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David Diao: A Temporal Transcultural Transgression

Author: YL Lo 2021-01-10

In a multicoloured realm, the monochrome conjures curiosity, but often cannot provide any solutions to such disparity.

David Diao came to America after spending his early years in the East. Born in Chengdu, China, he received education in Hong Kong before completing college in America. He worked as an artist in the sixties, as well as an installer at the Guggenheim in New York, becoming well immersed in prevalent art forms of Minimalism and Abstract styles. (1)

As early as the 1980s, Diao has subtly handled the notion of an ‘artificial’ East West partition. In Switching Station (1985), he had started by introducing Russian elements of Constructivism and Suprematism into a space shared with Robert Motherwell. Though not a thoroughly harmonious coexistence, it has, nonetheless, facilitated the initial posturing of his mental transgression. The scope has expanded to design, both in form and philosophy.

In Couch (1999) and Easy Chair (1999), a sense of the bygone was evident as he paid homage to Le Corbusier and Nelson, irrespective of wholesome and deconstructed (Couch Skeleton (2017)) forms. In fact, Diao would expectedly take further steps to reference architecture, evident by his regard for Marcel Breuer and his designs for monumental localities for art (First and Last Whitney Biennale in the Breuer Building (2015)) and global unification (Lissitsky Curves and Breuer UNESCO (2018)).

In 2017, a more significant cultural shift had appeared in his works. A visit to his birthplace was consequential in that distinctly personal and Oriental symbolism became injected into his creative process. In Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (2017), Chinese characters were displayed alongside English and Russian scripts. More poignant though was that in spite of appropriating a Ukrainian film title, the reverence of ancestors remains a cornerstone of many Eastern traditions. Diao would extend this impression with Chinese calligraphy (Maternal Grandfather’s Book (2017)) and seals (Seal (2017)) within structural colour field forms in his more recent works (2).

Transculturalism, the process of seeing oneself in a different cultural arena, is not a unique phenomenon within artistic pursuits, including film, literature, and visual arts. But often, they can be infused with a sense of tension, suspicion, moral struggle and forlorn (3)(4).

David Diao’s protracted transcultural voyage traversed some two decades over temporal and spatial elements, encompassing embracement punctuated with introspective hindsight, thus allowing time for a more fermented assimilation of ideas originating from diverse sources (5). This is not to say that he had not mounted a robust intellectual response, nor that the process had run its course towards eventual incorporation of hard-edged Western aesthetics of the time into softer malleable
elements of the East. Diao’s journey, in some ways, has become an anachronism, by
which its execution renders maturity, comfort, balance and reconciliation. In all, it is neither a transition, nor transformation, but a gentle bilateral transgression.        

Can you not concur that this is still much relevant in today’s context?



1.       David Diao. Foundation for Contemporary Arts. Retrieved 27 Dec 2020.
2.       David Diao: Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, ShanghART Beijing, China, 2018.
3.       Cuccioletta, D. Multiculturalism or Transculturism: towards a Cosmopolitan Citizenship. London Journal of Canadian Studies 2001/2; 17.
4.       Ibid.
5.       Lewis J. The Cultural Dynamic. Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies 2002.

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