Thasnai Sethaseree is passionately interested in how power and seduction fold into state and commercial imagery — particularly in his homeland, Thailand — and his practice investigates the relation of images to political projects dating from the Cold War onwards. His large-scale collages are distinguished by their iconography and the substantial collaging of cut or shredded coloured paper, a style based on a traditional Thai paper-cutting technique.
It’s unclearly clear, as yet incomplete 2017–21 is the result of more than a year of the artist’s research and has taken almost three years to create. Comprising 30–40 layers of paper on material, including stretched Buddhist monks’ robes, the triptych employs specific papers as content within compositions associated with structural problems in modern and contemporary Thailand, and beyond.
Watch our time-lapse
For Sethaseree, this is an historical project: the authoritative use of imagery or aesthetics in Thailand is evident.The references to Hell, Heaven and Earth suggest the triptych is equated with physical, spiritual and mythological zones of human existence. While appearing abstract from a distance, this cosmos is situated in urban Bangkok. The initial layer of each work is a photograph of the skylines of three of Bangkok’s financial and business districts — Silom, Pratunam and Siam Square areas — inverted, as if the artist hopes to reveal the underbelly of these districts. A flux of forms, defined by paper strips, are suspended on top. Images of cancer cells, scientific diagrams of tumours, prisms, images of the twilight sky, biological forms, lava flow, ghosts and skulls, ocean creatures, perspective images and sky maps from the date of coups in 2014, 2006 and 1991 respectively are layered together. The latter — maps charting the stars on the dates chosen for political disruption — reflect the artist’s critique of the fickle relationship with belief systems and ethics he observes in Thailand’s leaders, whose decisions often rely on irrational omens for success.
The triptych is a type of psychogeography of imaginary and historical social realities; in it, Sethaseree interweaves imagery of the final holy war from the Ramayana, the hell from the Buddhist Tribhum and the 1976 student massacre. The central work includes paper printed with Paul Simon’s lyrics for the 1965 song ‘The Sound of Silence’ (suggesting ideas of censorship and diversion); text of the epic Ramayana is found amidst the shredded paper in the panel connoting Heaven; and a multitude of lottery tickets (a common expenditure for Thais) appear in the medium of the work on the right, depicting Hell. For the artist, the images form a type of historiography of Thainess in its particular mix of rational and sacred, order and improvisation, pre-modern and modern.
Sethaseree’s triptych confronts what he considers the immorality of easily consumed spectacle (in a nation where royal and military pomp and ceremony are legendary) and hints at the trust in chance, profiteering, sickness and corruption that he finds in Thai modern and contemporary culture. Visual magnificence and splendour are warning signs for what lies beneath.
Dr Zara Stanhope is Director, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery/Len Lye Centre, New Plymouth, and former Curatorial Manager, Asian and Pacific Art, QAGOMA
This is an edited extract from the publication The 10th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art available in-store and online from the QAGOMA Store.
This is the first time a selection of works from the Triennial have travelled beyond Queensland, and the first time we have collaborated in presenting an exhibition in South America. Chris Saines CNZM, Director of QAGOMA
The invitation from Director Beatriz Bustos Oyanedal, an Australia Council–funded international visiting professional to APT9, aligns with the core purpose of the APT to engage audiences with the contemporary visual arts of Asia, Australia and the Pacific, and in doing so increase cultural awareness and understanding of this part of the world. The selection of artworks travelling to Chile was made by the Centro Cultural La Moneda and QAGOMA working in collaboration.
For Centro Cultural La Moneda this exhibition is an opportunity to revisit ancestral cultures and heritage through the lens of contemporary art, learn more deeply about the production of art in a region with which Chile still has little contact, and recognize itself within a wide range of aspects in common.
With the APT series, QAGOMA has always aspired to provide insight into the dynamic cultures of countries in this region through the frame of contemporary art and, in the process, to build dialogues and relationships. Over more than two decades, the APT has generated unceasing ideological and art historical debate, and provided a space where art and ideas could flourish unconstrained, and where cultural debates were interrogated by artists and observers alike.
Consistent with the history of the Triennial, these works reflect on the current condition of contemporary art across Australia, Asia and the Pacific. Chris Saines CNZM, Director of QAGOMA
The Asia Pacific Triennial continues to provide an open and safe platform for art and artists to flourish by engaging an ever-widening audience. Then, as now, APT artworks and ideas communicate meanings connected to their unique contexts of production. It is impossible to ignore the divergent political, social and moral belief systems of different countries, cultures and artists. Indeed, it is the sheer diversity of worldviews, and the insights into them, which energises each APT and inspires conversations around the region and further afield.
