PRINT March 2007


the Asia-Pacific Triennial

BRISBANE IS BOOMING. Once a cultural and economic underdog, the capital city of the Australian state of Queensland has lately been giving Sydney and Melbourne a run for, well, their money. Skimming its take off the state’s thriving mining industry—currently enjoying an export bonanza to the Asia-Pacific region and beyond—the Queensland government is not short on funds with which to advertise its growing civic maturity and cultural sophistication. Departing Queensland Art Gallery director Doug Hall has marshaled these resources masterfully over the past two decades, steering the relatively young, publicly funded institution from provincial obscurity through the choppy waters of local politics to national and international visibility. This has been achieved principally on the back of what is largely his own creation, the Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art. As a fitting culmination of Hall’s directorial tenure, the exhibition’s fifth incarnation, which opened in December 2006, launched his most ambitious project yet—the Gallery of Modern Art, a new museum and cinematheque located just a short stroll from the QAG.

Though one of its functions is clearly to grease the wheels of regional trade, the Asia-Pacific Triennial has, under Hall’s stewardship, maintained a remarkable degree of curatorial autonomy. (This has not, however, always protected it from escalating bureaucratization—the 1999 installment, assembled by a multicultural, forty-eight-member committee, spoke more of institutional infrastructure than of art.) This time around, Hall has brought the curation home, leading a team of nine staff curators—by now well versed in the art and cultures of the region—in the presentation of a sprawling concatenation of large, substantive, and mostly solo exhibits, the immersive scale of which provides discrete hermeneutical harbors in a sea of foundational difference. The fifth triennial, which occupies the lion’s share of the QAG and the new museum, features the work of thirty-seven solo artists and two collectives, a performance component, and two film programs. Ranging from the semi-traditional quilting and weaving of the Pacific Textiles Project and the Aboriginal bark painting of Djambawa Marawili to the shape-shifting cinematic narratives of Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul and the perceptual materiality of Indian-born British sculptor Anish Kapoor, this Asia-Pacific Triennial covers an enormous amount of formal and conceptual territory—but with clear boundaries and ample aids to translation.

In keeping with the QAG’s openly populist, pedagogical charter, the show is peppered with crowd-pleasers and readily apprehensible, culturally hybrid iconography—a signature trope of the Asia-Pacific Triennial—of which a multiscreen presentation of Jackie Chan action clips (an inspired inclusion by anyone’s standards) and Ai Weiwei’s 300,000-piece, boomerang-shaped crystal chandelier (Boomerang, 2006) are the most conspicuous examples. But such democratic selections do not dominate the show: There are enough compelling works and surprising correspondences to carry it beyond therapeutic community building into something far more challenging and persuasive. Take, for instance, the cavernous hall in the new building given over to the Chinese artists who participated in the “Long March Project”—an evolving artistic excursion staged at various locations along the route of the 1934–35 Red Army retreat that set the stage for Mao Tse-tung’s rise to power. While tackling cultural determination head-on, the untidy interplay of history and contemporary reality within and between the works is much more informative, and affecting, than the cardboard ethnography to which these kinds of events are prone. It is a welcome development that the emphasis on cultural identity that characterized previous triennials this time takes second place to aesthetic and philosophical concerns.

Yet it is unavoidable in any such regional survey that the participating artists bear the burden of national representation, even when it is not an explicit organizing principle. The more peripheral a culture, the greater the pressure to address the reductive stereotypes and clichés assigned it by whatever nexus of power pertains. Marginality is a sensitive issue in this once heavily colonized part of the world: Even the host nation has existed historically at the edge of the British Empire (in the case of white Australia), and under the thumb of its colonial oppressors (in the case of the indigenous population). Crucial as these issues are, at this point their foregrounding would only limit the scope of the show. There is by now a core triennial constituency very au fait with postcolonial identity discourse and a wide range of cultural specifics, for whom the cluster of cultures in the region is no longer a mélange of irreconcilable otherness but a semi-negotiable matrix of similarity and difference from which authentic cross-cultural appreciation might begin to develop.

But what of the rest of the world? It was surprising to note the absence of the Eumerican curatorial juggernaut at the show’s opening events. One can only conclude that the Asia-Pacific region is still just too far south of the West to matter to Northern Hemisphere power brokers, and still seen as too peripheral to warrant some twenty hours in the air to get there. Interestingly, and perhaps not coincidentally, China is the best-represented country in the show. Given the increasing visibility of Chinese art and its dramatic ascendance in the international marketplace—a trend preempted by the Asia-Pacific Triennial since its inception—one would have thought it might serve as a lure and a potential bridge between the familiar (transplanted Westernism) and the unfamiliar (Pacific Island indigeneity). The world may now be virtually and economically connected, but physical distance obviously still counts when it comes to putting a region on the art world map.

The Fifth Asia-Pacific Triennial remains on view through May 27.

Jeff Gibson is an artist and managing editor of Artforum.