The ongoing thoughts of an art teacher in China - and home in Sydney

A continuing diary about my travels in China, and thoughts about China and Chinese art from home and abroad

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The mystery of the missing Chinese artists: The 7th Asia Pacific Triennial

  • Purchased 2011. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation. Collection: Queensland Art Gallery

My second review of the Asia Pacific Triennial was published in Randian this week. It's an online art journal published in Chinese and English, with editors based in Shanghai and Beijing.They describe themselves this way: "We seek to promote independent cultural debate in China and to foster intellectual exchange between China and the rest of the world. This means independent commentary on art, artists, exhibitions and galleries, as well as video, architecture and design. "

Having written two reviews of the APT for two different audiences, I really thought long and hard about why I remained relatively unenthused about this year's iteration of what has in the past been an incredibly exciting revelation of new artists from around Asia and Pacific nations. I would go so far as to say that the first time I went to Brisbane to see an APT, back in the early 2000s, it was quite an epiphany. It changed my teaching, because I realised how Euro- and Amero-centric I had been in the selection of artists and works I presented to my students, and it put me on my current path of a deepening fascination with China and contemporary Chinese art. And in this show, apart from the ever-fabulous Huang Yong Ping and a deeply uninteresting work by the over-hyped Zhou Tiehai entitled 'Le Juge'  (Why? Who knows?) apparently reflecting on "the intersection between art and gastronomy" (yeah, yeah) there is nothing from the PRC and little from Taiwan. This for me was the biggest disappointment - and quite inexplicable as there is so much that could have been selected within the curatorial narrative of ephemeral structures in a globalised world. A mystery. It's a bit of a curate's egg of a show, frankly - good in parts.

Huang Yong Ping 'Ressort', photograph Luise Guest, QAGOMA 2013
 It is not often that I find myself in agreement with critic John McDonald, but on this occasion I thought his doubts about the curatorial inclusions of so many apparently traditional works from New Guinea and the Pacific Islands were well founded.  I went back to the exhibition twice, and spent a lot of time looking for works to get excited about, works that I would want to write about. They were few and far between. However, with a longer, more careful look my initial lack of excitement gave way to a cautious feeling that there were other new artistic landscapes being revealed by the selection of interesting works from some surprising places. These included a  collaboration between Afghanistan's only female graffiti artist and an American 'street' artist through the auspices of a Vietnamese artist collective; photographic and video installations from Kazakhstan and some interesting painting and photomedia work by Samoan /New Zealand artist Greg Semu.

Greg Semu, 'Untitled, from The Battle of the Noble Savage Series', digital print on PVC canvas, lightbox, edition of 10
courtesy the artist and Galerie Metropolis, Paris

Gimhomsok, South Korea, Canine Construction, Resin 2009, collection Queensland Art Gallery

Here is the start of my piece for Randian, 'Casting Lines Across the Globe':

"What event makes a small tropical Australian city into an internationally significant art centre once every three years? It’s the Asia Pacific Triennial, the first project of its kind in the world to focus on the contemporary art of Asia and the Pacific — a barometer of artistic and social change in this region. The representation of 500 artists from 30 countries, some significant scholarship, the construction of international networks and continuing dialogues, an impressive and growing collection of contemporary works for Brisbane’s Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art– this is the legacy of the APT, now in its seventh iteration and its twentieth year. The very first show in 1993 included major projects by Dadang Christanto and Montien Boonma, as well as featuring contemporary Chinese artists such as Ding Yi, Zhou Changjiang, Xu Jiang, and Sun Liang.
It is the APT that brought Ai Weiwei, Cai Quo-Giang, Lee Mingwei, Heri Dono, Barti Kher and Lee Bul to the attention of Australian audiences. Cai Quo-Giang’s project for APT2, “Dragon or Rainbow Serpent: A Myth Glorified or Feared” was a significant development of his early practice, featuring his emblematic use of explosives. Exploring the parallels he perceived between the Chinese dragon and the Australian Aboriginal Rainbow Serpent, the result was an 18 metre long piece made up of nine “gunpowder drawings.” APT 4 focused on substantial bodies of work by sixteen artists, including Song Dong and his “Stamping the Water” and “Writing Diary with Water.” It enhanced the APT’s reputation for serious scholarship and placed the triennial more firmly on the international art map, charting the changing geopolitical realities of our region. APT 6 in 2009 was of particular significance, with three ground-breaking projects: the first presentation in Australia of contemporary art from North Korea; “Pacific Reggae” which featured music and music video from Hawaii, the Solomon Islands, New Caledonia, New Guinea, Vanuatu and Australia; and an interactive installation by husband and wife team Isabel and Alfredo Aquilizan in which children were invited to participate. I found this iteration of the triennial the most exciting and engaging, in particular the inclusion of significant figures such as Gonkar Gyatso, Subodh Gupta, Chen Qiulin, Shirana Shahbazi. A segment devoted to contemporary artists working around the Mekong River, and its cartography of shifting dynamics and tensions between Buddhist tradition and Western values and modernity, introduced us to Cambodian Sopheap Pich and Vietnamese Bui Cong Khanh.

Raqib Shaw, India / UK, Paradise Lost (detail), image courtesy of the artist and White Cube, London
The exhibitions have always been exciting, sometimes provocative — even disturbing. The seventh APT is no exception; however some of the decisions made by the curators are curious, resulting in a show that is not quite as richly rewarding as it should have been. The curatorial team led by Acting Director Suhanya Raffel began the process with a stated intention to consider location, and the significance of the structures and built environments in which we live and through which we construct our identity. “A project such as the APT is bound to deliberate on change as it casts its lines across the globe,” Raffel says in her catalogue essay. The metaphor of “casting lines” is particularly apt for an exhibition that has challenged many, including this writer, by its inclusion of a large number of mostly traditional works from Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia, including masks and structures from the Sepik River Region in New Guinea, which dominate the lower space of GOMA. The decision to emphasise the Pacific and de-emphasise China, Japan, Korea and other Asian nations which have formed the backbone of past APT exhibitions has proved controversial. The traditional Oceanic works are hugely powerful, without a doubt, but they sit a little uneasily in the museum space, removed from their original function and purpose. A number of catalogue essays insist that these works reflect change in their societies and therefore connect with other works in the exhibition, but to an eye untrained in the subtleties of the particular context and the history of Papua New Guinea they appear dissonant — uneasily reminiscent of past museum collections from an anthropological paradigm. The task for the curators this year was by no means easy — navigating the highly political terrain of diasporic cultures, the rise of new cultures and the perceived decline of others, however, their inclusion of so many works that represent traditional cultural practices is problematic."
You can  read on HERE to see what else I had to say about this!
Nguyen Manh Hung, Living Together in Paradise, mixed media installation,
courtesy the artist and Art Vietnam Gallery Hanoi

I did think this work by Nguyen Manh Hung was completely charming. With all the idiosyncratic and low-fi qualities of an old style museum diorama, the sculpture of a ramshackle high-rise apartment block, complete with lots of laundry hanging out windows and home-made stripy plastic awnings of the kind seen everywhere in Asian cities, speaks of how people make 'home' and define their own space.

My review of the APT published in Dailyserving can be read HERE.