BY Jennifer Higgie in Reviews | 01 APR 10
Featured in
Issue 130

6th Asia Pacific Triennial

The Gallery of Modern Art and Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, Australia

BY Jennifer Higgie in Reviews | 01 APR 10

Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba, The Ground, the Root and the Air; The Passing of the Bodhi Tree, 2007. DVD still.

The Asia Pacific Triennial (APT) sets itself a gargantuan task: to reflect ‘the diversity of practices across Asia, the Pacific and Australia’ – an area that has a combined population of roughly four billion people. Why not cut your losses and simply use planet Earth as a curatorial guideline? Sensibly, the in-house curators of APT6 decided to approach the Triennial with a sort of anti-thematic theme – to ‘respect regional specificity, advocate decentralized positions’ and to privilege no single concept or directorial voice. There were, though, certain focuses that wove through the untitled exhibition: collaboration and collectives were significantly represented, as were artists from countries never before included in APT (which began in 1993), including North Korea, Turkey, Iran and the Mekong River region of South-East Asia (that includes areas of Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam). The result was a Triennial that, far from being the hotchpotch such a remit could result in, included 313 mainly strong works by more than 100 artists from 25 countries.

APT6 was laid out with ample space and tact; forced conversations between works of disparate provenance were happily avoided. Such convivial co-existence amongst the art of very different cultures reinforced APT’s role as an important regional exhibition with a serious diplomatic remit. Despite the ethnic complexity of its population, Australia can, like most countries, be surprisingly inward-looking and occasionally xenophobic; APT6 – which has no admission charges and is enormously popular with local audiences – is, without a doubt, a healthy counter to cultural insularity.

Wandering amongst the many examples of local modernisms and traditions that have bloomed, intermingled and re-formed across the Asia Pacific region made taking in so many viewpoints and contexts demanding; my comprehension was assisted, for once, by the intelligent wall labels. I certainly needed help when moving between, say, tribal objects made by North Ambrymese sculptors in Vanuatu; the six-panel mirror mosaic, Lightning for Neda (2009), by octogenarian Iranian artist Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian (a work made in response to the murder last year of the student Neda Agha-Soltan during Iran’s election protests); and a series of new barkcloths made by Fijian artists Leba Toki and Bale Jione and New Zealander Robin White.

Two major projects concentrated on two vastly different areas: the Mekong River and North Korea. The ‘Mekong Project’, a multi-layered presentation that included films, paintings and children’s workshops exploring ways in which this rapidly transforming region is grappling with the often conflicting values of Buddhism and tradition, modernity and globalization. (A highlight was Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba’s 2007 film, The Ground, the Root and the Air: The Passing of the Bodhi Tree.) In contrast to the lyricism of this section, the work included from North Korea, which took five years to organize, was unexpected: a new body of unsettling paintings produced by the Mansudae Art Studio (an official artists collective based in Pyongyang, North Korea) – a combination of relentless optimism, virtuoso skill and unabashed veneration of North Korea’s ‘Dear Leader’. It is the first time contemporary paintings from North Korea have been seen in Australia; although members of the collective were invited to talk about their work during the show their visas were denied because the Australian government does not grant them to producers of propaganda for totalitarian regimes.

Most of my time visiting APT6 was spent absorbed in the work of artists whose work I was entirely unfamiliar with. Highlights in particular were Hawaiian artist Solomon Enos’ obsessive illustrated re-telling of 40,000 years of Hawaiian history, Kuu era: Polyfantastica the Beginning (2006); Taiwanese filmmaker Chen Chieh-Jen’s chilling political allegories; and Chinese artist Chen Qiulin’s Xinsheng Town no. 275–7 (2009), a reconstructed traditional house that had been demolished to make way for Three Gorges Dam – a project that has displaced millions of people and destroyed thousands of communities.

I spent hours in ‘Pacific Reggae: Roots Beyond the Reef’, which comprised countless recordings, documentaries and live performances exploring reggae’s mutation in different areas of the Pacific region. Many of these communities are embroiled in border disputes, separatist movements and environmental destruction; as a result, many of the songs focus on problems that are too-often swept under the carpet in the promotion of tourism. Despite cultural differences, many of the reggae stars tour regularly, and encounter few language barriers. As curator Maud Page writes in the comprehensive catalogue: ‘the blond-dreadlocked, Papuan-raised O-shen can sing ‘Meri Lewa’ in Papuan pidgin to a Tahitian audience who can then sing the chorus back to him.’

The more biennials and triennals I visit, the more I realize how much relevance they accrue from directly responding to local conditions. The organizers of APT assume that many visitors have been before and will come again; thus, each iteration sees itself as simply another stage in an ongoing, ever-shifting discussion about the role of contemporary art in a rapidly changing region. Earlier editions attempted a greater level of coherence than was apparent here, yet, as Stuart Koop wrote in his review of APT3 (published in frieze in January 2000), that wasn’t necessarily a good thing: ‘Any framework which attempts neat rhetorical resolution of conflict is inappropriate. After all, what is wrong with not crossing borders?’ It was APT6’s regard for borders, its acknowledgment of unique cultural contexts and specific political perspectives that made for such a vital and intelligent show.

Jennifer Higgie is editor-at-large of frieze, based in London, UK. She is the host of frieze’s first podcast, Bow Down: Women in Art History. Her book The Mirror and the Palette is forthcoming from Weidenfeld & Nicolson.