Neil Roberts

Barrett-Lennard, John,

"'a' is for artist, 'r' for regional, 'x' for exchange"

Eyeline, Review, ARX3 Issue 1993.

John Barrett-Lennard

ARX 3, in April 1993, was the third in a series of major biennial contemporary art events held in Perth. Planned as a project for and by artists, ARX (Artists’ Regional Exchange) has operated as a forum for meeting and exchange between participants from our immediate geographic region. With artists—and critics, curators and administrators—from Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and New Zealand, and with dialogue at the forefront of the program (much more so than large scale exhibitions, although these are not precluded) ARX has, since 1987, provided a very significant meeting point and an important site from which to consider the relations—possible, actual and desirable—between certain Australian artistic cultures and others within our environs.

The stress within ARX on artists as the event’s primary focus, and on their central (and perhaps exclusive) role in the creation and understanding of culture can be linked to the ANZART events which preceded it in the early 80s, and in turn connected to Mildura Sculpture Triennials of the late 70s. ANZART was based on ideas about the value of direct artist-to-artist exchange, free from the mediation of gallery or curatorial structures, without the expectations raised by major public exhibitions, and linking artists from across the Tasman for a consideration of their parallel, and divergent, experiences. The visible component of the events concentrated on ephemeral or marginalized activities—installation, performance, sound or video works—stressing critical engagement in a non-commercial, non-traditional and self consciously radical approach, and frequently used alternative non-gallery venues.

ARX 3 brought together over fifty artists, curators, critics and writers, along with an assortment of other arts professionals as observers. Over a two week period there were performances, film and video programs, artist’s talks, and short-term exhibitions and installations. A three day symposium concluded the event with a series of formal papers and panel discussions. In two primary venues, the University of Western Australia’s Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery and the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (PICA), the exhibitions demonstrated an assortment of influences, media and artistic concerns. With the event loosely structured around three thematic areas—the relations of the modern and modernism to traditional forms and practices, contemporary art in social, economic, political and environmental contexts, and art in the future—and with the range of artists and cultures involved there was no unifying perspective available, no single coherent statement that could be made or identified.

While much of the work addressed, at some level, the dynamics of cultural exchange and transition few works brought that to the forefront. The beaten metal nameplates commissioned by Australian artist Neil Roberts during a pre-ARX residency in the Philippines set up questions about economic power and the place of the exotic, and attracted immediate criticism. Roberts had a small firm of sheet metalworkers in Manila, which normally made decorations for local taxis and other vehicles, prepare decorative nameplates for all of the ARX participants, displayed them on a wall in the gallery and sold them at the conclusion, sending the money back to the workers involved. Roberts’ piece functioned as an exercise constituting a collective identity through the act of naming and exchanging names, as a comment on the values attached to cultural difference, as a reminder of economic and cultural disparities, and as a focus for discussion and disagreement.

It was in the papers presented at the symposium though where the complexities of diverse and divergent cultural histories, and the difference of cultural presents, came into most obvious and vocal play. In the papers presented by Marion Pastor Roces of the Philippines, Wong Hoy Cheong of Malaysia and Peter Brunt of New Zealand the internal relations between the indigenous cultures, external colonizing or conquering powers, and the current mix of discourse and practices within each country and its various cultures were explored. The value of this discussion lay in its complication of the terms of the debate. Any simple binary model of the dynamics between modernity and modernism in relation to the traditional, or of an authentic culture in relation to the colonial was questioned. The structure of contemporary art discourses and a set of references to postmodern and post-colonial theory, which appeared to be at least approximately shared by most participants, provided a meeting point for exchange—yet one where the disparities in the use of cultures of origin and the manner in which current theoretical material was used were also indicative of continuing difference. Marion Pastor Roces’ paper on ‘Art Text as Bricolage’ took as its topic this very process within the Philippines, the manner in which modernism and modernity has been adapted, misunderstood, and reformulated, and the gaps and occlusions existing between modern and traditional cultures there.

Much of the work within ARX 3 appeared on first reading to be operating from a body of shared knowledge of Western modern art and art history. The similarity on a formal level between the work from SE Asia and that from Australia and New Zealand, including the use of everyday materials, the references to nature and culture, and the criticisms of current politics and social problems, could be taken as suggesting an underlying commonality in conceptual terms. Certainly there appeared to be a wide concern to use practices of contemporary art towards broadly critical or interrogative ends, yet the subject matter within the range of works varied considerably and the necessity for some knowledge of context precluded any easy interpretation across the distances involved. Instead the works functioned as individual statements, assembled in an open ended and free-flowing crossover. There was no tidy divison into national or cultural categories, rather the sites of origin and influence and the directions taken remained manifold and complex.

