PETER HILL'S MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY IDEAS

Peter Hill

The Albury Wodonga Superfiction 1993

Collaboration Peter Hill and J.J. Voss (Photographer)

Multi-modernism on the Rim

 

The Catalogue to the Second Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art

Reviewed by Peter Hill

(This catalogue review has been written to accompany an article about the triennial in The Artists Newsletter, February 1997, Sunderland, UK)


Asia doesn't exist. It is a fiction. That is the first thing anyone coming from the equally fictitious 'West' must understand if they are to begin to come to terms with this vast region. Someone driving a limousine for a living between Narita International Airport to Tokyo Central does not necessarily see herself in the same cultural or geographic grouping as a bus driver in Calcutta or a worker in a car wrecking yard in Hanoi, or an abalone diver in Tasmania. We can expand our fiction of Asia further to include yuppie stockbrokers dining around Sydney's Circular Quay, to a Chinese peasant recently arrived in Guangzhou for a new city life of sweated labour and dormitory accommodation. But of course China has its new breed of yuppies and Sydney has plenty of unemployment and inner city poverty. We live on a planet where globalisation and industrialisation have triumphed over the insular and, to an extent, the traditional. How pyrrhic that victory will prove to be is at the heart of the debate surrounding exhibitions such as The Second Asia Pacific Triennial , henceforth referred to as APT2.

But before examining the erudite and colourful catalogue to this event I would like to ask a question. Why Australia? Why should the world's largest island - far larger than Europe, and lying roughly in the south-west Pacific - play host to the biggest ever pan-Asian cultural event? With its population of less then 20 million coastal living inhabitants Australia has rightly been described as 'a tiny country surrounding a huge continent'. But Australia is an enigma. If ever a link were needed between the fictions of East and West they are to be found in the bizarre reality of

Australia. Less than a decade ago Australia stuck up its hand and said 'excuse me, but can I come in? I would like to be part of Asia.' As a recent arrival in the country myself around that time it reminded me more than a little of growing up in Glasgow in the 1950s and being told to think European. To me, as a six year old, Europe meant French berets, Greek islands, Spanish bullfights, and Italian soccer teams. It took a bit of mind-bending, as I munched my fish supper in the rain, to get my head around the idea of Sauchiehall Street, Byres Road, and the Gorbals as being outposts of the Mediterranean. Yet it happened. By marketing such a fiction cleverly Glasgow eventually became European City of Culture, an accolade we Glaswegians will remind the rest of the world about forever. Australia has had a similar uphill battle convincing the world it is now a tiger economy, where neon dollar signs pulse at dusk on the rim of the Pacific. But perceptions of Australia are changing almost as quickly as the country is itself, for Australia is a work in progress. Few nations can claim the title 'multi-cultural' quite as accurately as Australia - a point parodied at the start of one of the country's most popular television variety shows

'Hello Asia!!' are the words used to welcome viewers to Club Buggery every Saturday night, sandwiched between, would you believe, The Bill and Saturday Night Clive (a point not lost on those who claim Australia is still a card-carrying fellow traveller on the Anglo-Celtic diaspora - but to be fair Australia has three types of television - The ABC, which is certainly a clone of the BBC, several commercial stations which are US clones, and the totally original SBS, the world's greatest TV station which starts the day by delivering us live news broadcasts every half an hour from Paris, Bonn, London, Beijing, Athens, and Tokyo and follows this with a mix of the best television from around the world. I have never felt more informed about world news and culture - or enjoyed such diverse films - since I moved from Europe to Tasmania and tuned in to SBS). But I digress. Back to Club Buggery. The comperes are Roy Slaven and H.G. Nelson, currently supplementing their income by advertising Fosters Lager on commercial television in the UK. Their 'Hello Asia' greeting is a tongue-in-cheek comment on the deliberate Asianisation of Australia by successive labour governments. Last year's elections put the conservative Liberal party in to power and we await the consequences this will have on dealings with regional neighbours. But the debate was always far more complex than 'are we an Asian nation or an Anglo-Celtic nation?'. In the beginning there were the aboriginals, the indigenous peoples. Then the British - the Anglo-Celts - arrived long after Dutch and French ships had sailed past. Many unique clans of aborigines, such as those in Tasmania, were hounded to extinction. In the 19th century the Chinese appeared in significant numbers close to the gold fields and the pearl-diving stations of Victoria and Western Australia.

After the Second World War the Greek, Italian, and Yugoslavian migrants formed the next wave. Australia fought in Vietnam alongside Americans and New Zealanders but just as quickly welcomed the Vietnamese boat people and the Hmong tribes people from around the Golden Triangle. Most importantly that loose mix of cultures and languages that we call 'Asia' became Australia's leading trading partner.

