VIS­UAL ART: The 9th Asia Pa­cific Tri­en­nial of Con­tem­po­rary Art.

The 9th Asia Pa­cific Tri­en­nial of Con­tem­po­rary Art in Bris­bane es­chews the West­ern art world’s re­liance on check­box di­ver­sity in favour of gen­uine im­mer­sion in our re­gion, writes Neha Kale.

The Saturday Paper - - The Week Contents - Neha Kale

In the weeks be­fore the open­ing of the 9th Asia Pa­cific Tri­en­nial of Con­tem­po­rary Art (APT9) in Bris­bane, a New Yorker ar­ti­cle by Mar­garet Tal­bot ma­te­ri­alised again and again on my Twit­ter feed. “The Myth of White­ness in Clas­si­cal Sculp­ture” ex­plores our ig­no­rance of poly­chromy – the prac­tice of paint­ing arte­facts in dif­fer­ent colours. This ig­no­rance erased non-Eu­ro­peans from defin­ing aes­thetic tra­di­tions. It also – quite lit­er­ally – helped cast white­ness, in the form of pris­tine white mar­ble, as both sig­ni­fier of beauty and ar­biter of value. Sure, to­day’s roll­call of bi­en­nales and tri­en­ni­als, of­ten helmed by glo­be­trot­ting celebrity cu­ra­tors, chal­lenges our pop­ulist post-Trump era. But they of­ten do lit­tle to up­end these en­demic power struc­tures. Too of­ten, artists who have been pro­duc­ing ex­em­plary work, some­times for decades, be­yond the lim­ited reach of the West­ern art world, are given a plat­form in ser­vice of a di­ver­sity check­list. They are in­vited to per­form their iden­tity. Or worse, their trauma. To bor­row a term from the African-Amer­i­can philoso­pher Ge­orge Yancy, the white gaze re­mains in­tact.

APT’s 25-year his­tory pre­dates our cur­rent fix­a­tion with per­for­ma­tive wo­ke­ness. It is the largest ex­hi­bi­tion de­voted ex­clu­sively to con­tem­po­rary art from the Asia-Pa­cific re­gion. And, re­mark­ably, the only one to po­si­tion Aus­tralia within this con­text.

The show was over­seen by Dr Zara Stan­hope and an in-house team who’ve deeply im­mersed them­selves in the re­gion’s art scenes – an im­per­a­tive that does far more for the pre­sen­ta­tion’s depth and vi­tal­ity than the neb­u­lous “themes” so beloved by cu­ra­tors. It fea­tures up­wards of 80 artists and col­lec­tives from 30 coun­tries in­clud­ing – for the first time – Bangladesh, Laos, the Re­pub­lic of the Mar­shall Is­lands, the Solomon Is­lands and the Au­ton­o­mous Re­gion of Bougainville, a con­stel­la­tion of atolls that was once part of Pa­pua New Guinea.

The 400-strong se­ries of art­works, ex­hib­ited across the Queens­land Art Gallery and Gallery of Mod­ern Art (QAGOMA), rep­re­sent a uni­verse of artis­tic styles and prac­tices – mono­chrome pho­to­graphs and rain­bow-bright as­sem­blages, wo­ven bas­ketry and high-con­cept video art. Threads re­cur. Some pieces deal with tan­gled colo­nial his­to­ries and the at­ten­dant feel­ings of dis­place­ment and long­ing. Oth­ers with na­ture, flux and ma­tri­archy. But nav­i­gat­ing the bot­tom floor of QAG and GOMA’s airy, sun-splashed gal­leries, the idea that sprung to mind isn’t di­ver­sity – di­verse to whom? – but plu­ral­ity. The no­tion that there is no one way to make art or, in­deed, see art, shouldn’t strike me as fresh, ex­hil­a­rat­ing or down­right rad­i­cal. How­ever, I’ve be­come so ac­cus­tomed to the in­vis­i­ble pres­ence of the white gaze, es­pe­cially in rar­efied spa­ces such as the gallery, that it does.

