Asia Australia Arts Centre: Asian Traffic on the Move

The Asia-Australia Arts Centre was formed 1996. Essentially it came about because of a desire to create opportunities for Asian-Australian artists. At the time, the Asian- Australian artists gathered together believed that opportunities for developing their practices were made difficult by the broad attitudes of the Australian contemporary art circuit. Since that time, many of the facts that influence the creation of the Asia-Australia Arts Centre have changed. However, while these factors may have changed, most of the core understandings of Australian culture have not moved from their position of the 1950s.

In a recent weekend edition of The Sydney Morning Herald there was an article about African writer Ngozl Adichie - the writer of the now acclaimed book Purple Hibiscus. In this article, Ngozl stated her frustration at not being considered 'ethnic ' enough for publication. Asian-Australian artists have had similar experiences.

A good example is Lindy Lee, a member of our board and a former president of the Asia-Australia Artists Association. Lindy has been a much-celebrated artist in Australia since 1985. She has produced an extraordinary body of work over a period of more than 20 years, yet she has suffered the frustrations of cultural identity within her own country of origin.

Last year we had an exhibition called "Jia", which included the work of Lindy Lee, William Yang and Greg Leong. In conjunction with the exhibition, the Asia-Australia Arts Centre presented an artist talk featuring William Yang and Lindy Lee. At that talk, Lindy spoke about her experiences of being ethnically Chinese yet growing up on the Gold Coast of Queensland. She told how, as an adolescent, she had wanted to be a blonde-haired surfer girl. What she was feeling was the isolation of being the only non-western teenager in a very mono-cultural 1960s Australia.

The result of this experience was that for the first part of Lindy's artistic career her artistic expression owed more to European post-modernism than it did to her own personal experiences. Lindy's experience is worth considering for its historical contexts as well as its contemporary relevance.

Over the last 30 years Australia has been actively involved in the development of policies regarding multiculturalism. This has brought with it positive outcomes and constraints that have had complex effects on our contemporary culture.

For artists like Lindy Lee, establishing an artistic career within this period of multicultural policy ensured an impact that was equally positive and negative. Lindy clearly had the capacity to present contemporary art. However she constantly fought the battle of being seen either as a contemporary artist or as an Asian contemporary artist. In addition, there was the significant subtext of her being a woman. Each of these uncertainties is indicative of the anonymous walls that have been built to protect and validate hegemonic orthodoxy.

Despite the progress that Australia has made in understanding the varying components that make up Australian culture, there remains a huge gulf in fundamental understandings of the impact of diverse cultures upon the fabric of our evolving contemporary culture.

Between 1996 and 2003 I was living in Singapore developing the Earl Lu Gallery. This is a gallery unique to Singapore, as it has been the only one dedicated to the exploration of international contemporary art. At the beginning of my time there, contemporary art in Singapore was positioned as a form constantly deserving of suspicion. Singapore as most Australians understand it is a country that suspects anything that may challenge the status quo. This is a comfortable assumption by intellectual westerners that see themselves as all together more free in expression than countries with climate control. While this assumption has an element of truth, it is however not the whole truth. Having been in Singapore for seven years and having grown up under the extraordinary restraints of the Chinese Cultural Revolution and also having experienced the cultural development of Australia since 1989, I can tell you that there is no room for complacency in thinking about cultural development.

This seems like an extraordinary statement - how could the totalitarian extreme of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the controlling attitude of Singapore and the liberal attitude of Australia have any fundamental relationship? The scary reality is that they are closer to each other than we would like to admit. My personal experience of the Chinese Cultural Revolution was one of personal hardship and also one of cultural control. My time in Singapore was an experience of cultural control that had been relaxed to establish an economic advantage. In Australia my experience has been one of stated cultural openness that has at its base the containment of difference into the exotic or multicultural pockets , which has been disabling to any notion of potent reality.

It is a bizarre reality for me to compare the Cultural Revolution in China, the social control of Singapore during the mid-1990s and more recently the Australian liberal attitude, and come to see them all as occupying a common relational position. As difficult as it may seem and bizarre as it may be, I believe there are more connections than disparities.

