In the sphere of art galleries, unless you’re a major public institution, to keep on going after three to four years is a feat. Usually, in this time, the gap in the art world that the gallery intended to fill will no longer feel so gaping, and the individuals who founded the gallery may instead turn to other projects. With that in mind, 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art in Haymarket is both outstanding in its commitment to stay open over two decades, and damning in that contemporary Asian art is still not fully appreciated across the Australian artistic landscape.
But, perhaps this is not so much of a surprise. Founded in 1996 in opposition to Pauline Hanson’s first foray into Australian politics, 4A was stridently political from the outset. For current curator Mikala Tai, this founding principle still animates the gallery today.
“I feel that the work that we do here is still intimately connected with those initial ideas.” Naturally, however, the way in which these ideas are presented has shifted over the gallery’s 22-year history. “I think they were probably based in that first moment with fury and now probably its replaced with a bit more passion. We're less kind of hotly responsive and more thoughtful, conceptually responsive.”
Undoubtedly, things have changed in terms of the representation of Asian artists and artworks in the Australian mainstream. The headline example is that this year the director of the Sydney Biennale is Mami Kataoka, the chief curator of the Mori Art Museum in Japan. Tai sees this change filtering down into major Australian galleries, “In 1996 there was hardly any shows about contemporary Chinese art or contemporary South East Asian art [but] now you'll be able to find Chinese art or an Indonesian artist in one of our major galleries.”
Despite this limited progress, Australian art museums are still not fully reflective of Australia’s ethnic and cultural diversity, which, according to Tai limits the visiting public to white Australians. “The reason why the majority of people don't go to museums or galleries is because they don't think there is something there for them.”
This is something that 4A has been actively working to change. 4A has always been in Sydney’s Chinatown, first on Sussex Street and now in Hay Street where it reflects the composition of its immediate community while also reaching out to Asian-Australian communities across Sydney and increasingly, across Australia.
“One of the things we've been doing over the last two years,” noted Tai, “was branching out and making us a bit less concretely tied down … working in Perth or Melbourne or Young in NSW.”
In April this year, the first in a two-part exhibition entitled the Burrangong Affray which contends with race riots in the 19th century goldfields will be held by 4A in Young, where the riots took place, before it returns to Sydney in June. 4A will also be present at Art Central in Hong Kong with performances by Australian performance artist Caroline Garcia. These programs extend the gallery’s presence from central Sydney to audiences nationally and internationally, something that Tai argues allows 4A to work around the limitations of the space it is housed in.
“The gallery; it's a small, old, heritage listed building with challenges that can sometimes constrict what you can do so we're trying to work outside those physical boundaries. We've always said we're a national organisation, which we have always been, but now we're actively programming for a national audience.”
This has also allowed 4A to grow the range of artists and audiences that it works with. In past years, 80 percent of the artists who applied for 4A Beijing Studio Program were from Sydney. Last year, however, only 30 percent were. Similarly, 4A’s collaboration with Fairfield Parent’s Café has enabled the gallery to provide a stepping stone into the city as well as a way to engage with art for some who may not be so familiar with the white walls of a gallery.
Tai explained the practice and purpose of this partnership as “4A is always open and you can use the bathroom and it's a safe place. Someone will wave at you and someone will give you a glass of water and then that's an entry point into the city, you can come via a cultural institution, and that kind of fundamentally shifts how people engage with the art.”
This speaks to the fundamental vision of 4A, to complicate art history from the perspective of Asian-Australia. 4A, which commissions 70 percent of the work that it shows, presents a challenge to the canon of art history which either excludes art not produced in North America and Europe or does not account for the complex, ongoing and diverse quality of art that is being produced outside of these centres.
For Tai this involves both recalibrating our understanding of what Asian art is or might look like as well as turning our focus to the connections that happen within Asia and not just between Asia and the West.
“I think we're moving away from the idea of Asia as a geographical space and more of as a question. If an artist defines [their work] as a response to Asia or artists themselves define themselves as engaging with Asia or in an Asian context then that's relevant for us … we are now uncovering that [artistic] exchanges are happening between Jakarta and Shanghai or Singapore and Karachi.”
The visceral reality of these connections is currently on show at 4A. Lee Kun-Yong: Equal Area includes both the re-performance of some of the artist’s classic works and collaborations between Lee and Australian artists Daniel von Sturmer, Emily Parsons-Lord and Huseyin Sami. You can find the schedule of the performances here:
4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art
181-187 Hay Street, Sydney
Tue - Fri 11:00 - 17:00 / Thursday Nights open until 20:00