Brisbane, Australia

6th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art

Gallery of Modern Art/Queensland Art Gallery

Since 1993, the Queensland Art Gallery’s Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art has been the most important art show regularly held in Australia. With this latest version, it has become the best. Installed in the Queensland Art Gallery and the cavernous spaces of the new Gallery of Modern Art on the banks of the Brisbane River, the Sixth Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, or APT6, is a grandiose aesthetic statement that makes it clear that Asian art has definitively arrived—but, paradoxically, only because it is now indistinguishable from Western art and because, perhaps, no one really makes art anymore.

Take Japanese artist Kohei Nawa’s PixCell-Elk #2, 2009, one of the iconic works of the show, featured heavily in the advertising and on the cover of the exhibition catalogue. A large taxidermied elk, covered in glass balls that reflect both the elk and the person looking at it, it is an uncanny fusion of Jeff Koons’s rabbit and Damien Hirst’s shark. Like those works, it is a brilliant and arresting object that says precisely nothing; it does not come out of a prior history of art, nor does it comment directly on any sociopolitical issues—the two dominant ways of attributing meaning to works of art in the late twentieth century.

If we had to apply an art-historical category to Nawa’s elk, it would be “contemporary”; and what this APT makes clear is that there has been a historical convergence of a certain type of Asian art, which never worked within the parameters of critical meaning, and the most advanced Western art, which has now gone beyond critical meaning. The circumstances of ritual, tradition, and embodied social life out of which much Asian art arises meant that the modernism and postmodernism that marked Western art over the previous 150 years played a much diminished role in it; and today the two forms find themselves coming together, with Asian art meeting a Western art that is effectively non-Western.

Hence the happy fact—brilliantly exploited by the Queensland Art Gallery—that we can look at the mirror pieces of Iranian artist Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian and wonder whether they come out of the long Middle Eastern tradition of recycling broken pieces of mirror arriving from Europe or out of the time she spent with Andy Warhol in New York in the late 1950s. Such ambiguity is also played on by Vietnamese artist Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba in The Ground, the Root and the Air, 2004–2007, which is at once a touching depiction of a passing Buddhist-inspired Laotian landscape tradition and a superhip art video.

The Queensland Art Gallery daringly prophesied a number of years ago the “floating world” that contemporary art would become. Through successive versions of the triennial, it has grappled with the various museological consequences of this leveling of East and West: In APT1, it sought to impose some order by grouping artists by country; in APT4, it attempted to sketch a history of those Asian artists who had entered the postwar Western canon, such as Nam June Paik, Yayoi Kusama, and Lee Ufan. For APT6, the gallery has come up with the right solution and simply abdicated all overt curatorial categorization, willfully mixing together customary wood carving from Vanuatu, socialist realism from North Korea, Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara’s homage to the Ramones, and Australian artist Tracey Moffatt’s satire on the white construction of “otherness.” All in all, APT6 is a stunning testament to the Queensland Art Gallery’s courage in its own lack of convictions. In an absolutely symptomatic way, the show plays out all of the contradictions that characterize our contemporary art situation, and speaks to the impossibility that any museum or art exhibition could currently make sense of them.

Rex Butler