50,000 Days in Asia – The Asialink Arts Residency Program 20 year on…

27 June 2012 Lesley Alway

People-to-people engagement…
‘Artist in Residence’ is a term for an artist who lives and practices their art for a period of time with a host organization, away from their usual environment. Asialink residencies have contributed significantly to the health and vibrancy of the arts community in Asia and provided extraordinary creative stimulation to Australian artists, writers, performers and arts managers who have worked in Asia.

The Asialink Arts Residency program currently sends at least 30, and often over 40 artists, performers, writers and arts managers from Australia to Asia each year. Originally established in 1989 by the Australia Council, with three Visual Arts / Craft residencies in Thailand and Malaysia, the residency program was devolved to Asialink in 1991. Asialink has managed and developed the program since then, expanding it into the areas of Performing Arts and Arts Management in 1996 and Writing in 1997.

Resident artists, writers, performers and arts managers spend up to three months or more, working on projects they have devised. Each resident is hosted by an arts organization or tertiary institution and the interaction between the resident and the host is an important aspect of the program. Residents commonly present talks and lectures, present workshops or engage in formal teaching. Many also direct performances, organize events, exhibit in solo and group shows and undertake readings. To date, there have been residencies undertaken in over twenty countries including Japan, China, Singapore, India, Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam and Mongolia amongst others.

Outcomes are many and varied…
The experiences of residents are rich and diverse, and very often stimulate profound changes in artistic direction and career. Some recent examples are illuminating not only in terms of experiences for the artists, but also for the contribution that is made to their host organisations and country.

The outcomes of the program are many and varied. For instance a residency may ultimately provide increased opportunities for arts practitioners to continue working in the Asian region. Kate Ben-Tovim has combined her academic background in music performance and international relations with her interest in cultural exchange by working on projects in China, London, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia over the last twelve years. Her recent projects in Indonesia grew out of her 2009 residency there. The project Volcanic Wind comprised three projects ILMU: Hiphop an electronic music festival, Jogjakarta, September, 2010, Tropis//Subsonics: Sound and Image Program Jogjakarta, January 2011 and a tour of Senyaya, experimental music duo to Australia in July 2011. In her residency report, Kate noted that “My Asialink Residency gave me a point of focus, a host, and a easily understood ‘reason for being’ in Indonesia that I was then able to leverage and expand upon in to other areas of professional interest and with other artists and organization”‘.

During 2010 Kate also completed the Asialink Leaders Program and is now based at the High Commission Delhi working on the 2012 Australia / India cultural program for 2012 through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Kate Ben-Tovim, Music Management and Music Rights Workshop, December 2009, hosted by Art Music Today collective.

A residency may also provide a catalyst for ongoing involvement with the host country. Newcastle based Catherine Croll is a community cultural development specialist with a great skill for matching people and projects and bridging cultural divides. In 2010 Catherine undertook a residency with Redgate studios and Gallery in Beijing to work on the 10th anniversary of their residency program and a series of exhibitions that were held in China as part of ‘Imagine: The Year of Australian Culture in China’. These included an exhibition titled Hard Sleeper based on a train journey by six Australian artists to artist colonies and studios in Chengdu, Chonqing, Lhasa and Beijing, Catherine is currently working on a 20th anniversary Redgate Gallery tour of Chinese contemporary art through both China and Australia in 2011 and 2012. Catherine also assisted with Asialink Research and Development delegations and the touring exhibition Abandoned Boudoir at the Opposite House Hotel in 2011. Her networks and knowledge of the Chinese contemporary art scene are invaluable for artists and managers wanting to work in China.

