Why Asian works are on the agenda Down Under

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 December, 2006, 12:00am

It's an incongruous sight: across the neo-classical facade of Sydney's major art museum, a building designed to reflect 19th-century ideals of a temple to art and civilising values, hangs a boldly coloured banner promoting an Asian art exhibition.

That exhibition - Goddess: Divine Energy - is both an indicator of the Art Gallery of New South Wales' (AGNSW) 21st-century direction and testament to the vision of its director, Edmund Capon, an Asian art specialist.

Capon, who speaks Putonghua, and was in the Far East section

of London's Victoria & Albert Museum before joining AGNSW in 1979, was convinced building an Asian arts department was a vital way forward for the gallery. 'I said at the outset that we should endeavour to do more about presenting the arts and culture of Asia. It took a while,' he says. 'In those days, Asia was off the institution's agenda.'

Almost 30 years on, that's no longer so. But there's no room for complacency, he says. 'This country has got to ... promote an appreciation of the arts of Asia. We see Asia as nothing more than an economic opportunity and there is a legacy of that if you look at the political and corporate worlds.'

Yet the visual arts can effectively promote understanding of the cultural development of Asia, he says.

Goddess: Divine Energy, the gallery's major current exhibition, has more than 150 sculptures and paintings exploring the role of the divine female in Hindu and Buddhist art. Works from India, Tibet and Nepal have been borrowed from international collections in Zurich, San Francisco and Varanasi.

They're displayed in four sections: goddesses in Hinduism and Buddhism, the Divine Mother (relating to nurturing power such as fertility symbols), and Yoga Tantra (goddesses represented by symbols such as mandalas).

Exhibition curator Jackie Menzies says it has broad appeal with increasing interest in eastern religions and philosophies 'as people search for spiritual models that help them in today's world'.

At the same time, in the AGNSW's newest wing, the Asian Galleries - a floating white glass and stainless steel cube pivoted with stainless steel lotus flowers - which opened in October 2003, another exhibition reveals the richness of its own Asian art collections.

Modern Chinese Prints: From We to Me, comprises 70 prints by 40 artists, following Chinese printmaking from the politicised artistic voices of the 1930s and subsequent decades to the post-Cultural Revolution era of self-discovery and personal expression.

That the gallery can stage this show from its own collection, which is valued at more than A$35 million (HK$214 million), also shows how far it's come under Capon's stewardship. When he joined, it had no Asian art department. Now the department, started in 1979, has education, research and lecture programmes and Chinese, Indian and Japanese curators. It has 720 square metres of exceptional new gallery space, and Australia's only scroll-mounting studio.

It has links with regional galleries, including the Hong Kong Museum of Art - borrowing most of its bronzes on display from Chinese museums - and a generous benefactor support.

'If you look at the collections of this gallery, no other aspect has been more shaped by the commitment of a few individuals,' Capon says. 'Until I could get it firmly into the institution's mind, it was really the realm of a few interested individuals.'

With the strategy first focusing on east Asia, China and Japan, the framework now must broaden to include the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, Capon says. 'People think Asia is one handy little grasp; Asia is half the planet,' he says. 'We don't talk about western art in such a glib way.'

The Goddess exhibition is one way of making such connections. Another is an exhibition he wants to develop looking at visual written languages across Asia.

Capon says that when he first arrived, not everyone shared his vision for the gallery's future. 'Everyone could see the logic and necessity of it, but I would say it was outside the genuine interest of almost the broad electorate,' he says. 'Asia is still quite a challenge [for gallery visitors]. But now I think people recognise that this is part of the fabric of the gallery.'

Goddess: Divine Energy, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Art Gallery Rd, The Domain, Sydney, ends Jan 28. Modern Chinese Prints: From We to Me, ends Jan 21. www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au or www.asianart.com.au