Richard Neville, who once published OZ magazine in London, recently described in his weekly column in a Sydney magazine the meeting between President Clinton and Edward de Bono. The saxophone player asked the lateral thinker to dream up a fictional country best suited to the 21st century. What would it be like? 'No problemmo,' replied de Bono, 'It would be on the Pacific Rim, would speak English and have a population of no more than 25 million. It would have a stable government, a multi-cultural population and a go-getting attitude. This country already exists,' he added, 'it's called Australia.' Not surprisingly, after winning his second term of office, Clinton packed his bags and went looking for some relaxation and political inspiration down under.

I hope that all of the above goes some way to explaining why the two biggest pan-Asian cultural events have been the first and (currently) the second Asia-Pacific Triennials of Contemporary Art, both of which were held in Brisbane. Which begs the second question - why Brisbane?

Brisbane is Australia's fastest growing city. It is the capital of Queensland which lies somewhere between Sydney and Papua New Guinea. It is sub-tropical and a gateway to the coral beaches and reefs that lie to the north. Over the past decade Australians from every other capital city have moved to Brisbane in large numbers, so here you will find a mix of everything that is good about the country as a whole, and on a rare bad day everything that is bad.

The catalogue to APT2 is as good an introduction as one could wish to the contemporary and historical art practice of what to many Western minds has been the 'dark side' of the planet. In fact, apart from some navigational problems within its 150 pages it is excellent.

Printed in full colour throughout it breaks down in to four distinct parts. There are twelve general essays followed by seventeen curatorial essays, and then 69 short, individual essays on each of the participating artists or groups. Finally there is a section of artists' biographies.

I confess I lost count on the contents page, but I estimate over one hundred individuals contributed one way or another to writing the catalogue. Now imagine that catalogue coming alive and all those artists, curators, and critics descending on Brisbane. From Japan we welcome Fumio Nanjo, from Indonesia Jim Supangkat , from India Geeta Kapur, from Australia Nicholas Thomas, from Thailand Somporn Rodboon, from Malaysia Awang Damit Ahmad, and from Vietnam Trinh Cung. David Elliot is even in there somewhere mid-way between his old job at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford and his new post in Stockholm. Then there are the artists: Cai Guo Qiang, Kim Joon, Yukinori Yanagi, Charlie Co, N.N. Rimzon, Fiona Hall, Eng Hwee Chu, Sanggawa, Kathy Temin, Vivan Sundaram, Yun Suk-Nam, Luke Roberts aka Pope Alice, and Lin Onus who died tragically a few weeks after the triennial opened.

Each artist within each country is concerned with very different issues, as are the commentators who write about their work. If I had to liken it to any other exhibition it would be to Individuals which opened The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 1986. Rather than setting a theme and finding one hundred artists to illustrate it, this exhibition bravely and intelligently allows many voices to speak. Here are a few quotes from different parts of the catalogue which will give a flavour of the breadth of vision assembled and the multiplicity of issues raised. Inevitably they are out of context, but read collectively I hope they convey the spirit that is The Second Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art.

I will begin with Jim Supangkat an independent curator, critic, and consultant from Jakarta. In conversations with Jim at the first APT in 1993 I began to understand for the first time the great and the subtle differences between Western notions of 'modernism' and Asian notions of 'modernism'. Where modernism in the West might be associated with ideas concerning progress, in many Asian countries - such as Malaysia - it is identified more with breaking away from colonialism and with the power of nationalism or merdeka. Many aspects of Asian modernism, he told me, might equate better with Western notions of post modernity. His contribution to the current APT clarified this position even more:

'It is clear that Indonesia and The Philippines were not untouched by modernisation and modernity when modernism was codified in the 1950s. Modern art in Indonesia is not only an adaptation of the modernism of the 1950s but also, a continuity of local developments since the eighteenth century. Hence there must be another kind of modernism beside Western modernism within the development of modern art in the two countries. I have identified this predicted condition - the plurality of

modernism - as multimodernism . Multimodernism is a platform for discussing multimodernity: a condition which is a convention based on Western concepts of modernisation/modernity and 'manyness', which is related to different realities of modernity.'

