In Terms of Art

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Across one hundred issues, contributors to ArtAsiaPacific have used many thousands of unique words. Some of them have repeated with unusual frequency; others appear only in specific instances. But over the course of the magazine’s 23 years, the language of art has changed along with the universe that it has been describing. Now that the full texts of AAP have been digitized, as editors, we decided to look back at the history of five words as they appeared in the magazine’s pages. 

The five terms that we’ve highlighted in this section tell their own micro-histories about the trajectory of art practice and the world’s response to it. Senior editor Don J. Cohn reviews the long, and at times farcical, history of “censorship,” noting the paradoxical ramifications of official censures, particularly in the digital era, that have given greater prominence to the individuals impacted. The whole world seems to know the name Ai Weiwei, for example. Contemporary art rides many of the same currents as the rest of culture, as reviews editor Hanae Ko demonstrates in her charting of the recurring “revivals” of past artistic styles—particularly ones designated as “traditional”—that have occurred in movements across the 20th century and into the present day.

Borrowing from the realm of common usage, artists, curators and theoreticians of contemporary art have added academicized meanings to many terms—much to the chagrin of language purists. Managing editor Denise Chu looks at slippery examples of the word “intervention,” which has been co-opted to mean an action or situation that somehow disrupts the normal flow of activities. My own piece about the term “archive” follows the shift in its usage from meaning a brick-and-mortar institution that preserves documents to the abstracted sense of a collection of knowledge that often cannot be physically acquired in real life. Taking this section to a meta-level, associate editor Sylvia Tsai surveys the metaphorical connotations of “ecosystem,” which we use when talking about the art world to evoke the combination of people and infrastructure that makes one place the way it is. After all, it is language through which we create this world and by which we measure its health and future.


S. HANUSHA, Leeches, 2015, tea bags and ink, 21 × 36.5 cm. Courtesy Saskia Fernando Gallery, Colombo. From “Unresolved Ground” by Jyoti Dhar, AAP 97 (Mar/Apr 2016). 


There was apparently an era before the archive. Although the word has appeared at least three times in every issue of ArtAsiaPacific since AAP 55 (Sep/Oct 2007), its initial usage wasn’t until the magazine’s 13th issue, in 1997, in an article written by Satish Sharma, “Rotigraphy: Indian Street Photography,” about the centrality to Indian life of the images taken by mobile studios. Sharma argued that this vernacular form of cultural heritage had been ignored to date, writing: “Archives and museums for photography are not yet a part of the Indian cultural scenario. The couple of institutions that are beginning to show an interest in collecting photographs are clearly biased toward photography as archive or as ‘art’—a ‘fine art’ that is primarily ‘painterly’ and modernist.”

While Sharma used the word initially in its most concrete sense as an institution that preserves documents—rather than its more abstract sense of an intangible corpus of information (whether visual, factual or aesthetic)—she presaged the growing interest in preserving visual practices not explicitly coded as “fine art” and she linked it to the practice of photography. (The Arab Image Foundation, which has a similar mandate for the Middle East, North Africa and the Arab diaspora, was founded that same year in Beirut.) A shift comes later in the same issue where curator Natalie King described the installation Peeping Tom (1995) by Rozalind Drummond as, “A group of large format, toned photographs . . . haphazardly pinned to the gallery walls like an archive,” suggesting not an institution but the “archive” as a collection of related things (whether in subject or form) that index or are taken to represent a larger phenomenon. King’s usage is similar to the one that Ranjit Hoskote evokes in AAP 33 (Jan/Feb/Mar 2002), when he said about Atul Dodiya’s assemblages: “The trove of photographs, which Dodiya began by treating as a visual reference, is an archive of collective memory.” In both artists’ installations, displays of photographs within the works are used to reference observations on the world outside the artistic frame.

ROZALIND DRUMMOND, Index Cards, Peeping Tom (detail), 1995, mixed-media installation, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Monash University Gallery, Melbourne. From “Peeping Tom” by Natalie King, AAP 13 (Jan/Feb/Mar 1997). 

How exactly the idea of the archive and so-called archival practices became prevalent in the 1990s likely correlates to the rise of research-based projects and the art world’s canonization of critical theory.

