It’s been 25 years since Brisbane staged its first-ever Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art. It was a bold experiment at the time – and it paid dividends, helping to put the Queensland Art Gallery on the international art map. Everyone who felt the need to keep in touch with the latest developments in contemporary art made their way to one of the APT exhibitions.
The power dynamics in world art have changed enormously since that first show. Paintings by Chinese artists the gallery was able to acquire for the collection from APT 1, are probably worth more nowadays than the entire budget of APT 9. Where the APT was a ground-breaking event in 1993, there are now many shows that provide surveys of contemporary Asian art, the most prominent being the Dhaka Art Summit.
The great strength of the APT is that, unlike most biennales, it is a genuinely collective effort. This means we are not subjected to an overarching ‘vision’ that usually consists of roll call of the curator’s friends. The APT is a group effort based on field research, which sees the QAGOMA team visiting multiple sites across Asia and the Pacific. One never knows what might turn up, and this is much to be preferred, even when the surprises are not always good ones. A large percentage of works are new commissions, which are acquired for the gallery’s permanent collection.
If there were fewer surprises for me this year it’s only because I’ve done enough travelling in the region to be already familiar with some items. Qiu Zhijie’s massive wall drawing, Map of Technological Ethics, is an amazing feat, humorous and thought-provoking, but having seen a similar piece in Singapore it felt like I was listening to a joke for the second time. Qiu’s procedure is to draw a series of landforms using ideas and propositions as place names. For instance, near the plain of Big Data, one finds Artificial Intelligence, Electronic Privacy and Brain in a Vat.
There’s a lot of reading required, and the vast central corridor of the Gallery of Modern Art is probably not the best place for such an activity. This space cries out for a work of stunning, singular presence.
On first impressions I felt this year’s APT had a subdued atmosphere, as if there had been no attempt to provide that Wow! factor audiences have come to expect. It took a second, more considered inspection before the show began to take shape.
The two most talked-about pieces are probably Jonathan Jones’s installation, untitled (giran), and Lisa Reihana’s In Pursuit of Venus (infected) (2015-17). The latter is a monumental, hour-long video projection based on a famous piece of Enlightenment wallpaper that used Pacific islanders as exotic decoration. It’s a masterly work, but has already been shown in many different venues.
Jones’s piece is a new commission, the latest in a series of labour-intensive collaborative projects the artist has undertaken over the past few years. Giran means “wind” in the Wiradjuri language, and Jones has created a multi-media installation consisting of more than 2,000 small sculptures arranged on the wall in the form of a gigantic infinity symbol. Each component consists of a simple tool and a bunch of feathers, bound together with string. The feathers were sent by people from all over Australia.
The term giran evokes both wind and human breath, but also fear or anxiety. Jones has captured that sense of apprehension with a soundscape composed of whispering voices, bird calls and the sound of the wind. It’s a complex ensemble but the elements have been so skilfully meshed together that we perceive it as a single entity before we start picking out details. It’s the antithesis of Qiu Shijie’s work, in which detail dominates to the point of distraction.
Ann Noble’s photographs of bees, along with a working hive, have rightly attracted a lot of attention. Her technique results in insect portraits that are almost sculptural in appearance. There are relatively few displays in this APT that are such instant hits. For a show of some 400 works by 80 artists or groups of artists, there is a lot of observation and reflection involved.
One could easly walk past Aisha Khalid’s Water has never feared the fire (2108), imagining it to be an elaborate carpet suspended from the ceiling. Look again, and what appears to be gold embroidery is revealed as an arrangement of thousands of golden pins that pierce the fabric, emerging in clusters on the reverse side.
Beyond this formal innovation, Khalid has imbued the work with traditional references. It’s an impressive exercise in creating a contemporary artefact that reconciles the demands of religious and cultural heritage. This is something artists rarely need consider in Europe, the United States or Australia, where there is broad freedom of expression. In Asia and the Pacific it’s a very different story.
In countries such as Pakistan or Iran, artists must take care not to offend against religious orthodoxy. In China and some of the nations of South-East Asia, there is the ever-present danger of stepping over an invisible line as to what is politically permissable.
The curators of the APT have respected all the cultural sensitivities. Edgy displays such as Jeong Geumhyung’s bizarre collection of sex toys and prostheses, are unusual in this show. For every work that seeks to challenge the viewer’s sensitivities there are many others that simply want to tell us something about another culture, another way of life.
While the exhibition features highly sophisticated pieces from places such as Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and Laos, there is an abundance of craft-based works on display. This includes a section titled Women’s Wealth, that includes weavings, pottery, drawings and even the occasional video from Melanesia. Taken object by object these works may be unremarkable, but they add up to a convincing portrait of a next door neighbour that is a mystery to most Australians.
There’s a special emphasis on Bougainville which will be voting to become an independent state in July next year.
The most moving works are a series of naïve drawings by local artists, dealing with the civil conflict known as the Crisis, which raged from 1988-98. Few of us know much about this brutal war staged on our doorstep.
It’s part of the APT’s mission to increase our awareness and understanding of the diverse cultures of our region, using art as a tool to overcome the barriers of language, ethnicity, religion and custom, let alone the glaring discrepancies of wealth. The current exhibition takes this responsibility seriously, sacrificing immediate impact for a deeper level of commitment. It subscribes to the broadest definition of contemporary art, from video installations to tribal handicrafts. Those aspects initially perceived as limitations gradually reveal themselves as a source of strength.
9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art
Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, 24 November, 2018 – 28 April, 2019
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 15 December, 2018