Postcolonial narratives of dispossession, survival, and reclamation dominate the 8th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT) at the Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art, making the exhibition part melancholy lament and part anthem of triumph. Works by artists of different traditions speak of cultural practices transformed in response to external forces, yet they preserve important narratives of identity. From the revival of Mongolian zurag painting in Ulaanbaatar to the reinvention of miniature painting in Lahore, to challenges of colonialist narratives in Polynesia and Anida Yoeu Ali’s street performance in Phnom Penh, the works selected for this iteration of the APT ask viewers to reconsider the way in which contemporary art emerges from cultures steeped in tradition.
Showing the work of eighty-three artists from more than thirty countries, the triennial is a barometer of artistic and social change, responding to global forces and the shifting cultural, economic, and political environments of the region. The emphasis of APT 8 is on the performative body: in live actions, immersive installations, video, sculpture, and—a wonderful surprise—the dynamic resurgence of figurative painting. The exhibition reveals boundaries of geography, history, gender, religion, and art practice in constant, fluid motion. Curator Aaron Seeto says, “We understand that while Asia and the Pacific represent quite specific geographies, these terms are also convenient constructions. Within these territories we see great diversity, histories, and attitudes to current global issues.”
The work of indigenous Australian artists speaks of strength and survival in the face of historical oppression and dispossession, and Christian Thompson’s self-portraits are a powerful act of reclamation. Thompson reframes 19th-century ethnographic photographs as symbols of mourning, interwoven with influences from pop culture, cinema, and theater. Gunybi Ganambarr’s distorted burial poles, painted with the intricate cross-hatching of Arnhem Land, are juxtaposed with works in which he used an angle grinder to inscribe traditional patterns into sheets of metal from old water tanks and discarded conveyor belts from the bauxite mines.
Queer and transnational identities are taken into surprising new territory in Ming Wong’s appropriations of iconic Australian films such as Picnic at Hanging Rock, and in the beautiful and kitsch Filipino folk-tale-inspired performances of mermaids and spirits by Justin Shoulder and Bhenji Ra. Brook Andrews’s re-hang of colonial paintings onto walls covered with the dramatic chevron designs that once adorned the bodies of his Wiradjuri people underline the curatorial thesis of questioning accepted historical, geographic, and political discourses.
Transgender Samoan artist Shigeyuki (Yuki) Kihara is represented by a series of black-and-white photographs that satirically reference Gauguin’s fetishization of the Polynesian body as the Other. Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? (2013) depicts the artist with her back to the camera, dressed in 19th-century mourning clothes at sites of Samoa’s colonial history, such as the German Monument, Molinu’u. In the single-channel video Siva in Motion (2012) she performs a graceful taualuga dance, reenacting the tsunami that swept across Samoa in 2009. Her fluid hand gestures are intended to recall the early photographic experiments of Étienne-Jules Marey.
Works by three Mongolian painters are a revelation. Mongol zurag painting, suppressed during years of compulsory Soviet socialist realism, reemerged with perestroika. These immensely detailed paintings emerge from a long tradition of figuration, a synthesis of Tibetan tangka, Chinese guohua, and Liao Dynasty equestrian art. Add a dash of political pop and contemporary satire, and the resulting works demonstrate extraordinary technical accomplishment, great beauty, and keen social observation. Nomin Bold’s Tomorrow (2014), painted on a surface of old scripture sheets, at first appears to be a traditional devotional Buddhist image, until you see that the background is a teeming city of grid-like streets, skyscrapers, and power lines. From the tradition of religious tangka, too, the paintings of Tibetan exile Tsherin Sherpa hang on dark scrolls that are suspended from poles featuring gold hands and feet in each corner; they are psychedelic in their swirling intensity of crimson, gold, viridian, and ultramarine.
From the Kyrgyz Republic, a five-channel video installation by Guknara Kasmalieva and Muratbek Djumaliev, A New Silk Road: Algorithm of Survival and Hope (2006), embodies the spirit of many artists selected for this APT. The five screens show a lonely road winding through a bleak landscape. Along the trade route that once saw camel trains bearing silks and spices, now a convoy of battered trucks hauls scrap metal to China from the Soviet Union and Central Asia. In the opposite direction, shiny new Chinese road trains carry manufactured goods bound for European markets. A man sings a traditional Kyrgyz ballad, an ode to his homeland. A young boy on horseback races a truck along the road. The video focuses on the inhabitants of the farms and Kyrgyz towns en route, who reveal entrepreneurial agility and resilience in their dealings with the truck drivers. Eking out a precarious living in an unforgiving but beautiful place, they represent the contradictions and difficulties faced by all but the richest of the world’s population in a time of uncertainty.
At a time of unprecedented human movement across the globe, the focus on the body is timely. Curator Aaron Seeto says, “Artists are using the body through figuration and performance to express complex ideas and positions with respect to the environment, labor politics, migration, politics and history, sexual expression, and liberation to name just a few. […] These are responses to very specific politics and cultural trajectories, and so it is never a generic body that is being presented.” At a historic moment when human bodies are crammed into boats, trucks, and trains, making dangerous journeys, traversing oceans and crossing borders, seeking safety, this exhibition reveals the resilience of cultures, peoples, and individuals living in a time of doubt.
The 8th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art is on view at the Queensland Art Gallery and the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art through April 10, 2016.