How exactly the idea of the archive and so-called archival practices became prevalent in the 1990s likely correlates to the rise of research-based projects and the art world’s canonization of critical theory: in particular, the expansive writings of Michel Foucault on the history of knowledge, and the theorizings of Jacques Derrida, whose book Archive Fever was published in English in 1996. It had become such a trope of the new millennium that art historians such as Hal Foster (An Archival Impulse, 2004) and curators, most prominently Okwui Enwezor (whose 2008 exhibition “Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art” was held at the International Center of Photography in New York), used Derrida’s concepts to contextualize artists’ questioning of who will write history, and who can pose counter-narratives through images.

This question became (and remains) particularly relevant in societies where history is contested, as was the case after the end of the Lebanese Civil War in 1990, but also among minority communities everywhere. As such, artists interested in the twin topics of history and memory, and working with photographic or digital media, such as Vivan Sundaram, Anju Dodiya, Dayanita Singh and CAMP, from India, and Walid Raad, Rabih Mroué and Lamia Joreige, from Lebanon, are among the most frequently associated in AAP with “the archive.” 

There’s no end in sight to the archiving—institutional or artistic. As Jyoti Dhar wrote about her experience in Jaffna inAAP 97 (Mar/Apr 2016), a city recovering from a civil war, she quoted from Sri Lankan academic Qadri Ismail: “A city without [an] archive” is “a city not at peace,” illustrating the ongoing necessity of an open, legible and author-able history, drawn from and comprising many different representations of the world.



“Intervention” is a versatile word, as evidenced by how often it has appeared in the pages of ArtAsiaPacific: a total of 200 occurrences. The very first usage occurred in AAP 4 (Oct/Nov/Dec 1994), from the magazine’s second year, in a piece by Australian curator Julie Ewington about censorship in Indonesia: “official intervention” had prohibited a show with politically sensitive content from opening in East Java.

There are distinctions between instances in which the word “intervention” is commonly deployed, in the sense of interrupting or breaking some continuous condition—say, a “judicial intervention” or a “medical intervention”—and within artistic contexts. The “art intervention,” as Tate’s glossary of art terms defines it, “applies to art designed specifically to interact with an existing structure or situation, be it another artwork, the audience, an institution or in the public domain.” Thus, through their real-world “interventions,” artists are endeavoring to raise awareness, effect change, even radically transform the status quo, which has resulted in ever-great diversification of “art interventions.”

PAK SHEUNG CHUEN, Page 22: Half-Folded Library (detail), 2008, book from site-specific installation at the New York Public Library, 2008. Photo by Alis Atwell for ArtAsiaPacific. From “Pak Sheung Chuen: The Art of Covert Intervention” by Olivier Krischer, AAP 63 (May/Jun 2009). 

Thus, through their real-world “interventions,” artists are endeavoring to raise awareness, effect change, even radically transform the status quo, which has resulted in ever-great diversification of “art interventions.”

In art world jargon, an “art intervention” is still most commonly associated with performance and conceptual art. In his 1996 essay “Beyond the Cynical: China Avant-Garde in the 1990s” in AAP 9 (Jan/Feb/Mar 1996), curator Hou Hanru describes Chinese performance artist Zhang Huan as “reveal[ing] the absurd state of human life through unexpected interventions in the banal places of everyday life,” such as public toilets or dilapidated apartments. Expanding the idea of performance to actions that culminate in a sociopolitical art project, Israeli artist Ronen Eidelman penned a reflection in AAP 76 (Nov/Dec 2011) on a nine-day project he initiated with fellow artist Guy Briller to engage with the communities in historic Eretz Yisrael-Palestina, the “Land of Israel-Palestine.” The two equipped their caravan with multimedia equipment “that enabled full-time interventions in diverse urban and open spaces,” which they then streamed to a website 24-hours a day.

“Urban interventions,” or sculptural, architectural projects situated in the public domain, also came up often. In AAP 54 (July/Aug 2007), New Delhi desk editor Deeksha Nath details London-based Shezad Dawood’s “real-estate intervention” in 2005: the artist hired an architect to convert a heritage building in London into a studio and exhibition space, mounted a show there and then employed an agent to sell the property, in a ploy to, in his words, “challenge dominant hierarchies of the art object, commodity, real estate and wealth.” In AAP 58 (May/Jun 2008), a news piece reported on “One Day Sculpture,” a festival in New Zealand that involved site-specific public artworks located in multiple cities—“from object-based sculptures and installations to performance and temporary interventions across the urban environment”—all of which existed for no more than 24 hours.

