RealTime - APT special edition - 1999

Asia Pacific Triennial

Queensland Art Gallery - 1999

There has always been something a little mirage like, hallucinatory, about the Asia Pacific Triennial, as if it were as much an act of will or imagination as a thing in itself. Should it be seen as a mapping out of actualities? Or of possibilities? Or desires? - and whose actualities, possibilities and desires are these? - Are Australian cultures of Asia? In Asia? Where is Asia? Is there Asia? For some reason the 'Pacific' part of the title was always forgotten and ignored in the everyday dialogue around the event. A sort of Calvinoesque spiral of layered fictions and readings has always been generated. In 1999, the third, and I think by far the most interesting in this series of cultural events inevitably bangs hard into these questions owing to the opening of the exhibition and of the conference occurring at the same time as the unfolding human and political disaster in East Timor. A disaster that is indubitably non-fictive and non-hallucinatory (despite what the crazed PP McGuinness wrote in the 'Australian' on Saturday where he obscenely suggested that it is a media beat-up on the part of the ABC,). East Timor highlights the longtime moral culpability and political redundancy of Australia's relationship with Indonesia. The recognition that the desires and imperatives which drove the 'understanding' with a corrupt -and corrupting- Indonesia are inextricably intertwined with those that have helped develop and facilitate a project such as the APT over its history should not, and cannot, be avoided. However, this recognition does not erase nor negate many of the intentions and outcomes of the Asia Pacific Triennial.


As it has grown in size and sophistication, the APT has increasingly avoided and denied the thoughtless simplicities that have helped inform governmental attitudes. Increasingly, simplistic constructions of 'otherness' and difference have been denied (and it was able to operate without the shibboleths of trade or the dollar overwhelming any other consideration). At its most banal these shifts have resulted in less bad work being included: previously there was always a suspicion that such quality controls may have been seen by some of the protagonists as being colonial or imperialistic or just inapposite - the same sort of thought process that posits that 'human rights' are a post enlightenment cultural imposition: (and if they are, does that make them redundant?) - at other levels it has resulted in increasingly complex and difficult models being generated vis a vis the representations and understandings of the works of a variety of cultures. Slowly essentialisms and easy boundaries are evaporating.


One way in which the exhibition has hoped to do this is through the 'Crossing Borders' component of the exhibition which focuses on artists living elsewhere: or rather, 'artists who could not be circumscribed within narrow geographical, media or other definitions...' Outside the fact that an artist who doesn't meet 'other definitions' is beyond the imaginings of philosophy ( it a man?? Is it a plane? NO! It' circumscribable within ANY definition.) this initiative has, on one level, opened things up in a liberating way. Of course in the constant way of these things, it's also served to really confuse the world in general, and the APT in particular. If it's not about geography, is it about race? Essentialism alert! Inherent difference through blood ahoy! Perhaps it's not. But if not what? and how come Guan Wei (born Bejing China, educated China, living and working in Australia: installation and painting) isn't apparently 'crossing', but Xu Bing ( born Chongqing, China, educated China living USA, installation and calligraphy) is, and so is Vong Phaophanit (born Laos, educated France and Germany, lives UK, installation) ?. But who cares? These are rich and vibrant confusions being generated, ones which demand that you engage and work through this as well. And the work's fine. In Xu Bing's case more than fine. It looks good in the New Museum in New York and heck it looks good here too.


There's some really good stuff in the exhibition. Off the top of the head, and missing heaps, I'd think of Michael Parekonhai, and the 'Ten Guitars': one of the few works to reference Englebert Humperdinck, Xu Tan, with the small slide projections and scattered objects of 'Made in China', Kim Young-Jin, with the movement triggered slides of 'Working the Balance Beam', Xu Bing, with the writing school of 'New English Calligraphy', Simryn Gill with her half person half vegetable photographs, Katushige Nakahasis, making a life size photographic skin of a Zero fighter, Vong Phaophanit with his sinuous neon texts. These I guess are all using, if not 'new media', 'newer' media, but hopefully it's not formal: there's the impressive and dizzying paintings of Michael Nelson Jagamara, the minimalistic references of Lee Mingwei, and the delicate curious room built by Sonabi. And this list is by no means exclusive. Of course there's work here too which makes one want to leap into your jacket pocket and peek out nervously like a mouse: a minority appears to have the philosophical complexity of the New Seekers, Peter Paul and Mary, or at best, Blue Mink songs, ('children are our future' the text to one large wall work informs us) which serves to set off many of one's previous concerns about some of the outcomes of the project - and which in turn, set off tremors that serve to destabilise other productions in the exhibition.


Inevitably, each separate exhibition that is a component part of the APT project is going to puzzle, problematise and cause alarm, but, increasingly, we are forced to look at the project itself, as it changes, develops, talks to itself, expands. For every work that's triter than John Lennon on an off day, there's an increasing majority of works that demand that you question, reposition, think, admire. The APT has established itself as a significant international art event, becoming increasingly broadbased and untethered from parochial concerns. Of course there are ways to go: an (exhibiting) friend said, or relayed another's comment, that surely the debate on Australian positioning won't come of age until say, somebody like Mike Parr or John Nixon is (inevitably) included in the APT, i.e. that some artists are still seen as more suitable for overseas European jamborees, than for Australian Asia Pacific jamborees, and, the implied participation....and therefore implied authorisation through his participation... of Anish Kapoor through the placing of one of his works from the Queensland Art Gallery collection in an APT gallery space was, to say the least, bloody weird.