By Marcus Yee
(1259 words, five-minute read)
This is the first of a two-part essay on the 9th Asia Pacific Triennial running at the Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, Australia, from 24 November 2018 to 28 April 2019. Read Part II here.
Since 1993, the Asia Pacific Triennial (APT) has been a gathering point for contemporary art practices across disparate contexts in Asia and the Pacific Islands, with an ambition to weave Australia closer to its geographical neighbours, rather than overlooking them on the way to Europe or United States.[i] Now in its ninth iteration, the APT has seen a cascade of precipitous domestic and geopolitical climates, including the founding of Pauline Hanson’s conservative, anti-Asia One Nation Party in 1997, the transition from social welfare to neoliberal ‘workfare’ through the 1990s, and the Howard government’s declaration of ‘Emergency Intervention’ on indigenous peoples in 2007; global events included the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, the 2011 September 11 attacks, the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak in 2003.[ii] In the midst of whirlwinds of change, the APT has not veered far from its founding impetus: a project that is not only that of inclusion or extension, but ventilating regional pigeonholes, projections, and self-perceived boundaries.[iii]
The APT operates on the methodology of working without a theme. Curatorial threads are interwoven into the exhibition, some obvious, others gossamer thin. For instance, APT9 (The 9th Asia Pacific Triennial) saw for the first time in the exhibition’s history, more female artists represented over male artists, alongside a considerable attention to abstraction, customary practices, and specific social histories. While a themeless exhibition risks diluting curatorial direction, it could offer pockets of breathing space, which feel ever more necessary in a biennial-saturated global circuit oiled by an Air Miles-happy professional crowd, just-in-time logistics, and pre-packaged theory.
Breathing spaces refer not only to the intervals of respite from the treadmill of the global event economy, away from the neoliberal heroics of working till the point of collapse. They also invoke the elemental quality of air, where breathing sustains life, modulating movement, voice, and affect. Attested by the work, untitled (giran) (2018) by Jonathan Jones, made in collaboration with Dr Uncle Stan Grant Snr AM; air and its many facets: sky, winds, whispers, preoccupy a large part of indigenous cultural imaginaries. Drawing from the Wiradjuri language—where giran (or wind) also describes a feeling of apprehension— customary tool-making, and the murmuration of birds, Jones orchestrated a sound installation of winged sculptures with a hushed audio-track of breathing sounds by Wiradjuri members.[iv] As noted by Jones and others, earth-based stories are only one part of Australian indigenous landscapes, beyond that, there is the richness of the sky and the water.[v]
The winds, however, are not for granted. In an age of military airspace contestation, drone warfare, and climate change, air has become unpredictable, contested territory—what Eyal Weizman calls, the politics of verticality[vi] which emerge on various scales, from the geopolitical and the transnational to the micropolitics of air. In APT9, these Aeolian scales have been strung together into threads of flight paths, sound waves and accounts of breathlessness. It is a thread made sensible, when one listens in closely to the winds.
Climate Consciousness, Fraught Regionalisms
Australia is not, and has never been, a self-isolated landmass. It is a fact in contrary to popular contemporary stereotypes, and the settler-colonial concept of Terra Nullius. Despite attempts by ‘White Australia’ to situate itself in European and North American modernity, seasonal weather patterns bluntly reveal otherwise. In the wet months between November to April, northwesterly winds bring rain, and sometimes tropical cyclones to north Australia. Occasionally, they reach the southern parts of Queensland. This tropical system is also called the Asian-Australian monsoon. In South East Queensland, where Brisbane is located, weather patterns are largely moderated by easterly trade winds that bring moisture from the Pacific Ocean, generating rainfall to tropical and sub-tropical climes along the east coast. Within the continent itself, the movement of inland troughs and cloudbands tie the landmass together.[vii]
Australia situating itself has been a tenuous affair. Since the dismantling of White Australia policy in 1973, the Hawke-Keating government (1983-1996) has pursued proactive Asia-oriented policies, that saw ‘practical’ diplomacy in the form of bilateral agreements or immigration, alongside programmes in culture and education.[viii] This changed with the election of the Howard government since 1996. Howard’s conservative government saw a foreign diplomacy re-orientation from Asia to ‘historical’ allies, such as the British monarchy and the United States; the refusal to offer government endorsed apology to Australia’s indigenous peoples; and subsequent funding cuts on indigenous programmes, film and art production to support European arts traditions.
In 2014, it could be said that a brief flicker of regional consciousness was reignited in Australia with the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370.[ix] Six Australians were aboard, resulting in Australia’s heavy involvement in the tripartite search mission with Malaysia and China. To the vitriol of the passengers’ relatives, the search officially ended in May 2018.