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Margaret Rarru and Helen Ganalmirriwuy
Works by Kushana Bush, Idas Losin, Ali Kazim, Hou I-Ting, Aditya Novali, Lola Greeno, Margaret Rarru and Helen Ganalmirriwuy, Chris Charteris, Bona Park, Joyce Ho and Iman Raad that have entered the Gallery’s Collection from APT9 will be on show, as well as Nona Garcia’s APT9 Children’s Art Centre project Illuminate 2018. In addition, Ly Hoàng Ly, Iman Raad, Sadik Kwaish Alfraji, Simon Gende and the Estate of Hussain Sharif are loaning works that were included in APT9. Nona Garcia will work with CCLM to similarly create a site-specific version of her mandala-like window work Hallow 2015 that was seen at the Queensland Art Gallery (QAG).
Dinh Q. Le
Two artists from previous APTs are also included with major works: Dinh Q. Le with Lotusland 1999 (APT5) and CCLM will work with Wit Pimkanchanapong to create his large-scale installation Cloud 2009 (APT6) in the space. Together these works bring an unrivalled range of works and artists’ concerns from the Asia Pacific region to South America.
We hope that visitors to this exhibition experience the unexpected, or are by turns delighted, enlightened and challenged by works of art presented in new frames of reference, adding to the ways that APT continues to fulfil the aim of enhancing awareness and relationships.
Dr Zara Stanhope is Curatorial Manager, Asian and Pacific Art, QAGOMA
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‘Contemporary Art from Asia, Australia and the Pacific: A Selection of works from QAGOMA’s Asia Pacific Triennial’ is at Centro Cultural La Moneda in Santiago, Chile from 22 August – 8 December 2019.
The exhibition comprises of 37 artworks by 19 artists, including works produced by First Nations artists from Australia, the Pacific and Taiwan, as well as from the United Arab Emirates, Japan, the Philippines, New Zealand, Vietnam, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Thailand, South Korea, and Indonesia. with works mainly drawn from the ‘The 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT9). The Triennial, held at QAGOMA between November 2018 and April 2019, is the only ongoing exhibition of contemporary art of Asia, Australia and the Pacific and has a history spanning 26 years.
‘Contemporary Art from Asia, Australia and the Pacific: Selected Works from QAGOMA’s Asia Pacific Triennial’ is a touring exhibition of the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art developed in collaboration with Centro Cultural La Moneda.
This project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body, and the Visual Arts and Crafts Strategy, an initiative of the Australian, State and Territory Governments.
The Asia Pacific, a region of incredible beauty and diversity, is grappling with the looming challenges of climate change and environmental degradation in the face of economic and political inertia. It is often artists who fire our imagination on these issues, urging us to consider our relationship with the natural world, the ethics of our behaviour and the kind of society we want to leave for the future.
Imagining our relationship with nature
‘Climate change is the moral and political issue of our time,’ writes Max Harris in his book The New Zealand Project, and the importance of this topic is central to the young author’s vision for the future of his country.1 The media offer up daily reports on the catastrophic events that will result from our damaged ecosystem, such as rising sea levels, ocean and river acidification, desertification, extreme weather events and species extinction. As I write this, an article in The Economist confirms that the world is in a ‘war’ with climate change and losing — partly due to our demands for energy, and partly due to economic and political inertia2 — and our national government backs further away from the Paris Accord.
According to Harris, however, artists are firing our imagination in an effort to counter climate change listlessness.3 Art plays an important role, not only in raising consciousness of carbon and climate challenges, but also in urging us to actively rethink our relationship with the environment. Art has power: some authors contend that it is more likely to stimulate public debate regarding anthropogenic climate change — and involve a broader constituency of people in such a debate — than the restating of scientific facts or appeals to ‘common sense’.4
A number of APT9 artists convey their attitude towards the natural world in works that intelligently and productively encourage us to place a greater value on the ecosystem of which we are a part.