Much of the effort now going on in Australia to develop cultural contact with an undifferentiated Asia, and indeed much of ARX, has been predicated on a belief in the commonality of fundamental experience amidst manifest diversity. In simplistic terms ARX provides opportunities for artists and arts professionals to meet to discover their shared experience and the overlap between apparently divergent cultures and nations. This sense of contemporary artists having common perceptions and facing similar issues can be linked back to legacies of the 60s and 70s inherited from ANZART and before, and connected to a romanticized notion of the heroic artist, a figure of the cultural vanguard by virtue of their status qua artist. Although these notions inform ARX and although they have helped to shape its organizational parameters, the complexities and contradictions of cultural exchange have been acknowledged by the organizers and these do remain visible within the various and multiple practices on display.

ARX has been criticized for the mismatch between its ambitions and its resources, for the dichotomies between its emphasis on a local, Western Australian art politics and its desire to be perceived as a sophisticated international event, for its inclusions as well as its exclusions and imbalances, and for a sometimes naive insistence on the virtues of, and indeed the possibilities for, a spontaneous process (but nevertheless a well funded one) free from institutionalization. These tensions remain in good measure unresolved: some are a legacy of the past, some result from the consensus based model which ARX uses for decision making, some are incumbent on the lack of an ongoing base for the organization which can provide greater resources for the project, and some are, when matched with a degree of reflexive self analysis, ultimately useful.

In the past ARX has responded well to criticisms of content and direction, and modified subsequent events. ARX 1987 had been both valued and criticized for its looseness, ARX 1989 implemented a much more complex thematic structure based on ideas of the city and heavily informed by postmodern theory. This was challenged as imposing Australian concerns throughout the region, which led in turn to the increased flexibility of ARX 3, including a series of pre-event residencies in both Australia and several of the other countries, and the higher profile, if not larger representation, accorded to SE Asian artists and speakers. With an organization that requires reinvention and renewal after every episode it is difficult to predict the future but current indications are that criticisms are once again being addressed. The next ARX, most likely in 1995, will probably have a smaller number of participants, will be built around an intensive residency program, and may include Aboriginal artists for the first time. It is also considering its relationship to other visual arts projects, like the Asialink program and the Queensland Art Gallery’s Asia-Pacific Triennial, which although they have developed more recently cover similar territory albeit with different emphases.

ARX at its best, and herein perhaps lies its value, is a project wherein not just diversity as such but difference can be seen. As Homi Bhabha has argued the creation of diversity—something which can be readily acknowledged but is still expected to fit into an consensual and normative grid—and the containment of difference—something which is much more challenging because it cannot be resolved—restricts the possibility of understanding or acknowledging the process by which cultural and political judgements are formed. The notion of difference provides and requires a position of liminality, one that can be much more productive in understanding the construction of culture. For all the suggestions of some universalizing homogeneity which may float in the background to current Australian efforts at cultural exchange (and for all of the economic imperatives which seem to be leading them), ARX succeeds in demonstrating heterogeneity. The bringing into close contact of a range of people involved in the formation, articulation and dissemination of culture and contemporary cultural practices from seven countries has not resulted in an uneven melange where difference disappears, but rather brings into visibility the defamiliarization and destabilization of what has been taken as known and the hybridization of multiple influences and languages which occur, crucially, both between nations and cultures, and within them.

The relations between art and artists, those of regional geography, regionalism and ideas of the periphery, and the dynamics of exchanges between and within cultures and cultural practices provides a huge and complex space for ARX to work in. It has established a significant process of dialogue and exchange, a meeting point between those involved in contemporary art in Australia and artists and critics in geographically proximate locations. ARX as a process, rather than as simply or just a product or exhibition, continues to provide an important and valuable locus from which to challenge and criticize accepted parameters of cultural exchange between Australia and its neighbours, and to encourage the development of innovative models for the recognition and negotiation of cultural difference.


i. The first ARX was held in September 1987 and the second in October 1989.

ii. ARX was initiated by Praxis, then Western Australia’s Contemporary Art Space, while I was Praxis Director, following my attendance at the last ANZART in Auckland in May 1985. After the first ARX event it was established as an independent organisation.

iii. Of the 52 participants in ARX 3 there were 32 Australians, 13 were from SE Asia, and another 7 from New Zealand. In ARX 1989 the respective numbers were 28, 16, and 4. ARX is dependent on funding from various Australian sources, and the number and range of those involved varies directly with that financial support. Foreign governments, other than New Zealand, have not provided any support to date.

iv. ARX has no ongoing base but depends on the input of a local committee, a group of international advisors, and the commitment of a small staff employed on a short term basis. There has been considerable change in the committee over time with Adrian Jones, as ARX coordinator for each event to date, providing both considerable energy and an important degree of continuity.

v. For a discussion of this distinction see Jonathan Rutherford, “The Third Space: interview with Homi Bhabha”, in J. Rutherford (ed.), Identity: Community, Culture, Difference, Lawrence & Wishart: London, 1990, pp. 207-09