Exhibition Reviews

Arktis: Medan isen smälter (The Arctic: While the Ice Is Melting); Empowering Art: Indigenous Creativity and Activism from North America’s Northwest Coast; The New Austronesia Hall; Changsha Mawangdui Han Dynasty Tombs Exhibition; Goddess: Power, Glamour, Rebellion; The Tenth Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art

in Museum Worlds
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Isabelle Gapp University of Aberdeen, UK

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Rose Taylor The British Museum, UK

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Ching-yueh Hsieh National Taitung University, Taiwan

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Jingjing Zhou Fudan University, China

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Caroline Colbran Independent Researcher, Freelance

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Emily Poore Griffith University, Australia

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In the almost four years since The Arctic: While the Ice Is Melting opened (October 2019), we have experienced a global pandemic and now find ourselves teetering on the edge of catastrophic ice melt. With exhibits, elaborate installations, ceiling projections, and interactive stations, this award-winning exhibition frames Indigenous communities and the work of non-Indigenous researchers through the omnipresence of ice and ice melt around the Arctic, encompassing Alaska, Inuit Nunangat (Canada), Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland), Iceland, Svalbard and Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. It is expansive in its thematic outlook and asks us to think about an Arctic without ice and the implications of this for Indigenous societies and cultures. With the exhibition extended throughout 2023, and given the latest news on predicted summer sea ice levels, the urgency of its message is perhaps now even more palpable.

In the almost four years since The Arctic: While the Ice Is Melting opened (October 2019), we have experienced a global pandemic and now find ourselves teetering on the edge of catastrophic ice melt. With exhibits, elaborate installations, ceiling projections, and interactive stations, this award-winning exhibition frames Indigenous communities and the work of non-Indigenous researchers through the omnipresence of ice and ice melt around the Arctic, encompassing Alaska, Inuit Nunangat (Canada), Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland), Iceland, Svalbard and Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. It is expansive in its thematic outlook and asks us to think about an Arctic without ice and the implications of this for Indigenous societies and cultures. With the exhibition extended throughout 2023, and given the latest news on predicted summer sea ice levels, the urgency of its message is perhaps now even more palpable.

Curated by Lotten Gustafsson Reinius, The Arctic: While the Ice Is Melting occupies the museum's Great Hall. To the right, as you enter the building, projections of Arctic environments and skies, derived from contemporary photographs and films from the museum's permanent collection, illuminate the vaulted ceiling. They cycle through images of flora, fauna, and frozen landscapes. Further into the exhibition, the wall text notes that some 11,000 years ago the Nordiska Museum was itself covered by an inland ice sheet. To the left, the imposing structure of a giant iceberg leads the way into the displays, the entrance projected with a cyclical display of an iceberg melting, cracking, fragmenting, and shattering (see front cover). Sounds accompany this captivating installation.

As you walk through the rift in the iceberg, rooms break off to either side. The second of these looks to the future, to a “time without memories.” As you enter, a clock ticks down, a heart beats, glaciers melt, and sensationalist news headlines move around the room. It consciously references nineteenth-century Arctic tropes: of the sublime, of the shock, awe, fear, and trepidation of Arctic exploration. Yet here, we are asked to remember that white southerners are no longer heroic explorers of an unknown and barren wasteland, but rather are responsible for causing such widespread devastation. The crack in the iceberg becomes a metaphor as “The Arctic landscape is filling up with cracks.” Its effects will be felt in the Baltic Sea and along Stockholm's built-up coastline.

Venturing further into the iceberg, visitors are bathed in blue, purple, and white light. The effect recalls the installation artwork of Olafur Eliasson, and his art/philosophy investigations into light, color, atmosphere, and water. As the iceberg fragments into separate rooms, one of these is made up of overlaying mirrors, so that the viewer's reflection is refracted and distorted by the shard-like installation. This space confronts mythological tales of the apocalypse, to suggest that this will soon be our reality. Alongside this, scientific studies of and in the cryosphere are detailed, their locations marked out, and equipment, including an ice axe, crampons, and cold-weather clothing are displayed within glass vitrines. With this, the possibility (or likelihood) of climate catastrophe is traced over the centuries.

Figure 1.
Figure 1.

Iceberg Interior. Courtesy of and reprinted with permission from Hendrik Zietler/Nordiska Museet.

Citation: Museum Worlds 11, 1; 10.3167/armw.2023.110119

Navigating through the interior of the iceberg, ice is framed as “Earth's frozen archive.” As they thaw and melt, glaciers, ice sheets, and permafrost reveal previously hidden environmental and social histories. Below the projection of a cracking and shifting ice floe, glass vitrines reveal the capacity for ice to preserve the past and how it might be used to protect for the future. As Susi K. Frank and Kjetil Jakobsen write, ice serves “as a medium of remembrance” (Frank and Jakobsen 2019: 9). Conversely, the parallel room explores human travel over the snow and ice. Through a multimedia display, the exhibits explore the changes in travel technologies, adapting to the shifting environment. Indigenous and Western modes of traversing water, snow, and ice, including kayak (qajaq), life-size sledges (qamutiik and pulka), skidoos, and trucks are exhibited below illuminated towers descending from the ceiling, turning the installation into a blue-green mirage. Here, historical Sámi and Inuit material culture finally comes to the fore.

This interest in the everyday extends beyond the iceberg and into the birchwood structure of a domestic Arctic interior. Here, the curator takes the visitor into a quintessentially Scandinavian design, where clean lines and exposed wood draw attention to Inuit and Sámi homes, clothing, artwork, and other ephemera. Most significantly, and perhaps most problematic, however, is the fact that none of the exhibitions’ designers appear to be Indigenous or from the Arctic. Alongside Sámi duodji, Arctic traditions and clothing are displayed beneath the (literally) tattered curtains of the aurora borealis. The curatorial effect of dissolving national boundaries around the Arctic comes together beneath old scraps of pastel pink and green fabric, which are cleverly repurposed to represent the circumpolar northern lights.

In turn, this space morphs into the final rooms, which are perhaps the most relevant today, confronting the Arctic as an extractive environment. Peculiar hay sculptures frame Indigenous land use, briefly accounting for how it was exploited historically. A single glass cabinet addresses the impact of whaling and sealing by Westerners and the consequent bans and restrictions enforced on Indigenous subsistence hunting, while the final wall, painted black and adorned with fake red gems, addresses ongoing and destructive mineral and resource industries.

Figure 2.
Figure 2.

Birchwood Interior. Courtesy of and reprinted with permission from Hendrik Zietler/Nordiska Museet.

Citation: Museum Worlds 11, 1; 10.3167/armw.2023.110119

Through all of this, the show suggests that while ice acts as an archive, there will ultimately be nothing left to preserve. Ice melts, humans (white southerners, outsiders) are responsible, and so tradition and memory-making will be lost. The exhibition is expansive in its outlook but lacks nuance in the localized impacts of climate devastation. While breaking down national boundaries marks a significant shift in Nordic museology and art history, such an approach, framed by the broad, global concern of ice melt, results in a rather surface level understanding and appreciation of unique and geographically distinct Indigenous communities. Alongside the exhibition, the three-year-long project led by Reinius resulted in a special issue of the Journal of Northern Studies (Reinius 2020a) and a Swedish-language multidisciplinary publication Arktiska Spår (Arctic Traces) (Reinius 2020b), both of which are worthy of further consideration. Indigenous communities inhabit the Arctic, scientists study the cryosphere, and curators frame these environments within the museum space—this exhibition does not want us to forget that all the while the ice is melting.

Isabelle Gapp

University of Aberdeen

References

  • Frank, Susi K., and Kjetil A. Jakobsen. 2019. “Introduction: The Arctic as an Archive.” In Arctic Archives: Ice, Memory, and Entropy, ed. Susi K. Frank and Kjetil A. Jakobsen, 920. Bielefeld: transcript Verlag.

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  • Reinius, Lotten Gustafsson, ed. 2020a. “Special Issue: Tracing the Arctic; Arctic Traces.” Journal of Northern Studies 14 (2).

