8th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary ArtNovember 27, 2015
If a week is a long time in politics, three years is an eternity. At the opening of the 7th Asia Pacific Triennial in 2012, the Queensland Art Gallery was trying to forge a relationship with a new Premier who didn’t turn up for the launch; and an Arts Minister who admitted she’d never been to the gallery before she took up her post.
Last week it was a different story, with Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk posing for photographs in Choi Jeong Hwa’s customised play pen, Mandala of Flowers, amid a horde of squealing children. This Premier has kept the Arts portfolio for herself, and seemed genuinely delighted with the show, although the “credit” she lavished on the museum did not translate into a banking credit.
Another politician brimming with good will was the new federal Arts Minister, Mitch Fifield, whose best qualification for the job seems to be that he’s not George Brandis. Senator Fifield announced that he wasn’t going to do the usual thing of telling us about the government’s financial contribution. In doing so, he told us everything he wasn’t going to tell us.
It was pleasing to see the politicians uniting behind the 8th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, because it is not only Brisbane’s major contribution to international culture, it is arguably Australia’s most important exhibition. In saying this I don’t mean to belittle events such as the Sydney Biennale, but to emphasise the ongoing relevance of a show that establishes Australia’s cultural centrality in the Asia Pacific region.
Since its inception in 1993 the APT has continued to forge new pathways. This year’s line-up features more than 80 artists, or groups of artists, from 30 different countries. First-time representatives include Dubai, Mongolia, Nepal, the Kyrgyz Republic and Georgia. Unlike the typical biennale, which often seems to consist of artists plucked from other biennales, the APT is pieced together by curators who travel to a country, chase up contacts, visit studios, and come away with a working knowledge of the local art scene.
This grass-roots approach has a humanising effect, obliging the curators to view art as intrinsically linked to a broad range of cultural activities. It allows them to see there is a world outside that mirror-lined room called ‘contemporary art’.
The avowed themes behind this year’s selection are performance and the body, but the resurgence of performance-based art is a worldwide trend not a regional speciality, even if there was a distinctly Asian feel about pieces such as Buddhist Bug by Cambodian artist, Anida Yoeu Ali; and the work of Australian duo, Justin Shoulder and Benji Ra.
The real touchstone of this year’s APT is the radical evolution of indigenous artforms under the stimulus of globalisation and the Internet. This affects performance no less than it does painting, sculpture, installation or film.
When artists in isolated and impoverished communities gain access to new information, it necessarily changes the way they think. Ten years ago no-one would have expected artists in Myanmar to be producing room-sized installations, but there are at least three such pieces in this show.
The process also works in reverse, as western artists look for inspiration outside the homegrown canons. One of those scavengers, the outspoken Grayson Perry, has argued that indigenous art cannot be classified as contemporary art, but no curator who has worked on an APT would endorse such ideas. Indigenous art lies at the very heart of this year’s exhibition with a special section called Kalpa Vriksha – the name of a divine wishing tree in Hindu mythology.
Under this tree we find a sweeping survey of Indian vernacular art, drawing, as curator, Abigail Bernal explains, “on the traditions of Warli, Gond, Mithila, Kalighat, Patachitra and Phad painting, Kaavad shrines and Rajwar sculpture.” The surprise lies with the subject matter. Gond artist, Venkat Raman Singh Shayam has produced two works dealing with the 2008 bombing of the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai. Kalam Patua has a piece, in the Kalighat style, about the brutal assault on a woman that took place on a Delhi bus in 2012.
Other artworks, in a range of styles, portray the Gujurat earthquake of 2001, the Tsunami of 2004, and even the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre. There are many other subjects of a social, religious and mythological nature, but the message is that these traditional forms are more adaptable and ‘contemporary’ than anyone might imagine.
In previous APTs there have been times when indigenous works have remained trapped within the bounds of tradition. This is not the case in the show-within-a-show that is Kalpa Vriksha, and the same progressive tendencies may by found in many other works, notably the paintings of Tibetan artist, Tsherin Sherpa, who is representing his adopted homeland, Nepal. Although Sherpa’s work is based on tangka painting, his figures feel like creatures from science fiction rather than Buddhist mythology.
There is also a sophisticated hybridisation in the work of four Mongolian artists who combine the influence of Tibetan tangka painting with social and historical commentary. The brushwork is incredibly fine, the imagery teeming and surreal. These pictures are characteristic of a society still dealing with the transition to a market economy. In Mongolia there is an extra complication thanks to the legacies of nomadism and shamanism that were never forgotten during the hard-line communist years.
Among Australian artists the most impressive indigenous adaptation comes from Yolgnu artist, Gunybi Ganambarr. In his recent work Gunybi has left bark painting behind, inscribing designs on thick rubber mats discarded from conveyor belts at the local bauxite mines. He has used an angle grinder to carve into a piece of Colorbond and sheets of metal from an old water tank. Despite his fearless approach to art-making, Gunybi remains completely orthodox in his relationship to lore and tradition. His stories are those of his ancestors, only the medium of expression has changed.
When most artists use discarded materials they take a kind of macho pride in creating rough and raw ‘junk sculpture’. Gunybi’s work, by contrast, is fantastically elegant. Like all great artists, he makes everything look simple.
Simplicity is the keynote of many of this year’s displays, as artists opt for a single image that tells a multitude of stories. Malaysian artist, Sharon Chin, has painted silhouettes of weeds over a set of political banners, suggesting that the will of the people will keep reasserting itself, like these ineradicable plants. Kiri Dalena of the Philippines shows photos of political demonstrations in which all the banners have been blanked out, as a comment in the way dissent was silenced under the Marcos regime.
There is also room for productive complexity, as in Rosanna Raymond’s installation, the SaVAge K’lub, which reinvents the idea of an exclusive gentlemens club as a breeding ground for an explosion of Polynesian art activities. Just as anarchic is All the Rivers Run into the Sea. Over. Copy. Yet the Sea is Not Full. Over. by Ramin and Rokni Haerizadeh, and Hesam Rahmanian, three Iranian artists who live as cultural exiles in Dubai. The artists, who work collaboratively, have reproduced the contents of their studio as a wunderkammer filled with paintings, 3-D and audio-visual works, and an indescribable array of bric-a-brac.
Like all big shows, APT8 has its lows as well as its highs, but there are more good things than I had anticipated, so I’ll stick with the positives.
At a time when extremism and sectarian violence are dominating the headlines, there is need for events in which artists of different creeds can come together in a spirit of mutual understanding and mild iconoclasm. The Bouillon Group from Georgia have contributed a video in which the artists practise various forms of prayer as outdoor aerobics. Haider Ali Jan, from Pakistan, has cartoon–like figures laughing as they take part in solemn Shi’ite ceremonies. There is even an adventurous film program called Pop Islam.
These are brave, necessary gestures in an era in which hatred and prejudice are growth industries. The lunatic fringe of any religion views humour as a form of sacrilege, but the gods laugh at everyone. Meanwhile on Planet Earth all the trouble begins with those who cannot laugh at themselves.
8th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art
Gallery of Modern Art, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, until 10 April 2016
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 28th November, 2015