APT Pupils

Kate Sutton at the 8th Asia Pacific Triennial

Left: Artist Vernon Ah Kee and Griffith Artworks director Angela Goddard. Right: Artist Melati Suryodarmo and Halim HD. (All photos: Kate Sutton)

“THE HISTORY OF AUSTRALIA’S relationship with the Aboriginals is a history of wrong decisions,” Vernon Ah Kee told the crowd at Brisbane’s Griffith University Art Gallery last Thursday. “There were opportunities to go another way, but the government at the time repeatedly chose brutality.” The artist compared the experience of being indigenous in today’s Australia to having thousands of little cuts all over your body, painful but not lethal. Ah Kee stood in the crossfire of two sets of his canvases, one showing the bound figures of the oppressed, the other the snarling faces of their oppressors. The space between was mediated by one of Ah Kee’s text works, restaging a quote from James Baldwin: “[I]t is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”

“I paint less politically loaded things too,” Ah Kee added, cracking a small smile. “When you get down to it, I make work about my family and my family’s history and the historical events that contributed to it. But as an indigenous man, for me to paint my family members is already understood as a political act.” Ah Kee’s work was part of “Brutal Truths,” an exhibition that also included a seminal installation by Gordon Bennett, who passed away last year. The son of one of the “Stolen Generation”—in perhaps the ghastliest of the Australian government’s “wrong decisions,” up through the 1960s indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and raised “white”—the artist railed against institutionalized racism, through provocations from his “white” persona of “John Citizen” or Bennett’s gut-wrenching sketches, some of which were on display at Brisbane’s Institute of Modern Art, for a show acerbically called “Be Polite.”

Left: Australia Council for the Arts’s Collette Brennan, Tara Kita, and Julie Spatt. Right: Artist Richard Bell (right) restaging his video Uz vs Them with QAGOMA’s Peter Beiers.

When compared with the conversation—or lack thereof—around American First Nations (oh, yeah, Happy Thanksgiving, United States!), the art of the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures would seem to enjoy a privileged visibility, and not only within Asia Pacific. “In Australia, it’s the Aboriginal art everyone’s after. That’s what gets shown in Documenta and Istanbul,” artist (and, with Ah Kee, fellow proppaNOW member) Richard Bell told me. In his ten-minute film Broken English, 2009, Bell canvasses the streets of downtown Brisbane, sticking his mic in the pink faces of the city’s unsuspecting public to ask them about the contributions of their indigenous neighbors. “Well, you know… culture?” a brunette offers hesitantly. Her blonde friend checks Bell’s reaction before nodding along. When asked whether land should be returned to its original owners, a third woman replies, “Yes, of course!” before qualifying: “To some of them.”

As selective reconciliation is not an option, Queensland’s cultural institutions have their work cut out for them. Their key tool is the Asia Pacific Triennial, the crowning gem of the Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art, otherwise known as QAGOMA. (“I keep thinking they’re saying ‘Glaucoma,’ ” Met curator Maia Nuku confessed. I heard “Gorgona.”) “When the APT first started, you didn’t have other institutions in the region showing this kind of work,” TarraWarra Museum of Art director Victoria Lynn recalled. “This is what set the APT apart.”

To maintain this primacy, QAGOMA employs multiple strategies, from establishing art-historical trajectories for Aboriginal and Torres Strait visual practices (see the current survey “Everywhen, Everywhere”) to the programmatic integration of indigenous artists into the collection. Now in its eighth iteration, the APT provides a public platform for these efforts, while also giving the museum a chance to expand its holdings. The majority of works on display this year (I was told 70 percent) were accompanied by acquisition notices, a healthy sign for a hungry institution, even though, as one of the museum’s curators confided, “Sometimes it’s just cheaper to buy the work than to try to send it back.”

Left: Curator Djon Mundine. Right: Artist Venkat Raman Singh Shyam.

“I guess museum biennials don’t have to stress so much about a theme,” observed Jochen Volz, one of the curators of the upcoming São Paolo Bienal. Even if APT8 did not have a unifying title or curator (the museum’s entire staff contributes), there was certainly an agenda. In addition to a craft- and performance-heavy central exhibition, side projects indulged the APT’s penchant for the underdog. Several large galleries in QAG were dedicated to narrative scroll paintings from South Asia, while the head of QAGOMA’s Australian Cinémathèque, curator José de Silva, contributed two film programs, “Pop Islam” and “Filipino Indie.” The latter, it turns out, is just as unlikely as the former. As the program’s cocurator Yason Bernal pointed out, in the Phillipines, “We have the world’s slowest Wi-Fi.” Bernal links this with a reinforced “notion of the real,” untainted by Internet streams, but perhaps it also explains the marathon-caliber attention span needed for Lav Diaz’s sumptuous films. (From What Is Before [2014], screened Saturday night as part of APT8 Live, totaled 338 minutes, while other works in the program—Death in the Land of Encantos [2007] and Evolution of a Filipino Family [2004]—racked up 540 and 654 minutes, respectively.) Endurance wasn’t just limited to the cinemas; that Saturday, Melati Suryodarmo spent twelve straight hours smashing charcoal briquettes with a rolling pin in a re-creation of her performance from 2012 I’m a Ghost in My Own House.

