Mired in its political ties, can the APT7 maintain its independence and paint a true picture of what's going on in the region?
When I heard the Australian war artist Ben Quilty recently (ABC1, Australian Story, 25 March 2013) he highlighted for me why it's hard to shake the feeling that most of the artists included in the 7th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT7), Brisbane's big show this summer, are circumspect political commentators. Quilty said he had a 'voice' and he used it to air his concerns about Australian Defence Force personnel serving in Afghanistan who were suffering from emotional distress. The voices in APT7 are neither loud nor clear even when they declare their subject matter is political.
According to the Queensland Art Gallery and the Gallery of Modern Art the triennial is "the only major exhibition series in the world to focus exclusively on the contemporary arts of Asia, the Pacific and Australia" but three years on and there's a sense of déjà vu. Oversized sculptures in familiar places, up-scaled pieces commanding metres of wall, floor and plinth space and a reliance on multiples and series. Each time I visit, I am left with the impression that there are many curatorial and sponsorship forces pushing in different directions.
Contemporary seems to be a problematic term this year with special attention being paid to traditional Melanesian material culture and vernacular architecture, formats repeated with minor variation for many years. Is this really contemporary? What chance encounter led to the privileging of so much material from PNG? And where's the experimentation in character substitution? Artists have been skillfully inserting the displaced 'Other' into the historical/colonial narrative to prove a political and cultural point for decades so surely this is passé?
It's predominantly the film makers and photojournalists who remind us that living in the region is fraught with individual and collective difficulties: look what those ghastly Soviets did to their ethnic populations and environment, look what Asian servitude is doing to young girls and look how the gravitational field of the modern is threatening the traditional. But voices are muted when it comes to the pressing regional issues (religious and ethnic conflict, environmental catastrophe, nuclear disaster, immigration and globalisation).
Although the triennial has no rival in Australia it does have international rivals with stronger armatures, drawing their energy from smaller talent pools. No one disputes APT7s range is wide, now that the Asian frontier conforms to Kublai Khan's thirteenth century Mongol Empire (which stretched from the Pacific to Eastern Europe), and it can't help instructing its audience, but nonetheless APT7 is not persuasive. It doesn't build up a convincing picture of what's truly going on in this vast region. How can it when a disproportionate amount of exhibition space is given to Australian artists and expats?
Inclusion in APT7 has always been tangled up in cultural patriotism largely nourished by federal government sponsorship. One can't get more political than the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. This body has established councils, institutes and foundations to promote bilateral relations with Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Japan, China and Korea in an effort to expand organisational and people-to-people links. There's also the Australia Council. So is it any wonder that what appears to be an exhibition of "75 artists and groups from 27 countries" is a mixture of political determination and a significant bilateral exchange effort?
Don't misunderstand me. APT7 is an impressive parade of cultural offerings and it gives visitors the chance to see some stylish works that ought not to be missed. However my concern runs deeper than aesthetic considerations because it questions APT7 as an authoritative and independent curatorial voice.
Take Huang Yong Ping's sculpture Ressort (2012) for example, one of the site-specific snake skeletons the artist has been creating for over a decade. Other works in the series are located in France (where he has been living since 1989), Germany and now in Brisbane suspended from the ceiling above the Queensland Art Gallery's reflecting pool. It's the first sculpture you see as you descend to the watermall level and it's no surprise to find such a potent symbol at the entrance. 2013 is the 30th year of the 78th cycle of the Cycle of Sixty, being under the influence of the element water and subject to the symbol of the snake.
According to Asiatic scholars the snake is not one of the four intelligent creatures (unicorn, phoenix, tortoise and dragon) rather it is the emblem of sycophancy, cunning and evil, while at the same time it is regarded with feelings of awe and veneration owing to its supposed supernatural powers. Is it any wonder then that we fasten onto the aluminum tail, vertebrae and ribs spiralling through the floors and that we continue to follow the form until the skull comes to an abrupt stop, with the lower jaw hovering just centimetres above the water's surface at the western edge of the pool? It's hard to miss the tension (ressort literally translates as spring in French) in the spiral reflected as it is in the water's ripples.
So it's great to read on the exhibition label that Ressort was commissioned specifically for APT7 and that it's now part of the gallery's permanent collection. But how much more informative would it be if the label also disclosed that the Australia-China Council [of which QAGOMA's Acting Director, Suhanya Raffel, is a Board member], directly funded this commission and sponsored the display of the other Chinese artists? This is not an isolated case. Whose voice are we hearing then if the sponsor is ultimately responsible for funding the artistic selection process?
The key issue here is that the power and patronage network that is determining the delivery of cultural content within the sector as a whole remains obscure. We know the sponsors from their logos but not the extent of their sponsorship, which I think is a problem. Surely it's time museums and galleries lifted the veil of secrecy. Why be coy about the process? Sponsorship disclosure statements could help explain why the triumvirate of privilege has delivered an interesting but far from compelling or provocative triennial. It could also explain why artists who might be as outspoken as Ben Quilty are not included in the show.
7th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, Queensland Art Gallery and Museum of Modern Art, Brisbane 7 December 2012-14 April 2013