Socially Engaged Public Art in East Asia: Space, Place, and Community in Action

Di Liu

This book presents a collection of research essays on socially engaged public art practices from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan that concern a variety of topics including female agency, community empowerment, environmental awareness, civic participation, and social intervention. Building upon collective efforts to approach socially engaged public art not only as artistic or cultural expressions, but also as social movements, the edited volume argues that there has been a paradigm shift from perceiving art as “being” to perceiving art as “doing,” which activates space, place, and community as well as grassroots discourse and informal life politics.

Before engaging with the content of the book, it is necessary to draw attention to the particular terminology adopted in this anthology. As pointed out in the foreword by Grant Kester, a renowned specialist in socially engaged art, this book is “the first comprehensive survey of new forms of socially engaged art” in East Asia (p. xiii). These “new forms” are, in the editor Meiqin Wang’s words, “socially engaged public art” (“SEPA” for short), which is used throughout her discussions. In a footnote in the introductory chapter, Wang briefly differentiates SEPA from the more commonly used “socially engaged art” in that the point of departure for SEPA is “the traditional public art represented by monuments and sculptural installations in established public spaces,” rather than “the practice of art as a whole” (p. 2). This footnote seems to be the only explicit explanation of SEPA offered by the editor. Moreover, the term SEPA is only adopted in Wang’s own essay (Chapter 3) discussing a public art festival in rural China as well as Wei Hsiu Tung’s essay (Chapter 4) on environmental aesthetics in Taiwan. The remaining six chapters adopt other terms – e.g., “socially engaged art,” public art,” “participatory art,” “community art,” or “social practices” – for analysis. Admittedly, there have been various and sometimes interchangeably used names accorded to these seemingly similar art practices. Still, the book would have been strengthened by more efforts toward providing a more comprehensive definition of SEPA and the reason why it is needed for discussing these practices.

In addition to the editor’s introductory chapter, the book unfolds in eight chapters, each of which is dedicated to specific case studies with distinct analytical frameworks in one or more of the regions in East Asia. Chapter 1 focuses on street art and murals by and for women as undervalued art practices in urban Seoul, Hong Kong, and Tokyo. Chapter 2 examines “Hi! Hill – Art in-Situ,” a community-based public art project in the hilly habitat of Hong Kong. Chapter 3 studies a village graffiti festival in Shandong Province, China, while Chapters 5 and 8 explore self-organised initiatives that engage with the working-class population in Shanghai (“Dinghaiqiao Mutual-Aid Society”) and Beijing (“New Worker Art Troupe”), respectively. The environmental art practices that have become a form of creative placemaking in Taiwan are the subject of Chapter 4. The only historiographical study in this book is Chapter 6, which traces the little-known development of public art practices in post-war Japan. Lastly, Chapter 7 showcases three alternative art activities in South Korea – namely, Space Beam, Dongdaemun Rooftop Paradise (DRP), and Occupying Gwanghwamun Plaza.

The sheer diversity of case studies included in this book is a great strength, as they offer a kaleidoscopic picture of the burgeoning scene of socially engaged public art in East Asia with fresh perspectives and vivid details. They also enrich the discussions on socially engaged art in a broader sense that goes beyond this region. Nonetheless, there comes a limitation that these diverse and sometimes still ongoing case studies cannot be situated comfortably in one or several of the overarching themes proposed in the book.

Noticeably, the nature of the “public” in public art varies across chapters. In some cases, the “public” simply refers to the open space, while in other cases, the “public” refers to the local community or civic society. In three cases in particular – “Hi! Hill – Art in-Situ” in Hong Kong (Chapter 2), Dongtou Village Graffiti Festival in Shandong Province in China (Chapter 3), and the Madou Sugar Industry Art Triennial in Taiwan (Chapter 4) – the “public” also includes the public funding bodies, which are the local governments that promote cultural tourism through public art projects. The varied nature of the “public” would pose challenges to the approach advanced in the introductory chapter: to view SEPA as grassroots activism in East Asia that allows people to pursue their own version of a good life at the micro level, rather than state-orchestrated developmental goals (pp. 9-13), which is, arguably, not necessarily the case in three above-mentioned examples. Of course this is not to suggest that public-funded art projects cannot achieve or align with grassroots goals; rather, it is to emphasise the importance of a more nuanced analysis of different public actors in the field and the need to avoid any binary thinking in seeing public art as either top-down or bottom-up. This is particularly pertinent to East Asian societies in general, where government-led developmentalism still prevails despite a romantic view of the proliferation of artivism.

The book also proposes a translocal perspective to frame SEPA practices in a translocal network of collaboration and micropolitics that stresses the circulation of ideas, practices, and tactics within East Asia (pp. 3-5). One example is Japan’s Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale as a source of inspiration for public art practices in rural areas in Taiwan (Chapter 4) and mainland China (Chapter 3). Another example is the “artsy protest” culture pioneered by Japanese activist Hajime Matsumoto that influenced Shanghai’s Dinghaiqiao Mutual-Aid Society (Chapter 5). This is a significant perspective, but it could use more concrete examples. The above-mentioned examples are merely illustrative of one-way transmission of knowledge from a presumably more “advanced” Japan to other places in East Asia, rather than reciprocal or multidirectional cultural exchange. It would be desirable if the book could demonstrate more case studies that dissect the inter-Asian dynamics of creative practices in this region.

Overall, this edited volume is a welcome addition to growing discussions on art practices that are socially engaged in local and translocal contexts in East Asia. It is commendable that the editor and the authors have endeavoured to pen this timely book in a world that has become increasingly divided during the COVID-19 pandemic, and each chapter serves as an enjoyable read for both academic and amateur readers. No single analytical framework could capture adequately the diversity and complexity of the constantly evolving field of socially engaged art, but this book has undoubtedly offered invaluable insights and methodological innovations in this field.