Art review: Asia Triennial Manchester 11

This celebration of Asian art lacks ambition.

The Asia Art Triennial returns to Manchester for the second time, involving many of Manchester's visual arts venues, as well as the John Rylands Library and the Cathedral. It's a curious event, loosely curated to showcase contemporary visual art made by Asian artists or artists with Asian heritage, but somehow this is both too open and too specific to create genuine cultural dialogue. As a triennial it is not coherent enough; though in the individual venue programmes there is much to enjoy.

The stand-out exhibition is undoubtedly Rashid Rana's first major UK solo show at the Cornerhouse, Everything is Happening at Once. A rising star in Pakistan, India and other parts of Asia, Rana trained in the US before returning to Lahore. He has integrated aspects of the western art historical canon into Asian cultural imagery, creating works stuffed with intellectual content and formal substance. This solid historical base, referencing modernists such as Rothko, Riley, Gober and others, as well as pop art and op-art, anchors the works and makes them eminently readable. At the same time, his originality and vision as an artist moves the conversation forward in a very contemporary way. He reinterprets photography using digital imaging and photographic mosaic, which along with very strong themes creates striking images that stay in the mind. Red Carpet 1 (2007) mimics the textures, patterns and colours of a traditional Persian carpet. Closer inspection reveals the image is built from thousands of squares depicting the blood, guts and raw flesh of slaughtered abattoir animals. A second image, of five women in full burkah, is built from western pornographic images, suggesting an inter-relationship between the two subjects. There is plenty more besides, filling the three galleries, and is well worth a visit. Best ignore the wall interpretation though, which obfuscates more than elucidates.

The Utopia Group (consisting of Chinese artists He Hai, and Deng Dafei) have been in a month long residency at the Chinese Art Centre, the culmination of which was a playful, humourous, wonderfully absurd performance in which they rolled an enormous, slightly grubby textile ball around the city, using a backwards arse-in-air footkick.

Dark Matters is a cracking show at the Whitworth Art Gallery by British and international artists, conflating the ideas of shadow, illusion and technological interventions. It includes an intriguing new commission for the Triennial by Korean video artist Ja-Young Ku, which overlays recordings of physical actions that have taken place in the same space, in this instance, around the placing of a figurative sculpture, also present in real time and space.

There are attempts at dialogue and exchange, for example, Silsila at Jodrell Bank, a hypnotic sound and light piece that overlays Sufi qawwali singing on top of space activity translated into sound. It is immersive and meditative but as art slightly misfires. Similarly, Made for Manchester, a small exhibition of new craft work resulting from a North West-India exchange, lacks impact.

This Asia Triennial did not receive specific funding, but has been realised out of existing programme and organisational budgets. This has not best served the project; biennials and triennials are meant to be large-scale, bold, ambitious and even brash celebratory festivals of contemporary visual arts, international in nature and aspiration. Given that there are few high-profile opportunities in this country to make and present visual art that reflects a South Asian heritage, and Shisha, the driving organisation behind this event, are losing their core funding from April 2012, will it be possible to stage a worthwhile third Asia Triennial? It's hard to be optimistic.

Asia Triennial runs until 27 November

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Former MP Bob Marshall-Andrews: Why I’m leaving Labour and joining the Lib Dems

A former political ally of Jeremy Corbyn explains why he is leaving Labour after nearly 50 years.

I’m leaving home. It’s a very hard thing to do. All of my natural allegiances have been to Labour, and never had I contemplated leaving the party – not even in the gloomy years, when we were fighting Iraq and the battles over civil liberties. I have always taken the view that it’s far better to stay within it. But it has just gone too far. There has been a total failure to identify the major issues of our age.

The related problems of the environment, globalisation and the migration of impoverished people are almost ignored in favour of the renationalisation of the railways and mantras about the National Health Service. The assertion that Labour could run the NHS better than the Tories may be true, but it is not the battle hymn of a modern republic. It is at best well-meaning, at worst threadbare. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life talking about renationalising the railways while millions of people move across the world because of famine, war and climate change.

