Refocusing the Gaze

Review of the First Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, Queensland Art Gallery, Sept - Dec 1993. The rationale for selection, search for different voices from each country, enormous diversity, some common threads eg experience of colonisation; politicisation; role of religion in some countries. Dramatic performances by Dadang Christanto (Indonesia) and S. Chandrasekeran (Singapore). Theme of environmental pollution also appears in several works.

For me the incident that encapsulates the ultimate value of the first Asia Pacific Triennial took place at a performance by Dadang Christanto in his installation. 'For those who have been killed'. As the artist, his whole body smeared with white clay, danced through suspended bamboo and palm leaf poles, gently spinning each one to create a moving pattern, he uttered high animal-like grieving sounds. Behind me, two women, one from Africa and the other from New Guinea, murmured of the similarities between his performance and rituals in their own local cultures. One culturally specific event showed the closeness of the links we have with the neighbours.

Even before the opening party there were complaints about which artists had been excluded from the 'Triennial', and who had not been consulted on the selection. Unlike the one-man band which is the selection process for the 'Biennale of Sydney', the 'Asia-Pacific Triennial' did seek local expertise: no artist is here because of one single person's whim. And inevitably in the long consultations held over a long time with many curators and administrators, favoured people were left out.

From the perspective of someone with a patchy knowledge of the art of the region, the better I knew the country, the more art seemed not to be there. But when Vietnam is represented by one artist it seems churlish to demand more from Australia which has nine, or New Zealand which has seven. The big absence is that of the Pacific Islands, eg Fiji, New Caledonia and the Solomons. But this is the first Triennial, perhaps they will be included next time. In the same light the representation of women from those countries where Muslim fundamentalists are on the rise (especially Indonesia and Malaysia) was surprisingly low. There is a problem of how much to respect local customs, when local customs include downgrading one group of citizens.

One of the standard complaints about the 'Triennial' has been the way in which most of the art of the regions has been hung together, which gives the novice viewer some sense of national preoccupations, but avoids telling other stories, suppressing other themes for the sake of geography. But the spaces of the Queensland Art Gallery do not lend themselves to rigid hangs, so barriers were avoided, while at the same time handy maps of the region enabled the geographically illiterate to understand where each of these countries was in relation to its neighbours. The most extreme example of national typecasting is at the very entrance to the exhibition where works from two traditional enemies - the economically dominant Japan, and the tiger economy of South Korea - are placed side by side. Japan's dominance of world trade has been accompanied by an appropriation of other cultures, the claiming of the Western tradition has not been confined to buying French art at auction. But the visual connections here have a twist to them. Miran Fukuda's 'Claris, Flora and the three Graces as seen by Zephyr' turns the Botticelli-type images into spaces based more on traditional woodblock prints: a post-modernist distortion. In comparison with 'Zones of Love', shown throughout Australia last year, the representation here shows a very refined Japan, with little of the vulgar energy of downtown Tokyo.

There is some of that energy in South Korean Bul Lee's 'Fish', a freezer filled with a tasteful display of dead fish, each one decorated with sequins and tat. It may lack the social conscience of Duck-Hyun Cho's 'Pandora's Box', which brings light and shade to the drawing of a child, but there is a wonderful sense of behaviour bordering on the totally unacceptable, with the very real chance that the freezer will break down and the fish decompose, leaving only the jewellery behind.

If Bul Lee's work has a hint of an odorous end, then the Thai artist, Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook has a continuing problem of smell in her two beautifully made, formally correct sculptures. In order to get the intense black she wants for her reflections, and aware that water does become brackish if left still, she has turned to motor oil to fill her boat in 'Girl says, "There is always the night"' and, the boxes in 'Three boxes of men and their reflections'. Unfortunately the air-conditioning of the gallery was not enough to prevent the smell. Which is a pity, because the concept is one of refined reflection and grief: grief at the death of the artist's father from cancer, and at the continuing plight of women who merely appear to have more choices.

These artists from the tiger economies of Asia are looking more to international styles, albeit with regional variations. It is the other artists, whose work arises more from local traditions, who seemed to be more interesting in this context.

