The 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT9) & Artist Highlight #1

The first Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT) was held at Queensland Art Gallery (QAG) in 1993. According to the exhibition catalogue, this made QAG the first art institution to comprehensively address the art of the region. Further to this, the aim of the exhibition was not to place Brisbane at the heart of the Asia Pacific art world, but to better comprehend, appreciate and connect with powerful work by artists who had their fingers on the pulse, coming to the fore from a dynamic and rapidly changing region, of which Australia was a significant part.

Now in its 9th cycle, over the past 25 years, APT has welcomed more than 3 million visitors to both QAG and its counterpart, Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA, and collectively known as QAGOMA). Recognising its consistently fresh and captivating content, I took the opportunity to become one of APT’s millions of inspired guests when I visited Brisbane in late March. Overall, APT9 was expansive and immersive, sharing space with QAG’s permanent collection and occupying the entirety of GOMA. Until visiting and speaking with a guide at QAG, I didn’t realise that a significant number of APT works are commissioned especially for QAGOMA, that many of the artworks are site specific, and that the exhibited pieces become a part of the institution’s permanent collection. I have no idea where they keep all of this stuff – some of it is HUGE.

Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), home to most of the works represented in the 9th APT.
It’s older counterpart, Queensland Art Gallery (QAG), host for the earlier APTs, displayed
a handful of significant pieces, too.

The idea of trying to process and appreciate some 400 high-calibre, thought-provoking works by over 80 individuals in a day seemed pretty impossible to me, so, I decided to approach the mammoth task of seeking out the best on show by:

  • Joining a free guided tour of the APT9 works at QAG.
  • Joining a free guided tour of the APT9 highlights at GOMA.
  • Using some on-site software to generate two suggested itineraries (one to “amaze” and the other to “inspire”.)
  • Stopping at any artwork along the way that spoke to me, which I think is the best way to answer an invitation to engage with art.

Rather than attempting to recount all the works I spent time with throughout the day, here, and in future posts, I’d like to highlight some of the pieces I found particularly captivating. Let’s start with an Indigenous Australian Artist.

Alair Pambegan – Kalben

Alair Pambegan is a Wik-Mungkan man, living in the western Cape York community of Auruken, close to his country in north Queensland. His work is based on traditional stories handed down to him from his late father, a revered elder, lawman and artist, as well as custodian for significant ancestral story places and associated narratives.

Created for APT9, Pambegan’s sculptural installation, Kalben (2016-2017), tells the story of two young brothers who broke an initiation rite, which included refraining from hunting and eating particular animals. The brothers crept out of their camp and hunted down hundreds of bats, cooking them in a ground oven. Despite their plentiful catch, the brothers decided to resume their hunt, and intended to trap and cook more bats.

Alair Pambegan, Kalben (2016-2017). Installation view (left) and detail (right)
Carved wood with synthetic polymer paint and natural pigments, raffia.
107 pieces ranging from 14cm – 41cm, installation dimensions variable.
Purchased 2017, Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation.
Collection: Queensland Art Gallery

One of the brothers threw his spear at the bats and missed. The spear landed in a nearby river, and retrieving it took some time. It was while they tried to find the spear that some older men noticed the brothers’ absence from the camp. As they searched for the missing boys, they happened upon the ground oven and removed the covering. The bats – still alive – rushed from the earth and circled the brothers. They lunged towards them, plucked them from the ground, and carried them out far into the night sky.

Today, we can observe two dark patches within the Milky Way, and these blackened spots are the final resting places of the disobedient brothers, whose story serves as a reminder of the importance of following cultural law and protocol.

Pambegan’s work is made up of 107 carved wooden forms hanging by threads of raffia, painted with natural pigments; the red, black and white stripes referring to traditional body painting techniques of the Winchaman clan living near the river into which the spear from the tale of the two brothers was thrown. His interpretation of the story is lively and animated, and references the bats during the moment they burst free from the ground oven, before swarming towards and seizing the brothers, taking them to their place among the stars.

Pambegan’s wooden forms represent the swarm of bats escaping the ground oven, determined to capture the brothers who trapped them.

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