‘If we die, we’re taking you with us,’ says a bee in Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner’s poem ‘The Butterfly Thief’.5 Originally from the Marshall Islands but now based in Oregon in the United States, Jetñil-Kijiner is a climate change activist, poet and performance artist whose voice demands to be listened to. Her poems have been published and recognised internationally, including at the opening of the United Nations Climate Summit in 2014, where her presentation focused on saving humanity by taking responsibility for the effects of climate change.6
For APT9, Jetñil-Kijiner instigated the Jaki-ed Project by Marshall Island weavers, which encourages youth and Pacific communities to maintain their local weaving traditions. However, she is better known for her poetry and spoken-word performances that call for ways to halt climate change and the devasting impact it is having on the Marshall Islands and other island nations. Like Harris, she recognises the catastrophic effect that damaged ecosystems are having on all humanity and the need for collective global action. In particular, she advocates for Pacific cultures to not merely survive but to thrive through shared values and collaborative action.
Anne Noble is another artist exploring the critical role of bees in a functioning ecosystem. The wellbeing of the honey bee is a measure of environmental health, but these insects are due to lose half their habitat under current climate predictions, leading scientists to warn of an ‘ecological Armageddon’.7 Bees are essential to botanical life as pollinators of plants, but their existence as a species is threatened by chemicals introduced in the genetic engineering of agriculture.
Noble’s project in APT9 celebrates the world of this insect but symbolises the real threat of its demise. Her video work Reverie 2016 and her installation ‘Museum: For a time when the bee no longer exists’ offer viewers an opportunity to experience the dreamlike atmosphere of a hive in summer. Noble aims to stimulate dialogue about the significance of the bee to our lives and to build awareness of our inherent relationship with and responsibility to the bee as part of a shared existence. To these ends, APT9 includes a living beehive within Conversatio: A cabinet of wonder 2018, from where bees go about their communal roles, collecting pollen outdoors to bring into the gallery.
To understand the factors influencing the honey bee’s decline, Noble became a beekeeper and has subsequently worked with communities, schools, scientists and professional and amateur apiarists to engage people of all ages with the lives of bees. She has also drawn on the work of nineteenth-and early twentieth century biologists and writers such as Goethe or Rudolf Steiner, whose study of nature fuses science with a poetic and philosophical register. Noble says that she is ‘working to create a series of frames through which to engage audiences with new narratives and meanings more appropriate to the current and future challenges facing the world’s ecosystem and our role in its rapid transformation’.8 Her work abounds with wonder, joy, emotion and curiosity, enticing her audience to learn more about the bee and the insect world.
Among other APT9 artists whose work is inspired by the natural world, several share the common theme of humanity as an integral part of the Earth’s ecosystem, including Singapore’s Donna Ong and Robert Zhao Renhui, Malaysian collective Pangrok Sulap, and Martha Atienza and Nona Garcia, who both work in the Philippines.
The collaborative installation by Ong and Zhao, My forest is not your garden 2015–18, offers the wonder of a museum diorama in the Queensland Art Gallery Watermall. Ong’s evocative arrangements of artificial flora and tropical exotica blend with Zhao’s archival-style display of a collection of authentic and fabricated objects that purportedly relate to Singapore’s natural history.9 Ong takes a critical perspective on how representations of the tropics in science, botany, art, illustration and gardens have influenced human relations with nature. Zhao performs his speculative scientific investigations of relations between humans and animals through the creative framework of the ‘Institute of Critical Zoologists’, playing with forms of knowledge such as the zoological gaze and natural history research projects.10 These artists encourage us to understand that the lens through which we see the natural world has simultaneously reshaped it.
Based in the East Malaysian state of Sabah in northern Borneo, Pangrok Sulap is a collective of artists, musicians and social activists who collaborate with the community to bring attention to local issues. Their largescale two-part graphic woodcut, Sabah tanah air-ku 2017 — which translates to ‘Sabah, my homeland’, the name of the state’s official anthem — maps in intricate detail both the bounty and exploitation of their environment. One panel features the iconic Mount Kinabalu accompanied by the anthem’s final line, ‘Sabah Negeri Merdeka’ (‘Sabah independent state’), expressing the people’s dream of autonomy. The second panel represents the darker reality of corruption, the extraction of profit from the local community by mining and other industries, and mistreatment of the land and people by both national and international interests. These artists clearly show the contemporary issues we face when the natural world is considered a cost-free resource available to exploit.
