Nothing Under the Heavens: Manchester Asia Triennial 2014

Asia Triennial Manchester opens across the city and beyond this month. We guide you through it, and catch up with artistic director Alnoor Mitha and Harmonious Society curator Jiang Jiehong who share their ATM14 highlights

Feature by Sacha Waldron | 01 Oct 2014

Asia Triennial Manchester opens with a bang this month, taking over pretty much every major art venue and museum in the city for eight weeks. Now in its third iteration, ATM is the only Asian art triennial outside the Asia Pacific region and, within its core programming, brings together 40 artists showcasing and celebrating contemporary work that challenges current political perspectives and cultural mindsets about Asia. The sheer scale and number of project partners involved in ATM can be overwhelming, so we have charged ourselves with the task of guiding you through the layers, choosing the highlights and catching up with curator and artistic director Alnoor Mitha and guest curator Jiang Jiehong for their thoughts and personal recommendations for this unique and exciting festival.

So let’s start at the beginning: why Manchester? Well, it’s important to understand that ATM is not a festival tokenistically crash-landed in the Northwest. This is an initiative born of the Manchester Institute for Research and Innovation in Art and Design (MIRIAD), and steered by MIRIAD’s senior research fellow, Mitha.

“It’s important and very relevant to host the Triennial in Manchester,” he told us. “Firstly, the city is an important cultural destination and has historically strong links with Asia.” The diversity of Manchester’s population is also a key factor, with an Asian or British Asian population much higher than the national average. “Over 150 languages are spoken in the city,” Mitha tells us, “and the rapid economic growth taking place across much of Asia (India and China in particular) in recent decades has also played a major part.”

Mitha usually selects a broad theme for ATM. 2008’s theme was Protest, and 2011's was Time and Generation, through which the festival addressed the way artists were working with time-based media and also with communities who are living longer. This year the artists have the theme of Conflict and Compassion to work with. “It’s grown organically,” says Mitha. “The idea for this year’s theme was very timely. In my view the 21st century is about coping with global conflicts. I mean, we are literally at war!”

Mitha’s central exhibition on this theme takes place, fittingly, at the Imperial War Museum North, bringing together mostly newly commissioned work from artists such as Imran Qureshi, former Turner Prize nominee Zarina Bhimji, Sophie Ernst and 2013 Venice Biennaler Bashir Makhoul.

“Our younger generation are challenged by what they see in the media,” says Mitha, “the conflicts in the Middle East, Africa, issues around climate change and so on. We as human beings are capable of killing each other and at the same time are deeply compassionate. The Triennial is like a prism, it confronts challenging issues through the means of art. Artists are incredible storytellers. They are the ones that lead you on a particular journey.”

Of course it’s difficult for Mitha to pick out favourites, but who or what in the programme is he most excited about? “I am particularly delighted to have Nalini Malani from India and Bashir Makhoul from Palestine (but based in the UK),” says Mitha. “Malani's work is multi-layered, incorporating poetry, music, sound, video, print. It challenges the viewer to keep on looking. The video In Search of Vanished Blood was made for Documenta 2012 and was inspired by literature concerned with the status of women in Indian society. Makhoul’s project raises questions about the kinds of spectral spaces that emerge in sites of conflict. He examines the interactions and confusions between the virtual and the real, such as the mock cities built for training in urban warfare, the parallel world of surveillance, or CAD-inspired urban developments. His installation, made with artist Ray Yang and called The Genie, occupies IWM’s spectacular Air Shard and highlights a village constructed out of ordinary cardboard boxes, the material embodying the temporary nature of settlements, dwelling, and encampments – the life of the refugee on the move, living in temporary accommodations but perhaps permanently so.”

Mitha is also proud of the achievements of Harmonious Society, the group exhibition that lies, along with the IWM North show, at the heart of this year’s ATM. “We really collaborated with the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA) for that exhibition in an ambitious way,” he says. Curated by Jiang, Harmonious Society presents approximately 30 artists at six venues around the city. This exhibition remixes ATM’s theme “apparently,” says Jiang of the work on display, “presenting ‘no conflict’ but rather, almost poetically, a ‘harmonious society’ (literally, hexie shehui). This is reinterpreted as ‘tianxia wushi,’ which means ‘nothing (has happened) under the heavens.’ 'Harmonious Society' is derived from the current socio-economic vision and the political proposition of China’s regime since 2005, while its reinterpreted Chinese version alternatively extends its cultural and philosophical connotations to be perceived in the global context (tianxia).”

Everything, then, that is happening now has happened before and we see this proverb played out through work including Chen Chieh-Jen’s melancholic video installation Realm of Reverberations (2014), Luxury Logico’s streetlight sun at the Museum of Science and Industry, Wang Yuyang’s Breathing Books (2014) at the John Ryland Gallery, and Yang Zhenzhong’s Long Live the Great Union (2013) at the National Football Museum, to name just a few. “One of our challenges,” says Jiang, “has been working with such a wide range of venues, institutional and non-institutional. The work has to respond to the theme of the show, and at the same time to the physical spaces and its cultural, political and religious connotations.”

Of course ATM, as a whole, extends way beyond these two major exhibitions and there are some real gems to be found around the city and beyond. An off-site exhibition, Pop-Up Republics, from curatorial collective Dark Border Developments is sited in IWM North’s car park with ten or so artists producing portable ‘micro-nations’ that exist within shipping containers. Make sure not to miss this if visiting the museum proper. A Metro ride away you will find ReMix at Bury Sculpture Centre, which brings together six artists who have participated in Platform China and invites them to remix their original work in conversation with one another. Touchstones in Rochdale presents a new commission from London-based Rosa Nguyen and, back in town, Manchester’s Craft and Design Centre have mounted a solo exhibition from Kashif Nadim Chaudry exploring the artist's tailoring talent and identity as a gay British Muslim. Cornerhouse’s official ATM film programme is definitely worth keeping an eye on, too, as are its two shows Qasim Riza Shaheen: Autoportraits in love-like conditions, and Sophia Al-Maria: Virgin with a Memory.

The Skinny’s ATM14 favourite from the wider programme, however, is Castlefield’s solo exhibition of last year's New Contemporaries exhibitor and Glasgow graduate Hardeep Pandhal who mounts his first solo exhibition, A Joyous Thing with Maggots at the Centre. His fictional characters, knitted vests and illustrated CVs add an energetic and fresh voice to the ATM mix.

“An Asia Triennial in Manchester,” concludes Jiang, “may sound confusing, but at the same time it opens all the cultural exchange possibilities beyond the geographical boundaries. The Triennial should not only introduce art from Asia, or from any particular countries, it should, more importantly, discuss Asia from a different perspective, one that's outside Asia.” And what of the future at ATM? “If we see this Triennial as a platform for discussions about Asia,” says Jiang, “then I would certainly have more Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese at ATM, and why not extend it to invite non-Asian, say American, French or British? We, as artists and curators in the East and the West, learn and develop through artistic exchange between the two sides of the world, through understanding and misunderstanding.”

Asia Triennial Manchester is open across multiple venues in the city until 23 Nov