Splendour in the Art
The Asia Pacific Triennials from 1993 to now.
The Asia Pacific Triennial is like a music festival of art.
The APT, like a good music festival, provides an experience of discovery. You may go to see a headline act, but you uncover treasure around unexpected corners. These bonuses bring the joy of each festival experience. Both (APT and music festival) are curated for discovery. Both encourage altered states.
I’ve never missed an APT, and only childbirth or a rare clash of travelling keeps me from Splendour in the Grass. I attended the first APT in the same era as my first Livid festival. Both were all about attending the festival itself, not seeing individual artists: a gestalt of aesthetics or atmosphere, if you like. Both exceeded expectations, encouraging lifelong participation.
The first APT certainly exceeded expectations. We had none.
Locals had no idea what to expect, but seemed to like what we saw. It was the early 90s. We were up for it. As it turned out, we were up for more than we’d even considered.
For me, like many Queenslanders, the first APT was my initial conscious experience of Asian contemporary art – certainly the first I remember noting. And here was such abundance, right under our sunburned noses! Cleverness, ferocity, beauty, and depth, peaking with Dadang Chrisanto’s performance “For those who have been killed” in a forest of bamboo poles – a performance that began with the artist covering himself in clay in the Queen Street Mall and proceeding as shamanic dance amongst an installation of bamboo and metal poles in the Queensland Art Gallery.
Christanto’s political activism mirrored my recently graduated sentiments. Social justice and environmentalism dominated any spare headspace not reserved for live music. And as an environmentalist, I was similarly mesmerised by Kamol Phaosavasdi’s “River of the King (water pollution project one)”. Here was another voice to hear.
Pungently punchy, Bul Lee’s “Fish” – including a freezer full of embroidered, sequinned fish, delivered a frisson. And, later in the summer, a certain whiffiness.
Despite APT’s role as an expectant non-colonial introduction to the first group exhibition of its kind – ever – of artists in the region, an enduring memory for me was to view indigenous Australian artists within the exhibition’s wider regional context. In particular, I fell for Kathleen Petyarre and Judy Watson, hard, and their work in this APT burned my brain for years.
1993 was a winning year in the history of Brisbane music festivals. Like the first APT, many of these independent little festivals backed unknowns or to-be-knowns, and you’d go along to listen, dance, and discover, rather than to see any particular act.
This was a grunge-filled world of Brisbane rock – it was the early days of Powderfinger’s luscious locks and the long-haired Transfusion EP (still my favourite, and the CD I later travelled with to ward off homesickness via Sony Discman).
October 1993 began with the Livid festival and wrapped up at 4ZZZ’s Octobanana Market Day, a mini-festival of all local acts – almost all unknown to me; the only name I remember now is Acid World, patently titled for the times. Somewhere in between hung 1993’s West End Festival, which filled Boundary Street with party and made us realise that some backpackers are easy to shock. Livid fused music with a little art, and like the APTs, rewarded the brave with unexpected treats: Beasts of Bourbon, Siouxie and the Banshees, Ed Kuepper, and an all-nude offering from New Zealand’s Head like a Hole.
And nobody took pictures at gigs back then.
A month later, I boarded a Qantas rite-of-middle-class-passage to Heathrow, taking my region with me in music and aesthetic memories. APT, like Livid, set up a barely subconscious frame of reference for consequent travels; later, I felt tethered to the region despite roaming European institutions, devouring exhibitions and laser-lit dancefloors, and bloating on stodgy Western artistic offerings.
By 1996 I was back in Brisbane, older and grimmer.
The Livid festival 1996 took place a fortnight after APT2 opened. Grunge was still king, but crown pretenders lurked. The Big Day Out’s headline act for 1997, Porno for Pyros, seemed an apt embodiment of the mood.
At APT2, Cai Guo Chiang’s much-anticipated Brisbane River explosion project “Dragon or Rainbow Serpent: A Myth Glorified or Feared — Project for Extraterrestrials No. 26.” was cancelled following an accidental explosion at the fireworks company the day before the scheduled event.
In hindsight, this feels like a particularly “1996” kind of happening.
Like viewing Zhang Xiaogang’s “Bloodline: The big family” for the first time. These faces, flat and detached, gazing from a changing China to a shrinking world. I spent days gazing back at them looking for some kind of answer in the fug of mid 90s existential angst.
Whether this was a personal crisis or something more aligned to Generation X’s moody sensitivities, the APT2 responded in kind.
