Christo­pher Allen: crowd-pleasers at APT7

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Christo­pher Allen

THIS year’s Asia-Pa­cific Tri­en­nial at the Queens­land Art Gallery lays a par­tic­u­larly strong em­pha­sis on South Pa­cific Is­lan­der art, so that the whole vast cen­tral space of the Gallery of Mod­ern Art is filled with colour­ful carv­ings and dec­o­ra­tive pan­els. Th­ese could be more ef­fec­tive else­where, dis­played within an en­sem­ble of work from their own cul­tures; and, in­deed, we have seen sev­eral fine ex­hi­bi­tions from this re­gion in the past cou­ple of years. But the work looks in­con­gru­ous in an ex­hi­bi­tion of con­tem­po­rary art whose cul­tural con­text and ref­er­ences are com­pletely for­eign.

We’ve been used to tra­di­tional Abo­rig­i­nal work be­ing ex­hib­ited with or as con­tem­po­rary art in Aus­tralia for a few years. The in­co­her­ence is glar­ing but the prac­tice is sup­ported both by ide­ol­ogy and money, since Abo­rig­i­nal art is the most mar­ketable aes­thetic com­mod­ity pro­duced in this coun­try. That is to say, Abo­rig­i­nal art pos­sesses, for the time be­ing, both cred­i­bil­ity and cash value; the con­tem­po­rary wants to be as­so­ci­ated with this win­ning com­bi­na­tion, while disin­gen­u­ously im­ply­ing that it is of­fer­ing to ex­tend the pres­tige of the con­tem­po­rary to tribal cul­tures.

Apart from this, there is as usual a vast range of ma­te­rial from Iran to China on the Eurasian con­ti­nent and from Ja­pan and Tai­wan down to the is­lands and ar­chi­pel­a­gos of South­east Asia. Main­land China is not as strongly rep­re­sented as on some other oc­ca­sions, but a cou­ple of Tai­wanese artists stand out, as do oth­ers from Viet­nam and Ja­pan. Some of the In­dian work is in­ter­est­ing, but some, like Raqib Shaw’s kitschy ex­trav­a­gan­zas, seems to have set­tled com­fort­ably into the rut of in­dus­trial pro­duc­tion.

In­done­sia makes a weak show­ing; most of its artists ap­pear to be ad­dicted to a lurid but clapped-out comic-book id­iom, which is what we first en­counter in the paint­ings and sculp­tures of Uji Han­doko Eko Sa­pu­tro. His pic­tures pur­port to be crit­i­cal of the spec­u­la­tive fi­nan­cial sys­tem of con­tem­po­rary art, with such ti­tles as Big Art is a Big Busi­ness and Let­ter to the Great Saatchi, but th­ese would-be protests are in­stantly sucked into the same vor­tex of sen­sa­tion­al­ism and des­per­ate at­ten­tion-get­ting. Real re­sis­tance to the vul­gar­ity of Saatchi art would look very dif­fer­ent and it prob­a­bly wouldn’t get Sa­pu­tro into an ex­hi­bi­tion such as this, let alone per­suade QAG to pur­chase th­ese works for its col­lec­tion.

As we have al­ready seen, arch-con­ser­vatism is ac­cept­able for tribal art, but even neo­tra­di­tion­al­ism is con­sid­ered a dis­qual­i­fi­ca­tion in more so­phis­ti­cated cul­tures. This means there is al­most no chance of see­ing paint­ing of any qual­ity in ex­hi­bi­tions like this, be­cause the cu­ra­tors are too afraid of look­ing old­fash­ioned. So, oddly enough, if you are search­ing for a more thought­ful and re­fined aes­thetic, it will gen­er­ally be found in pho­tog­ra­phy, video or in­stal­la­tion, all art forms that have honorary life mem­ber­ship of the con­tem­po­rary art club.

Right op­po­site Sa­pu­tro’s pic­tures, in fact, is a sen­si­tive se­ries of pho­to­graphs by the Saigon-born An-My Le that look obliquely and with­out preach­ing at the re­al­i­ties of war and the life of sol­diers when not ac­tu­ally fight­ing. Nguyen Manh Hung’s model of an imag­i­nary apart­ment tower set against an im­prob­a­ble cloud dio­rama is ef­fec­tive be­cause of the quirky hu­mour and sym­pa­thy with which he makes us feel the pathos of real lives crowded to­gether. And there is some­thing about the very care that the artist has put into the con­struc­tion of this work that is touch­ing, which is more than one can say for the swarm of tiny glass fig­urines that an­other Viet­namese artist, Tif­fany Chung, has had made by some­one else, fol­low­ing the Damien Hirst hand­book of out­sourced art fab­ri­ca­tion.

