Arriving in Brisbane for the opening of the seventh Asia-Pacific Triennial (APT7) exhibition, I turned on the hotel television and saw New Zealand artist Richard Maloy on the news.
Artists from New Zealand and the Pacific have a big presence at APT7, which features 75 artists from 27 countries. Maloy is one of the exhibition's stars with a work that is a presence throughout the large atrium of the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA), with its warm, yellow, buttery glow clearly visible even from across the river the gallery looks over.
Between the river bank and GoMA is a new permanent installation of bronze sculptures by Michael Parekowhai, including a life-sized elephant, commissioned especially to mark GoMA's fifth birthday. Parekowhai was one of three international artists asked to submit a proposal for the $1 million commission.
The first APT opened in 1993, signalling a growing interest in Australia to the surrounding region at a time when most of the art world still looked to New York, London or Venice for influence. Since then, cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, Tokyo, Taipei and Gwangju have become important art destinations, although they will already be familiar to APT followers. Over the years, APT has expanded from its original focus on the Pacific, East and Southeast Asia into Southern Asia and the Middle East, including exploring remote territories such as North Korea, Cambodia and Myanmar.
An important infrastructure development for APT was the opening of GoMA in 2006, allowing the event to expand from the Queensland Art Gallery (QAG) into the 25,000sq m building. This has since allowed APT to become a significant blockbuster event on the international calendar.
That year, New Zealander John Pule occupied prime position in GoMA's atrium (and on the catalogue cover), accompanied by significant works from Gordon Walters, Parekowhai and Michael Stevenson in QAG. More than 380,800 people visited QAG and 373,400 visited GoMA for that event. APT continues to grow, with 18,000 attending the opening events last month.
One recurring motif of APT7 is the exploration of large but ephemeral and performative structures, often with a dizzying approach to verticality. Senior Curator of Pacific Art Maud Page says this was inspired by the spidery towers of New Zealand artist Joanna Langford, made entirely from recycled materials.
Like Maloy, Langford works in a spontaneous manner to create precarious and organic forms. Her installation resembles the cranes and construction sites that are constantly pulling up the ground in cities around us. She says her architectural forms and use of organic and artificial materials ask us to consider how we occupy Earth and "oppress the landscape".
Maloy's Big Yellow is made from cardboard and tape, and painted bright yellow. It looks monumental from a distance, but Maloy likes the way it reveals itself as you approach it, inviting you to explore its precarious shapes and architectural spaces. With its playful forms, he wants Big Yellow to "infiltrate the landscape and not be bombastic".
Behind Maloy's big window piece and occupying GoMA's central atrium is a series of works from Papua New Guinea that are similarly playful - many vividly painted for performance rituals and with a short lifespan, meaning they need to be frequently replaced. Although customary in appearance and tradition, these are contemporary constructions that remind us other cultures don't always have the same distinctions between what is art or craft, contemporary or traditional, although it is often classed in these ways to appear in European-style galleries and museums.
It is an important gesture that APT have put these works at the heart of this year's exhibition and they create an interesting dynamic with the works around them.
Looking into the galleries from the atrium, there is a clear connection between the Papua New Guinean forms and paintings by Auckland artist Graham Fletcher, which ask similar questions about how we classify tribal artefacts and incorporate them as furnishings in domestic interiors. Like collectors, Fletcher likes to build up a "treasury of imagery" from which he creates collages combining objects and modernist interiors in preparation for his spooky paintings of haunted taonga.
It seems surprising that senior Pacific artist Sopolemalama Filipe Tohi has not appeared in an APT until now, but Page says she has wanted to work with him for more than a decade, and his work sits well here. Based on the Samoan sennit lashings that were used before nails to hold together canoes, houses and tools, Tohi's exploration of form and patterns employs complex geometries. Tohi has transferred these woven patterns from three-dimensional space, where they change as you walk around them, into what he calls "frozen" two-dimensional drawings, as well as woven string paintings and sophisticated sculptural shapes that exploit the distortions of perspective.
Tohi says a few basic forms can be developed into thousands of variations, and these patterns are a Pacific language that contains many stories, from creation to life events.
This layering of cosmic and personal narrative is also echoed in other APT works, including the psychedelic paintings and animations of Aboriginal artist Daniel Boyd and the layered life-death cycle captured by Vietnamese video artist Yuan Goang-Ming, whose cameras drift forward and back as if trying to rupture and rewind time.
Memories of older APTs have been celebrated with the creation of an archive space featuring documentation of previous exhibitions, including artist interviews and performances. Videos of memorable events, including the Pasifika Divas collective in 2002 and the parade of Michel Tuffery's flaming cow constructed from corned beef tins, are also online.
Artists have also been invited to produce works based on the APT archives. Wellington illustrator Matt Hunkin has worked with Australian Torika Bolatagici and Hawaiian-Wellingtonian Teresia Teaiwa to look at the history of Pacific militarisation, particularly in Fiji. Hunkin's project notes how little is recorded of Fiji's involvement in World War II, and animates this history by developing stories from reading between the lines.
Another archive-based project is by Indonesian collective Ruangrupa. It looks at social documents from Suharto-era Indonesia through the eyes of fictional punk band, The Kuda, and makes a comparison with Bjelke-Petersen-era Queensland and the parallel punk scene there. Ruangrupa member Ade Darmawan says this mix of fact and fiction questions the way history is controlled and told, and how it affects the way we live today.
Auckland artist Greg Semu has also reimagined and reclaimed the way history is told. Creating large photographic tableaux of famous art historic scenes, he questions the veracity of photographs by recasting famous scenes, including Leonardo Da Vinci's The Last Supper, with local actors from countries he is working in, including Taiwan and Noumea.
Chris Saines, director of the Auckland Art Gallery for the past 17 years, was curatorial manager at QAG/GOMA at the time of the first APT in 1993 and returns in March as its new director. That bodes well for New Zealand's continued presence in an institution that last year boasted 1.5 million visitors.
What: Seventh Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT7)
Where and when: Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, to April 14