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Meiqin Wang (ed.): Socially Engaged Public Art in East Asia. Space, Place, and Community in Action, Vernon Press 2022, 287 S., ISBN 978-1-64889-460-2, EUR 42,00
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Rezension von:
Anna K. Grasskamp
University of St. Andrews
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Katharina J├Ârder
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Anna K. Grasskamp: Rezension von: Meiqin Wang (ed.): Socially Engaged Public Art in East Asia. Space, Place, and Community in Action, Vernon Press 2022, in: sehepunkte 23 (2023), Nr. 7/8 [15.07.2023], URL:

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Meiqin Wang (ed.): Socially Engaged Public Art in East Asia

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Following her 2019 monograph Socially Engaged Art in Contemporary China: Voices from Below [1], Meiqin Wang's recent edited volume expands the topic from China to cover East Asia. The book's eight chapters address socially engaged public art in specific neighborhoods in Hong Kong, Taipei, Seoul, Mito, Tokyo, Shanghai, and Beijing. Additionally, the volume also discusses projects in smaller settlements that include Dongtou village in Shandong Province, China, the Hakka village Chuen Long in the New Territories' Tsuen Wan District of Hong Kong, and Picun, a "village in the rural-urban fringes of Beijing" (241). In terms of its wider geographical frame, several parts of the book elaborate on exchanges between the art scenes of different parts of Asia, such as Chapter 4, which highlights Taiwanese-Japanese interactions on ideas of placemaking (137), Chapter 5, which offers an insight into Sino-Indian connections in Shanghai through the curatorial work of the Delhi-based Raqs Media Collective for the 11th Shanghai Biennale of 2016/2017 (165) and Chen Jianjun's West Heavens Sino-Indian urbanist exchange workshops (160). Some authors reflect on collaborations that connect Asia to the West, like the curatorial work by the Belgian Jan Hoet (1936-2014) in Japan and the 12th Taipei Biennale in 2020 that was co-curated by Bruno Latour (1947-2022), Martin Guinard (born 1989) and Eva Lin (born ?).

The writings of scholars like Jacques Rancière (born 1940), Jürgen Habermas (born 1929) and Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) underpin some of the contributions, while positions of contemporary art historians like Grant Kester and Claire Bishop (born 1971), who do not primarily work on Asia, are also frequently cited throughout. International artists addressed in more than one chapter include Joseph Beuys (1921-1986), while a unique and well-deserved presence throughout the volume is granted to the voice of Beijing-born, US-educated, and Hong Kong-based artist-scholar Zheng Bo (born 1974). Drawing on an interview with Zheng, his Massive Open Online Courses and his PhD dissertation, three authors cite his observations on socially engaged art in Taiwan (125-126), Chinese contemporary art's "pursuit of publicness" (247), and social practice art's socialist legacy as a "reversal of the export-oriented era of Chinese contemporary art form the 1990s" (155). An exceptionally lengthy and highly insightful quote stems from another Hong Kong-based artist-scholar, Sampson Wong Yu-Hin, whose observation that "moments" created by socially engaged art activities are "reservoirs of hope" (81) appears in Stephanie Cheung's contribution to the volume.

While some parts of the book are more theoretically informed than others, Chapter 6 by Hiroki Yamamoto stands out as a critically and historiographically grounded attempt to rewrite the history of public art in Japan based on the interpretation of a number of artworks and thoughtful readings of texts by Naoya Fujita (born 1983), Miwon Kwon (born 1961), Suzanne Lacy (born 1945), Sumiko Kumakura (born ?), Makoto Murata (born ?), Kenji Kajiya (born ?), Justin Jesty (born ?), Noi Sawaragi (born ?), Asa Itō (born 1979), Raiji Kuroda, and others. The observation by art critic Naoya Fujita that public art projects developed in local communities throughout Japan exploit the power of art as a mere tool for "regional revitalization and economic impact" (183) and Noi Sawaragi's critique of works presented at the government-led 1970 Expo in Osaka as "expo art" and "propaganda art" (193) are partly nuanced by Hiroki Yamamoto's contribution. Other chapters could have benefitted from a similarly critical analysis of the relationships between art and placemaking practices on the one hand and sponsorship and governmental agendas on the other.