View of RICCARDO PREVIDI’s installation for Artist’s Studio, 2006. Photo by åbäke. Courtesy Shezad Dawood. From “Shezad Dawood: Posh Studio” by Deeksha Nath, AAP 54 (Jul/Aug 2007). 

Falling somewhere in between the performative and the conceptual is the artist’s hand agitating conventional production processes: for example, the “manual interventions” of Filipino artist Jaime Pacena II, in which the artist overlays shapes and pours paint onto his photographs printed on canvas; or Japanese photographer Tokihiro Sato’s use of a hand-held mirror to manipulate light—to intervene—in his prints during long exposures. Then there’s intervention as art, in the most conceptual fashion, as demonstrated by Hong Kong artist Pak Sheung Chuen, who stages “covert interventions” into quotidian phenomena in order to demarcate his own existence in everyday city life.

Looking forward, a reader should expect to witness even more frequent interventions, what with artistic strategies of subversion, deconstruction, interrogation and protest growing increasingly commonplace, fueled by growing polemics within the global community. Interventions—in whatever context and in all their many forms—are needed more than ever.


SIMON BIRCH, Crawling From the Wreckage, 2010, fluorescent living-room installation with two TV screens, dimensions variable. Courtesy The Birch Foundation, Hong Kong. From “Simon Birch-Hope & Glory: A Conceptual Circus” by Han Yan Yuen, AAP 70 (Sep/Oct 2010).


The term “ecosystem” conventionally refers to a network of relationships present in the natural world. This was the context of the word’s first usage in ArtAsiaPacific, in AAP 53 (May/Jun 2007), where Rebecca Catching reviewed the exhibition “Body Talk” held at Shanghai’s Eastlink gallery. Presenting ways in which artists used the human body as a site of creative expression, Catching described Huang Yan’s photographic series “Chinese Landscape Tattoo” (1999), which shows traditional-looking imagery painted on the artist’s torso, as a reminder that “man is also part of the ecosystem and is himself perishable, an insight largely overlooked in China’s ongoing environmental degradation.”

In 2010, the term “art ecosystem” was introduced in AAP, turning the attention from the natural world to the cosmopolitan interdependence of arts organizations and their communities. Han Yan Yuen’s review of Simon Birch’s show “Hope & Glory: A Conceptual Circus” at ArtisTree in Hong Kong, in AAP 70 (Sep/Oct 2010), described a unique set of circumstances. “The artist-initiated exhibition, neither at a gallery nor a museum, occupies an odd position in the art ecosystem,” Han wrote, as Birch himself raised the USD 513,000 needed to mount the show by maximizing government grants and then collaborating with an Italian fashion brand—typifying the DIY and entrepreneurial spirit that has been unique to Hong Kong, where there is a constant battle for space and finances.

Compared to similar words and phrases such as “the art world” or the various regional “networks” that exist, “ecosystem” tends to be used to describe the dynamics of people and institutions in a specific locality. In Stephanie Bailey’s essay “Beyond Space,” AAP 92 (Mar/Apr 2015), the writer reflects on her panel discussion during the 2014 edition of Art Basel in Hong Kong, where she invited Hong Kong artists who “transcended the lack of an art ecosystem, not to mention a dearth of spaces in which to exhibit, prior to the city’s current art boom.” Artists such as Leung Chi Wo of Para Site, Lam Tung-pang of Fotanian and Chu Hing Wah of the Hong Kong Visual Arts Society (VAS), had founded their respective organizations to fill what had been voids in the cultural landscape: Para Site’s model nurtured curatorial practice; Fotanian held annual open studios; and VAS supported artists and offered a place for critiques. Together they were components in fostering a “healthy” ecosystem.

(From left to right) Artists VIKRAM DIVECHA, SHARMEEN SYED and WALID AL-WAWI on the construction site of the Alserkal Avenue expansion, Dubai, 2015. Photo by Ekta Saran. Courtesy Wild Beast Media, Dubai. From “Beyond Safe” by Kevin Jones, AAP 93 (May/Jun 2015).

