Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane
21 November 2015 – 10 April 2016
by LILLY WEI
The Eighth Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT8) opened with a flourish of live performances and other events in late November last year at the Queensland Art Gallery and the Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) in Brisbane. The institution’s signature event (launched in 1993), it is considered the most expansive international exhibition dedicated to the Asia Pacific region and always eagerly awaited. One reason for the excitement it generates is the direction of its curatorial gaze, sweeping across a vast and culturally diverse zone, from Australia and New Zealand through the Pacific and Asia, to find a slew of terrific artists who are often new to western audiences. It understands (as does the Sydney Biennale, although its commitment to the East is not as exclusive) that it is ideally positioned to be a destination for ascendant art from the other half of the globe.
A major theme of APT8 is the body as an agent of speculation and protest, prompted through live actions and multiple disciplines. It showcased a generous roundup of more than 80 artists and collectives from 36 countries, with a number of works created specifically for it. The exhibition was mercifully contained within the QAGOMA campus, organised by its 15 curators ably led by director Chris Saines, deputy director Maud Page, and curatorial manager Aaron Seeto. Unlike most international biennials and triennials, APT8 does not depend on the star power of outside artistic directors and curators for its wattage. Instead, it leans in on the considerable talents and expertise of its staff. Saines reported that the APT8 team has spent the previous three years in intensive travel and research, pinpointing new developments in the art of the region that resulted in the first-time inclusion of countries such as Mongolia, Nepal, the Kyrgyz Republic, Georgia and Iraq.
There are some epic paintings by Baatarzorig Batjargal from Ulaanbaatar, derived from Mongol zurag, a secular style using mineral paint on canvas that evolved during the Mongolian independence movement in the early-20th century and reemerged in the 1990s. Non-religious and non-social realist, it in itself was a political statement. In Nomads (2014), by depicting a heroic cast ranging from gods to politicians, merchant princes and robots, Batjargal addresses the march of Mongolian history as it shifted from a traditional society. Similarly themed, Bishkek artists Gulnara Kasmalieva and Muratbek Djumaliev’s understated but engrossing video, A New Silk Road: Algorithm of Survival and Hope (2006), follows a cavalcade of battered trucks plying the ancient trade route that connects the Kyrgyz Republic with China. They transport a cargo of mass-produced commodities, an emblem of the complicated history of the country as it, too, transforms from a nomadic culture to a capitalist economy under pressure of globalisation.
Khvay Samnang, a multidisciplinary artist from Cambodia, is showing his ghostly Rubber Man (2014) series of colour photographs. In these striking images, the artist drenches himself in white rubber sap, whitewashing himself into disappearance as a protest. His theme is human and property rights, referring to the dispossession of villagers from their communal fields in a land grab by large conglomerates in order to build more rubber plantations, takeovers often supported by the government. Indonesian artist Melati Suryodarmo’s I’m a Ghost in My Own House (2012) presents the theme of labour in a more personal formulation. Crushing countless charcoal briquettes into powder, she puts on a gruelling 12-hour performance, during which her white dress became blackened with soot, the charcoal dust thickening, body and environment merging, the dust and dress remaining afterwards as the residue of the event. An intensely concentrated meditation with an existential, ecological vibrato, it also forces us to sense viscerally the larger implications of grimly monotonous, exploitative, backbreaking tasks, as experienced daily by workers across the Asia Pacific and elsewhere.
Muslim culture is another focus of APT8, in particular in a notable roster of films curated by José Da Silva, senior curator and head of the Australian Cinémathèque, with artists Yason Banal and Khaled Sabsabi. One programme spotlights the leisurely paced, novelistic sagas of Lav Diaz, the great Filipino film-maker and advocate for experimental digital technologies, while another features other independent film-makers from the region. Pushing back against the Islamophobia that has pervaded much of the western world, the third programme, Islamic Pop, addresses its subject lightly. Included is the Arabic language version of the 1976 Technicolor biopic of the prophet Muhammad by the Syrian American director Moustapha Akkad. Called The Message and starring Anthony Quinn, it is kitschy, earnest and thoroughly enjoyable. Nonetheless, while Muhammad himself is never seen and the film is hardly incendiary, it was excoriated from all sides when it first opened, including bomb threats that were a preview of the current state of affairs in which violence too often, and tragically, plays a part.
From a more quotidian perspective, a photographic essay by Abdul Abdullah, a seventh-generation Australian of both European and Muslim descent, dwells on the country’s growing bias against Islam after September 11. His series Coming to Terms(2015) shows men and women dressed in wedding clothes, their faces invisible, somewhat frightening behind ironically stylish balaclavas that have been coordinated with their outfits. Ordinary people in festive garb, they are transformed by the overriding power of a mask (once more innocuously known as a ski mask) that has become synonymous with terrorists.