Dadang Christanto's 'For those who have been killed' is about more than Indonesian mourning rituals. According to a card placed on the floor it is made "as an expression of empathy for those whose lives have been lost or are tormented", and visitors are asked to place flowers to honour the dead. Living in Australia it is so easy to think of Indonesian dissent as being confined to East Timor, but opposition to military rule and its consequences is found throughout the archipelago. Dadang Christanto and his equally political colleagues Heri Dono and FX Harsono come from Java, and are products of the Indonesian Academy of Art in Yogyakarta. They combine elements of traditional theatre, age-old ritual, and appreciation of the treasures of the past with a finely honed anger at the tragedies of the present.

There is also a measure of rueful understanding in pieces like FX Harsono's 'Moment of Reflection' which combines images of ancient conflict as carved in stone with modern guns, newspaper images of death and mirrors placing the viewer within the tradition of violence. It is not enough to condemn the acts of others; in the end we are all participants.

In choosing work for the 'Asia-Pacific Triennial', the selectors appear to have looked for different voices in each of the participating countries, with the result that the artists are only united by the common strands that interlink many different cultures.
One common experience all thirteen countries have is that of colonisation. Even China suffered both the gunboat diplomacy of the 19th century super-powers and the later invasion of Japan, while South Korea and Vietnam were two of the great victims of Cold War political theory. So the multi-strands of colonisation give traces of Britain, the Netherlands, France and Spain as well as the ubiquitous United States influence of recent decades. With the colonisers came their religions, converting the indigenous people and settling new populations. India is not a part of the Asia-Pacific rim, but Hinduism crossed the Indonesian archipelago, leaving its mythology and imagery with the many local traditions as it mixed with animism. Heri Dono may claim the influence of the puppets and performance of Miro and the Spanish surrealists, but his use of shadows and ritual with demons owes much more to the 'wayang' puppets of home. It is more likely that the work of the Spaniards showed the Indonesians that their own traditions had a validity after all.

Hindu traditions also spread to Malaysia and Singapore, nurtured by the strong local Indian communities. It is impossible to understand S. Chandrasekaran's installation and performance without also having some knowledge of Hindu cosmology. He created a landscape of harsh termite-type hills against a white wall. During the performance his loin-clothed body was suspended against the wall, apparently in mid-air while he channelled energy by moving through classic yoga positions, like a moving statue while images of the night sky flowed over him.

Some of the religious influences of the region have been overshadowed by the aesthetic traditions of later colonisers, as with the academic tradition of Vietnamese artist Nguyen Xuan Tiep's School of Paris influenced paintings where the recent colonising influence harmonises with residual Buddhist perceptions. But with the Philippines the Catholic Church in all its Counter Reformation Hispanic fervour appears to have overwhelmed older traditions. Julie Lluch's 'Doxology' is a piece that would be at home in Avila or Toledo, or perhaps in any of the former South American colonies. The over-the-top-excesses of the Spanish tradition seem light years away from the quiet internalised faith expressed by New Zealander Anne Noble's photographs of the daily lives of English nuns in her series 'In the presence of angels'. If there is a link with a neighbour here it is with the political consciousness-raising of the works from neighbouring Indonesia.

The focussed political energy of much of the art is a reminder that one of the functions of art in our society is to be the public voice of the dispossessed. Australia is hardly unique in the way indigenous people use art. Judy Watson's paintings of land and skin, along with Ada Bird Petyarre, Gloria Petyarre and Kathleen Petyarre's paintings of the mountain devil lizard, are an affirmation of a connection with the land that predates all formal titles, and will outlast any system of laws.

In a rather more aggressive mode the New Zealander Selwyn Maru uses the traditions of Maori architecture and dress to make a uses the traditions of Maori architecture and dress to make a series of three canvases about the tattered culture and the need to repossess the past as well as to reclaim the environment.

Responsibility for the environment is the third strand, other than colonisation and systems of religious or political belief that emerges from this first 'Triennial'. In the weeks leading up to the exhibition the Filipino artist Junyee asked people to send rubbish in big plastic bags for his outside installation, while in the gallery the painter Edgar Fernandez counters the good of crops growing and natural life with the evil of industrial waste and the felling of the forests. And the Thai artist Kamol Phaosavasdi made the gallery's large pool into 'River of the King: water pollution project one'. This concern is larger than the region, larger than memory, and in itself is a part of the cultural change that continues to envelop the world.

Support independent writing on the visual arts. Subscribe or donate here.