Hong Kong, of course, is not the only locale that has witnessed a rapidly evolving arts ecosystem. The United Arab Emirates, particularly the emirate of Dubai, is most frequently paired with “arts ecosystem,” by our UAE desk editor Kevin Jones, who not only mentioned it during his Dispatch column about Dubai in AAP 87 (Mar/Apr 2014), where he says that the city’s “commercial might overshadows a lack of institutions, an underdeveloped arts education infrastructure and a timidity toward cultivating serious critique,” but also composed a three-part essay in 2015 that dissected the “UAE arts ecosystem” by speaking to its artists, commercial entities, institutions, foundations and collectors (AAP 93–95, 2015).

The art “ecosystems” of today and tomorrow are evolving beyond brick-and-mortar institutions and networks of people into digital platforms. As budget cuts have impacted real-world art spaces, institutions and art professionals are now using social media to engage with public audiences, as well as donors and collectors, as Michael Young discusses in his essay, “Where Next for Australia’s Galleries?” (AAP 90, Sep/Oct 2014). As the larger art world turns further into virtual realms, the relative accessibility and cost efficiency of digital media will have to be balanced with what is lost when there is less physical engagement with artists and their works. Ecosystems, whether human or natural, always need to find a balance.


Compared to similar words and phrases such as “the art world” or the various regional “networks” that exist, “ecosystem” tends to be used to describe the dynamics of people and institutions in a specific locality.

HUANG YONG PING, Marché de Punya (detail), 2007, wood, iron, paper, fiberglass, buffalo skin and various objects, 300 × 800 × 1,200 cm, installed for “Amoy/Xiamen” at Musée d’Art Contemporain de Lyon, 2013. Copyright the artist. Photo by Blaise Adilon. Courtesy the artist and Kamel Mennour, Paris. From “Change is the Order of the Day” by Doryun Chong, AAP 92 (Mar/Apr 2015). 


Fig leaves have been used to conceal genitals since the Garden of Eden, but governments worldwide continue to embarrass themselves by following suit, only drawing more attention to what is covered up. In the past two decades, internet technology has proven to be a double-edged sword for censors and artists alike, both enabling the invasion of privacy and limiting expression to unprecedented degrees, while providing paths for individuals to evade the censor’s axe, or comply with censure in imaginative, challenging ways.

For artists, self-censorship (“aka realism,” as one correspondent wrote about China in Letters & Corrections, AAP 76, Nov/Dec 2011) can be a slippery slope to compliance and selling out, or a means of jousting with the authorities at their own game. In the inaugural issue of ArtAsiaPacific in 1993, curator-critic Apinan Poshyananda noted that “self-censorship is practiced by many Thai artists so that their products can be salable.” Generally speaking, artists are keenly tuned to the limits imposed by governments, and censorship itself is often the invisible or unmentioned subject in works of art. While less harshly persecuted than political dissidents, due to the recognition that art can serve a wealthy elite, some artists are hounded to the point where the censored label sticks, only enhancing their reputations.

“Letters & Corrections” section of AAP 76 (Nov/Dec 2011). 

For artists in some countries, censorship, like paranoia, can serve as an essential catalyst.

Two clear exemplars are Ai Weiwei, China’s David to China’s Goliath, who has long straddled the fence between art and dissidence, and MF Husain, the late Indian Muslim artist who in 2006 received a fatwa on his life for his “obscene” depictions of Mother India. Ai, whose criticism of the Chinese Communist Party’s handling of the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake and advocacy for human-rights lawyers led to his detention for 81 days, continues to court official censorship online and through his artworks. Husain moved to Doha in 2006 to avoid the risks of arrest and death threats from Hindu nationalists, but the Supreme Court of India later cleared him of all obscenity charges.

While censors rarely smile, censorship often rises to the level of farce. In 1996, the New Zealand Minister for Agriculture attempted to have photos of diseased cattle by artist Peter Peryer removed from a show in the German town of Aachen, fearing lowered exports of local beef (AAP9, Jan/Feb/Mar 1996). The New Zealand headlines followed: “Art gets a bad steer.” In Hong Kong, a bronze male-nude statue by English sculptor Dame Elisabeth Frink had its reproductive member obscured with a cardboard fig leaf in 1995, when censors claimed it was inappropriate for young girls in the community (AAP 10, Apr/May/Jun 1996). A high court overturned the ruling.

