In 2014 Ellie Buttrose and Simon Wright journeyed to the United Arab Emirates, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Georgia And Turkey, undertaking research for ‘The 8th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’, which opens this November. Here we continue our series on the research and development behind the Gallery’s flagship exhibition series.
West Asia encompasses the countries between Pakistan and Turkey. It is a vast distance to cover, and political instability has rendered much of it inaccessible. In November 2014, Assistant Director Simon Wright and I set off for the United Arab Emirates, which has recently become a regional hub of contemporary art, with the Sharjah Biennial and Art Dubai art fair. Our first destination was warehouse area of Alserkal Avenue in Dubai, known for its commercial galleries. Next was the Sharjah Art Foundation, which facilitates the Sharjah Biennial. The foundation is in a heritage area of preserved Emirati homes, a stimulating change from the architectural flights of fancy that crowd Dubai. Then it was off to the capital Abu Dhabi, where the Louvre, Guggenheim, Zayed National Museum and Performing Arts Centre’s infamous feats of engineering are currently under construction. We visited Guggenheim Abu Dhabi’s first exhibition, ‘Seeing Through Light’, which included past APT participants Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, Bharti Kher and Yayoi Kusama. Slated to become a major player in the region for contemporary art, it was interesting to see how the Guggenheim was contextualising the history of the Emirates and of the region within a global art history. How to write such a history — to encompass the many migrants who stop over or stay — was the concern of many artists, curators and dealers.
Next, we plunged from the 30-plus-degree sands of the UAE into the minus-14, snowcovered Soviet architecture of Kazakhstan. Although touted as the best example of a free market economy in Central Asia, little of Kazakhstan’s wealth — mainly derived from oil — has been directed to the arts. Formerly the capital, Almaty continues to be the centre for business. It is also the centre for culture, but there is little formal arts infrastructure. Our first stop was to the home of APT7 artist Erbossyn Meldibekov. While many artists of Meldibekov’s generation are established internationally, the domestic contemporary art scene is yet to overcome the loss of its major contemporary art centre in 2009. As we departed, we wondered who will support and present the forthcoming generation of Kazakh artists.
A quick flight over the mountain range brought us to Bishkek in the Kyrgyz Republic, home of the Dordoy Bazaar, comprised of rows of stacked shipping containers filled with products made in China and said to be the largest market in Asia. Though the contemporary art scene in Bishkek is even smaller than Almaty’s, it retains some strong initiatives. One of them is the School of Theory and Activism, Bishkek (STAB), an artistic and political research initiative that has recently mapped the Soviet murals across the city and was about to hold a conference on issues related to creative urbanism. The difficulties of navigating a nomadic past, Soviet occupation, recent independence and the introduction of a capitalist economic system were key concerns among artists in Kazakhstan and the Kyrgyz Republic.
Across the Caspian Sea, our next destination was Tbilisi, Georgia, with its rich layering of histories the result of rule by many empires. Some of its most interesting artists and organisations have an eye towards community engagement and social practice. Housed within a former medical museum, the Center of Contemporary Art places equal emphasis on exhibitions and flexible, independent education. Another is GeoAIR, whose projects take place in the community or via publications while their space is used for research and residencies.
While Istanbul is not the official capital, it remains Turkey’s cultural and economic centre. Alongside its famous Biennale, the city has a strong group of commercial dealers and ambitious private museums. We met with November Paynter, the Associate Director of Research and Programmes at SALT, to discuss developments in Turkey’s art ecology since she co-curated ‘0 – Now: Traversing West Asia’ with Russell Storer for APT7. The 2014 Gezi Park protests dominated many of our conversations and numerous artists have responded directly to the event. After back-to-back meetings with artists and curators, many of whom are now developing projects for APT8, we were reminded of the legacy of the APT by a visit to ‘The Roving Eye: Contemporary Art from South-East Asia’ at Arter, which included artists from every single instalment of the Triennial. There is a vast distance between these works’ origins and where they were exhibited: a reminder that art enables us to breach both distance and difference, if only momentarily.