REVIEW: ‘East by South East’ at OBS Gallery, Tonbridge

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to review the exhibition ‘East by South East’, currently on show until 2 November at the OBS (Old Big School) Gallery in Tonbridge, Kent. It is the second exhibition at the gallery, showcasing thirty artists from China, Tibet, Japan, and their diasporas in Australia and the United Kingdom, spanning from the 1990s through to 2014. These countries are categorised as the global region of the ‘East’, so “the exhibition’s context could be easily understood by audiences”, said Glass, acknowledging that the term ‘East’ is “increasingly meaningless”. The works in the show speak of more global contexts and issues. In a time when boundaries between countries and locations have become diluted, it is hard to know what “East Asia” means today. It provides a starting point to decode this problem of definition – the “push and pull of ideas” between different cultural contexts, to see what artists think of and their relationship to the ‘East’ and its wider global place.

Scheduling three main exhibitions a year, with smaller interim wall-based shows, the OBS Gallery aims to attract audiences from within the school and wider local to national communities. The gallery is also a functioning space for the school, being used for exam facilitation and other events. The temporary nature of the space makes the way in which exhibitions are curated more testing, as shows have to be moveable and easily changeable, therefore, influencing the works that can be selected. As such, the gallery is largely only open to the general public at weekends. Furthermore, the distinct architecture of the space including the strength of the natural light coming from the many large windows, makes it problematic to do “loud” and more statement-based exhibitions and can often detract from the works.

I was introduced to the exhibition’s curator – Emily Glass – through friend and colleague Katie Hill, who runs the Office of Contemporary Chinese Art (OCCA) in Oxford. Katie provided direction and consultancy for the exhibition alongside Tony Scott from China Art Projects, Australia; collector Wayne Warren, from whom many of the artworks were borrowed; and Chinese artist Zhang Huan. By serendipitous synchronicity (the phrase that defines manaXi and I and so, so many of my life experiences), I managed to meet Emily on the day when she was seeing the current exhibition on show in the foyer of the Parkside campus of Birmingham City University…the same building where my PhD research office is based! She had no idea I was based there and it was by pure luck I happened to be working there on the same day as her visit…perfect! It gave me chance to have a quick conversation about the exhibition, the work of the OBS Gallery, and her practice…quotations included within the review.

‘East by South East’ embraces a wealth of interdisciplinary media such as photography, print, painting, installation, found objects, ceramics, sculpture, fragments of site-specific installations, film, works on paper, design (books and book illustration), branding and more. It investigates themes of Buddhism, spiritualism, meditation, ritual, identity, divination, semiotics, symbolism, the power of a visual language and visual translation, the influence of the traditional process on contemporary practice, the influence of design, commercialism through advertising and branding such as Louis Vuitton, who is not only the subject of works but also a commissioner of new works. Artists on show include Chiho Aoshima, Liu Bolin, Lao Dan, Dedron, Gade, Li Gang, Gonkar Gyatso, Beijing East Village Artists, Zhang Huan, Anthony Key, Yayoi Kusama, Kesang Lamdark, Luo Brothers, Takashi Murakami, Mad for Real, Nortse, Gao Ping, Sheng Qi, Hu Qinwu, Tony Scott, Ang Tsherin Sherpa, Tsewang Tashi, Penba Wangdu, Guan Wei, Ai Weiwei, Wang Wen Ming, Zhang Xiaogang, Huang Yan, Huang Yong Ping and Liu Zhuoquan. The photographs below were taken with permission of Emily Glass and the OBS Gallery.

My review of ‘East by South East’ for Art Radar includes a detailed perspective of how the exhibition came to be and insights into specific artworks on show. It can be read on Art Radar’s website here – ’30 contemporary artists from East Asia exhibit in Kent’. The exhibition is accompanied by an in-print and online catalogue that is free to access online – take a look here. Again, it includes critical essays, comprehensive information about the show and each of the works on show and outlines the concept for the exhibition. If you can take time to see a new perspective of the ‘East’ this weekend…do…if only to experience the unique gallery space…

East by South East cover

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