The centre left in British politics is in retreat, and the demise of the Labour Party has the grim inevitability of a Shakespearean tragedy. Ironically, history will show that Labour’s fatal flaw lay in its spectacular success.

Labour is, in essence, a party of the 20th century, and in those 100 years it did more to advance the freedom and well-being of working people and the disadvantaged than any other political movement in history. The aspirations of the founding fathers – access to education, health and welfare; equality before the law; collective organisation; universal franchise – have all to a large extent been achieved. The party’s record of racial and religious tolerance has been a beacon in a century of repression. These achievements have been enshrined in the fabric of British society and reproduced across the world.

The success brought deserved, unprecedented power and created political fortresses across the industrial heartlands of Britain. But with power, the party became increasingly moribund and corrupt. The manipulation of the union block vote at party conferences became a national disgrace. The Labour heartlands, particularly Scotland, were treated like rotten boroughs, and were too often represented by union placemen.

Instead of seeking a new radicalism appropriate to the challenges of the age, New Labour sought to ambush the Tories on the management of market capital and to outflank them on law and order: a fool’s errand. It inevitably succumbed to another form of corruption based on hubris and deceit, resulting in attacks on civil liberty, financial disaster and catastrophic war.

The reaction has been to lurch back to the status quo. The extraordinary fall from a massive majority of 179 in 1997 to a political basket case has been blamed on the false dichotomy between Blairism and the old, unionised Labour. Both have contributed to the disaster in equal measure.

I believe desperately in the politics of the 21st century, and Labour is at best paying lip service to it – epitomised in its failure to engage in the Brexit debate, which I was horrified by. The Liberal Democrats are far from perfect, but they have been consistent on Europe, as they were in their opposition to the Iraq War and on civil liberties. They deserve support.

But it’s a serious wrench. I’m leaving friends, and it hurts. Jeremy Corbyn was a political ally of mine on a number of serious issues. We made common cause on Tony Blair’s assaults on civil liberty and the Iraq War, and we went to Gaza together. He has many of the right ideas, but he simply has not moved into addressing the major problems.

To be blunt, I don’t think Corbyn is leadership material, but that is aside from politics. You need skills as a leader, and I don’t think he’s got them, but I was prepared to stick it out to see what happened. It has been a great, gradual disappointment, and Brexit has brought it all to the fore.

Frankly, I was surprised that he announced he was a Remainer, because I know that his natural sympathies have lain with a small cadre within Labour – an old-fashioned cadre that holds that any form of trade bloc among relatively wealthy nations is an abhorrence. It’s not: it’s the way forward. Yet there are people who believe that, and I know he has always been sympathetic to them.

But by signing up and then doing nothing, you sell the pass. Labour was uniquely qualified to confront the deliberate falsehoods trumpeted about the NHS – the absurd claims of massive financial dividends to offset the loss of doctors
and nurses already packing their bags – and it failed. Throughout that campaign, the Labour leadership was invisible, or worse.

At present, there is a huge vacuum on the centre left, represented in substantial part by an angry 48 per cent of the electorate who rejected Brexit and the lies on which it was based. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. There is no sign from Labour that the issue is even to be addressed, let alone actively campaigned on. The Labour leadership has signed up to Brexit and, in doing so, rejected the principles of international co-operation that Europe has fostered for half a century. That is not a place I want to be.

The failure to work with, or even acknowledge, other political parties is doctrinaire lunacy. And it will end very badly, I think. The centre left has an obligation to coalesce, and to renege on that obligation is reneging on responsibility. Not to sit on the same platform as other parties during the Brexit debate is an absurd statement of political purity, which has no place at all in modern politics.

The Liberal Democrats have grasped the political challenges of the 21st century as surely as their predecessors in the Liberal Party failed to comprehend those that faced the world a century ago. For that reason, I will sign up and do my best to lend support in my political dotage. After nearly 50 years as a Labour man, I do so with a heavy heart – but at least with some radical hope for my grandchildren.

Bob Marshall-Andrews was the Labour MP for Medway from 1997 to 2010.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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