When the Asia Pacific Triennial (APT) was launched in Brisbane in 1993, the Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating was advocating stronger economic and cultural ties between Australia and the Asia-Pacific region; he was at the same time heavily involved in Aboriginal reconciliation. So, when the APT was first conceived by the former Queensland Art Gallery director Doug Hall, it was as much about developing Australia’s liberal political identity as it was about the appreciation of Asia-Pacific and indigenous Australian contemporary art. Celebrating its 20-year anniversary, APT7 prompts reflection on these founding principles, raising the question of whether this high-profile exhibition remains as progressively directed today.
Unlike many other biennials and triennials, the APT has always had an acquisitive agenda, and the apparent success of the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) is due in part to its prescient investment in contemporary art from Asia before its ascendency in the late 1990s. As well as acquiring significant works by Takashi Murakami, Cai Guo-Qiang, Zhang Xiaogang and Xu Bing, the institution owns more works by Ai Weiwei than any other museum in the world – a relationship that was principally forged through the APT. For these reasons, the triennial can appear hegemonic in benevolent disguise, especially as its in-house curating tends to avoid overarching rationales and the acknowledgment of curatorial subjectivity. In APT catalogues, terms such as ‘regional specificity’ or ‘contemporaneity’ are typically employed as compensation for such ‘neutral’ posturing, appearing, like many globally focused exhibitions over the last decade, to have an almost habitual concern for the difficulties involved in the representation of cultural pluralism. APT7’s ambiguous buzzword is ‘proximities’, with curatorial manager Russell Storer asking ‘how can we communicate across thresholds of difference and their mutual limits of understanding?’
As if it wasn’t broad enough, QAGOMA has expanded the APT7’s focus to include West Asia, exhibiting works by artists from Egypt, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Syria and Jordan. Seventy-five artists represented 27 Asia-Pacific countries, with art works from Papua New Guinea and Indonesia being particularly prominent. The architect Martin Fowler has co-curated a display examining traditional architecture and performance in the Sepik and New Britain regions of Papua New Guinea, comprising totem poles, drums, masks, headdresses and other objects used in ceremonies and as decorations for haus tambaran (spirit houses). Despite the cluttered and uninspired spatial arrangement, Katnanat Elison’s intricately patterned and subtly coloured mask Guaramgi nimenenga (Male and Female Spires, 2011) is a highlight, its three large ghostly spires representing male and female entities for the Baining people of East New Britain. As contemporary art works modelled on traditional tribal objects, the Papua New Guinea collection embodies the ‘anthropology as contemporary art’ genre that has become extremely popular in museum exhibitions over the last decade, in recognition of the need to de-authenticate, de-mythologize and de-historicize traditional, pre-colonial and non-Western cultural productions.
Along with Wedhar Riyadi and the Ruangrupa collective, the work of the Indonesian artist Uji Handoko Eko Saputro (a.k.a. Hahan) is presented as part of a young generation of Indonesian artists influenced by the punk, graffiti and street art subcultures that emerged in Jakarta and Yogyakarta after the resignation of President Suharto in 1998. Like an Indonesian version of Banksy, Hahan sarcastically reflects on Indonesia’s currently thriving contemporary art market, exemplified by The New Prophet (2011): a grotesque sculpture of a two-faced cartoon head with wads of cash in its mouth and currency symbols emblazoned on its eyeballs. While many street artists in Western cultures still lament their exclusion from mainstream museums, Hahan’s work is given centre stage here, benefitting from the perceived credibility of Indonesia’s alternative scenes. Continuing this association of illustration and marginality, the APT’s film programme features a survey of Chinese animation since the 1930s, from the Wan brothers’ unrefined The Mouse and the Frog (1934) to Te Wei’s Disneyesque The Conceited General (1956) and Bu Hua’s beguiling Flash-animated Savage Growth (2008).
APT7 is noticeably slicker than its precursors, with less craft and artefacts and more conventional museum-orientated works. Suggesting the mainstream institutionalization of post-colonial critique, the fastidious aesthetic of indigenous Australian artist Daniel Boyd recalls the pioneering work of Gordon Bennett, depicting colonial narratives with dot painting iconography in A Darker Shade of Dark and Untitled (both 2012). Equally meticulous, yet more convincing, Tadasu Takamine’s Kagoshima Esperanto (2012) comprises an operatic installation of sculptural objects viewed in a dark gallery space from a high platform, enlivened by evocative music, audio narrations, automated projections and light sequences. Tadasu combines his native dialect of Kagoshima with the international language of Esperanto, reflecting on loss, memory and place through abstruse references to the 2010–11 floods in Queensland and the 2011 Tòhoku earthquake that devastated eastern Japan.
Represented by PrayWay (2012) – a bent and partially levitating Persian carpet illuminated by blue fluorescent lights – the artist collective Slavs and Tatars could be seen as antithetical to the APT7’s separation of East and West identities; a divide that QAGOMA sustains by depicting Asia-Pacific art in predominantly sentimental terms. Making humorous work in diverse media but ultimately concerned with generating discourse, Slavs and Tatars build upon the legacy of relational aesthetics to highlight how one’s sense of collective identity is formed through enigmatic and dialogical processes that take place between the specific and the general.
Although the exhibition includes a multimedia archive addressing the history of past triennials, the occasion of its 20th anniversary is not sufficiently utilized to reflect upon the changing socio-political context in which it is staged. Attempting to make up for this lack, Atul Dodiya’s Somersault in Sandalwood Sky (2012) comprises nine glass-fronted wooden cabinets with objects, photographs and imagery taken from QAGOMA’s collection and earlier APTs. Reminiscent of the assemblages of Joseph Cornell, Dodiya’s appropriations are a unique combination of spiritual expression and historical examination. The Premier of Queensland, Campbell Newman, tactlessly used the announcement of the gallery’s acquisition of Dodiya’s work to publicize his leadership of a trade mission to India, explaining that ‘the state’s mining industry has developed technologies and services that have placed the state on India’s radar’. Though I’m not against the idea that contemporary art can be used to grease the wheels of international trade, the visibility of the Queensland government’s agenda in QAGOMA exhibitions ultimately serves to undermine curatorial integrity, and reveals the motivation behind the gallery’s mounting conservatism.
Whereas early APTs balanced political manoeuvring with genuine interest in the revelations and challenges posed by contemporary artists from the Asia-Pacific region, APT7 seems directed mostly towards an image of impartiality characteristic of political correctness. The reluctance to provide a bold curatorial perspective might be indicative of the paradoxes of ‘global art’, but here it can also be understood as a symptom of QAGOMA fulfilling its duty as a governmental instrument too well, resulting in the exhibition’s staging overshadowing its content. Breaking with its in-house tradition, the next APT should be handed over to an independent curator, with the aim of advancing the visionary and provocative spirit that marked its inception.