By Zanny Begg
BRISBANE — The Queensland Art Gallery is currently hosting the Third Asia Pacific Triennial (APT3). The Asia Pacific Triennial began in 1993 as an attempt to bring the art of the Asia-Pacific region into contemporary focus.
Up to 77 artists, from more than 20 countries, have been involved in APT3. The exhibition is a blockbuster, attracting more than 200,000 visitors and generating a range of spin-off projects, including a virtual Triennial, a kids' Triennial, and a Triennial conference.
Cultural mega-projects directed towards Asia, such as the APT, are a legacy of the Keating era. As Australian businesses sought access to Asian markets, the government sought complementary cultural links.
Superficially, the exchange was about "diversity" and making Australia "part of Asia" — but underneath, the transaction was of a more commercial kind, as networks were built and kudos won for Australian businesses eager to invest in the region.
To illustrate this blending of business and culture, the APT3 is sponsored by the Queensland government and attracts commercial sponsors such as Channel Ten, Sony, the Courier-Mail, Singapore Airlines and Triple M.
But the APT3 is a more complex event then a simple showcase for government-sanctioned art. For a start, the coordinators chose not to make the artists "representatives" of their countries, nor to make the selections for the exhibition a government-to-government affair.
This has meant that the APT has consistently shown artists who are persecuted in their own countries or who are critical of their government's policies, including those from politically sensitive countries such as Indonesia.
Simultaneously, the APT also has a major emphasis on being a tourist and commercial event. This means that much of the art promoted has a large dose of the "wow factor", which can drown out the substance of the more challenging works. The tension between commercial success and substance sits uncomfortably within the exhibition.
At times APT3 feels like an artistic Expo. The emphasis on conceptual art and installation presents viewers with a range of "art experiences", many of which involve audience participation.
You can wander from booth to booth, adding a picture of a fish to this installation, activating sounds of the alphabet by walking through another, turning on a sprinkler by crossing a bridge at another. It's not unlike going on a scary ride or watching the butter sculpture championships at the Show.
Conceptual art is supposed to be democratic. It's about breaking down the elitism which surrounded "high art" by incorporating popular culture (so-called "low" art) and challenging the notion that artists are individual geniuses, through appropriation and audience participation. But if installation and conceptual art is so groundbreaking and radical, why is it now the establishment form of expression in the art world?
Art is subversive only if it has a subversive form or content. This is what some of the APT3 works lacked.
One example was the work by Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan from the Philippines. Covering the same ground as at least half a dozen other installations I have seen in the last year, they exhibited a room filled with colonial kitsch artefacts and trinkets.
Work such as this may have raised issues of domesticity, racism and colonial oppression the first time, but after so many previous piles of trinkets, it evoked only boredom.
The work from Japanese artist Masato Nakamura, which featured a giant McDonald's logo, was another example. The golden arch is a powerful symbol of imperialism and Western domination. But Nakamura's use of it, with the blessing of McDonald's, was an empty gesture.
However, there were also moments of brilliance. Wilson Shieh, from China, exhibited a series of silk paintings crafted in the fine line style of the Ming dynasty painter Ch'en Hung-Shou, featuring an androgynous couple in various animal suits.
Shieh's work questions the tensions between men and women by playing with expected gender attributes; the woman wears the stag's horns, the male koala is carried on the back of the female and so on. Shieh explains that relations between men and women "confuse" him. His works are an intriguing exploration of sexuality and power.
As part of the Australian component, Gordon Bennett contributed a series of paintings which were a tribute to the black US artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Basquiat was a shooting star; falling in with Andy Warhol and skyrocketing to fame in the 1970s, he was consumed by the art world and died a few years later of a drug overdose. In his notes for the exhibition, Bennett wrote, "To be a race-identified race-refugee is to tap-dance on a tightrope ... You lost your balance. I feel I can understand why. Jean-Michel Basquiat, I salute you."
Aboriginal art is regarded as Australia's "masthead" internationally. Yet many Aboriginal artists remain unrecognised and underpaid here.
At the second Asia Pacific Triennial, the Fireworks Gallery (an Aboriginal gallery in Brisbane) created an installation on the lawn outside the Queensland Art Gallery where Aboriginal art was sold off from a caravan at "bargain prices". The work highlighted both how Aboriginal artists struggle to gain access to galleries (the work was placed outside the gallery) and how Aboriginal art has been reduced to a cheap tourist attraction (sold for a bargain).
Bennett's work remains a powerful reminder of the voice of Aboriginal people in the Australian art world. Bennett resists the term "Aboriginal artist" and is not situated within a traditional Aboriginal artistic community, but his work both uses traditional Aboriginal symbolism and addresses issues of racism against Aboriginal people. Bennett combines this with references to the Western art tradition of people such as Basquiat, making his work defy easy categories.
One of the more interesting "audience participation" works was by Taiwanese-born artist Lee Mingwei. Lee created three wooden huts with writing paper and desks in them. People were encouraged to write letters to people who were important to them, which said things they had never said in person.
Letters that were sealed and addressed were sent by the artist, the rest were left for viewers to read, and were then ritualistically burnt.
Reading other people's letters is usually undignified and intrusive. To be encouraged to do so was temptingly voyeuristic. The letters talked of love, crushes, pain, regret and the usual teenage banality.
The APT3 is a fascinating show with important art from across the region. It remains a key collection which highlights the political and cultural diversity of the Asia Pacific.