Registering difference, considering change, mapping regeneration: the 7th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art

An-My Le, Vietnam/Usa B. 1960, 'Patient Admission, US Naval Hospital Ship Mercy, Vietnam' (from 'Events Ashore' series) 2010 Archival inkjet pigment print ed. 2/5, 101.6 x 143.5cm, collection Queensland Art Gallery

Twenty years ago in the Asia Pacific Triennial’s first catalogue Caroline Turner wrote, “Euro-Americentric perspectives are no longer valid as a formula for evaluating the art of this region”. Today this seems obvious – but to a significant degree this is due to the previous 6 exhibitions which introduced audiences to the richness of contemporary art practices in the region. It was through the APT that Australian audiences saw the work of Ai Weiwei, Xu Bing, Lee Mingwei, Yayoi Kusama, Cai Guo-Qiang and Gongkar Gyatso. It has facilitated dialogue, debate and scholarship, providing a space for multiple voices and competing ideas. It has exhibited works by over 500 artists from 30 countries, over time expanding its geographical focus, now encompassing works from Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia; from South Asia, the Middle East and Turkey; from West Asia and the former Soviet Union.

The biggest surprise (and biggest disappointment) is the inexplicable absence of Chinese artists. With the notable exceptions of Huang Yong Ping’s sinuous snake skeleton, ‘Ressort’, arching its way through the water mall; an installation of tiny paintings from Zhou Tihai (definitely in the ‘too clever by half’ category); some Chinese animations; and ‘MadeIn’ Company’s cartoonish tropical island of plastic shrubbery, there are very few works from the country which has dominated international biennales and art fairs for the last decade.

Made In Company, 'Spread 201009103', nylon, plywood, plaster, acrylic, paint, spray paint, palm fibre, plastic, 500 x 400 x 400 cm (installed, approx) image courtesy the artists

Instead, the lower level of the gallery is dominated by the largest representation to date of work from Papua New Guinea, including masks and structures from the Sepik River. They are intended to represent one of the exhibition’s stated themes: how the built environment influences the way that people engage with their surroundings, with an emphasis on ephemeral structures and collaborative works. Whether powerful ritual objects such as these can easily be made to fit into such a curatorial conceit is debatable. QAGOMA Acting Director Suhanya Raffel says the exhibition is about “registering difference, considering change, mapping regeneration” –  the politics of identity and geography in a rapidly changing world. This latter idea is more easily identified, and many works reflect on colonialism, dispossession and power relationships.

Michael Cook poses indigenous models in the ornate historical clothing of Britain, France, the Netherlands and Spain (the four European nations who sent ships to Australia both before and during the early period of colonisation) against evocative sepia backgrounds of waves breaking on the shore. They are magically dreamlike and politically potent, a restaging of the past which asks some difficult questions of white Australia.

Michael Cook, Australia, b.1968, Bidjara People Queensland, 'Civilised #13', Inkjet print on paper, ed. 5/8, 100 x 87.5 cm, Purchased 2012 Queensland Art Gallery, collection Queensland Art Gallery

Similarly Greg Samu’s dramatic tableaux recontextualise art historical images to address religious and political colonisation of Pacific peoples. In ‘Auto-portrait with 12 Disciples’ the artist inserts himself as Christ into da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’, surrounded by Kanak tribe members from Noumea. ‘Battle of the Noble Savage’ parodies history painting. Tattooed Maori warriors are posed against a native forest backdrop, the rider on a rearing horse recalling heroic European equestrian images from Uccello’s Battle of San Romano to David’s Napoleon, an acknowledgement of the parallel history of the Maori nation. Backlit in a darkened space, with a Maori ‘karakia’, a prayer to the ancestors, as soundscape, this is powerful stuff.

Greg Samu, New Zealand/Australia b. 1971. 'Untitled (from the 'Battle for the Noble Savage' series), (detail) 2007, reprinted 2012, digital print on PVC canvas, light box, ed. of 10, 150 x 250 cm, copyright Musee du Quai Branly, Paris, Photograph: Greg Samu, image courtesy the artist and Galerie Metropolis, Paris

Graham Fletcher paints cool, parodic images of high modernist domestic interiors in his ‘Lounge Room Tribalism’ series. Oceanic masks and carvings are “domesticated within private dwellings” in a deliberate reference to Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1892 ‘The Beach of Falesa’. Is this what makes me uneasy about Oceanic and New Guinea artefacts within the modern museum context? They appear somehow stripped of their original power, removed from the purpose for which they were made. Lorraine Connelly-Northey uses corrugated iron, old mattress springs and rusted fencing wire to make enormous ‘narbongs’, the string bags woven by Waradjiri women. Witty reminders of the role of women in traditional cultures, they offset the ‘once were warriors’ emphasis of other works.

Lorraine Connelly-Northey Australia b. 1962, Waradgerie (Wiradjuri) people NSW/Vic 'Narbong' (stringbag) 2012, found materials, 10 pieces, dimensions variable (installed) commissioned for APT 7, image courtesy the artist

Parastou Forouhar’s ‘Written Room’, a white space in which walls and floor are covered with deliberately unintelligible and fragmented Farsi script is a revelation. Another highlight is Almigul Menlibayeva’s dreamlike video installation,  shot at Kurchatou, Kazakhstan, the site of hundreds of nuclear tests – “ the empirical heart of Soviet science” as one Russian researcher recalls sadly. The bleak landscape with its ruined buildings provides a dystopian background for her real and imagined narratives. Works from India, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam are also raw, powerful and exciting. Despite reservations about curatorial inclusions and exclusions there is much to enjoy: the shattering of preconceptions and the blurring of geopolitical boundaries is exciting.

Almigul Menlibayeva, Kazakhstan/Germany b. 1969, 'Kurchatov 22' (Still), 2012, 5 Channel HD Video Projection, 26 minutes, 5.1 surround sound, colour, English subtitles, courtesy the artist and Priska C Juschka Fine Art New York