26 November 2015

/APT8/ The 8th Asia Pacific Triennial at the Qld Gallery of Modern Art

Words: Saskia Edwards 
Images: Jonathan Rae

“One thing that was really apparent to me and also very beautiful were the amount of saffron robes.

“It was almost as if the landscape was orange, that you couldn’t go to any parts of South East Asia without seeing this colour orange in your periphery and in your vision.”

That’s according to Cambodian-born American artist Anida Yoeu Ali, who’s described as one of the ‘rockstars’ of the APT8.

Her work at the exhibition centres on Cambodia as she takes on the persona of the Buddhist Bug.

Anida Yoeu Ali dresses as the Buddhist Bug in a long spiraling tube with feet sprouting out at its tail end. It’s somewhat Alice in Woderlandian - like the blue caterpillar. Of course, the fabric is that same vivid saffron that’s so evocative of Asia, Cambodia and Buddhism.

While being distinctly Buddhist, the bug also wears a sort-of hijab. As Anida says, it references the “Islam that my parents carried back to the U.S. with them that they preserved for me and then my rediscovery of Cambodian Buddhism”.

Anida left Cambodia when she was five years old. She lived through the Khmer Rouge, a period of Communist rule in Cambodia remembered for genocide. And this has resulted in dysphoria for Anida, with her life riddled with “war and the displacement and the refugee identity”.

However, Anida is not dwelling on the past.

“I felt this very palpable energy among my colleagues among the artist community in which there felt like a critical mass in which the artist community was finally addressing the present moment and not just locked in the time, in referencing the past, the past trauma. 

“So to me it was a really exciting part and I knew we had something special that intersected with the reign of progress and modernisation and urbanisation that’s happening at a tremendous rate in Cambodia while the level of poverty increased.”

Beyond a performance piece dressed as the Buddhist Bug, Anida presented a film as part of the exhibition. It follows the bug for a night in Phnom Penh.

She begins at a carnival where the rides drench her in neon light. And then she rides around the busy streets of the city, her head poking through the roof of a took-took. She goes past a market and to a nightclub. There she finds young Cambodian women - some “empowered”, others not - dancing in mini skirts and tank tops with old white men.

All of this captures something very elemental and visceral about Cambodia. On one hand it seems to show the progression of Cambodia and how it has been thrust into the luminous modern world. But also it reveals how the nation is still growing. People are still largely on bikes and scooters. There’s an insidious invasion of Western culture. And, in a way, it still has that wild untamed beauty of Asia - where food is cooked on the side of the road, traffic is monstrous and anything could happen.

As a whole, APT8 has a great focus on the Pacific. There’s an abundance of oceanic art. Often, it’s in a contemporary style, with live tattooing, performance art and photography. But it’s all weaved together with traditional icons. Plus, on the opening weekend there were a few people in ethnic dress - often part of installations - wandering around the gallery.

Of course, there’s more at APT8 than a person can really absorb. But take time, it’s worth it.

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