Bad acronym of the year is undoubtedly QAGOMA. To spell it out that means: Queensland Art Gallery Of Modern Art, which is irredeemable. One hopes that vast sums of money have not been spent on the rebranding process, because this new title should be binned before too many people notice. It might be a first task for incoming director, Chris Saines, whose appointment was announced last Friday.
Beyond the perils of nomenclature and Campbell Newman, Saines should relish life at the helm. Over the past decade Brisbane has developed tremendous momentum, and the new director’s main task is to keep up the revs. It is a very different prospect to that faced by former QAG director, Tony Ellwood, who has to rearrange the internal culture of the National Gallery of Victoria; or Michael Brand, who is negotiating a savage budget cut and staff restructuring at the Art Gallery of NSW.
One of the driving forces behind Queensland’s ascendency has been the Asia Pacific Triennial. From its first incarnation in 1993, the strength of the APT is the way it makes sense of Australia’s position in the world. By concentrating on work from Asia and Oceania it has tapped into political, economic and cultural networks that grow more important with every passing year.
The APT has also allowed the QAG to acquire works by artists who have gone on to be international stars by buying before their prices became exorbitant.
One can see that things have turned around when the QAG – or QAGOMA – can spend $1.06 million for an elephant-not-in-the-room, in the form of a public sculpture by New Zealand artist, Michael Parekowhai, which uses a pachyderm as an enormous bookend. It was a test for Ros Bates, the state Arts Minister who had never been to GoMA before being given her portfolio. However, the real issue may not be the cost of the work, but its gimmicky nature. The appeal of an upside-down elephant is not immediately apparent.
This year’s APT puts a heavy emphasis on the Pacific side of the equation. One might see this as a useful corrective, because the show is usually weighted in favour of the Asian nations. On the other hand, the vast bulk of the Pacific work is so grounded in tradition it forces one to question if this is really an overview of ‘contemporary’ art.
When Melbourne dealer, Gabrielle Pizzi, was rejected from the 1994 Cologne Art Fair for showing “folk art”, the artists in question were bark painters such as John Mawurndjul. The organisers did not recognise that the works created by Mawurndjul and his peers were unlike anything made before in the history of the medium. In scale, detail and conceptualisation these paintings were utterly contemporary, even if the imagery had a traditional basis.
I’m not sure the same can be said about much of the work from New Guinea and the Asmat region, which looks very similar to the artifacts collected by international museums of anthropology. The essays in the catalogue all emphasise the changes that have occurred in these art forms, but to the eye of a non-specialist those developments do not seem especially radical.
Perhaps I’ll be more alert to the differences after getting through the long-awaited publication, Art in Oceania: A New History, which has just been issued by Thames & Hudson. This book represents the high water mark of a growing interest in the cultures of the Pacific that have resisted the intrusions of modernity more effectively than most other regions. Nevertheless, no society is immune from change, and even the slightest contact with a more forward-thinking culture will leave its mark.
Rather than make any rash pronouncements about the preponderance of Oceanic work in this year’s APT, I’ll simply note that it slants the exhibition heavily in the direction of indigenous art as opposed to the more sophisticated, worldly pieces being made in places such as China, Japan and South Korea. It’s an emphasis that will delight some viewers and dismay others.
It wouldn’t matter so much if this year’s APT had a really stunning selection of works from China, which is still producing the world’s most exciting contemporary art. The major Chinese inclusion is Ressort, an imposing aluminium snake skeleton by Huang Yong Ping that curls in the air above the water mall in the QAG. There are suggestions of the Chinese dragon and the Aboriginal Rainbow Serpent in this construction, which forms a bridge between earth, water and sky.
Apart from a selection of Chinese animations, there are also two extravagant works by Madeln company of Shanghai, and an installation of small paintings by Zhou Tiehai on a French theme. There is something to admire in the sheer excess of Madeln’s luridly coloured artificial plants and giant-sized embroidery, but Zhou Tiehai is trying too hard to be clever.
Japan is also under-represented in this year’s APT, although the inclusions are striking enough, especially a large, multimedia installation by Tadasu Takamine, which deals with the Fukashima tragedy in an oblique but lyrical manner. The piece feels especially poignant with the news that Japan’s incoming government is planning to reopen the nuclear plants.
It should also be noted that India, another emerging powerhouse in world art, is represented by solid rather than spectacular works this time around. The most eye-catching pieces are the paintings of Raqib Shaw, who was born in India but has lived for years in London, where he shows with the fashionable White Cube gallery. His large, crowded pictures that draw on Hindu, Buddhist and western sources have made him one of the fastest-rising artists in the world.
A nation well represented in 2012 is Indonesia, and rightly so. In recent years, with the growth of the local economy and more liberal cultural attitudes, Indonesia has been producing some of the wildest art to be found anywhere. The aggressive nature of this work, which is rooted in pop cultural forms such as rock music, street art and cartoons, is a coiled-spring reaction to the lack of opportunities endured by Indonesian artists in the past.
Now that figures such as Uji Handoko Eko Sapuro (AKA. Hahan) and Wedhar Riyadi can enjoy their time in the spotlight, they are making large-scale, bold, satirical works that possess the same crude energy that punk rock brought to the British music scene in the late 1970s. The results are similar too: a clearing out of cobwebs and conventions; a raw, visceral appeal to the senses; and a total assault on whatever passes for comfortable, middle-class values. It’s not pretty, but it’s exciting.
This is more than can be said for a special sub-section of this year’s show, titled O-Now: Traversing West Asia. This area is defined as stretching from Xinjiang in China, to the Bosphorus in Turkey. Although there must be some interesting art being made over such a vast expanse, this is not much in evidence among the seven artists featured. Only Almagul Menlibayeva’s five-channel video installation, Kurchatov 22, makes a strong impression, but even with this piece, the main impact comes from the subject – a Russian nuclear test held near a town in Kazakhstan, and its effect on the inhabitants. Menlibayeva has toned down her usual shamanistic antics and given us a work that is closer to a documentary.
The art that is emerging from West Asia and the Middle East is not at all like the new art from Indonesia, which suggests one cannot make generalisations about the influence of Islam. Indonesia, the world’s largest Islamic republic has gone punk, while the Middle Eastern artists take a more cerebral approach. There’s a fascinating essay to be written that compares these diverging paths.
If much of the APT’s Pacific art feels more traditional than contemporary, the work of indigenous Australians is markedly innovative. Daniel Boyd has risen to a new level, with a video installation that playfully mimics western desert dot painting, and a series of canvases that investigate the cultural construction of ‘otherness’. This is a theme taken in a completely different direction by New Zealand painter, Graham Fletcher, in an amusing series called Lounge Room Tribalism, which inserts tribal artifacts into retro-chic domestic settings.
Tiwi painter, Timothy Cook, is an artist who becomes more impressive with every viewing, while Michael Cook (no relation), has contributed a series of subtle, beautifully crafted photographs that look back on the colonial era through Aboriginal eyes. But if one artist steals the show, it must be Lorraine Connelly-Northey, who has created ten Narbong – the Waradgerie word for a pouch or string bag – on a monumental scale, using jagged, rusted metal; barbed wire, and other industrial materials. This row of Frankenstein handbags is arrayed along the main balcony of GoMA, like a set of chic goods in a boutique. They have a presence and power that makes everything else seem tame, even the riotous Indonesians – and this is exactly what one wants from a work of art, no matter where we stand in the world.
The 7th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art: Gallery of Modern Art &
Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, December 8, 2012 – April 14, 2013
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, December 22, 2o12