By Marcus Yee
(1340 words, five-minute read)
This is the second 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 I here.
Wind Songs, Molecular Vibrations
Wind, you are a beast with four heads and four legs.
You are wild and violent,
and for that, humans love the moments that come in your midst.
These are called four seasons.
Where possible, I would have you blow the strongest of your winds.
So wind, as you are four-headed and four-legged,
I am thinking of sending you some lovely four-legged trousers
as a gift. And then,
won’t you hold me tight, just once?
—Sunazawa Bikky, 1986[i]
Lacing the River Lounge and an outdoor boardwalk of GOMA (Gallery of Modern Art), the sound installation Breath or Echo (2017) by Japanese artist Yuko Mohri, punctuated the ambience with the melodies of automated pianos, the quiet tapping of percussive instruments, and the electrical buzz of flickering streetlights. For the work, Mohri drew on a range of inspirations, such as the tinkering with discarded street lamps, pianos, and abandoned factory equipment; as well as Ainu sculptor Sunazawa Bikky, who embraced the elements in allowing the weathering and decay of his outdoor sculpture, guiding Mohri’s understanding of sound as “an unstable medium.[ii]
Walking through the exhibition halls, some songs were rapturously sung, like Monira Al Qadari’s film DIVER (2018) that played Kuwaiti pearling songs relating to the artist’s grandfather occupation as a singer on a pearling ship. Others occupied lower frequencies, like the looped, recorded breathes from Jonathan Jones’ untitled (giran), compelling one to strain, linger, and listen. Anna Tsing terms the latter, “political listening and the related arts of noticing”, forms of listening premised on the recognition of differences, rather than their resolution, within an attention economy that overemphasizes narratives of progress and decay.[iii] As Tsing surmises, “to listen politically is to detect the traces of not-yet-articulated common agendas”.[iv]
The difficulties of political listening were encapsulated in the soundscapes of Meiro Koizumi’s Rite for a dream— Today my empire sings (2016). The film began with a whisper, the hushed register of intimacy, and escalated into a cacophonous climax of shouting, drone, feedback, and a Christian hymn.[v] Koizumi’s narrative video installation is based on the controversial 2016 Hantenren anti-emperor rally, and performance interventions: a blindfolded chamber orchestra, a choir, and a handcuffed lead actor, all held concurrently. The republican demonstration is organized annually in Tokyo on 15 August, the anniversary of Japan’s surrender at the end of the Pacific War in 1945. It is not held without counter protesters and aggression from ultra-nationalists. In the film, political listening is strained by the whisper, with the attendant emotional contradictions of shame and intimacy. But the practice of listening was made even more tedious with cacophonous, polyphonic frequencies, as the listener was forced to pick out autonomous melodies, and listen for moments of harmony and dissonance as they come together.[vi]
Endurance, Exhaustion, Breathlessness
I want to return back to the scene of breathing spaces. But I’m less concerned with the literal breathing spaces spawned from the neoliberal culture industry and its glorified ritual of overwork. My focus rests on the broader question of endurance and exhaustion, the very persistence of one’s capacity to live, to breathe. Such “modes of exhaustion and endurance”, as articulated by Elizabeth Povinelli, “are ordinary, chronic, and cruddy rather than catastrophic, crisis-laden, and sublime”.[vii] As Povinelli elaborates vis-à-vis Foucault, “the state only rarely exercises its right to kill. Instead it directs life, letting those who wish to swim against the tide to do so until they cross a line or exhaust themselves,”.[viii] As ethical modes in the neoliberal biopolitics par excellence, differentials in social and material access, especially those “born at the far end of liberal capitalism’s exhaust system”, mean spectacle deficient, casually attritional deaths—or following Rob Nixon, forms of “slow violence” onto peoples and the environment.[ix]
Moments of breathlessness in the exhibition were foregrounded in works pursuing specific social histories. Here, the arts of documentary, caricature and critique were central. The large-scale woodcut diptych, Sabah Tanah air-ku (Sabah, my homeland) (2017) by the collective Pangrok Sulap, contrasted the “enduring aspirations” against “traumatic realities” of the Bornean state.[x] Mercantile resource extraction, governmental corruption, and marginalisation from Peninsular Malaysia, characterize the debilitating struggles faced by Sabah peoples. These struggles are quotidian, slow-moving, and unspectacular. Consider the selection of works by Okinawan photographer Mao Ishikawa, who depicted the valences of marginalization of both Okinawans by Japanese society, and migrant figures like Filipina bar dancers or African-Americans by Okinawan society in turn. The selection included some from her first book, Hot Days in Hansen (1982), depicting local women who dated black soldiers and displayed remarkable sexual confidence. Ranging from observational to narrative photography, the works intended neither to trigger sympathy for the plight of Okinawans (some photographs are unspeakably funny), nor to provide privileged, ‘objective’ access to their day-to-day struggles (Ishikawa often photographed friends, from a perspective of a peer).
