Christo­pher Allen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

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



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