Asia Pacific Triennial 2018: New Discussion of Politics

Since its inception in 1993, the Asia Pacific Triennial (APT) held in Brisbane, Australia has represented the marginalized. Through performances and varied art practices voices of the disenfranchised from Australia, New Zealand, the Middle East, the entirety of Asia, and the Pacific Islands find firm footing as hierarchies of difference long established by Euro-American institutions are levelled.
Framed by the context of contemporary art, many indigenous works placed outside their natural setting enable new ways of understanding post-colonial legacies. That said the 9th edition of the APT (APT9) broke with the more cohesive format of the previous edition (APT8) in which the body served as a powerful vehicle of change. Here, in an effort to present different forms of expression and the constant flux of the Asia Pacific region, a disparate array of works by 84 artists from more than 30 countries ranging from utilitarian objects to more nuanced abstract conceptions and politically charged dystopian videos made for an uneven exhibition.
Displayed in the Queensland Art Gallery (QAG) and the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) the best works brought home the prevalence of ancient economic and cultural practices despite the onslaught of modernity. At the entrance of GOMA, the large installation Tutana and Loloi, made of sturdy rings mounted on a bamboo grid comprised the Gunantuna (Tolai) people’s shell money that exists alongside Papua New Guinea’s official currency. This resolute continuation of tradition could also be seen in Jonathan Jones elaborate installation Untitled (giran), made with six types of ancient tools and feathers in collaboration with the Elder from the Wiradjuri community in Australia. Comprising of more than 2000 sculptures, which resembled a flock of twisting and turning birds, Jones’s work also evoked the whispering movement of the wind (Giran) long associated with the passage of knowledge in the community.
While the aesthetic structure of the rings and the birds became a means of mirroring social structure, other functional objects made by communities of native inhabitants from Bougainville (AROB), the Marshall Islands, and the Coromandel Peninsula appeared to be more ethnographic in nature. Although these communal projects brought large groups of artisans together, the woven baskets, straw fans, and embroidered hoods made from pandanus leaves by Women’s Wealth, or the interlaced Jaki-ed floor mats from the Marshall Islands, and the construction of the wall of venus shells, Te ma (Fish Trap), traditionally used by the Kiribati community in the Pacific to trap fish, failed to resonate with much aesthetic or political vigor. More compelling were the deceased Bougainville artist Herman Souk’s uniquely vernacular drawings of daily life in the Gagan, Buka district prior to independence, and the colourful almost childlike depictions of local culture in Papua New Guinea by Simon Gende.
Critical perspectives on repressed societies in different regions of Asia were depicted through dissenting text. Qui Zhijie’s massive site-specific wall painting Map of Technological Ethics, deftly combined Chinese calligraphy with literary tradition. Titles of numerous islands and regions such as “medical cruelty,” “experience machine,” and “collapse of life support system,” cast a grim scenario of hapless conditions. For others, maps and text became personal indictments of oppression. Sawangwongse Yawnghwe’s large maze of words like “killed,” “mass deportation,’ and “starvation,” in The Myanmar Peace Industrial Complex, Map III, 2018, was inspired by the military oppression of his own family in Myanmar. And in Crucified TVS – Not A Prayer in Heaven, Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries’ catchy, humorous rotating text, which appeared on thin LCD screens mounted on a crucifix with a Bossa nova soundtrack, belied the underhanded operations of the South Korean government that drags unsuspecting people away from their homes at night.
Works by the masters of conceptual art from the Global South who diverted from the norm of figuration revealed how they too generated a different kind of dissonance. Rasheed Araeen’s vibrant minimalist cubes and three-dimensional wall sculptures first made in the late 60s after he migrated from Pakistan to the United Kingdom paved the way for non-Western conceptual voices in Europe. Similarly, from the mid-80s onwards Hassan Sharif’s bundles of found objects, and wall installations such as Cutting and Tying no. 2, made up of hundreds of pieces of rope and thread, launched a completely new and experimental movement in the UAE. Even Roberto Chabet who didn’t have much international exposure was a pioneering voice in the Philippines. His spare blue plywood sculpture, Waves, resembling the undulating surge of the ocean marked the early inception of conceptual art in his country.
Other innovators proffered ominous viewpoints of contemporary industrialized societies. While the Taiwanese artist Joyce Ho’s constant play between illusion and reality in her performance and installation On the other day, reflected one’s increasing inability to distinguish between the two, reality took a grimmer turn in Cao Fei’s dystopic video Asia One. Staged in a fictional unmanned automated warehouse in China, the sheer loneliness and boredom of the only two employees projected further impending gloom. The future also seemed fraught in Meiro Koizumi’s powerful three-channel video Rite for a dream – Today my empire sings, 2016, in which the rabid politics of nationalism was a force to contend with.
Yet despite the power of these works and others like Munem Wasif’s enigmatic black and white film Kheyal, shot in Bangladesh, or the Karrabing Film Collectives voices of protest against aboriginal inequities in Australia, decorative and anthropological artifacts in the exhibition often distracted the viewer. The inclusion of exotic Tasmanian jewelry, textiles, sculpted daggers, and pretty head gear compromised the overall impact of APT9 as a space to facilitate new discussions of politics and forge new relationships between the audience and objects. The difficulty of presenting a cohesive survey exhibition somehow lost the punch of the previous iteration.
Bansie Vasvani is a curator and art critic with a focus on Asian and other non-Western art practices. She investigates contemporary art that mines issues of cultural identity, politics, immigration, and the commingling of varied cultural influences. Bansie travels frequently to Asia to study, research, and write critically. Currently she is working on showcasing art from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India at several institutions.
Her work has appeared in Hyperallergic, ArtAsiaPacific, Art Review Asia, Artnet news, Art21 Magazine, Brooklyn Rail, Sculpture Magazine, Daily Serving, Aesthetica Magazine, and Modern Art Asia amongst many other publications.
Bansie has a BA in English literature, Bombay University; an MA in English and American Literature, Northeastern University; ABD (all but dissertation) in English and American Literature, CUNY Graduate Center; and an MA in Modern and Contemporary Art History, Christies Education, New York where she earned the Best Student Award.