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Almagul Menlibayeva, Kurchatov 22, 2012, five-channel HD video projection, color, sound, 26 minutes. From the 7th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art.

Almagul Menlibayeva, Kurchatov 22, 2012, five-channel HD video projection, color, sound, 26 minutes. From the 7th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art.

The 7th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art

Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art

Almagul Menlibayeva, Kurchatov 22, 2012, five-channel HD video projection, color, sound, 26 minutes. From the 7th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art.

In the past decade, the Asia-Pacific region has had to cope with more than its share of natural disasters: The 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, the 2009 “Black Saturday” bushfires in the Australian state of Victoria, the February 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, and the earthquake and tsunami in Japan’s Sendai prefecture a month later are among the most tragic examples. Social and political structures in the region have been just as volatile as the natural environment, thanks in part to the impact of globalization, and in particular to a spreading awareness that the twenty-first century will probably belong to Asia. It was appropriate, then, that the Seventh Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT7) should be equally unpredictable: big, messy, and willing to test its own historical foundations. APT has always been a bastion of regional postcolonial debate. But this edition allowed itself a much greater reach, stretching all the way from Polynesia to the Bosporus, to ask whether, in a global art world, an “Asia Pacific” way of seeing is still viable, or even relevant.

The exhibition’s centerpiece was a specially commissioned Papua New Guinean “spirit house,” an ornately painted building used for rituals and meetings that was here presented in its component parts rather than whole. Despite their striking scale and vibrant surfaces, such buildings are usually ephemeral, made from natural materials such as wood, thatch, and clay, which are gradually undone in Papua New Guinea’s tropical climate. The poignant contrast between the building’s monumental, soaring spaces and its temporary nature established some of APT7’s most meaningful connective threads, resonating, for example, with Yuan Goang-Ming’s three-channel video installation Disappearing Landscape—Passing II, 2011. Shot from cameras suspended on unseen cables, the piece first traverses the artist’s home and then a fictional space, which is a re-creation of his father’s reading room. Yuan’s father died shortly after the birth of the artist’s first child, and the work is a potent exploration of life cycles, loss, and domesticity. Almagul Menlibayeva’s five-channel video Kurchatov 22, 2012, explored similar themes in more macabre fashion. Part documentary and part nightmare, it exposes the legacy of Soviet nuclear testing in the Kazakh town of Kurchatov through the recollections of its residents. The piece was an important reminder that, while Europe and America were frozen by the threat of nuclear war, Asia and the Pacific were its devastated theaters: Hiroshima and Nagasaki are obvious examples, but testing sites such as Kurchatov and Moruroa in French Polynesia were also profoundly affected. The aftereffects of twentieth-century militarism were also scrutinized by several young “post-Suharto” Indonesian artists. The best was Wedhar Riyadi, whose meticulous paintings combined formal portraiture with comic-book hypergore, making them eloquent allegories for the tensions faced by a fragile, nascent democracy that also happens to have the world’s largest Muslim population.

The diversity of these works illustrated APT7’s wild eclecticism. Yet what linked most of them was a prefix: postnuclear, postmilitary, post-Suharto, postglobal. And postcolonial, a concept that (the exhibition seemed to imply) might be entering a new phase. Artists are starting to address the crimes of the mid- to late-twentieth century as much as those of the nineteenth; art-world boundaries between the customary and the contemporary are collapsing; and postcolonial identities are becoming more obviously porous and unfixed rather than coherent and politically defined. Perhaps most important, artists in Asia and the Pacific are starting to reflect on their present geological, geographical, and architectural realities, asking if these, rather than colonial histories, are where the region’s urgent vulnerabilities lie. A case in point: As I was writing this review, two magnitude four earthquakes hit near my home in Auckland. No damage done, but these events pointed to the fact at the heart of APT7: In this part of the world, instability is just the order of the day. Sometimes the ground shifts.

Anthony Byrt