In Australia we see ourselves as a free-thinking, pluralist society, yet in truth we are not that sophisticated. I returned to Australia in 2003. You must remember that my first experience of western democracy was as a Chinese student in Australia. At the time I believed that any western culture represented a more liberal cultural development than China. I have to say the longer I have experienced the so-called liberal culture of the West, the less I have been in awe of their capacity for inclusion.

It is true that during the Cultural Revolution the state sought total control. It is true that when I went to Singapore in 1996 the state sought effective control. It is equally true that here in Australia effective control is sought by a consortium of both state attitudes and key cultural players. At the beginning of this essay I raised the issue of the African writer Ngozl Adichie and her disbelief at being perceived as not exotic enough to be published . It is this notion of exotic which often stops us from achieving real cultural development.

The more we rely on stereotyping - the more there is the possibility of not having real expansion. We still like to compartmentalise and at the Asia-Australia Arts Centre we fight a daily struggle to help people to understand what we are trying to do. Often people seem to think that we are attempting to showcase Asian artists as a way of exploring Asian-ness. This is not what we are actually doing at all. We see the art being made by contemporary artists either in Asia or here in Australia as being a valid and powerful contribution to the international evolution of contemporary culture. At no point are we trying to place contemporary Asian art in a multicultural context, as we see this as being dangerously close to exploring the exotic. In Australia, with our cultural mix and geographic location in the world it is essential that we see non-western players as equal contributors to any contemporary debate. In fact I actually believe Asian contemporary art can be demonstrated to be influencing global contemporary art rather than being influenced by it.

The way we go about exploring contemporary art differs from many other Australian centres. We have a number of missions under our charter. The first is to research and present living contemporary art, which is coming from Asian ways of thinking. The second is to promote young Australian artists and the third is to explore multiple ways to research and record the development of contemporary art.

If we take for example our major exhibition of last year "Asian Traffic" or our recent exhibition "Open Letter", the way we go about exploring contemporary art becomes clear.

"Asian Traffic" was an exhibition presented as a parallel event to the Biennale of Sydney, which had as its theme On Reason and Emotion. We were sent an outline of the curatorial themes for the Biennale, which was an attempt to give a geographic location between Reason and Emotion; essentially a north/south, reason/emotion argument.

At the time I can remember us discussing this in the gallery and commenting on how absolutely non-placable any such notion was to what we understood as the factors driving contemporary art in Asia. The forces acting upon contemporary art are not simple and linear. There are influences coming from the West, there are influences to the West, there are the legacies of the post-colonial condition, there are the effects of economic development, there are effects caused by the plethora of religion and ethnic backgrounds. It all comes together like Asian traffic jams, hence the title "Asian Traffic". There is of course a sub-meaning inside "Asian Traffic" that is picked up by the term trafficking. This implies some kind of subterfuge, something subversive. The truth is contemporary art in Asia contains all these elements. Now if we go back to our mission I will try to explain how we made all of the elements come together in one exhibition.

First, we decided upon having an exhibition that contained international and Australian artists, in the end we settled on 15 of each. We wanted to bring together a broad range of international artists that demonstrated the diversity and the excitement of the work being produced in Asia now. These artists were all quite high-profile artists on the world stage and included people like Song Dong from China, who is probably China's best known multi-media artist and has represented China at the Venice Biennale; Manit Sriwanichpoom, Thailand's most prominent contemporary photographer, who has also represented Thailand at the Venice Biennale; Vasan Sitthiket, with the same kind of pedigree, but doing work overtly left wing in consciousness; a rather beautiful work by Arahmaiani, an artist who deals with positioning women in a Muslim setting. Arahmaiani is the leading Indonesian contemporary artist today. Her work deals with many subtle expressions of subversion. The list goes on.