  • Reinius, Lotten Gustafsson, ed. 2020b. Arktiska spår: Natur och kultur i rörelse. Stockholm: Nordiska museets förlag.

Empowering Art: Indigenous Creativity and Activism from North America's Northwest Coast

Sainsbury Centre, University of East Anglia, Norwich (12 March to 30 July 2023)

Entering the Sainsbury Centre, visitors are immediately confronted by a totem pole, carved by Robert Davidson (Haida) in 2007, rising from the floor below. In front of them, a huge digital print of Marianne Nicolson's (Musgamakw Dzawada'enuxw) The Sun is Setting on the British Empire (2017) hangs above the visitor desk. These two works immediately remind visitors that the culture and artistic legacies of Indigenous peoples in North America's Northwest Coast persist. This is a dominant message of Empowering Art.

Through consultation with Indigenous artists, consultants, and community leaders, the exhibition is effective in ensuring a rich, respectful, and emotive display of Northwest Coast art and culture, and its resonance and prominence in the present. It clearly demonstrates how exhibitions engaging with Indigenous material culture can benefit from direct consultation and inclusion of voices from communities whose culture is being represented, as well as open and reflexive interpretation that speaks directly to a predominantly non-Indigenous audience. As an exhibition that engages with over 300 years of history and material culture, it is successful in demonstrating the impact of socio-political contexts on the objects produced, the endurance of the distinctive artistic traditions of Northwest Coast peoples, and their resilience.

To explore the wide-ranging multimedia exhibition, visitors are guided through the exhibition thematically by wall text and visually by wall colors that change with each theme. The use of color alongside installation strategies is powerful and creates a more immersive experience. At times it is hard to decipher the correlation between color and theme, but some choices are clearer. For example, red walls are where objects relating to epidemics and the introduction of religion and missionaries are presented, whilst the following zone, “Criminalisation,” is black. A focus on celebration and contemporary cultural and artistic practice is light green and pale cream, elucidating a sense of calm and continuance.

The parameters of the space mean the exhibition is in several large gallery rooms connected by corridors. Wide corridors are used as display areas, whilst in narrow corridors decals of Northwest Coast forestscapes cover the walls, or large text is printed across them including quotes from the Truth and Reconciliation Report. These strategies are effective in retaining visitors’ engagement whilst introducing new ideas and objects. The flow of the corridors, temporary walls, and plinths constructed in the larger rooms reflect the formline style of the Northwest Coast. Undulating lines and the curves of the walls guide visitors around the exhibition as if they, too, are within a vast formline art structure. It would be interesting to see an aerial view of the exhibition with the multicolored rooms divided by such curvature of the architecture and ovoids, U-shapes, and S-shapes inherent in formline art.

Something the exhibition does very well is uncrowded displays, allowing each object its own space whilst wall colors are effective in helping them stand out. Ceremonial objects in the “Shared Wealth” section, for example, are presented against a bright yellow background that illuminates the dark alder and yew wood frontlets, feast bowls, and rattles.

As well as differing wall colors, objects are also activated through other curatorial strategies. For example, a late nineteenth-century Tlingit Chilkat robe is mounted as if worn, conveying movement, and a row of eight masks immediately face the visitor upon descending into the gallery. Positioning them at average head height means the masks are more confronting and the encounter is more powerful than if they were displayed higher on a wall, which can render a more abstract idea of their use and history. Visitors can also see the insides of the masks, including historic labels and handwriting that present each mask's collection history, showing a depth of biography, physical movement, and interactions.

The labels and interpretation are successful in guiding visitors thematically whilst reiterating different positionalities, setting expectations, and noticeably, directly addressing the audience. In the first text segment, a line reads, “If you cannot understand them, don't worry—you are not always supposed to. They weren't all made for you or for this place,” and in a label explaining a Haida mask in relation to its collection history, the final line reads, “Modern scholars know better.” I was also pleased that, where possible, maker attributions are made for historic objects rather than just tribal affiliation.

Figure 1.
Figure 1.

First view of the exhibition, a mask display and Robert Davidson's Totem Pole. Photo courtesy of the author.

