Brisbane, city of art

The once drab rivertown has re-imagined itself with art and design, now hailed as Australia's "hippest city".

THE underpass of a railway line in South Brisbane is now home to an "outdoor art gallery". Nine massive murals over 7m-tall cover its pillars. Each mural is created by Brisbane's best-known graffiti artists.

"If you told me five years ago that I would be paid by the Brisbane City Council to create graffiti on public infrastructure, I wouldn't have believed it," says Peter Breen, director of Jugglers Art Space which was commissioned by the city council to create the series of murals.

"But there's been a huge mindset change in Brisbane towards art - specifically street art - in the past few years. And that's what has been contributing to making Brisbane the coolest city in Australia."

Last year, Lonely Planet Australia named Brisbane the "hippest city" in the country, ahead of Sydney and Melbourne which have traditionally occupied the top spots. The respected travel guide described the country's third most populous city as an "energetic river town on the way up, with an edgy arts scene, pumping nightlife and great coffee and restaurants".

This year, Rough Guides also ranked Brisbane the eighth most beautiful city in the world, ahead of Sydney. It praised the city's "winning combination of high-rise modern architecture, lush green spaces and the enormous Brisbane River that snakes its way through the centre before emptying itself into the azure Moreton Bay".

The art on the pillars of South Brisbane's railway line has become a minor tourist attraction in its own right - a dream come true for Brisbane's street artists who previously had their graffiti promptly painted over by the City Council.

Distinct edge

The transformation of Brisbane from a drab and dull rivertown started in the 1980s when it spruced itself up to host the 1982 Commonwealth Games and the World Expo of 1988. Art, design and architecture became a crucial part of city planning.

In 1993, the city's museum Queensland Art Gallery launched the Asia Pacific Triennial (APT), a massive exhibition of the most exciting art in the Asia-Pacific region. It brought together 76 artists such as Singapore's Vincent Leow, Malaysia's Zulkifli Yusoff, Indonesia's Srihadi Soedarsono and Thailand's Montien Boonma. It showcased some 200 works, many of which were acquired for the museum's own collection.

The second APT in 1996 went on to seal the triennial's reputation as one of the biggest art events in the region, with artists such as Japan's Takashi Murakami, India's Nalini Malani and Singapore's Zai Kuning. It talent-spotted and promoted the art of hundreds of regional artists - some before they attained global recognition.

By its fifth edition in 2006, APT had expanded into a second building - the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA). The two museums' collections of Asia-Pacific art has grown to become one of the best in the world, with works by bona fide superstars such as Murakami, Eko Nugroho and Zhang Xiaogang purchased before the Asian art boom and its attendant price spike in 2007.

The recently opened eighth edition of APT - or APT 8, for short - continues its focus on artists who are not necessarily well-established, but whose intriguing practices suggest they are among the ones to pay attention to. Notably, many of its artists come from Mongolia, Nepal, Cambodia, Mynamar as well as the rural areas of India.

From far-flung places

Reuben Keehan, curator of Contemporary Asian Art at Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA), says: "We've always been interested not just in the established art scenes such as China, Japan and Indonesia - but also more emerging centres. What we are finding in the last few years is that things are very vibrant in Cambodia, Nepal, Burma and Mongolia."

"Contemporary life informs these artists' practices. And even though some of them have never stepped out of their home countries... these artists belong to a connected generation that is very literate about what's going on in the international art scene."

One of the works he highlights is by Myanmar's Min Thein Sung. It comprises three enormous toy horses hanging from the ceiling, against a backdrop of Burmese comic book pages.

It references the years that Myanmar was restricted from international trade and commercial mass-production. Many Burmese parents created toys using basic materials for their children to play with. The adults copied the toys they saw on TV and in books, though their versions were simple and less colourful.

Mr Keehan says: "In the past, artists in Myanmar would show curators miniature exhibitions of works they could not create or exhibit because of the conditions in the country. But now we're seeing a tentative opening up with the recent election. We're seeing a transitioning period which will impact the art."

