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Asia Pacific Triennial 6

Reuben Paterson  (Aotearoa/New Zealand b.1973), Whakapapa: get down upon your knees, 2009, glitter and acrylic on canvas, 16 canvases 79” x 79” (each), Courtesy the artist and Gow Langsford Gallery, Photo Schwere Webber

Reuben Paterson (Aotearoa/New Zealand b.1973), Whakapapa: get down upon your knees, 2009, glitter and acrylic on canvas, 16 canvases 79” x 79” (each), Courtesy the artist and Gow Langsford Gallery, Photo Schwere Webber

Alvaro Rodríguez-Fominaya in Conversation with Russell Storer

On occasion of the opening of Asia Pacific Triennial 6 (APT6), one of the oldest biennials in the region, our contributor Alvaro Rodríguez Fominaya conducts an email interview with Russell Storer, a co-curator of the Brisbane-based event. Russell Storer was formerly a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art (Sydney) and visiting curator at Documenta 12. APT6, which is scheduled to open on December 5, 2009 through April 5, 2010, includes more than 100 artists and collectives from Asia, the Pacific and Australia. Major representations from Tibet, North Korea, Turkey, Iran and the Mekong region are part of this year’s curatorial selection. APT6 will occupy the Gallery of Modern Art and Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane (Australia). Through this interview, Russell Storer reveals the position of the Triennial in the Region, previews the contents of this edition and explains the changes that have taken place in cultural production in Australia


Alvaro Rodríguez Fominaya -What is the position of APT in relation to the other regional biennials and triennials, such as Guangzhou Triennial, Gwangju Biennial, or smaller scale events like Fukuoka Triennial?

Russell Storer -Like the other triennials, the APT is developed in a particular location, primarily for a local audience, although it has an international scope and draws international interest. Unlike the others, apart from Fukuoka, the APT is located in an art museum, and is curated by museum staff, and also has a specific scope in terms of the geography it considers, Asia and the Pacific. These factors enable an ongoing investigation that has deepened over time, and is embedded in the history and the collections of the institution. Many of the staff of the Gallery have worked on several, if not all, of the APTs and that kind of institutional memory is pretty unique. Since 1993, each Asia-Pacific Triennial has built upon and developed what was done before, responding to shifts in regional art practices.

A.R.F. -And what is the position of APT6 in relation to the Sydney Biennale, which is possibly a much larger scale event, connected to the show business idea of what art is today and current “star” curators. How does APT6 position itself when it looks at this other event?

R.S. -Again, our location, structure and focus are different, so the two events operate in alternative ways, and complement each other. They both contribute significantly to the discussion around contemporary art in Australia, and are each of a scale and scope to bring major works into the country and introduce new practices. Although it is physically large, Australia is a small and highly dispersed country, and is geographically isolated, so both exhibitions have been important in providing access to works and in helping Australia participate in the global conversation. One of the benefits of the APT model – staged by an institution – is its collection aspect, which means that significant works stay in Australia and are able to have an ongoing relationship with local audiences.

A.R.F. -APT6 has a history of now almost two decades. Has the APT role been instrumental in the way the cultural producers in Australia have started to look at the Asian context, and at the same time reposition Australia in the region? I am also thinking of publications like Broadsheet.

R.S. -I think that the APT has been extremely significant in this regard. It is still the primary platform in Australia for looking at Asian and Pacific contemporary art, and has helped build a much more “Asia/Pacific-literate” audience here, from art professionals to the general public. Its consistency has enabled substantial, longstanding regional relationships to be built and maintained, which are fundamental in working anywhere, in any field. Compared to many other places, Australia has had a longstanding interest and involvement in Asian contemporary art, although initially this was more at a grass-roots and person-to-person level, which developed into more established projects such as the ARX Artist Regional Exchange in Perth in the mid-late 1980s. Since then, there have been a number of other initiatives, including journals such as Art Asia Pacific (established in Sydney in 1993 before moving to New York), and programs such as Asialink at the University of Melbourne, which organizes residencies, touring exhibitions and exchanges. These, in combination with a wide range of other projects and publications, have made huge changes to how Australia locates itself culturally within the region. I think, however, that there is a lot still to be done, particularly in terms of ongoing exhibition programming and collecting (particularly in other state galleries), and art-historical knowledge of Asian and Pacific art. I think this works both ways also – there is not great knowledge or circulation of Australian art in Asia, for example, which could certainly be developed further.


