As global recognition of Asian contemporary art has flourished, an increasing number of Australian institutions have begun to actively integrate it into their programs.
In Australia, there’s been a lot of talk recently about the Asian Century—again. Every day, issues emerge that testify to the crucial importance of the country’s relationship with Asia. The federal government is about to release a white paper outlining strategies for engagement in response to enormous change across the region. The media is filled with analyses of our relationship with China, whose booming economy has kept Australia’s buoyant throughout the global financial crisis, even as politicians and educators lament Australians’ lack of Asian language proficiency. The arrival via boat from Indonesia of South and West Asian asylum seekers has generated emotionally charged argument about issues of border protection, migration policy, and human rights, while the 2011 Census revealed that the highest percentage of recent immigrants came from India, with seven of the top ten source countries being Asian.
Such debates might suggest that Australia’s engagement with Asia is both relatively new and primarily a response to fundamental shifts in economic power. Yet its regional relationships extend much further back, through the Japanese investment and tourism boom of the 1980s; the Vietnam War and its waves of refugees in the 1970s; the Pacific theater of World War II; the arrival of Chinese, Japanese, and Malay men in the 19th century following the gold rush and the growth of the pearling industry, and the precolonial trepangtrade between Makassan fishermen and northern Aboriginal people. Anxieties over substantial Chinese presence in Australia led to the establishment of the White Australia Policy in 1901, which restricted non-European immigration until the ’70s. This long, complex, often ambivalent, and sometimes unhappy history is part of an evolving process that has been far more central to the Australian sense of identity than is often acknowledged.
In terms of contemporary art, Australians became aware of developments in Asia at a relatively early stage. Australian artists, art historians, educators, and curators have been visiting and working in the region since the early 1970s, particularly in East and Southeast Asia. There has also been significant traffic in the other direction, with many Asian artists studying or settling in Australia. Australian institutions were also among the first outside Asia to exhibit Asian contemporary art. The first two Sydney Biennales, in 1973 and 1976, featured artists from Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia. There were major museum exhibitions of Japanese, Chinese, and Indian contemporary art in Brisbane and Sydney in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Perth hosted the ARX Artist Regional Exchange from the mid-’80s to the late ’90s, bringing Australian and Southeast Asian artists together for residencies and exhibitions. Also during the ’90s, Australian art dealers began to exhibit and represent Asian artists.
The first major museum exhibition series in Australia to adopt an ongoing focus on Asian contemporary art was the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT), which was initiated by the Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane in 1993 and will open its seventh iteration in December 2012. This exhibition was the catalyst for the QAG’s collection of contemporary Asian art, now among the most significant in the world.
The early ’90s also saw a major cultural turn in Australia toward Asia in general, a shift fueled by postmodern and postcolonial reimaginings of our place in the world and supported by government initiatives for regional engagement. The Asialink residency and touring exhibition program was established in 1991, and ArtAsiaPacific magazine was launched in Sydney in 1993. Major conferences on Asian contemporary art expanded critical debate, with participants interrogating the place of Australia (an English-speaking nation of largely European heritage) within Asian contemporary art discourse, and echoing wider critiques, both in Asia and locally, of Australia’s changing role in the region. These fora raised significant questions about modernity, tradition, translation, and authenticity that continue to play out in current discussions around globalization.
Nevertheless, these dialogues and initiatives remained rather specialized until recently. As global recognition of Asian contemporary art has flourished, an increasing number of Australian institutions have begun to actively integrate it into their programs. However, it is often individuals and collectives, independent spaces and artist-run initiatives, regional festivals and art centers—both in Australia and across Asia—that lead the way in bringing Asian and Australian contemporary artists into dialogue. Today, the network of relationships is layered and diverse, reflecting an enormous growth in creative platforms and communication, and the increasing complexity of the region’s social, cultural, and political matrices. While official statements and policies form the headlines, it is, as it always has been, interpersonal relationships and ground-level connections that provide the substance.
–Russell Storer is Head of Asian and Pacific Art at Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, Australia