Third Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art

Queensland Art Gallery

For me, this year's Asia-Pacific Triennial was the 'Year of China', not only for the large number of resident or ex-pat artists from China, but also for the high visibility and sheer space devoted to their work. The case was clearly and wittily stated by Sang Ye and Geremie Barme's two impressive red columns at the gallery entrance and by the use of Xu Sing's English typeface of mock Chinese characters as a pseudo-translation of the gallery's signage, both works visible from across the river. Cai Guo Qiang's bamboo bridge, Bridge Crossing-Project for the Third Asia-Pacific Triennial (1999) dominated the interior, spanning the Gallery's pool. At present China is aggressively hauling itself into line with the West. Critics from China are cynical of the attention Chinese artists are getting around the world at the moment, with criticism mostly directed at this year's Venice Biennale. They see a 'flavour of the moment' syndrome coming from a fickle international art world. Valid or not, at least it shows that Queensland is up with some sort of play.

The most appealing aspect about the new art from China is its transparent quality, having an ease in intention and realisation. It buys into the !ropes of power, imperial and institutional, while deftly denying them. For example, Ye and Barme's Tiananmen Square Hou Biao (1999) columns are signs of an imperial past and dictatorial present and yet were rendered as theme park, cuddly dirigibles in Chinese red. They had a strong resonance set in front of the Queensland Art Gallery, establishing a tone of quick wit and critical positioning that, unfortunately, was not carried through the rest of the exhibition.

A staggering number of curators and writers were drawn upon to realise the Triennial, more than the number of artists involved. As one wit remarked: 'Never before have so few been chosen by so many'. There is a direct relation, I think, to the bureaucratic organisation and the coherence of the show. Getting to grips with this exhibition wasn't easy, and it took some time for works to cohere. While in part this may have been due to unsympathetic exhibition spaces, my eventual impression was that the works were simply badly hung. For example, two of the works I most liked were seriously disadvantaged by being out of the main view. I didn't discover Hiroshi Sugimoto's Buddha photographs, Hall of Thirty-Three Bays (1995), until the end of my five days attending the Triennial. Tatsuo Miyajima's Running Time (1994- 99), a mobile installation which is a reflection on macro-time that transcends its own technology, needed its own enclosed space, yet I met countless people who missed it.

Given the forces marshalled to realise it, it was disappointing that the event was under theorised, apart from a lively paper by Marian Pastor Roces, who addressed the influence that these expositions have on artists to manufacture art for international audiences. The absence of any cogent structural critique meant that the political and economic implications of this exposition for Queensland, and Australia, were not explored. The Triennial should be an opportunity to bring together the best thinkers in cultural, racial and critical theory. Instead, the main concern of the conference was about representation, betraying a crude notion of democratic inclusion. A quota system was argued for, as if equal representation by all nations would intrinsically make for a better exhibition. It remains a contentious and, for this reviewer, tired issue.

Much of the discussion at the conference-and in evidence in the catalogue concerned the impact of what is termed the 'new globalisation': the removal of boundaries between countries and the establishment of a transnational citizenship, due to new technology, global capitalism, western hegemony, etcetera, etcetera. If there was any effort at theorising the exhibition, it was around this area, by emphasising the individual and specific cultural/ethnic character of the art works, the show's non global nature. Which was appropriate, as many artists took pains to configure their local culture in materials and subject matter.

The New Zealand entries at the last Triennial were configured into a bicultural framework that divided the several artists, both Maori and Pakeha, into two waka, transporting one male and one female grouping. Compared to this format, which I thought sank from overladen intention and somewhat ideological niceties even before it got to Brisbane, the equally bicultural composition of the present entry had a more critical and transparent relation to its own culture. Bill Hammond (Pakeha) and Michael Parekowhai (Maori) presented painting and sculpture, respectively.

Parekowhai's Ten Guitars (1999) was multilayered, sculptural, decorative, Duchampian. Being literally ten electric guitars, custom-made and on stands, it was one of the few works in the Triennial that directly addressed the notion of display and the commodity character of art works, accentuating its luxury item status with showroom-like light boxes. While more formalist readings were one consideration, knowledge of the local context substantiated the work: the social history of Maori and their urban migration; the spread of the Hawaiian steel guitar across the Pacific since the thirties, finding its way to New Zealand with musicians like Bill Sevesi; or the impact of American popular culture through local radio and its role in maintaining social cohesion. Nationalist propositions give way to a more complex politics in Parekowhai's Ten Guitars: each guitar belt is branded 'Patriot'.

Like the last Triennial's waka, the New Zealand artists' work also addressed the concept of community, but without giving it a positive spin. Parekowhai's Ten Guitars refers to the Englebert Humperdinck song of the same name, which became a core number for Maori social occasions. Parekowhai celebrates Maoridom, as well as the ubiquity of the musical subculture. The guitars are to be played by local musicians at each new venue, itself a configuration of community, and adding a vibrant performance component to the work.

Most of the two-dimensional work in the exhibition was hung in a fairly arbitrary fashion along two narrow transition spaces. Bill Hammond's paintings were included, and like the other artist's work, bore no cogent relation to its neighbours.

Hammond's is a dark vision of New Zealand: a surreal and edgy class of figures, close to social critique. His three paintings showed a gathering of anthropomorphised birds, presenting no friendly community nor any idyllic ecology. For me, it exposed perceptions about New Zealand, its myths of egalitarianism and Paradise Regained. As art for expo, it was a bold choice.

The Queensland Art Gallery is built adjacent to what subsequently was the site of Expo 88, and the Triennial perpetuates this 'expo' function, of regional art commodity on display. It needs to focus on the best work around, regardless of national representation, and employ a single vision. The strength of the present Triennial lay, not in its critical contributions, but in its scale, in being able to bring a large number of art works that singly and together have immediate impact, and whose meaning, whether transparent or opaque, resided in its conceptual engagement with issues, local and international. Its future success lies in there being more artists and less bureaucracy.

notes: 

Richard Dale is an independent curator and writer living in
Auckland.