10th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art

This year's Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art marks the tenth iteration of the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art flagship event. It will focus on the moment in which we find ourselves, global urgencies, and uncertain futures, driven by the personal and the political - with its characteristic materiality, humour, and joy.

It is not the first time I have seen the 10th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT10) in its planning stage, witnessing the potential scale of the event via models of the galleries of both of the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) buildings, again dominated by the overarching footprint of its flagship event. Curator Tarun Nagesh gives me a guided tour of this miniature representation of APT10’s sixty-nine projects, currently in development by over 100 emerging and established artists, collectives and filmmakers – from more than thirty countries. The unruly embrace of the building by this exhibition is overwhelming, its detail hard to absorb in the model; yet viewing it at this stage increases an understanding of how tightly the project team’s curatorial focus must work to accommodate its enormous footprint and the sheer range and scope of so many large-scale projects.

There is also a sense that, during a global pandemic, when travel has been impossible, the connections and network built by QAGOMA over twenty-eight years have been crucial to this year’s delivery. Writing for the exhibition catalogue (“Curatorial Introduction”), curators Ruth McDougall, Reuben Keehan and Nagesh suggest that “APT operates in a continuum, informed less by a single preoccupation of artistic direction than by sustained dialogue through a dedicated team of researchers.” This dialogue extends the Brisbane-based team into the region with partner organisations and co-curators who advise and engage across the breadth of this geography. There is also a push, visible in this iteration, further into northern Oceania than APT has gone before.

While the number of artists has built steadily over the years, and the project’s frameworks have also segued over the course of twenty-eight years. In APT10 a focus on materiality remains strong, while other trends from previous years have also been fostered: incorporating the broad community integral to APT “into the structure of the project itself,” and greater recognition and celebration of First Nations and “minority practitioners” from throughout the region.

The core of APT for me is always learning stories and gleaning experience from other places, which engage the imagination and take us into the heart of communities from culturally unfamiliar zones. The way new materials are crafted captures the imagination and extends this experience.

For APT10, artists from other places may engage locally to confirm relevance. This is beautifully captured in Kaili Chun’s Uwe ka lani, Ola ka honua (When the heavens weep, the earth lives), 2021. Chun is Kanaka Öiwi, from Hawaii. Her interests examine the way in which Honululu has been impacted by urbanisation (development, agriculture, aquaculture, militarism, and tourism) although the poetics of her work entrance the eye. In this installation she uses stainless steel cables to represent the light on falling rain as it is caught by slanting sunlight. Integrated into its fabric is water, collected from all over our continent by First Nations peoples. Encased in glass capsules, these connect into the cables; in this way Chun’s practice acknowledges First Nations custodianship of land, sea and sky, the connections between all life, and also the sacred quality of water in her own culture.

She said, “The underlying concept of this piece is the importance of water – whether wai (fresh), kai (ocean) or ua (rain) – and its embodiment of who we are as human beings – as connector or divider, healer or destroyer, purifier or putrefier. Our bodies are made with water and sustained by water, but unlike water we have the choice between unifying or separating, building or demolishing, cleansing or soiling. Ours is a choice to serve our fellow humans, steward our fragile environment and follow Ke Akua, our living God.”

Another large scale project from Bangladesh examines narratives of travel from the past to acknowledge their ongoing impacts on contemporary life. Kamruzzaman Shadhin and Gidree Bawlee Foundation of Arts (established 2001) present The fibrous souls, 2018-20, made from seventy giant shikas (bags made from jute strings, embroidered and decorated). Usually used to hold food containers and tied to a beam in the ceiling of houses, within APT10 this installation relates historical stories of families who followed the railway tracks into India, following the Eastern Bengal Railway’s establishment by the British East India Company. They moved away from their lands, lured by opportunities along the railway. After the 1947 Partition of India, they were displaced, eventually moving into present-day Bangladesh, following a period as political and then ecological migrants. This installation and the hanging shikas are arranged like a map of the Eastern Bengal Railway, with each pot noting a town or city at which the railway stopped. The involvement of communities in the creation of this work notes the model of artistic exchange developed by Kamruzzaman and Gidree Bawlee, and becomes “an attempt to interweave these historical and cultural strands that seem apparently and innocently disconnected, and connect these to the present-day peasant conditions in Assam and Bengal.”

Another connection made historically between Australia’s Yolngu peoples and Macassan traders and fishers from south Sulawesi (Indonesia) is celebrated in the Yolngu/Macassan project. There were centuries of contact between these two peoples, who shared cultural and economic exchanges until they were banned by the Australian Government (1906). This exchange has been re-ignited for APT10, with a display of Macassan-made pots hand-painted by Yolngu artists including the late Nawurapu Wunungmurra and Merrkiyawuy Ganambarr, and boat sails, constructed from canvas canopies and high-vis work shirts. Given the increasing dynamism and innovation that has emerged from Yolngu in recent years, together with its cultural depth, this collaboration promises much. Abdi Karya, a Macassan performance and visual artist, was key liaison with the Macassan artisans who developed the ceramic forms and sails. Curator Diane Moon writes, “The project encourages and renews social and cultural ties between the groups, and reaffirms the legacy of the contact, which is alive still in shared language, customary rituals, sacred imagery, daily life and embodied in the works on display in APT10.”

This embrace of a wider community in many countries (also extending into “new social conditions and broad audiences”) is integral to the signature of this year’s APT. Other Australian artists included are Gordon Hookey, with an impressive extension of his Murriland! opus, 2015-ongoing, which creates the rainbow serpent as an interrogation of Queensland’s history since colonisation, and an innovative collaboration between two artists from the Torres Strait, Grace Lillian Lee and mentor Ken Thaiday Senior, with a kinetic dhari headdress. The work of Yasmin Smith, who works with ceramics and ecology using chemical narratives, expressed in glazed replicas of found environmental timbers, adds to the sense of a future shaped by human and natural histories.

APT always showcases the depth of QAGOMA’s institutional engagement with the region. Its reach into imagined futures, with the implications of global issues (like climate change) particularly pressing in the Pacific is a significant part of its urgency. The exhibition’s ability to open these connections to audiences with artwork that is beautiful, engaging and challenging, allowing for it to become, in parallel, a diverse and vibrant celebration of dialogue and exchange.

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 57, 2021.
Images courtesy Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane.

The 10th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art
4 December 2021 – 25 April 2022
Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane

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