Citation: Museum Worlds 11, 1; 10.3167/armw.2023.110119

Particularly effective in achieving the exhibition's aims is the careful mixing of historic and contemporary works and potlatch-related objects across all sections. This demonstrates the enduring creativity and agency of Northwest Coast peoples and the influence of time, encounter, materials, and globalization, whilst avoiding traps of presenting Northwest Coast peoples as chiefly historic cultures.

Object placement and wall color pertinently convey emotion in the “Criminalisation” section, which encompasses the detrimental assimilation policies. In the center of this cavernous black space sits Sonny Assu's (Ligwilda'xw Kwakwaka'wakw) Leila's Desk (2014), a recreation of a school desk and chair with an insulting bar of soap and copper leaf legs, which relate to the social importance of copper for Northwest Coast peoples. Directly behind is Joe David's (Nuu-chah-nulth, Tla-o-qui-aht) Clayoquot Serpent Headdress (1980), a testament to the survival of traditions. Positioned against the black walls, it is hard not to be enticed by this piece and, in dialog with Assu's desk, it evokes cultural vibrancy and continuation. Perhaps to make this point more striking, the desk could have been rotated so that it faces the headdress. The desk is one of the few objects not contained within a case, and I found it interesting to consider the notion of this desk being “free” when its context meant the opposite.

A display that powerfully struck me was a pre-1990 Kwakwākaā’wakw thunderbird, on loan from the British Museum (visible in Fig.1). This large, beautiful carving possesses an important place within Kwakwākaā’wakw potlatch ceremonies, and though it is afforded its own plinth, its display within a small case, for me, was uncomfortable and conveyed confinement and capture.

Figure 2.
Figure 2.

View of an exhibition space showing the varied media, wall colors, and architecture of the space. Photo courtesy of the author.

Citation: Museum Worlds 11, 1; 10.3167/armw.2023.110119

Digital media is effective in emotively engaging visitors with the themes. The repetitive beats of historic potlatch drumming and contemporary Indigenous-made music elucidate cultural continuity, whilst more somber soundscapes, like the noise of water in Skeena Reece's (Tsimshian/Gitksan) Touch Me (2013), encourages reflection. Rather than being cleansed of their Indigenous identities, as the bar of soap on Assu's desk would suggest, the subjects of Reece's video are cleansed of the historic violence inflicted upon them. Another successful point of visitor immersion is Marianne Nicolson's The Container for Souls (2006). The projection of the lightbox in the enclosed healing-themed space makes the visitor feel as though they are within the box, yet rather than creating a feeling of confinement, the installation is calming.

The last section is a large, bright space devoted to contemporary art. It is a final reiteration of curation influenced by Indigenous consultants, including Nika Collison, Jordan Wilson, Haa'yuups and Aay Aay Gidins, and is in line with Indigenous-centered curatorial strategies increasingly seen in North American exhibitions. The vibrancy of works, including works on paper, sculptures, jewelry, masks, and textiles, many varied pieces by Robert Davidson (Haida), and a monumental Thliitsapilthim (dance screen) by Haa'yuups (Nuu-chah-nulth), highlights cultural resilience and encourages exuberance in visitors. The careful and respectful arrangement of the exhibition by curators Jack Davy and Theo Weiss, amongst others, highlights the complex social and cultural exchange stories inherent within each piece. To sum up, a line from the “Indigenous futures” interpretation seems the most fitting: “To spend time with these stories, so generously shared by their tellers, is to be given a privileged insight into the true resilience of Northwest Coast spirit and society.”

Rose Taylor

The British Museum

The New Austronesia Hall

National Museum of Prehistory, Taitung

The National Museum of Prehistory (NMP), in Taitung City, eastern Taiwan, is unique among Taiwan's national-level museums, as it was established as a result of a particular archeological discovery, the largest site excavated in Taiwan's archeological history, the Peinan Site. It is not surprising, then, that the NMP, since its opening in 2002, has featured the prehistory, archeological science, and Austronesian Peoples of Taiwan in its permanent exhibition halls. For nearly two decades it has thus explored and promoted this non-mainstream, yet crucial, subject that has influenced how society in Taiwan defines itself and its relationship with others. In 2018, officials approved a large-scale museum software and hardware update plan that provided an optimal opportunity to consider recasting the framework of its permanent exhibition halls, which were scheduled to reopen in May of 2023. As the date of its reopening approached, anticipation grew about what changes to its permanent exhibitions had been made, especially the permanent exhibition space called the Austronesia Hall.

