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mapping the unmappable

christen cornell: asia pacific triennial 7

Almagul Menlibayeva, Kurchatov 22 (still) 2012 Almagul Menlibayeva, Kurchatov 22 (still) 2012
courtesy the artist and Priska C Juschka Fine Art, New York

We see Thai hats in the Swedish forest and hear Thai voices larking about in a car driving through Scandinavian fog. Handheld and lo-fi, the films chronicle the experiences of Thai migrants who display all the casualness of Australians backpacking in Bali.

Although a relatively minor component of APT7, Phinthong’s video points to some of the central themes of the overall show, visualising just one of the many migrations to result from today’s shifting global economies and the new perspectives forged in the process. While the migrant workers are not tourists, their films are fresh with the feel of adventure. They re-tell Sweden from the perspective of Thai farmers, turning our expectations of place inside out.

Every three years Brisbane plays host to this major contemporary art exhibition—the only large-scale show in the world to focus on the art of Australia, Asia and the Pacific—and for these five colourful months the city feels more like a gateway to Asia than its clichéd image as the capital of Australia’s ‘deep north’. But that is but one purpose of the APT: to remind us that geography is subjective.

The most ambitious APT yet, this exhibition re-imagines the region once more, with the new and recent work of 75 artists and artist groups from a region that stretches from the far southeast of New Zealand to the edges of Europe in Istanbul. There are two special exhibition foci, the now-regular Kids’ APT, 27 countries represented, and a special look at the archive to make sense of the last two decades of cultural and political change (APT7 marks the 20th anniversary of the show).

My brief has been to focus on screen works (a necessary filter considering the exhibition’s size), however, part of the pleasure of the APT is being overwhelmed by its span and variety. The APT presents a world of uneven landscapes and ever-morphing cultural identities, and much of its dynamism comes from dialogues between different media. This is almost half the world on display, and in all forms of cultural play.

In his short video, Lunda Bazaar (2010), Basir Mahmood evokes the menacing mechanics of global trade, slowing footage of a second-hand clothing market in Lahore, Pakistan, to an ominous pace. Local men try on jackets from Europe so slowly, and to such a growling soundtrack, that we are compelled to question what chain of relations has brought the goods to this place. What darkness lies behind the exchange? Through repeating cycles of men slipping their arms into Western suits we sense the legacies of European colonisation in the region—not only the colonisation of the everyday market, but also of its subjects’ dreams.

Yuan Goang-Ming, Disappearing Landscape - Passing II (stills) 2011, collection: Queensland Art Gallery Yuan Goang-Ming, Disappearing Landscape - Passing II (stills) 2011, collection: Queensland Art Gallery
courtesy the artists and TKG+, Taipei and Beijing
Many of the screen works in APT7 suggest the telescoping of space and histories, the sliding of time and heritage that makes up our experience of contemporary life. Yuan Goang-Ming’s Disappearing Landscape—Passing II (2011) is a journey across memory and moment, breathtaking for its technical and poetic artistry. A three-channel projection (presented in the deliciously enveloping shadows of a large, dedicated and sofa-furnished space), this lushly cinematic work takes us floating through the artist’s Taipei apartment, the camphor tree outside his window and a reconstructed scene of his late father’s study. Sucking backwards and shooting forwards, the film warps both time and space to poignant and frightening effect.

heading west

As the world has changed, so has the APT, and this year’s exhibition includes a special focus on the art of West Asia—the latest new economy to become fashionable in the art market. Variously known as the art of Central Asia, West Asia and the Middle East (even within the APT literature, curiously), it is perhaps unsurprising that an underlying concern in this section is of the ways the region has been labelled and exploited by outsiders.

Oraib Toukan’s The Equity is in the Circle (2007–09), for example, is a mockumentary-like marketing campaign in which the Middle East is carved up, branded and sold off. “Own This View, And Everything In It…” announces a billboard; experts discuss the philanthropic contributions investors might make to their purchased communities, retelling post-colonial nationalism in the language of corporate governance. The videos could be PR for an oil company, strategising its investment in the region.

Another major work, Almagul Menlibayeva’s video installation Kurchatov 22 (2012), revisits a town in northeast Kazakhstan that was the main site for Soviet nuclear testing during the Cold War. Combining documentary and performance, the film pieces together a landscape scarred by brutal experiments and a community still shaped by their fallout. One of the scientists involved in the tests recounts how he once signed a document swearing his life-long confidentiality: “But the country I signed my name to,” he explains, “no longer exists.”

what country? what identity?

This issue of how a region or culture is defined resonates throughout the overall show. Historical battles are re-enacted with ironic changes. Peripheries of former political empires are put centrestage. The image and mention of the passport keeps popping up, referencing the abstraction of one’s political identity.

Daniel Boyd, History is made at night 2012,  Kids APT7 Daniel Boyd, History is made at night 2012, Kids APT7
photo QAGOMA Photography
In his collection of paintings and four-channel video installation, Darker Shade of Dark (2012), Australian Indigenous artist Daniel Boyd questions the extent to which he can ever really know his own culture, or have access to his family heritage, amidst the obscuring tides of history. By applying a veil of transparent dots, almost like pinhole apertures, Boyd abstracts a range of existing artworks and creates a new view via distortion.

While the paintings suggest something of their subject matter—a view of Pentecost Island in Vanuatu where Boyd’s great-great-grandfather was from; a Mapplethorpe portrait of Grace Jones covered in body paint by Keith Haring—the installation eludes decoding. Dancing across the walls, this floor-to-ceiling surround screen projection is a cosmic gallery of multi-coloured spots of light, bursting and arcing like fireworks.

The effect is suave and slyly sardonic, a critique not only of Boyd’s own perception, perhaps, but of the razzle-dazzle of Aboriginal dot paintings in the art market. How far are we ever able to see beneath the surface display? And how much do we enjoy the illusion?

In addition to video works, APT7 includes two film programs: Chinese animation since the 1930s and feature films from the Asia-Pacific region over the last 20 years. The first is diverse in itself, covering Mainland Chinese, Taiwanese and Hong Kong animation, with a special showcase of 1930s classics.

The second, however, includes works so varied as to provoke questions around its rationale as a program. Titled Change: Paths Through 20 Years of Film, the program includes everything from Lee Tamahori’s Once Were Warriors to Wong Kar-Wai’s Happy Together, from Iranian drama to Chinese documentary. A mini-APT of cinema, the program reflects the diversity and immensity of the region, with change as the one pulsing constant.

mapping the unmappable

You could call the exhibition unruly, but then this is precisely what the APT celebrates: our attempt to map the un-mappable, and the disorderly effects of history on our conceptions of region and culture. Who defines the Asia-Pacific? What is the Middle, Near or Far East? And how does Australia fit in? Perhaps future APTs will include Hawaii or Saudi Arabia, or shrink to exclude Turkey. Our definition of the Asia Pacific will always change with the socio-political concerns of the day. Geography is what we make of it: blind men describing an elephant.

APT7, The Seventh Asia Pacific Triennial, Queensland Art Gallery (QAG) and Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA), Brisbane, Dec 8, 2013-April 14;

RealTime issue #113 Feb-March 2013 pg. 8-9

© Christen Cornell; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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