An Interview With Alison de Lima Greene

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston curator of contemporary art talks about this month’s new exhibit, “Red Hot: Asian Art From the Chaney Family Collection.”

How did this exhibit come about?

I’ve been acquainted with the Chaney family for much of the past decade, and I’ve seen their collection of contemporary art grow. The Chaneys began acquiring important photographs first by Hiroshi Sugimoto and later by Zhang Huan and others in the late nineties, and in the past two years, they’ve made contemporary Asian art a particular focus of their collecting activities. About a year ago we began talking about presenting an exhibit of this aspect of their collection, and they picked out a few additional key masterpieces that would make the exhibition defining. It’s very much a family collection. Robert works closely not only with his wife, Jereann, but also their daughter, Holland, who is herself a burgeoning collector and an active part of it all. Certainly there are collectors with work by these artists, but nothing comparable in Texas.

How is the show organized?

When you walk into the show the first thing you’re going to see is a strong representation of the Pop Art movements; if you go one direction, you’ll see works from China, and if you go the other direction, works from Japan. There’s also a section that deals with Cynical Realism, and in the last section are works depicting the new landscape of Asia. We’re going to continue to install Chiho Aoshima’s City Glow video that was sort of a teaser for the exhibit downstairs in our corridor opposite our Cafe Express, and we’ll be adding additional works to that area. We’re excited to have two sculptures by Yue Minjun, who’s probably the most familiar face of contemporary Chinese art. (You may know him for the many images you’ve seen of his laughing men.) His works are going to be outside the entrance of one of our buildings. We’re also working on another outdoor installation by Sui Jianguo, called Jurassic Age .

What are common misconceptions about contemporary Asian art?

The thing that always bothers anyone in the field is the notion of the exotic, that somehow there’s an otherness that separates us from understanding other people around the world. To me, the goal of this show is to acknowledge that there are cultural differences and to take away the notion of otherness or exoticism that clouds people from really seeing one another.

How is Red Hot a good introduction to the genre?

Anyone going through the catalogue or the exhibition will recognize some very well-known names: Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara, from Japan, and Yue Minjun, Fang Lijun, and Wang Guangyi, from China. Learning about art in another part of the world helps you become more aware. And I think all of us are going to have to be more aware of China because the great market powers are probably moving away from the West and toward the East. The more we can do to understand that dynamic, the better. It’s not a question of power so much as a more textured, complex sense of the world.

Which pieces do you anticipate will be a hit with viewers?

A crowd favorite already is Chiho Aoshima’s City Glow video. We put it up in late winter, and I have never installed a work of art that commanded more immediate engagement and sympathy. Another video that I really love is Cao Fei’s Hip Hop New York, which has a soundtrack by a New York Chinatown band called Notorious MSG. There’s not going to be anyone who’s not going to be dancing in front of that video. The show will also bring more recognition to Feng Zhengjie, who is called the Warhol of China. You’ll see some of the most important artists working in Korea today: Atta Kim, who’s a conceptual photographer, and Do-Ho Suh, who’s an installation artist. Nikki S. Lee, another Korean artist, is now working in New York; I hate clichés, but she’s sort of like the Cindy Sherman of Asia. She’s constantly inserting herself into photographic narratives she has invented. Among younger audiences, the sculptures of the Luo Brothers, which play with Chinese kitsch and U.S. products, are going to be a huge hit. The two artists from Vietnam who are going to command the most attention are Dinh Q. Lê and Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba.

Do you foresee an influx of contemporary Asian art in U.S. museums?

Yes, I think all museums are going to be responding to it. If you look at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, there’s a major installation by Cai Guo-Qiang in the lobby, and there are works by Takashi Murakami and Do-Ho Suh. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, which is not necessarily known as the most cutting-edge institution in the country, has done projects by Cai Guo-Qiang and a number of other emerging Asian artists. We’re going to see this phenomenon not just in the U.S. but increasingly in Europe as well.

What do you want viewers to know before they see the show?

This show is fun. It is really going to jazz people up. We tend to stick to the old-fashioned rhetoric of “It’s educational or profound.” And those things are here, but there’s an immediacy, an energy.

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