What Is Art From Asia and the Pacific? In a Word, Diverse

The exhibition succeeds to a great extent by seamlessly incorporating works from diverse origins -- whether political, performance-based, traditional or vernacular -- in a focused, nonhierarchical way that emphasizes their historical and contemporary relevance.
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Anida Yoeu Ali, The Buddhist Bug, Into the Night (production still), 2015, 2-channel HD video projection, 7:00 minutes. Collection: Queensland Art Gallery.

Asia Pacific Triennial 8: At the Intersection of the Local and Global

The eighth Asia Pacific Triennial (APT8), now underway at the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane, Australia, offers a view into the diverse contemporary art practices of the Australian, Asian and Pacific regions, from the far reaches of Oceania to former Soviet bloc countries such as the Kyrgyz Republic and Georgia. Widely considered as a bellwether for art from the region, APT is not concerned with contextualizing the artworks in relation to Western art traditions, but rather presents them in the context of different and varied art traditions deriving from multiple, interdependent sources. As such, APT is free to explore the vastly varied Asia Pacific area, without being beholden to, and burdened by, an overarching thematic construct or theory (in the way from which last year's Venice Biennale may have been considered to suffer). That said, the exhibition is not just a grab bag of art collected from different corners of Asia, nor a checklist of the top artists operating in the region, but rather an appropriately complex window into diverse practices, subjects and conditions. The exhibition succeeds to a great extent by seamlessly incorporating works from diverse origins -- whether political, performance-based, traditional or vernacular -- in a focused, nonhierarchical way that emphasizes their historical and contemporary relevance.

Melati Suryodarmo, I'm a Ghost in My Own House, 2012, 12 hour performance, mixed media installation and single-channel video. Courtesy of the artist.

If there is a thematic construct for the exhibition, it resides in movement and the body, with a particular focus on performance. This focus, however, is freed from Western constraints and its definition expanded by considering the varied forms of performance arts from the many different traditions that inform contemporary artists' practices. "Performance, and particularly its re-contextualised historic representation, offers one way of exposing the problematic ideals upon which Western understandings of Pacific cultural practices and people have been based," writes curator Ruth McDougall in the exhibition catalogue. The performances range from solo actions to collaborative, community-based performance: these include the 12-hour durational performance of Indonesian artist Melati Suryodarmo, I'm a Ghost in My Own House (2012), which finds the artist crushing and grinding hundreds of pounds of lumps of charcoal to a fine powder; along with a presentation of various dancers and musicians from Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Vanuatu and other islands within an immersive installation co-curated with Ni-Vanuatu songwriter, musician and author Marcel Meltherorong.

Khvay Samnang, Rubber Man, 2014, Inkjet print on Hahnemühle Photo Rag paper, 80 x 120cm. Collection: Queensland Art Gallery.

In some contexts, performance takes on a particularly political shade as a vehicle for social critique. Due to its ephemeral nature and minimal infrastructural and material requirements, in Cambodia, where state surveillance is a concern, performance art has taken hold as a primary form of artistic actions. Cambodian artists use performance to activate public spaces or to perform critical actions in discreet areas for the camera: Khvay Samnang protests the destructive foreign-owned rubber plantations by pouring fresh rubber sap over his body standing among a grove of lacerated rubber trees in northeast Cambodia in Rubber Man (2014); while Anida Yoeu Ali's public Buddhist Bug performances, inspired by the artist's Khmer Muslim roots among a predominantly Buddhist country, indirectly confront the country's history of genocide and war as "an act of social engagement [that] contributes to collective healing," as the artist states.

Nge Lay, The sick classroom, 2012-13, mixed media installation. Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / Photo: QAGOMA.

Curators Maud Page and Aaron Seeto contend that as a result of globalism, neoliberalism, mass migration, labor economics and other contemporary global conditions, there has been a shift in the "body as a marker of human, individual identity, to one that stands in for a homogenized mass," a state that provides "the political undercurrent" of the Triennial. Many of the works here investigate matters of the social body -- issues of postcolonialism, migration, indigeneity, shifting national boundaries, religious persecution, environmental disasters and inequality -- through various media. Nge Lay's The sick classroom (2013) is an impeccably detailed life-size reconstruction of a poor rural classroom in Myanmar, an ambitious installation and call for equal education. Taloi Havini and Stuart Miller's photographic project Blood Generation (2009-11) documents the ravaging effects of civil war and open pit mining on the environment and people of Bougainville Island in Papua New Guinea. And Mongolian painter Uuriintuya Dagvasambuu's Path to Wealth (2013) depicts an undifferentiated mass of black bodies at the base of the picture, struggling over each other's heads in a single thin column to reach a resplendent lotus flower bearing various material goods -- a poignant portrait of income inequality and the false promise of wealth.

Uuriintuya Dagvasambuu, Path to wealth, 2013, Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 149 x 99cm. Collection: Queensland Art Gallery.

One installation that uniquely embodies the problems of postcolonialism, particularly as it relates to the museum context, New Zealand artist Rosanna Raymond's project SaVAge K'lub (2010-ongoing) incorporates the historical within the creation of a relational space for gatherings and performances. In the space, which the artist describes as "an active space," the historic collides with the present: tāonga (cultural treasures), such as a kahu kiwi (feathered cloak) and a waka (outrigger canoe), gathered from museum and private collections are arranged in antique cabinets within a vividly painted living/social/art-making space, allowing these treasures "to rise off the pages of potted histories and to live once more," as McDougall puts it. The name of Raymond's project derives from a late 19th century gentleman's club, reclaimed and subverted -- rather than an exclusive or historicizing space, it is a collaborative environment building new cultural structures and dynamics.

Rosanna Raymond, SaVAge K'lub, 2010-ongoing, mixed media installation with ongoing activations. Brisbane SaVAge K'lub Developed for APT8 / Photo: QAGOMA.

While many of the works in the Triennial incorporate the everyday or investigate indigenous forms -- whether in performances or subject matter -- these matters are particularly celebrated in a special multi-artist project for APT8, entitled Kalpa Vriksha, that explores contemporary indigenous and vernacular art of India. The inclusion of different forms and traditions of art has been a part of the dialogue sparked by the Triennial since its inception in 1993. In this way, the curators acknowledge the existence and influence of art worlds that exist contemporaneously with "contemporary art," bringing to bear a more complete view of what constitutes the vast spectrum of art and visual culture. As curators Page and Seeto put it, in the APT "aesthetic discourses are modulated by the back-and-forth between the very local and the global." The dialogues that result in that fertile area between the international contemporary art world and local artists working in vernacular forms serve to expand our understanding of art in all its varied forms and traditions.

Rajesh Chaitya Vangad, Jungle Animals, 2008, synthetic polymer paint, mud and cow dung on canvas, 86.4 x 139.7cm. Courtesy QAGOMA.

--Natalie Hegert

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