The Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art

The ninth Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT9) returns as a monumental showcase of contemporary art from the Asia Pacific, promising a comprehensive look into the diverse practices of the region. While positioned as a ‘blockbuster’, the histories of colonisation in the Global South bring to the fore inherent tensions regarding power and representation. Indeed, located squarely in the colonial context of Australia, there are greater cultural nuances within the Triennial than what one might usually expect from a popular exhibition.

Vincent Namatjira, Western Aranda, NT Alice Springs, Australia b.1983, Prime Ministers (series), 2016, synthetic polmer paint on canvas, 7 panels: 91 x 67cm (each). The van Aanholt family Collection. Courtesy the artist,  Iwantja Arts, and THIS IS NO FANTASY, Melbourne

It’s Friday morning when curator Zara Stanhope speaks with me. With each question I pose she provides a considered response, and it becomes evident that she too, alongside the entire curatorial team are attentive to ensuring the show is authentic in its representation of the Asia Pacific. ‘APT9’ comprises more than 80 artists and groups from over 30 countries, a gargantuan project that inevitably runs the risk of blurring distinct aesthetics and communities into one homogenous mass. However, these fears prove fleeting as Stanhope walks me through the curatorial vision. Firstly, all but one of the Australian artists included are First Nations people. With that, we are offered a spectrum of practices representative of the varied modes of thinking in Indigenous art. From the sardonic colonial commentary in the paintings of Vincent Namatjira to Jonathan Jones’ site-specific installation and soundscape exploring the Wiradjuri philosophy of wind, there is subtlety that seems to buck convention.

Kushana Bush, Alms and Portents (detail), 2018, gouache, metallic paint and pencil on paper, 56.5 x 48cm. Collection Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art. Courtesy the artist, Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney and Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA)

Similarly, much of the cohesion found in ‘APT9’ is a result of deliberately excluding an overarching theme. Instead, the exhibition contains works which are closely and meaningfully connected to place. This strikes me as a thoughtful process. Here, artists of the Asia Pacific frame their own stories, expressing the agency to which we all have a right but to them was – and sometimes still is – denied. To Stanhope, the result is a concordant synthesis of old and new. Kushana Bush presents paintings which combine techniques used in Italian frescoes with compositional devices of Korean folk art. Qiu Zhijie’s calligraphic scrawls evoke the wispy mountainscapes of Chinese ink painting, though their detail and energy paint a more sinister portrait of globalisation and climate change.

Each artist plays with and reimagines history. With great success, ‘APT9’ has brought together artworks which reflect inwards into narratives of tradition and place, though at the same time are vehemently transgressive and in search of the new.

‘APT9 builds upon the work already done in previous Triennials. I believe the artists included have the ability to cross regions. In many ways, the Triennial is about that connectedness,’ says Stanhope.

Donna Ong and Robert Zhao Renhui, My forest is not your garden, 2015–18, mixed media installation. Photograph: Natasha Harth, QAGOMA. Courtesy the artists, FOST Gallery, Singapore, ShanghART Gallery, China and Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA)

For many of the artists, making sense of that connectedness necessarily involves reconciling traditions inherited from colonisation. Singapore-based artist duo Donna Ong and Robert Zhao Renhui are known for their recreation of lush forest installations: specimens stripped from the tropics and arranged into gallery contexts. Ong and Zhao speak to the crossing of boundaries between natural and artificial. They play on the colonial idea of cultivating land through inserting sandstone structures and monuments with a subversive tone, invading the Eurocentric gallery with their own sense of place.

I mention to Stanhope that these are difficult issues, to which she agrees. There is no easy way to represent the complex social structures which define the Asia Pacific. We concur that allowing artists to reconcile their own cultural dissonance with place is a good place to start.

Viewed wholly, the idea of ‘crossing regions’ is not simply an exchange between different geographies. It is a framework that allows the Triennial to break through partitioned histories and cultural practices. QAGOMA has made space for artists of the Asia Pacific to voice their own ideas without an overbearing curatorial agenda. In this way, the gallery acts as a facilitator rather than a pioneer – art of the Asia Pacific as entrenched by the Asia Pacific. Newness, power and place coalesce to bestow ‘APT9’ with a grander sense of purpose unseen in many Australian institutions. It is a showcase applauded for its sensitivity, worthy indeed of engagement and contemplation.

Eugene Yiu Nam Cheung is an art critic based in Sydney.

Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA)
Until 28 April, 2019