Asia Pacific Triennial 2002 - Starry Night

When talking about non-Indo-European cultures, we are taking on board profound differences in how we arrange our worlds. The 2002 Asia Pacific Triennial endeavours to present art from these cultures through various treatments of time and space relations.

An article in the IIAS Newsletter, August 2002, called 'How Languages Express Time Differently', by Kuang Mei, compares the past, present and future tenses of Western languages with others which do not have them, especially in this case Austronesian and Tibeto-Burman. He talks of how Chinese, amongst numerous other non-Indo-European languages, makes 'no formal distinction of tenses in their verbs'. Professor Kuang Mei suggests the reasons for this are because non Indo-European languages are, first, more 'speaker-oriented', with the speaker rather than the (time-based) action of the speaker being the centre of attention, and, second, that 'the concept of space plays a prominent role in their syntax. Spatial notions enter into the constitution of the verb phrase, to the subjugation of time.' He says it is a choice between time and space, and space wins.

I start with this preamble as an illustration that, when talking about non Indo-European cultures, we are taking on board profound differences of how we arrange our worlds.
The Asia Pacific Triennial 2002 endeavours to present art from these cultures, with as much information to supply context as people can possibly take in while visiting a place of enjoyment. Queensland Art Gallery Director Doug Hall said on ABC TV on the night of the opening that he saw it as a show where 'contemporary art and mass appeal go hand in hand'.

It is a big ask, and in the expectant and interested faces of the people flooding the Gallery in the days after the opening, it seemed to be being answered. Certainly the focus on the human beings behind the art work on display was very well received, in both artists' talks and the short videos of them speaking about their work alongside each section.

As in the past APT2002 has lots on offer: Yayoi Kusama's magic room, Jose Legaspi's psychotic drawings, crowded into a guarded back corner, the soy-sauce bottle leis of Sofia Tekela-Smith used by the Pasifika Divas, a central video room where the big screen showed some of the seminal moving image compilations made by people from Asia in the last four decades, particularly the work of Kusama and Nam June Paik, Montien Boonma's sad room of three large installations, Heri Dono's increasingly impressive opus of installations always so human, witty, humorous, and politically deadly. The list continues with Lee U- Fan's floor installation and paintings, Do-Ho Suh's 'bridge' of little blue-green plastic men holding up the world as miniature Atlases straining under unseen weight, and their compatriot Korean born star artist Paik himself with the largest selection of work ever put together in Australia. Four Australians added to this – a quiet and cerebral mix of Howard Taylor, Joan Grounds, Michael Riley and Eugene Carchesio, as well as New Zealanders Ralph Hotere and Lisa Reihana.

It is a cast of stars. Brightly shining individually in the night sky, nicely placed to be seen to advantage. In the past APTs have been more like the rush and splash of the Milky Way, art and people and everything falling over themselves to fit, to be heard, to squeal and squawk and drum home their existence. The quiet pieces had to be really good to last in the melée.

The rush of the past carried all before it. The differences between regions added to the whole, piling up higher and higher into a compost heap of energy. Things grew warm beneath, some set off some unexpected gases, some just fizzled out.

With a much more highly selected group this time, the group fires don't ignite, but each is left to burn for itself. And some are more successful than others. Montien's room, I said before, is sad. There is the pall of his much too early death, with the poignancy of seeing the video of him making one of the works for the first, 1993 APT. His work is in one discrete space – something that a number of the other artists would have benefited from – but it seemed not to have the aura his work could evoke: that still, calm mood of restraint and contemplation of his work at its best. I wondered, prosaically, if the lighting could have been lower and more atmospheric, closer to the photograph of his work in the catalogue. Montien cared about placing, and feeling, and aura, and the right place, as I learned tramping with him through Adelaide to find the site for his work for the 1994 Adelaide Festival.

This is an unusual criticism because this exhibition is marked by its presentation – so much focus on places to sit, read, and do, with the hands-on Kids APT looming at bright window points of the gallery.

It leads however to one of the main disappointments I had with the show. One of the truly great artists of Asia, Lee U-fan, remarkably there in Brisbane for the opening, the leader of the Mono-ha movement in Japan in the 1960s, for whatever reason, had his work placed so that – as I understand it – it lost its core rationale. His work, like non-Indo-European languages, comes out of a different cultural understanding to those of the West. Mono-ha, the 'school of things', focused on the encounter of things (existence), site (space) and the viewer (consciousness), proceeding from the 'decidedly un-Western premise that the artist is but a medium of circumstantial events within a larger, continuous process', as Alexandra Munroe writes in the seminal account of this period Scream Against the Sky. Munroe contends Mono-ha 'changed the course of Japanese contemporary art by positing Asia as central rather than peripheral to contemporary artistic practice and discourse'.

It led to the post-Mono-ha practices of people like Shigeo Toya of the first APT carving those great logs, or even Tatsuo Miyajima, of the third, with his focus on time. The central three-dimensional piece by Lee U-fan in Brisbane, Relatum, follows on from these works of the 1960s in concept, physical presence, and even title. But it raised little interest in Brisbane.

I wondered why: was it the placing, a space people traversed to get to the gaunt Legaspi drawings or the gothic Reihana photographs and video, and surrounded by paintings, contra to the 1960s when the 'empty' gallery walls and space were specifically seen as part of the work? Was it the work itself, being really a 1960s idea, and not comfortable shown in a 'contemporary' show as Doug Hall said of 2002? Perhaps it was both.

Perhaps it is asking too much. This APT travels in a night sky of culture – vast differences of galaxies, with just the brightest shining out. It asks a fairly unknowing audience (still) in Australia to comprehend anything that binds Lee U-fan with Lisa Reihana, which frankly is very little, as well as what binds Lee U -fan in the 1960s with his work now. It is a difficult journey for those presented with his work for the first time.
APT2002 is different from the past. Good. It will be interesting to see the journey it takes us on next time.