The Queensland Art Gallery (QAG) has been hosting the Asia Pacific Triennial since 1993. The exhibition features artists from all over the region, and Korea has been represented from the start.
The triennial is spread over two buildings (the QAG itself and the nearby Gallery of Modern Art which opened in 2006) which collectively are known as QAGOMA, located in Brisbane’s cultural hub on the south bank of the Brisbane River. Apart from the sunny climate, the area has the feeling of the South Bank of the Thames, complete with giant ferris wheel and footbridge.
As we were in the area in early December, LKL spent the best part of a day at QAGOMA, and thanks to the variety and interest of QAG’s permanent collection, the fabulous internal space which constantly opens up new vistas, the rather special open air cafe-cum-sculpture garden where ibises and lizards pose for visitors, and of course the triennial itself, we could easily have whiled away two whole days. It’s not often that I leave a gallery wishing that I’d had more time there, but QAGOMA and the 8th Asia Pacific Triennial (APT8) did it for me.
The gallery guide for APT8 is internet-based. If there are individual artists you are particularly interested in seeing you need to take your smartphone to hunt as you browse, and there are plenty of helpful gallery staff to assist when the internet lets you down. Probably the best way to view the exhibition is simply to roam wherever your feet take you, but of course I needed to prioritise the Korean works.
Even without that focus, if you start your tour at the south entrance of QAG it’s hard to miss the work of two Korean artists, prominently installed and impossible to overlook.
Choi Jeong-hwa’s Cosmos (installed in gallery 5 of level 1) is visible not only from most of that ground floor but also, because of the gallery’s height and the clever way in which the interior museum space is designed, dominates one end of the galley of aboriginal art on the second floor. It consists of plastic chains and streamers suspended from the ceiling like a tangle of Christmas decorations. The streamers are mixed with chains of LED light which illuminate the gallery in a constantly changing spectrum of colours. Standing under the installation you feel totally immersed and transported into a world of your childhood.
Beneath Choi’s Cosmos is installed The Mandala of Flowers, an interactive work for children in which they are invited to create Buddhist mandalas out of plastic bottle tops. As is says in the notes accompanying the installation,
The form of the work contradicts the content, since plastic is often regarded as a waste-product, inorganic, non bio-degradable, cheaply made and mass-produced — unlike the mandalas which are highly labour-intensive, transient, sacred and return immediately to the earth. Choi’s works celebrates the beauty to be found in cheap plastics, kitsch souvenirs and popular imagery, challenging conventional taste and ideas of value. He intensifies the aesthetic experience of consumer culture, particularly as it manifests in the flea markets and street stalls in Seoul.
The gallery is a wonderland of colour and light.
Meanwhile, dominating the watermall – a shallow pond which takes up much of the ground floor – is Haegue Yang’s Sol LeWitt Upside Down – Open Modular Cubes (Small), Expanded 958 Times. This is a much more placid work than Choi’s, in pure white. Reminiscent of her installation in the Haus der Kunst in Munich, Germany, it dominates the huge space at the centre of the QAG.
As the natural light descends from the roof the installation seems to shimmer even though, unlike other of Yang’s venetian blind works (such as her 2009 Venice Biennale installation), there are no fans to add motion. According to the exhibition materials:
For Yang, abstraction is highly metaphorical, alluding to multiple narratives. Her blinds partially block sight, but they also delineate and draw attention to a space, providing boundaries and articulations, and implicating viewers through their transparency and domesticity. In her early sculptures she used IV stands, then clothes-racks on wheels. Like the blinds, these industrially produced items were deliberately evocative of anthropomorphic forms, while also emphasising a sense of movement and the imminent possibility of change.
If you want to see more Choi Jeong-hwa, you then need to cross over to GOMA, a two hundred metre walk away.
At the far end of the ground floor Choi has two works installed in the restaurant – a collection of colourful plastic Hubble-bubble pipes in the same vein as his Alchemy (2014) which caught the eye at Art14 London, plus a funky chandelier in a similar style.
In gallery 3.3 on GOMA’s third floor is a room which contains siren eun young jung’s video documentary work.
Jung has focused on the almost disappeared theatrical art form of yeosung gukgeuk, a changgeuk-style form in which male and female parts alike are played by female performers. The form developed in the 1940s but only lasted for a decade or so before being crowded out by more Western forms of entertainment. According to the materials accompanying the exhibition,
Siren’s interest in the form takes a feminist position, seeing yeosong gukgeuk as a challenge to patriarchal structures within Korean society. Her work creates rich interconnected narratives about the actors’ transformations into male characters, their relationships with each other, and the passing of knowledge from one generation to another. Through yeosong gukgeuk she shows women creating a world for themselves in which they can freely live out their aspirations.
Jung’s work is divided into two sections. As you enter the room three screens (Lyrics I, II and III, 2013) present simple documentary footage: what seems to be an ageing performer visiting the grave of her teacher, a shamanistic performance, and – most interesting of all – a video of a lesson in which a young performer is learning from her teacher. The teaching method is exhausting. As kayagum maestro Hwang Byung-ki told LKL when we met him back in 2010, the traditional method is to learn by rote: it is an intensive method where the student learns the music he teacher endlessly repeating the phrases until the teacher is satisfied. In Jung’s documentary, the student listens to the teacher singing a phrase of a pansori-style song and repeats until the teacher is satisfied with every tiniest nuance of performance.
Dividing these three screens from the other work in the exhibition is a red theatrical curtain. As we pass around the curtain we encounter the work Act of Affect 2013. This shows a yeosong gukgeuk performer preparing for a performance: rehearsing the bodily movements and the musical phrases in a rehearsal studio, carefully applying makeup and dressing up in traditional costume, clearing her mind to focus on the work – only to stand in front of a completely empty theatre. Probably not too far from the truth.
And now I’ll share a few images of the rest of APT8 and some of the QAG’s permanent collection.
Even without APT8, QAGOMA is well worth a visit. As mentioned above, there’s more than enough to keep you occupied for at least a day. I found the work of Nepalese artist Hit Man Gurung on the theme of migrant workers particularly poignant.
The Asia Pacific Triennial runs until 10 April 2016.
- Exhibition home page on the QAGOMA website
- For more information on changgeuk (창극 – theatrically-staged pansori) and yeosong gukgeuk (여성국극 – ‘female national theatre’), try Andrew Killick’s In Search of Korean Traditional Opera