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