The knives were out for consumerism. Fiona Hall’s “Give a dog a bone”, and The Campfire group: “All Stock Must Go” speared consumption and the cheap commodification of Aboriginal art. I stared back at Destiny Deacon’s “Whitey’s Watching”, but she won.
The contemplative complement was Denise Tiavouane’s “Crying Taro”. Taro, alive and growing, crying with the recorded sounds of women for New Caledonia’s northern province. I cried: 1996, indeed.
But like a chink in a festival’s black-clad lineup, allowing a glimpse to a techno-shimmering future, APT2 let space for clever kitsch, like Takashi Murakami’s iconic hero image “And then, and then and then and then and then”, and the work of Jeong Hwa Choi and Yun Suk-Nam. Just like 1997’s Big Day Out on the Gold Coast, where the Prodigy was offered alongside Soundgarden, but also Shonen Knife, Tiddas, Bexta, and the Superjesus, 1996 was complicated, and there was fun to be discerned in the darkness. I walked out the gates of the 1996 Livid festival with my purple mini and striped little T-shirt covered in dust, and ended up driving through the streets of Brisbane with a drag queen’s feather boa fluttering to the street behind us, as we arose waist-high through a Mercedes’ sunroof. Or at least, I think that was 1996. But, from the dust of Silverchair to the sequinned-strewn dancefloor of Sportsmans Hotel, who can be sure? Maybe it was 1994, after all.
For APT3, we partied like it was 1999.
Riding high, APT3 – like 1999 – whizzed past, a ferocious speedy clash of past and future, varied and at times superficial, brash but thin-skinned. At the time, it all looked loud and fabulous. Looking back, you can imagine who’s bluffing.
I published and edited a street magazine, and my business partner and I lived off the spoils of independent publishing: hors d’oeuvres and samples of beauty products. We were skint but shiny, writing 300-word pages, and the third APT seemed to match. APT3 launched alongside our 8thedition, a few weeks before Livid #13. For all, it became less about guitars and grunge, more electro.
With the theme “beyond the future”, this APT3 was a biggie: it added Niue, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Wallis & Futuna, it now involved 50 curators, and it introduced a brave new kids APT (but about this, I was yet to care). APT3 felt like we’d jumped a few rungs up the ladder. And, in a state where far-right ultranationalism visibly seethed, the openness of Queensland (and visitor) audiences to experience vivid multiculturalism warmed the heart. Up yours, One Nation, we said.
The moments were big, the performances huge and designed to please. Cai Guo Chiang’s earlier fireworks had fizzled, but he built a bridge for 1999 that charmed all. The Tulanan Mahu Niue collective presented “Shrine to Abundance” in a shipping container. Katsushige Nakahashi’s “Zero” created a massive fighter plane from photographs and gaffer tape. “Clashing of the bulls” described a cute “one night stand” between Michel Tuffery and Patrice Kaikilekofe.
Although there was a certain mood of glossy blockbuster, in some corners, intense ideas simmered. Gordon Bennett’s “Notes to Basquiat: (ab) Original” stuns you with aesthetic arrest. I returned to Bennett’s work three times during APT3. In a different space, I found Vu Than’s “Promenand dans la nuit” dark, primitive, proud, and endearing.
An enduring gift, for me, of APT3 was experiencing Mella Jaarsma’s work “Hi Inlander (hello native)”. Hijabs of chicken, frog, and kangaroo skin literally placed one within another’s skin. These performers then cooked a variety of meats for the public. This work, in that political climate. A festival moment.
The Livid Festival in 1999 had, similarly, split its breeches, and moved to the RNA showgrounds to manage its growing popularity. Livid’s source base of acts had shrunk a little in variety, but it still offered a broader scope than the Gold Coast juggernaut a few months later. In January, a massive Big Day Out line up included blockbusters Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nine Inch Nails, Chemical Brothers, and Foo Fighters, alongside Basement Jaxx, Yothu Yindi, Resin Dogs, Spiderbait, and, *sigh*Blink 182. Beyond blokey, this was machismo to the max. Enter the millennium, men.
A stiller river, running deeper.
Whether it was a response to critics of APT3’s hyperactive breadth, or a seismic shrink back from millennial craze, but APT4 (2002/2003) saw fewer artists create more works in a tidier display of substance.
Meanwhile, I’d met a nice fellow.
In 2002 I was no longer publishing, but busy professionally in marketing, styling, writing, and teaching. Work tended to sort itself out. I was delighted to again be invited to the media call for APT4, where I could selfishly write for no-one, just quietly engage, often alone, with the exhibition for a couple of discreet hours.
This was how I experienced Kusama’s “Soul under the moon” for the first time. Alone. Unprepared. Ready.