Art from far-flung places

APT prides itself on showcasing art from far-flung corners of the world. Its latest edition features a segment on vernacular art traditions of India. Folkloric, indigenous artwork such as clay puppets, religious scrolls (phad) and portable shrines (kavad) each demonstrate the intricate art of India outside its major city centres. These artists residing in rural areas have developed their own unique styles that range from the elemental to the intricate.

Mr Keehan says: "These practices are often framed as arts and crafts as opposed to fine art or contemporary art. And these works are created to sell to the local market - not the international market. But here in Australia, the question of 'What is contemporary art?' often comes up particularly in reference to aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander art, which has its own aesthetics and traditions. And I think that framework of thinking equally applies to art coming out of rural India, Nepal or Mongolia."

APT's broad regard for art outside the sphere of the commercial gallery and the art fair influences how art is viewed through the city.

A growing respect for street art, for instance, goes beyond the commissioning of graffiti on public infrastructure. Some of the trendiest commercial venues in the city have embraced street art. It graces their walls and furnishings, becoming an instant talking point for their guests.

One of Brisbane's hippest new hotels is the TRYP Fortitude Valley Hotel - billed as the city's "first art hotel". It has been a draw for travelling artists, musicians and creatives since it opened last year. It boasts something few hotels do - its walls and decor comprise only street art.

Before the site was developed into a hotel, it was a derelict building that was popular with street artists who covered much of its walls with their handiwork. When the time came for property developer Jay McPhee and architect Shane Denman to create a hotel in partnership with the Wyndham Hotel Group, they decided to make the graffiti the defining feature of the boutique hotel.

Not only did they retain many of the spray-painted images, they even commissioned the street artists to create more.

Every room comes with unique street art as wallpaper and other design elements. Some rooms overlook graffiti-laden walls which would be unthinkable for most other hotels. Here, it is a source of pride.

Likewise, the more upmarket NEXT Hotel Brisbane also lines its exterior walls with commissioned graffiti. Consequently, this attracted other street artists to spray-paint all manner of images on the buildings nearby. They have not been painted over.

Street artist Gus Eagleton, whose graffiti adorns countless walls in Brisbane and other cities, says: "People in Sydney and Melbourne might think they're the coolest. But Brisbane is definitely coming up... There are a lot more opportunities for artists now where there weren't before, and that's contributing to the great vibe of the city."

The Asia Pacific Triennial runs at the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane from now till Apr 10, 2016. Opens daily from 10am to 5pm.

The TRYP Fortitude Valley Hotel is located at 14-20 Constance Street, Fortitude Valley, Queensland, 4006. Visit for more information

Edgy works of the 8th APT show

Indian artist Asim Waqif

ONE of the most ambitious works at APT 8 is this massive wood installation by Indian artist Asim Waqif that reaches up to the third floor of the museum. The artist typically creates large-scale installations out of detritus and salvaged objects. In this work, the architecturally trained artist re-worked discarded timber from various Brisbane yards.

Singapore artist Ming Wong

The sole Singapore artist at APT8, Berlin-based Ming Wong explores identity, gender and sexuality in cinema in his latest work Aku Akan Bertahan/I Will Survive (2015). He examines femininity in three iconic Australian films, Walkabout (1971), Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975) and The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert (1994) by re-enacting scenes from them.

Mongolian artist Baatarzorig Batjargal

For the first time, APT 8 is featuring artists from Mongolia, whose art scene curator Reuben Keehan describes as "vibrant and emerging". Here, artist Baatarzorig Batjargal appropriates traditional techniques of Mongol zurag painting to trace the history of Mongolia's development over a century.

Japanese photographer Shiga Lieko

When the small Japanese town of Kitakama was devastated by the 2011 tsunami, photographer Shiga Lieko collected and sorted over 30,000 photographs that had washed ashore. She created this strange and haunting photographic installation that manages to speak eloquently of the town's horrific experience of the tsunami.

Rural art of India

One of the special sections of APT8 focuses on traditional, folkloric Indian art from rural areas. It challenges the definition of "contemporary art" because it is art that does not reference modernism, but manages to, in some cases, reflect contemporary situations in India.

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