Asia Pacific Triennial: an exhibition of immense scope capturing a troubled world

QAGOMA, Brisbane
Resistance, survival and big picture politics from war to climate change infuse the exhibition’s ninth outing

The ninth outing of the Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art’s Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT9) was hit by an act of God. The dust storms and high winds that caused the cancellation of dozens of flights on Australia’s east coast late last week had the knock on effect of reducing the interstate turnout for the opening weekend of the institution’s flagship event.

Under a rust-orange sky, many punters observed that this was climate change in action, the inevitable outcome of human behaviour. I imagine I wasn’t the only one who wondered if this wasn’t also symbolic of the whole enterprise: what does the APT tell us about the state of these giant museum exhibitions? Are they a doomed species blind to the signs and portents of coming oblivion? Or are they the last bastion of a rational, humanist approach to art, artists and their audiences?

As I noted after the last APT opening in 2015, the exhibition is probably the only show of its kind in Australia that can lay claim to being truly globally significant, a sprawling event that features art from countries of the Asia-Pacific region and beyond, and in 2018, boasting 400-plus individual artworks from 80 artists and maker groups.

And the APT9 is not full of those made-on-site works you find at events such as the Sydney Biennale, or video works that require only a projector and a data stick sent through the mail. The APT9 is a show of things – sculptures, paintings, photographs, large installations and hundreds of other objects.

One of Anne Noble’s Dead Bee Portraits – ‘For a time when the bee no longer exists’ (2015-2016).
One of Anne Noble’s Dead Bee Portraits – ‘For a time when the bee no longer exists’ (2015-2016). Photograph: Natasha Harth, Qagoma

It is a hugely expensive undertaking, too. The exhibition’s costs are borne by the gallery, the Queensland state government and a phalanx of commercial partnerships. The director of Qagoma, Chris Saines, stated at the opening that the APT was “at the heart of the gallery’s strategic vision”. It’s an event where the soft diplomacy of Western culture meets the collection-building of a gallery focused on acquiring and exhibiting contemporary art.

For the average visitor, there is plenty to see and experience. APT9 continues its curatorial focus on art of the region, making no obvious distinction between more-or-less orthodox contemporary art, and art that arises from the traditions and forms of a multitude of indigenous cultures and first nation peoples.

On the one hand we have artworks such as Tada Hengsapkul’s “You lead me down, to the ocean” (2018) and its mysterious video of a military tank at the bottom of an ocean that is a refuge for coral and fish, or Anne Noble’s “No Vertical Song” – “an imaginary museum for the bee from a time in the future when the bee no longer exists” (2018), an installation of ghostly portraits of bees accompanied by an actual hive of living creatures.

You lead me down, to the ocean (2018)
A still from ‘You lead me down, to the ocean’ (2018) by Tada Hengsapkul. Photograph: Tada Hengsapkul/Supplied: QAGOMA

On the other hand are groups such as the Erub/Lifou Project, a collaboration between artists from Lifou in the Loyalty Islands of New Caledonia, and Erub from the Torres Strait, who produced giant charcoal drawings evoking traditional custom, Christian faith and the connective culture between them. Then there’s also the Jaki-Ed Project, 13 women from the Marshall Islands who produced woven mats commissioned for the show, their making documented on video and represented by the weavings in the gallery.

This kind of curatorial scope produces an exhibition that captures a sense of the world that thematically driven biennales do not. It’s a macro view of the world and its evolving issues, from the resistance and survival of traditional cultures, to the big picture politics of nation states, wars and climate change. That one huge show can do that is admirable, but it also produces, in me at least, an acute awareness that the art world, its institutions and practices, are as much a part of the problem as the things it sets out to criticise.

The logic of making a show like the APT9 seems to be that “we do it this way because this is the way we do it.” A museum is built to show art, so isn’t this the only way it can be? Not necessarily. There is a movement within the art world to rethink the biennale/triennale model, to avoid huge expense while connecting more directly with audiences and community. This year’s inaugural Bangkok Art Biennale did away with the customary gallery spaces altogether, siting work in spaces from shopping centres to Buddhist temples, while Manifesta is the “nomadic European biennale” held in a different location in Europe every two years, its various works spread across the host city’s various venues.

A detail from the Sea Journey: People Without Borders by Erub/Lifou Project, commissioned for APT9.
A detail from the Sea Journey: People Without Borders by Erub/Lifou Project, commissioned for APT9. Photograph: Natasha Harth, Qagoma

The kind of logistics that go into a show the size of the APT9 come into stark relief when the system that supports it starts to break down. Like all social institutions major galleries are part of a vast interconnected web of related industries, cultural institutions, government departments, the media, and so on. When one part of that network goes down, it feels like the whole system is unravelling. The cancellations of flights were just an inconvenience, and so what if you were silly enough, like me, to drive from Sydney to Brisbane? The show, as they say, must go on, yet this concentration of resources can seem indulgent. Is this the best way to do things?

What became obvious to me, though, observing the artists from the Pacific, the Australian Indigenous artists and a multitude of others at the opening, was that unlike Europe or even Asia, we live in a region where the population is spread out over thousands of kilometres, separated by vast oceans and deserts, where technology is not equally available or even affordable, and cross-cultural connections on this scale often only come about from just the kind of institutional impetus that produced the APT.

Saines stated that artists “are the enduring meaning of the event.” This makes sense in the context of the APT, a vast show built on a goodwill accumulated over the past 25 years. While the model of shows like it are slowly changing, there’s still some mileage in yet. It has a meaning beyond being just a big show of bright shiny art, and being a place where connections between artists, their communities and countries can be extended and developed is a good thing.

The Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art is showing at Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane until 29 April 2019

Guardian Australia was a guest of the Asia Pacific Triennial in Brisbane

• This article was amended on 28 November 2018 because an earlier version referred to this year’s inaugural Bangkok Art Biennale as Bangkok Biennale. This has been corrected.

• This article was amended on 29 November 2018 as it incorrectly included a still of an artwork from Martha Atienza instead of Tada Hengsapkul. This has been replaced with the correct image.


Andrew Frost

The GuardianTramp

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