Since its inception in 1993, the Asia Pacific Triennial (APT) held in Brisbane, Australia, has been a venue for collective identity and enabled artists from Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific regions to develop dialogically. Artists have pushed boundaries to challenge the status quo both externally and within the context of their own communities to constantly redefine what it means to be from a specific culture. In the 9th edition of the APT, on at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) and Queensland Art Gallery (QAG) until April, artists chosen from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh subvert conventions and advance the limits of their own chosen forms.
Take Mithu Sen’s project ‘UnMYthU: UnKIND(s) Alternatives,’ 2018. Displayed in light boxes, Sen’s five large-scale drawings on handmade Kozo paper resemble strange palimpsests. Images of skeletons, wings, bird’s talons, a withered tree, refugees on a boat, futuristic gizmos, and an emaciated person bowed in prayer fill the drawings like coded symbols.
Red arrows point to words written around the painting like #xenophobic, #Dick-Tator, #re(li)gionist, #unhuman-rights, #unlanguist, or #unhome. Seen together, Sen’s spare imagery, suggesting the depletion of life and return to the elements, combined with her vocabulary implying extreme political circumstances, set the stage for the audience to reexamine current global conditions.
Sen devices a new lingua franca of undoing in her art with an emphasis on rethinking and upending existing structures. This idea is demonstrated in her humorous but deeply pertinent performance at the APT. Accompanied by Alexa, Amazon’s smart-home
speaker, Sen’s subversive act — comprising her stream of gibberish interspersed with Alexa’s non-response to questions about whether she loves the artist and formal set responses when asked to explain meanings of words from the drawings — explores the shortcomings of language as a tool of expression.
The artist’s pointed use of mumbo-jumbo and Alexa’s inability to share feelings outside entrenched channels of communication further test the limits of language and the liminal spaces between communal interchange. By dislocating and discomforting her audience, Sen’s quirky performance creates a space to reconsider existing precepts and hegemonies of world politics.
Discussing her practice in a previous interview, Sen had said, “I’m trying to undo myself.” This intention is best explained by the description in the exhibition catalogue that states that she uses the prefix “’Un,” to “explore the voids and anomalies of the in-between.” Sen’s efforts to pave the way for what she describes as “lingual anarchy, counter capitalism, untaboo sexuality and unmonolith identity,” propose a new world order of inverted hierarchies.
Crucible for voices
The notion of globalism also permeates Shilpa Gupta’s immersive installation ‘For, In Your Tongue, I Can Not Fit,’ 2017-2018. Gupta brings alive the voices of 100 dissident poets, from the 8th century through the present, who were incarcerated for their views — 100 microphones are hung above 100 metal spikes, each piercing a page imprinted with portions of dissenting poetry.
The microphones, normally associated with the delivery of speeches by politicians, are transformed into cathartic instruments as they broadcast the poems in many languages including English, Hindi, Russian, Spanish, Azeri, and Arabic. Heard together, the voices form a choral hum, and the dimly lit room becomes a crucible for suppressed voices the world over.
On encountering Mochu’s psychedelic video ‘Cool Memories of Remote Gods,’ 2017, one’s perception of reality is undermined by his mindboggling topsy-turvy world. In retracing the hippie countercultural trail from the 1960s in North India, Mochu reexamines Western conceptions of Eastern cultures. Bright psychedelic posters, cheap knockoffs of surreal paintings, and techno-fusion music highlight the degenerate remains of the once spiritual path to tranquillity. Inverted images such as lava rippling in the sky reverse prescribed notions of actuality such that it pushes us to investigate how we formulate our own ideas of verisimilitude.
Visual bewilderment is also at play in the superb ink and graphite drawings by Waqas Khan and Ayesha Sultana from Pakistan and Bangladesh.
In ‘The Absence of Paths,’ 2017, Khan’s large web-like structure made up of countless tiny marks resemble rows of intricately woven silken threads that unfold into a deeply meditative diaphanous form. Khan finds inspiration in the geometric structure of Islamic art. The apparent simplicity of shapes like the ‘Inflections of Choral Red,’ 2018, belie Khan’s meticulous, repetitive, minimalist technique.
Minimalism’s impact can be detected inSultana’s spare dynamic graphite configurations, which approximate sheets of dark corrugated metal. In works like ‘Vortex,’ 2018, her repetitive process of cutting and folding paper layered with graphite creates beautiful compositions in abstract geometric shapes. Sultana’s three-dimensional forms evoke the tinned shelters that dot her native Dhaka.
Immaculate proficiency also marks Aisha Khalid’s monumental textile carpet ‘Water Has Never Feared the Fire,’ 2018.
Thousands of gold pins imitating the effect of gold embroidery threads create a rich tapestry of Mughal gardens and water channels from Pakistani lore. Much like the works of Khan and Sultana, Khalid’s ingenious technique dupes us into mistaking one material for another.
Magical transformation occurs as these artists employ optical sleights of hand that not only create enthralling visual experiences but also contain wide-ranging ideas.
The harmony and transcendence in the works inspired by Islamic art may seem to be in contrast to the works of Sen, Gupta or Mochu, where ideologies of power are challenged by aesthetics, but there is unity in their apparent difference. In the works of the latter, the mood is dark but also hopeful, as the artists look inwards towards the formation of the self and outwards to the individual’s place in turbulent times.
This approach of the artists from the subcontinent is best exemplified by Munem Wasif’s ethereal film Kheyal, 2015-18. Four ordinary citizens residing in the confined narrow alleys of Old Dhaka long for change. The magical intensity of life drives them on and they dare to hope even in difficult times.
ON SHOW: The 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art at GOMA & QAG, Brisbane, till April 28.
The New York-based writer reviews exhibitions based on Asia, Africa, and West Asia.