Before reconstructing the new exhibition, the historical, social and cultural context for the Austronesia Hall was showing signs of becoming out of date. It's original anthropological exhibition framework and representation strategies comprising origins, rituals, kinship relations, or material culture based on each of Taiwan's Indigenous peoples could not reflect the development status and relationship of contemporary Taiwan with the world's Austronesian cultures. There were a number of reasons for this, such as the rapid and profound revitalization of the culture and rights of Taiwan's Indigenous peoples, and the fact that, among studies on human migration and exchange, Taiwan has been regarded by some scholars as an important node of the Austronesian language family.

To accomplish this, bold steps were called for, and the NMP curatorial team took the lead in jettisoning the original exhibition's single regional and ethnic perspective on Austronesian cultures. They then constructed the entire framework of the exhibition on six themes: “KITA us,” “Understanding,” “Boundary,” “Exchange,” “Communication,” and “Identification.” Its key exhibition principles—the subjectivity of the world's Austronesian peoples and communities, cross-cultural comparisons and connections, and forum-style narrative techniques—not only represent an attempt to provide a new foundation for a dialog with the public, they can also be regarded as a decolonial perspective displayed by a museum in Taiwan that has itself been subject to various different waves of colonialist influence among Austronesian countries and regions.

The new permanent exhibition that will greet museum visitors is full of fresh exhibition concepts. At the entrance to the exhibition hall is a world map centered on Austronesian countries and the definition of KITA in Malay: “One can include the listener as part of the ‘we’ by saying KITA,” declaring that the exhibition is a venue for Austronesian peoples in the modern world to recognize the interaction between themselves and other cultures. Moreover, the exhibition text states:

We maintain that myth is no less substantial than history and that science is no more authoritative than storytelling. The unique island experiences and oceanic philosophy of Austronesian worlds are not merely local knowledges. They contain wisdom that shall inspire the entire world.

This highlights the consciousness of the Austronesian people as a significant subject in the world, as well as the ways in which they understand the world. It exudes the confidence of holding equal value to all other cultures and peoples, and gives those museumgoers from mainstream society greater insight into its subject matter, thereby providing a means of how to understand other peoples.

This effect is accomplished by the thematic sequence of the exhibition. It first defines the consciousness of the subject and the cognition methods of the world's Austronesian peoples, then, via the exhibited content themed “Understanding,” leads museumgoers to explore the similarities and differences among the ways in which different Austronesian peoples understand and relate to the world. For instance, when portraying the environmental issues faced by Austronesian peoples, the exhibition highlights the convergence of rights clashes in different countries and regions through juxtaposing seemingly independent issues across regions threatening their traditional lands. These include the challenges posed by palm oil and its air pollution in Southeast Asian countries, the national survival crisis for the Pacific Island nation of Tuvalu due to rising sea levels as a result of global warming, and the concerns of the Tao People of Taiwan, whose ancestral offshore island of Pongso no Tao (Orchid Island) is the site of nuclear waste storage sites. These juxtapositions vigorously reinforce the overarching new theme of the exhibition, that Austronesian peoples may live in profoundly different national settings, and experience widely different crises that threaten their existence and way of life; yet, they share many of the same fundamental legal, economic, political, and environmental challenges just as they share many of the same linguistic roots. Global and local, macro and micro come together powerfully in this new exhibition framework.

