Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art

Sun, 23/06/2013 - 13:02 -- damien
Writing histories—Reflections on two Australian exhibitions on the arts in the regions

 

Confess and Conceal is an exposition featuring works by eleven contemporary artists-seven of whom are from Australia while the remaining four are, one each, from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.l Conceived and initiated by the Art Gallery of Western Australia, the show is currently in Singapore and will be touring Indonesia (Jakarta), Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur) and t.k. sabapathy

Thailand (Bangkok). It marks yet another advancement by Australia, in what appears to be a sustained strategy to forge inter-regional artistic connections. It is a show shaped by rigorously considered curatorial aims. The decision to focus on painting as such-in which figuration appears dominant astonishingly, does stand up to close and sustained scrutiny, due in no small measure to the thoughtful selection of artists and the suggestive juxtaposition of their works. One could of course argue the basis for the spread of representation. Why, for instance, seven from Australia? And indeed one should press the argument: given that the focus has sectled on painting, then why have artists from the Philippines been omitted? They are among the most accomplished painters in Southeast Asia.

 

Be that as it may, the aim here is not to embark upon a critique of this show, as such, but to prise out of it assumptions which permit the development of reflections on another, larger, and somewhat related, undertaking, namely The First AsiaPacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, inaugurated in September, 1993 at the Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane. Of course the two bear no ostensible comparison in scope or scale. The Triennial was ambitious and grandiose; it projected sweeping visions of varied artistic practices from complex, vast, interlocking regions. Confess and Conceal, on the other hand, is circumscribed; it has a declared theme, and artists have been selected so as to disclose (or conceal, I would have to say) affiliations, dispositions or correspondences with others along a number of frontssome of which converge towards, while others diverge away from the theme. Yet, underlying the two projects are shared beliefs or assumptions rooted in the validity of constructing relationships or mapping connections between regions. Originating as they do from Australia, they register earnest attempts towards Asia Pacific orientations, thereby towards securing new positions in the world. These manoeuvrers are part of an extensive politico-economic agenda designed to shake Australia off a prolonged slumber, and to induce it to reconstruct its histories as well as to chart new futures. How Australia re-draws its geography, how it squares up to an entrenched British identity in the face of an ambition to turn towards the Asia Pacific, and how it will steer towards fresh positions in the world, are matters which do not appear to be settled to those looking in from the outside.

 

 Even so, artistic initiatives are launched as vivid, highly public means for testing, exploring, defining and consolidating some of these goals; in the process, Australia's positions and identities are continually renegotiated, and at times appear even to be affirmed. Consider the following: the principal sponsors of Confess and Conceal declare that they are

 

... honoured to be involved in this prestigious project, which crosses cultural and geographical boundaries and promotes a relationship between Australia and Southeast Asia built on trust, professionalism and a desire to benefit from each other as equals.2 Disclosures professing amity are to be expected and fulfil the requirements of protocol; a claim of bolder compass is also advanced, and this is how it is stated:

 

It is significant that the exhibition recognizes Australia's polygenic make up, which parallels the rich tapestry of many different races, traditions and cultures comprising the Southeast Asia region.3

 

Notwithstanding the curious cross-over of metaphors, I am not convinced that the parallelism invoked is supportable as a 'given' or that it is historically valid. As if to demonstrate the uneasy nature of this circumstance, Confess and Conceal at times wobbles along the edge of a chasm differentiating Australia from those countries in Southeast Asia featured in this show; the very words in which the theme is couched are problematic. I am aware that they have been adapted from a painting by Mark Webb on whose surface these two words are inscribed; furthermore, Margaret Moore and Michael O'Ferrall, the curators, are circumspect in their usage of these terms, as they seek to gingerly steer them away from stereotyped definitions. Still, is it possible to divest them of earlier, entrenched meanings and resonances? Their Judeo-Christian genesis stares us in the face! Confess throbs with such attendant (necessary?) conditions as sin, guilt, terror and redemption; conceal leads to uneasy associations with deceit, dissemble, hide and obscure. Theologically and psychologically their unravelling can be understood as being directed towards recovering, restoring and re-constituting the self which is flawed, in order to gain a finite, incorruptible status.

 

In their thoughtfully crafted essay in the catalogue, Moore and O'Ferrall confirm this position, in a sense, by installing the self as the nucleus of the exposition. They claim that:

 

What all these artists have in common, and what is dominant above all their other characteristics, is the centrality of the self in their artistic production.4

 

It is not at all clear whether the centrality of the self is the outcome of a coeval intersection of the streams of confessing and concealing. If such be the case, it will be difficult to align the artists from Southeast Asia along such directions. While the process of concealing has deep roots in the matrices of cultural expression in Southeast Asia, that of confessing is alien and difficult to comprehend. In this connection it is pertinent to remark that Apinan Poshyananda titles his essay in the catalogue to Confess and Conceal, "The art of camouflage and exposure". What is more, he uses the word confess only towards the end of his presentation, as if to remind himself of his obligation to the theme, and then only to declare his own position regarding his subject interest, rather than addressing the theme per se. Such an omission speaks volumes, and the following is what he says about the works of Pinaree Sanpitak, in concluding his essay:

 

In attempting to decipher her codes and unveil her concealments, one discovers that her works reveal institutional and intellectual weaknesses in the Thai art scene. A male gaze at the Mekong-Sangsom pin-ups must take a new slant when confronting Pinaree's art. Here I must confess that her art is more subtle and more evocative than it first appeared to be. 5