At the time, Kusama said of the work, “I want visitors to look at the dots, and feel a freeing up of the soul. Then, taking that feeling of freedom, look into the work and have their goals and fears revealed. That’s my aim.”
I couldn’t write 2002 any better.
It’s loved to cliché these days, but “Soul under the moon” was revelatory, then. To hear the doors slide back, to walk along the gangplank into the still space where Kusama’s fluorescent dot universe expanded in reflection… to be serene, meditative, and still. I confess: I don’t like sharing the space with anyone when it’s exhibited now.
Kusama was one of arts’ “elders” presented in a considered exhibition, alongside Nam June Paik and Lee U-fan. From a galaxy of over 70 artists in 1999, APT4 showed 16. Kusama also debuted her Obliteration Room. AlongsideLee U-Fan’s zen restraint, Michael Ming Hong Lin’s walls of delightful floral excess, the glorious Pasfika Divas, and Nam June Paik’s whimsy, I lost part of my soul to Michael Riley and Song Dong, as well as Yayoi Kusama.
Meditative exploration continued with Song Dong’s “Stamping the Water”, a work of purity and intelligence. Michael Riley’s Cloud series was an exquisite application of new digital technologies to combine various elements of his history. This was a heart-expanding APT.
The 2002 Livid festival had grown larger, but fun was to be found in the fringes. Like this year’s APT, it was curated to provide a deeper experience for more punters. I joined a core of fans for george’s cranking set scheduled at the same time as Oasis. Although george were Brisbane locals, it was the festival of international distinction around them that framed and lifted the performance – a similar framing that local artists experience as part of APTs. Later, one of the Gallagher brothers sat in a grimy Zoo corner at Livid’s after party, stormy gaze under those living brows keeping all comers at bay. Just as not everyone is into Oasis, Oasis wasn’t into everyone, either.
Another festival aspirant, Splendour in the Grass, launched in Byron Bay the previous year, and the second Splendour grew into a two-day journey featuring overseas and local acts including Supergrass, Gomez, and Machine Gun Fellatio. The first two years of Splendour were also beautifully curated to encourage maximum heart expanse. We walked from the festival site into Byron town at the end of each night, a flowing punter creek of post-festival silly conversations.
By 2006, I was living on the Sunshine Coast with a two year old and a seven-month-old, both of whom I enthusiastically left at home with their father when, as a freelance writer, I attended the media preview of APT5 in the new Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA).
It had been many months since I’d been to a gallery, a fact plainly obvious to anyone reading that previous sentence. I was still breastfeeding my youngest; it was crucial to pack a pump in my handbag to make our long day apart happen healthily. I forgot it.
I’d mastered the “pump-and-dump” earlier when attending 2006’s Splendour (manual manoeuvres hastened when, from inside the privacy of a St John’s tent, I heard the opening bars of Sonic Youth’s set). We’d watched Splendour escalate to a serious international event (dominated in 2006 by American acts) with a studied approach to assembling acts. Scissor Sisters to Yeah Yeah Yeahs to Augie March to Paul Mac. Not so much voyage of discovery as cruise ship buffet.
APT5 (2006/07), the first exhibition at the new GOMA building, could also afford its headliners. Two buildings meant twice as much fun: this APT was massive. It allowed the space for Ai Wei Wei’s shimmering “Boomerang” over QAG’s watermall, dazzling in its wit and its crystal, with Bharti Kher’s “The skin speaks a language not its own” on the floor above. Space to show Dinh Q Lê’s installations. Space for Anish Kapoor.
Space also for the bark paintings of Diambawa Marawili, work by Michael Parekowhai, and John Pule, Sangeeta Sandrasegar’s immaculate paper cuts, Qin Ga’s “The miniature long march 2002-05” (tattooed on his back), and the puzzling Eko Nugroho… I felt gorged. This APT had grown up, another set of rungs up the ladder.
Like a festival, now there was also space to walk away, to not view, and to not feel ripped off in the process. The new GOMA offered space to chose.
In the new gallery, a Jackie Chan retrospective showed a nose for populism, or curatorial irony? Whatever; I love Jackie Chan. I mapped an injury map of his body, once.
I spent a long engorged day at the launch, but didn’t stay to experience Cornelius, or Stephen Page’s “Kin”, to my regret. I returned the following year to spend more time with the Pacific textiles project, among others. That’s something you can’t do at a festival.
In the three years following GOMA’s unveiling, we’d made the choice to move back to Brisbane and this new gallery was one anchor in our choice of location.
