“Asian art research in Australia and New Zealand remains stubbornly diffuse. Specialists are often separated by institutional and disciplinary divides, as well as real (or perceived) geographic distances… Despite a rich tradition of Asian art scholarship here, distinct in significant ways from the field as it is practiced in Europe and North America, we still seem to lack a common platform from which to critically reflect on our histories and explore future directions for our work.”
Olivier Krischer and Stephen H. Whiteman, The State of Play in Asian Art Research in Australia and New Zealand
In 2015 Dr Olivier Krischer and Dr Stephen Whiteman organised a symposium ‘Asian Art Research’ with the Power Symposium at the University of Sydney. In response to the lack of a “common platform” earlier identified, Dr Olivier Krischer and Dr Chaitanya Sambrani held a meeting in 2016 at the Australian National University with Asian art researchers, creating the research and advocacy group the Australasian Network for Asian Art (an4aa). In 2018, another meeting was held at the University of Melbourne and today nearly six years later, with a global pandemic leaving researchers in Asian art in Australia even more physically isolated and diffused, an4aa continues to provide a crucial space of collegiality. Over 2020-2023 an4aa is being coordinated by members from the Australian National University and the University of Melbourne.
In 2021, as part of the Emerging Scholars Program at The Art Association of Australia and New Zealand’s (AAANZ) annual conference, an4aa organised a Postgraduate Workshop Event, Asian Art Research Now, supported by an event grant from the Asian Studies Association of Australia. The impetus behind the event was to provide a crucial space and an opportunity for early career researchers and graduate researchers to share, network and showcase their research. Emerging scholars were invited to present and receive feedback from an invited audience comprised of student supervisors, local and international academics as well as professional colleagues from the academic and museum sectors. The six presentations reflected the diversity, strength, and vitality of the field, providing a space of support for Asian art research in Australia today.
Several papers by Bic Tieu, Yiwon Park and Soo-Min Shim explored the experiences of being Asian-Australian, presenting practices emerging from the subjectivities of moving in between Asia and Australia. Bic Tieu, a PhD Candidate at the Australian National University shared her research on contemporary design and craft dialogues in Southeast Asia and Australia. Through an analysis of her own personal objects and artefacts she shared her practice that interweaves motifs from Chinese, Vietnamese and Australian cultures. Soo-Min Shim, also a PhD Candidate at the Australian National University presented on the performance art of Korean-Australian artist Lisa Myeongjoo, a Korean adoptee in Australia who interrogates nation-state histories and disrupts notions of the origin. Yiwon Park, a PhD Candidate at RMIT University similarly investigated her Korean-Australian identity in her practice, using elements of Korean shamanism in her multidisciplinary work. Her constructed motif of the ‘Jindgo’, a personal invention of the Korean Jindo dog and the Australian dingo, represents her experiences of cultural hybridity. Drawing on traditional practices, the papers demonstrated an artistic freedom to reinvent and readopt tradition and speak back to Asia.
Within her paper, Priyanka Jain’s paper similarly experimented with traditional artistic forms, specifically Indian erotic poetry from as early as 1000 BCE. In her presentation she shared her digital illustrations that bring together research from neuroscience, microbiology, phytochemistry and Indian art history to create a novel approach to Kama (pleasure, one of the goals of Hindu life). By exploring the theme of erotica, a theme that has often been suppressed by India’s colonial history, Jain’s work presents a form of decolonial art-making.
Meanwhile, Michael Bullock’s paper also took India as its place of investigation. Bullock’s paper was based on a photograph he took in Bangalore, India, at the Gujri, or junk-yard market in late 2013 in which the markets sold an arrangement of brass letters in the English alphabet. Analysing this image, Bullock revealed the complex ways that a single place acts as a local microcosm of the movement of cultures, and in particular languages. The paper was a much-needed reminder of the confluence of cultural influences and histories embedded in objects and materials during a time of border closures in the current pandemic.
Chris Parkinson’s paper similarly shared the effects of the pandemic on his research, looking at connections of collectives in the region of Southeast Asia, through examples of regional collective practice in Yogyakarta, Indonesia and Dili, Timor-Leste. Parkinson contextualised the work of SURVIVE! Garage, a community space and art shop in Indonesia established in 2009 and Animatism collective, a cross-cultural collective of East Timorese artists working on projects between Australia, East Timor and Indonesia. These two case studies emphasised the importance of global networks and working across borders.
Parkinson’s observations on the importance of collectivism and lateral connections were further echoed in the keynote presentations from the invited speakers. The keynote presentations of the workshop was titled Post-PhD Directions, and featured invited guest speakers Michelle Wun Ting Wong, Antariksa and Dr Sabine Cotte to share their experiences outside of conventional institutional academic work. As curators, conservators, artists and researchers their presentations canvassed a diverse array of research interests. At a time when academic security is precarious and the sector at large faces many risks, their insights into the crucial role of collaborative processes in research was an invigorating reminder of the strength of working with others in isolating times, especially to the early career and graduate researchers present in the audience.
Michelle Wun Ting Wong, now also a PhD candidate herself at the University of Hong Kong, shared her experiences as a curator and researcher at Asia Art Archive from 2012-2020. Initially working from within Hong Kong on the archives of artist Ha Bik Chuen, Wong provided insight into the Archive’s work within the region. She shared the important experience of collaborating within a team of researchers concluding that knowledge is produced not only through research but also through relationships.
Antariksa shared his experiences on the collective work of KUNCI Study Forum and Collective which was founded in 1999 in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. His presentation provided context on art infrastructures shaped by Indonesian local politics and history and the impetus for creating a self-directed, self-organised and collaborative group without institutional backing. KUNCI is a multidisciplinary space of anthropologists, historians, curators and artists that traverses boundaries geographically and epistemologically. With this philosophy in mind Antariksa shared his latest installation at Orange Regional Gallery, Co-Prosperity #5,the fifth iteration of an ongoing project that examines the Japanese occupation of Asia from 1931 to 1945. Drawing on hidden archives from Australian, Indonesian and Japanese collections, Antariksa advocated for research that is accessible to the public, showing methods of sharing research outside of conventional academic routes of publishing journals and books, and finding strength in communicating through performance, video, and art.
Dr Sabine Cotte also talked about empowering local communities in her conservation work in Southeast Asia, particularly working on living cultural heritage outside of the museum space. Cotte shared the process behind creating a handbook on preventative conservation for Dzongs (Bhutanese fortresses and monasteries) and Lakhangs (Bhutanese temples) in Bhutan from 1996-2000. Sharing her fieldwork notes, Cotte emphasised the importance of prioritising community needs, the agency of local community and local partnerships. She concluded that conservation is a social activity, fitting for an event that also aimed to foster a scholarly community.
The Postgraduate Workshop brought together researchers and thinkers across Australia who aim to bridge the divides between institutions and disciplines. The conversations fostered across the papers generated excitement and provocative questions for all attendees attesting to the strength of traversing institutional, geographic boundaries within the field of Asian art history. The event was a crucial reminder of the ongoing need to actively create platforms to “reflect on our histories and explore future directions for our work.”