The same can be said of the next two interconnected themes of “Boundary” and “Exchange,” which use reflexive topic settings in an attempt to guide public reflection on related issues. Belief systems, concepts of the body, ethnic classification systems, commodity exchange mechanisms, and the diffusion of artifacts or plants are set to reflect the issues of internal and external power domination of Austronesian peoples stemming from the continued existence of Austronesian communities, and their being pressured into cross-border and cross-cultural interactions, in the form of colonialism and globalization. While museumgoers at the micro level can view various collections of cultural relics, and at the macro level have the opportunity to learn about historical events through video presentations or text explanations, the curatorial team utilizes explicit forum-style narratives to highlight what Austronesian peoples have done in contemporary times but also what they have not accepted:

As the 2020 COVID-19 Pandemic struck terror among people, the pulingau (ritual specialists) in the Tjuwabar Community of Paiwan People [in Taiwan] held a traditional pakingecen (barricade) ritual to protect the community. In the face of contemporary public health crises, traditional rituals serve as one way that Tjuwabar and other Indigenous communities make an active response.

This exhibition text conveys the agency of the cultural subject in contemporary times, and demonstrates a new perspective on self-definition. As for the two themes of “Communication” and “Identification,” after explaining the significance of communication and identity in traditional cultural practices such as rituals and ceremonies, the exhibition demonstrates how the Austronesian peoples engage in dialog between themselves and others, and build ties. This includes how they relate to musical, literary, video, and artistic creative works and the sense of identity behind them; the relationship between cultural performance and authenticity; the cultural clashes and intrusions faced by the Austronesians under national perspectives and demands; and how different Austronesian groups struggle over power and rights within the mainstream international community. The flourishing of Austronesian communication forms and contemporary development is symbolized by more extensive use of case studies and media in these two themes, with the further implication that the interference of complex political, economic, and cultural factors cannot be eliminated when dealing with communication and identification issues. It also highlights the intentional and explicit nature of the final content of the entire exhibition hall—Positive Initiatives and Approaches to Pan-Austronesian Identity Cohesion—and declares that the entire display is not a space lacking a clear standpoint.

It remains to be seen how the museum-going public will react to the Austronesia Hall with its bold approach, given that the wider context of many issues presented in the exhibition has been simplified. Nevertheless, it seems a necessary start. The visiting public may need to recognize that, in addition to knowledge building for the whole of society, it is an option to have a museum capable and willing to take a stand on issues.

Ching-yueh Hsieh

National Taitung University

Changsha Mawangdui Han Dynasty Tombs Exhibition

Hunan Museum, Changsha

In the chilly winter of 1972, a major archeological excavation at Mawangdui was initiated in Changsha, Hunan Province, Chinese Mainland (Yong 2021: 222). As the excavation continued, until 1974, archeologists unearthed three Han tombs, whose owners were Li Cang, the first Prime Minister of Changsha State in the early Western Han Dynasty (BC 235–BC 185), his wife, and his son. Tomb No. 1 presumably held Madam Xin Zhui, wife of Li Cang. Having been “sleeping” underground for approximately 2,200 years, she was discovered, astonishingly, with delicate skin, movable joints, and well-preserved organs. This rare wet corpse is unprecedented in Chinese archeological history or embalming science. The body and other unearthed objects were later transferred to the Hunan Museum.

Based on this major excavation, the Hunan Museum created a permanent display in 1974 that combined the exhibition space and collection storage. The exhibition was later enhanced twice, in 2003 and 2017. To date, the museum has attracted many visitors from more than 80 countries. The current exhibition covers an area of 5, 243.8 square meters, and is divided into four parts: the Great Archaeological Discovery, Life and Art, Classic Collection of Bamboo Slips and Silk Manuscripts, and Dream of Life Everlasting, which are distributed between the different floors of the museum building. Audiences need to start their visit from the third floor, where they can see the fabulous T-shaped silk painting, the feature object of the “Dream of Life Everlasting.” The other exhibits in this fourth part include four sets of coffins, which are located on the second floor, while the wooden coffin for Madam Xin Zhui and her body are on the first floor.

The archeological discoveries of the Mawangdui Han tombs reveal the world of the afterlife for the Li family. As the afterlife was treated in similar terms to everyday life during the Han Dynasty, what we see is a picture of their lives before passing away. Accordingly, the exhibition intends to reflect the views of life and death of Han people through this magnificent archeological excavation.

