Christopher Allen: crowd-pleasers at APT7
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.
THERE IS ALMOST NO CHANCE OF SEEING PAINTING OF ANY QUALITY
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