The 10th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art

In Artist Profile Issue 58, Pat Hoffie reviews The 10th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, exploring the many community-engagement projects of which APT10 is just one contributing component.

First impressions can be deceiving. The impact of this tenth version of The Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (the APT) was less of a bang and more of what initially seemed like a whimper. Where were the big names? Where were the familiar biennale/triennale tropes? Where were the instagrammable icons? Yet during the weeks since its opening night, this exhibition has proved to have a staying-power that carries it beyond the schlock tactics of so many big survey shows. Over successive visits, the “whimper” emerged as more akin to a radical quietism; a series of softly-slowly engagements full of reflections appropriate to the trepidations of this time. 

When borders closed in March 2020, the prospect of an international survey exhibition for 2021/22 seemed probably difficult, more likely impossible. As COVID-19 raged through the region, communities were – and continue to be – ravaged by the onslaught of the pandemic. The idea of cultural celebration in the form of a grandiose survey exhibition in this context of prolonged and ongoing devastation could have seemed questionable, had it not been so thoughtfully curated.

Although the gathering together of artists from across the region has been central to previous APTs, the global pandemic made the realisation of such a goal impossible for this one. Yet the representation of artworks and projects from out-of-reach individuals and communities has been continued, according to QAGOMA Director Chris Saines, in “69 projects by over 150 emerging and established artists from over thirty countries.” In the place of fleshmeets and ground-truthing, curators relied on online communication drawing from the vast networks built up in the region through previous APTs. QAGOMA curators describe the process of arriving at the theme of each exhibition through collaborative exchange with these experts in the field, followed by commissioning the new works that form the backbone of the exhibition. 

Lead curators Tarun Nagesh, Ruth McDougall, and Reuben Keehan place two things at the core of their theme-elusive premise: recognition of the important contributions of First Nations and minority communities within the region and the incorporation of the “expanded community . . . into the structure of the project itself.” The result is an exhibition comprised of many components that only begin to make sense slowly, once a little contextual understanding provides a toe-hold for apprehending and appreciating many of the works. While those wanting more fast-grab aesthetics by recognisable global art stars may be disappointed, the exhibition maps new ways of understanding “the region” through works that are often produced by artist collectives, collaborations and social engagements. Nagesh makes no apologies for preferencing an ethical criticality over a desire for a polished, aestheticised product: “teaching and community collaboration,” he writes, often drive the “primary intention and purpose” of the work.

There’s many an exhibition that’s hoisted itself on its own petard of good intentions, but the APT is a project, of which the triennial exhibition is a part. Behind the objects on display the gallery has initiated a raft of ongoing community-shared practical initiatives that are changing communities beyond the institution itself. QAGOMA has long laid claim to the unique nature of its APT as being not only museum-driven, but also as a composite project that holds research and collection development at its core. It makes sense that it takes place in Queensland, a state that’s home to a higher number and concentration of Pacific Islands residents than any other in Australia. 

My first time round the exhibition followed the prescribed trail, starting at the entrance in the grand hallway of GOMA. Themes of migration, dislocation, renegotiations of the colonial maps of possession and reclamations of knowledge of the region through cartographies of tide and skies and currents and traditional understandings ran like tributaries through the rooms. But as with so many exhibitions that claim to represent contemporary art in the “Asia Pacific region” so few traces of Australia seem to have survived. On the second level, however, Waanyi artist Gordon Hookey’s MURRILAND!, 2017, and MURRILAND! 2, 2021, roll out into a kind of Antipodean version of the Bayeux Tapestry – a legendary chronicle of the history of Queensland that rewrites familiar tales with syncopated alliteration, and punning that’s peppered with sharp visual hooks, feints and jabs. It’s a good Blak-humour context-setter for the exhibition, although its position along the narrow walls of the upper level of the hallway made it impossible to get any distanced perspective.

If the exhibition is approached in reverse, from the QAG side of QAGOMA, the Yolngu/Macassan Project co-curated by Abdi Karya and Diane Moon make for a more interesting introduction to what follows. Here, an ethereal blue room houses a collection of collaboratively produced objects that include ceramics, sails, bark paintings, burial poles and performance created in a spirit that honours, responds to and augments the ongoing history of Yolngu/Macassarese social and cultural interactions that began with the first trepang trade. The ceramics are perhaps the most surprising – antique pottery shards attest to the centuries of interaction between the two cultures. They cut through the blind-to-history assumptions that those of us who inhabit Australian shorelines are only beginning to invest in cultural exchange with the region. This installation is evidence that such exchanges began centuries ago.

Surprises keep popping up: in the next room, what appears to be a traditional eight-metre-long handmade paper scroll featuring finely painted watercolour botanical studies is hung back-to-back with technological colour-coded visualisations of each plant’s capacity to seek and store minerals. The featured plants share a capacity for transposing minerals from soil into their leaves; these hyper-accumulators. or super-plants, are used to clean toxic minerals from abandoned mining sites. Working with the Sustainable Minerals Institute at the University of Queensland, Chinese artist Hu Yun explores possible synergies between this cutting-edge research into phyto-rehabilitation and the historical evidence of Chinese labourers on Victorian goldfields.

Water-themes, streams of memory, mourning and hope, and tides that honour the traditions of the past to carry them forward into an uncertain future abide throughout the exhibition. The more familiar military-colonial accounts of the islands and atolls dubbed Micronesia are unravelled by the Air Canoe project, 2021, revealing how small cultural resistances that draw from lived understandings of an holistic worldview comprised of “seafloor, earth, plants, creatures, water, sky, cosmos” has generated “vibrant cultures of textiles, music, dance, ritual and food.” The shared dreams and practices of these cultures have sustained their communities throughout the overwhelming devastation wrought by sixty-seven nuclear tests conducted in the region during the Cold War. They continue to sustain them in the wake of climate crisis and the ravages of the Covid pandemic. These may be cultural forms that sit somewhat awkwardly under the conforming umbrella of “contemporary art,” yet the power of these cultural practices to foster community cohesiveness is undisputed.

Yet visitors simply seeking immersion in sheer sublime beauty will not be disappointed either; Dhartari: The creation of the world, 2021, by brothers Mayur and Tushar Vayeda from the Warli people from Maharashtra, India, offers an account of the creation, destruction and recreation of the world with the role of water taking a star act, transforming in each huge panel from rivulets to lakes, to clouds and mist and mystery and back into floods, surging seas of wrath and endless oceans of forgiveness. And it’s a simple plant – a water-gourd, who saves the day. Australian audiences might identify the resonances this work has with Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s images of Yam Dreamings, or perhaps with the dancing surfaces of Dorothy Napangardi’s paintings of the journeys of women ancestors. But this is another origin story from a tiny, specific elsewhere; one that has evolved its expressive force from generations of wisdom and inherited form and skill and story. As the world faces down successive tidal waves of destruction, this exhibition navigates culturally diverse accounts of how adversities have been confronted and overcome in the past – as well as in the present. 

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 58, 2022

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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