Several countries were included in APT 2 which did not figure in the first event. India was one of these and the selectors were set a huge task given the size, history, and population of the country. Geeta Kapur's essay, in which she tells us ' Two or Three Things about Ourselves', is a revelation. One of those things relates to what happened in India after Independence:

'Early in his career, the artist-pedagogue, K.G. Subramanyan, combined a Ghandian ethics with the traditions of Tagore's Santiniketan. After Independence he made his contribution to the enlightened State-run projects for the support of the handloom and handicraft sectors. As an artist he has conducted something like an ongoing workshop without walls around artisanal practices, evolving modes of interaction with the polyvocal languages of the folk. Subramanyan circumvents the problem of appropriation with his ingenious, de-solemnised, quizzical style of making serious and playful art objects.'

The contemporary art of Japan has played a large part in both triennials and in the catalogue Fumio Nanjo, who is constantly travelling around our planet, raises the issue of the transplantation of modernism from West to East. He goes on to say:

'It would be wrong, however, to see modernisation and Westernisation as being one and the same, just because modernism originated in the West. It is necessary to analyse the two phenomena separately. Also, there are many elements of Western society which are remnants of feudalism, superstition, or ancient custom. Although they are in conflict with modern phenomena, the old coexists with the new, and thus there are similarities with the Asian situation.'

Jonathan Mane-Wheoki's essay was a necessary reminder of the variety of cultures which cluster around the area known as the South Pacific. It is interesting to reflect that he was writing this warning about the dangers of globalisation around the time a two-headed exhibition called The World Over was about to open between The Stedlejik Museum in Amsterdam and The City Gallery in Wellington, New Zealand:

'In 1995 a symposium of indigenous artists, hosted by Maori in Rotorua, drew practitioners from Japan, Papua New Guinea, Australia, New Caledonia, Fiji, Niue, Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu, Hawai'i, and the West Coast of North America. Several of the participants (John Bevan Ford, a senior Maori artist, and Ito Waia, a young Kanak artist from New Caledonia) have subsequently paid homage to culture and traditions other than their own represented at the symposium through appropriated motifs and styles. Although these gestures are respectful, there are issues pertaining to appropriation, and indigenous cultural and intellectual property rights that have yet to be resolved. Internationalisation, too, can be a great leveller: everywhere, even in this corner of the global village, is in danger of becoming the same.'

On page 20 of the catalogue David Elliott takes us for 'A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush' to look at the flora and fauna of modern art, a title he uses ironically and which he first employed in a lecture at the Museum of Modern Art in Zagreb. He is not the only writer to point up that in some parts of the world making art can still be a dangerous political act:

'It was in the Far East - in China, Thailand, Indonesia, Taiwan (and to some extent in Singapore and Korea), where the mix of economic development, artistic discourse, modernity and political power was radically different from that in the West, that the concept of an avant-garde still seemed valid. In addition, these countries had not directly experienced the advanced Euro-American art of the 1970s. The seminal exhibition 'China Avant-garde', held in Beijing National Gallery in February 1989, showed the work of generations of artists who had tried to exorcise the ghosts of Mao's Cultural Revolution, not only by re-establishing the idea of artistic autonomy but also by envisioning and agitating for new forms of democratic government. Many of these artists had to leave China a few months later following the savage repression of the Student Democracy Movement.'

This point was amplified in 'Being Oneself' the essay by Oscar Ho Hing Kay which looked at individualism in the work of artists from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. After describing the contribution made by Asian artists to 'Container 96' in Copenhagen in May 1996, Oscar looks slightly further back to our recent past:

'The dream was shattered at Tienanmen Square in 1989. Ideals and visions were crushed. The romantic zeal was gone; instead mockery and satire prevailed. Consumerism, intensified by the Government's political strategy to heal the wound through economic development, was received with a sense of wonder as well as disturbance......It is important to note that these new trends, as natural products of capitalism and consumerism, existed before the Democratic Movement. The political suppression only intensified its development.'

Earlier I asked 'Why Australia?' and 'Why Brisbane?' to host these milestone events. A large part of the answer is the combined talents and enthusiasms of Doug Hall, Director of the Queensland Art Gallery, and curator Caroline Turner. Quite simply without them it would not have happened. They created the complex matrix of sponsors, lenders, cultural organisations, and funding bodies which gave those of us who only came to enjoy and to learn one of the greatest visual and intellectual feasts of our lives. The tried and tested events such as the Venice Biennale and the documenta often seem like a tired punctuation mark at the end of a historically very long paragraph. APT2 was more like a capital letter at the start of a fresh and exciting sentence written in a syntax and grammar both exotic and unfamiliar.

ISBN 0 7242 7170 8

For more information please contact:

Queensland Art Gallery
PO Box 3686
South Brisbane
Queensland 4101
Australia
Fax: (0)7 3844 8865

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