The 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art

QAGOMA, Brisbane, Queensland, 24 November 2018 - 28 April 2019

In the opening sequences of the 9th Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT9) at QAGOMA, Vincent Namatjira’s portraits give a sardonic answer to the question of who we live with and alongside. Each of the three series of paintings depict influential people of Australia: the seven richest in the country; seven recent Prime Ministers; and seven leaders of the Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) communities. There is a disconnect between the rich and powerful non-Indigenous of Australia and the tjilpi, senior artists and law-men of APY. The juxtaposition highlights the plurality of lives existing together, but lives that are also worlds apart. The two groups are joined together by the nation state, but the reality is that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are separated from an equal Australia by the experience of socio-economic, political and cultural injustices.

Unlike other biennales and triennials, APT is not headed by a star curator but organised collectively by the QAGOMA curatorial and project teams with the help of the executive management, interlocutors and volunteers. In the absence of a singular curatorial statement, the region’s name becomes the interpretative framework. Asia-Pacific is one among innumerable clusterings of nation-states—from the Commonwealth of Nations to the Non-Aligned Movement, from the EU to the AU, ASEAN to BRICS. Whereas some of these groups are formalised by constitutions and committees, the criss-crossing of countries in the Asia-Pacific region is an unofficial grouping loosely held together by regional proximity, and by contradicting political affiliations, inconsistent economic cooperation, and vast cultural differences. What is shared is our contemporary moment, and a prediction that the 21st century marks a tilting of the world-story away from Europe and the United States of America. And so, uncoloured by the hermeneutic preferences of a curator, a visitor is able to create a network of connections across artworks by 80 artists and collectives from 30 countries. In a region so diverse and so irreconcilable, the compelling question to ask is: with whom do we live in the Asia-Pacific?

This survey show of contemporary art from the Asia-Pacific region allows a re-orienting of art and life away from Euro-American legacies and domination of its peoples. The exhibition features a majority of female artists and a greater participation of First Nation peoples. Indigenous artists are represented from Australia, Aotearoa, Papua New Guinea, Hawai‘i, Taiwan, Okinawa and Laos.

Tcheu Siong is an Indigenous Hmoob Dawb artist from Laos who employs appliqué technique in Tree Spirit (2012) and Spirit of Sky and Earth 3 &4 (2016) to show upright figures with triangular bodies and elongated limbs, accompanied by anthropomorphic beings, jungle animals and toads. Among them are Hmong spirits and departed ancestors whom Siong recalls from dreams and visions during the pre-dawn hours of the day. The clairvoyant knowledge she employs in her art-making is an extension of her daily rituals of healing. She mediates relationships between the human, natural and spiritual worlds. For Indigenous people of Laos like Siong, we live with spiritual entities and partake in non-physical worlds.

For his Lie of the Land (2017), Bounpaul Phothyzan recovers two US bombshells from Laos, each four meters long, and turns them into garden planters. Other commonplace things like canoes are made in his country with these remnants of the violent past. Between 1964–73, the landlocked country in Southeast Asia experienced more than two million tonnes of bombs dropped by the United States aimed at blocking Vietnamese supplies, making Laos one of the most heavily bombed countries in history. Phothyzan’s work shows how the people of Laos live with others’ conflicts, and must continue the process of recovery, disarmament and recycling of shells to this day.

Set in the near future of 2021, Cao Fei’s video installation Asia One (2018) depicts the working lives of the only two human employees and their robot at a fully automated logistics centre named Asia One Unmanned Warehouse. A dull day unfolds under the auspices of the banner, ‘Man and Machine Go Hand in Hand, and Create Miracles!’ The slogan is borrowed from real life, from the Chinese e-commerce company JD.com, in whose newest warehouse the video is primarily shot. The workday is frequently interrupted by dreamscapes, like a gigundous plastic octopus that emerges to envelope Cultural Revolution-era dancers amongst the pipelines and conveyor belts. As a work of speculative fiction, Asia One is a critique of the life we are increasingly living with intelligent machines. In the age of AI, it shows how sociability, and even love, can be difficult. The human characters are alienated from each other; they use digital glasses to scan for emotion and information, but this seems not so far removed from real life. Facial recognition is one among many forms of mass surveillance and big data analysis technology that will be launched in China next year as part of their mandatory social credit system. The system will rank the behavioural tendencies of its population, and a person with particularly low social credit may experience restrictions on travel or decreased internet speed.

A cornerstone of APT9 is the blurring of customary and community art practices within the international triennial framework of contemporary art. Among these is a collaborative project by the Gunantuna community from Papua New Guinea who make rings of woven cane and Diwarra, or shell money; the Jaki-Ed project, which consists of woven mats produced by women from the Marshall Islands; and from the Autonomous Region of Bougainville and the nearby Solomon Islands, the Women’s Wealth project foregrounds cultural practices like weaving, pottery and adornment at the heart of matrilineal communities.

By bringing together artworks collectively made alongside narratives of colonisation and its effects as in Namatjira’s work, the spiritual worlds as in Siong’s tapestries, the effects of war as in Phothyzan’s sculptures, and the near future world of automation that Cao Fei refers to, this exhibition draws out the entanglements of the different lived experiences in our times, our commingled lives and the disjointed nature of our existences. It reveals the time-knot of our contemporary moment, the plurality that inheres in the now and that constitutes our lived experience.

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 Vincent Namatjira, Mumu Mike Williams – Mimili Maku Arts, Mimili (from ‘Seven Leaders’ series), 2016, 

Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 7 panels: 91 x 67cm (each).

Image courtesy: The artist, Iwantja Arts and THIS IS NO FANTASY.

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Vincent Namatjira, Julia Gillard (from ‘Prime Ministers’ series), 2016, 

Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 7 panels: 91 x 67cm (each). 

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 Tcheu Siong, Tcheu Siong at work, 2010, 

Image courtesy: The artist and Project Space, Luang Prabang. 

Yves Bernard

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 Bounpaul Phothyzan Laos, Lie of the Land, 2017,

Aluminium, wood, soil, seeds / 2 parts: 80 x 400 x 80cm (each). 

Natasha Harth, QAGOMA

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Cao Fei, Asia One (still), 2018, HD video installation: 63:20 minutes, sound, colour, ed. 1/8.

The artist

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 Aisha Khalid, Your way begins on the other side (detail), 2014, 

Gold plated steel pins and fabric.

The artist and Aga Khan Museum

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Aisha Khalid, Water has never feared the fire (detail), 2018 

Fabric, gold plated and steel pins, Triptych: 492.75 x 167.65; 492.75 x 83.8cm; 492.75 x 83.8cm; 

Image courtesy: The artist 

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 Gunantuna (Tolai people), Lead artist: Gideon Kakabin, 

Loloi (shell money ring) and Tutana (largest shell money rings) with Ulang and Rumu (ceremonial spears) (installation view), 2017, Image courtesy the artists and Queesland art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art.

Natasha Harth, QAGOMA.

Balamohan Shingade is a writer and curator employed as the Assistant Director of ST PAUL St Gallery, Auckland University of Technology. During the redevelopment of Uxbridge Arts and Culture, he was the inaugural Manager/Curator of Malcolm Smith Gallery, a public gallery for the eastern suburbs Auckland, 2015–16. He is a Masters graduate of Elam School of Fine Arts, the University of Auckland, where he was employed as a Professional Teaching Fellow, 2012–15. He also holds a Graduate Diploma in Hindustani classical music and occasionally performs as a singer in Aotearoa New Zealand.

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