Watch as Martha Atienza discusses her video projects
The despoliation of land in Sabah, which ruins subsistence lifestyles, is similarly an issue raised by Martha Atienza in regard to her father’s home region of Bantayan Island in Cebu, the Philippines. Atienza’s underwater video Our Islands 11º16’58.4 N 123º45’07.0 2017 recreates an Ati-Atihan procession (part of the annual Filipino festival devoted to the child Jesus) with her protagonists breathing through the compression diving equipment used by locals, who are forced to seek fish at progressively greater depths. Atienza uses video as a tool to unify the local people and provoke discussion about the future. ‘The ocean is so damaged — there’s no livelihood, and our culture is disappearing,’ she says. ‘I really hope that people can use this video to have a dialogue, and I really hope that by sharing it, people can go home and have conversations about it.’11
Back on land, Nona Garcia’s suite of paintings, Untitled pine tree 2018, records one of the giant aged specimens that have been destroyed over the past decade in Baguio City — more than 600 kilometres north of Bantayan — to make way for development, generating large community protests and the slogans ‘Cut your greed, not our trees’ and ‘The land is meaningless without trees’.
In heightening our awareness about environmental challenges, Harris discusses how indigenous cultures — such as Te Ao Māori in Aotearoa New Zealand — often speak of being intertwined with the environment; humans are not at the centre of the natural world but are dependent on and exceeded by it.12 APT9 artist Kapulani Landgraf incorporates such a view in her art, which she considers is a vehicle for raising awareness of injustice. Landgraf is a Kanaka Māoli, a native Hawaiian, whose images express the toll of development on her people and land. Her stark, large‑format photography and photographic collages detail the destruction of the environment through urban development, militarisation and the increasing commodification of life post colonisation. Following the tradition of photomontage as a political weapon, Landgraf’s works both challenge the viewer and assert the resilience of her people by considering indigenous and ancestral ways of knowing and understanding the land.
Each of these artists follows Harris in understanding the centrality of nature to how we thrive and survive. They engage deeply with environmental politics and offer different perspectives on the world we live in. Our relationship with the natural world is part of the broader question about the kind of society we want, a subject that belongs in a larger conversation regarding the economic or scientific control over ecological issues, which is often couched in the language of resource management.
These artists’ works in APT9 ask us to consider the shared custodianship and responsibility for our planet’s ecosystem as positive social values.
Dr Zara Stanhope is Curatorial Manager, Asian and Pacific Art, QAGOMA
Endnotes 1 Max Harris, The New Zealand Project, Bridget Williams Books, Wellington, 2017, p.202. 2 ‘In the Line of Fire’, The Economist, 4 August 2018, p.7. 3 Harris, p.214. 4 Tom Crompton, Common Cause: The Case for Working with our Cultural Values, WWF UK 2010, p.19, <https://assets.wwf.org.uk/downloads/common_cause_report.pdf>, viewed August 2018. Anthropocene is the name proposed for a new geological epoch defined by human impact on Earth. However, scientists remain wary of attributing human impact rather than drought on the geological definition of our current epoch. See Graham Lloyd, ‘Paper gets scientists hot under the collar’, The Weekend Australian, 11 August 2018, p.16. 5 Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner, ‘“Butterfly Thief” and the complex narratives of disappearing islands’, <https://www.kathyjetnilkijiner.com/butterfly-thief-and-complex-narratives-of-disappearing-islands/>, viewed August 2018. 6 Statement and poem by Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner, Climate Change Summit 2014 Opening Ceremony, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mc_IgE7TBSY>, viewed August 2018. 7 Damian Carrington, ‘Climate change on track to cause major insect wipeout, scientists warn’, The Guardian, 18 May 2018. 8 Anne Noble, artist statement [unpublished] for Song Sting Swarm 2012. 9 This collaborative installation comprises Donna Ong’s From the tropics with love 2016 and Robert Zhao Renhui’s The Nature Museum 2017. 10 Robert Zhao Renhui’s Christmas Island, Naturally 2015–16, a speculation on removing all species from the island, was seen in the 2016 Sydney Biennale. 11 Mookie Katigbak-Lacuesta, ‘Marta Atienza prize-winning “Our Islands” comes home’, ABS-CBN News, <http://news.abs-cbn.com/life/02/28/18/martha-atienzas-prize-winning-our-islandscomes-home>, viewed August 2018. 12 Harris, p.216.
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APT9 has been assisted by our Founding Supporter Queensland Government and Principal Partner the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body, and the Visual Arts and Craft Strategy, an initiative of the Australian, State and Territory Governments.
Anne Noble has been supported by Creative New Zealand.
Martha Atienza has been supported by the Australian-ASEAN Council.
We acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land on which the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art stands and recognise the creative contribution First Australians make to the art and culture of this country.