Like the coal dust, there was something about the triennial’s indiscriminately celebratory tone that stuck in one’s throat. One of the uncontested showstoppers was Rosanna Raymond’s SaVAge K’lub, 2010–, a Pacific-accented reimagining of the colonialist gentleman’s club. Inside the extravagantly outfitted lounge (the stuff of Gauguin’s teenage dreams), performers sang or danced or just got naked, reveling in the kind of unfettered sexuality and strength emblemized by Raymond’s opening-night attire: a colonial frock with a critical swath of fabric missing down the back, so as to give the crowd a full view of her bare body underneath.

Left: Curators Carly Lane, Nici Cumpston, Megan Tamati-Quennell, and France Trépanier, and Canada Council for the Arts’s Kelly Langgard. Right: Artists Sharon Chin, Taloi Havini, and Janenne Eaton with curator Venus Lau.

Cross-dressing—in terms of gender, culture, power, or even species—coursed through the triennial, starting with the opening-day performance of Justin Shoulder and Bhenji Ra’s Ex Nilalang: Incarnations, which animated figures from Filipino folklore. Ra swooned into a handheld mirror as the mermaid “Super Sireyna,” while Shoulder shuffled around the museum foyer, festooned as a crepe-papered creature that looked like the product of a three-way among an old school boombox, a velociraptor, and a slutty piñata. Upstairs, Ming Wong’s videos and photographs followed four individuals within Yogyakarta’s transgender community who had found empowerment in the slippages of their self-presentation, while Hetain Patel indulged in his own strain of power drag, donning a Spiderman suit for his two-channel video The Leap. One channel shows the costumed artist executing a powerful jump across his living room; the other flips the angle to show his family members, looking on in dismay. Haider Ali Jan literally turns the subjects of his photographs into cartoons, superimposing loosely rendered caricatures over his Lahore street scenes, while Anida Yoeu Ali channels Lewis Carroll with her ongoing “Buddhist Bug” series, which sees the artist trolling the urban environments of Cambodia dressed as a giant orange caterpillar.

It almost felt like the exhibition itself was in drag, confusing content, voguing, and voguing-as-content (or content-as-voguing?). The day before the opening, APT8 artists and organizers gathered for a traditional blessing and a barbecue on the lawn, which all felt quite genuine. The next night, however, laid on the spectacle, as a staggering fourteen thousand visitors flocked to the museum, driving the total first weekend attendance to thirty-two thousand. Dignitaries like QAGOMA director Chris Saines, Queensland’s premier and state minister of the arts, Annastacia Palaszczuk, and Australia’s minister of the arts Mitch Fifield all dutifully commenced speeches with warm words of gratitude and acknowledgment to the elders whose lands the museum now occupies.

Left: Curators Daina Warren, Julie Nagam, and Michelle LaVallee. Right: Pataka director Reuben Friend and Creative New Zealand’s Ana Sciascia.

Fifield claimed that credit should also go to the taxpayers, but he neglected to mention the Australia Council for the Arts, the formal body that sees that those tax dollars actually make it to the artists. Palaszczuk was quick to correct Fifield’s omission, but it had not gone unnoticed. Earlier this spring, in an attempt to fund a new “innovation-oriented” funding initiative, Fifield’s predecessor had yanked nearly $75 million from the council, with $23 million in cuts for 2015–16. With the shift in administration, installing Fifield as the incoming minister of the arts, $5.75 million was returned the day before APT8’s grand opening. While widely welcomed as a conciliatory gesture, it came after the council had already undergone restructuring, shedding beloved programs and staff. “It’s been a bittersweet week,” a staffer admitted.

