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Smith College Museum of Art looks at the multifaceted representations of the body in East Asia
Wu Tien-chang, We're All in the Same Boat, 2002. Digital C-print. Promised gift of Joan Lebold Cohen, class of 1954, in honor of Jerome A. Cohen. Photography: Petegorsky/Gipe.

NORTHAMPTON, MASS.- The Smith College Museum of Art is presenting 体 Modern Images of the Body from East Asia (February 2–August 26, 2018). Drawing mostly from the museum’s collection, this exhibition looks at the multifaceted representations of the body in East Asia from the nineteenth century to the present.

体 is a character and concept commonly used in Chinese, Japanese and Korean languages. It refers to the material existence of a person, as seen in compound words such as 身体 (human body) and 体格 (physique). In an abstract sense, it also connotes substance, form and organizing principles, as seen in compound words such as 体系 (system) and 国体 (national polity). Using this character as a point of departure, this exhibition explores modern and contemporary portrayals of physical appearances in East Asia. Moreover, the exhibition examines how these bodily images have come to symbolize identities, reflect socio-political changes, serve as vehicles for artistic expression and challenge preconceived notions of humankind.

体 Modern Images of the Body from East Asia — By Section of the Exhibition

Bodies of the Other

Largely as a result of western powers’ colonial expansion, East Asia was forced into closer contact with other parts of the world in the nineteenth century. Westerners increased in number in treaty ports and major cities, and introduced photography to countries such as Japan and China. The technology satisfied these foreigners’ interest in capturing the likeness of Asian bodies, and studio portraits of Japanese or Chinese people as ethnographic types were often compiled into souvenir albums. Meanwhile, Asian styles and tastes became fashionable among westerners who experienced them firsthand while living there. The craze soon spread across Europe and America, as manifested in japonaiserie (depiction of Japanese subjects in western art and design) and japonisme (influence of Japanese aesthetics on western art and design). While the western gaze was cast upon Asian bodies, Asians, in turn, reciprocated the look upon westerners who constituted “the other” for them. Motifs of western bodies abounded in East Asian art and artifacts made for export.

Bodies at War
Since the late nineteenth century, East Asian countries developed into modern sovereign nation-states one by one. These took the varied forms of constitutional monarchy, constitutional democracy, or one-party rule by the Communists. In the reforms, revolutions, and movements, hundreds of thousands of bodies functioned as agents of political campaigns and military courses of action. East Asia was a very important, albeit sometimes overlooked, arena for World War I, World War II, and the Cold War. Warfare and military deployment had tremendous impact on civilian lives as well as those who served in the armed forces. Both living and deceased bodies testified to the highly charged atmosphere in the region for most of the twentieth century. Many were victimized on the one hand, while other figures were heroicized and idolized, their iconic images celebrated with great fervor.

Bodies in the Plural
With the rise of nation-states in East Asia, nationalism and collective conscience have also surged. How have such sentiments been cultivated? How have distinct categories of peoples—the Chinese or the Japanese, for example—been defined? And how has a shared sense of belonging and togetherness been communicated and maintained across large populations? In recent East Asian history, and still today, organized efforts of nation-building have been carried out through governmental agencies. In addition, social engineering projects of identity-formation have included everyday practices that are as seemingly trivial as wearing uniforms, celebrating cultural festivals, etc. In both China and Japan, ethnic minorities living in the borderland have been officially recognized, although often subsumed under the construct of a normalized “national” identity. Public spaces which large crowds of people pass through, such as train stations, are closely regulated and proper etiquette is expected in such spaces.

Bodies in Transformation
Contemporary artists are no longer bound by geographical or racial perimeters. Expanding beyond anthropologically “Asian” elements, the artists have explored the formal properties and creative potential of the human body in a variety of ways. In some instances, they zoom in on certain bodily parts and use them as sources of inspiration for intriguing pictorial, photographic, or sculptural compositions. Others play with metamorphic processes of the human form, capturing hybrid or gender-fluid bodies. Yet in other examples, they focus on the performative aspect of the body, and traces of physical movements through space become the subject matter of their artwork. Some artists go as far as to make cyborgs or machine-bodies that are only half-human or non-human in shape. These artistic creations seek to transcend corporeal boundaries and question human-centric views of the world.

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