The Asia Pacific Triennial once again demonstrates that it’s one of Australia’s most important visual art surveys. By Miriam Cosic.
The Asia Pacific Triennial
Is it a stretch to say that, since its inauguration in 1993, the Asia Pacific Triennial (APT) in Brisbane has been Australia’s most important survey exhibition? It is ambitious, innovative, informative and often enchantingly beautiful. It has walked a tightrope, balancing diplomatic cultural dialogue in the region on one side and shining floodlights on less well-known aspects of the many authoritarian regimes around us. It also triggers deep reactions in viewers: speaking to their curiosity, their interests and aspects of their own lives.
Only the exciting 22nd Biennial of Sydney in 2020, directed by the artist and academic Brook Andrew, has rivalled it on these measures. Andrew taught us much about the Indigenous peoples who live all over the world and demolished many stereotypes. Not least, he showcased the use of often confronting contemporary technologies, as well as traditional arts, to tell their stories.
So too with the APT, which explores the art, culture and political and social concerns of all sorts of people who live in our region. Take the 2009 APT6, an unforgettable example of how the exhibits trigger so much more than a narrow concept of “art” – which all good art must, of course, and particularly those with an underlying political message. Zhang Xiaogang’s China Project, developed for the anniversary of Tiananmen Square, ran into that APT. I was riveted by his haunting Bloodline series, cool depictions of young parents with their child in the time of China’s one-child policy – the more so for being an only child myself.
I was also hooked at APT6 by the Mekong Project, shown across several spaces, and watched the central video over and over. That was the year the Triennial widened its geographic scope to include North Korea, Iran and Turkey among its countries of origin.
APT6 was one of the five iterations curated by Suhanya Raffel, who is now heading the new M+ museum in Hong Kong. Tarun Nagesh, curator of Asian Art at Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA), leads this year’s curatorial team. Surmounting the obstacles of the Covid-19 pandemic – closed borders, inability to travel, scarcity of materials to work with and more – APT10 has brought together 69 projects by 150 artists and collectives from 30 countries. The works include photography and video and the rooms include a children’s art-making centre. QAGOMA’s wall texts for children have always been exemplary.
As usual, some of the objects make use of towering spaces in the two galleries. Others are small enough to draw the curious viewer in close. Both perspectives sometimes exist within the same installation. Some exhibits are vast, not physically but in a conceptual sense. Others are small in scope but offer intriguing new ideas to contemplate. And, as with all large exhibitions, some are easy to pass by.
Mayur and Tushar Vayeda, Indigenous Warli brothers from Ganjad in India, are a revelation. They have created two series of brown-toned paintings using traditional Warli practices. Placed next to each other around two walls of one room, Dhartari: The creation of the world (2021) and Disappearing spirits and childhood memories (2021) depict the evolution stories of creation and the earth in Warli culture. The figures on the large-scale canvases are minute, requiring the viewer to approach, and one quickly becomes immersed in their world. But the stories are not caught in the circular mists of their origins: the final images depict high-rise buildings, cars and other appurtenances of the 21st century.
Covid-19 restrictions prevented the Balinese artist I Made Djirna from making what he had intended. His installation Kita (2021) is, however, powerful in its own right. Hundreds of coconut husks and stones are strung together and hung in metres-deep curtains in an oversized house-like edifice. It is meant to suggest unity and togetherness in the “structure of the self” as well as depicting his environment. Nearby are hung smaller works. “We are confronted with the artist’s perspective of a deep-rooted sense of inclusivity,” Nagesh writes in the catalogue, “where togetherness as an individual, family, nation or international community is recognised.”
