The best way to approach an exhibition such as the Asia-Pacific Triennial is to walk around and simply look at the works, considering what each one is trying to do, what each achieves or fails to achieve, and ultimately what carries conviction. This may seem so obvious as to be not worth saying, but in practice we all too often allow the careful packaging or spin of commentary on exhibition labels to convince us we see what is not really there.
Of course it is useful to know something more of the context of a work and the circumstances of the artist, but curators should consider it a principle of integrity not to tell viewers what they are meant to see or how they are meant to react to a work. Unfortunately, the contrary is the rule in contemporary art, either because the work is obscure or inadequate without this supplement of extrinsic significance, or because the field is so permeated with certain kinds of ideology that curators cannot resist spoon-feeding the viewer with the moral conclusions to be drawn from the work.
Just as a piece of music that does not work before you read the sleeve notes cannot be saved by the blurb, so a piece of art that does not impart a sense of conviction in its own terms will not gain conviction by commentary. Nor can its meaning be changed by telling us the artist was trying to express, or thought they were expressing, a different meaning.
An amusing example here is a video in which we see an attractive young woman with long bare legs and high heels lying on her back and walking up a wall. There is an elaborate explanation on the wall adjacent, informing us of her South Pacific heritage, and assuring us that “Western fascination” with and “stereotypical ideas” about Pacific Islander bodies are here being “powerfully addressed” and even subverted. But one would have to add that they are also being exploited for all they are worth.
More unpleasant is an elaborate video on two walls, mainly showing footage of life in Cambodia, in which the artist appears in a saffron-coloured caterpillar-shaped costume as the Buddhist Bug. There is something ugly about the way this smug and artistically pretentious contrivance is juxtaposed with the real life of humble people, but when we realise the artist is a Muslim in a Buddhist country, it feels even more distasteful. Naturally the label hastens to characterise her work as playful, but nothing in the work supports this assertion, and there is no escaping the stench of condescension.
Interestingly, we learn this woman, though a Cambodian, had grown up in exile and returned to her country as an outsider. She seems to illustrate a broader problem, when Asian and other Asia-Pacific Triennial Queensland Art Gallery, Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, until April 10 cultures are seen by compatriots who have spent too much time in the West, have become too imbued with the jargon of gender and postcolonial theory that festers in art schools, too assimilated into the international contemporary art business, and too disconnected from the lived reality of their own cultures.
The most convincing work is almost inevitably that which is closest to its roots and has