The Transcultural Dilemma: Asian Australian Artists in the Asia Debate

By Chiu, Melissa | Journal of Australian Studies, June 2000 | Go to article overview

The Transcultural Dilemma: Asian Australian Artists in the Asia Debate


Chiu, Melissa, Journal of Australian Studies


In spite often years of discussion, debate and exhibitions about Australia's relationship with Asia -- defined largely by cultural exchange as a theme -- the contribution of Asian Australian artists to this area has been relatively limited. Looking specifically at exhibitions, it is only in the last couple of years that touring exhibitions such as Rose Crossing (1999), institutional exhibitions such as Transit (1998) and large-scale projects such as the third Asia-Pacific Triennial (1999) have included significant numbers of Asian Australian artists. Reasons for these curatorial decisions revolve around complex issues of national representation and self-image, particularly when Australian identity is defined in relation to the Asia-Pacific region. The inclusion or, for that matter, exclusion of Asian Australian artists from similar exhibitions previously is not, however, the sole subject of this essay. Of particular interest is the curatorial rationale and theoretical framework underpinning such exhibitions, which in turn influences the selection of artists and work.

Perhaps the most persistent theoretical model of engagement between Australia and Asia evident in exhibitions has been one of bi-polarism. This has created a recurring problem in Australian exchanges with Asia, where the dominant Anglo-Australian culture and diverse Asian cultures are perceived in opposition to one another. The inclusion of Asian Australian artists seems to complicate this notion of dual yet irrevocable differences; because they fit into both categories, these artists are often perceived to be mediators between Australia and Asia.(1) The inclusion of Asian Australian artists also disrupts the notion of opposition between Australia and Asia by offering a more complex equation of difference. Yet, the idea that to simply include Asian Australian artists in exhibitions conveys a greater familiarity with Asia is similarly flawed since the majority of Asian Australian artists relate to Asia through a condition of diaspora. The following discussion demonstrates that bi-polarism remains a persistent model of engagement with Asia, evident in varying degrees in the exhibitions Out of Asia and the last three, Asia-Pacific Triennials. A survey of other exhibitions such as Here Not There, Above and Beyond and Transit reveals that in spite of calls for a new culture of exchange and the nominal inclusion of some Asian Australian artists, vestiges of bi-polarism continue to resonate. Nowhere is this more evident than in the consideration and discussion of work by Asian Australian artists.

One of the most striking manifestations of bi-polarism as an exhibition strategy for considering Asia is the use of theoretical concepts of `Otherness'. As the first major exhibition to address a relationship with Asia, Out of Asia featured work by ten contemporary artists: Micky Allan, Tony Clark, Matthys Gerber, Pat Hoffie, Tim Johnson, Geoff Lowe, Fiona MacDonald, Susan Norrie, Robert Owen and Gareth Sansom. The exhibition was held at the Museum of Modern Art at Heide in 1990 and later toured to Sydney and Canberra. Although there are problems associated with the curatorial framework of Out of Asia, the exhibition is significant in so far as it indicates the beginning of a new consideration of Asia in the visual arts. Prior to this, exhibitions such as The Asian Interface: Australian Artists and the Far East at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1983 and East and West: The Meeting of Asian and European Art at the Art Gallery of South Australia in 1985 exclusively illustrated the historical context for Asian influences on Australian art. Out of Asia also cited Asia as a source of inspiration for the artists and works, but the exhibition differed from previous shows in so far as it focused on the impact of Asia on contemporary Australian art.(2) Out of Asia also influenced a spate of other exhibitions that referred to Asia as a wellspring of artistic inspiration including Asian and Oceania Influence (1995) curated by Nick Waterlow at the Ivan Dougherty Gallery in Sydney. …

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