A.R.F. -Southeast Asia is considered by many curators the “Next Thing.” This time one of your focuses is in the Mekong, with Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand. What was the driving reason for you to present a section on this area?

R.S. -The APT has been working with artists from Southeast Asia since 1993, so it’s not really about “the next thing.” However, artists from Cambodia and Myanmar had not been shown before – the Cambodian contemporary art scene is relatively recent, and access to Myanmar is difficult for obvious reasons. We are very interested in what has been happening throughout the region, which has certainly blossomed in recent years. Rich Streitmatter-Tran undertook a research project on the Mekong sub-region for the Asia Art Archive in 2005, so, as with early APTs, when working in a new area, we decided to invite him in as a co-curator. He and I developed a focused platform looking at artists working in the Mekong region, and as with Rich’s research, we decided to use the river as a framing structure and a metaphorical device, to consider flows of information and processes of social change and economic development.

A.R.F. -The Mekong project brings together art scenes that are in a very different level of development. Thailand and Vietnam art scenes are by far the most complex, whilst Myanmar and Cambodia are in the early stages. What are the difficulties of working with such a complex and varied network? What is you analysis of this situation?

R.S. -This diversity and complexity is what makes the region so compelling, although as you mention, also makes it a challenging area to work in – not least for the artists themselves. Rich and I both did research trips, together and separately, and this kind of groundwork is essential in beginning to understand the contexts in which artists are working. Collaborating with Rich, who lives in and has very strong networks in the region and is a practicing artist himself, has made negotiations and communication much easier across the board. A number of the artists are very mobile and have active international careers, while others work in a much more localized way; but as with any artist, no matter where they are from, there is the need for curators to be responsive and flexible to different approaches and requirements. “The Mekong” is not attempting, however, to make a definitive statement on art scenes in the region or to represent them as such. We rather aim to consider some really strong individual practices, while drawing connections between the works in terms of artistic strategies and the concerns artists are addressing. These might be urbanization, growing disparities in wealth and opportunity, and the effects of global market forces, as well as strong traditions of Buddhism and particular social and political structures.


A.R.F. -This time, the Triennial has been structured through several projects; each of them has a co-curator who has worked with you. How has the process been defined with co-curators Brent Clough, Rich Streitmatter-Tran and Nicholas Bonner?

R.S. -The co-curators have been invited to help develop specific focuses within the exhibition. None of them are professional curators – Brent is a broadcaster, Rich is an artist and Nicholas, a filmmaker – but all are experts in their chosen area, which is enormously valuable in offering knowledge, access and fresh approaches in areas that we hadn’t worked with before.

A.R.F. -Being organized by an established museum like Queensland Art Gallery-GOMA, educational programs have an important place in the overall program. It is not so common to find a triennial with such an interest in education. What are the challenges of creating an educational program for a triennial of contemporary art?

R.S. -We are lucky to have a long-established education program, with this year being the tenth anniversary of the Kids’ APT. So, there is a lot of expertise and experience within the institution, and enormous energy for pushing it further. It has become one of the most significant aspects of the Gallery’s activities, as it introduces children to contemporary art, and through that, draws in their families, becoming an important way to engage and build broad audiences. Over this period, we have been able to develop an informed public, which from an early age has grown up with the APT, enabling us to work each time with a strengthening knowledge base among the community. To develop the program, we work directly with artists to create activities, so that they are a direct extension of the ideas and processes they are working with. This enables a much more nuanced, responsive and complex approach to art education, and we find that artists are extraordinarily generous and open to working in this way. It is a lot of work – almost like making another exhibition – but the benefits and rewards are more than worth it.

A.R.F. -The moving image has been inserted into the general program. Film programs are an integral part of the event. How important is the collaboration of the Australian Cinematheque for the Triennial?

