Australia shows off Asia’s talent

The Asia Pacific Triennial highlights some of Japan's most notable contemporary artists

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BRISBANE, Australia — Over the past year, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has made waves in his country and across the region with his plans to spearhead the development of an Asia Pacific Community. Rudd is in part picking up where former Prime Minister Bob Hawke left off 20 years ago, when Australia played a central role in the formation of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group in 1989. In terms of cultural exchange, however, a Brisbane institution, the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art (QAG|GOMA), has long been at the forefront of developing regional ties through its flagship international art event: the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT).

Launched in 1993, APT is an essential showcase for regional contemporary art, bringing together artists from South, East and Southeast Asia and the Pacific including Australia and New Zealand. In 2006-07, APT5 attracted some 700,000 visitors, and the acquisition of selected works from each exhibition has turned QAG|GOMA into one of Australia’s leading collecting institutions.

Over the years APT has provided international exposure for some of Japan’s most significant artists, beginning with a group headlined by edgy collage and assemblage artist Shinro Ohtake in the inaugural edition and continuing with the likes of Yayoi Kusama, Tatsuo Miyajima, Yasumasa Morimura, Takashi Murakami and Hiroshi Sugimoto in subsequent editions.

This year’s APT6, which opened to the public in Brisbane on Dec. 5, has expanded its purview even further, including artists from Turkey, Iran, North Korea and Tibet. It features five Japanese artists and artist groups — Kohei Nawa, Shinji Ohmaki, Hiraki Sawa and the collaborative YNG (Yoshitomo Nara and graf) and the director Takeshi Kitano.

The majority of works are displayed in GOMA, an extension to QAG that was unveiled during APT5. An airy, light-filled building with three stories of galleries that float beneath a rectilinear canopy, GOMA is the perfect venue for this year’s exhibition, which indulges in a spectacle of scale, color and texture. Visitors entering the ground-level galleries encounter a five-meter-high mushroom cloud made of brass and copper pots, pans, candleholders, urns and goblets by Indian artist Subodh Gupta. Entitled “Line of Control” (2008), the work addresses the long-running Kashmir conflict between India and Pakistan, which has taken on added bombast with the acquisition of nuclear arsenals by both countries in recent years.

Facing this from across the rectangular gallery is 85-year-old Iranian artist Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian’s monumental six-panel mosaic of thousands of mirror shards arranged in geometrical patterns. Viewed from afar, the work — glistening with scintillating flatness — conjures a weightless mirage, but up close it reveals itself to be three-dimensional, as the mosaics extend from the surface of each panel into horizontally tilted tetrahedrons.

The idea of the mosaic is echoed by multiple works ranging from Tibetan artist Gonkar Gyatso’s sticker collages that recreate Buddhist iconography from fragments of Pop cultural detritus to the North Korean Mansudae Art Studio’s socialist realist tile mosaic in a special gallery on the third floor.

This context augments presentations by Japanese artists Nawa and Ohmaki. In the same gallery as Gupta and Farmanfarmaian, Nawa’s life-size stuffed elk covered in different size crystal baubles is installed in a room filled with searing white light. Breaking up and refracting the dimensions of the elk contained within, the baubles exert an almost gravitational visual pull.

In a recessed garden outside of the main QAG building, Ohmaki has installed a grid of bubble machines that look like futuristic designer stools, which were turned on at intervals during APT’s opening weekend. Released by the machines and then caught by air currents wafting over from the nearby Brisbane River, the plumes of bubbles sparkled with glassy, rainbow hues in the sunlight before dispersing into the cloudless blue sky.

The exhibition also has its introspective moments. Among the most affecting works on display is London-based Japanese artist Hiraki Sawa’s “O” (2009), a multichannel video installation in collaboration with sound artist Dale Berning that was commissioned for APT. Installed in a broad, darkened room, the installation centers around three freestanding projection screens that are tilted at acute angles, giving the images that play upon them a sense of physicality. Two of the screens relay black-and-white footage of the harsh, Australian landscape, while the third features color footage of a domestic interior that is occasionally traversed by mite-size animated birds and Ferris wheels.

Circling the walls of the room, small monitors loop black-and-white video of spinning objects such as tops, bangles, bottles and a light bulb, the sounds of which are emitted by several beautifully crafted, spinning speakers mounted on waist-high wooden stands. The hollowed, unpredictable percussion of these sounds underscores the emptiness of the imagery in the projections and the room itself, creating a timeless, meditative environment.

Curator Suhanya Raffel, who has worked on every APT since 1996 and headed this year’s edition, said that Sawa had been highly recommended to her by colleagues in Japan and that she had wanted to give him the opportunity to make a new work.

Discussing APT as a whole, Raffel said: “When we first began doing APT, one of the key commitments was to communicate that Asia and the Pacific were not simply one thing.

“We wanted to show that there is a lot of complexity in language, religion, history, geography and in interrelationships [throughout the region].”

Addressing the demands of producing such a wide-ranging survey, Raffel said: “I don’t know that the APT is ever a consonant exhibition, it’s full of dissonances, always. One learns, like practice with an instrument. You get better at it with time.”

Certainly, this edition of APT strikes a different pitch from the austerity informing other major international exhibitions since the start of the global economic crisis at the end of 2008. Yet, despite their sensational veneer, the exhibition’s mushroom clouds, mirror mosaics and soap bubbles all acknowledge the fragility of the world in which we live, and see that fragility as a starting point for appreciating its beauty.