Dur­ing the past two years, the art world has been pre­oc­cu­pied with pol­i­tics, un­der­stand­ably. In some ways, grap­pling with the tyranny of bor­ders, the scourge of racism and the fall­out from the refugee cri­sis has never felt more nec­es­sary. The trou­ble is that so much work that brands it­self as po­lit­i­cal – take Ai Wei­wei’s Law of the Jour­ney at this year’s Bi­en­nale of Syd­ney – comes off as empty and bom­bas­tic, de­signed to mir­ror rather than ex­pand our world view. As Stan­hope, ref­er­enc­ing the In­dian art his­to­rian Geeta Ka­pur, pointed out at the APT’s me­dia pre­view, the Tri­en­nial is as con­cerned with po­et­ics as it is with pol­i­tics. The show pays at­ten­tion to how the forces of his­tory don’t just shape global events but can re­fract, frag­ment and trans­form the con­scious­ness of its sub­jects. This gives rise to some of its most poignant mo­ments.

In a dark­ened gallery of GOMA, I sat mes­merised in front of Monira Al Qadiri’s DIVER (2018). The four­chan­nel video work, in which syn­chro­nised swim­mers duck, dive and spin to haunt­ing Kuwaiti pearling songs, is a study in vis­cous, pris­matic sur­faces. It draws aes­thetic par­al­lels be­tween the Per­sian Gulf’s 19th-cen­tury his­tory of pearling – Al Qadiri’s grand­fa­ther was a singer on a pearling ship – and the mod­ern-day oil boom, an in­dus­try equally im­pli­cated in hu­man and en­vi­ron­men­tal ex­ploita­tion. The work con­jures both the lan­guid plea­sure of glid­ing un­der wa­ter and a push-pull be­tween de­sire and ter­ror, the sen­sa­tion of drift­ing to­wards some­thing whose con­tours are both fa­mil­iar and un­known.

Else­where, the after­math of his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tives sparks new ways of re­coup­ing cul­tural prac­tices and re­claim­ing col­lec­tive mem­ory – to pow­er­ful ef­fect. Ly Hoàng Ly’s Ashes (2013), the re­sult of the Viet­namese artist’s at­tempt to sim­mer cow bones for her daugh­ter while liv­ing in Chicago, ten­derly evokes the way home­land ri­tu­als be­come phan­tom limbs in the lives of im­mi­grants, doomed to be re­placed but never re-cre­ated. Over at QAG’s Water­mall, Sin­ga­porean artists Donna Ong and Robert Zhao Ren­hui riff on the ways that the city-state’s lush trop­i­cal jun­gles are fil­tered through the colo­nial imag­i­na­tion in My for­est is not your gar­den (2015-18). The in­stal­la­tion chan­nels the botan­i­cal dis­plays that adorn the lob­bies of lux­ury ho­tels in big Asian cities. Ex­oti­cism in­ter­nalised and spat out for West­ern con­sump­tion. To me, it also nods at the trou­bling yen for Em­pire-era in­te­ri­ors across bars in cities such as Mel­bourne and Syd­ney.

Back at GOMA, the West­ern Ar­rernte por­traitist Vin­cent Na­matjira, the great-grand­son of the leg­endary Ar­rernte land­scape painter Al­bert Na­matjira and part of the Tri­en­nial’s largest co­hort of First Na­tions artists, play­fully skew­ers the hypocrisy that un­der­pins the dis­tri­bu­tion of priv­i­lege in Aus­tralia. Three of his se­ries from 2016 – Seven Lead­ers, Prime Min­is­ters and The Rich­est – pit the artists and law­men who helm South Aus­tralia’s APY com­mu­ni­ties with Aus­tralia’s rich­est mag­nates and the coun­try’s past seven lead­ers. The lat­ter rep­re­sents an in-joke that ref­er­ences their wil­ful dis­re­gard for Indige­nous sovereignty. The work also winks at the self-in­ter­est that has seen each leader’s hap­less grin be­come in­ter­change­able dur­ing the past few years.

