As the Queensland Art Gallery celebrates 20 years of its Asia Pacific Triennials, Peter Hill explores the latest edition of a remarkably pan-national affair
The 7th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT 7)
Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art
Until 14 April 2013
When I reviewed the first Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in 1992, as a recent arrival from the UK to Australia, I wrote in The Bulletin: “Thirteen countries took part in this Triennial, and there was a feeling of excitement in the air, as if we were all in at the birth of something that would be talked about for generations.”
The APT, as it is affectionately known, is now celebrating its 20th anniversary and its seventh instalment in sub-tropical Brisbane where it has always been housed in the Queensland Art Gallery and also, since 2006, the institution’s new addition, the Gallery of Modern Art. So has it lived up to its promise? The statistics alone suggest a definite “Yes”.
APT 7 features new and recent works by 75 artists and artist groups from 27 countries across the region, including new works by artists from Papua New Guinea; new painting, installation, sculpture, video and photography by Aboriginal Australian artists; works by young generations of artists from Indonesia and Vietnam; and a special focus on West Asia, including works by artists from Turkey through the Middle East to Iran and Central Asia.
As we move ever deeper into the Asia-Pacific century, the visual art on this side of the globe is at the forefront of innovation, dialogue, protest and reconciliation.
The Asia Pacific Triennial was the brainchild of Doug Hall, former director of the Queensland Art Gallery. I asked him recently how it all began.
“The APT grew from a set of artistic imperatives, not from any desire for civic grandeur - that came later,” he said. “We stuck with an idea that was culturally relevant, and it grew from a fairly small base. We live in a culture of instant gratification, and that is as true of the political as well as the corporate environment where everyone finds the long haul uninteresting. So we had to overcome that, and roll out an event that would repeat every three years for a long time to come.”
Many artists, especially from China, Thailand, India, Japan and South Korea, first made their names internationally through appearing at the APT. I think of Ai Weiwei’s huge chandelier made up of 270,000 pieces of crystal, of Lee Bul’s naked performance pieces, of Zhang Xiaogang’s paintings that reflect on a generation brainwashed into becoming Red Guards during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. As writer Sang Ye commented of these works: “In his big revolutionary family series, the red baby will eventually grow up to be a Red Guard, just like the adults, conforming to a particular adult view of the world, despite their now individual childhood perceptions.” One of Zhang’s paintings recently sold for more than $10 million (£6.23 million).
By discovering new talent early on, the Queensland Art Gallery has amassed one of the world’s biggest collections of contemporary art from the Asia Pacific region. Often as much as 70 per cent of the artworks have been purchased by the gallery, and most of them are significant pieces, such as one of Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Nets or PixCell - Elk #2, Kohei Nawa’s astonishing preserved elk covered in hundreds of glass globes that refract the light and draw gasps of wonderment from children and adults alike.
In tandem with the exhibition itself, artist “floor talks” and academic conferences have contributed to the knowledge of the region’s development. I particularly remember the Indonesian artist and critic Jim Supangkat stating that the difference between Modernism in Asia and Modernism in the West was that in Asia it was aligned more with ideas of nationalism and of the throwing-off of old colonial yokes than it was with Western ideas of progress. This type of Asian Modernism also aligned itself to ideas of morality, social justice and environmental issues, which in the West would later surface under the banner of Post-Modernism.
All Asia Pacific Triennials present a huge challenge to the gallery’s curators who have to deal with scores of artists flying in from around the world (many Asia Pacific artists are fashionably nomadic and live in Berlin, New York or London), each with a wish list of materials and objects with which to work their transformative magic. In one edition of the Asia Pacific Triennial, those demands included 600 red roses, 20,000 firecrackers, 50kg of dental plaster, 20 bicycles, 1,000 ants, 60 coconuts, 15,000m of gunpowder fuse and, rather ominously, 480 blood transfusion sets, a hospital bed and a coffin.
The 1,000 ants were for the Japanese artist Yukinori Yanagi’s World Flag Ant Farm, a vast installation of interconnecting Perspex boxes full of sand and rice that represented all the flags of the world. The ants were housed in feeding chambers from which they emerged and, over the course of the second Triennial (1996-97), they disturbed and homogenised the multicoloured flags of all nations, creating what was described by one critic as a “cross-cultural, multi-national network”.
This 20th-anniversary celebration of the APT focuses on a number of distinct theses rather than a single overarching theme. One is about a sense of place during a time of fast urbanisation and the accompanying flux of people, trade and influence. We see this through its focus on temporary structures, both architectural and symbolic, from street videos made in Taiwan to a major commission by Queensland Art Gallery of architectural structures from the East Sepik province of Papua New Guinea.
A totally separate focus highlights ideas of “the archive” within the Asia-Pacific region under the banner The 20 Year Archive. The outstanding example is an installation by MAP Office, two European artists-in-residence at Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong, drawing from that collection. Other such installations include those of the Raqs Media Collective from India, Herman Chong’s Brisbane archive, and Torika Bolatagici, Mat Hunkin and Teresia Teaiwa’s (disarmed) Imagining a Pacific Archive.
I know of few museums around the world that present as many interactive artworks for children as the Queensland Art Gallery does, often in collaboration with some of the world’s leading contemporary artists. Yayoi Kusama handed out multicoloured dots for children to decorate a completely white room filled with white furnishings at APT 4 (2002). Xu Bing, who created a fictive script that looks Chinese but can be read in English, presented a gallery full of school desks with notebooks and pencils for children to practise their “superfiction” writing skills at APT 3 (1999).
An archive of the projects developed at the gallery’s Children’s Art Centre in collaboration with contemporary Asian and Pacific artists has been incorporated into both The 20 Year Archive and the Kids’ APT. It is an initiative that has run over the past decade, incorporating many of the themes of the Triennial and aimed at young people and families, and it features a range of drawings by children from across the region, including Afghanistan, Papua New Guinea, North Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia and Australia.
A third, more formal and aesthetically focused theme of the latest Asia Pacific Triennial is the millennia-old act of painting, now more popular than ever if the offerings in Brisbane are any indication. One standout contributor is Graham Fletcher, a New Zealand artist with mixed Samoan and European ancestors. His five large canvases, taken from an even bigger series, are of Modernist interiors from the 1950s and 1960s. Abrupt dislocations take place when Maori masks or artefacts from Papua New Guinea are introduced into these domestic environments, with their orange lounge chairs, scatter rugs and architectural magazines placed on designer tables. It is the sort of painting you would travel across oceans and continents to see, as is the entire 7th Asia Pacific Triennial.
But there will always be room in the Triennial for individual artists working free of the constraints of group thematics, as in the work of the wonderfully named Tintin Wulia (Indonesia/Australia), who has fabricated the sort of fairground machine with metal claw that picks up toys and prizes and delivers them to the successful operator. Her “prizes” are passports to all nations, a visual statement that neatly sums up the age of chance and displacement in which we live.
Peter Hill is adjunct professor of fine art at RMIT University, Melbourne, and an artist, writer and independent curator. He is currently writing a book called Matisse and the iPhone: Why Do Art Movements Change?