One of the most ab­sorb­ing pieces in the ex­hi­bi­tion is the large-scale in­stal­la­tion by Tadasu Takamine, a Ja­panese artist, re­flect­ing on the dis­as­ter at Fukushima, but also on lan­guage, us­ing the syn­thetic Esperanto in a way that re­mains am­bigu­ous — per­haps sug­gest­ing the re­sponse to mas­sive nat­u­ral dis­as­ters in­volves the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity be­yond cul­tural and na­tional bound­aries, but per­haps also evok­ing the dif­fi­cul­ties of com­mu­ni­ca­tion in the same cir­cum­stances. The in­stal­la­tion, seen from above, is ac­com­pa­nied by mu­sic but struc­tured by the chore­ographed play of mul­ti­ple lights that pick out de­tails in the sparse assem­blage of arte­facts be­low us in a hyp­not­i­cally flow­ing per­for­mance balanced be­tween beauty and hor­ror.

Takamine’s work is not only am­bigu­ous in this way but seems to achieve an ef­fect that was not en­tirely what the artist in­tended. His state­ment sug­gests he wanted to say some­thing about pol­i­tics, the dan­gers of the nu­clear in­dus­try and, ul­ti­mately, the hor­rors of war; but what he has achieved is a med­i­ta­tive and ele­giac re­flec­tion, in sad­ness rather than anger. There is noth­ing wrong with this, of course, and he would not be the first artist whose view of his own work dif­fered from its ef­fec­tive mean­ing, but it does re­mind us of the dan­gers of the mes­sage the­ory of art’s mean­ing.

Far more im­por­tant than any mes­sage is the way this work in­duces a state of pres­ence and at­ten­tive­ness in the au­di­ence, a state in which the mind is open to thought and feel­ing.


Other pieces, such as Basir Mah­mood’s video of his el­derly fa­ther try­ing to thread a nee­dle, also in­vite a con­cen­tra­tion of at­ten­tion, in this case poignant with feel­ing for the old man’s dif­fi­cul­ties. Neha Choksi’s work is more an­i­mated and peo­pled with numer­ous fig­ures, but also draws us into a strange and at first in­com­pre­hen­si­ble ac­tiv­ity, as the leaves of a sa­cred tree are stripped away in the au­tumn, like a has­ten­ing of death that will lead to a bur­geon­ing of new life in the spring.

Two videos from Tai­wan stand out as par­tic­u­larly thought­ful. Chia-En Jao uses three screens to pon­der the lives of guest work­ers from poorer South­east Asian coun­tries who come to Tai­wan as domestic ser­vants, nurses or car­ers of the aged. Re­call­ing in some respects Bill Vi­ola’s use of the video trip­tych, now some­thing of a clas­sic for­mat in the medium, he has a chang­ing cast of three women at any one time, ly­ing on beds or lounges or even propped up at a kitchen ta­ble, two of whom are asleep while one wakes to speak to us.

The fact of film­ing the women asleep in of­ten makeshift cir­cum­stances fo­cuses our at­ten­tion on the dif­fi­culty of their lives, and the im­pres­sion is only re­in­forced when each of them, as she wakes, tells us how long she usu­ally sleeps. This ap­pears to be vir­tu­ally the only time they have to them­selves, the only re­spite from the drudgery of a re­lent­less work rou­tine that leaves no in­ter­val for per­sonal, ro­man­tic or sex­ual lives. The ex­traor­di­nar­ily cir­cum­scribed ex­is­tences they lead are fur­ther em­pha­sised when they speak, re­lat­ing their dreams, which are touch­ing but oth­er­wise un­re­mark­able, re­flect­ing the nar­row hori­zons with which they have been reared and within which they now live and work. And yet we are left with the eter­nal mys­tery of other minds: as each wakes in turn, con­scious­ness re­turns and be­gins to ex­press it­self in words that we un­der­stand only be­cause the sto­ries are ac­com­pa­nied by sub­ti­tles.

