New 4A Director Mikala Tai on the Asian-Australian cultural scene – interview

Art Radar speaks to Mikala Tai the newly appointed Director of 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art.

Sydney’s non-profit 4A Centre has been a catalyst for exchange between Australia and Asia since its inception as an initiative of the Asian Australian Artists’ Association (4A) in 1996. Art Radar catches up with Mikala Tai as she prepares to take over the role of Director at 4A in September 2015.  

Mikala Tai, New Director of 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney. Image courtesy 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art.

Mikala Tai, new director of 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney. Image courtesy 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art.

On 9 June 2015, Sydney’s 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art announced the appointment of Mikala Tai as its new director starting from this September. Tai takes over the role previously held by Aaron Seeto, who is moving to Brisbane to take over a position as Curatorial Manager of Asian and Pacific Art at the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA).

Tai comes with a strong background and knowledge of Asian art. She is currently a lecturer in Contemporary Art and Contemporary Asian Art in both the undergraduate and masters programmes at RMIT and University of Melbourne. She has also curated and programmed a slew of cultural initiatives, and founded and directed Supergraph – Australia’s Contemporary Graphic Art Fair.

Yangjiang Group, 'Actions for Tomorrow', 2015, exhibition view, 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. Photo: Zan Wimberley. Image courtesy the artists and Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou.

Yangjiang Group, ‘Actions for Tomorrow’, 2015, exhibition view, at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. Photo: Zan Wimberley. Image courtesy the artists and Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou.

Mikala, you will bring to 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art an extensive knowledge in the field of Asian contemporary art. You are also currently a lecturer at RMIT and the University of Melbourne. What is your approach with students in the study of Asian contemporary art? 

I believe that every student of contemporary art history in Australia needs to be graduating with an understanding of art histories, theories and ideas that exist beyond simply the Western sphere. We are training students that will be working in an increasingly globalised world and the best training we can equip them with is the ability to engage with, understand, access and collaborate in a multiplicity of ways. The study of Contemporary Asian Art within the university sector allows for students to reassess their ideas of traditions, narratives and the sometimes seemingly solid idea of Western Art History. It also makes them infinitely more employable and engaged with the dynamic nature of contemporary art.

Latai Taumoepeau, 'Dark Continent', 2015, performance still, 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. Photo: Zan Wimberley. Image courtesy 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art.

Latai Taumoepeau, ‘Dark Continent’, 2015, performance still, 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. Photo: Zan Wimberley. Image courtesy 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art.

You recently submitted your PhD at the University of New South Wales with a very interesting theme related to the Chinese art scene. Could you tell us more about it?

My thesis was written over quite some time (seven and a half years!) so it went through many ebbs and flows as I constructed an argument about a field that was concurrently rapidly developing. Its final focus was examining how the global cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong have each produced distinct art scenes that defy the market driven brand of ‘Contemporary Chinese Art’. It was fascinating tracking how each city’s art infrastructure has been produced by a mediation between global and local focuses.

He Xiangyu, 'Death of Marat', 2011/2015, single channel video, installation view, 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. Photo: Zan Wimberley. Image courtesy the artist and White Space Gallery, Beijing.

He Xiangyu, ‘Death of Marat’, 2011/2015, single channel video, installation view, at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. Photo: Zan Wimberley. Image courtesy the artist and White Space Gallery, Beijing.

There is a lot of exchange between Asia and Australia these days as well as a growing number of institutions championing Asian art. What are the most important aspects for fostering and developing an even greater collaboration with and understanding of Asian art in Australia?

Contemporary art is a fantastic means to discuss contemporary concerns in a manner that is collaborative, participatory and influential. Within Australia, the growing interest in Asian art is symptomatic of the growing interest in Asia. The ‘Asian Century’ has compelled us to increase our understanding of the region and made us infinitely more curious about our northern neighbours. I see 4A playing a pivotal role in these engagements with contemporary concerns and providing the space and platform for us to collectively address, challenge and celebrate our growing interconnectedness.

In your view, who are the most important and influential Asian-Australian artists right now, and the most promising emerging artists to watch?

We are lucky to be surrounded by a number of engaged, dynamic contemporary Asian-Australian artists. I have long been impressed by the work of Lindy Lee and William Yang, and have had lots of delight working with the new generation such as Nathan BeardOwen Leong and Pia Johnson.

4A Twilight Garden Party at the Chinese Garden of Friendship (2015), Darling Harbour. Photo: Blue Murder Studios.

4A Twilight Garden Party at the Chinese Garden of Friendship (2015), Darling Harbour. Photo: Blue Murder Studios.

I know that you are in Venice at the moment. Which are your top three, must-see pavilions from Asia? What about your Asian highlights from the Central Exhibition?

The Venice Biennale – as always – is one of the highlights of the art circuit. I was particularly excited this year to see Okwui Enwezor‘s work as I have long admired him. I was not disappointed. It was a particularly challenging exhibition that didn’t shy away from addressing the sometimes harsh possibilities of “All the World’s Futures”. A particular stand out was Tiffany Chung‘s mapping works that continue to enthrall me with their clean graphic sensibilities but politically rigorous underpinnings.

The stand out pavilions were Japan, where Chiharu Shoita‘s work was all encompassing and a particularly poignant response to current migration issues, Russia where Irina Nakhova revisited Malevich’s Black Square of 1915 exploring the idea that every generation needs a Black Square to jolt our thinking into new places, and the offsite pavilion of Iran, which was the most arresting presentation of important contemporary art I have seen for a while. I look forward to the possibility of working with all of these artists at 4A.

Abdullah M.I Syed (with Amanat Grewal), 'Bucking and Laundering', 2015, performance still, 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. Photo: Zan Wimberley. Image courtesy 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art.

Abdullah M.I Syed (with Amanat Grewal), ‘Bucking and Laundering’, 2015, performance still, 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. Photo: Zan Wimberley. Image courtesy 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art.

Finally, the art critic Meyer Schapiro maintained that any great art should be appreciated within its specific context and be linked to the social and economic conditions of its time – and place, I would add. There is much debate on the ‘risks’ and ‘dangers’ of national identity in post-colonial theory, as well as theorists and scholars who maintain that it is a form of Orientalism to see artists tied to their national or regional origins rather than as global ‘entities’. What are your thoughts on this? How important do you think it is to consider artistic practices within socio-cultural, historic, economic and political contexts as well as the global context?

This is an extremely important question and one that informed the foundation of my thesis. It is a really delicate concern. I think that all artists are both products of and catalysts to their context – their work being born from a particular moment in time and created from a need to examine a certain aspect of contemporaneity. The incessant human need to classify often sees art grouped by nation, which often curtails the ability of some artworks to be read and understood in a wider context.

However, at this point in time, organisations such as 4A that are dedicated to particular regions facilitate discussions within the industry to expand the limits of our traditional institutions. It is my intention to examine the constructed idea of boundaries and borders through our programming at 4A with the intention to test their validity in the contemporary era. I hope within my lifetime that when we hear the term ‘Contemporary Art’ it won’t just call to mind contemporary art from North America and Europe but will be a term that encompasses a multiplicity of narratives that span the globe.

C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia

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Related Topics: contemporary art in Australia, Asian-Australian artists, Asian artists, directors, interviews

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