Contemporary Art in Asia: Traditions/Tensions

Exhibition Review Contemporary Art in Asia: Traditions/Tensions Organised by the Asia Society New York Art Gallery of Western Australia 6 February - 29 March 1998

It is ironic that though Western Australia is the closest Australian state to a major part of Asia, this exhibition is the first major survey of art from the region to be shown in Perth. Nonetheless it is welcoming to have such an exhibition, particularly during the Festival of Perth to co-incide with other theatre and music performers from Asia (the hit 'sleeper' being undoubtedly Andrew's Favourite from Arif Lohar and his Bhangra beat boys from Pakistan).

The exhibition was originally compiled by Thai curator Apinan Poshyananda for the Asia Society Galleries in New York as a major North American introduction to contemporary art issues and directions from Asia. Nonetheless, it is equally relevant for Western Australia and is no way diminished by its routing halfway round the world.

In his introductory catalogue essay, Poshyananda states that the selection, featuring multiple works by 28 artists from Thailand, India, The Philippines, Indonesia and Korea does not aim to be a concise survey of the contemporary art of Asia but to present "Issues related to cultural difference and multiculturalism... Layers of hybridity, crossing, and intermixing of different ethnic, racial, religious groups and classes are explored by artists in different ways."

In contrast to other more, neatly segmented major surveys such as Brisbane's Asia Pacific Triennials and countless regional biennials, the exhibition has been selected and displayed to explore a series of intersecting, and often competing issues that find common ground between cultural regions, but in Poshyananda's words, avoiding "binary opposition of Occident and Orient" seeking instead "... to tease out themes of gender, post-colonialism, the hybridity and constant transformation of traditions and frictions/ dislocations emanating from the politics of famine, disease, violence, crime, migration, prostitution and pollution."

In a challenge to logistical ingenuity the exhibition predominates in three-dimensional sculptural and installation works. Within this loose framework an overriding sense of materiality pervades the exhibition – the cowdung wall installation of Sheila Gowda of India finding resonance with the terracotta mound heads of Dadang Christanto (Indonesia), the stuffed, multi-coloured cotton bundles of Soo-Ja Kim (Korea) and Nindityo Adipurnomo (Indonesia). In the works of these artists, the underlying themes and tensions of colonial/postcolonial economic transformation first appear as dominant issues. However, as strong is the issue of gender based object, transubstantiated by several artists into new ambiguities through the juxtaposition of traditional and consumer items.

Generously displayed across almost a third of the total Art Gallery space, these works create in turn, seductive and uneasy, teeth gritting responses – coincidentally establishing a serendipitous, wider aesthetic dialogue with curator John Stringer's cool, minimalist Festival Show: Material Perfection: Minimal Art & Its Aftermath – selected from the Kerry Stokes Collection exhibited at the Lawrence Wilson Gallery at UWA.

Since Perth is the only venue for this exhibition in Australia, mention should be made of the excellent and generously illustrated catalogue. Extensive essays by Poshyananda, Geeta Kapur, Jim Supangkat, Marian Pastor Roces and Jae-Ryung Roe bring a wide ranging series of first-hand, informed commentaries on the wider contemporary undercurrents and intersecting flows running through the exhibited artists and within each region's intellectual climate. The essays add considerable meat to previous survey/international conference papers published over the past few years. The essay: Exhibition Strategies in the Post colonial Era offers, in particular, an overdue discussion of recent approaches by Euro-American curators to the question of global contemporary aesthetics and alternative approaches such as offered by Poshyananda in this current exhibition. I would strongly recommend ordering a catalogue from the gallery bookshop.

To coincide with the exhibition, the Art Gallery also commissioned Singapore artist Tang Da Wu to reconstruct his large work: Sorry Whale, I didn't know that you were in my camera – abuse of somebody is part of modernist strategy. The public was invited to cover the body of a wire mesh whale with used colour film canisters, messages and photos which, judging by the enthusiastic response, will have totally transformed the great white sleeping form into a fully technicolour installation by the close of the exhibition. Tang's clever juxtaposing of environmental and human problems is a brilliant example of effective low-tech installation with a high level message of art and social commitment.

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