A person has hardly been able to turn around without hearing the word “multiculturalism” in the last several years. But no matter whether you think a multicultural society is a priority to be promoted, or something to be resisted, multiculturalism is here to stay. In the Triangle, the most noticeable change has been the enormous influx of Spanish speakers, but the Asian population is also growing rapidly, and that has been reflected in the exponential increase in artistic offerings from Asian cultures. The Ackland Museum has been doing a great job augmenting its collection of Asian art, and now the Duke University Museum of Art (DUMA) and the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) are showcasing contemporary works by artists born in China, Japan and Korea.

But in the current show at the DUMA, the Student-Curated Exhibition XII, the key word is not multiculturalism, but transnationalism. Made in Asia? probes issues of national and ethnic identity in our era of global corporate capitalism. It’s always amusing to find critiques of capitalism coming from Duke University, but curators Phil Tinari and Randi Reiner make some trenchant points. The exhibition includes works by nine artists originally from China, Japan and Korea, who now live partly or entirely in “the West” and who operate in the high-level international art circuit. While the artworks themselves are very interesting, the exhibition’s intellectual core is its catalog, particularly the essay by Tinari. Viewers will get much more out of the art if they read it. According to Tinari:

While Made in Asia? is a show about what constitutes “Asia,” it also is a show about fabrication, about the way in which art and artists are made and circulated at this millennial moment. It raises questions about the nature of artistic production in the wake of globalization, and whether there is a particular art form or artistic style that is best suited to the global capitalist system. It looks at its nine artists not only as solitary and autonomous creative talents, but as cultural workers tied to the world economy in a very particular manner. And it includes works that play on these economic undertones at a meta-critical level, incorporating globally consumed commodities ranging from plastic action figures and anime cartoon images to nail polish.

The exhibition makes the point that just as “free” trade has made national boundaries more permeable to the flow of products, and has erased or blurred distinctive local or regional cultures, so market forces have brought about a “hybridization” of art. Just as we have transnational corporations, we have transnational artists, who often draw on their cultural pasts from a rather distanced position. It’s interesting to contrast this dislocated, transnational art with the traditions in the South. We have made rather a fetish of place and its particulars; this high-concept art makes that homey attitude seem anachronistic–in much the way that Wal-Mart and Home Depot have brought the local dress shop and hardware store to the edge of extinction.

If “home” has had first value for Southerners, “country” has not been far behind. Many viewers may, therefore, find Yukinori Yanagi’s “America” a disturbing piece. Yanagi made a set of 36 shallow Plexiglas boxes connected by plastic tubes, each box containing a replica of a flag of a country in North or South America. These flags were made of colored sand, and when Yanagi introduced ants into the tubes, they tunneled through to the images, marring their lines, and carrying sand from one “country” to another. You might take the work as a model of cultural destruction. Or you may think of it as cultural rearrangement, since it is a closed system, and no material is actually lost. When “America” was first shown, the ants were still in the boxes, tunneling away, changing the image before your eyes. Now, however, the ants are gone and the changes have ceased. This is rather disappointing, like looking at the video of a piece of performance art.

The exhibition includes two videos. One, Mariko Mori’s “Kumano,” was shown in last year’s video show at the Ackland. Mori has some interesting ideas, but the production is very coarse and clunky and not really worth the 13 minutes it asks of you. The other piece, “A Needle Woman,” by Korean artist Kim Soo-Ja, is very different, subtle and delicate. Unusual among videos, it makes you sit still and pay careful attention–it makes you look rather than dart from image to image, for almost nothing happens. A woman lies on a big rock, her back to us, long hair black against the gray rock. She never moves. Clouds ease across the sky. The wind blows the few stems of grass. The light changes. Watching it pulls you into a focused, meditative state.

Chinese-born artist Huang Yongping, like Yukinori Yanagi, makes explicit the idea of the permeability of borders and even questions their relevance or necessity. “Border Crossing” consists of a pair of worn work boots slit open along the sole at heel and toe. Long snake skins have insinuated themselves through the boots, perhaps reflecting the way that immigrants thread their cultures into the souls of their new homes. Huang also has in this exhibition an elegant sculpture, “Copper Plate Fishing.” A long pole is suspended from the ceiling, and from it a huge shallow copper bowl hangs by four copper cables. It is counterbalanced by a weight, and the whole apparatus moves easily in the lightest air current. Four fishing rods are suspended over the bowl, which is etched with a map of the Pacific region. Water in the bowl flows unchecked over the “borders,” as it does in real life–and as do people and cultures.

The North Carolina Museum of Art is also showing work by a transnational artist. Originally from China, Xu Bing now lives in Brooklyn and makes installations in sites around the world. Last fall, he created “The Tobacco Project” at the Duke Homestead Historic Site and Duke University, and that installation indicated Xu’s interest in the relationship among words, images and the things they signify. Perhaps the most brilliant, if the simplest, of the parts of his Duke project used a single word. To see it, you walked in the dark to the old tobacco packhouse at Duke Homestead. Peering in the door, you saw billowy clouds of smoke moving gently, and when the clouds parted, there in a flowing script hung the purple neon word: longing. Every delicious moment with a cigarette came back in memory, but you felt more than that. The longing you felt for a cigarette, as real as it was, seemed another signifier of an even deeper meaning of “longing.”

Xu Bing’s new project at the NCMA, while not as gripping as “Longing,” is clever and amusing–and totally transnational. For “Reading Landscape,” he has written landscape by using for his mark-making Chinese pictograph characters representing the substance being imaged. For drawing grass, he uses the character for grass, for example. The artist has “extended” some paintings from the museum collection and the view from the gallery window in this manner, and since he is using “old style” characters, it is possible for non-Chinese speakers to interpret them. The pictographs go out onto the walls, the floor and through the air, linking inside and outside, art and nature, symbol and reality in a continuous, borderless experience. EndBlock

Made in Asia? catalog essays are excerpted online at www.duke.edu/duma; for more information on the NCMA exhibit, go to www.ncartmuseum.org.