How Can I Live in Your World? Empathic Strategies in Contemporary Asian Art

Reuben Keehan
September 2021

This essay takes its title from the way in which Korean artist Lim Minouk[1] once described the central question driving her practice. It was in the context of her work around the year 2010, which was difficult to pigeon-hole in that it took the form of collective performances of real depth and meaning, documented in beautifully executed videos. What Lim was trying to do at the time was to unify fragmented personalities in song, and to martial them against the forces that would divide them again. It was a decidedly feminine resistance, quite distinct from the macho posturing and sloganeering that alienates so many from collective struggle—a resistance without preconditions.  Her International Calling Frequency (2011) was a melody, written as a duet so that it had to be performed with another, with no lyrics allowing it to be applicable to any situation. Weight of Hands (2010) registered the force of implacable environmental destruction with the lone, melancholy voice of a karaoke singer, borne aloft by the combined strength of a coachload of protestors. Lim’s strivings toward unifying actions have followed ever more striking and ambitious trajectories over the past decade. For the moment, though, her question of how to live in another’s world and her clear articulation of shared experience as a mode of resistance offer interesting starting points for considering the kind of roles that empathy might play in contemporary Asian art.

In East Asian languages, empathy is typically translated as an emotion held in common, a shared feeling, one experienced together.[2] However, the institutional and market structure of contemporary art in its current form would appear not well suited to such sensibilities. For all the progress that social practice and community art have made in opening the range of possibilities for artists, the dominant modes of making and experiencing are still highly individuated, even at a time of mass audiences for contemporary art. In its prevailing form, contemporary art is created by individuals and seen by individuals, subjectively, in keeping with the economic and ideological framework of our times. Museum label layouts and installation budgets strain when forced to accommodate entire communities that might be involved in the production of a single work, while the art market still relies on the idea of the genius artist. Asian art has thrown up its fair share of superstars over the past decade, as regional modernities and transnational dialogues have become integrated into the contemporary art mainstream.

The concept of the individual, however, is a product of specifically European modernity. While religious or courtly art had assumed some level of collectivity in its creation and production, artistic modernism was far more attuned to the consciousness of self then emerging from societies and economies shaking off the constraints of feudalism. In Japanese Sinologist Takeuchi Yoshimi’s classic account,[3]modern ideas like progress, the free flow of capital, and people as free, autonomous, and equal (at least on an ideological level), were exported to Asia with European colonialism, along with new sensibilities and modes of production within the artistic sphere. What Takeuchi described as “oriental modernity” arose as a direct result of coercion: occidental demands for open markets, for the homogenisation of science, for freedom of religion (or, more properly, the right to evangelise). Oriental modernity appeared in resistance to European modernity but, in seeking to overcome it, incorporated and surpassed certain elements. For Takeuchi, bourgeois art and literature had existed in Asia for some time, but it was only after European invasion that they expressed what he called “self-consciousness”, and that this self-consciousness became generalised as a dominant mode of production and reception.

Modern art in Asia is often considered to be a general term for a number of localised strivings to combine Western and non-Western elements that would create something superior. In early 1990s, curator and Southeast Asia specialist Ushiroshōji Masahiro distinguished Asian contemporary art from the regional modernisms that preceded it by describing a shift in consciousness. Where the moderns had sought a fusion of the Western and the local, contemporary artists understood this fusion to be already at work across society and responded accordingly. Instead of seeking some kind of artistic transcendence, then, they turned to their daily lives as a source of inspiration, adopting new forms, materials and subject matter drawn from direct experience.[4] It was precisely during this period that the Western art world sought to globalise, playing catch-up with an entire world of art-making it had hitherto neglected, and expanding its market reach in the process. The upshot was that contemporary art from Asia, taken as a whole, contained a contradiction, or at least a tension: at once the preservation of the idea of individual creators and audience members, and a trenchant embeddedness in the social.