R.S. -This will be the second APT to feature cinema, since the opening of the Australian Cinematheque in 2006. As with APT5, film forms a significant component of APT6, through surveys of the work of individual filmmakers, as well as a curated film program. It builds on ideas and focuses in the exhibition – for example, in relation to “The Mekong,” there will be a retrospective of the Cambodian director Rithy Panh’s films – as well as drawing in new audiences, who are interested in film and then come and see the art. It provides a rich context to works in the exhibition; for example, APT6 is the first time artists from West Asia, such as Iran and Turkey, have been featured. There is also a significant program of cinema from the Indian subcontinent through to Central Asia and the Middle East, teasing out particular narratives and relationships as they flow through the region. It also enables filmmakers to be assessed in a different context, such as Ang Lee – it’s a chance to consider him as an auteur. We can consider how he navigates working cross-culturally through an extremely diverse range of film genres, yet with a recurrent interest in the outsider and difficulties of communication.

A.R.F. -How did you come across The Mansudae Art Studio in North Korea? This is one of the countries in which we don’t know what is going on. What is the story behind the scenes of the development of this program? To me, this is one of the most intriguing contents of the Triennial.

R.S. -The Mansudae Art Studio is one of the major studios in Pyongyang, and employs hundreds of artists working in a wide range of media. The negotiations to show their work have taken place over the past five years, through discussions with Nicholas Bonner, a filmmaker who also runs a company organizing tours to the DPRK and has a longstanding relationship with the studio. Such a presentation wouldn’t have been possible without Nick’s involvement – he also has a significant collection of work, which he is lending to the exhibition – as working with artists in North Korea obviously requires extensive experience and strong contacts on the ground. As you say, it’s a country of which very little is known, yet has a significant geopolitical impact in the Asia Pacific. It seemed timely to try and open the door a little.


A.R.F. -What is the budget for an event like this one?

R.S. -It’s significant, and I’m not in a position to discuss figures, but it is one of the largest projects that the Gallery undertakes and involves the entire institution. This means that we are able to draw on all of the resources – human and departmental – of the Gallery to realize it. A significant amount of the funding is raised from sources, such as, visual arts and crafts funds from the Queensland state government and the Australia Council, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and various national arts funding bodies and corporate and private sponsors.

A.R.F. -Visibility of the invisible seems to me to be one the underlying themes of the Triennial. Could you describe the logical process behind the development of what the curators describe as “cultural constellations”?

R.S. -This is an interesting question – you could say in a general sense that all art is making the invisible visible. In terms of the APT you might ask – invisible to whom? The artists may not be well known outside of their own contexts, but are often very significant at home. There is an educational dimension to the APT in terms of building awareness and understanding, but it is also an opportunity to immerse ourselves in powerful aesthetic experiences. The term “cultural constellations” was used by our cinema curators to describe the APT film program – it is structured in a series of sections that look at specific regional and cultural relations, such as, Sri Lanka, Armenia and Turkey, and Palestine, Israel and Lebanon.

A.R.F. -What is unique this year at APT6? Is it the focus on new and emerging art scenes?

R.S. -There are a number of aspects of APT6 that have not been attempted before. It is the largest APT to date, and will take up the entire Gallery of Modern Art building as well as key spaces in the Queensland Art Gallery. It is considering a wider geography than previously, reflecting not only the emergence of strong art activity in parts of Southeast Asia and West Asia, for example, but also because it is important to consider how particular forms and ideas flow across the region, both historically and in the present. We are also looking at a generation of artists – many of whom were born in the 1970s and even the 1980s – who are much more mobile and interconnected than ever before. They have grown up in a world of instant communication and cheaper travel and many have studied internationally and exhibit all over the world. The art scenes have changed enormously, even since the last APT, and the work that artists are making is often highly refined, interdisciplinary and culturally fluid. In curating an exhibition such as this, it is ultimately responding to what artists are doing in the present, and this is what drives the project forward.

Alvaro Rodríguez-Fominaya is Executive Director/Curator at Para/Site Art Space (Hong Kong).

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