The residency experience may result in further exchanges, collaborative projects, reciprocal residencies and institutional links. Steve Eland, Director of 24HR Art in the Northern Territory, undertook a residency in China in 2009 and has since developed projects both there and with Indonesia and the Philippines. His First Life Residency Project was based on the necessity of real experiences. He developed an exchange project with three Australian and three Chinese artists who journeyed together throughout Arnhem Land and Tibet. The Australian artists Tony Lloyd, Ben Armstrong and Sam Leach then returned to Beijing for the opening of the exhibition arising from their partnership with three Chinese artists Wu Daxin, Shi Jinsong and Cang Xin. Through 24HR Art, Steve also initiated a new residency program in Beijing that gives priority to artists from regional Australia. Both the Australia Council andAsialink are supporting this project. Steve is also working in partnership with curators Sudjud Dartanto, Yogyakarta and Norberto Roldan, Manila, on the project Immemorial: reaching back beyond memory that offers an extraordinary collaboration and dialogue between Northern Territory, Indonesian and Filipino artists. Immemorial was exhibited at the Chan Contemporary Art Space in Darwin in late October 2011.

Steve’s extensive experience in Asia has given him a deep undertstanding of cultural exchange issues. He notes that “ in some instances, Australia’s cultural relations with Asia over recent years have been revolutionary and revelational, but sometimes revulsionary. Australia’s funding agencies need to seriously address the issue of reciprocity if they wish to continue encouraging the exportation of Australia’s culture northward as ‘cultural exchange’. I applaud opportunities enabling us to generate and sustain artistic friendships and partners in Asia – it would be nice to have the means to invite these friends to ‘our homes’ occasionally.”

Steven Eland with Guan Wei and Cang Zin in Beijing.

The Asialink residency program has also provided alumni of arts practitioners who are a resource of experience and knowledge of contemporary cultural issues in Asia. In 2010, Catriona Mitchell who has previous experience at the Ubud Readers and Writers Festival, The Melbourne Writer’s Festival and the Melbourne International Film Festival undertook a residency with the Indian project group Teamwork to assist with the planning and delivery of the Jaipur Literary Festival. This broadened her programming, managerial and production experience to develop her career as a Literary Programmer. Her experience has proven invaluable for planning of a writer’s exchange program through Asialink for Jaipur in 2012 funded through the Literature Board of the Australia Council and the Australia International Culture Council.

Catriona remarks of her experience “In terms of achieving my objectives, my research into contemporary Indian literature was so rich and informative and useful, and the willingness of the writers to participate so helpful, that it took me way beyond where I had expected to go”.

Residents can often have a profound impact in their host community. Sydney arts lawyer and curator, Cass Mathews had previously studied at Yamanashi University and returned to Japan in 2009 to work with the fourth Echigo Tsumari Arts Triennial which is located north of Tokyo and focuses on strong community engagement with leading international and local artists. Whilst artist in residence, Cass worked with the Australian Embassy in Tokyo to establish ‘Australia House’ in an old farmhouse and this became a residency space and showcase for Australian artists. Unfortunately, Australia House was destroyed in the Japan disaster in early 2011 and the Australian Embassy in Tokyo is currently raising funds and undertaking a design competition to build a new ‘Australia House’, hopefully to open in time for the fifth Echigo Tsumari in late 2012.

Current curator at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Ulanda Blair who worked on three projects for the Setouchi International Festival in 2010 will return to work on the 2012 Echigo Tsumari Festival as an Asialink Arts Management resident.

Of course, residencies can also provide the stimulus for new creative work. Based in Korea in 2010, visual artist Locust Jones made a series of large-scale ink drawings incorporating Korean news imagery. He chose Korea because of its rich paper making culture and used the very fibrous Hanji paper that is made in rolls from the mulberry tree and was perfectly suited for his large-scale drawings. A number of these works were successfully exhibited and sold at the Hong Kong Art Fair in May 2011. One large-scale work from this series was included in an exhibition focusing on text at Carriageworks, Sydney in 2010.

Reciprocity is important…
Whilst the emphasis is on sending Australian artists to Asia, there is increasing demand for reciprocal and collaborative exchanges. Asialink currently has three reciprocal exchanges with Taipei Artist Village / Fremantle Arts Centre; Changdong Art Studio, Seoul / Artspace, Sydney and Tokyo Wonder Site with Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne.