Of course, non-individuated practices have persisted throughout the region. Art production that is intimately linked with custodial systems of knowledge is inherently collective, while community art enjoys a broad and commendable purchase. Even within more canonical streams of avant-garde art, there are examples of authentic group sensibilities: Japanese associations like I Group and the Play, in which individual identities were dissolved into elegiac exercises with no apparent practical outcome; the Koreanminjung misul (people’s art) of the 1980s pro-democracy movement, whose combination of social realism and expressionism was elevated to the level of doctrine; and the continued prominence of artist collectives in Indonesian art, exemplified by the appointment of Jakarta’s Ruangrupa as artistic directors of the 2022 Documenta. More recently, artists like Aluaiy Pulidan of southern Taiwan’s indigenous Paiwan tribe, and Yee I-Lann, working with Dusun and Sama DiLaut communities in northern Borneo, have commented on the consultative and convivial aspects of weaving activities, effectively enabling unofficial women’s councils, spaces of discussion and solidarity whose function is undeniably social. Nonetheless, the work of an artist like Lim Minouk is difficult to place within any of these frameworks, however much it might operate in the awesome shadow cast by minjung. Rather, it is in animating the tension between the individual and the social—“How do I live in your world?”—that her work, and that of others, finds much of its dynamism.

A more comparable practice, with no less profound emotional impact, is that of the much younger Beijing-based photographer Chen Zhe. Chen attained worldwide recognition in her early twenties with the controversial photo series The Bearable (2007–10) and Bees (2010–12). Beginning with candid documents of her own self-harm, Chen created unflinching though uniquely measured contextualisation of communities of fellow self-abusers she met in internet forums. She documented with unusual frankness and sensitivity the relationship of wounded personalities to their physical bodies through a collection of correspondence, diary entries, online chats and imagery that is at once sumptuous and challenging.

As explorations of self-harm, the two series are often presented together, as in a 2016 artist’s book and numerous exhibitions, but there are clear shifts between them. The Bearable is a confessional account of such quiet intensity that it seems to come from a place of utter isolation, while Bees offers the sense of a shared space, where formerly private worlds merge, however tentatively, however conditionally. This shift is played out visually in the structure of the images themselves. In the former, the camera is often so close to its subject that the image is blurred or tonally indistinct: smears of blood or bruises on flash-blown scalps, torsos or faces; knots of hair on tiled bathroom walls and floors; monochrome rendering indistinguishable the marks on a forearm, as to whether they are characters written in ballpoint pen or wounds inflicted with a piece of broken glass. The photographs in Bees, on the other hand, are far more open, more expansive in their structure. They inhabit homes, parks, rooftops: definable, locatable spaces. While certain motifs from The Bearable recur—wads of bloodstained tissues, an unmistakable pricking and bruising of the skin—the subjects are clearly placed within their contexts, as if mutual understanding has engendered a critical distance capable of representing experience in a way that is more than partial, more than fragmentary. This is not a retreat to more conventional modes of image-making, but rather a remaking of the world through the circulation of images more sympathetic to the marginal figures within it, including the photographer herself.

Chen’s subsequent work takes an ostensibly different approach. The artist has been engaged in a decade-long research project around evening disquiet, emotional shifts brought on by the shift from day to night. This has manifested in a range of works produced under the title Towards Evenings: Six Chapters that incorporate photography but extend to include video, sound, sculpture, and unusual media such as terrazzo, structured as chapters that explore different aspects of the phenomenon. From a point of initial isolation, she found her own heightened emotional state during the golden hour repeated throughout art and literature, and has created a body of work forging artistic and literary connections that mimic the social connections developed in the course of her earlier work. Solidarities are formed principally on the level of encounters with imagery and text. If Bees provided glimpses of shared spaces between figures at the margins of society, Towards Evenings is an unfolding rumination over the experience of encountering a work of art that elicits the feeling of finally being understood. What does it mean to identify with a sentiment or experience conveyed in a book, a poem, or a photograph, especially one that has otherwise not been described in the course of a life? And what does it mean to produce a work of art with such resonance?

Like Chen, the Japanese photographer Shiga Lieko proceeds from a position of psychological malaise emerging in adolescence. Shiga describes experiencing an abiding sense of the world as illusion, the suspicion that while modern conveniences had liberated humans from subsistence labour, they had also alienated people from something essential to their being. She recalls that, as a child, she would run to the point of breathlessness to really feel alive but felt that even this faculty was denied her as she approached puberty and lost control of her own body. It was only through photography, and in particular the photograph as a physical object, the sensation of holding a printed image in her hand that she felt she could reclaim some form of agency and with it obtain temporary relief from unease with her place in the world.

