The 9th Asia-Pacific Triennial defies comprehension — which is part of its charm, and one of the key reasons this exhibition has stayed exciting and relevant over its 25 years at the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA).
Across more than 400 works by 80 artists from a region that spans roughly from Iran to New Zealand, APT9 is complex and multivalent, resisting attempts to break it down into themes.
There is an active beehive (complete with a "bee corridor" leading from the gallery to the outside world). A massive Buddhist rosary. A heart-shaped te ma (or fish trap) made from 8,000 pairs of ringed venus shells. A display room featuring dismembered medical dummies and fitness equipment, oversized tools and silicone sex toys. A video of an underwater street parade celebrating Santo Nino (baby Jesus), complete with a crucifix-bearing Christ figure — and soldiers wielding assault rifles.
Zara Stanhope (curatorial manager for the Asian and Pacific collections, who oversees an in-house curatorium who formulate the exhibition) says: "APT has never been about defining a geographic zone … or political imperatives", describing it rather as a "framework for the perspective [of artists]" from the region.
This approach allows the voice of the artist (rather than the curator) to be heard loudest: each work is allowed its complexity and nuance, rather than being shoehorned into a theme.
In turn, viewers are more free to forge their own meanings and connections between works. The imagination runs wild.
It also means that the curators for APT are able to pick the best and most interesting works from the region, unrestricted by theme.
Of course, there are certain aspects of APT9 that distinguish it from its antecedents: there are countries presenting work for the first time (including Laos and the Marshall Islands); there are more textile works in this edition than APT8; and there are more First Nations artists on the line-up than ever before.
And it is possible to see recurring preoccupations throughout the show: colonisation and its ongoing legacy; nature and the environment; spirituality; cultural heritage; uncovered histories.
Cabinets of curiosity
Reuben Keehan, curator of contemporary Asian art, says he only recently identified a seam of "cabinet of curiosity" (or wunderkammer) works that runs throughout the exhibition — works that, subconsciously or deliberately, riff on the Renaissance-era mode of presenting objects within purpose-built cabinets.
"What does that say about the present moment, that so many artists are doing that [kind of work]?" Keehan ponders.
"You could argue that it's got something to do with trying to make sense of the sheer amount of information we're surrounded by.
"Or is it that artists are curating their own mini spaces, by bringing these different objects together and constructing relationships between them?"
My Forest Is Not Your Garden, by Singaporean artists Donna Ong and Robert Zhao Renhui, mimics the museum display using kitsch bric-a-brac and scientific objects alongside archival printed materials, photography and exuberant arrangements of plastic tropical plants and animals.
Their installation pokes and picks away at the fraught history of the Cabinet of Curiosity, which was used by the European elite to present objects brought back from imperial assignments abroad. It questions the fantasy of the "tropical forest" (What is it? Who constructs it, why, and how?), particularly in relation to the concrete jungle of contemporary Singapore.
Other APT artists have used the Cabinet of Curiosity format in this more literal sense (Anne Noble with her cabinet-bound beehive; Chen Zhe's displays of her own photography).
But Keehan also points to more oblique, conceptual iterations of the idea: Qiu Zhijie's massive foyer wall painting, which is a map of ideas rather than geography; and Nona Garcia's multi-panel work in which she "documents", in paint, parts of a tree outside her studio that was cut down for urban development.
Ruth McDougall, curator of Pacific Art, has identified another throughline for APT9: artists whose work engages with notions of wealth and value beyond capital and property.
One of the most literal examples of this is the monumental arrangement of Tutana and Loloi (rings of shell-threaded cane) in the GOMA foyer, which constitute "banks" of Diwarra ("shell money") used by the Gunantuna (Toloi people) of East New Britain (a province of Papua New Guinea).
Other artists push back against Western notions of value: Aotearoa New Zealand jewellery artist Areta Wilkinson re-positions the value of the "precious item" as a matter of knowledge and relationships (with ancestors and land); and photographer and collage artist Kapulani Landgraf superimposes ancient totems and symbols on the hyper-developed and commodified landscape of contemporary Hawai'i, pitting commercial values against her forebears' systems of belief and value (which cherish connection with and custodianship of land).
In the collective project Women's Wealth, alternative systems of value and wealth are not just on display, but are integral to the process and outcomes.
The project produced a room full of works by women from Bougainville and the Solomon Islands, including ceremonial fans and "hoods", and bags.
They are objects that have value beyond their materiality: they signify authority in some cases, and the making of them represents connection with kin and country. They also represent cultural resilience in the face of commercial, environmental and industrial forces.
But McDougall, who worked three years on the project in tandem with co-curator Sana Balai and Baku women and artists Taloi Havini and Marilyn Havini, says the project is as much about building relationships with that community and fostering intergenerational transfer of knowledge as about the works themselves.
"The project wasn't just about putting something on display in the gallery — it was about 'How can we take these women from this place to this place, and do that with integrity'."
Women's Wealth is one of several collaborative, community-driven projects in APT9 that demonstrate the institution of the Gallery being shaped by outside voices — co-curators and artists.
Others include Tungaru: The Kiribati Project led by artist Chris Charteris, and the Marshall Islands Jaki-ed mat-weaving project, which involved a three-week workshop with local experts and Marshallese poet, teacher and artist Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner.
These voices join the multiple voices of the internal curatorium (which is comprised of eight curators from QAGOMA) in shaping the APT9 exhibition.
The result — compounded by the lack of overarching theme — is not one authorial voice but many; not one simple vision, but complexity.
It's a complexity that does justice to the region, and helps us understand it, says Stanhope.
"We're part of Asia and the Pacific — and they're complex, as is Australia. So any way that we can get to know these neighbours better, understand those different world views and share their cultures, the richer our lives will be."
The 9th Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art runs until April 28 at Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane.