Queensland Art Gallery 9 September - 26 January
In the acknowledgment of a potential 'conflict-of-interest-type-situation' I have to begin by confessing that I was one of those 48 'notorious' curators1 who chose a few of the 77 artists included in the current Asia-Pacific Triennial at the Queensland Art Gallery. Perhaps I should also confess my bemusement about the way in which an exhibition of this magnitude can be reduced to a few off-beat statistics and then dismissed as "hopelessly ill-conceived".2
Throughout the more-or-less ten years that have transpired since the Triennial's initial planning, the QAG's commitment to acting as though they weren't experts in the region still seems to be a fundamentally sound principle in a number of ways.3 Any survey exhibitions of contemporary art that seek to side-step claims of neo-colonialism continue to walk on very shaky ground, and the process of taking on the broadest base of input and opinion has provided these exhibitions with a level of credibility in the region that they might not otherwise have had.
Indeed, the interaction between curators and artists and writers and academics may have provided some of the most enduring and proactive aspects of the exhibitions' successes. The presence of a significantly high number of overseas artists, writers and curators at the exhibition, artists' talks and at the conference takes the event past the fairly unimpressive high-tide marks of overseas
participation at most events of this nature.
When the first Triennial was 'launched' in 1993 the exhibition seemed to go against the mainstream traffic of the large survey exhibitions we have grown used to in this country in a number of ways: (1) there was no starring role for any one curator; (2) the exhibition did not seem to include as many of the 'usual suspects' included in international exhibitions, and (3) lots of the work seemed to fit the prevailing mainstream styles and genres du jour only with difficulty.
Since then, through a range of projects, exchanges, publications and other exhibitions Australian audiences have grown more familiar with artists from the region. As a result the element of fascination with the exotic that (however theorised the protests) played a big role in initial responses to the exhibition has gradually - but not completely - dissipated. However, in that short decade any hesitancy to make claims of 'expertise' in the area of contemporary Asia-Pacific art has also waned; expertise in the area of Asia-Pacific contemporary art has launched many a career since 1993.
Consequently, there are a lot more opinions about how the APT could have been 'done better', much of which is probably valuable. However, the fact that the APT kept to its original structure for three exhibitions has permitted an overview that otherwise might have lacked an aspect of that particular "quality and coherence" so longed for by so many western professionals. The themes of the Triennials fall into three simple time-based categories: Tradition and Change, Present Encounters, and Beyond the Future, and no doubt this framework will provide a valuable long-term reference from which to mount more focused exhibitions in the future. Already a number of offshoot exhibitions with a more limited focus in Australia and overseas seem to have benefited from the broad survey approach of the APTs.
Another contentious aspect of the exhibition is the continued use of national boundaries as one means of identifying artists. While this broad means for organising representation may be clumsy and misleading and even, as some suggest, "redundant",5 it has, for example, provided a valuable way of alerting audiences to the fact that 'the Pacific' is much, much more than one place or one culture or one language. The tiny nation of Nuie, with 2,000 inhabitants, has a presence in APT 3 through the collaborative work of a number of artists who might not have been included within other frameworks for organising this survey exhibition.
The introduction of the category Crossing Borders into the current APT offered an alternative way of including the work of those artists whose lifestyle and/or work does not fit within cut-and-dried frameworks of identification. Through this aspect of the exhibition we see the reappearance of a number of artists involved in past APTs, among them Indonesian artist Dadang Christanto, whose installation Api di Bulan Mei 1998 (Fire in May 1998) addresses the setting ablaze of Solo and areas of Jakarta as ongoing examples of "wounds of the nation" that have been opened and re-opened since 1965.
Although the artist may in this case be re-presented within a category that stands outside the boundaries of national identification, the work remains deeply preoccupied with events and places that are specific. Which in no way hampers the power of the work to extend those local boundaries and speak about issues that effect us all - to greater and lesser extents. The ongoing response of the Australian public to Christanto's work For those who have been killed purchased by the QAG after the 1993 Triennial is a testimony to the way in which art's rootedness to a specific place and time extends - rather than diminishes - its power to communicate.