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Exhibition Review Of The 21st Sydney Biennale: 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art

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Exhibition Review Of The 21st Sydney Biennale: 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art
"Xīní / Xuělí Blue Room" (2018) by Jun Yang. Image courtesy of the artist; Galerie Martin Janda, Vienna; Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou; and ShugoArts, Tokyo.

The 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art in Sydney was created to galvanise understanding of Asian art, and develop the relationship between Australia and the wider Asian region. 4A is a venue partner of this year’s 21st Biennale of Sydney: SUPERPOSITION: Equilibrium & Engagement, exhibiting two works of art by prominent Asian artists from 16 March to 11 June. Chinese installation artist Jun Yang has transformed the bottom level of the gallery with his work, Becoming European or How I Grew Up with Wiener Schnitzel (2015-ongoing). Meanwhile, Our Songs - Sydney Kabuki Project (2018), the work of Japanese film artist Akira Takayama, occupies the top floor. Both artists interrogate and analyse issues of movement and migration in regards to the contemporary phenomenon of globalisation. Their concerns reflect the entire curatorial premise of the 21st Biennale from personal and global perspectives. Indeed, this year is the first Biennale of Sydney with a non-Western director, Mami Kataoka, who is the Chief Curator at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo. She states in her curatorial statement that she is particularly looking to examine unprecedented movements of people across the globe. With more contact between nations, the issues of ‘Equilibrium and Engagement’ arise. Hence, Kataoka borrows the term ‘Superposition’ from quantum physics, a term that affirms that two things in dialectical opposition are still able to co-exist. Both Yang and Takayama illustrate this concept of ‘Superposition’ as they balance contrasting cultures in a globalised world.

Entering the 4A space, visitors are greeted by bright yellow chairs and tables which welcome and invite audiences to join, to discuss, and to watch Yang’s video installation. His voice fills the space as he provides insight into his experience of migration to Europe, when his family relocated from China to Austria when he was four. Now based in Yokohama, Vienna and Taipei, Yang reflects upon his childhood memories of his family opening a Chinese restaurant in Vienna. As he narrates his incredibly personal experience, the screen shows him searching ‘Chinese Restaurant’ in Google Images. A tension is created between Yang’s subjective spoken memories and Google’s ostensibly ‘objective’ visual information. Yang’s specific stories contrast with the formulaic google images of Chinese restaurants that appear on the screen, all nearly identical in their choice of red decor and interior design. In observing these Google Images, the viewer is asked to question what tools and vehicles are used to construct identities and to construe understanding in an attempt to overcome cultural differences. Google itself is seen as a societal tool that we privilege and presume to be trustworthy. This tension is indicative of a greater condition in which society and individuals are caught in an incessant dialogue of negotiation.

"Xīní / Xuělí Blue Room" (2018) by Jun Yang. Image courtesy of the artist; Galerie Martin Janda, Vienna; Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou; and ShugoArts, Tokyo.

Yang's work was originally displayed in 2012 as a lecture performance that took place in numerous cities around the world titled Europe (to the power of) n (2012). The Google search is repeated depending on the location of the work exhibited, resulting in different images surfacing from the repository, thereby reflecting the region in which the work is exhibited. At 4A, Yang used Australian Google, asking us to further place these questions in an Australian context.

The video is part of a larger installation, Xīní/Xuělí Blue Room (2018) which consists of wallpaper adorning the walls of the 4A space’s lower floor. The bright blue wallpaper is designed with motifs of Sydney’s icons, including the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House. However, these images have been painted by a traditional Chinese landscape ink painter who has never seen these sights in person or visited the city. As a depiction of an imagined fantasy, the wallpaper then acts as a metaphor for our attempts to understand foreign cultures. Incorporated into the architecture of the space, the work engages in dialogue with the site itself, asking, what exactly represents Sydney? How do we understand this city? Is it from Google Images, from artistic recreations, from hearsay or personal stories? What images are fed into mass consciousness to construct public imagination?

"Xīní / Xuělí Blue Room" (2018) by Jun Yang. Image courtesy of the artist; Galerie Martin Janda, Vienna; Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou; and ShugoArts, Tokyo.