The prologue includes the image from the upper part of the T-shaped silk painting, which depicts the “Heavenly Kingdom,” resonating with the exhibition theme “longing for immortality”. Moreover, it mirrors the “Preservation of the Body” at the end of the exhibition.

The orientation section “Great Archaeological Discovery” comprises four sections: Tomb Nos. 1, 2, and 3, and the tomb owners, which allow us to appreciate not only the scientific excavation that was a national effort during the early history of the People's Republic of China, but also the archeological knowledge about the tombs, such as the age and identity of the owners, and the tomb structures, things which can be easily grasped by non-specialists.

The second part, “Life and Art,” is the most concentrated area of excavated artifacts in the exhibition, centered on material life during the early Han Dynasty. It comprises three sections: “Family of A ‘Millionaire’,” “Auspicious Eating,” and “Splendid Clothing.” The exquisite artifacts in the “Family of A ‘Millionaire’” section include playthings, coins, incense, musical instruments, figurines, and foodstuffs, which are witness to the affluent life, the feast of bells and pots, and the songs and dances in the marquis’ palace. The segment “Auspicious Eating” exhibits various types of food vessels, particularly the lacquer vessels with the inscriptions “Auspicious Eating” and “Auspicious Drinking.” The inscriptions show that the tomb owner was persuaded to eat and drink, reproducing his exquisite lifestyle with superior food and wine. The “Splendid Clothing” section showcases men's and women's grooming tools, various fabrics, and decorative techniques as witnesses for the dressing, fashion, and textile achievements of the Changsha State.

The third part of the exhibition, “Collection of Bamboo Slips and Silk Manuscripts,” focuses on symbolic items, compared with the previous section focusing on materials and objects. It examines the intellectual structure of the early Han aristocracy, along with their spiritual life and cultural world. Representative silk manuscripts, Han documentation comprising 130,000 words in total, and bamboo and wooden slips unearthed from the tombs are displayed in four sections based on their contents: Astronomy and Geography, Health and Medicine, History and Philosophy, and Yin-yang and the Five Elements.

The fourth part, “Dream of Life Everlasting,” is the culmination and the most popular part of the exhibition. The gallery was designed as the original tomb structure, with funerary objects and the human remains positioned inside accordingly, which reveals the underground home of the Li family after death and the imagination of the living and prayers for that world and hope for eternal life. This part is divided into four units: T-shaped Painting on Silk, Outer Coffin, Set of Four Coffins, and Preservation of the Body.

I would argue that the new Mawangdui exhibition is definitely among the best of the current Chinese archeological exhibitions, for the following reasons. First, it engages with the cognitive logic and behavioral habits of the audience, beginning with the most recent archeological excavation in the 1970s and then going back to the material world of the past. Then it interprets the ancient Chinese world of consciousness and spirit, and the world of human creative thinking (Popper 1987: 114), returning to the real world with the human remains at the end.

Second, the exhibition is a comprehensive demonstration of China's spirit, people, and society in the Han Dynasty. With funerary objects reflecting daily life of Han people, and symbolic objects (such as silk manuscripts) reflecting Han people's spiritual and philosophical pursuits, Chinese life and social order during the Han Dynasty can be reconstructed.

Third, the exhibition makes a slight breakthrough compared to other Chinese exhibitions in terms of interpretation methods. Exhibits are displayed in a group to illustrate their relationship. For example, three specimens of spices—grass fragrance, pelargonium, and ginger—are placed side-by-side under the painted incense burner to demonstrate how they were used during Han. Additionally, physical objects and supporting materials are arranged effectively to depict ancient life. For example, plant specimens including rice and corn, jars containing rice, and the pictures of severance books that kept records of grains and cereals, are displayed together to denote that these ingredients were used at that time. Furthermore, digital media and supplementary material are used effectively to demonstrate the techniques involved in making the tomb complex (see Figure 1).

Figure 1.
Figure 1.

A miniature model depicting the structure and relationship of the three tombs in the first part of the exhibition, “Great Archaeological Discovery,” Hunan Museum. Courtesy of the author.

