BEFORE I saw the Asia-Pacific Triennial 2002 I was asked several times by colleagues in Indonesia why the event had changed. The question implied a perception that Australia was continuing its disengagement with Asia (what those in diplomacy call a 're-balancing'). Where selection had been accessible, inclusive, celebratory, it now appeared academic, hierarchical, and exclusive.
Apparently the Asia-Pacific Triennial (APT) was always bound for change and a new, revised format was launched amidst rumours of its discontinuation. While the first three APTs (1993, 1996, 1999) exhibited two hundred and twenty artists, and APT 1999 involved fifty curators from all over the region in the selection of seventy artists, this APT involved five Gallery curators (led by the Director Doug Hall) selecting only sixteen artists.
Principally, the process has been downscaled and brought in-house (although as the press release maintains, the exhibition is of 'similar scale and spectacle to its predecessors'). The catalogue introduction explains it as a matter of increasing focus and specialisation, citing increases in the Queensland Art Gallery's dedicated staff, collections and archive, and of course audience. 1
The numbers for the APTs have been impressive. Steady audience growth since 1993 peaking at one hundred and fifty-five thousand for APT 1999, with nearly 50% under thirty-five. This year acquisitions provided a basis for 15% of the show, especially key works by Nam June Paik held in the collection. And apart from relying on regular Gallery patrons like the Myers, this APT was also accompanied by a public donations campaign to purchase another central work by Yayoi Kusama.
Previous APTs engaged a vast network across the region to represent diverse activity and, as the catalogue testifies, provided 'a sense of ownership to literally hundreds of artists, curators, writers, historians and advisers'. However, 'this generous reciprocal framework was bursting at the seams [and] it seemed timely to review the project's aims and purpose' .2 Consequently, networks in the field have been replaced by a staffing structure within the Gallery, interleaved with financing, fundraising, publicity, and collecting.
In short, APT 2002 has turned inward. It has effectively replaced regional liaison with the Gallery's own institutional imperatives. And in this key respect it unfortunately (and perhaps unwittingly) reflects the national government's current outlook to the region. Read the key terms which describe APT 2002 - 'select', 'in-depth', 'significant impact', 'eminent', 'core group', 'influential', 'substantial', 'breadth'. Empty words crying out for a curator to cut a swathe through the unwieldy art of the region and impose art historical order where there was none before.
It is not surprising then to find a protean attempt at regional art historiography in this APT, which might celebrate purchases, scholarship, publication, etcetera. But unfortunately the history is merely chronological (or 'generational '), and fundamentally conservative, if not entirely random. The catalogue proposes a 'select' three - Yayoi Kusama, Nam June Paik and Lee U-fan- then other 'senior' locals Ralph Hotere and Howard Taylor, before so-called 'serious' artists Nalini Malani, Heri Dono, Montien Boonma, then presumably the rest.3 I am not sure that any of these artists would accept the first three as forebears, let alone relate to one another as peers.
Themes, which might provide a clue, are also mainly undeclared, surfacing incidentally only in a press release, which cites the 'moving image', 'performance', and 'globalisation' as key issues. But surely these are themes only by default. Really, they are just characteristics of contemporary art, raised to the status of curatorial directives in the absence of a pronounced direction, highlighted by publicists looking for an angle on behalf of the media, who are looking on behalf of public audiences. And in this empty concatenation lies the APT's current dilemma: curatorial direction. I cannot find it. It seems yet another major event rests on curatorial caprice.
So we are left to consider as true and fair the curators' assertions about 'seniority' against biography and the occasional artist statement. Mind you, we are luxuriously accommodated in these deliberations. Each work on display is rivalled by the resource materials intended to elucidate it. These include video interviews, books, catalogues and magazines displayed in purpose-built furniture, with excellent AV and comfortable seating. Furthermore, a luxuriant video lounge is centrally located generating a casual and relaxed atmosphere at the core of the show. The auxiliary program even provides free tai chi classes with green tea and, of course, Kids APT is continued. Indeed I cannot remember feeling so well 'serviced' by an exhibition. The viewer of all ages is welcomed, educated, even cosseted.
Yet maybe this configuration is strategic after all, especially in the light of the APT's excellent attendance. Lulled into reverie on a corduroy pouf, viewers may dwell upon their own ideas about the show (despite any misgivings they may have about the 'restructure'). Thankfully there are still some great works to see, and you can still see them for free; two pillars of the APT intact.
It was in this recumbent position that I felt the first sense of an oblique red line running through things; an alternation between a sense of one and a sense of many, between singularities here and infinities there. That sense came to me watching Yayoi Kusama's sex romp Kusama's Self Obliteration (1968), and Nam June Paik's Global Groove (1973).
