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Three good reasons why Brisbane’s Asia Pacific Triennial is the tops

No commercial influence, no contemporary-art imperialism and no diva curator

If you have no plans to go to Brisbane between now and 10 April when the eighth Asia Pacific Triennial (APT) closes, you should reconsider. The 2015 Venice Biennale boasted of getting half a million visitors, but the 2012 APT trumped it with 565,000, which makes the politicians of the Australian state of Queensland thoroughly immodest about this event, which is almost certainly the most intelligent and stimulating big show of non-Western art anywhere, for three reasons.

The first is that does not accept covert or overt financing by commercial galleries, which means that the market does not condition what you see and how you see it. The second is that it is put together internally, so the director of Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art, Christopher Staines, and a team of ten curators accumulate a better and better knowledge of the vast area that they cover. And the third reason is that it does not impose the Western concept of what is or is not contemporary art on cultures with completely different traditions, aesthetics and philosophies.

Paradox a plus

The APT never has a pseuds’ corner title (such as “Queering banality”) and does not pretend to find connections between utterly disconnected art, but every edition includes a special focus. In 2012 it was Papua New Guinea, and the gallery grapples with presenting work that is usually called ethnographic, but which the gallery calls “customary” if it has a ritual purpose. If, on the other hand, it is vernacular art, as with this year’s focus on Indian art, the gallery describes it “traditional”, which is immediately paradoxical in a “contemporary” setting. Hooray for that paradox!

There is an emphasis on performance, an important dimension of artistic life in the Pacific, “that continent of islands” as one artist called it. The commissioned performance of Yumi Danis (We Dance)—an immersive, multimedia jungle experience, with spirits emerging from the trees and live dance—is fruit of an artists’ camp held in Vanuatu in 2014.

If you bring Western eyes to the APT you see resemblances that are enjoyable, but coincidental. A beautiful room on the top floor is full of works by Gunybi Ganambarr (born 1973) of the Ngaymil people, Australia: painted memorial poles and commemorative trees are reminiscent of Giuseppe Penone’s trees, but with completely different, ritual intent. There are also ancestral narratives incised into a rubber conveyor belt from a bauxite mine instead of the traditional bark, and a basket work design conveying tribal laws, customs and language etched into the galvanised iron side of an old water tank.

“This APT has the largest number of indigenous works from the region,” Staines says. One of them turns the tables on the Western art scene: a video by the aboriginal political activist, Richard Bell (born 1953), shows him playing a famous gallery owner called Larry, who goes around the 2015 Venice Biennale being interviewed by a glamorous Russian lady. “Why does art have to be shiny, Larry?” Answer: “So that the collectors can see their reflections in it.”

Orthodox workout

Another amusing video, by the Georgian collective Bouillon (established 2008), is of the devotional gestures made by the Orthodox faithful—crossings, genuflections and deep bows—turned into an aerobics class. It is a comment on the increasing religious fundamentalism of post-Soviet Georgia.

We learn about tragedies such as the 2015 Nepal earthquake from another people’s experience, as with the strong paintings by the Nepalese artist Hit Man Gurung (born 1986), which are about the fact that most of the workers were in the Gulf at the time, contractually tied to their jobs, so unable to go back to help.

“World events are prominent, with artists still responding to the 2011 Fukushima disaster, to the Umbrella movement in Hong Kong, or how Muslims are perceived by non-Muslims,” Staines says. This year’s 80 works by 30 artists span the region from Georgia to the South Seas, the criterion of choice simply being “places where interesting things are happening—not adding more beads to a necklace”.