Asian modern in back seat as Triennial turns to Pacific

SEVENTH ASIA PACIFIC TRIENNIAL OF CONTEMPORARY ART Gallery of Modern Art and Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, until April 14


Gallery of Modern Art and Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, until April 14

BAD acronym of the year is undoubtedly QAGOMA. To spell it out that means: Queensland Art Gallery of Modern Art, which is irredeemable. One hopes vast sums of money have not been spent on the rebranding process because this new title should be binned before too many people notice. It might be the first task for the incoming director, Chris Saines, whose appointment was announced on December 14.

Beyond the perils of nomenclature and state Premier Campbell Newman, Saines should relish life at the helm. During the past decade, Brisbane has developed tremendous momentum, and the new director's main task is to keep up the revs. It is a very different prospect to that faced by former QAG director Tony Ellwood, who has to rearrange the internal culture of the National Gallery of Victoria.

One of the driving forces behind Queensland's ascendancy has been the Asia Pacific Triennial. From its first incarnation in 1993, the strength of the APT is the way it makes sense of Australia's position in the world. By concentrating on work from Asia and Oceania, it has tapped into political, economic and cultural networks that grow more important with every passing year.

The APT has also allowed the Queensland gallery to acquire works by artists who have gone on to become international stars by buying before their prices became exorbitant.

One can see things have turned around when the QAG - or QAGOMA - can spend $1.06 million for an elephant-not-in-the-room, in the form of a public sculpture by a New Zealand artist, Michael Parekowhai, which uses a pachyderm as an enormous bookend. It was a test for state Arts Minister Ros Bates, who had never been to the gallery before being given her portfolio. But the real issue might not be the cost of the work, but its gimmicky nature. The appeal of an upside-down elephant is not immediately apparent.

This year's APT puts a heavy emphasis on the Pacific side of the equation. One might see this as a useful corrective because the show is usually weighted in favour of the Asian nations. On the other hand, the vast bulk of the Pacific work is so grounded in tradition that it forces one to question if this is really an overview of "contemporary" art.

The Oceanic work in this year's APT slants the exhibition heavily in the direction of indigenous art, as opposed to the more sophisticated, worldly pieces being made in places such as China, Japan and South Korea. It's an emphasis that will delight some viewers and dismay others.

The major Chinese inclusion is Ressort 2012, an imposing aluminium snake skeleton by Huang Yong Ping that curls in the air above the water mall in the gallery. There are suggestions of the Chinese dragon and the Aboriginal rainbow serpent in this construction, which forms a bridge between earth, water and sky.

Japan is also under-represented in this year's APT, although the inclusions are striking enough, especially a large, multimedia installation by Tadasu Takamine, which deals with the Fukushima tragedy in an oblique but lyrical manner.

The piece feels especially poignant with the news that Japan's incoming government plans to reopen the nuclear plants.

It should also be noted that India, another emerging powerhouse in world art, is represented by solid rather than spectacular works this time around.

The most eye-catching pieces are the paintings of Raqib Shaw, who was born in India but has lived for years in London, where he shows with the fashionable White Cube gallery. His large, crowded pictures that draw on Hindu, Buddhist and Western sources have made him one of the fastest-rising artists in the world.

A nation well represented in 2012 is Indonesia, and rightly so. In recent years, with the growth of its economy and more liberal cultural attitudes, Indonesia has been producing some of the wildest art to be found anywhere. The aggressive nature of this work, which is rooted in pop-cultural forms such as rock music, street art and cartoons, is a coiled-spring reaction to the lack of opportunities endured by Indonesian artists in the past.

Now that figures such as Uji Handoko Eko Saputro (aka Hahan) and Wedhar Riyadi can enjoy their time in the spotlight, they are making large-scale, bold, satirical works that possess the same crude energy that punk rock brought to the British music scene. The results are similar, too. It's not pretty, but it's exciting.

The art that is emerging from western Asia and the Middle East is not at all like the new art from Indonesia, which suggests one cannot make generalisations about the influence of Islam. Indonesia, the world's largest Islamic republic, has gone punk, while Middle Eastern artists take a more cerebral approach. There's a fascinating essay to be written that compares these diverging paths.

If much of the APT's Pacific art feels more traditional than contemporary, the work of indigenous Australians is markedly innovative. Daniel Boyd has risen to a new level, with a video installation that playfully mimics western desert dot painting, and a series of canvases that investigate the cultural construction of "otherness".

A Tiwi painter, Timothy Cook, becomes more impressive with every viewing, while Michael Cook (no relation), has contributed a series of subtle, beautifully crafted photographs that look back on the colonial era through Aboriginal eyes.

But if one artist steals the show, it must be Swan Hill-born artist Lorraine Connelly-Northey, who has created 10 Narbong (pictured) - the Wiradjuri word for string bag - on a monumental scale, using jagged, rusted metal, barbed wire and other industrial materials. This row of Frankenstein handbags is arrayed along the main balcony of the gallery like chic goods in a boutique. They have a presence and power that makes everything else seem tame, even the riotous Indonesians - and this is exactly what one wants from a work of art, no matter where we stand in the world.

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