On entering the Queensland Art Gallery to see the fifth Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art(APT5), the first works encountered are by three artists: Bharti Kher; Ai Weiwei and Masami Teraoka.
Bharti Kher's striking sculpture 'The skin speaks a language not its own' 2006 is presented with a series of her wall based panels. The sculpture depicts a prone life-size elephant on the brink of death, the entire piece meticulously and obsessively covered with white readymade bindi - a decoration more commonly used by South Asian women as an adornment on their foreheads. The scale and ambition of this work underscore the pathos of seeing this graceful and monumental creature at the end of her life. It is on reflection that this sadness elicits ideas surrounding popular culture, consumerism and cultural worth, complex thoughts realized by the use of only two simple components – the sculptural form of a dying creature and the tiny, compelling, viral bindi that blanket it.
The second group of works encountered are by Ai Weiwei, and it is his series of black and white photographs titled 'Dropping a Han Dynasty urn' 1995 that introduce his representation in APT5. This iconoclastic performance, the destruction of a valued historical art object, is captured in three compelling life size images. They propose a number of questions. Does such a willful act mean that the historical is no longer valuable and has no place in a contemporary world? Or perhaps the photographs are an allusion suggesting the vulnerability of the objects from the past, and question how we value the histories that are a part of these objects. And what does the act being documented say about contemporary art practice – is it not possible that in the very act of destruction something new is allowed to take place? Or are we simply seeing a gesture made in the spirit of anarchy?
Diagonally across from this photographic triptych is a large watercolour painting by Masami Teraoka titled 'AIDS Series/Geisha in bath' 1988, one of a group of works by Teraoka in APT5 which consider a specific period of the artist's career. The experience of leaving Japan in 1961 to study in the United States at the time of the emergence of Pop art had a critical effect on the direction of Teraoka's work. Grappling with cultural dislocation, he developed a rich, sensual and humorous art practice initially influenced by the style and technique of ukiyo-e woodblock printing. Teraoka's work over the two decades of the 1970s and '80s draws on the ukiyo-e tradition to create watercolours, paintings and prints that explore contemporary themes. McDonald's, thong bikinis, condoms and computer parts are combined elegantly with geishas, samurai and kabuki characters to deliver an astute social commentary on global culture and its sometimes horrifying imaginings including contemporary epidemics such as AIDS.
These brief descriptions provide a snapshot of the work of three artists, and serve as a brief introduction to APT5. Each of these three artists is from a different generation and is represented in the exhibition with a group of works that seminal to their practice.
One of the shifts made in APT 2002 which has been upheld in APT5 is the commitment to represent artists and thematic interests in depth, wherever appropriate. Thus in the current exhibition we see the entire photographic oeuvre of Nasreen Mohamedi augmented by a group of drawings; eight major works by Ai Weiwei; an entire suite of paintings on a single theme by Gordon Walters; a major sculptural installation and an ambitious new multi media work by Dinh Q Le; the screening of all of Kumar Shahani's films and the presentation of a major group of textiles from the Pacific through the work of 20 women. It is in t his way that the representation of artists in APT5 is ambitious, and that the scale of the show has grown since its inception in 1993. So APT5 has over 300 artworks as well as screenings of the work of 7 film makers with two additional discrete film programs – 'Japan Fantastic: Before and Beyond Anime' and 'Hong Kong, Shanghai: Cinema Cities'. This latter program is being presented midway between the centenary of mainland Chinese cinema in 2005 and of Hong Kong cinema in 2009 and takes a thematic and chronological journey through the interconnected film histories of these cities. Important centres of film production, both cities have generated strong cinematic responses to their particular urban character and histories of social upheaval.
The opening of the Gallery of Modern Art, the Queensland Art Gallery's second site, was the catalyst for the inclusion of film in the APT, and prompted a greater consideration of the relationship between the Gallery's Collection and the Triennial. Thus, on 1 December 2006 the Queensland Art Gallery opened its second building, the Gallery of Modern Art, with APT5, the ex hibition spanning the two sites and the APT5 film program screening with in the Cinemateque facilities in the new building.
Instrumental in advocacy for this new building was the ongoing commitment to working with the APT project and the steady building of a Collection of contemporary Asian and Pacific art. In many ways, the realization of the physical building reflected the development and shaping that has been taking place since the early 1990s of the Gallery's Contemporary Collections – collections of Australian, Pacific and Asian art – the latter now recognized as internationally significant. With the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum in Japan, the Queensland Art Gallery is only one of two institutions to host a recurring triennial of international contemporary art, while simultaneously holding a mandate to collect.
