A necessary shift
Alison Croggon on Asia TOPA
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