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

Photo: Getty
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Sean Spicer's Emmys love-in shows how little those with power fear Donald Trump

There's tolerance for Trump and his minions from those who have little to lose from his presidency.

He actually did it. Sean Spicer managed to fritter away any residual fondness anyone had for him (see here, as predicted), by not having the dignity to slip away quietly from public life and instead trying to write off his tenure under Trump as some big joke.

At yesterday’s Emmys, as a chaser to host Stephen Colbert’s jokes about Donald Trump, Sean Spicer rolled onto the stage on his SNL parody podium and declared, “This will be the largest audience to witness an Emmys, period.” Get it? Because the former communications director lied about the Trump inauguration crowd being the largest in history? Hilarious! What is he like? You can’t take him anywhere without him dropping a lie about a grave political matter and insulting the gravity of the moment and the intelligence of the American people and the world. 

Celebs gasped when they saw him come out. The audience rolled in the aisles. I bet the organisers were thrilled. We got a real live enabler, folks!

It is a soul-crushing sign of the times that obvious things need to be constantly re-stated, but re-state them we must, as every day we wake up and another little bit of horror has been prettified with some TV make-up, or flattering glossy magazine profile lighting.

Spicer upheld Trump's lies and dissimulations for months. He repeatedly bullied journalists and promoted White House values of misogyny, racism, and unabashed dishonesty. The fact that he was clearly bad at his job and not slick enough to execute it with polished mendacity doesn't mean he didn't have a choice. Just because he was a joke doesn't mean he's funny.

And yet here we are. The pictures of Spicer's grotesque glee at the Emmy after-party suggested a person who actually can't quite believe it. His face has written upon it the relief and ecstasy of someone who has just realised that not only has he got away with it, he seems to have been rewarded for it.

And it doesn't stop there. The rehabilitation of Sean Spicer doesn't only get to be some high class clown, popping out of the wedding cake on a motorised podium delivering one liners. He also gets invited to Harvard to be a fellow. He gets intellectual gravitas and a social profile.

This isn’t just a moment we roll our eyes at and dismiss as Hollywood japes. Spicer’s celebration gives us a glimpse into post-Trump life. Prepare for not only utter impunity, but a fete.

We don’t even need to look as far as Spicer, Steve Bannon’s normalisation didn’t even wait until he left the White House. We were subjected to so many profiles and breathless fascinations with the dark lord that by the time he left, he was almost banal. Just your run of the mill bar room bore white supremacist who is on talk show Charlie Rose and already hitting the lucrative speaker’s circuit.

You can almost understand and resign yourself to Harvard’s courting of Spicer; it is after all, the seat of the establishment, where this year’s freshman intake is one third legacy, and where Jared Kushner literally paid to play, but Hollywood? The liberal progressive Hollywood that took against Trump from the start? There is something more sinister, more revealing going here. 

The truth is, despite the pearl clutching, there is a great deal of relative tolerance for Trump because power resides in the hands of those who have little to lose from a Trump presidency. There are not enough who are genuinely threatened by him – women, people of colour, immigrants, populating the halls of decision making, to bring the requisite and proportional sense of anger that would have been in the room when the suggestion to “hear me out, Sean Spicer, on SNL’s motorised podium” was made.

Stephen Colbert is woke enough to make a joke at Bill Maher’s use of the N-word, but not so much that he refused to share a stage with Spicer, who worked at the white supremacy head office.

This is the performative half-wokeness of the enablers who smugly have the optics of political correctness down, but never really internalised its values. The awkward knot at the heart of the Trump calamity is that of casual liberal complicity. The elephant in the room is the fact that the country is a most imperfect democracy, where people voted for Trump but the skew of power and capital in society, towards the male and the white and the immune, elevated him to the candidacy in the first place.

Yes he had the money, but throw in some star quality and a bit of novelty, and you’re all set. In a way what really is working against Hillary Clinton’s book tour, where some are constantly asking that she just go away, is that she’s old hat and kind of boring in a world where attention spans are the length of another ridiculous Trump tweet.

Preaching the merits of competence and centrism in a pantsuit? Yawn. You’re competing for attention with a White House that is a revolving door of volatile man-children. Trump just retweeted a video mock up where he knocks you over with a golf ball, Hillary. What have you got to say about that? Bet you haven’t got a nifty Vaclav Havel quote to cover this political badinage.

This is how Trump continues to hold the political culture of the country hostage, by being ultra-present and yet also totally irrelevant to the more prosaic business of nation building. It is a hack that goes to the heart of, as Hillary's new book puts it, What Happened.

The Trump phenomenon is hardwired into the American DNA. Once your name becomes recognisable you’re a Name. Once you’ve done a thing you are a Thing. It doesn’t matter what you’re known for or what you’ve done.

It is the utter complacency of the establishment and its pathetic default setting that is in thrall to any mediocre male who, down to a combination of privilege and happenstance, ended up with some media profile. That is the currency that got Trump into the White House, and it is the currency that will keep him there. As Spicer’s Emmy celebration proves, What Happened is still happening.