The 7th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art

The 7th Asia Pacific Triennial’s (APT7’s) superbly curated exhibition and cinema program marked the twentieth anniversary of this flagship event with its ground-breaking focus on the contemporary art of Asia, the Pacific and Australia. Despite the occasion, it seemed at pains to distance itself from any congratulatory tone, taking a uniform approach to the wealth of ideas and practices on display. This had the effect of modulating the institutional intent of the exhibition, as well as allowing a more contemplative apprehension of works than viewers may have encountered in recent APTs. APT7 charted the coordinates of the Asia-Pacific region in an understated fashion—playing to the strengths of its inherited institutional framework rather than generating the kinds of shifts that we should anticipate as it looks to continue its eminent contribution to artistic and cultural ambitions in the region.

APT7 was exhibition making of the highest order. Avoiding an over-concentration of subject, technique and materials, or too abrupt a disjunction between works, it lent significance to every work regardless of the scale of its installation. Its organisation was handled deftly without overly predicting viewers’ responses to the works and to their arrangement. 

The exhibition’s relatively unadorned approach allowed such stand-out works as Yuan Goang-Ming’s meditation on the cycle of life and death, Tadasu Takamine’s affecting response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster and collective Tromarama’s quirky commentary on Indonesian current affairs, to shine. The exhibition was notable for the way it supported the reception of more minimal conceptual works and facilitated APT’s engagement with a wider scope of art historical discourses. APT7 brought the post-modern and post-colonial strategies of appropriation, quotation and parody into closer proximity with the formal and social concerns of Conceptualism. 

Videos by Tintin Wulia and Basir Mahmood condensed the complex political realities of their respective Indonesian-Australian and Pakistani contexts into single, emblematic gestures. The squashing of a mosquito between the pages of a passport, in Wulia’s instance, or the mis-threading of a needle, or the trying on of second-hand clothes in a bazaar, as observed by Mahmood, represented a clarifying, for the artists, of issues close to ‘home’. 

The fluency of objects was conveyed through Erbossyn Meldibekov’s upturned, now-rare, Soviet-era cooking pots referencing the topography of the Hindu Kush. Also from the exhibition’s ‘0 – Now: Traversing West Asia’ section, collective Slavs and Tartars perfectly captured the optimistic disposition of their discursive project in their neon-lit magic carpet. Elsewhere, South Korean Gimhongsok fashioned his oblique objects from plastic bags and cardboard boxes that were later memorialised in resin and bronze so they assumed a desiccated appearance. Appropriating Jeff Koons’s sleek dog sculptures and Robert Indiana’s famous 1967 print, Love, they functioned as a retraction of these iconic works and the power of objects in general. 

This rigorous curatorial tack gave greater weight to the formal accomplishments of works and configured them in ways that suggested nuanced cultural borrowing as opposed to cultural influence on a larger scale. As a result, fewer works relied on the symbolic vocabulary that QAGOMA’s audiences have come to associate with cultural and specifically national identity. APT7 mainly steered clear of works that explicitly addressed ‘other’ cultures, as Tracey Moffat’s work did in the previous APT. Invoking binaries to comic effect, her montage of clichéd images of ‘the natives’ ultimately turned the tables on its rigid Western lead actors. With less attention given to historicising notions such as identity, the ‘exotic’ and influence, there was a tendency for the commonality of cultures to be emphasised. 

Due to the judicious use of immersive-style installations, works like Heman Chong’s faux red echo chamber moved into full view. Chong’s consideration of the archives held by QAGOMA’s Australian Centre of Asia Pacific Art was able to achieve a cumulative impression while calling into question the role of archives. Chong set in motion a process that began by requesting Gallery staff to select texts from the archives that were cut and pasted into an ‘epic poem’ that was piped into the space with none of the tracks synchronised. Its undulating floor accentuated viewers’ receptivity to the sound waves while mirroring the streams of text and glass arrayed through nearby galleries by Parastou Forouhar and Tiffany Chung. The rolling poetry of Teresia Teaiwa in the {disarmed} imagining a Pacific archive project, was an additional link. 