In an­other video trip­tych, Yuan Goang-Ming con­trasts the hu­man and nur­tur­ing en­vi­ron­ment of home with in­hu­man and hos­tile forces both in na­ture — sym­bol­ised by the wa­ters of the ocean — and of hu­man mak­ing. He evokes the me­mory of his fa­ther’s study, a scholar’s desk and chair with a bed, float­ing like a dream in a vast shad­owy in­dus­trial space. Then the cam­era trav­els through the small but pleas­ant in­te­rior of his own apart­ment, with his wife and child, and trees and ivy-cov­ered walls out­side, sug­gest­ing a har­mo­nious equi­lib­rium be­tween the hu­man dwelling and the or­ganic life of its nat­u­ral sur­round­ings. A more sin­is­ter note is in­tro­duced when the cam­era pulls back to re­veal an aban­doned flat op­po­site. Ex­press­ways are glimpsed, the cam­era rush­ing through th­ese ster­ile spa­ces be­fore in the end the in­hu­man speed over­takes the domestic in­te­rior as well.

Some of the most in­ter­est­ing work in the ex­hi­bi­tion comes from Iran and the Cen­tral Asian states that once formed part of the Soviet em­pire. Paras­tou Forouhar’s room cov­ered in cal­lig­ra­phy was par­tic­u­larly af­fect­ing on the day I vis­ited for the slightly ad­ven­ti­tious rea­son that a very tal­ented Ira­nian per­former was play­ing a cou­ple of clas­si­cal Per­sian in­stru­ments. The re­sult was cap­ti­vat­ing, and the swirls of script with their dot­ted su­per­scripts and sub­scripts seemed al­most to turn into lines of mu­si­cal no­ta­tion.

Per­sian, although an Indo-Euro­pean lan­guage re­lated to most Euro­pean tongues, has since the days of the Is­lamic con­quest been writ­ten in the Ara­bic al­pha­bet, which has the dis­tinc­tion of be­ing the only al­pha­betic lan­guage in which cal­lig­ra­phy has be­come a highly devel­oped art form. The most re­mark­able cal­li­graphic tra­di­tions, of course, are in Chi­nese, Ja­panese and any other lan­guages that em­ploy Chi­nese pic­to­graphic characters — forms that of­fer far greater range for ex­pres­sive vari­a­tion. None­the­less, the pre­dom­i­nance of curves and loops in the Ara­bic al­pha­bet, and the ten­dency to link let­ters to­gether rather than to con­ceive of them as com­pletely dis­tinct as in the Latin al­pha­bet, al­low for rich dec­o­ra­tive elab­o­ra­tion.

An­other cru­cial dif­fer­ence be­tween the tra­di­tions is in the me­dia em­ployed. Chi­nese cal­lig­ra­phy is ex­e­cuted in brush and ink, and this pro­duces the char­ac­ter­is­tic ef­fects of loaded and dry brush, as well as favour­ing long, con­tin­u­ous strokes. Ara­bic cal­lig­ra­phy is writ­ten with a pen and the most de­ter­min­ing fea­ture of tra­di­tional nibs is that they pro­duce thick down strokes and thin up­strokes. Even in the teach­ing of West­ern hand­writ­ing, pupils would ef­fec­tively learn the spe­cific com­bi­na­tions of up and down strokes used to com­pose any given let­ter, and to link one with the next. It is this that also ex­plains the form of Ara­bic cal­lig­ra­phy, in the se­quence that can be seen here — although the work is not in fact made with a pen on this scale — of thick and thin lines that are gov­erned by the logic of the tools of the scribe.

Among the most mem­o­rable works are sev­eral from the Mid­dle East and Cen­tral Asia, in lands as yet less af­fected by the com­mer­cial slick­ness we have seen else­where. Wael Shawky’s chil­dren on don­keys al­lude to the his­tory of the Cru­sades, but with­out po­lit­i­cal ten­den­tious­ness, some­thing all too rare in a world dom­i­nated by com­pet­ing fa­nati­cisms; merely pro­vid­ing the space to look with­out anger and pas­sion is like a breath of fresh air. An­other video work doc­u­ments a for­merly se­cret Rus­sian nu­clear city and evokes a Cold War world that now seems as ab­surd as it is sad. And fi­nally, Hrair Sarkissian’s strange, silent pho­to­graphs evoke a bleached, mostly de­pop­u­lated world of aban­doned fac­to­ries in Ar­me­nia and the ex­pe­ri­ence of gen­er­a­tions that have been, as far as West­ern con­scious­ness is con­cerned, al­most wholly in­vis­i­ble.

Op­po­site page, left, REM Sleep (2011) by Chia-En Jao; top, Avalau (2011) by PNG’s Damien Gulk­ledep; be­low, Writ­ten Room by Paras­tou Forouhar; this page, top, Re­flec­tion

Model (2010-12) by Takahiro Iwasaki; left, Pa­tient Ad­mis­sion (2010) by An-My Le; right,

Dis­ap­pear­ing Land­scape (2011) by

Yuan Goang-Ming

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