Early 2009 had me working through physical challenges that rendered me mute. Art, particularly within a larger gallery’s healing stillness, was occasionally therapy. I spent a chunk of solo time in GOMA during 2009. I’m not sure I saw much live music in 2009. I don’t think I went to Splendour that year; I can’t remember.
Moving back to Brisbane with young children, we met some new parent friends who, for a little while, never knew me with a voice. This was weirder for me than them, I suppose.
It had been a long slog from the beginning of 2009 to December, from being a bundle of physical tics, through a somewhat coordinated flash mob dancer in September, to near peak physical condition in time for APT6 at year’s end. This APT was one for me, and one to share with the kids.
But first, alone. If I could have moved inside Tracey Moffatt’s “Plantation” series and lived there, I would. I loved Moffatt’s “Other” so much, I stayed and watched it twice more in succession. Then indulged solo time with Sopheap Pich and the ni-Vanuatu Mataso printmakers.
When I returned with children, like 1000 others, I perched them in front of Shirana Shahbazi’s “Still life: Coconut and other things” and took a photo. I showed them Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian’s shimmering “Lightning for Neda”, Subodh Gupta’s “Line of Control” (a mushroom cloud of kitchen utensils), and of course Kohei Nawa’s super popular glass-ball taxidermy triumph “PixCell-Elk 2”. (I tried to get them interested in work by artists from the DPRK, but no luck.) APT6 appeared to be the prettiest, the most accessible yet.
The twenty year mark: homecoming, and adulthood
In November 2012, the Harvest festival sprawled through Brisbane’s city gardens. We’d been excited about this one for months. Santigold AND Silversun Pickups? Please! Silversun Pickups cranked our afternoon. But the subtropics had a stormy surprise waiting, and wild weather closed the festival down temporarily. The sea of rain ponchos in fading light created a surreal unplanned installation. We retreated, and chose the comfort of home over returning to a muddy amphitheatre when it reopened.
Marking 20 years of APT, APT7 (2012/2013) showed more indigenous Australian artists than any prior APT. Michael Cook’s Civilised series was another kind of homecoming: though uncomfortable, stunning in its motifs.
Greg Semu also examined the effects of colonisation in “Auto portrait with 12 disciples (from the Last Cannibal Supper… cause tomorrow we become Christians series)”, work that slapped you with resonance.
Both Cook and Semu’s work encouraged me to consider, in depth, our history of occupation and empire.
Daniel Boyd’s magic installation “A Darker Shade of Dark”, using dot painting techniques as a lens, was partnered with a cool kids APT activity. We enjoyed both kids and “real” Boyd. I’m grateful for GOMA’s adult-child scope, but I fear my kids are humouring me when we visit APT kids. That said, we did have a lot of fun with Kazakhstan holiday photos in 2012 (Erbossyn Meldibekov “Family Album: From Queensland To Kazakhstan”).
The work I returned to more than once? Kwomba Arts sculptures and paintings and Abelam’s Brikiti Cultural Group’s Korumbo (Spirit house) structures from the East Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea.
The work I could look at forever? Takahiro Iwasaki’s elegant, delicate, detailed “Reflection Model (Perfect Bliss)” which combined exquisite technique with deep thought.
In recent memory
Upstairs, Yumi Danis (We Dance) choreographed by Marcel Meltherorong (also known as Mars Melto) inside “They look at you”by Kanak artist Nicolas Molé, on the opening weekend of APT8, presented an uplifting triumph.
On the first floor, Rosanna Raymond’s SaVAge K’lub turned on cultural stereotypes of “otherness”.
The first floor was dominated by Asim Waqif’s installation “All we leave behind are the memories”. Massive and clever, but cold. APT8’s warmth was in bodies. The SaVAge K’lub’s bodies, the Yumi Danis bodies, and Christian Thompson’s body as described in his Polari series.
Bigsound, in 2015, was a music industry conference that at night adopted the mood of a festival, lurking around the streets of Fortitude Valley. Unknown and unsigned bands played short sets in bars around the valley. It was awesome. It still is. You make discoveries.
I discovered Danie Mellor at APT8. His “Deep” was my art crush of the year. I would leave meetings in Brisbane city, walk across the bridge, and detour on the way home just to spend some time with him. I also fell for Segar Passi and Gunybi Ganambarr (particularly “Nganmara”), but Mellor has my devotion.
