BY Tim Walsh in Critic's Guides | 21 SEP 16

Postcard from Brisbane

Within the city’s tropical climate a tenacious and passionate art scene is thriving

BY Tim Walsh in Critic's Guides | 21 SEP 16

As I write this, I’m on a long-haul flight from London to Brisbane, the sub-tropical capital of the state of Queensland, Australia. I’ve grabbed a copy of The Wall Street Journal and flip to its global weather forecast. It kindly includes both Sydney and Melbourne – however, the space between Boston and Brussels gapes cruelly. For an overseas newspaper reader, Brisbane’s weather remains unknown. As a local, I can tell you, with some confidence, that if they ever visit it will be hot and humid. Winter is a brief few weeks in late July when locals toy with the thought of putting on a coat. Outside of that period an ice cube stands no hope. But the heat energizes a different art scene than those of Australia’s two larger cities: more supportive, community-driven and diverse. Where Melbourne often gets caught in a European-gazing echo chamber of its own making and Sydney is prone to a sleek, chromium urbanism, Brisbane reflects its context. The ingredients of the twisted cocktail of this city are debatable but, at its core, it is equal parts a reaction to kitsch, politically and socially conservative, languid, and open to the local-international region. The art that results seems able to establish a character that resists mediation from the dominant artistic forces of the northern hemisphere. The city’s visual arts infrastructure is contained but developed, and within that network some of the country’s best artists are flourishing.

João Vasco Paiva, Unlimited, 2015, installation view of a Brisbane city ferry terminal. Courtesy: the artist and Edouard Malingue Gallery, Hong Kong; photograph: Mick Richards

Atop this modest scene stands the Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA): the state’s largest public institution. QAGOMA hits its straps most convincingly when it represents Brisbane and Queensland’s strengths: as a cultural hub for the Asia Pacific region (its long running exhibition series the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art had its eighth iteration in late 2015); a progressive Indigenous art scene (work by artists Megan Cope, Jennifer Herd, and Dale Harding have been some of the most memorable inclusions of recent exhibitions); and its locally raised, but nationally important voices such as Robert MacPherson, Madonna Staunton and the late Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori. Brisbane’s status as a capital of contemporary Asia Pacific art is further solidified by the important work of organizations such as Media Art Asia Pacific (MAAP). MAAP promotes art from across the region through exhibitions and temporary projects, such as Hong Kong-based artist João Vasco Paiva’s recent site-specific installation Unlimited (2015), which uniquely occupied a number of the city’s ferry terminals.

Vernon Ah Kee, corpse table negotiation, 2016, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane. Photograph: Sam Cranstoun

The core of Brisbane’s art scene is the Institute of Modern Art (IMA) (located in the city’s nightlife district, Fortitude Valley) which celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2015. Their current exhibitions are indicative of the institution’s focus: balancing more locally relevant projects with exhibitions from further afield. The IMA is currently presenting ‘Misadventure’, the first solo exhibition in Australia of the New Zealand-born, London-based artist, Luke Willis Thompson. Sucu Mate/Born Dead (2016), which has provoked discussion amongst the local community, sees Thompson install a series of nine headstones of colonial migrant workers in the IMA’s exhibition space, on loan from the Balawa Estate cemetery in Lautoka, Fiji. But what Thompson proposes through this action is important: the cemetery is racially and socially segregated and threatened by rising sea levels; his intervention and the movement of these stones speaks to the complex history of exploitation at the heart of colonization. Themes relevant to Australia’s violent colonial history are also explored in the new courtyard commission by Brisbane artist Vernon Ah Kee. During a recent talk Thompson speculated about the important role that this exhibition and venues like the IMA play in providing a space to conceive of possible outcomes for unprecedented situations.

Brisbane’s art scene is grounded by a supportive artist-run initiative (ARI) community that has established a test bed for emerging artists drawn from the city’s two main art schools: the Queensland College of Art at Griffith University (QCA) and the Queensland University of Technology (QUT). The non-profit space Boxcopy has been exhibiting emerging and established artists since 2007 and is recognised as one of Australia’s leading contemporary art spaces. Recent shows have included Anastasia Booth, Caitlin Franzmann and Sandra Selig.

Megan Cope, Fluid Terrain, 2012, vinyl on glass, site-specific commission for ‘My Country, I Still Call Australia Home: Contemporary Art from Black Australia’. Courtesy: the artist

Across the city are a number of smaller, ambitious ARI spaces like FAKE estate, Cut Thumb, The Laundry and others, which exhibit experimental work within the directors’ own houses and garages. University art galleries – such as the University of Queensland Art Museum, QUT Art Museum and Griffith University Art Gallery – also provide opportunities for larger exhibitions by mid and senior career artists. Griffith, in particular, has pushed ahead of the pack with recent shows, including an important survey of the work of painter Jenny Watson.

Though small, Brisbane’s commercial scene is positive and open, with strong support from the community. Andrew Baker Art Dealer, based in Bowen Hills, represents the work of Lincoln Austin, Leonard Brown and Fiona Foley, as well as showing work from Pacific artists and communities. Heiser Gallery, based close to the IMA, represents artists such as Arryn Snowball and Tyza Stewart. In July this year, London’s Tate Gallery and Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, announced a new joint acquisition fund with the financial support of the national carrier Qantas to acquire work by contemporary Australian artists to be shared between the two institutions. Of the four artists acquired in the first stage of the project, three are from Brisbane: Ah Kee, the late Gordon Bennett and Judy Watson. All three are represented by Brisbane’s Milani Gallery.

Richard Bell, Embassy, 2013-ongoing, presented by the Institute of Modern Art and KickArts Contemporary Arts at the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair. Photograph: Colyn Huber

Any positivity about Brisbane must always be tempered by an acknowledgement of Australia’s significant failings as a country, which Emily McCormack rightfully profiled in her recent post on Melbourne. I would add a further point to this: there is an ongoing lack of full recognition of Indigenous Australians as the traditional and rightful occupants of this country. These flash points spur on the making of art that challenges these gross inequalities. The IMA will host such a project Embassy (2013-ongoing) by Brisbane-based activist-cum-artist Richard Bell in September: a reconstruction of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy which has sat on the lawn of Canberra’s Parliament House in protest against land ownership since 1972. Within the military-style tent that Bell has been touring around the world, he will host a series of public talks, discussions and screenings about solidarity and human rights. Embassy is the sort of art born of this city’s climate– tenacious and passionate. Far from dulling the senses, the heat in Brisbane boils the blood of the city’s artists. The forecast for the near future looks good.

Main image: Haegue Yang, Cubes (Small), 2015, commissioned for ‘The 8th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT8). Installation view Queensland Art Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane

Tim Walsh is a Brisbane-based writer covering contemporary art, design and architecture. He is an MPhil Candidate in Art History at the University of Queensland and has published in ArtAsiaPacific, Apollo, Art Monthly Australasia, Eyeline and thisistomorrow.