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10-minute bites on Asian Art a worthy chew

Gina Fairley

Former Asialink director, Alison Carroll, walks us through Asian art in a new series screened on ABC1 that targets schools.
10-minute bites on Asian Art a worthy chew

Alison Carroll with Yorozu Tetsugoro's Nude Beauty – on the road in her new series. Image: supplied. 

Getting your head around the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper (published October 2012) need not be such a brainteaser or logistical challenge. Just sit down to Alison Carroll’s new series A Journey Through Asian Art, which offers bite-sized in-roads to complex cultural nuances of our neighbouring Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines, to stars on the global art stage from China, Korea and Japan. 


Carroll is perhaps best known for establishing the Arts Program at Asialink in 1990, and holding the role of its Director for two decades. She brings a perspective that few can to this series.

She told ArtsHub: ‘My central thought is for people to not find Asian art "hard" or "difficult" but to acknowledge it can be based on different ways of addressing the world, and find it interesting and revealing. Especially in this day and age, when there has been so much ‘talk’ about the Asian Century and the need to improve material in this area, but so little 'walk'. 

‘I would say that, despite it being about art, this is the most radical documentary I have ever made,’ said series Director, filmmaker Catherine Gough-Brady. ‘I really believe the best way to counter the rising racist dialogue in our country is to give people an opportunity to understand the cultures that they are beginning to fear.’

Screened over the next five weeks on ABC1 at 11.20 am, starting this Friday 25 July, each episode is just 10 minutes long. Why so short? 

Conceived as an educational tool, and sponsored by the Asia Education Foundation, Gough-Brady has been driving the format of the series. In recent years she has had a passion for exploring how documentary can be targeted at the youth demographic, and this series puts that to action; paired with a website where teachers can download information about each episode, links to resources, and questions raised.

To a degree, this educational focus has determined the tone, the pace and the pitch of the series.

Each episode is heavily profile-based rather than attempting to present an exhaustive overview of a country or art scene, drawing out one or two artists or curators in discussion within their studio or the storerooms of key Asian museums, seeking out the works and ideas that shaped Asian art in the 20th century.

This is the series' success. Viewers end up getting a chunky grasp on that short 10 minutes.

‘When we set out to create a TV series about the transition of Asian art from traditional to contemporary, I had one condition: 50 per cent of the artists interviewed must be women,’ Gough-Brady said in a recent interview.

In the end, seven male and five female interviews were interviewed.

‘We were making a ‘history’ of the art of Asia in the 20th century – which is exactly the kind of situation when it is important to work against the sexist grain in our thinking,’ said Gough-Brady, who trained as a historian before turning to documentaries.  ‘I am very aware that histories reflect as much about the time in which they are written as the period they depict.’


Alison Carroll on location. Image: supplied. 

The episodes have an on-the-ground honesty, and a slightly home-grown-documentary feel to them, which adds to Carroll's and Gough-Brady’s desire to break down barriers. 

‘It started as a series about 'ideas' about art in the region that we hoped would be revealing and useful to audiences’, added Carroll. And it has ended up as a truly remarkable tool for schools, but enjoyable watching for anyone interested in Asian art, and its recent history. 

The first series tackles themes such as Unseen Worlds, which moves from Queensland Art Gallery (QAGOMA), site of the Asia Pacific Triennial on which Carroll was formative in its evolution, to retakes on overused terms like East and West, politics and religion, propaganda imagery and brokering change through interviews with Cai Guo-qiang (China), curator Kim Hong-hee (Korea), Amanda Heng (Singapore), Nune Alvarado (Philippines) and Ann Newmarch, among others.

It will be followed later in the year with another five intimate journeys to Asia, also led by Carroll, fleshing out the ideas of: art and state with Shen Jaiwei; talking gesture/action with Yumi Umiumare; independence with Filipina Brenda Fajardo; a focus on 'material' chatting with Lee U-fan talks, and the notion of 'popular' art is an animated topic with Choi Jeonghwa.  

Carroll was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 2010, the same year her book on 20th century Asian art The Revolutionary Century; Art in Asia 1900-2000, (Macmillan Australia) was released.  She is currently an Honorary Research Fellow at the Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne.

Starting this Friday, 25 July, watch ABC1 at 11.20 am for the next five weeks – just 10 minutes will change the way you think about Asian Art.

About the author

Gina Fairley covers the Visual Arts nationally for ArtsHub. Based in Sydney you can follow her on Twitter @ginafairley and Instagram at fairleygina.