The triennial eloquently showcases the marginalised and formerly marginalised (although where those boundaries lie is less clear of late), bringing disparate works centre stage with admirable clarity, given their range. While not everything is equally captivating, the overall aura of vitality is. Compelling in its immediacy, its occasional rawness, and particularly in its dialled-up urgency, it is much more electric fare than the bland, overly market-driven art fair art that has become globally ubiquitous. Among the first encounters if entering through QAG – and a standout – is Kalpa Vriksha, which in Sanskrit means divine, wish-fulfilling tree. A multipronged installation of contemporary indigenous and vernacular art and craft of surprising sophistication and visual allure from India, it underscores the continuity and timeless contemporaneity of traditional forms. Among the 19 artists represented is Venkat Raman Singh Shyam, whose sly, finely rendered drawings brilliantly mix indigenous traditions with current imagery. Nearby, in the Australian art galleries, boldly coloured, optically vertiginous chevrons arranged in the distinctive patterns of the country’s Wiradjuri people cover the walls of a suite of rooms filled with colonial art. Painted by indigenous artist Brook Andrew, the confrontation is disquieting and combustible, invoking unconscionable past injustices.
APT8’s charm is that of a lively, polymorphous ensemble, more bazaar-like in ambience than white cube, although that is not to say it isn’t elegantly installed; it is. Troubling, comic, rough, refined, it has many provocative jumping-off points as it circles the theme of a body that is, often enough, sexually ambiguous. Justin Shoulder and Bhenji Ra’s dazzling collaborative video, Ex Nilalang (2015), populated by glamorously bedizened creatures, evokes a queer Midsummer Night’s Dream, based on Filipino mythologies and Sydney’s vaunted underground lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) performance scene – a sparkling spectrum of flamboyant, charismatic otherness. Berlin-based, Singapore-born, transgender artist Ming Wong’s rousing Aku Akan Bertahan/I Will Survive (2015) reprises Gloria Gaynor’s triumphant 1978 song in lip-synched drag with a South Asian beat. And while more camped-up romp than hip-hop (Ming Wong and fellow dragsters said they had attended a hip-hop workshop to prepare), the result is infectiously upbeat and improbably appealing.
Among immersive environments, Anida Yoeu Ali’s The Buddhist Bug, Into the Night (2015), from her Buddhist Bug series, is memorable. A giant, hyper-revved, two-channel video projection beamed on to adjacent walls in GOMA shows Ali careening through a pulsating Phnom Penh on a tuk-tuk. She is tucked snugly into an eye-catching saffron caterpillar costume of enormous length, its colour that of a Buddhist monk’s robe, while her head is framed by a hijab-like hood. Wonderfully capturing the speed and dazzle of today’s fast-growing Asian metropolises, she pops up everywhere in this bustling city of burgeoning amusement parks, shopping malls, storefronts, clubs, frenetic traffic and crowds of people from all walks of life. A creature of fantasy, a repatriated Muslim in a Buddhist state, she is also an exhilarating cicerone of the streets, turning them into Wonderland for us.
From Myanmar, artist Po Po’s equally immersive video VIP Project (Yangon/Dhaka) (2010-15) compels in a much less hyperbolic manner. Filmed at bus stops in those two cities, based on daily routines, he placed rather makeshift, cardboard VIP signs on benches to reserve the space, documenting the reactions of people to them as they passed by or waited for buses. This introduction of an elitist designation into the public space of two different political regimes elicited a range of telling responses: compliance, cautiousness and avoidance to indifference and humour: the human comedy South Asian-style, although what underlies it is not quite so benign. Tracking changes in mores, it would be curious to see what attitudes might be witnessed a few years hence.
APT8, while politically and socially powered, emphasising (some have said overemphasising, but how can challenging situations that need attention and amelioration be overemphasised?) postcolonial themes of displacement, migration and return, conflicted identities, estrangement and uneasy recovery, privilege and exploitation, worlds in collision and transition, and whatever else, is also about art. Ramin and Rokni Haerizadeh, two brothers from Iran exiled in Dubai, and Hesam Rahmanian, who also lives in Dubai, remind us of this. Constructing what might be called a contemporary, three-dimensional Allegory of the Studio, a nod, perhaps, to Gustave Courbet’s famous painting as well as to Persian street theatre, they have recreated their Dubai atelier. It brims with objects of all kinds, displayed without regard to value, from rare miniature paintings, statues, poems, found objects and cheap knickknacks to mini-installations of other artists’ works (New York feminist Martha Wilson is featured in one) from their collection. Its true wondrousness, however, like the wonder of this ambitious, utopian exhibition is its affirmation of the desire to make art, of the compulsion to reflect, experience, and civilise the world through art. A defining impulse of our humanity, it is, hopefully, inextinguishable.