In thinking about some of the curatorial decisions which shaped APT5 it is useful to place this project as part of a series of calibrated exhibitions that began in 1993. This first APT, presented in Brisbane, was a bold step for a State art institution in Australia – as Wayne Goss, the current Chair of the Gallery's Board of Trustees, acknowledges in his preface for the APT5 catalogue. When approached by the Gallery In 1989 (when he was Premier of Queensland and Minister for the Arts) to support the Triennial he t hought it 'original, relevant and exciting. Some might say it was risky.'(1) The decision to support the APT project was made in a local (Queensland) and national (Australian) political climate that was keenly aware of Australia's geography, and in a political, economic and cultural environment which actively sought to engage with its region. Recognizing Australia's own demographic shifts, it made perfect sense for an Australian art institution to initiate and develop an exhibition project committed to the contemporary art of Asia, the Pacific and Australia. Interest in the culture and particularly contemporary art of the neighbouring region was already being expressed, for example a key Australian project in the 1990s was the ARX Project (Artist Regional Exchange) in Perth while others include smaller focused exhibitions such as 'New Art from China: Post Mao Product' curated by Claire Roberts for the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1992. Over the life of the APT project the number of contemporary art exhibitions and large recurring art events has expanded markedly both in Australia and in the region, evidencing a deepening interest in the regions own art expression and art histories.
Thus on reflection, with well over a decade of work behind the project, it is obvious that the APT has changed and evolved with each manifestation, responding to the burgeoning art scene of the region. What is clearly manifest in APT5, and resonating across the Collection displays that opened the Gallery of Modern Art, is the mark made by this project since its inception in 1993 and the impact it has had in defining the Gallery and its Collections. Still citing the Asian and Pacific regions in its title, this Triennial has moved from being a broad survey to taking a more directed museological approach in the selection of works. Gina Fairley in her recent review of APT5 in Asian Art News identifies that 'by not hyping, or politicizing these works through cliches of identity politics and globalization, we are allowed to translate them within a different history – a regional history rather than a national one'.(2)
However no exhibition can comprehensively represent the vast regions of Asia and the Pacific. The APT exhibition has never been about constructing a single regional identity. Since its inception in 1993 the APT has been involved in educating audiences about the complexity of the contemporary art of this region - including the many cultural and economic histories, languages and religions. The art works that have been selected over the last 13 years are all testament to this complexity.
In considering which directions to take the project for APT5 many options have been explored. One option was to consider the three APT exhibitions in the decade of the 1990s as a cycle which had been completed. A project such as APT is very resource-hungry, and as an art museum the Queensland A rt Gallery had a responsibility to ask hard questions of the project, and w hat it meant to the institution and to our audiences. Amid the proliferation of similar, large-scale, survey exhibitions regionally and internationally there were compelling reasons for reassessment of the future of the APT, its goals and structure. As Kuroda Raiji in the notes on the theme for the Third Fukuoka Triennial of 2005 or FT3 says 'no exhibition can represent a complete survey of the whole situation to meet all kinds of expectations, especially for the far too complicated and constantly changing Asian art where no consensus on “the standard” exist. We must explore alternative criteria as different from most other “international” exhibitions which may have those “standards”.(3)
The direction the Gallery chose for APT5 is closely linked with our core business as an art museum – building the collection, building long-term relationships with artists, establishing an academic and professional development research arm (ACAPA, the Australian Centre of Asia Pacific Art), enhancing our archival and publishing program and increasing and educating our audiences. The APT remains the only recurrent international exhibition that focuses exclusively on the art of Asia and the Pacific region and that is a distinctive feature of the project internationally. The Gallery constantly extends contacts within the region and internationally while exploring new directions for the Collection, the APT exhibition and its public programs.
The prominence of Pacific artists in APT5 has meant that in addition to the artworks in the exhibition a strong Pacific hip-hop and spoken word program was inspired by the works of John Pule and the Pacific Textile Project. For APT5 Queensland Art Gallery staff worked with colleagues and artists in Hawai'i for the first time.
The Gallery continues to be interested in artists from the region who live and work elsewhere, or who have lived in the West for extended periods. Diasporas are a crucial aspect of the political, social and art histories of so many countries in the region that it is essential we pay attention to the complexities of what constitutes the region. For example Dinh Q Le works in Vietnam as well as in the USA, and his works will have enormously different resonances for audiences from these two different places. This ability of artists to be able to move between cultural contexts needs to be registered and an event such as the APT provides an effective forum.
APT5 did not presuppose arbitrary restrictions in terms of themes, dates, categories and media in making the selections for APT5. Rather, the research presented the richness of the art being produced across the region. Structure was garnered through ideas and interests that emerged from the works and artists projects, and is expressed in the presentation which aimed to enrich connections and meaning via juxtaposition and depth of selections. In adopting this approach APT5 aims to allow for fluidity of discussion, providing multiple strands layered across and through the exhibition. As Nicholas Thomas so succinctly says in his contribution to the APT catalogue 'the best exhibitions do not solve problems, but showcase them by airing issues of value and interpretation, by putting debates on the table, by challenging audiences to come up with their own responses and judgements'.(4) It is with this spirit that the APT project seeks to engage.
1. Wayne Goss, 'Preface', The 5th Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, Queensland Art Gallery, 2006, p.11.
2. Gina Fairley, 'Connections and the future', Asian Art News, January/February 2007, p.91.
3. Kuroda Raiji, 'Diving into parallel realities; Notes on the theme for FT3', The 3rd Fukuoka Asian Art Triennial, 2005, Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, 2005, p.17.
4. Nicholas Thomas, 'Our history is written in our mats; Reflections on contemporary art, globalisation and history', The 5th Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, Queensland Art Gallery, 2006, p.24.
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.
- Thu, 1 Feb 2007