As part of its support for APT8, the council oversaw the second year of its International Visitors Program (IVP), which sidesteps the logistical obstacles of exporting works by directly importing curators like Volz, Nuku, Hendrik Folkerts, Diana Campbell Betancourt, and Venus Lau. This year, the council also launched the First Nations Curators Exchange, which convened delegates from Canada, New Zealand, and Australia for a weeklong program of strategy sessions and collective brainstorming. The program marked the first such collaboration between the council and its Kiwi counterpart, Creative New Zealand. As Auckland Art Gallery’s Nigel Borrell explained over a Malaysian feast Saturday night, “Even in New Zealand, we’re not very up to date with what’s going on in Australia. Except for Megan,” he grinned, motioning to his colleague, Megan Tamati-Quennell. “She’s a Māori specialist, so she gets invited everywhere.”

Left: Curators Guillaume Soulard, Emmanuel Kasarhérou, and José De Silva. Right: QAGOMA curator Geraldine Kirrihi Barlow with SaVAge K’lub’s Maryann Talia Pau.

The director of the Tarnanthi Festival, Nici Cumpston, shared how the Art Gallery of South Australia had allowed direct interventions into their colonial art hanging, while Tamati-Quennell spoke compellingly about the need to also recognize outside artists working contemporaneously with Māori traditions, and not simply focus on the Māori’s take on European modernism. If the goal were to trade notes, consider that mission accomplished. However, both the First Nation delegates and the IVP curators were confounded by the divide between the two initiatives. “The program’s heart is in the right place, but it still feels a little like ghettoization,” one delegate sighed. “The exchange is just in its first year,” Australia Council’s Tara Kita assured us. “This is the pilot of a program we’re going to be expanding in the future.” That is, if there aren’t more surprise budget cuts?

That evening, all scenes converged at the IMA for the institution’s fortieth anniversary party. Too noodled to partake, I slipped beside IVP curators Brian Clark and Abdellah Karroum as they waited for margheritas at the portable pizza oven parked out front. Inside, IMA directors Johan Lundh and Aileen Burns held court with curator Vivian Ziherl near some sort of alcoholic slushie dispenser set up at the front desk. “Purple’s the best,” a new friend advised. “They’re out of purple,” her companion pouted. She screwed up her face, “Red then?”

What can I say? Some traditions just don’t translate.

Left: Curators Mami Kataoka and Abdellah Karroum. Right: QAGOMA director Chris Saines with Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk.

Left: SaVAge K'lub's Ani O'Neill and QAGOMA curator Abigail Bernal. Right: Curators Hendrik Folkerts, Vera Mey, and Abdellah Karroum.

Left: TarraWarra Museum of Art director Victoria Lynn and Govett-Brewster Art Gallery’s Simon Rees. Right: Tara Kita and Urban Shaman’s Daina Warren.

Left: Artists Super Critical Mass (Julian Day and Luke Jaaniste). Right: QAGOMA’s Lauren Kelly and Ellen Yang.

Left: Artists UuDam Tran Nguyen and Ramni Haerizadeh. Right: Curators Megan Tamati-Quennell and Maia Nuku.

Left: Artist Tom Nicholson, QAGoMA curator Reuben Keehan, Marcus Barber, and MONASH’s curatorial practice director Tara McDowell. Right: SaVAge K’lub’s Rosanna Raymond and Aroha Rawson on parade.

Left: Artist Yee I-Lann and ruangrupa’s Indra Ameng. Right: SaVAge K’lub’s Reina Sutton and Molana Sutton with Tavina Yettica-Paulson (center).

Left: Curators Hendrick Folkerts, Jochen Volz, and Brian Clark. Right: MAAP director Kim Machan, artist João Vasco Paiva, and dealer Jennifer Ellis.

Left: Curators Keith Munro and Karl Chitham. Right: IMA directors Johan Lundh and Aileen Burns.

Left: Institute of Modern Art's fortieth anniversary party. Right: APT8 Pre-opening Artists Barbecue at QAGOMA.

Left: Justin Shoulder and Bhenji Ra’s Ex Nilalang Incarnations at GAQOMA as part of APT8. Right: Justin Shoulder and Bhenji Ra’s Ex Nilalang Incarnations at GAQOMA as part of APT8 Live.

Left: QAGOMA curator Tarun Nagesh. Right: QUT curator Vanessa Van Ooyen.

Left: Samdani Art Foundation’s Diana Campbell Betancourt. Right: Artists Justin Shoulder, Shahmen Suku, and Bhenji Ra with curator Brian Clark (second from left).

Left: White Shoes & The Couples Company perform at the APT8 opening. Right: Minister for the Arts Mitch Fifield addresses the crowd.

Left: Artists Julia Mage'au Gray and Angela Tiatia. Right: QAGOMA curator José De Silva and artist Yason Banal.

Left: Artists Salvador Brown, Jess Holly Bates, and Anida Yoeu Ali. Right: Artists Tio Messing and Nicolas Molé.