It seems a very long time since Paul Keating sketched the geostrategic and economic reality of Australia’s position in the world, slap in the middle of the AsiaPacific region. Four years after Keating’s powerful “Australia and Asia: Knowing Who We Are” speech in April 1992, Australia would begin its swing back to a Euro- and US-centric worldview.
The Queensland Art Gallery, as it was then, inaugurated the Asia Pacific Triennial in 1993, while Australia was still looking with wide-open eyes at the rest of the world. Now shown across the since-expanded Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA), APT is in its ninth iteration and is one of our most significant cultural engagements with the neighbourhood, as well as a crash course in political and social developments in the region. (The triennials and their catalogues should be mandatory study for staff at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.) It is also the event that anchors QAGOMA’s consistently wide interest in the Asia-Pacific.
I still have images imprinted in my mind of Zhang Xiaogang’s Bloodline series on relations between parents and children during China’s one-child policy, which I first saw in APT2, and The Mekong’s powerful video projections in APT6.
APT9’s opening weekend in November was like a world’s fair. The halls of both buildings were filled with locals and foreigners, artists and spectators, dances and lectures and forums and films. So many people of all colours, shapes, sizes and dress; so many languages spoken.
The variation in style, purpose, history and media across the works is also immense: ethnological, political, aesthetic, abstract, figurative, painting, video, installation, and techniques for which a name has yet to be coined. Some are awe inspiring; some draw the viewer closer to examine detail. Some, inevitably, are immediately forgettable. A quiet sense of purpose and scholarship pervades the whole, rather than celebrity razzamatazz.
The geographical range has been expanded to include the Middle East this year. As a result, APT9 includes work from places and concepts recognisable as the roots of “Western Civilisation” (so deliriously mis-defined by Australian conservatives these days). This is in addition to the urban powerhouses of East Asia and their often ironic melding of tradition and contemporary globalised imagery, and to the beauty and groundedness of tribal cultures that had flourished from time immemorial before European military power came along to diminish and demean them. Much of it is political, but not in a didactic way. Rather, like all good art, many works have a powerful point of view that allows viewers to be surprised and informed, maybe even enchanted, and to come to their own conclusions.
Participants in the Women’s Wealth project, including artists from the mostly matrilineal societies of Bougainville and the Solomon Islands, contributed material culture that is fascinatingly curated, though not vibrantly installed.
The Gunantuna community on Papua New Guinea’s New Britain Island, by contrast, is a powerful patriarchy run by male secret societies. It has a dual currency system, combining use of the PNG national tender with traditional shell money. Both are legal tender, with the shells also being used for ceremonial exchanges, such as bride price. Threaded rings of shells are wrapped in pandanus leaves when the amount is finalised, and declared a bank, only to be opened and re-counted while monitored in another public ceremony. The APT9 instalment is elegant, with its solid circles and bamboo framework, but it is also a glimpse into the possibility of alternative financial system.
Qiu Zhijie’s giant two-storey drawing, Map of Technological Ethics (2018), is both politically provocative and intellectually amusing. Stretching traditional Chinese forms of calligraphy, as well as wall and scroll painting, he has created an imaginary map of Brisbane with place names like “Desert of Information Ethics” and “Cloud Prison”. “Many Chinese people imagine Australia to be an ecological paradise,” Qiu told the ABC. “People talk about nature and the beautiful golden coastline, it’s a type of stereotype. But Brisbane is also a very high-tech city, a very well-organised city – you can see technology in every corner, it’s not just a natural paradise,” he said. The Beijing-based artist also said that after spending time researching the age of discovery, what interested him “was all the mistakes in the map. People didn’t cover the whole world, so somewhere they just write ‘here be dragons’, then ‘unknown southern continent’, and of course that’s here.”
Jonathan Jones’s “murmuration”, untitled (giran) (2018), comes from intimate Indigenous knowledge of the land. It comprises a beautiful soundscape, a stunning visual flight of feathers swirling across white walls like a flock of birds, and messages collected from across Australia. It is a beautiful and memorable meditation on wind, on Indigenous culture and on distance.
A strong group of works from western Asia (as it is more appropriately called from our geographical viewpoint) has been added this year. Iranian Iman Raad’s untitled panelled mural, for example, is a cacophony of painted colour, mixing biological and historical references. The nine-channel video installation by Sadik Kwaish Alfraji, an Iraqi artist who now lives in the Netherlands, is a mesmerising slow-motion panorama that moves through drawing, painting and animation to explore childhood memories and feelings of exile. When young, he loved the Baghdad National Museum’s collections of Assyrian and Sumerian reliefs, which were looted after the US-led invasion in 2003. He also loved the city’s public gardens, the Hadiqat al Umma, and the nearby cinemas, both in a neighbourhood that has fallen into disrepair since the war. This work, Once Upon a Time... Hadiqat al Umma (2017), is almost balletic in its slow journey through the imagery of nostalgia.
Some of the works require time to properly examine, like the cabinet of curiosities collected by Donna Ong and Robert Zhao Renhui. My forest is not your garden (2015–2018) includes cases and tables full of colonial and contemporary documentation and photographs from Singapore, botanical and zoological objects, minerals, and all manner of things. It is thoroughly absorbing and sometimes amusing, but also conveys the moral dimension of imperial subjugation and eventual liberation.
Other works can be viewed with aesthetic detachment, including the bright abstract works of Shinro Ohtake, executed in oil and collage, or the eclectic mixed media of Philippine artist Kawayan De Guia, or Joyce Ho’s Overexposed Memory (2015). The latter has an erotic subtext, but alludes intriguingly to gender roles and cultural conventions, and many of the others reveal a political context on closer inspection.
Some examples of naive art, whether referring to traditional imagery or 20th-century “outsider” art, are forgettable. Some works are disappointing. New Zealand artist Lisa Reihana’s magnificently panoramic video, In Pursuit of Venus [infected] (2015–2017), which meanders in slow motion through depictions of first European contact with the Pacific, has held me spellbound through two viewings in the past year. The first time I sat through it twice in succession, captivated by the beauty, the magisterial movement, and the unusual neutrality in its depiction of different races and their behaviour. Not so this time, whether through aesthetic fatigue or because additions to this iteration did not appeal in the same way.
Like all previous APTs, APT9 is a snapshot of our region today, a cornucopia of education, discernment and affect. Lucky Brisbanites, who can easily return many times while it is on, to see more and ponder further.
The Asia Pacific Triennial will be at QAGOMA until April 28. Miriam Cosic travelled to Brisbane with the assistance of QAGOMA
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