Japanese artist Midori Mitamura creates installations constructed from photographs, videos and found and recycled objects. Trained in fashion and photography, she has previously undertaken residencies in Finland and London and exhibited extensively in Asia and Europe. In residence at Monash University Museum of Art in early 2012, Midori continued her ‘Art & Breakfast’ project that was initiated in Stockholm and continued in Tokyo and Berlin. Midori hosted breakfast for visitors in the gallery space and with a keen observation, her memories, observations and breakfast objects were transformed into dramatic visual narratives culminating in her exhibition ‘Art & Breakfast’ Melbourne in July.

“Bringing breakfast into the gallery as an event is not only a meaningful way for Mitamura as a visiting artist to meet and establish connections or cultural exchange with local people, it also sits within the context of a continuing project of contemporary practice to bring art closer to everyday life” (Forde 2011: 2).

Korean artist Yongseouk Oh undertook a residency at Artspace, Sydney in 2011. Yongseok Oh stitches together film excerpts and stills to reconstruct reality. The artist’s video works confuse the past and present by amalgamating real and imagined places. By combining personal and found imagery, he examines the boundary where individual and collective memories collide. With funding from the Australia Korean Foundation (AKF) Asialink was able to assist Yongseouk with a public exhibition of his work on the digital screen in the Atrium at Federation Square in Melbourne. The title of Yongseouk’s project, Square by Square, references the multiple viewpoints offered by the artist’s video works and the physical reality of being screened at Federation Square.

AKF funding also supported a special project Body Request by Guy Benfield, Australian artist in residence at Changdong Art Studio in Seoul at the Korea International Art Fair in September 2011 where Australia was the focus country. These projects have assisted in bringing the resident’s work into the public domain to engage new audiences and engender some curiosity about the scope of Australia / Asia engagement.

Residency futures…
The theory behind artist residencies is that an immersive experience in another culture and place can be a valuable stimulus to an artist’s or arts manager’s practice. Asialink residencies are ‘engaged’ residencies rather than ‘studio’ based residencies where the objective is to find time and space to work on one’s own projects. For Asialink residents, the place and culture are all important and they must actively engage with their local and / or arts communities. The process is often transformational, both personally and professionally. Increasingly host organizations and artists and some funding bodies want reciprocal and collaborative projects. This presents a number of challenges for Asialink because these projects are more complex and resource intensive to manage.  International cultural engagement has many dimensions, from personal and professional creative stimulus, expanded audiences and markets for Australian artists and rich layers of cultural and community understanding that is often described as ‘soft-diplomacy’.

Given that residencies have links to many parts and layers of government and as we are now more than a decade into the ‘Asian Century’ , at $12,000 per artist it is a very modest investment building strong people-to-people relationships that are so crucial to Australia’s future. Given the emphasis in the proposed new National Cultural Policy on linking the arts to other areas of government activities and the importance of Asia for Australia’s future prosperity, Asialink residencies join many of the dots across the portfolios of arts, trade, foreign affairs, education, communications, and community development. However, to keep at the forefront of residency models and practice, Australia needs to increase its investment in this area. There are many new residency models to explore such as utilizing technology to create ‘virtual’ and ‘green’ residencies as well as developing ‘multilateral residencies and investing in the necessary infrastructure to enable Australia to host more reciprocal residencies. Because Asia is ‘hot’ we can no longer take our geographic proximity for granted. Europe, the United Kingdom and increasingly the United States of America are targeting Asia and making serious investments in cultural engagement. The ball is currently in Australia’s court – but not for long.

Forde, Rosemary. ‘Midori Mitamura Art & Breakfast Melbourne’, Monash University Museum of Art 2011.

Lesley Alway

Lesley Alway is currently Director, Asialink Arts. She has experience across the government, non-profit and commercial art sectors. Her previous roles include Managing Director, Sotheby’s Australia, Director and CEO Heide Museum of Modern Art, Director Arts Victoria and Director, Artbank.

Image Credit: Midori Mitamura, Art & Breakfast, Melbourne