I have a photo from Splendour 2015. My friend Roland took it. It’s Jai and Kate and me and Sandy in his pink beanie and Fancypants and Jacinta leaning out the backstage bus window at the Tackleshack, late in the evening one night after the Florence had well finished. I think it’s the same night Kate and I scored a lift with JC and a security guard in a golf cart across the site back to our camp to drink smuggled Champagne. It was a muddy festival but we had gumboots, VIP passes, and a borrowed camper trailer. I think this was the year where I realised (1) we were definitely no longer members of the dominant festival generation, and (2) this is good.
We made it down to Byron in time to enjoy juicy chunks (MGMT, Gang of Youths, Ball Park Music) of this year’s Splendour in the Grass (2018). So massive now. Many of our old playmates brought (or were brought by?) teenage children. We’d escaped our own brood and chilled languid in a dune-tucked airbnb (a retro-furnished falé with outdoor shower, kitchen, and toilet), summoning the energy to deal with dust and people. Managed some old-school mayhem with some of our regulars, froze when not squeezed in the front row around the Gold Bar’s bonfire, and skipped out on main event, Kendrick Lamar. It was the first festival I’d ever left before the end.
As APT9 launch weekend looms, I am dizzy with anticipation.
I have been working with arts media entity, POPSART, for over a year, producing videos of artists and arts organisations. Our work occasionally takes me into the cool sanctuary of QAGOMA, and not just for the aircon am I grateful.
By 10:15am, Friday 23 November, 2018, GOMA’s ground floor is full of unique, international majesty. Weavers from Bougainville and the Solomon Islands, here for the Women’s Wealth project, sit in Mother Hubbard dresses and floral wreaths in front of tidy Japanese artists, Hawaiian curators, and media of every shade arranged politely around Bounpaul Phothyzan’s “Lie of the Land” literal bombshells.
POPSART host Bec Mac interviews sound installation artist Yuko Mohri; Lisa Reihana in front of her work, “In pursuit of Venus”; and Taloi Havini; whose film “Habitat” – using archival and current footage involving Bougainville and its copper-cursed history – moves the interview into a contemplative zone where our voices subside, leaving us dumbstruck.
Work duties complete, I sneak away to explore in near solitude. Johnathan Jones, in conjunction with Uncle Stan Grant Sr, brings the Wiradjuri concept of giran to Kurilpa. Shilpa Gupta, whose fabulous “24:00:01” has been hanging at the top of the first floor GOMA escalator for a few weeks in APT-anticipation, gives voice to 100 poets who have been jailed over the centuries for their writing or politics in “For, in your tongue, I cannot fit.” I know I must return to both over the coming months – in Gupta’s case, with a small torch to illuminate the dark pages. Gupta is my writers’ artist find, a mind-massaging joy.
In festival mode, I greet discoveries around corners. Aditya Novali’s “The Wall: Asian (unreal) estate” demands later scrutiny, while Waqas Khan’s fastidious pen-technique (he uses a 0.1 Radiograph, over and over) engrosses. Mao Ishikawa photographed the freewheeling mid-1970s women of Okinawa, and these engaging images are revealed here in prints discovered by the artist’s daughter. Kapulani Landgraf’s collages are like old companions I’d forgotten I had.
The next day I return with my family, playing with the kids’ APT program, and particularly Jeff Smith Mauri’s “Tungaru: The Kiribati Project” (we become part of a coral reef) and Jakkai Siributr’s “The Legend of the Rainbow Stag” (we become part of the stag’s story).
This particular APT claims one of the largest representations of First Nation artists to date, and the majority of artists, for the first time, are women. This future is indeed female. APT9 remains a journey, but a journey taken over a circular route.
Like a music festival where you travel from one stage to others, then back, I will return over the coming months, loving sick the city in which I live. Unlike a music festival, which often loses its charm when it grows too large, an APT can hold onto a larger local audience through summer’s repeat-visit benefit.
Until the end of April, when I say goodbye, then begin the countdown to 2021.
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Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art Brisbane, Q. (2006). The 5th Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art. South Brisbane, Qld.: Queensland Art Gallery.
Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art Brisbane, Q. (2009). The 6th Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art. South Brisbane, Qld.: Queensland Art Gallery.
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Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art & Gallery of Modern Art (Brisbane, Qld.). (2015). APT8 : the 8th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art. Queensland Art Gallery, Gallery of Modern Art, South Brisbane, Qld
Green, Charles. “Beyond the Future: The Third Asia-Pacific Triennial.” Art Journal, vol. 58, no. 4, 1999, pp. 81–87. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/777914.
Seear, L., Queensland Art Gallery. (2002). APT 2002: Asia-Pacific triennial of contemporary art. South Brisbane: Queensland Art Gallery.
With thanks to Senior Librarian Cathy Pemble-Smith and staff at QAGOMA’s research library.