In Chapter 2, the discussion of community-oriented public art at the Hakka village Chuen Lung remains strangely detached from the financial and political frameworks it is surrounded by as part of the New Territories of Hong Kong. Referencing "hopes for a city" (82) and claiming to be "revolving around issues that are pertinent to the society at large" (63), the contextualization of the public art program Hi! Hill in relation to the art and public spaces of Hong Kong is too brief to have truly taken these into account. Instead, the text gives a somewhat kitschy insight into the potential of rural escapism and on some level evokes possibilities of fetishizing rustic idylls and their inhabitants, for example when referring to "villagers in Chuen Long [who] seemed to have carried that gene with them in their passion for karaoke" (65). Hi! Hill was presented by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD) of the Hong Kong SAR Government and organized by the LCSD's Art and Promotion office with the Make A Difference Institute as a curatorial partner, whose members include the author of the chapter herself. An application for funding from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council to further develop aspects of Hi! Hill was submitted (81). This apparently happened not long before the implementation of the new national security law in June 2020 that had a significant impact on the Council's work and saw funding for two art projects in 2023 withdrawn - dynamics whose effect on public and socially engaged art in Hong Kong will likely be worth investigating in their own right in the future.

In contrast to Chapter 2, Chapters 1 and 3 as well as Chapters 5 to 8 comment explicitly (and critically) on such entanglements of governmental policies, money, and art. In his rich and insightful analysis of how new workers' placemaking and art practices in China "have been healing the rupture of representativeness by rebuilding a representative relationship with the 280 million migrant workers" (267), Yuxiang Dong offers a glimpse into the mutual conditioning of project funding (for example by NGOs) and "unstable relationships" with the government (260). Meiqin Wang carefully explains the differences between state-sponsored graffiti projects and "public art in action" at Dongtou village in Chapter 3 and in Chapter 1 Minna Valjakka refers to complaints by street artists and graffiti writers who, "regarded as subcontractors" (49), are limited in their creative freedom. Valjakka also comments on the fact that in South Korea (and elsewhere) "many of the current public art programs and nonprofit organizations involved in promoting public art are not open about their decision-making processes" (50). While her chapter is the only one that is explicitly organized around aspects of gender, researching the specificities of street art and murals by and for women, the volume itself offers contributions by six female and two male authors. Some of them highlight the impact of female agents, like the curator Chen Yun, who aims to rebuild human relationships in the urban slums of Shanghai as the initiator of the Dinghaiqiao Mutual-Aid Society. Yanhua Zhou's highly insightful chapter on this collaborative and site-specific project explains its communist legacy through amateurism and collectivism; like Yuxiang Dong's analysis of the new workers' initiatives that repoliticize the depoliticized, it reveals how socialist entanglements between artistic and political strategies are reactivated in a post-socialist China where an increasingly neoliberal governance serves the educational, cultural and creative needs of the marginalized. Art that "seeks to create alternative urban spaces" in South Korea is at the heart of Chapter 7 by Hong Kal, who explains some of the strategies of "reactivation of resources beyond capitalist values of labor" (238) as part of the reconfiguration of arts, artists, and communities outside the confines of commercialization. Starting with a brief overview of public art in Korea, including the "percent for art" ordinance in 1984 that resulted in a flourishing of public sculpture, Hong carefully interprets artistic practices in the force fields of the nation's democratization and neoliberal urbanization.

The book offers new ways to conceptualize the intersections between art and activism through discussions of the reciprocal and creative labor of collectivism in relation to colonial and socialist legacies in Asia. Exploring the "aesthetic manifestation of the ethical dimension of the work of art" (171), the case studies give insights into the powerful contribution of art and amateurism to "the emergence of local and translocal micropolitics against political, economic, and cultural hegemonies" (5). While understanding such dynamics is important in a global context, it needs no further explanation that creative strategies for nonconfrontational activism and placemaking continue to be a particular and urgent need in parts of East Asia including Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Beijing. Meiqin Wang is to be applauded and thanked for putting together such a rich, diverse, and comprehensive volume on a variety of "public/community art slashers" (82). Like her 2019 monograph, this book is a milestone in the writing of Chinese and East Asian histories of art that will be equally useful to artists, curators, educators, scholars, and students worldwide.


[1] Meiqin Wang: Socially Engaged Art in Contemporary China. Voices from Below, New York 2019.

Anna K. Grasskamp