This emphasis on the objecthood of the photograph, and with it a loyalty to pre-digital forms and processes, is immediately detectable in Shiga’s material practice. Her striking visual style, typified by bursts of intense colour amidst dense blacks and depths of field thrown out by harsh flashes, is achieved without digital effects, using on-site lighting, colour filters, and occasionally manipulation of negatives. Her work is physical, with photo books of unwieldy scale and heft, and prints that assume an imposing sculptural presence, towering before the viewer on improvised armatures as they fan out across the exhibition space. The experience of Shiga’s work is both seductively atmospheric and uncannily corporeal—even ambient light reflected by paper gloss seems to have a place in her installations—setting the scene for the dreamlike narratives of her images.

The content of Shiga’s photographs has been described as arising from her “unique fieldwork”,[5]a sort of ethnography without critical distance through which she is embedded in particular communities, absorbing local anecdote, myth, and humour. In 2008, just as her career was taking off internationally, she relocated to the coastal village of Kitakama on Japan’s rugged northeast coast, accepting the role of civic photographer for the town’s elderly population in return for rent-free studio space. Documenting neighbourhood festivals and council meetings, taking ID photos and funeral portraits, and scanning and retouching old prints, she came to know the people of Kitakama intimately through the framework of photography. When the area was struck by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, with Kitakama losing 53 of its 370 residents, Shiga worked assiduously to recover and redistribute water-damaged family photographs, and reports the strange emotional space created by not knowing whether a person in a given image is alive or dead. This experience resulted in her extraordinary artist book and installation Rasen Kaigan (The Spiral Shore) in 2012, an enveloping body of work that has the effect of coming across of pile of found photos, in which a coterie of senior citizens runs through a disconnected series of gags and rituals on a blasted crepuscular landscape, tinged with an autumnal melancholy.

Shiga revisited the experience for in Human Spring(2018–19). The elderly subjects of Rasen Kaigan are still present, but they are accompanied by a much younger coterie of boys on the cusp of adulthood, suggesting the cyclical transition of the title. Alongside such offbeat imagery as an absurdly large dining table, or a long-distance shot of tuxedoed men posing for a formal photograph among a shock of blood red foliage, shirtless youths populate the series, alone, huddled together in groups, or splayed out across a beach like wave-tossed corpses. Human Spring has its origin in the suicides of two farmers with whom Shiga had lived in the aftermath of the tsunami, and the death of a third, an eccentric character the artist had grown close to, who succumbed to cancer at the end of a long depression leavened by bouts of springtime elation. The work is accordingly celebratory as it depicts the energies of youth, touching on frenzy and mania, and intentionally discomforting in its exploration the fragility of human existence, both of which are implied in the metaphor of spring as it applies to the natural world, human lives and social movements alike.

Following the tsunami, Lim Minouk also re-oriented her practice, approaching the problem of living in another’s world with the idea of a “liquid commune”, the mingling of oceans and tears, a way of sharing experiences of grief. In these later works, Lim draws together threads of loss from more than a century of turbulence on the Korean peninsula: from Japanese occupation, through disastrous cold war polarisation and decades of dictatorship on both sides of the border, to the uneasy coexistence of reckoning and denial in the South Korea of today. Between 2005 and 2010, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission sought to unpick this fraught history, but was always challenged for time and many past atrocities were left unresolved. For the opening of the 2014 Gwangju Biennale, Lim attempted to shed light on the summary massacre of suspected communist sympathisers in Jinju and Gyeongsan in the summer of 1950. Working with victims’ families and trauma associations, Lim was able to create a ceremony with a more fitting solemnity than the mass burial the victims had previously received. Two shipping containers carrying carefully sorted remains were transported to the forecourt of the Biennale Hall. Here, children of the murdered were met by mothers of the students massacred by state forces during the May 1980 uprising in Gwangju, in whose memory the biennale was established. It was an event of staggering ambition, carefully designed in close consultation with affected communities, that enabled a form of mourning as solidarity.

