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

Ben Whishaw as Hamlet by Derry Moore, 2004 © Derry Moore
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The art of coming out: how the National Portrait Gallery depicts the big reveal

Portraits of gay celebrities, politicians and sports stars line the walls in a new exhibition called Speak Its Name!, marking 50 years of advances in gay rights.

I have a million questions for the doctor friend I’ve brought with me to the National Portrait Gallery. A million questions that, if I really think about it, boil down to: “Why were the Tudors so godforsakenly ugly?”

Inbreeding? Lead makeup? An all-peacock diet?

I don’t know why I assume she’ll know. She’s a neonatologist, not a historian. But I’m desperate for some of the science behind why these 500-year-old royals look, if these imposing paintings of them are anything to go by, like the sorts of creatures that – having spent millennia in pitch black caves – have evolved into off-white, scrotal blobs.

My friend talks about the importance of clean drinking water and the invention of hygiene. We move onto an extremely highbrow game I’ve invented, where – in rooms lined with paintings of bug-eyed, raw sausage-skinned men – we have to choose which one we’d bang. The fact we’re both gay women lends us a certain amount of objectivity, I think.


Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow by David LaChapelle, 1996 © David LaChapelle Courtesy Fred Torres Collaborations

Our gayness, weirdly, is also the reason we’re at the gallery in the first place. We’re here to see the NPG’s Speak its Name! display; photographic portraits of a selection of out-and-proud celebrities, accompanied by inspirational quotes about coming out as gay or bi. The kind of thing irritating people share on Facebook as a substitute for having an opinion.

Managing to tear ourselves away from walls and walls of TILFs (Tudors I’d… you know the rest), we arrive at the recently more Angela Eagle-ish part of the gallery. Eagle, the second ever British MP to come out as lesbian, occupies a wall in the NPG, along with Will Young, Tom Daley, Jackie Kay, Ben Whishaw, Saffron Burrows and Alexander McQueen.

Speak its Name!, referring to what was described by Oscar Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas as “the love that dare not speak its name”, commemorates 50 years (in 2017) since the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales.

“Exhibition” is maybe a grandiose term for a little queer wall in an old building full, for the most part, of paintings of probably bigoted straight white guys who are turning like skeletal rotisserie chickens in their graves at the thought of their portraits inhabiting the same space as known homosexual diver Tom Daley.


Tom Daley By Bettina von Zwehl, 2010 © Bettina von Zwehl

When you’re gay, or LBTQ, you make little pilgrimages to “exhibitions” like this. You probably don’t expect anything mind-blowing or world-changing, but you appreciate the effort. Unless you’re one of those “fuck The Establishment and literally everything to do with it” queers. In which case, fair. Don’t come to this exhibition. You’ll hate it. But you probably know that already.

But I think I like having Tudors and known homosexuals in the same hallowed space. Of course, Angela Eagle et al aren’t the NPG’s first queer inhabitants. Being non-hetero, you see, isn’t a modern invention. From David Hockney to Radclyffe Hall, the NPG’s collection is not entirely devoid of Gay. But sometimes context is important. Albeit one rather tiny wall dedicated to the bravery of coming out is – I hate to say it – sort of heart-warming.


Angela Eagle by Victoria Carew Hunt, 1998 © Victoria Carew Hunt / National Portrait Gallery, London

Plus, look at Eagle up there on the “yay for gay” wall. All smiley like that whole “running for Labour leader and getting called a treacherous dyke by zealots” thing never happened.

I can’t say I feel particularly inspired. The quotes are mostly the usual “coming out was scary”-type fare, which people like me have read, lived and continue to live almost every day. This is all quite mundane to queers, but you can pretty much guarantee that some straight visitors to the NPG will be scandalised by Speak its Name! And I guess that’s the whole point.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.