful thread. The chronological arrangement within each section helps, but the attempt to represent such a huge range of works results in poor coherence. The interpretation is poor because this book aims for breadth rather than depth. In my opinion though, it doesn't do well at the former either.

The fact that a non-Asian man has selected the works he feels will best represent 'Asian' art to fellow Europeans is not great. OK, there is awareness of 'Orientalism' indicated in the introduction, but it's rather shallow - just lip service I feel. There is no contemporary work in this book and the vast majority is pre-twentieth century, and the author never mentions how 'Asian' artists are drawing on these traditions; though he often explains how Europeans have appropriated or been influenced by some of them.

So on the whole, the dodgy premise of cramming all Asian Art into one book proved pretty dodgy in practice. Obviously there is lots of great art in here, but like amazing artefacts in a bad museum, the presentation makes it just a meaningless procession of exotic eye-candy.