Reuben Keehan in conversation with Tess Maunder

The 7th Asia Pacific Triennial: 20-Year Archive

The 7th Asia Pacific Triennial (APT) at the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art marked the 20th anniversary of the flagship exhibition series committed to an investigation of Asian, Pacific and Australian contemporary practices. Reflecting upon the event’s own historical significance was ‘APT7: The 20-Year Archive’. An exhibition within the exhibition, the project sourced material from across the APT’s two-decade history, situating it in dialogue with artist interpretations of archives across the Asia Pacific region. Reuben Keehan is Curator, Contemporary Asian Art at QAGOMA and was part of the curatorial team for the archive project.


Tess Maunder: There is a lack of documented resources available on the art of the Asia Pacific regions. Is there now more than ever, a greater urgency for enabling this material to be more available to the public?

Reuben Keehan: Throughout the Asia-Pacific, entire societies have evolved largely independent of the guarantee of the institutionalised culture and knowledge that underwrote the development of civil society in the West. Archives and related forms of research, such as recorded and transcribed oral histories, have been instrumental in registering the passage of time in contexts where European-style universities, libraries and museums are not the primary site of cultural consolidation and analysis. A number of archives in the Asia Pacific region have been initiated as a form of civic action, separate to institutions. The Western notion of the museum as authority to the archive simply does not exist within Asian and Pacific cultures. Throughout history, individuals have largely maintained these archives, motivated by their own curiosity. 

TM: Memory is a thematic focus within the ‘20-Year Archive’; do you think this is reflective in the exhibition as a response to the largely idiosyncratic and previously undocumented forms of cultural dialogue within the region?

RK: Memory economy, including custodian knowledge, ceremony and other immaterial forms of storytelling remain an important avenue of cultural documentation for the Asia Pacific region. The work in the archive is less object-based; instead it plays upon notions of temporality and immateriality. This is often in critique of the idiosyncratic nature of the archival documentation from which the artists are drawing comment. These critiques are important as they then make these types of practices more normalised to a wider audience. 

TM: Recently, archival presentation has entered into the repertoire of contemporary exhibition making. Could you speak more about this in relation to the 20-Year Archive? 

RK: The archive was critiqued for being an avenue of branding for the institution as it marked the 20-year anniversary of the exhibition. However, on the contrary, the gallery employed the archive as a form of institutional self-critique. In the catalogue essay for the exhibition I mentioned that the archive forms a less authoritarian form of audience engagement due to the need for the viewer’s active participation. In this way the archive alters the institutional mode of address, deconstructing the common avenue of spectatorship. The inclusion of artists for the archive is intended to multiply the voices, perspectives and histories that it covers, destabilising the Gallery’s authority as a mediating institution. 

TM: Artistic work is a focused component of the exhibition with contributions from independent artists exploring the use of the document through oral, performative and visual avenues. Could you speak more about the type of practices that emerged from the project? 

RK: I witnessed two types of work that formed within the exhibition, the first acted as a ‘normalised’ practice that was produced with a certain sense of urgency. This work cut against the grain and acted as a subversive intervention within the space. The second type of work that emerged questions the production of knowledge within a discursive economy. There is a commonality between ‘modernity’ and contemporary practice and a customary practice to the culture that acts antagonistically towards Modernity. 

TM: In this exhibition many of the artists responded to the notion of the archive through collaborative and project-based work. Do you think this is a trend in contemporary practices when engaging with archival material?

RK: At the Gallery of Modern Art Heman Chong’s installation alters the entrance to the GOMA research library. The artist has complicated our pre-existing relationship to the archive through an idiosyncratic sound installation activating agents of chance, bodily positioning, knowledge, memory and personal curiosity. Chong engages with the sonic and through this stimulates an audio, which is interesting as Radio was the first type of multimedia communication within the Asia Pacific.

TM: A large part of the project was GOMATV recordings and online archives. Could you speak about why these were included in the archive?

RK: At the Queensland Art Gallery the audience navigates around two centralised tables, one displaying a curated selection of books borrowed from APT’s own archives; the other table displays several iMacs presenting QAGOMA’s website and digital archive. The combinations of static and living formats of the archive were presented simultaneously within the exhibition. It was also an avenue to display the launch of GOMATV as a resource, a new avenue for future archival research.  

APT7 Archive, Installation view, Queensland Art Gallery. Photograph Mark Sherwood. 

Tess Maunder is a Brisbane-based artist and writer.