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November 30, 2000

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FEBRUARY 11, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 5

Not for Thin Skins
From the complexities of being Chinese to atrocities in Indonesia, Asian works venture into touchy territory

Jakarta's burnings re-created by Dadang Christanto Asiaweek Pictures

Tin sheds in the Botanic Gardens, houses full of balloons, and installations made from pink hot-water bottles. Over the years, any number of multi-media art exhibitions from the Sydney school of biennial internationalism have done little more than bemuse by the desperate banality of their content. And then, by way of vivid contrast, there is "Brisbane's Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art" - one of the few real success stories in Australia's erratic engagement with the world of the visual arts.

When, in 1993, the Queensland Art Gallery began this three-yearly cycle of shows with an exclusively Asia-Pacific orientation, cynics saw it as little more than a response to a push by the Labor government of the day for better and more varied connections with Asia. Few at the time appreciated the crucial political and social role art plays in some Asian countries, where it is used to debate matters in a way not normally permitted in the mass media.

From the complexities of being Chinese to atrocities in Indonesia, Asian works venture into touchy territory

The world at her feet: Chinese soccer star Sun Wen

The Wahid vs. Wiranto showdown

For the third Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT3), 77 artists from 20 countries (including Pakistan and Sri Lanka for the first time) were chosen by 150 curators from all the countries involved. The theme: "Beyond the Future," taking in the place of tradition in contemporary art. The works selected cross a number of boundaries - between craft, traditional practices, performances, textile, video and new technology. For the opening, 700 artists, curators and other specialists gathered in Brisbane for three days of performances and discussions, with sessions held in Chinese, Japanese and Bahasa as well as English. Australian audiences have come to appreciate this crucial interplay of life and art, as shown by the fact that more than 150,000 people attended APT3. Here is a cross-section of the artists and works on display:

Mella Jaarsma

"Hi, Inlander" was how Dutch colonialists dismissively greeted Indonesians during their years of rule. Jaarsma, who is Dutch-born but a native of Jogjakarta since 1984, has borrowed the expression for Hi, Inlander (Hello, Native), a piece of installation art that mocks her forebears and challenges concepts of identity. The "inlanders" that Jaarsma greets are figures clad in hooded costumes such as the Muslim woman's jilbab, but made of the skins of chickens, fish, frogs and kangaroos. The feet, hands and eyes of the wearer are clearly visible, allowing interaction with gallery visitors. The exhibition notes suggest: "It is as if Jaarsma is asking the question, 'What does it feel like to inhabit another's skin? To look out with their eyes?'" The artist, 39, says she is worried by the growth of intolerance in Indonesia, in which ethnic and religious groups have resorted to fearful violence. Hence the use of the jilbab, which, while Muslim, masks the racial background of the person inside. "Hi, Inlander questions the borders of political correctness," Jaarsma says.

Cai Guoqiang

A bamboo bridge is a common enough sight in rural Asia; but not in Brisbane. This one doesn't attempt to cross the Brisbane River - but was built on its banks by Cai, a 42-year-old Chinese-born artist now living in New York. Bridge Crossing (not pictured here) proved one of the most popular exhibits in the show. Most of the visitors crossed over the 30-meter-long bridge, which Cai describes as symbolizing a meeting of cultures. It also raises questions about cultural divides - a rainmaking device triggered by laser sensors clouds the middle section of the bridge in a light mist, leaving those crossing with the dilemma of venturing on or turning back. On the opening night of the exhibition, Cai floated 99 linked boats down the river, each one carrying a pale blue flame - a depiction of a gentle dragon heading toward a caring new millennium. Blue Dragon was certainly more peaceable than the artist's plans for an 18-km trail of gunpowder along the Brisbane River for APT2 in 1996. The scheme was eventually abandoned when his supplies blew up prematurely.

Dadang Christanto

Soon after the opening of APT3, Christanto set fire to 47 life-sized pâpier-maché figures - a tribute, he explains, to the people, mainly Chinese, who died when mobs torched businesses and homes in the Indonesian riots of May 1998. The choice of 47, says the Darwin-based artist, was based on the key dates of the violence: May 13+May14+May15+5 (for the month). Christanto acknowledges that shock might have been the first reaction of the 5,000-strong audience that attended the opening night of his performance, entitled Api di Bulan Mei 1998 (Fire in May 1998). "But I hope it will be a shock capable of illuminating our sense of humanity," he says. "We'll just have to leave it up to the fire and the wind. They have their own sense of wisdom." As for the lessons of 1998, he says:"Remember history well because it offers humankind an opportunity to grow wise and compassionate - or it can transform humankind into cowards, liars and barbarians."

Lee Wen

Since 1992, Singapore-born Lee has appeared as the Yellow Man in a series of installations and performances in which he covers his body with yellow paint - exaggerating his Chineseness or being provocative about multiculturalism in Singapore, raising religious questions in India and even harping on the vile nature of the sex industry in Thailand. In Journey of the Yellow Man No. 13, Lee, 42, paraded through the streets of Brisbane, over flyovers, beneath tower-blocks, drawing every kind of look imaginable, from shock through bemusement to laughter. Lee's take on ethnicity is a playful exploration of how identity is read according to location. He says: "Our awareness is sharpened in new locations and experiences. Yet it remains difficult to keep a constant vigil on our perceptions so that we do not fall prey to false consciousness and prejudices, nor become victims of propaganda from the market and the media, and other distortions."

APT3 closed recently. But it is open for visitors until July at

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