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The 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art Confronts Climate Calamity with Indigenous Cultural Practices

The latest edition powerfully frames narratives of colonialism, exploitation and survivance

The Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT) is distinct from other recursive exhibitions in the region for its decentring of European and North American art histories as the dominant cultural reference points. If Euro-American hegemonies do appear, they are typically filtered through the critical lenses of artists from the global south. In this, the ninth iteration of the Triennial, a large cohort of such voices powerfully frames narratives of colonialism, exploitation and survivance. Western Arrernte artist Vincent Namatjira’s 2016 paintings of seven Australian prime ministers and the country’s seven richest individuals (all white, mostly men) are pitted against the authority of seven senior artists and lawmen from the Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara communities in a grid of portraits. Nguyễn Trinh Thi’s essay film Fifth Cinema (2018) reclaims sexist and racist Western films from the past, spliced together with the artist’s own footage, to offer an Indigenous perspective on Vietnamese history and identity. And Mao Ishikawa’s striking photographic series from the mid-1970s onwards, including Here’s What the Japanese Flag Means to Me, document the strength of Okinawan Indigenous identity as expressed through decades of protest and resilience against US military imperialism and Japanese cultural oppression. While the presentation of work at the APT is typically fairly conventional (with few site-specific forays beyond the buildings themselves), its curatorial methodology diverges from that of many other major recurring exhibitions. Instead of appointing auteur curators, the in-house team is augmented by contracted curators with specialist regional knowledge and the curatorial research process is understood to be inherently partial rather than a neo-colonial mapping exercise. Building on this foundation, the Triennial eschews a central thematic or argumentative proposition; instead, the question of how the exhibition should be navigated is left relatively open.

Vincent Namatjira, BlairParry - Okeden (from ‘The Richest’ series), 2016, synthetic polymer paint on canvas,  91 × 67 cm. Courtesy: the artist, Iwantja Arts, Indulkana Community and This is No Fantasy, Melbourne

Alternative economies pivoting around exchange and other relational value systems formed a pronounced pathway through this Triennial, introduced by the towering rings of Diwarra or Tabu (shell money) of the Gunantuna (Tolai) peoples of East New Britain in Papua New Guinea that greeted visitors at the Gallery of Modern Art. But the motif that steered me through the hundreds of artworks across the two venues of APT9 was that of flooding. It is the focus of Aotearoa New Zealand artist Gavin Hipkins’s two-channel video The Precinct (2018), which is based on Thomas Pennington Lucas’s two-part novel The Curse and its Cure: The Ruins of Brisbane in the Year 2000 and Brisbane Rebuilt in the Year 2200 (1894). The work imagines the flooding of the Maiwar (Brisbane River), upon whose banks the gallery is situated, by superimposing footage of the river and various water features onto imagery of the buildings and surrounding roadways. Interspersed with fragments of text, the film jumps between centuries, between the city’s destruction and its renewal. Flooding is also conjured in Filipino artist Martha Atienza’s Our Islands 11°16’58.4”N123°45’07.0”E (2017), which re-creates underwater the Ati-Atihan festival – a hybridized celebration of Indigenous and Catholic icons – that takes place annually in the artist’s hometown on Bantayan Island. In Atienza’s restaging, participants moon-jump across the ocean floor sporting costumes and hand-painted signs highlighting political, social and environmental concerns in the region, such as President Duterte’s brutal war on drugs. Likewise, Thai artist Tada Hengsapkul’s video installation You lead me down, to the ocean (2018) features a projection of a decommissioned Thai Army tank – a remnant of the border dispute with Cambodia – on the floor of an artificial reef off the coast of Narathiwat Province in southern Thailand, now appropriated by fish and sea vegetation. Here, the underwater motif operates as a metaphor for the disenfranchised and the silenced: the activists, journalists, lawyers and intellectuals suppressed by the Thai government. Kuwaiti artist Monira Al Qadiri’s four-channel video installation, DIVER (2018), documents a night-time performance by synchronized swimmers dressed in opalescent body suits to connote the multi-colour sheen of both pearls and oil: two industries that have fundamentally shaped the Gulf region and its economies. The footage is set to a soundtrack of traditional Kuwaiti pearling songs and the swimmers’ movements loosely echo those of pearl divers – both of which are now obsolete in the region, as pearling has long been supplanted by the oil industry. While it memorializes the pearl industry, Al Qadiri’s video also speculates on how we will remember the oil industry. At the end, the camera pulls away from a close-up of the swimmers to reveal a vast, open sea with no land in sight, suggesting that, after the flood, there will be no one left to perform this act of looking back.

