Essays

News from Islands

At the time of writing two major exhibitions of contemporary Asian art are on show at Australian art institutions. Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art has ‘Mirrored Years’ a survey show of renowned Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. In Brisbane, the Gallery of Modern Art showcases its collection of contemporary Chinese art with ‘The China Project’. 

These exhibitions illustrate two different ways in which larger institutions address contemporary Asian art in Australia. The Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art’s instigation of the Asia Pacific Triennial (APT) in 1993 now allows it to develop curated surveys from within its own collection, whilst the MCA’s exhibition can be seen as participating within a global discussion of contemporary art through collaborating with other international museums  in the circulation of a key artist who has made significant artistic impact on contemporary art discourses within and outside of Asia.

The invitation to write this piece came about through an email dialogue which, in light of the two larger institutional projects, referred to at the top of the article, pressed the editors to ask whether or not Australian museums and the Asia-focused projects generated within them should be seen in the context of other Western institutions who are shaping a ‘canon’ around contemporary Asian art. The question of whether or not these projects form part of a discourse fabric (not a canon) of contemporary Asian art illustrates an historical amnesia probably reflective of current issues of circulation, governed by market forces. 

As a Western nation situated within the Asia-Pacific region, Australia provides a unique perspective on the contemporary Asian art discourse. Its unique geography, history of colonization and its modernity are intimately linked with experiences of migration, which produces a particular anxiety in relation to the politics of locality. Much art production in both the contemporary period (and to a lesser extent during a modern period) in Australia engages with questions of “how do we belong here, how do we belong elsewhere”. This is a result of artists arriving in Australia from around the world (many from Asia) and the broader Australian public grappling with the complexity of the geography in which they live. That there is a longstanding involvement of artists, curators, museums, institutions and non-profit alternate spaces, within this field should be no surprise.

Without wanting to present a rehearsed line up of credentials, a quick snapshot of things which have happened ‘here’ include the Queensland Art Gallery’s major ongoing triennial project, the Asia Pacific Triennial, since 1993; the magazine journal ArtAsiaPacific which was initially established in Australia and based here from 1993-2001; Multimedia Art Asia Pacific (MAAP), a new media organization based in Brisbane; the Artist Regional Exchange (ARX 1987-1999); Gallery 4A established in 1997; Gang Festival, Sydney and more recently the Sherman Foundation and private contemporary Chinese art museum White Rabbit, have been established in Sydney. This is to say nothing of the tertiary institutions with valuable Asian Art programmes.

Within the Australian context robust discussion and debate about contemporary Asian art occurs across a range of organizations – bigger institutions as well as smaller, less well-funded organizations – as they attempt to keep abreast of other global preoccupations and reflect on the particular cultural, artistic and social conditions arising from the history and politics of this place. The ensuing curatorial and artistic practice, which arises from this debate, grapples with complex experiences of migration, the trauma of dislocation, cultural transference, circulation and networks – in short a politics of locality. In responding to the question, I am referring to some of the recent projects and research we are undertaking at Gallery 4A for our forthcoming projects.

Maybe we take for granted that in our globalized communities artistic or curatorial practices are easily transferable. That it could be easy to move one idea, one artwork or one artist from context to context. Recently I wrote an article on the Sydney-based artist Phaptawan Suwannakudt, who has lived in Australia since 1995. Suwannakudt describes her entry into Australian culture as both shocking and disorientating – “all of a sudden I did not know where to begin, where my life in Thailand ended and where my new life was to begin.”  

In Thailand, Suwannakudt had a celebrated career as the first woman to lead a team of mural and temple painters. Within the Thai Buddhist context, much of its religious structure is confined to the domain of men, and as Buddhism forms the central element of most cultural and social lives, sexual inequity is amplified across many facets. Living and working in temples and her early artistic training as an assistant to her father, Paiboon Suwannakudt (Tan Kudt), allowed her to develop a strong narrative sense, drafting skills and a grounding in an art history of Buddhist imagery and storytelling. As Suwannakudt was preparing to leave Thailand for Sydney, she became involved in some of the feminist discussions occurring within the Thai art world and participated in the 1995 ‘Tradisexion’ exhibition – the precursor to the biennial artist-initiated international women’s residency and workshop ¬– ‘Womanifesto’ (which continues to run today and develops important artistic discussion amongst women, in both urban and rural contexts). Perhaps it was Suwannakudt’s training in a visual language that is mostly foreign to the Western contemporary art world, or her involvement within a feminist discourse outside of the West that contributed to the difficult reception her work had in Australia in the mid to late 1990s. During her first few exhibitions, Suwannakudt describes the difficulty local audiences had in reading her work – her technique, the specific stories, the flat painted figurative mode. I wonder if her work would have faced a similar reception in other locations outside Thailand. On a pragmatic level, she was faced with completely different ways of working in the studio, alone, without a team of assistants. Suwannakudt suggests that when she arrived in Australia she began to question whether she could communicate to this different audience. 