Not surprisingly, the country with the greatest number of censorship citations in AAP is Singapore—which is a good thing, if you think about zipped-up countries such as North Korea and Myanmar, before its recent opening, where censorship itself is censored. But incidents of censorship extend from the United States (re: terrorism), Japan (Hiroshima) and France (animal cruelty). In Thailand, Singapore and China, forms of lèse-majesté are often the first line of offense. Quantitatively, of course, it is the Great Firewall in China that has raised cat-and-mouse shenanigans to the dragon and tiger level.

For artists in some countries, censorship, like paranoia, can serve as an essential catalyst. Quoting Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping (AAP 92, Mar/Apr 2015), whose stuffed animal installations had stirred controversy in Paris: “Censorship presents itself in all forms. It is impossible to imagine a society without censorship. This is not necessarily a negative element. Imposing limits forces an impulsion toward creativity.”


HU JIANPING, Staircase in a Safety Zone. From “The Spotted Leopard” by Xu Hong, AAP 2 (Apr/May/Jun 2004). 

In this digital, global age, the surge of cultural revivals is perhaps a result of people’s desire to connect with their roots and to use that as inspiration to cultivate an original identity.


The reviving of past cultural phenomena is a recurring societal trend that has seen a particular popularity in recent years. Films coming out of Hollywood, for instance, are frequently remakes, and major fashion labels are increasingly inspired by retro looks of the 1960s and ’70s. In this digital, global age, the surge of cultural revivals is perhaps a result of people’s desire to connect with their roots and to use that as inspiration to cultivate an original identity. 

The impulse to revisit tradition and heritage is not unique to film and fashion—or contemporary times, for that matter. According to art historian Cecelia Levin, it was an issue that had concerned Japanese art scholar Okakura Kakuzo at the turn of the 20th century, when he traveled to India to “encourage a revival of traditional arts throughout Asia” as a way to confront the “ongoing wave of Western cultural influence across the continent” (AAP 62, Mar/Apr 2009). In the mid-1980s, a similar ideology resulted in the emergence of the New Literati Painting school in China, whose focus was, according to Chinese art scholar Francesca Dal Lago, to “revive the brushwork tradition of ink painting and to purge it of the Socialist Realist elements forced on it in the last three decades” (AAP 19, Jul/Aug/Sep 1998). Reflecting on this movement a decade after its arrival, Chinese artist and writer Xu Hong wrote, “Contrary to many people’s expectation that Chinese painting would become virtually extinct by the end of the century, not only has this not happened, but there has been a revival of interest” (AAP 2, Apr/May/Jun 1994).

In contrast to the New Literati school was the emergence of artists who incorporated traditional art forms and references in more experimental ways, such as the calligraphy-inspired works of Xu Bing, Cai Guo-Qiang’s gunpowder drawings and the archaeological sculptures of Huang Yong Ping. However, as Tiffany Wai-Ying Beres writes in AAP 86 (Nov/Dec 2013), “[This] generation of artists, many of whom have lived or continue to live abroad, and who have been active since the 1980s, approach this theme of tradition through the lens of Western thought and philosophy . . . to reinterpret and deconstruct classical Chinese art forms.” Beres notes that, instead, today’s post-1970s generation of “neotraditionalist” Chinese artists have a more “revivalist desire to align with a Chinese past” and “to rediscover, understand and build upon the inheritance of their native visual culture and its affiliated literati tradition.” 

HEBA ABED, La Scuola delle Arti, 2014, photomontage on cotton paper, 65 × 85 cm. Courtesy the artist. From “Hybrid Voices: The Rising Generation of Saudi Artists” by Sara Raza, AAP 88 (May/Jun 2014). 

Naturally, the revivalist phenomenon has not been limited to Chinese art. With the recent rise of the art world’s interest and acknowledgment of Asia, more cultures from the region with rich artistic heritage are seeing their contemporary artists embracing native traditions as part of their practice. Such instances range from the works of Aisha Khalid and Imran Qureshi, who are considered “leaders of the revival of Pakistani miniature painting” (AAP 97, Mar/Apr 2016), to the resurgence of traditional Islamic art and crafts among young Saudi Arabian artists, as noted by Basmah Felemban in AAP 88 (May/Jun 2014). Looking beyond the looming presence of the West, new generations of artists across the world are turning inward to reestablish canons, and identities, that are specific to their culture.