 

Yang's video continues by discussing the refugee crisis. The work was produced in 2015 in response to the European migrant crisis, when thousands of refugees fled to Europe. Many of these refugees stopped by Vienna and Yang asks us to think about the movements of people around the world. Finally, Yang concludes his monologue with a declarative statement about his identity.  He states that he is “From China. From Vienna. Or Europe. Saying these things not to make oneself more exotic... but to confuse and disrupt for one moment. To push and challenge these existing definitions of what it means to be an Austrian, a Chinese.” For many Asian artists who move abroad, their identity is tested and contested. Yang’s statement is characteristic of many diasporic Asians who come to identify as Asian-American, Asian-Australian, Asian-Austrian and so forth. Yang’s ruminations are relevant insights into the experience of diaspora, both traumatic and nourishing.

Akira Takayama continues Yang’s discussion of the impact of globalisation on heritage and identity upstairs. From the communal area downstairs, a visitor ascends, following the sound of singing that bleeds from a dark theatre. The visitor must part red curtains to enter the theatrical space, apt considering Takayama’s background as a theatre director. In the long rectangular space, five seats face a video projection at one end. His work, Our Songs - Sydney Kabuki Project (2018) is inspired by a 400-year-old form of Japanese theatre, Kabuki Theatre. Collaborating with filmmaker Hikaru Fuiji, Takayama uses the theatre set to present the stories of everyday Sydney residents. On Sunday 28 January 2018, 76 Sydney-siders congregated at Sydney Town Hall to share their cultural traditions in 42 languages by performing a poem or song passed down from ancestors and across nations. The result is a poignant, cinematic video work running just over four hours. Every performer walked along a specially constructed raised path—a hanamichi, which is a traditional element in Kabuki Theatre—where they approached the microphone and performed to completely empty seats. The seats are left vacant for the ancestors of the participant as well as for future generations to occupy. No rehearsals were held and it was not a requirement for participants to be professionally trained in art, song or theatre. Most volunteers performed in acapella (some performing with an instrument), so that the work privileged their voices, reflecting Takayama’s aim to elevate the oral histories of Sydney’s citizens.  Performer after performer enter and exit in this touching meditation on the intangible, subjective fabric of place.

"Our Songs – Sydney Kabuki Project" (2018) by Akira Takayama. Image courtesy of the artist and 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art.

In two rows at the other end of the dark narrow space are all the participants’  testimonies written on A4 pieces of paper and hung up on the back walls. They explicate the stories, the songs, and the poems. There are recounts of mothers singing to children, and of grandmothers singing to grandchildren now separated geographically, physically or temporally. These handwritten pages are a literal evocation of human trace and presence, altering the palimpsest of the official history of cities. The A4 pieces of paper seem to suggest that it is the individual lives within cities that we should celebrate as they shape place, beyond monuments or architectural feats. In particular, in Takayama’s celebration of Sydney’s different cultures, his theatre is transformed into a microcosm of the world that evokes the twin themes of the biennale: ‘equilibrium and engagement.’

"Our Songs – Sydney Kabuki Project" (2018) by Akira Takayama. Image courtesy of the artist and 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art.

"Our Songs – Sydney Kabuki Project" (2018) by Akira Takayama. Image courtesy of the artist and 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art.

4A is nestled in Sydney’s Chinatown, and as one enters or leaves the gallery, they pass by a number of Chinese restaurants. One thinks of Yang and his family and their Chinese restaurant in Vienna. As people pass by, they speak in a plethora of different languages, the hum of their different mother tongues echoing the songs and poems performed in Takayama’s theatre. Both works and their interest in acculturation and assimilation resonate through the streets of Sydney, whose demographic is constantly shifting, with Asian-Australians now occupying up to 11.82-16.15% of Australia’s population. Takayama and Yang provide a nuanced portrait of identity (both of individual people and of places) in a world increasingly characterised by collapsing borders and reshifting geographical barriers.

 

The 21st Biennale of Sydney is on view at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art until 11 June 2018.

 

 


Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.



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