In the first, Kusama attempts to lose herself and her consciousness in a profusion of dots. Dancing around naked and painting dots on your body seems crazy, and there is a vivid sense of dissipation in Kusama's pathology. Indeed it is her own psychological dissipation (diagnosed as 'depersonalisation syndrome'), linking her psyche with a collective, maddening and unfathomable cosmic multiplicity (like the stars or planets or polka dots). It is no surprise that the artist has been a voluntary patient at a psychiatric hospital since the late '70s.
In Global Groove (1973), throbbing kaleidoscopic disco dance routines are mixed with interviews featuring Allen Ginsberg and John Cage, or a performance by Paik himself. Thus the wisdom of an age is set alongside the disasters of fashion, part of the same groove, man, that is, conjoined in an epochal terrestrial struggle for transcendence. The theme is reiterated in Paik's TV Buddha of course, that classic unending dialogue between the sacred and profane in which an inert stone Buddha contemplates forever its appearance in real time on closed circuit TV. And I guess it suffuses the fulsome Zen brushwork of Lee U-fan too; simple proliferating strokes in and of themselves saying nothing and everything.
Thus in a perpetual alternation in number and in scale, between one thing and a million others, between this instant and the rest of time, we might find evidence of a continuum with its roots in Buddhist spirituality, an idea emanating from Asia but destined for the United States West Coast and middle classes everywhere. It turned up in B-grade movies such as The Incredible Shrinking Man, where our hero gains enlightenment at the point of disappearing, realizing the irrelevance of scale and his own equivalence with things great and small in the universe. Or in pop culture in the Beatles' Yellow Submarine, in which a vacuum cleaner vacuums itself in an ecstatic parody of ego death.
These are moments where we lose a firm sense of ourselves, where we merge with others or meld with the world. The idea extrapolates in APT 2002 in different ways. In Michael Ming Hong Lin's up-scaled fabric motifs painted onto walls, we are overshadowed by emanations from the artist's childhood. These giant fabric patterns excised from curtains or cloths in Lin's life, diminish us, return us in modesty to our own earliest memories of table cloths covered in treats and our own mothers' skirts. These arise from the past, the background of our current lives, to eventually consume and overwhelm us. We surrender adult identity to this kind of whimsy reflexively, compelled by these select childhood remembrances.
These moments of intense individuation are in contrast to collective experiences described elsewhere in the show. In Suh Do-Ho's Blue-Green Bridge, an army of tiny plastic figurines - posed like Atlas - combine forces as if to take our weight across a bridge. Each figure blends with another to form a massive anonymous workforce, undifferentiated except that its colour gradually, imperceptibly changes from blue to green. No one individual is marked out. Instead collectivity would seem to be the basis of extraordinary, wonderful feats and accomplishments, although it is subordinate to a banal, pointless task here (since the bridge leads nowhere and no-one travels it).
Rather like Song Dong writing his diary in water on a stone, which will of course dry and disappear. It is a beautiful idea, recommended first of all by his father as an austerity measure. Elsewhere, in photos Song Dong repeatedly stamps the Lhasa River in Tibet with a stamp of the word 'river' . These are individual gestures repeated to the point where a practical labour becomes a profound symbolic action reflecting the futility of existence and our knowing inconsequence, a kind of enlightenment or transcendence.
Is this the wisdom held in store by APT 2002 for the audience? That the viewers hold centre-stage only to ultimately disappear, shrink, dissipate in the act of looking and understanding? To fragment as they do in the hundreds of shiny mirror balls set adrift by Kusama in the Gallery's water garden (a site-specific version of Narcissus Garden, 1966)? Or to disperse as they do among thousands of tiny faces which make up Suh Do-Ho's wallpaper Who Am We?
Let's sum up this cautionary tale then. There is more at stake than the comfort, pleasure and ego of one hundred and fifty thousand visitors to the APT. The proprietary stake which our regional colleagues took in the APT was one of its great successes and a great success for diplomacy generally. Amidst the expansion and growth of the arts in Queensland (including a new Gallery building), the Queensland Art Gallery has wrested the event back and produced a less expensive version that will not lose money. But neither does it fulfil any significant curatorial endeavour or real diplomatic function.
In the hollows, the Gallery's new institutional priorities resound awkwardly. And it is in the hollows that I want to shout, 'the best thing about the APTs in the past was the uneven terrain, the catholic choice, the festive and chaotic feel, in short, the real and actual engagement of the region according to many different terms of reference'.
1. Raffel, Suhanya, 'An Introduction', APT 2002, Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, Queensland Art Gallery, 2002. p.17.
3. Ibid., p.B.
Stuart Koop is a free-lance curator and writer based in Melbourne. He has recently returned from an Asialink residency in Indonesia.