Big White Birds, the Bird’s Eye View
A celebratory mix of technological wonder, sky-high glamor, and nationalist heroics, aviation has captured popular imagination of the twentieth century. But the airplane, which became a symbol of imperialist nationalism for nation-states like Australia, Japan or Britain, was seen by non-national communities as avian incursions. Eastern Highlands painter Simon Gende’s work, Kawage spearing the Australian plane to PNG (2018), portrayed a scene where a young Mathias Kauage, Gende’s mentor and fellow Chimbu artist, aimed his bow and arrow at the “big white bird” hovering menacingly overheard, as villagers rushed to evacuate their houses. When the airplane landed, Kauage hid away, fearing he had killed the bird.[x] On a nearby wall, Gagan artist Herman Somuk’s drawing, Tir des alliés (shooting allies) (c.1942-43), offered a more unrelenting vision of Allied aerial forces bombarding Japanese forces occupying Buka Island and Bougainville. Low-flying planes sprayed the landscape with bullets, causing bloodshed amongst the indigenous populations.[xi] While works of the two artists, Simon Gende and Herman Somuk, were materialized out of different contexts, namely the Chimbu province in Papau New Guinea and the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, the motif of the airplane seen from below is undoubtedly depicted with the awareness of an impending, momentous change to indigenous lives.
Aviation worlds have promulgated another vision: the aerial gaze (also known as the ‘bird’s eye view’), where whole landscapes are surveyed and controlled from high altitudes. Iraqi-born artist Jannane Al-Ani’s haunting film, Black Powder Peninsula (2016), trawled airborne through the infrastructural and industrial landscapes of electrical grids, greenhouses, munitions factory in United Kingdom, echoing “Britain’s history role in the formation of both the United States and the modern Middle East,”.[xii] Or consider Ngyuễn Trinh Thi’s video essay, Fifth Cinema (2018), that reworked Māori filmmaker Barry Barclay’s concept of Fourth Cinema to reflect her multiple identities: a citizen of Vietnam and the world, a filmmaker, an artist, a woman, and a mother.[xiii] Composed of both shot and found footage, aerial scenes prevailed in Fifth Cinema, overlooking the agricultural expanse of Vietnam, and presumably, taken from military aircrafts. In the filmic cosmos of Fifth Cinema, Barclay’s conception of the “First Cinema camera” which “sits firmly on the deck of the ship”, also became that which overlooked enemy territory from military aircrafts.[xiv]
[i] Chris Saines, ‘Introduction’, in The 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Art, Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art, 2018, p. 21.
[ii] Series of events adapted from Elizabeth A. Povinelli, ‘A Symphony of Liberalism’, in Economies of Abandonment, Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2011, p. xvi-xvii.
[iii] Patrick D Flores, ‘Art History and the Global Challenge: A Critical Perspective’, ArtI@s Bulletin, vol.6, no.1, 2017, article 6, p. 33. See also Patrick D. Flores, ‘Address of Art: Vicinity of Region, Horizon of History’ in Charting Thoughts: Essays on Art in Southeast Asia, edited by Low Sze Wee and Patrick D. Flores, National Gallery Singapore, Singapore, 2017.
[iv] Geraldine Kirrihi Barlow, ‘Jonathan Jones’, in The 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Art, Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art, 2018, p. 87.
[v] Jonathan Jones, Hetti Perkins, Victoria Lynn and John Kean, discussion with artist, in Jonathan Jones: untitled (the tyranny of distance), Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, Paddington, N.S.W., 2017
[vi] Eyal Weizman, ‘Introduction to The Politics of Verticality’, openDemocracy, 23 April 2002, <https://www.opendemocracy.net/ecology-politicsverticality/article_801.jsp>, viewed December 2018.
[vii] Bureau of Meteorology, ‘Australian Climate Influences’, 2018, Commonwealth of Australia, <http://www.bom.gov.au/climate/about/>, viewed December 2018.
[viii] Mark Beeson, ‘Australia and Asia: The Years of Living Aimlessly’ in Southeast Asian Affairs 2001, edited by Daljit Singh and Anthony Smith, 2001, Institute for Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, 2001, p. 44-45.
[ix] This fact was pointed out by APT9 curator Reuben Keehan. Author’s interview with curator.
[x] Ruth McDougall, ‘Simon Gende’, in The 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Art, Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art, 2018, p. 89.
[xi] Ruth McDougall, ‘Somuk, Moah and Images of the Crisis’ in The 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Art, Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art, 2018, p. 159.
[xii] Geraldine Kirrihi Barlow, ‘Jananne Al-Ani’, in The 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Art, Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art, 2018, p. 29.
[xiii] Zara Stanhope, ‘Nguyễn Trinh Thi’, in The 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Art, Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art, 2018, p. 118. For Barry Barclay, ‘Fourth Cinema’ was cinema surrounding indigenous peoples, distinguished ‘Fourth Cinema’ from First Cinema (American cinema), Second Cinema (Art House cinema) and Third Cinema (“cinema of the so-called Third World”). See Barry Barclay, ‘Celebrating Fourth Cinema’, Illusions Magazine, no. 25, 2003, p.7.
[xiv] Barclay, ‘Celebrating Fourth Cinema’, p. 15.
The 9th Asia Pacific Triennial runs at the Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, Australia, from 24 November 2018 to 28 April 2019.
Guest Contributor Marcus Yee is an artist and writer based in Singapore and Hong Kong. He is affiliated with the entanglement, soft/WALL/studs, and writes regularly for Arts Equator and ArtAsiaPacific. He has contributed writings to the Asian Film Archive, Singapore International Festival of Arts, and The Substation. Currently, he is learning the Balinese gamelan, drums, and marimba.