From the first Asia Pacific Triennial (APT) in 1993, collaboration has been a much debated aspect of this event at the Queensland Art Gallery (QAG). A great deal of effort was initially invested by the Gallery in locating and engaging in curatorial, institutional or diplomatic partnerships that brought local knowledge and justified the (informed) selection of artists. Although the international pairing of curatorial colleagues was subsequently discontinued, the Gallery has maintained its reflexive approach to exhibition making, employing its established and extensive networks and prolonged research in the areas of art, and more recently film and music, across Asia and the Pacific. The inclusion of the Long March Project in APT5 marked the continuation of a cooperative programming ethos, and the new inclusion of North Korean, Tibetan and west Asian artists, as well as filmmakers from the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East, indicate the expansive reach of the curators of the 6th Triennial.
Regardless of his proviso that an ‘event of this scale will naturally strain at the bonds of any overarching themes’, director Tony Ellwood could confidently state that the 6th Triennial had at its core ‘a long-held interest in collaboration, interconnectivity and cross-disciplinary practice’.1 Bearing in mind the complexities and range of possibilities—from mutuality to rudimentary exchange—that constitute the realities of cooperative alliances, where were collaboration and interconnectivity to be found in this event, and what might these actions contribute now to the ongoing transformation of the APT?
Suhanya Raffel’s pertinent reminder that the APT is a team effort distinguishes QAG’s organisational approach from the generally singular curatorial voice directing contemporary international biennales and triennials today.2 Within the large scale APT6, three discrete elements, ‘The Mekong’ project; the group of works from North Korea (DPRK), and the ‘Pacific Reggae’ performance and video program, are highlighted by the Gallery as exemplars of the event’s collaborative curatorial practice.3
A curatorial collaboration between QAG’s Russell Storer and artist/writer Rich Streitmatter-Tran, The Mekong project included works by artists from Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar (Burma) as well as the art exchange developed for the APT: My river, my future: A children’s drawing project (2009). Self professed ‘local expert’ Streitmatter-Tran had lived in and recently studied contemporary art of this region, and evidently energetically embraced a dialogic pursuit of conversation and on-the-ground research with Storer over two years. Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba’s video The Ground, the Root, and the Air: The Passing of the Bodhi Tree (2004–07) was placed at a space designed to evoke the institutional proposition of the Mekong River as a metaphor for movement and exchange.4 Although the group of works gathered under this geographic and historic regional umbrella did not easily cohere into such a synthesis, they did comprise a fascinating body of work that evoked the tenors of varied political, social and cultural stresses. The coming together of different knowledges and well-grounded perspectives in the making of The Mekong project succeeded in providing one of the viewing pleasures of this Triennial.
By contrast, the North Korean representation was described as a collaboration between the QAG and the Mansudae Art Studio, made possible through the facilitation of Beijing-based British filmmaker Nicholas Bonner. Supervised by Kim Jong-il, Mansudae is the most prestigious Art Studio in North Korea and supports upward of 1,000 artists working in different media. Bonner’s description of his role in the commissioning of works (five large brush and ink works, a large oil painting and a revolutionary themed tile mosaic) from the Mansudae Art Studio, and the inclusion of numerous woodblocks from his personal collection, suggested his role was beyond that of a facilitator. According to Bonner, the preparatory processes for the APT included challenges to the painters to extend their compositions and painting styles beyond their existing personal versions of forms of a nationally accepted social realism.
The foregrounding of collaborative practice by QAG within APT6 also equally raised awareness of collective behaviour within artistic practice. A fine example was the ten-year long, sensitively negotiated partnership between Robin White and Fijian barkcloth artist Leba Toki, who together have created many detailed barkcloths. Yet their sensitive and experimental working relationship can only be hinted at by the exquisitely fine works made with Bale Jione under the title Teitei vou (A new garden) (2009). Unfortunately, the processes of creative collaboration often pass unnoticed in exhibitions unless they can be evidenced in the work’s outcome. This easily could have occurred with Taiwanese artist Charwei Tsai’s Mushroom Mantra (2009), her tiny ink inscriptions of the Heart Sutra on mushrooms being created in part with local Buddhist monks in Brisbane. Similarly, the 208 drawings misleadingly titled The One Year Drawing Project May 2005–October 2007, generated in an exchange of works between Muhanned Cader, Thamotharampillai Shanaathanan, Chandraguptha Thenuwara and Jagath Weerasinghe from Sri Lanka, belie their two and half year genesis. Artists’ working partnerships may be less recognisable for reasons of the seamless appearance of their art (as in the case of Jiten Thukral and Sumir Tagra or Tun Win Aung and Wah Nu) or possibly because the teaming up lacked the tension of difference that can activate something new (Yoshitomo Nara and graf).
In part, the presence of work made collegially by artists reflects concurrent developments in the field of contemporary art, which includes the proliferation of artists’ collectives and social art practices over the last decade. Works, such as DAMP’s meeting space created atop a giant sculptural plinth is an example of art that is an invitation to sociability, and can either be experienced as pregnant with possibility or as disappointingly vacant. The Kids’ APT program is an indicator of the increased institutional acceptance of participatory practices. Activities designed for this program invite the audience to interact with creative processes related to an artist’s exhibited work. Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan’s In-flight (Project: Another Country) (2009), a mountain of material off-cuts and recycled objects to be used to construct ‘model airplanes’, also fulfils the function of activating the gallery, by suspending plane shapes made in local workshops with children and adults.
The differing effects of collaboration between the curatorial and creative aspects of the APT depend less on the nature or type of interaction (and associated concerns of equity and acknowledgement) and more on the quality of the relationship. Critical discourses this decade have positioned artists within histories of studio and performative practices or neo-avant garde political associations, and recognised the connectivity in social and support groupings and the incorporation of the public into art making. A similarly extensive but different range of collegial relations, interdisciplinary interactions, contractor transactions and volunteer and audience participation obviously occurs within the everyday operations of art institutions but remains unremarked in distinction to the political character attributed to artists’ strategies.
Working together, whether as artists or curators, has brought significant works, affecting experiences and new content to audiences of the APT6. However, as important as the insights that arose from the creative and polemic processes of collaboration are other, latent benefits. These include conversations and dialogues extending beyond the present that have, as Streitmatter-Tran suggests, the cultural and political capacity to ‘move toward sustainable arts development and exchange for the future’ between geographies and cultures.5
1. Ellwood, T, ‘Director’s foreword’, The 6th Asia Pacific Triennial. exh. cat., QAG, Brisbane, 2009, p.21.
2. Raffel, S, ‘A restless subject’, ibid., p.26.
3. Pacific Reggae was co-curated by Brent Clough (Producer and Presenter, ABC Radio National) and Maude Page (Curator, Contemporary Pacific Art, QAG).
4. Streitmatter-Tran, R, ‘Mapping the Mekong’, op. cit., p.122.
5. ibid., p.122.
Zara Stanhope is a curator, writer and PhD candidate at the Australian National University.