Has it been fifteen years already? In its sixth installment the Asia Pacific Triennial at the Queensland Art Gallery shows no signs of settling into a predictable pattern. On the contrary: the APT is the most dynamic contemporary art exhibition in Australia and quite possibly the world. It may not be the biggest of shows, but this is only to its advantage.
In terms of sheer scale and variety, the Venice Biennale still sets the standard for international surveys of contemporary art. However, it has become impossible to see anything but a fraction of the exhibition in the three days ritually allotted to the press preview. Another innovative event, the Echigo Tsumari Triennial in Japan, is even more overwhelming, being spread out over 780 square kilometers of countryside that would require the best part of two weeks for a full viewing.
These endurance tests have become so common that it is with relief I can report that this year’s APT may be absorbed in the space of a single day. The experience could be extended indefinitely by spending a long time with the audio-visual displays, or sampling a complete program of Pacific Reggae tracks playing in one room. There is even an argument that the full APT must include the cinema program, which features films by Ang Lee, Takeshi Kitano and Rithy Panh.
It is safe enough to suggest that most people are very happy with an exhibition on an accessible scale – especially when admission is free. Another attraction is the QAG bookstores which are full of items found nowhere else in Australia.
According to the press release this year’s APT includes: “313 artworks by more than 160 artists from over 25 countries.” The slight vagueness in the statistics reflects the fact that it is difficult to give exact numbers when artists work collaboratively, or claim citizenship of more than one country. The APT has always revelled in these blurred boundaries. The list of “Australian” artists includes expatriates such as Tracey Moffatt, now based in the United States; or recent immigrants, such as Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan, who relocated from the Philippines in 2006. The Aquilizans are responsible for the biggest collaborative artwork in the show, having invited children to join them in crafting model planes from a mountain of scrap materials. A swarm of these tiny planes hangs suspended from the ceiling of the QAG.
The mild chaos of the show – “dissonance” is the term preferred by senior curator, Suhanya Raffel – is a reflection of the current state of the world, and particularly, Asia. Never before has the planet experienced such an intensive cross-pollination of cultures, such a promiscuous spread of influences and ideas. The negative side of this process is manifest in ethnic and religious conflict, and the dramas surrounding refugees and border protection. Yet in this exhibition the cultural contrasts create a carnivalesque atmosphere.
This is partly due to the neutral, all-accepting nature of the art museum, with its cavernous white spaces. The QAG’s Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) has the biggest, whitest spaces in Australia, and it has taken several years for the curators and designers to come to grips with the scale of the building. In this APT works are more sensitively arranged and displayed than ever before. No artist could credibly complain that his or her work was handicapped by its position or lack of space. Some pieces are vitally dependent on the height of those ceilings, notably a traditional Chinese wooden house, dismantled and reconstructed, plank by plank, by Chen Qiulin, as a way of drawing attention to the massive dislocation of 1.2 million people brought about by the construction of the Three Gorges dam.
The accessibility of this show is not simply a matter of good design, it also reveals the cultural sensitivity of the APT’s curatorial team. It is no easy matter to bring together ultra-sophisticated works from places such as Japan, China and India, with the folk arts of Melanesia, or the heroic Socialist Realism of North Korea. It would have been disappointing but forgivable if the carvings and amateur prints from Vanuatu were overshadowed by more glamorous videos and installations, but this does not occur. Instead, we see each work as an expression of a unique sensibility, revealing countries with utterly different histories, levels of development, dreams and expectations.
The inclusion of a specially commissioned group of works from North Korea is probably the most controversial part of this year’s APT. Not only does this go against the political grain of the western world, which is perpetually at loggerheads with the belligerent Stalinist state, it allows a place for propaganda art in the contemporary art museum. The large paintings and one mosaic from the Mansudae Art Studios in Pyongyang, display the familiar preoccupations of totalitarian states: happy, smiling peasants, heroic workers, and so on. These pictures are blatantly sentimental, tailored to give the impression that North Korea is populated exclusively by warm-hearted, idealistic people.
No matter how beautifully executed, this work is political kitsch. The artists are allowed to tread only the narrowest of paths, which they do with consummate skill. It’s not possible to discern any traces of despair beneath the painted smiles.
For the QAG the North Korean component of the show, organised with the assistance of British film maker Nicholas Bonner, is a delicate balancing act. The gallery has to present this work on its own terms, with no hint of criticism or skepticism. The effect is startling, and very successful. It makes the point more forcefully than any number of conceptual diatribes, that Asia is a nest of competing ideologies. Rather than boring audiences by reiterating some obvious political point, we are invited to glimpse the world through North Korean eyes, brimful of forced positivity.
It would be pleasing to believe that some sort of rapport with North Korea might be found in the realm of art, as a first step to breaking the political ice. The same might be said of Iran, another country included for the first time in an APT, although here the situation is very different. The Iranian artists in the show have all lived outside of their homeland, and learned to make work with an international character. They are not associated with the state or its hard-line views, although they are indebted to local cultural traditions. This is most obvious in a spectacular wall piece by Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, which uses a mirror mosaic technique found on the walls and ceilings of Persian palaces.
An engaging, low-key, component of the show is a special sub-section on the Mekong, featuring works by artists from Vietnam, Thailand, Burma and Cambodia. These pieces range from a large-scale video by Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba which shows a group of art students from the Laotian city of Luang Prabang, drifting down the river, painting and drawing at easels fixed to the bows of boats; to the small paintings of Cambodia’s Svay Ken, illustrating morals and maxims of everyday life. The Mekong section feels as unstructured as the river itself, flowing from one destination to the next.
The most spectacular works are probably those found in GoMA’s ground floor galleries, including a gigantic mushroom cloud made out of pots and pans by Subodh Gupta; a stuffed reindeer covered in glass spheres by Kohei Nawa; and large silhouettes of the Buddha filled with thousands of tiny commercial stickers by Tibetan artist, Gonkar Gyatso. There is also an unusually good section of audio-visual works, including a new installment of Qiu Anxiong’s epic animation, The new book of mountains and seas, and an eerie “metaphysical” vision of a tree wreathed in mist, by Kibong Rhee.
It is customary to declare that a big international survey is ‘not bad’ if there are maybe half a dozen memorable works out of a hundred. By this standard, the APT is dazzling. It features unusual works by artists who will be completely unfamiliar to local audiences. It is full of surprises, and imbued with a positive energy that is hard to find in most exhibitions of this size.
One has to go back to the shows put together by Nick Waterlow in 1986 and 1988, to recall a time when the Sydney Biennale was this good. For the past two decades we have had a great deal of smoke but little substance.
It is perhaps a healthy thing to see an exhibition without a single contribution from Europe and the United States – those centres that have dominated western art history and the art market. I had the same thought in London this year, when viewing a mediocre show of new American art at the Saatchi Gallery – a venue that had opened its doors the previous year with an acclaimed survey of new Chinese art. For while it is widely predicted that during the twenty-first century the balance of world economic power will gradually travel from west to east, in the world of contemporary art the scales have already been tipped.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald December 12, 2009
The 6th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art, December 5 – April 5, 2010