Third Asia-Pacific Triennial

Brisbane’s two-million-odd inhabitants just love a good expo, and with the Third Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, that’s pretty much what they’ve got. Unabashedly populist, the APT3 is for the most part a spectacular pedagogical construct, promoting a therapeutic image of protest (the persecution of East Timorese civilians by Indonesian forces swamped the media throughout the opening events), interracial harmony, and mutually beneficial hybridity. It is unquestionably a palliative that is utopian in aspiration—but with good reason. Having finally crawled out from under the thumb of hard-line, Bible-thumping state premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen—whose term in office occasioned creative mass exodus from the region in the late ’70s and early ’80s—Queensland’s numerically significant rural population turned out in droves last year to vote for the infamously inarticulate Pauline Hanson and her One Nation Party, a righteous band of racist homophobes.

Hatched during former prime minister Paul Keating’s pro-Asia push, the APT is now, after ten years of trailblazing cultural diplomacy, a networking tour de force. While holding steady at seventy to eighty artists per show, the number of curators involved has risen from fifteen in the first APT to a whopping forty-eight in this event. Likewise, the roll call of associated writers has shot from twenty-five to eighty. Trawling four main national categories—East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, and the Pacific—the exhibition includes artists from Australia, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Niue, Papua New Guinea, Pakistan, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Wallis and Futuna Islands. There is also a new category, “Crossing Borders,” which includes work by artists from these countries but now living elsewhere.

Xu Bing, a Chinese artist based in New York, gets the first and last word. A huge yellow banner hangs high on the gallery’s facade, announcing the show’s title in a hybrid calligraphy that doubles as the official design for the souvenir T-shirt. Yet it is Sang Ye and Geremie Barmé who steal the entrance with a pair of monstrous inflatable totems, bearers of a long line of symbolic transformations. Originally taking its form from an ancient battle-ax planted in the ground to mark place and direction, this monumental adaptation is modeled on the 500-year-old Hua Biao pillars in front of the Forbidden City, opposite Tiananmen Square. Doubly ironic—once as deflatable icon and again as fun-house attraction—the columns set an appropriately festive if gently admonishing tone.

Inside, the metaphorical thunder continues. To the left, Japanese artist Katsushige Nakahashi’s Zero, 1998, a painstakingly Sellotaped 3-D facsimile of a kamikaze fighter plane (read: mediated history) is slammed up against the wall. To the right, Cai Guo-Qiang’s Crossing the Bridge, 1999, straddles the enormous ornamental pool in the cavernous space below, straining under the weight of art-loving adventurers and its own rock-heavy, we-are-the-world symbolism. Even more brazen is Japanese artist Masato Nakamura’s QSC+mV, 1999, a shrinelike room full of illuminated McDonald’s logos, casting a sickly, jaundiced light on a supposedly content-hungry audience. This kind of hamburger realism is common fare at biennials and triennials, an effective lure, at the very least, for the plethora of more nuanced material awaiting consideration.

Ostensibly denying ethnographic classification by interspersing nationalities, the APT has always taken pains to observe the correct social etiquette. Though the guests are asked to mingle, the seating arrangements have been carefully plotted out. Clusters of formal or cultural relatives sit back to back with incommensurate cousins, forming a coarsely textured weave of interpretive (im)possibilities. If there is a common thread, it is a concern with morphing traditions and representations. Filipino artists Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan, for instance, present a walk-through, living-room-size installation of domestic and touristy bric-a-brac–floor-bound and toe-tagged–similar to the work of European art-for-art’s-sake archivists like Karsten Bott, but with cultural description, rather than philosophical research, as the organizing principle.

Such upstream appropriation abounds. Aboriginal artist Michael Nelson Jagamara has a field day with action painting, belting out eye-bruising gestural enlargements of tribal motifs; while New Zealand artist Michael Parekowhai lays Maori claim to Western pop with an installation/performance involving ten hollow-body electric guitars inlaid with paua shells in traditional kowhaiwhai patterns. But, of course, not everything on show is overtly heroic or identity-driven. The meandering string drawings of itinerate South Korean artist Han Myung-Ok and an altarpiece bearing an oversize book of oceanic reproductions by Montreal-based Filipino artist Lani Maestro provide welcome relief to the preponderance of cultural maps and models with an invitation, regardless of orientation, to aesthetic or conceptual reverie.

Yet, whether by curatorial selection, authentic exegesis, or fickle artistic intent, the dominant tendency to “represent” only serves to internalize the once-explicit Benetton effect the show’s organizers would have hoped to transcend. As evidenced by the dearth of fruitful discussion during the three-day conference at the heart of the opening proceedings, an atmosphere of intense circumspection and polite denial threatens to smother the possibility of risky exchange. Though a remarkable achievement as a critical counterweight to the ranting of hillbilly power-mongers in office, the lessons of the APT have been well learned by earnest progressives and cultural carpetbaggers alike. Maybe it’s time to send all the politicians packing and shift the emphasis of this globally important event from ethnicity to art.

Brisbane native Jeff Gibson is an artist living and working in New York.