The Contemporary Art of South East Asia


As recently as the 1970’s contemporary art sales were confined to a few select galleries in Manhattan. Now worldwide, as shown by the presence of major auction house Christie’s in Asia, mainland China will see its first auction of contemporary art on 26th September 2013.

The sale will include works by artists Liu Wei and Zeng Fanzhi. Still under 50, Zeng Fanzhi is relatively young for his success so far; in 2008 a painting from his Mask series was sold by Christie’s Hong Kong for a record US $9 million dollars. We look at the cultural background to the south-east Asian contemporary art phenomenon and introduce some rising stars of these emerging markets.


Europe and China historically engaged in sporadic artistic exchanges; amongst other art forms, Chinese prints proved popular with Impressionists and collectors in the late 19th century. The walls at Monet’s house in Giverny are given over to his large collection.

Geraldine Javier, The Guardian, 2010,
oil on canvas & embroidery and preserved insects, 86x60cm
Image courtesy the artist and Arario Gallery
During a period of reform in the 1920’s the Chinese government sent artists and academics to Europe to engage with Western culture; as a result, painters such as Sanyu (1901-66) integrated Western ideas into his art. On the whole, however, Chinese traditions have been quite independent of the West and according to Eric Chang, Director of Contemporary Art in Christie’s Hong Kong, “cultural barriers are still preventing Western collectors from truly comprehending the aesthetic values inherent to Asian modern and contemporary art.”

 Zeng Fanzhi, Mask Series No.6, 1996,
oil on canvas, 200x360cm (in two panels).
© Zeng Fanzhi Studio. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.

Since the 1980’s, younger Chinese artists born into communism have used Western art forms as a means to explore personal identity in an ever changing world. As a student, Zeng Fanzhi was influenced by German Expressionism, which is apparent in his work. Brought up in provincial Wuhan, he moved to the capital Beijing in the 1990’s; the Mask series of oil paintings is his response to the new, cosmopolitan culture he found there. In this series, Zeng keeps the expressionistic elements such as heightened colour and over-sized limbs but creates a new art that communicates the anxiety and superficiality of his environment. The key to his success is that his works are, as understandable to Western audiences as well as domestic.


Despite receiving less publicity and attention than its Chinese neighbours, South Korea has a vibrant contemporary art scene based in the capital Seoul. The meticulous approach and attention to detail found in the traditional ceramic and textile arts is also evident in the work of contemporary artists, who often adopt a hyper-realist style in painting and sculpture.

 Hyung Koo Kang, Vincent Van Gogh In Blue, 2006,
oil on canvas, 259x194cm.
Image courtesy the artist and Arario gallery.

Using Winsor & Newton oil colours, painter Hyung Koo Kang (born in 1954, Korean) has been creating ‘big faces on canvas’ for over 25 years. His subjects are famous and influential, from a range of societies including Abraham Lincoln and Mother Teresa. 2004 was a breakthrough year when his portrait of Vincent van Gogh sold for US $350,000. Photographic sources form only part of the creative process as Hyung renders his paintings with a startling emphasis on detail. Nails, drills, and syringes are used to execute fine details such as wrinkles and strands of hair. Hyung explains, “If I paint from photos, my painting contains nothing but enlargement. Art is a creation, and I have tried to paint figures created according to my interpretation.”

As the artist puts it, ‘The history of mankind has always been written by faces.’ His portraits are designed to have an overwhelming impact on the viewer; there is always an emphasis on the eyes so that ‘people can feel the gaze from the paintings.’ Hyung creates his work as a means of communicating with the subjects and extending their influence.

South East Asia

Towards the end of the 19th century Western-style art academies thrived in south east Asia due to the European colonial presence. Localised traditions of modern art have developed and today a generation of artists born in the 1970’s are establishing international careers characterised by a more conceptual approach to art.

 Christine Ay Tjoe, 3-2 #07, 2010,
oil on canvas, 170x200cm.
Image courtesy the artist and Arario Gallery.

Based in Bandung, Indonesia, Christine Ay Tjoe studied printmaking at Art school. Now using painting and installation to explore her life and environment, Christine Ay Tjoe uses the scratching and gouging of drawing with a point on copper plate as the basis of her technique.

Born in the Philippines, Geraldin Javier's paintings are made using a range of techniques and materials. The Guardian, 2010 (see image top right) combines meticulous oil painting with preserved insects on embroidery. Javier takes an intellectual approach, asking the viewer to consider the relations between the different elements of her art.

The huge sums that Chinese contemporary art commands at auction has tended to overshadow the exciting art scenes in other parts of south east Asia. Until recently confined to London, Paris and New York, contemporary art is fast developing a truly global market. Could the first auction in mainland China set the pace for the future of this market – only time will tell.