The 8th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT8) takes as its theme the performative body and – given the show’s wide geographic remit – it’s surprisingly apt. Curated by a Queensland Art Gallery, Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) team of 15 curators under the leadership of QAGOMA’s Director, Chris Saines, and Deputy Director of Collection and Exhibitions, Maud Page, with early input by former Curatorial Manager of Asian and Pacific Art, Russell Storer, as well as his successor Aaron Seeto, the exhibition includes the work of 83 artists from 36 countries, of which ten pieces and five performances were developed for the triennial. From China and Mongolia in the north, to Australia and New Zealand in the south, APT8 captures a restless zeitgeist in the Asia-Pacific region. Most of the works are shrewd assessments of colonial pasts, where all types of bodies are conceived of as dynamic entities capable of redefinition and change.
Several key theme emerge, some with gravitas – artists acting as witnesses to various kinds of suffering and systemic exploitation – and others with a sense of lightness derived from parody and play. The labouring body in the era of globalization is a noticeable leitmotif. This is palpable in Indonesian artist Melati Suryodarmo’s 12-hour performance, I’m a Ghost in My Own House (2012/15), in which the artist pulverizes charcoal briquettes – a low-grade source of fuel in several South-East Asian countries – into floating clouds of dust; and New Zealand artist Angela Tiatia’s video, Edging and Seaming (2013), which juxtaposes textile workers in a Guangzhou garment factory with footage of her Samoan mother – who was part of a Pacific islander immigrant wave in the 1950s that bolstered the New Zealand economy – sewing in a small room in a working-class suburb of Auckland.
As you might expect, indigeneity is a dominant theme. This is highlighted in ‘Kalpa Vriksha: Contemporary Indigenous and Vernacular Art of India’: a subsection of the triennial featuring 19 Indian artists working in vernacular art and craft forms. These include Venkat Raman Singh Shyam’s highly detailed, droll drawings, which rekindle the pictorial traditions of the Gond peoples (one of the largest indigenous groups in India) through the incorporation of contemporary imagery, and Kalyan Joshi’s jubilant translation of Rajasthani scriptural legends into a comic book idiom, Hanuman Chalisa (2015).
The work of two Australians stands out: Christian Thompson, from the Bidjara people, whose series of photographic self-portraits, ‘Polari’ (2014), shows the artist festooned with flowers, wig and white make-up, a barely discernable vaporous trail emanating from his mouth like ectoplasm. Brook Andrew, of the Wiradjuri people, transforms QAG’s Australian galleries by painting the red walls with dazzling black chevrons, which unsettles the historical paintings hung on them. Both Thompson and Andrew’s work emanates a brewing intensity, an unmistakable sense of reckoning with the nation’s violent colonial past. In his video Refuge (2014), Thompson sings a plaintive song in Bidjari, an ancestral language now classified as extinct; another theme of APT8 is languages and their various forms of arrest.
This is the first year artists from the Kyrgyz Republic have been included in the triennial. ‘Your languages do not matter’, a voice barks in the beautifully handcrafted stop-motion animation Manufactory, 2012. Made by School of Theory and Activism, Bishkek (STAB), the work froms part of their series ‘Russian Language in Central Asia’ (2012). Kyrgyz was mainly an oral language (although written in Arabic and later remodelled into Turkic Latin script in the 1920s), but when the country became part of the USSR in 1936, Russian became the official language.
As the new kid on the block, STAB is one of the most exciting participants in the exhibition. Other Kyrgyzstani works are also included, such as Gulnara Kasmalieva and Muratbek Djumaliev’s A New Silk Road: Algorithm of Survival and Hope (2006), a poignant, five-channel video installation which follows the transport of Soviet scrap metal from the Kyrgyz Republic into China; a depiction of marginalized labour and a journey on dusty roads transfigured by the wistful strains of folksong.
From neighbouring Kazakhstan, Yelena Vorobyeva and Viktor Vorobyev’s series of subtle, hand-drawn embellishments to their identity photographs, ‘Necessary Additions. Home Archive’ (2010), transforms bureaucratic head-shots into something more wry.
Given the current mood of Islamophobia, Australian artist Abdul Abdullah’s series, ‘Coming To Terms’ (2015), is topical. Abdullah took photographs of brides and grooms in his mother’s Malaysian homeland, but posed his subjects in balaclavas, an alleged insignia of terrorist intent. Islamic culture and tradition is more light-heartedly explored in ‘Pop Islam’, a programme of film screenings curated by José Da Silva and Khaled Sabsabi. Highlights include the cheesy sincerity of Syrian-American filmmaker Moustapha Akkad’s The Message (1976); starring Anthony Quinn, the film is a biopic on the life of the Prophet Mohammad made to endear the virtues of Islam to Western audiences.
Pop melds with camp in several other works, such as Singaporean artist Ming Wong’s song and dance extravaganza Aku Akan Bertahan / I Will Survive (2015), a lip-synched drag rendition of Gloria Gaynor’s 1978 song of the same name, with the soaring vocals reworked into Javanese percussive beats; and Justin Shoulder and Bhenji Ra’s video Ex Nilalang (2015) of shimmering costumed creatures inspired by a Filipino legend and Sydney’s underground club culture. But APT8’s iconic queer image is veteran Japanese artist Yasumasa Morimura’s White Darkness (1994), in which the naked artist poses in high heels next to a bovine carcass that references the boeuf écorché (flayed animal) genre of painting, of which Rembrandt is the exemplar. In this eerie work, the horror of slaughter is heightened by its proximity to Morimura’s poise: his fine-boned body in stark contrast to the hulking inverted beast. In its unnerving consort of bloodshed, conquest and grace, the portrait captures something at the core of APT8: the subaltern body emerging from the inequity of power structures and varied genealogies of violence and race.
First published in Issue 177