 

For Apinan, it is apparent that the term conceal is congenial for explicating Pinaree's ideology and practice; words such as veil, hidden, secret and camouflage, all of which are close enough to the notion of concealment, appear frequently in his text. But nowhere can the term confess find a context or a site, with the exception noted above. Perhaps the theme could have been formulated to read, Disclose and Conceal or Reveal and Conceal, although granted, none of these match the alliterative resonance of the preferred theme! However, to follow such trajectories as disclose and conceal or reveal and conceal can lead to profound understandings of the structure and meaning of a whole range of artistic genres in Southeast Asia, both historical and contemporary. The notion of the self is made manifest continually, revealing and concealing infinite shades of identity, revealing and concealing myriad forms in the context and dynamics of play. Cast in such fluid frames, the works by Lucia Hartini (Indonesia), Salleh Japar (Singapore), Fauzan Omar (Malaysia) and Pinaree Sanpitak (Thailand), provoke rich and textured readings of identity-private and social, and highlight the inextricability of the connection between both spheres. It is important to keep this in mind as it impinges upon ways by which histories, and especially histories of contemporary art in a region as diverse as Southeast Asia, can be conceived and constructed.

 

This is a convenient and appropriate point for re-entering into the Asia-Pacific Triennial, which consisted of a conference and an exhibition. It often is the case that when a project is cast on a scale such as the Brisbane Triennial was, and especially when a substantial body of the exhibits in it were produced in situ, that the conference and the exhibition follow parallel or different trajectories, with little prospect of the two intersecting in any enduring sense. In a sense Caroline Turner anticipated such a consequence by remarking in her contribution to the collection of essays published for the occasion and titled Tradition and Change Contemporary Art of Asia and the Pacific that: "This book is essentially history, what has happened and why. The future remains."6

 

This is technically irreproachable, however, I would like to dig into it a little in order to discuss what is entailed in the writing of histories. In doing so I will focus on S. Chandrasekaran's installation and associated performance at the Triennial, titled Duality. Chandra (as he is usually known) shares a deep-rooted, abiding interest in traditions with a number of artists from Southeast Asia featured in Brisbane, namely: Heri Dono, Montien Boonma, Santiago Base and Kungyu Liew. The methods by which traditions are transmuted by these artists differ dramatically amongst them. For Chandra, Indian traditions constitute rich resources, especially the ideology underpinning icons. However, his aim is not to create or to produce images with the view of satisfying revised theological idealisms, it is to probe into the language of images in ways that can construct distinct cultural presences and embody or transact personal identities; the two are intimately linked. These objectives assume credence and urgency in Singapore where pluralistic, linguistic and cultural systems are rooted in what may be termed as 'streams' structure or grounds. That is to say, Singapore has four official languages, each conforming to a 'stream': Malay, Mandarin, Tamil and English. While English has secured dominance because of its pragmatic or economic value, the other languages are promoted and safeguarded, in part to avert racial conflicts, and in part to fortify cultural identities in the face of the onslaught of Western, and particularly American, influences.

 

A situation in which separate but equal ethnic enclaves are condoned, aligned along linguistic lines and associated cultural symptoms, has to an extent engendered artistic expressions whose resources are traceable to 'root cultures' outside Singapore. Chandra, a Tamil speaking Indian, has turned towards India. Over the past five years, he has studied and examined dimensions of time and space, the constitution of materials and form, in part, through the dynamics of Indian philosophical, aesthetic systems, and in part through his life experiences in the predominantly urban fabric that is

Singapore. Even as he adapts and interprets Indian systems, Chandra does so as one who is at a distance from the soil and ground which nourished these same systems. There emerge, consequently, in his constructions, fabrications and actions, degrees of aloofness and distancing which permit the cultivation of new meanings. The ritualistic movements which stamped his performance associated with Duality, were aimed at signalling the dangers of entrapment which are inherent in any fanatical, dogmatic pursuance of ideals, whether these be religious or political. In the midst of the pseudo-language inscribed with precision on the wall appear actual words written in Tamil, spelling mother and father. These are biographical registrations encoding kinship relationships of a highly personal nature in a new and strange environment. I have highlighted a number of levels, traversing national/political dimensions as well as the realm of private emotions; there is no certain way to say that each is equally decisive in shaping or determining the values that Chandra conveys or transacts in his practice. Yet, they have to be unravelled, their constitution and relationships have also to be mapped, and their relevance ascertained. All these take us far away from the paradigm of art that yokes us to discourses emanating from centres in Euro-America. In exploring and giving them structure, we articulate histories that are authentic to practices in our respective regions.

notes: 

1. They are: Garden Bennett, Lucia Hartini, Salleh Japar, Mary Moore, Jan Nelson,

Fauzan Omar, Lin Onus, Pinaree Sanpitak, Jenny Watson, Mark Webb, and John

Young

2. Confess and Conceal11 insights from Contemporaty Australia and South-East Asia,

Art Gallery of Western Australia, 1993, p. 6

3. ibid, p. 6.

4. ibid, p. 11

5. ibid, p. 21 .

6. "Internationalism and Regionalism: Paradoxes of Identity", in Tradition and Change

Contemporaty Art of Asia and the Pacific, University of Queensland Press, 1993, p. xviii.

T.K. Sabapa thy teaches history of art and architecture at the School of

Architecture, National University of Singapore.