But accounts of breathlessness involved not only the artists’ subjects, but also the artists themselves, involved in the distribution and circulation of their work. Sabah Tanah air-ku, for instance, was censored by the state from a 2017 exhibition in Kuala Lumpur, only to be re-displayed in APT9. On the other hand, rather than direct state censorship, Mao Ishikawa faced a lack of interest towards her works from the Japanese art scene, resulting in years of obscurity.[xi] As Mao lamented on a panel discussion, it was only after her popularity in the United States and Europe that she saw recognition in Japan. This uneven circulation driven by global mobility and domestic roadblocks is an aberration of the “orbital” itineraries of cosmopolitan Thai artists, as observed by David Teh.[xii] Whereas these Thai artists study and establish their careers overseas, while maintaining a presence back in Thailand at the same time, artists of the likes of Pangrok Sulap or Mao Ishikawa, denied by the local mainstream, have little choice but to circulate their works in extra-state, transnational and/or commercial spaces.
During the symposium, Mao launched a heated lampoon against Japan’s treatment of Okinawans and its other ethnic minorities, while recounting the trials and tribulations faced in her career. The 65 year-old’s uninhibited criticism earned her hoots and applause. She was working the crowd.
At the end of her many tirades, she caught her breath, recovered with grace, and retired by saying, “I’m tired now. Thank you.”
Persistence of Winds
In writing this essay, I have taken liberties in tracing line of flights through APT9. They are the air in its various substantiations: winds, weather, climate, sound vibrations, polyphonies, whispers, breaths, aviation, and the avian. These are culturally constituted and materially grounded.
There is some truth to wind’s symbolic intimacy with change. Unlike other elements, air travels at accelerated fluxes: respiring bodies, decomposing matter, trees in photosynthesis, pressure cells, movement of clouds, jet streams, monsoons, cyclones. Yet, they are cycled into seasonable patterns that render the climate hospitable, and the weather predictable. To put in another way, winds are both agents of change and continuity.
The banks of the Maiwah (Brisbane river) that QAGOMA (Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art) stands on has seen many historic upheavals, many of which have threatened the ways of life and customary practices of indigenous peoples. Even as struggles for indigenous rights extends beyond the art world, the APT’s organisers continue to acknowledge the Turrbal and Yugara (Jagera) peoples as traditional custodians of the land.[xiii]
It is not stretch to say the APT is an exhibition of continuities. To pursue continuities does not mean nostalgia or fossilization. Rather, the APT has confronted whirlwinds of change by conceiving them less as violent ruptures in history (pace narratives of modernity) or as a pursuit of the perpetual ’new’ (pace narratives of postmodernity), than ways in which the underrepresented, colonized, and marginalized forms of cultural knowledge persist through generations, or even transform, airborne, with the winds.
[i] Author’s transcription from the sound installation work, Breath of Echo (2017) by Yuko Mohri.
[ii] Yuko Mohri, artist converstion with Reuben Keehan, 24 November 2018.
[iii] Anna Tsing, ‘In the Middle of Things’ in The Mushroom at the End of the World, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 2015, p. 255.
[iv] Tsing, ‘In the Middle of Things’, p. 254.
[v] Reuben Keehan, ‘Meiro Koizumi’, in The 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Art, Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art, 2018, p. 101.
[vi] Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World, p. 23-25.
[vii] Povinelli, Economies of Abandonment, p. 132.
[viii] Ibid, p. 120.
[ix] Ibid, p. 129; and Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2013, p. 2.
[x] Reuben Keehan, ‘Pangrok Sulap’, in The 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Art, Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art, 2018, p. 129.
[xi] See Ayelet Zohar, ‘Okinawa-Philadelphia-Tokyo: The Specificity and Complexity of Mao Ishikawa’s Photographic Work’, Women’s Camera Work: Asia, vol.2, issue 2, Spring 2012.
[xii] David Teh, Thai Art, The MIT Press, Cambridge and London, 2017, p. 82-87.
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.