Rewind: Above and Beyond: The Asian Connection

Simryn Gill, Fragment #4 from Wonderlust, 1996 (detail). Courtesy the artist and ACCA Archive

by Lesley Alway

In 1996 I was working at Arts Victoria to assist in the implementation of the Government’s radical new arts policy, Arts 21 that had been released in the latter part of 1994. Part of my role at that time was to develop the ‘International’ programs in the sixth Arts 21 Strategy ‘Delivering to Australia and the World’ which aimed to “…expand the arts industry’s interaction with rapidly growing regional, interstate and overseas markets.”  Almost twenty years later, this geographic scope of activity is expected and largely taken for granted in all levels of government cultural policy. However, from a State perspective, in 1994 this was revolutionary stuff as, prior to this, the accepted mantra (either real or imagined) was that Victorian taxpayers funds would never be used to fund arts projects beyond our shores, let alone the Albury/Wodonga border. We were encouraged by the then Director of Arts Victoria, Tim Jacobs, whom I succeeded in early 1997, to keep our eyes firmly ‘over the horizon’.

This expansionary and exploratory perspective was located in the broader governmental interest in re-conceptualising Australia’s position in the world and prioritising our relationship with Asia. This had also been championed by then Prime Minister, Paul Keating in the early ‘90’s culminating in the 1994 Commonwealth Cultural Policy, ‘Creative Nation’. Its global perspective of Asia/Australia cultural initiatives provided a context for the Above and Beyond exhibition and the developing interest between artists, curators and audiences in exploring the cultural dynamics between Australia and Asia. These early initiatives included the establishment of Asialink and its arts programs in 1991 under founding Director Alison Carroll, the ARX (Artist Regional Exchange) programs and exhibitions in WA and the successful instigation of the Asia Pacific Triennial in Queensland from 1993. Whilst many of the cultural policy initiatives were focused on market and export potential, targeting mature and established markets such as Japan and Singapore, increasing interest was also focused on developing countries such as China, India and South-East Asia.

Ah Xian, Three works from the Deduction #2 series, 1996. Courtesy the artist and ACCA Archive

The Asialink residency and touring exhibition programs were instrumental in developing Australian artists’ knowledge, networks and confidence to work in and with Asia. Of the thirteen artists included in the Above and Beyond Exhibition, eight of the artists had a previous, parallel or subsequent involvement with Asialink projects.  Simryn Gill, Emil Goh, Pat Hoffie, Lindy Lee, Kevin Todd, Judy Watson and John Young have all undertaken Asialink residencies or exhibitions and Joan Grounds was the first artist from Australia to travel to Asia in 1990 when she went to Thailand as part of the original Australia Council ‘Artists in our region’ residency program that transferred to Asialink in 1991.

As mentioned in much of the contemporary commentary, the exhibition coincided and overlapped with a number of other Asia/Australia cultural engagement projects including Rapport, an exhibition of eight artists from Singapore and Australia curated by Natalie King and Tay Swee Lin at the Monash University Gallery and Fire and Life curated by Alison Carroll, Julie Ewington, Victoria Lynn and Chaitanya Sambrani. This project paired five Australian artists: Jon Cattapan, David Jensz, Joan Grounds, Derek Kreckler and Judith Wright with five Indian artists: N.S Harsha, Surendran Nair, Jayashree Chakravarty, N.N. Rimzon and Pushpamala to undertake reciprocal residencies and touring exhibitions to Bangalore, Baroda, Brisbane, Canberra, Calcutta, Delhi, Melbourne, Mumbai, Perth and Sydney between 1996 and 1997.

Now in 2014, as Director of Asialink Arts and looking back at that very important cultural policy moment of the mid ‘90’s, it is intriguing to track the intersections and cross-currents of policies, programs, curators, artists and projects involved in exploring new territory and frameworks for Asia/Australian cultural relationships and exchange. Whilst operating in a rich context of interest and increasing activity in this area, independently the ACCA exhibition Above and Beyond: the Asian Connection made an important contribution to this new landscape that still resonates today, although so much has changed. Perhaps the key shift in consciousness centres on the perspective of globalisation that was not unsurprisingly characterised in the catalogue essay as “Westernisation” (p.4). Almost twenty years later it may now more realistically be called ‘Easternisation’.


Above and Beyond: The Asian Connection
2 August – 15 September 1996
Curated by Clare Williamson and Michael Snelling. Artists: Kate Beynon, Neil Emmerson, Simryn Gill, Emil Goh, Joan Grounds, Pat Hoffie, Lindy Lee, Alwin Reamillo, Kevin Todd, Judy Watson, Guan Wei, Ah Xian, John Young

In 1996 Lesley Alway was the Manager of Industry Development, Research and Information at Arts Victoria before becoming Director of Arts Victoria in early 1997. She has been a Board member of ACCA since 2009 and is currently Director of Asialink Arts whose role is to increase opportunities for cultural exchange between Australia and Asia and develop the international capability of the cultural sector.

*It was the Arts 21 policy that also made the public commitment to a redeveloped ACCA, as part of Strategy 2, ‘Providing World Class Facilities’.