Chong’s babbling soundscape seemed to amplify a reserve by QAGOMA to collate the tendencies and currents that have characterised its history. The work’s stark detached sensibility reinforced the deferral or postponement of meaning inherent in any notion of archive. Viewers were required to forge their own narratives about the APT, notwithstanding the insights offered by the cabinet assemblages of Atul Dodiya and the paintings of Manuel Ocampo. 

Every three years, the concept of the Asia Pacific Triennial is re-articulated—a process undertaken within QAGOMA’s collective curatorial structure and informed by its activities as a state gallery. Looking back, an inversion of the art world precedent that artists come to prominence in institutions and forums adjacent to the market has taken place. QAGOMA has made a distinctive commitment to the display and collection of practices such as fibre and textiles at a time when they were generally excluded from major art museums and galleries. In this APT, performance masks and painted and carved structures by artists from New Britain and the Sepik region of Papua New Guinea formed the centrepiece of the exhibition’s layout. Shown with carvings by the Asmat People, this was QAGOMA’s largest presentation of work from Papua New Guinea to date.

Often disparaged for their reliance on pattern or template, the impetus to display and collect such works was initially aesthetic and moral. Their inclusion arose from the admiration of the Gallery’s curators who drew on the specialised knowledge of guest curators who shared their desire to critique the assumptions of Euro-American museology. A further concern of APT7 was to underline the relevance of burgeoning epistemological considerations to the reception of these works. This was primarily done by juxtaposing works in a manner that respected definitions of race, ethnicity and culture and the traditional, modern and contemporary while not being bound by them.

In one configuration, Australian artists Louisa Bufardeci and Susan Jacobs, deployed their geometrically-inclined installations to point to previously hidden realms. Led by the enterprise of theoretical physics, this ‘alternative’ world view is only now catching up with non-European knowledge systems that seek to apprehend the world by understanding the relationships between things rather than through the scrutiny of discrete objects. Daniel Boyd sought to evoke both elusive and embedded connections between his Kudjla/Gangalu heritage and contemporary scientific enquiry in his absorbing installation of coloured dots. Sopolemalama Filipe Tohi from Tonga, who is a recognised master of lalava or the lashing of sennit—a hand-rolled dyed cord made from coconut husks—exhibited a suite of works based on lalava designs founded in his expansive social and philosophical understanding of pattern. 

In contrast to the schematic character of these works, the recurring motif of ephemeral structures provided some of the exhibition’s most arresting imagery. Cued by curator Maud Page’s observation of a ‘propensity’ in the South Pacific to create vertical and ephemeral structures, works from across the Asia-Pacific region that asserted their ongoing formation were dispersed throughout the exhibition, animating the questions of geographic and spatial locality by which APT7 set its course. 

Richard Maloy’s massive cardboard construction, which was astutely sited in relation to the Brisbane River and the towering Sepik spirit house façade, had a counterpoint in fellow New Zealander Joanna Langford’s floating installation on the top floor of GOMA. Takahiro Iwasaki’s poised cypress wood model of a Japanese Heian period pavilion appeared to levitate. Comprising two buildings that were a mirror image of each other in one structure, it created an other-worldly shimmer that dissolved the distinction between the ‘real’ and the reflected building. Nguyen Manh Hung’s model of a crammed apartment block with its makeshift renovations was ‘teleported’ into its celestial diorama from the suburbs of Hanoi. 

Many artists in APT7 sought to foster critical perspectives on the conditions of global capitalism shaping their lives and preoccupations. The majority assumed speaking positions that were private and personal in structure and feel. In cases where artists have practices that aim to loosen fixed perceptions and radicalise the conduct of relations, the installation of their works fragmented their practices, making it difficult for viewers to connect these durational processes with their static display. The processes of Sangdon Kim’s magical scenarios recasting urban development in Seoul, and ‘social mediators’ mixrice’s geopolitical propositions clustered around the supply tunnels between Egypt and Gaza, were dissipated. A sense of change was not sufficiently imparted.