We sought to include emerging Australian artists, although one or two could be described as mid-career artists. The idea was to be able to show Australian audiences the diversity of what has been produced in Asia and show as a counterpoint the directions that have been taken by younger Asian-Australian artists. The overall exhibition then manages to carry a freshness of approach and experimentation, combined with a depth encouraged by the more experienced international artists. The local artists rose to the occasion and produced some of the most memorable work in the entire exhibition. In fact, one of the most impressive pieces came from the youngest artist involved. The A-Z piece by Keith Wong occupied our lower gallery and quickly became a favourite work for many people in the show.

In keeping with the other part of our mission in conjunction with the exhibition there was a major conference co-organised by the Asia-Australia Art Centre and Centre for Contemporary Art and Politics at COFA, which elaborated upon the major issues effecting contemporary Asian Art production. We also held numerous artist talks and round-table discussions at the gallery, investigating many of the other issues confronting contemporary art, from funding to collecting.

It is this kind of holistic approach that places the Asia-Australia Arts Centre as a unique contemporary art presenter. The relationship that was developed between the gallery and the invited artists evolved over a long time. The artists from "Asian Traffic" are involved in the ongoing tour of this exhibition and we expect their relationship with us to go on at least for the next few years. "Asian Traffic" aims to challenge touring models via a continuingly evolving dialogue between the art works. Each new presentation of "Asian Traffic" will include new contributions by local artists and curators. The ongoing change and dialogue is a key element of the artistic exchange contained within the exhibition.

To date "Asian Traffic" has been seen in Sydney at the Asia-Australia Art Centre, Adelaide at the Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, Singapore at the Esplanade, Beijing at Today Art Museum, Shanghai at Zendai Museum of Modern Art. On 31 January 2006 it will open in Shenzhen at the OCT Contemporary Art Centre. On 31 March 2006 it will open in Hong Kong at Visual Art Centre, Artist Commune and 1a Space.

So far the reaction to the exhibition has been very strong. In Sydney alone it attracted more then 10,000 visitors. The reaction in China and Singapore were equally exciting. With the addition of new artists and curators at each venue, the exhibition has been able to continue to generate and develop its themes as the core works incorporate new local views.  

At the Asia-Australia Arts Centre we see our role as one of continually challenging the status quo. We believe that we can present extraordinary art coming from Asian- Australian and Asian artists. We are equally aware that to present challenging programs we must continue to have very high expectations of the artists involved with us. Equally, we must have very high expectations of ourselves and be able to apply this to the way we present exhibitions and the way that we promote and support artists, writers and soon, hopefully, young curators. All of this is always difficult with the financial restraints that we are constantly battling with. The Asia-Australia Arts Centre is a not-for-profit organization, however we only receive about 20 per cent of our funding from public sources. This means that we take a very lateral approach to securing the resources we need to stage the ambitious projects we are dedicated to. For example, for us to make the "Asian Traffic" exhibition work we had to be very savvy with our project budget. The overall costs involved for us to stage this exhibition were about $230,000, however we only spent $87,000 in cash. The balance of the value came from artists supporting the exhibition in many different ways. The conference was staged in partnership with COFA and funded in full by them, the transportation was sponsored by a private gallery in Myiasis (Malaysia), and many other people contributed. In addition, there was the huge number of free, dedicated working hours carried out by about 30 interns and volunteers who each made the exhibition possible.

We believe all of the effort is worthwhile. Australia, whether we like it or not is located closer to Asia then any other place. Thirty percent of Sydney's population identifies themselves as Asian. The influence of Asian philosophy cannot be ignored when such a large proportion of our population identify themselves as such. We undertook research into how much Asian content there is in visual art exhibitions , and here in Sydney, for example, the figure is less then 3%. More importantly, the Asian content that does get representation tends to be from very high-profile established artists. Australians are not given the opportunities to see the dynamic experimental reality that is Asia today. In this way we are robbing ourselves. At the moment the Asia-Australian Arts Centre is the only place in Australia presenting this dynamic dialogue with Asian contemporary thinking as its sole mission.



HUANGFU Binghui, 皇甫秉惠

Thu, 1 Dec 2005

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