Lim, of course, is alive to the limits of spectacle as a site of shared emotion. Her 2019 work Adieu News presented, side-by-side, complementary occasions of televised mourning as mass hysteria. These had accompanied the deaths of Park Chung-hee, who oversaw South Korea’s military regime from 1961 until his assassination in 1979, and Kim Jong-Il, who inherited the leadership of North Korea from his father in 1994 and in turn bequeathed it to his own son on his death in 2011. In a wry inversion of Nam June Paik’s optimism for the capacity of the televisual age to create a global community, Lim presents an instance of mass media unity in separation, where individual identification with cults of personality reaches such excess that its sources become indistinguishable, even when directed toward leaders of rival garrison states. Though Lim’s practice is dedicated to finding ways to unite fragmented identities that might otherwise suffer in isolation, whether through song or through grief, Adieu News signals an awareness of the need to resist the kind of closure that examples of mass mourning represent. The horizon of empathic understanding should never be constrained with the borders of the nation-state. How can one share a life with another if, through historical distortions and obfuscations, they are forever characterised as other?

One of the uncredited hand-written notes in Chen Zhe’s Beesdescribes a mode of communication in which the aspiration to document and examine humanity is predicated on completely opening oneself up.[6]Her first major series The Bearable was not initially conceived as a work as such; it was a collection of private images, hidden in a Junk folder, made public through a confluence of time pressures, gentle encouragement and a slowly realised impulse to share. It was an opening up without which the connections and insights of Bees would not have been made possible, nor the meditations on emotional resonance of Towards Evenings. Likewise, the choice of photography as Shiga Lieko’s medium a means by which an uneasy young woman could inhabit and contribute to the world and allow herself to be influenced and inspired by those around her. “I can imagine quite clearly now”, she has said, “I can trust my imagination. And it’s not only about dreaming; I’m connecting.”[7] In Lim Minouk’s work such empathic connections become possible solidarities, platforms for sharing experience and forging patterns of resistance against the forces of fracture and forgetting.

How then might contemporary art operate as an empathic medium? How might this most individuated of cultural idioms to enable connections and collectivities that would revive the promise of Takeuchi’s “oriental modernities” created in resistance to European invasion? How might an artist, or anyone for that matter, live in someone else’s life? In considering a role for art amid an intensification of competition between states in East Asia, curator Che Kyongfa has offered the following:

Even when we describe our own experiences, we can only articulate them by trimming away numerous other passages, as if experience advances in step with linear time. Accepting those passages, the forgotten times within oneself might disrupt the recognized dimension of experience that constitutes one’s sense of self. But perhaps this is exactly what also leads to the possibility of imagining and connecting with the experiences and times of the other.[8]

[1] Chinese, Japanese, and Korean names in this essay are given in their original order of family name, given name.

[2]  In fact, the ‘together’ of the Japanese term kyōkan is etymologically related to words like ‘republic’ and ‘communism’, ideas whose revolutionary connotations are relatively recent.

[3] Takeuchi Yoshimi, What is Modernity? Writings of Takeuchi Yoshimi, trans. Richard F Calichman, Columbia University Press, New York, 2005, pp. 53-8.

[4] Ushiroshōji Masahiro, ‘The labyrinthine search for self-identity—the art of Southeast Asia from the 1980s to the 1990s’ in New Art from Southeast Asia 1992, exhibition catalogue, the Japan Foundation, Tokyo, 1992, p. 23.

[5] Introductory text to Shiga Lieko: Human Spring exhibition at Tokyo Photographic Art Museum, Tokyo, 5 March to 6 May 2019.

[6] Chen Zhe, Bees & the Bearable, Jiazazhi Press, Beijing, 2016, p. 38.

[7] Shiga Lieko, quoted in Amanda Maddox, ‘A photographer’s encounter with natural disasters in Japan’, Aperture, issue 234, Spring 2019, available at

[8] Che Kyongfa, ‘On unsharable time’ in Time of Others, exhibition catalogue, Japan Foundation, Tokyo, 2015, p. 42.

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