These more ephemeral practices present a considerable challenge to museum systems that have evolved to display objects to advantage and with safety. They can no longer adequately accommodate the aspirations of artists and expectations of audiences or support the expanding range of criteria by which art is now being appraised. Artist Pratchaya Phinthong and curator Russell Storer’s exchange during Phinthong’s research on Thai berry-pickers in Lapland, attested to how artists and museums are increasingly viewing exhibitions as effecting a ‘translation’ of these types of projects rather than their display.

An urgent challenge was also issued by the works of the Papua New Guinean artists and groups. These are works that bear a relationship to customary knowledge and hold the potential to resonate beyond time and space. Collectively, these works demanded exceptional status, which they were given through their prominent location. QAGOMA’s crisp viewing conditions and scrupulous conception of the works as contemporary, however, produced an even dynamic that was affirming of their aesthetic confidence but divested them of their auratic qualities. In my experience, viewers responded with varying levels of comfort to the agency that the APT accorded these splendid works. Similarly, opinions differed concerning the extent of the tension arising in Dunedin-based Graham Fletcher’s paintings of domestic modernist interiors decorated with Pacific artworks. QAGOMA faced the daunting hazards for institutions and curators of over-emphasising the similarities and the differences between cultures within the complexities of the unequal power relations of museum display. 

The combined force of these works, however, concentrated my attention, impressing upon me the need to find new ways of displaying works when their full range of meanings can be constrained by modernist exhibition conventions. Something QAGOMA has always exercised discernment in, these new approaches need to be developed without reviving discredited ethnographic traditions or relying too heavily on the techniques of interior design. 

The transactional processes inherent in any undertaking such as the APT necessitate an exhibition model highly responsive to unfolding practices, dialogues and scholarship. As institutions engage with the plurality of contexts for the production and reception of art and the quantity of historical and theoretical accounts emerging, it is becoming increasingly difficult to reconcile the display protocols of the modern museum with this task. With greater explication of these issues needed, these display protocols stood in for the institution’s purpose and fixed APT7 to its past. In its particularly refined approach to exhibition making, APT7 arguably forfeited some institutional candour.

Finally, these deliberations led me back to the APT7’s ‘The 20-Year Archive’ section in search of another series of intercultural negotiations. Here, I was able to view footage of the performance conceived by Michel Tuffery and Patrice Kaikilekofe for the third APT (1999) which culminated in a staged bullfight enacting the tensions between the artists’ respective communities. Spontaneously choreographed on the street and in the gallery, it had brought dancers from the French Polynesian islands of Wallis and Futuna together with local performers from the Samoan community and Indigenous people from Brisbane. Although thirteen years had elapsed, time and APT7’s accent on order failed to quench its irrepressible memory. 

Heman Chong, Asia/Pacific/Triennial, 2012. 20-channel sound installation. Commissioned for APT7. Supported by the National Arts Council of Singapore. Courtesy and © the artist. Photograph Mark Sherwood. 

Tintin Wulia, Eeny Meeny Money Moe, 2012. Interactive installation with toy passports and synchronised machines. Commissioned for APT7. Courtesy the artist and Osage Gallery, Hong Kong. © The artist. Photograph Mark Sherwood. 

Daniel Boyd, A darker shade of dark #3, 2012. Four-channel video installation: HD video, 16:9, sound, 21:45mins (approx.) ed.3/5. Sound Ryan Grieve. Purchased 2012. Collection Queensland Art Gallery. 

Gimhongsok, Canine Construction, 2009. Installation view. Resin, ed. 1/2. Purchased 2012. Queensland Art Gallery. Collection Queensland Art Gallery. Photograph Mark Sherwood. 

Jasmin Stephens is a free-lance curator and art writer based in Perth.