Asia Triennial Manchester 2011

I haven’t been up to Manchester for nearly a year, so I was delighted when All Points North invited me to go up to take a look at Asia Triennial Manchester 2011.

Asia Triennial, showcasing a range of exhibitions, events and commissions across multiple venues in the city, first took place in 2008. The brainchild of Shisha, an agency promoting South Asian craft and visual art in the UK, Asia Triennial aims to offer a diverse and comprehensive survey of Asian art. Following on from the 2008 offering, 2011 saw the Triennial return for its second incarnation, an ambitious festival bringing together 17 venues, 40 artists and 32 new commissions. Here’s my review of a handful of the exhibitions that are on offer – unfortunately all I was able to see in a single day…

Image credit: Brass Art, 'Still Life No.1', 2011.
(3D objects in acrylic polymer, light source, table in black box environment.Dimensions variable)

Dark Matters at the Whitworth is an intelligent and sophisticated group show, bringing together a variety of contemporary work exploring shadows, darkness, illusion and technology. There are in fact only a couple of Asian artists in the exhibition, Hiraki Sawa from Japan and Ja-Young Ku from Korea, but nonetheless it made an impressive start to my ATM 11 experience.

Appropriately enough, there’s an element of phantasmagoric playfulness to many of the works in this exhibition. Daniel Rozin’s 'Snow Mirror', for example, initially appears to be simply a projection of the grey ‘snowstorm’ we associate with a disrupted TV signal, but come closer and we soon realise that we ourselves are appearing as ghostly figures on the screen. Meanwhile, Barnaby Hoskins’ 'Black Flood' surrounds us with four walls on which simultaneous video projections play out images of inky, turbulent waters. Outside, 'Thoughts', an installation by the same artist, sees a series of three-dimensional butterfly wings scattered across the gallery walls casting delicate shadows. However it is a new commission from the collective Brass Art that for me was the standout piece in this exhibition. Recalling early 19th century technologies such as zoetropes and magic lanterns, 'Still Life No. 1' is an enchanting installation in which a glittering array of transparent figurines and delicate cellophane constructions is illuminated by a travelling light source, sending a magical carousel of shadows playing across the gallery walls.

The exhibition is accompanied by a variety of works exploring the same themes from the Whitworth’s collection, by artists ranging from Francis Bacon to Anish Kapoor. Showing alongside it is Air Pressure, a thoughtful video work by Angus Carlyle and Rupert Cox, which precisely evokes the distinctive atmosphere of a farm situated on the edge of Japan’s Nara Airport runway.

 Image credit: Rashid Rana 'Desperately Seeking Paradise 2' 
Installation view at Cornerhouse Manchester 
Courtesy of Tiroche Deleon Collection & Art Vantage Ltd

Along Oxford Road, Cornerhouse plays host to a very different exhibition. Everything is Happening at Once is the UK’s first solo show by the prominent Pakistani artist Rashid Rana.

Like many of the artists in Dark Matters, Rana is concerned with exploring and interrogating the photographic image, combining sculpture, photography and video to blur the boundaries between two and three dimensional image making. However, unlike the quiet, dimly-lit Whitworth galleries, here we find ourselves in a more disquieting space, in which pixellated cubes reveal themselves as defamiliarised representations of ordinary household objects such as a fridge or a vase of flowers, whilst photomosaic images of veiled women are, on close inspection, composed from numerous tiny pornographic images. Whilst these powerful works have no doubt provoked debate, it was the more ambiguous sculptural installation, 'Desperately Seeking Paradise II' with its bold lines and angled mirrors that was, for me, the most interesting work in this ambitious exhibition.

Image credit: Ozman Bozkurt PiST//// 
Life in the UK / Balance of Probabilities installation in Castlefield Gallery Manchester 2011

Not far away, Life in the UK/Balance of Probabilities at Castlefield Gallery is another debut – this time the first UK commission by Istanbul-based Didem Ă–zbek and Osman Bozkurt of PiST///. This exhibition sees Castlefield transformed into a temporary Visa Application Centre: entering the gallery is immediately unsettling, as we find ourselves stepping through a metal detector and accept a ticket from a machine, simulating the experience of entering a Visa Application Centre in Turkey. Inside the gallery, a variety of multiartform works explore related issues such as identity, migration, borders, power and control, employing both real stories and fiction with a pleasing touch of dark comedy.

Image credit: Adeela Suleman Drained 2011 - detail

 Whilst the Castlefield show is hard to miss, you might have to look more carefully in the dimly-lit interior of Manchester Cathedral to find the ATM 11 commission Drained from Adeela Suleman, an artist from Karachi known for her sculptures that appropriate household objects. Situated in the nave of the cathedral, this glittering, spiky spiral constructed from metal drain covers has strangely meditative properties, and is surprisingly well-suited to its gilt-edged, grand surroundings.

I finished my visit with a trip to Chinese Arts Centre, who have created Institution for the Future as their contribution to ATM 11. This exhibition showcases the work of art collectives and small, independent artist groups who are actively engaged with their local arts infrastructure, and are interested in exploring the question of what kind of art institutions we might need from the future. The collective ruangrupa’s artist-led space survival kit transforms the gallery floor and walls with a cheerful clutter of artist materials, camping equipment, useful literature and scribbled ideas, whilst a number of video installations create the sense of a throng of voices engaged in lively debate. A bold poster created for the 2008 Taipei Bienniale by Jun Yang, immediately grabs our attention, posing direct questions about the future of the institutions of art and challenging the audience themselves to help supply the answers.

Image credit: Jun Yang, Galerie Martin Janda Vienna, Vitamin Creative Space Beijing, ShugoArts Tokyo 
(Institution for the Future, Chinese Arts Centre)

There’s so much more to see in this year’s Asia Triennial Manchester, but even this small selection of exhibitions offered up an intriguing variety of work.  Critics have suggested that this year’s Triennial is too vague and incoherent, and certainly the declared themes of time and generation are sometimes hard to draw out. Dany Louise, writing for the New Statesman, describes it as ‘a curious event, loosely curated.... somehow… both too open and too specific to create genuine cultural dialogue.’ Yet for me, it was this openness, this looseness that ultimately gave ATM 11 its strength, providing it with the space and freedom to challenge the conventions and stereotypes of what today’s art from Asia might be. Coherent it may not be, but Asia Triennial Manchester is certainly a richly varied and celebratory showcase of contemporary Asian art.

This review was written for All Points North and is also published on the All Points North website here. Check out the website for more reviews and information about contemporary art events and festivals happening in the North East, North West and Yorkshire and Humber regions this Autumn