APT has al­ways shown mon­u­men­tal pieces, some­times in part­ner­ship with ma­jor Asian in­sti­tu­tions. This year’s high­lights in­clude For, In Your Tongue, I Can Not Fit (2017-18), a room af­fixed with mi­cro­phones that re­lay frag­ments of verse from In­dian new me­dia pi­o­neer Shilpa Gupta; and an au­da­cious tech­ni­colour mu­ral by Iman Raad, an Ira­nian artist whose prac­tice ref­er­ences Mogul paint­ing and the in­tri­cate art­work that adorns buses in South Asia. Along with free­wheel­ing mixed­me­dia paint­ings by Philip­pine artist Kawayan De Guia and gi­ant rings of cane or Loloi – cre­ated for APT by the To­lai peo­ple of New Guinea – Raad’s work re­flects the ex­hi­bi­tion’s com­mit­ment to el­e­vat­ing ver­nac­u­lar art forms along­side the pieces we might see in a gallery. This feels sub­ver­sive for a West­ern in­sti­tu­tion. It’s also a re­minder that those of us who grew up out­side this con­text have long sus­pected that the aes­thet­ics of

ev­ery­day life may have as much to say as paint­ings and sculp­tures when it comes to how we see the world.

So much of the work here is wildly am­bi­tious, aimed at widen­ing our vis­ual hori­zons and el­e­vat­ing un­der­sung artists. The sen­si­bil­ity is kalei­do­scopic. But not ev­ery­thing is ex­e­cuted to equal ef­fect. Chi­nese artist Qiu Zhi­jie’s Map of Tech­no­log­i­cal Ethics (2018), an epic paint­ing that adorns the main wall of GOMA’s Long Gallery, draws on cal­li­graphic tra­di­tions to map the moral land­mines – ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, cli­mate change – that de­fine our cul­tural mo­ment. The brush­work is gor­geous, but the no­tion of imag­ined ge­ogra­phies doesn’t feel dis­tinct enough to live up to the work’s as­pi­ra­tions. I tended, in­stead, to con­nect most with qui­eter ex­plo­rations of the nat­u­ral world. The ex­quis­ite Un­ti­tled (gi­ran) (2018), an in­stal­la­tion of 2000 winged sculp­tures made from tools such as emu eg­gshell spoons, an­i­mal bones and feath­ers, mines the con­nec­tions be­tween the breath and wind, lan­guage and coun­try by Kami­laroiWi­rad­juri artist Jonathan Jones.

Sim­i­larly, Women’s Wealth, a first-time project that fore­grounds the cul­tural prac­tices – weav­ing, pot­tery and adorn­ment – at the heart of ma­tri­lin­eal com­mu­ni­ties in Bougainville, is ad­mirable in its in­ten­tion. It could have delved more deeply into the way in which the era­sure of fe­male labour con­tin­ues to up­hold cap­i­tal­ist sys­tems.

THE SHOW PAYS AT­TEN­TION TO HOW THE FORCES OF HIS­TORY DON’T JUST SHAPE GLOBAL EVENTS BUT CAN RE­FRACT, FRAG­MENT AND TRANS­FORM THE CON­SCIOUS­NESS OF ITS SUB­JECTS.

But the fact this edi­tion of APT plays host to more fe­male than male artists also al­lows for a range of in­trigu­ing and spe­cific per­spec­tives on fe­male agency. There is Tai­wanese artist Joyce Ho’s video work Over­ex­posed mem­ory (2015), in which a man­i­cured hand plunges its fingers – ever so slowly – into pulpy hy­per­real fruit, rev­el­ling in the juices that spurt out, a nod to the por­ous na­ture of the fe­male body. Dark Con­ti­nent (2018) is an im­age by Latai Tau­moe­peau fea­tur­ing the Ton­gan per­for­mance artist cov­er­ing her­self in fake tan – an ex­plo­ration of white Aus­tralia’s fetish for tanned skin and the re­la­tion­ship therein be­tween colour, power and value. It also tries to re­frame it. In the end, this may be the best metaphor for APT’s project it­self.

A still from Monira Al Qadiri’s DIVER (above), and Chi­nese artist Qiu Zhi­jie at work on his Map of Tech­no­log­i­cal Ethics (fac­ing page).

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