Must Go: Asia-Pacific Triennial

A rite of passage for Southeast Asian artists since 1993
By Chloe Ho

Souliya Phoumivong (b. 1983, Laos), ‘Flow’ (production images), 2018, stop motion animation, colour, sound. Image courtesy of the artist.

Souliya Phoumivong (b. 1983, Laos), ‘Flow’ (production images), 2018, stop motion animation, colour, sound. Image courtesy of the artist.

The Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT) at the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) is a mainstay on the Southeast Asian contemporary art calendar. Since its first edition in 1993, APT has hosted over 150 Southeast Asian presentations, a large proportion of which come from Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines. The ninth edition features 24 artists and one artist collective (Pangrok Sulap, established 2010 in Malaysia) from the region in the main exhibition. 

Beyond the usual suspects, there are three Laotian artists (PHOTHYZAN, Bounpau; PHOUMIVONG, Souliya; SIONG, Tcheu), three Burmese artists (HTIEN LIN; SOE, Yu Nwe; YAWNGHWE, Sawangwongse) and one Cambodian artist (VUTH, Lyno). Regarded together with the three Thai artists (HENGSAPKUL, Tada; SIRIBUTR, Jakkai; SRIKHAO, Harit) and two Vietnamese artists (LY HOÀNG, Ly; NGUYEN, Trinh Thi), APT9 indicates a shift in the contemporary art series’ emphasis from modern “art capitals” toward the Mekong area.

Zico Albaiquni (b. 1987, Indonesia), ‘When it Shook - The Earth stood Still (After Pirous)’ ,  2018, oil and synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 120 x 200cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Yavuz Gallery

Zico Albaiquni (b. 1987, Indonesia), ‘When it Shook - The Earth stood Still (After Pirous)’, 2018, oil and synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 120 x 200cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Yavuz Gallery

2018 marks 25 years of the triennial, one of the oldest regular exhibitions committed to showing art from Southeast Asia. The institution’s anxiety about its age shows in the increasing attempts to historicise APT in itself. In APT7, Singaporean-Malaysian artist Heman Chong had made the APT archives the site of his presentation with “The 20 Year Archive”. 

This year, Indonesian artist Zico Albaiquni‘s paintings, referencing work from the earlier editions, is the central highlight, printed on everything from posters to postcards and banners to catalogues. 

And just in case this message of historicity is not perfectly clear, a panel on “Intergenerational Influences” was convened over the opening weekend with Zico, Filipino artist Kawayan de Guia and Japanese artist Yuko Mohri, moderated by QAGOMA’s contemporary Asian art curator Reuben Keehan, discussing the impact of work and artists featured in earlier editions of the APT.

Otherwise, curatorially speaking, the current edition is consistent with previous ones. Border crossings, political upheavals, indigeneity, tradition and change remain useful keys for unpacking the Southeast Asian works and for contextualising them within the larger exhibition, even if the artist may not think about these issues directly in his or her practice. While the idea of structural consistency seems to fly in the face of what contemporary art is about and the way in which it should work, there is good reason why the organisers do not wish to fix what is not broken: to art professionals, exhibiting at the APT is considered a "rite of passage" for exemplary Southeast Asian artists. 

Nona Garcia (b. 1978, Manila), ‘Hallow’, 2015-2018, site-specific installation at QAGOMA, glazed digital backlit film. Image courtesy of the artist. Photograph by Natasha Harth.

Nona Garcia (b. 1978, Manila), ‘Hallow’, 2015-2018, site-specific installation at QAGOMA, glazed digital backlit film. Image courtesy of the artist. Photograph by Natasha Harth.

That is not to imply that the triennial has stagnated, but to suggest that change happens elsewhere, in the development of artistic finesse and improvements to institutional execution. In the age of biennials and triennials, where art has often been spectacularised, APT’s early establishment on the circuit may very well have allowed them to avoid novelty for its own sake and instead focus on the support and present action of art that demonstrate both artistic strength and a strong historical context.

Most APT artists are participating at emerging or mid-career stage of their practices. Artists are usually aged between 34 and 44, although this edition has included the youngest — 23-year-old Harit Srikhao — in the triennial’s history. Deliberately or not, the curators of APT tend to favour promising artists who already have a stable practice and demonstrate the potential to grow, making the triennial happy hunting grounds for collectors to discover up-and-coming Southeast Asian artists who are just beginning to get noticed.

Harit Srikhao (b. 1995, Thailand), ‘Heaven Gate, from Whitewash Series’, 2015-16, digital photograph, 64 x 100.3cm. Image courtesy of Gallery VER, Bangkok.

Harit Srikhao (b. 1995, Thailand), ‘Heaven Gate, from Whitewash Series’, 2015-16, digital photograph, 64 x 100.3cm. Image courtesy of Gallery VER, Bangkok.

Indeed, discerning and experienced collectors and dealers were a visible presence over the opening weekend, and almost all of the Southeast Asian artists exhibiting were present. With this edition covering the whole of GOMA and about half of QAG, there was plenty of space to encounter and discuss partnerships, acquisitions, possible commissions and collaborations for the future. Visiting the exhibition is a highly fruitful one for the art lover who appreciates both technical skill and historical relevance but it is probably the most productive for the ambitious collector looking to acquire an investment-worthy artwork. 

APT9 opened on 24 November 2018 and will close on 28 April 2019.