Soe Yu Nwe, Naga Maedaw serpent, 2018. Glazed porcelain, china paint, gold, and mother-of-pearl luster, 133 x 48 x 37 cm. Photo: © Soe Yu Nwe, Courtesy the artist

9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art

Brisbane, Australia

Queensland Art Gallery of Modern Art

Last year, I traveled to Australia for the first time, where I visited a range of superb arts institutions, all offering free admission to an enthusiastic public. In Brisbane, the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art had taken over the imposing, multi-storied QAGOMA. One of three significant Asian biennials to arrive on the international scene since the ’90s, the exhibition attracted some 600,000 visitors in 2015 and generated some 22 million dollars in revenue for the region—not bad for a free show.

The biennial and fair circuit is no longer a privilege afforded to those with enough affluence to visit Venice during the height of tourist season. Nowadays, most major cities contribute their own versions to the world stage. Whether such showcases factor into the homogenization or add to the diversification of art is debatable, but a proclivity for online escape does not negate their popularity. Worship at the altar of art has never been more rapturous.

APT9 delighted with its pageantry, featuring more than 400 pieces across mediums. Attendees of all ages and cultural backgrounds appeared appreciative, perhaps unaware of criticisms of the neo-colonial gaze presiding over such shows, as omnipresent curators crown the next “art world darlings.” In its defense, APT9 provided a space and critical context for work that looks beyond monetary value.

Inclusiveness at times threatened to drown the triennial in an excess of content limited only by the loose geographical phrase of “Asia Pacific.” Participating artists came from more than 36 countries, including “Asian” nations as varied as India, China, Iraq, and indigenous Australia, as well as locales as far flung as Berlin, the Netherlands, and Oregon. More a United Nations roll call than an exhibition delineated by geographical boundaries, the show possessed a dynamism of difference that propelled the visuals. Minimalism, conceptual art, performance, and installation interwove through discussions of the social and political, creating an atmosphere like a haberdashery bazaar.

Though no single, tidy construct could summarize such artistic wealth, one constant did emerge—the museum as modern-day secular church. Two artists in particular viscerally tapped into this transcendental devotion: Soe Yu Nwe and Pannaphan Yodmanee. Soe Yu Nwe’s intricate porcelain sculptures entranced visitors with their sinuous detail, while in an adjoining room, a crowd eagerly encircled Yodmanee’s complex, tiered installation, which almost doubled as a temple for Soe Yu Nwe’s seductive hybrid creatures.

In Soe Yu Nwe’s native Myanmar, the faithful present offerings to statues of Naga Mae Daw, the Serpent Dragon Queen who appears in stories of Buddha’s birth, in the hope of gaining prosperity through spiritual enlightenment. Though government authorities have historically disparaged these supernatural, folkloric narratives, in recent times statues of the Naga spirits have grown in number, decorating the altars of pagodas and temples around the country. It is said that possession by Naga Mae Daw is a real possibility, and Soe Yu Nwe’s elaborately conceived forms frozen in transformation between human and serpent encapsulate this alluring fear. Bones, horns, thorns, and open wounds twist from a smooth body etched with filigree and adorned with gold and jewelled accents. For Soe Yu Nwe, the wounding is both metaphysical and real, a metaphor for the pain experienced as an outsider (a third-generation ethnic Chinese) and a woman in Burmese society, branded as spiritually inferior to men. There is power in reclaiming one’s narrative, and Soe Yu Nwe’s sculptures epitomize this strength; they are organic and wild, with the delicate beauty of the rose, grown from a tangle of thorns.

As a child in Thailand, Yodmanee frequented a nearby Buddhist temple and was taught to paint by a monk. The more than 30,000 temples in Thailand are not just places of worship but gathering spots for the community, awash in vibrant colors and gnashing visuals incorporating mythical creatures from Thai folklore and Hinduism. Wood, stone, and metal combine to create everything from small statues to large friezes, as well as the architectural wonders of the temples. But with fewer people choosing a monastic path, many temples have fallen victim to abandonment and dereliction. Yodmanee’s installations re-create this disappearing culture in an explosion of materials and ideas, first pulled apart, then welded back together, like a construction site precariously hanging somewhere between completion and demolition. Building rubble—raw, broken, and potentially dangerous—is juxtaposed with intricate paintings, stenciling, miniature Buddhas, and sacred icons. These dizzying environments interrogate the tranquil “cosmic law and order” of Buddhism as a complex system, navigated in part by destruction and disorder.

While programming agendas often declare altruistic motives such as linking artists to new communities, revenue figures highlight how the modern preoccupation with money is never forgotten. Nonetheless, the human fascination with beauty, its opposite, and the mythic holds true. The art gospel is universal, and at its most freeing, it opens a portal of transcendence beyond and above the everyday.