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Circles of connection, or blowing in the wind

AUSTRALIA IS OFTEN seen from abroad, and at home, as a land with no clear cultural core – apart from that of Indigenous Australia, which is not sufficient or appropriate to define the wider contemporary nation. This begs the question whether there is need for clearer definition.

I have worked in cultural exchange between Australia and Asian countries for twenty years, and established the Asialink arts program in 1991. I know a bit about cultural stereotypes and the urge for clarity. I see that clarity, which comes more easily for other societies, as both a gift and burden. The burden is to typecast their creative people, with a definition that they must deal with first. Australia′s seeming lack of a clear inner cultural core means that artists can be judged on their individual merits – there are fewer barriers to explain and overcome.

But labelled we are: culturally western, physically in the Asia-Pacific region, young (though we bring older cultures with us) and, depending on your position, confused – or diverse. A strange bird in the Asia-Pacific nest, but in that nest nevertheless.

 

THIS RAISES QUESTIONS about the position for our arts, and especially the visual arts. The Venice Biennale in 2009 seemed bigger and more desirable than ever. As I work with Asian countries I was keen to see their representation in this most splendid cultural fair. The title of the Biennale was Making Worlds. Like their countries′ political and economic development, the desire of Asian nations to be represented in Venice grows in both number and sophistication. Japan and Korea have pavilions in Giardini (the gardens on the north tip of the main islands) – Japan quite central, but Korea, like Australia, a bit on the edge.

There is no room for new pavilions in Giardini, so others, like China, have spaces tacked onto the other major site, the Arsenale. Taiwan has been there for years, well placed just next to San Marco, and last year, as ever, doing a professional job. (China′s effort, in contrast, was less than polished.) Hong Kong was there; Thailand put on a very amusing show near the railway station.

The best by far was Singapore: a sustained series of videos, movie banners and accoutrements by Ming Wong, paying homage to Singapore and Malaysian cinema after independence, but also analysing cultural mores in a multicultural society – through the interaction between style, culture, art and commerce. This work was also wonderfully sited, taking up the whole of the first floor of a palazzo midway up the Grand Canal, so the audience could move through rooms that looked like movie sets; sit, muse and look out at the canal, and wonder about a piece based on fifty-year-old cinema in an island state on the other side of the world.

Venice is great because it evokes other societies. The Venetians always looked east and were comfortable with their links to Constantinople but also, bearing in mind Marco Polo, far beyond. The city flows and seeps; it never had a wall, and the disintegrating light on the water seems to make a nonsense of barriers.

So it has been open to these Asian art incursions, but it hasn′t celebrated or especially acknowledged them (with the exception of China, but China is always the exception). To my knowledge, no artist from a national selection from the Asia-Pacific has ever won one of the major prizes. There isn′t a buzz around the Asian sites.

 

BEFORE WORKING WITH Asian art, I lived in Europe; I feel quite at home there, so what I am about to say is not for reasons of alienation or ignorance. More and more, Europe is a region unto itself. It tolerates others and at times expresses warm involvement, but isn′t deeply interested. And to think it might be interested is blowing in the wind. The European Union is a successful entity – the lack of passport checks and money changing has smoothed the bureaucratic paraphernalia of internal difference and in turn enhanced the sense of the European-ness in Europe.

Interest seems primarily to be in those closest to hand – the Eastern European states and the countries of the old Soviet empire – all with closer links to Europe than, say, Singapore, or Australia. It was clear at the Biennale: the Eastern European states, including notably Slovenia and Macedonia, flexed their muscle; there was real interest in the 'Stans′. There were shows of work from the Middle East and the 'terrorist′ states of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan – all responding to issues of Islamic involvement within and outside Europe.

The major non-European work in the curated part of the Biennale was that of the Japanese group Gutai from the 1960s. However, their work looks like European conceptualism and fits within the European aesthetic. It is in fact very different, coming from a Shinto focus on the importance of the action of making and a belief in the spirit within. This wasn′t explained.

The American Bruce Naumann got a lot of attention because he is a big name in twentieth-century art and it was a sort of homage, but he was a lonely figure. Australia and New Zealand seemed very far away.

The borders within Europe have collapsed for cultural exchange, but they have grown stronger around it. The EU has recognised that it needs to promote a greater engagement with Asia, partly in the face of the success of APEC, which excludes Europe. They created ASEM, the 'Asia-Europe Meeting′, which now has forty-five countries signed up, with Australia and Russia joining late in 2010. It has an associated arm, the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF) in Singapore, with forty staff. If you are getting confused by the acronyms, you are not alone. A meeting in Vietnam of ASEF in early 2010 debated the name, and expressed concern about its visibility. Professor Andras Balogh, the Hungarian Governor of ASEF, gave a keynote talk that mentioned a list of 'obstacles′ for cultural diplomacy. He included the 'weak interest and lack of enthusiasm of many, mainly European governments in the ASEM concept and activity′ and 'the diminishing role of Europe in the eyes of Asians′.

 

IN A BACKHAND way these comments confirm the importance of the Asia-Pacific region to Australia. On the same visit to Hanoi, in April 2010, watching 'Asian′ TV one night, I was conscious of the Australian voices throughout the networks: an Australian chef teaching Korean cooking on the Korean international TV service; the BBC interviewing the Australian creator of the Shanghai Expo opening ceremony; and another channel advertising an Australian accountancy firm, fronted by an Australian of Chinese background, all in ten minutes of channel surfing.

It makes such a contrast to the Australian presence in Europe. Many are keen to fly our cultural flag higher in Europe. I am not against this, but we can′t expect too much, nor spend too much of our few resources there.

A group of thirty senior Japanese and Australian visual art museum curators, academics and practitioners met in Tokyo and Sydney recently, talking about what 'could be done′. There were a number of recommendations.

One is the implementation of an Asia-Pacific-only ten-year program, The Utopia Project (copying a European program, Manifesta). Cities in the region would bid to host a visual arts program including exhibitions, residencies, workshops, education and community programs every two years. A city hosts it once, with the other members agreeing to support their people′s involvement, and it moves on: an Olympic games system, but without the competition.

The beauty is that the effort is once only, without the burden of an ongoing biennale; it is just for one region, so it keeps its focus and relevance; and the bureaucracy is tiny and cheap (after seventeen years Manifesta works well with just four staff). The first meeting of the core group of countries met in June in Singapore, and a second meeting is planned for Melbourne in November 2010.

A journalist friend of mine once explained why ten people dying in England got more newspaper coverage than four hundred in Bangladesh. It wasn′t that their lives were less worthy, it was they were less 'connected′ – we in Australia were more likely to understand the lives of the dead English people, to have been to their towns and even to know them, because of our history and circumstance.

The Venice Biennale is connected to Europe; Utopia could be an event that further connects the countries and peoples of the Asia-Pacific. We need, I believe, to think this way more and more, despite the desire to the contrary.

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