Kuwaiti–Puerto Rican artist Alia Farid addresses the climate crisis, drawing our attention to the variety of futures that threaten us. Her large-scale installation In Lieu of What Was (2019) stands in the multistorey space on the ground floor of QAGOMA. The water vessels made of sand-coloured polymer, the smallest of which is 2.5 metres tall, highlight Kuwait’s particular emergency. A small, hot country on the Persian Gulf, bordering Saudi Arabia and Iraq, its per capita consumption of water is among the highest in the world. And yet it has no sources of fresh water and must rely on desalination plants and importation. The vessels suggest archaeological relics from a time before global warming completely changed their way of life.
Many smaller-scale works present more personal talking points. Vipoo Srivilasa’s work is fun: little figurines, white and bright, decorated whimsically with multicultural imagery. Here it is gold-trimmed white cats, elephants and mystical humans, diminutive in their big, midnight-blue showcase. The artist, who also co-ordinates huge public art projects, is from Thailand but has lived in Australia since he came here to get postgraduate qualifications in fine arts and met his partner. Marriage equality provides some of his more political subject matter. He and his husband, his partner of some 20 years, wed as soon as it was legal.
“I learnt very early on that the best way to get the message … to people is to say something fun and friendly, rather than serious,” Srivilasa told me last year. “I want to make work that is beautiful and happy, and I want to make work that is accessible to people who may not understand complex, highly intellectual art. And that, at the same time, says some serious things. So when they get closer, they realise there is more to it.”
Other works are angrier and more raucous. Gordon Hookey’s Murriland! (2017) is a multipanelled and brightly coloured work in which the Waanyi artist answers his own question about the relationship between Indigenous peoples and white settlers in Australia: “If I was to do the last painting, what would it be; how would I imagine victory.” He sees his massive sequence as an alternative history of Queensland seen from a Murri standpoint. It contains words and images, sailing ships and rainbow serpents, poems and puns, Chinese Emperor Zhu’s circumnavigation of the continent in the 1400s, the death of Burke and Wills of hunger in an interior full of bush food, and much more.
Iranian couple Maryam Ayeen and Abbas Shahsavar’s sequence of contemporary realist paintings of domestic life, each framed in the traditional foliage of Shia Islam’s ban of human forms, is challenging in a different way. Fall in Dopamine (2020-21), signalling the dark mood underlying its cheeky elements, is a take on a famous 2014 work of theirs, Misunderstanding in the Blue Room.
In this latest sequence, the husband and wife – she without her headscarf in their own home and wearing simple skirts and T-shirts, him bearded and in long pants but shirtless – are seen making wine and growing cactus for mescaline, which are illegal under the current regime. Yet they point to the rich tradition mind-altering drugs had in pre-Muslim Zoroastrianism and in Persian and Sufi poetry. Bringing it all down to earth, the pictures are set in claustrophobic rooms showing electric sockets, discarded underwear and the buttock cleavage of a visiting male friend.
APT10 contains so much, including static imagery of great physical beauty and fascinating videos. The Japanese artist Kimiyo Mishima has sculptures of brightly branded rubbish overflowing metal waste-paper baskets in our over-consuming societies. Subash Thebe Limbu, from Nepal and Britain, has an unsettling sci-fi video of time-travelling astronauts trying to connect across diasporas in time and space.
Yet again, an APT takes us on an intriguing and edifying journey through the contemporary preoccupations of our part of the world and their expression in art. It is far too much to take in during just one visit, both for its size and how much it offers us to think about. Plan to return more than once.
The Asia Pacific Triennial is on at QAGOMA Brisbane until April 25.
VISUAL ART Inhabiting the Trace
Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, Perth, February 12–April 23
CINEMA Transitions Film Festival
Streaming on demand, February 18–March 13
EXHIBITION Inbetween: Cultural Connections Through Design
National Museum of Australia, Canberra, until June 12
VISUAL ART Melbourne Art Fair
Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre, February 17–20
COMEDY The Umbilical Brothers: The Distraction
Sydney Opera House, February 15–27
LITERATURE Sydney Muslim Writers’ Festival
Bankstown Learning Centre, Sydney, February 12
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 12, 2022 as "Viewing neighbours".
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