Tada Hengsapkul, You lead me down, to the ocean, 2018, installation comprising video. Courtesy: the artist and Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art; photograph: Natasha Harth

A powerful creation myth for many cultures, the flood is an emblem of renewal as well as of chaos and divine punishment – one that is now unavoidably inflected with the association of rising sea levels due to global warming, which already disproportionately affects the island and coastal communities constellating the Asia–Pacific region. We can also think of the flood as a speculative perspectival device – a means of looking back on our time from a point in the future, or perhaps even from outside of linear time itself. This vision-beyond-the-end is treated with a kind of humour in Atienza’s work and mournfulness in Al Qadiri’s. A future-anterior perspective also structures Aotearoa New Zealand artist Anne Noble’s project Museum: For a Time When the Bee No Longer Exists (2018), comprising enlarged images – and one sculpture – of dead bees scanned under an electron microscope. The conceit of Noble’s Museum is the impossibility of its own temporal perspective, for the extinction of the bee – scientists keep warning us – will kick-start a chain of ecological events ultimately resulting in humanity’s extinction. This theme continues in Iranian artist Iman Raad’s colourful mural paintings and embroidered banners (both Untitled, 2018) depicting the Thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, which became extinct in the 1930s. Cao Fei’s impressive video installation, centred on the Chinese retail and distribution facility Jingdong (JD.com), manifests another kind of extinction: the replacement of humans with automated labour. Whereas one of the films, 11.11 (2018), documents current-day workers across the facility, the other, Asia One (2018), imagines a futurescape in which the once-bustling factory is deserted save for two workers, one male and one female, who listlessly kill time, awaiting their own eventual replacement by artificial intelligence.

Martha Atienza, Our Islands 11°16’58.4”N 123°45’07.0”E, 2017, video installation. Courtesy: the artist and Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art; photograph: Natasha Harth

In the face of this seemingly inescapable fate, of being engulfed by literal or metaphorical water, we are reminded of Indigenous cultural practices and land-management technologies to which the global north might, utterly belatedly, turn to curb the damage that it has wrought upon the world’s ecosystems. APT9 celebrates these practices throughout: in the centrality of the niu/coconut tree revered in Kapulani Landgraf’s photo collages (for instance, Kū i kāhi hāiki, 2018) reflecting the destruction wrought on ancestral burial grounds and taro terraces in Hawaiʻi by the tourism and military industries; in the matrilineal land-management customs featured in Taloi Havini’s multi-channel video Habitat (2018), which explores the devastating effects of copper mining in Bougainville; and in the sustainable fishing practice evoked by I-Kiribati artist Chris Charteris’s Te ma (Fish Trap) (2014) sculpture, made of ringed venus shells.

In his catalogue introduction, QAGOMA director Chris Saines describes contemporary artists as ‘the proverbial canary in the coalmine’ – uniquely attuned to what is about to befall the rest of us. But, as author Tony Birch noted in a 2015 blog post: ‘For Indigenous people, the impact of climate change is not a future event. It has occurred in the past, and it is occurring now.’ Indeed, for many Indigenous communities, the ‘end’ that will be summoned by climate change has a very definite prehistory: post-World War II British, US and French atomic bomb testing in the region, which only ceased in 1996, being just one example. APT9 points to the sheer exploitation of the ‘canary’ – of human, animal, plant, land, sea and sky life – by extractors, while also registering its profound resilience.

The 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art runs at Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, until 28 April 2019.

Main image: Chris Charteris, Bwebwerake (to grow, to evolve), 2017, 18 fan palm stems, saw blades, shark’s teeth, waxed nylon, coconut string 21 swords, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Lizzie Leckie

Helen Hughes is a lecturer in art history and curatorial practice in the department of Art, Design & Architecture at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia.

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