A nec­es­sary shift

Alison Croggon on Asia TOPA

The Monthly (Australia) - - VOX -

Ionce quipped, not en­tirely un­fairly, that arts fes­ti­vals are what Aus­tralia has in­stead of a cul­ture. We love them. In the first months of every year, most of our high-pro­file fes­ti­vals un­fold across the con­ti­nent: Syd­ney in Jan­uary, Perth in Fe­bru­ary, Ade­laide in March.

In Melbourne this year it’s wall-to-wall fi­esta. The queer arts festival Mid­summa ran through Jan­uary and Fe­bru­ary. The Melbourne In­ter­na­tional Com­edy Festival, the largest cul­tural event in Aus­tralia, with more than 800,000 at­ten­dances, opened in March, as did the bi­en­nial Dance Mas­sive. You would think that the last thing Melbourne needs is an­other arts festival.

But this year there’s a new kid on the block, an ini­tia­tive of Arts Cen­tre Melbourne and the Sid­ney Myer Fund. Asia TOPA, the Asia-Pa­cific Tri­en­nial of Per­form­ing Arts, spans 60 events across 30 venues. It’s imag­i­na­tively struc­tured, break­ing the rules on sev­eral fronts. The most ob­vi­ous de­par­ture from con­ven­tion is its length: rather than the usual densely pro­grammed two or three weeks, it runs from Jan­uary to April.

The tim­ing, and per­haps the very na­ture, of Asia TOPA means that it has been rather over­shad­owed by its glam­orous in­ter­state cousins, but on the strength of this first show­ing it bids fair to be among the most ex­cit­ing events on our cal­en­dar.

Con­tem­po­rary Asian cul­ture is the de­fault con­text: it’s not an ex­otic extension of Euro­cen­tric in­ter­na­tional pro­gram­ming, or some wor­thy as­pect of “mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism”. The festival fore­grounds Asia as a cru­cial in­flu­ence on our own cul­ture: a sig­nif­i­cant fea­ture is its com­mis­sion­ing of cross­cul­tural col­lab­o­ra­tions be­tween Aus­tralian and Asian artists.

Big-bud­get im­ports in­clude the Na­tional Bal­let of China’s pro­duc­tion of the iconic 1964 com­mu­nist bal­let The Red De­tach­ment of Women and the Melbourne Sym­phony Orchestra’s per­for­mance of mu­sic by In­dian film com­poser AR Rah­man. The Melbourne Writ­ers Festival of­fered a two­day pro­gram of South Asian writ­ing from the Jaipur Lit­er­a­ture Festival. The Aus­tralian Cen­tre for the Mov­ing Im­age of­fers the Bom­bay Talkies ex­hi­bi­tion, and works from Filipino and South Korean artists. There are count­less smaller events in in­de­pen­dent venues and a com­pre­hen­sive pro­gram of talks.

Asia TOPA springs from a premise that ought to be ob­vi­ous: ge­o­graph­i­cally, eco­nom­i­cally and so­cially, Aus­tralia has pro­found links to Asia. In a time of in­creas­ing in­sta­bil­ity in the Asia-Pa­cific re­gion, Aus­tralia is caught be­tween its al­liance with an un­pre­dictable US gov­ern­ment and its trad­ing and strate­gic ties with Asian gov­ern­ments, in par­tic­u­lar that of China. Asian Aus­tralians make up 12% of our to­tal pop­u­la­tion.

As a na­tion we labour un­der an as­ton­ish­ing ig­no­rance about the many com­plex and var­i­ous cul­tures that com­prise so much of our present and fu­ture. At a time when it has never been more ur­gent to un­der­stand our geopo­lit­i­cal con­text, there is a tide of pop­ulist xeno­pho­bia – the re­turn of One Na­tion be­ing only the most ob­vi­ous symp­tom.

Cul­ture has a cru­cial role to play in broad­en­ing our un­der­stand­ings not only of one an­other but also of our­selves. It’s not a so­lu­tion: for all the hot air about “soft diplo­macy”, or the end­less es­says on the ne­ces­sity for em­pa­thy, art can’t re­solve com­plex so­cial prob­lems. Art’s in­flu­ences are more sub­tle, work­ing sub­tex­tu­ally to trans­form, some­times rad­i­cally, un­con­sid­ered at­ti­tudes and as­sump­tions.

Art raises ques­tions and il­lu­mi­nates ex­pe­ri­ence, both individual and so­cial, and cre­ates en­dur­ing re­la­tion­ships within and be­tween cul­tures. One of the in­ter­est­ing as­pects

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