Phaptawan Suwannakudt is not the first artist to remind us of the trauma of dislocation. She, like other Asian artists who live in Australia, maintains creative relationships across a range of networks. The necessity to travel and engage across these networks is not always predicated on opportunities to exhibit, or to present work within the emerging centres of Asian art production and presentation. Take for example, the artist Dadang Christanto. Most of Christanto’s work has directly engaged with the disappearance of his father during the political purges of the Suharto regime in Indonesia. This experience has resulted in a particular political character in his paintings, sculptures and performances. For other Indonesian artists in Australia, like the Sydney-based Jumaadi, the distance between place of residence and country of birth creates a sense of dislocation. Both Jumaadi and Dadang Christanto are involved in an active network of artists whose work responds to the great man-made mud disaster in Sidoerjo in East Java. In 2008 Christanto staged a major new performance in Jakarta with 400 participants, presented with the assistance of the Urban Poor Linkage (UPLINK), an NGO based in Indonesia. Jumaadi travels between Sydney and Java to present workshops with children affected by the catastrophe and collaborates with writers and poets to develop projects which poetically address the human impact of the disaster.

Australia is geographically located between Asia and the Pacific, yet its modern history and governing institutions are mostly based on European cultural and social norms. For both migrants and indigenous people, much of the identity politics that swirls within the different sections of Australian society has some relationship back to this contestation. In 2007 I curated an exhibition at Campbelltown Arts Centre called ‘News From Islands’, which attempted to find different curatorial structures to articulate the ricocheting connections that form islands within the Asia Pacific contemporary art discourse. As a survey it was conceived around an experience of The News, how news from islands happens to other people in other contexts and makes us aware of the gulf between these places and ourselves. I was interested in the strategies used to address the resonances, oscillations and collisions that occur within global and local networks. As a survey it connected work from Netherlands-based Roy Villevoye, presenting his films based on an anthropological/documentary format in West Papua, to Yuk King Tan’s observations of the geo-political agendas behind communities of Chinese migrant workers in the Cook Islands to the young Melbourne-based artist Salote Tawale’s faux island huts to Newell Harry’s linguistic anagrams woven by Matasoan women weavers . 

Importantly, the exhibition included work by the Central Arnhem Land Ganalbingu artist Johnny Bulunbulun, whose bark paintings illustrated a song cycle describing the winds which brought Macassan trepangers to the shores of Arnhem Land . The inclusion of Indigenous artists in this survey is an ongoing feature of some of the current research which we are undertaking at Gallery 4A. It presents a history of networks, interaction and trade that predate the modern nation state as a way of thinking through some of the more human aspects of our connections.

This is a conception of a contemporary Asian art discourse that is aware of the historical, geographic and political references that move beyond the circulation of artists or artworks from one major museum to another. There are resonances between the local and global that occur as artists and ideas move between their networks, which requires an expanding conception of a contemporary Asian art dialogue; they are networks which do not only occur within a contemporary setting. This sets up the potential to unsettle and confront our expectations of the boundaries of this dialogue. One such project in our forthcoming programme is being developed with Vernon Ah Kee, an Indigenous artist from Brisbane whose practice engages with the race politics of Australia. In 2008, Ah Kee presented a paper at Gallery 4A   where he articulated his own Chinese heritage as a Blak history. This position acknowledges a longstanding history of Asian and Indigenous relationships that are not only the result of a Colonial history in the far north of Australia, but also histories which extend far beyond the conception of Australia as a modern nation state. That Chineseness could be considered a Blak history is startling and might only make sense in an Australian setting, within a context that acknowledges the existence of Indigenous history. 

Ah Kee’s observations will form the basis of a curated exhibition ‘SPEAKEASY’ in September 2009 which investigates some of the Asian and Indigenous stories that emerge within the work of contemporary artists. The exhibition marks a fundamental shift in its re-evaluation of politics, culture and a rethinking of geography and the cultural spaces in which we operate. 

In the same forum that Ah Kee spoke at in 2008, a recurring theme arose – Are current art world structures adequate or effective in interrogating and conceptualising current art practice, contemporary artistic networks and the different ways of thinking that have arisen from the practice of contemporary Asian artists? Are new strategies needed to reflect the networks, histories and exclusions that are core to a Eurocentric view of Australia’s internal and external cultural relations, and the view that Australia might only have a Western history? 

Editorial disclaimer - The opinions and views expressed in the Perspectives column do not necessarily reflect those of the Asia Art Archive, staff, sponsors and partners.
 

Aaron Seeto is the Director of Gallery 4A in Sydney, a non-profit contemporary art space, established in 1997 to present and promote the work of contemporary Asian art and investigate Australia's place in the Asia-Pacific region. www.4a.com.au

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Topic
Essays
Date
Wed, 1 Jul 2009