Citation: Museum Worlds 11, 1; 10.3167/armw.2023.110119

Fourth, the exhibition uses multilayered illustrations to demonstrate the solid research findings from this archaeological site. Diagrams, tables, paintings, photographs, and posters are used to provide in-depth interpretation. For example, in the diagram for the plain unlined silk gauze gown, its light, thin, and slender characteristics are clearly marked. Meanwhile, multimedia devices with multilayered information are provided for educators to develop activities for interested parties to learn in depth.

And lastly, the exhibition attaches great importance to the ethics of displaying human remains. As well as providing a warning for visitors, the museum wraps the remains of Madam Xin Zhui with white cloth in respect for the deceased.

Nevertheless, I consider that this exhibition could do better in three respects. First, the display still aims to “teach” rather than take the audience's meaning-making as its core aim. Despite the fact that there are interactive exhibits, most of them have only low-level participation. All elements from the T-shaped silk painting, for example, are extracted for an animation. However, only the pattern and their names are shown one by one, without any further explanation. Outer Coffin is another typical example (see Figure 2). It is an extremely creative design, with the live reproduction over 20 meters deep, creating excellent contextualization. It is supposed to be capable of making objects speak through dynamic historical or archeological stories to create an object theater with sound and light. However, in this section the ornaments in the silk paintings and coffins are selected and illustrated artistically through 3D mapping, which only provides visitors with a visual stimulation rather than more immersive interpretation.

Next, although the exhibition creates an effective atmosphere in term of design and multiple spatial forms, the lighting is overall rather dark. Also, the exhibition has an overall logical structure and layout, but the minimal wayfinding and lack of signage means that the audience may wander out of the exhibition hall and into the adjacent café. On this point, we should remember that Judy Rand identified 11 important rights for museum visitors in which orientation was placed second (Rand 2001: 7–14). Clear signage and spatial planning help visitors know what to expect, where to go, how to get there, and what is available to see.

Figure 2.
Figure 2.

Outer Coffin in the fourth part of the exhibition, “Dream of Life Everlasting,” Hunan Museum. Courtesy of the author.

Citation: Museum Worlds 11, 1; 10.3167/armw.2023.110119

Finally, the exhibition mainly focuses on the outputs of knowledge and facts rather than creating a reflective space, an arena for dialog with the audience. It might have been desirable to have a “Hall of Contemplation” at the end of the exhibition, similar to that of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. As the exhibition is clearly not a place for leisure, it needs to allow visitors to understand the abundant collections of early Han civilization on display and to contemplate and think about big issues such as life and death. A space for reflection would help visitors to mourn the dead and interrogate the meaning of life as well as to reflect on their own self-worth. Nobody alive has the experience of death; what is frightening is not death itself but our attitude toward death, which determines how we exist in the world. In a lecture in 1961, when asked how to lead a better life; Heidegger replied tersely that we should spend more time in graveyards (Fields 2017: 11). This might indeed be the most useful lesson from this exhibition.

Jingjing Zhou

Fudan University, Shanghai

References

  • Fields, Brandon Eugene. 2017. “Tangible Memories” (MFA thesis, Herron School of Art and Design, Indiana University).

  • Popper, Karl. 1987. Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Study. Translated by Shu Weiguang et al. Shanghai: Shanghai Translation Press.

  • Rand, Judy. 2001. “The 227-Mile Museum, Or a Visitors’ Bill of Rights.” Curator: The Museum Journal 44: 714.

  • Yong, Jiang. 2021. The Journey of Hunan of the Hundred Years Party. People's Oriental Publishing and Media Co.

Goddess: Power, Glamour, Rebellion

ACMI Melbourne (5 April to 1 October 2023)

As one descends a darkened staircase to Gallery 4, the walls shimmer with silver glitter through a subdued light. Anticipating the exhibition space, one is surrounded by a soundscape engineered by Chiara Costanza, with audio excerpts from films, interviews, and speeches from throughout film history. In their own words, actors weigh the joys and struggles of their careers, drawing the viewer into the hot pink gallery space.

The exhibition is designed thematically, allowing for an exciting and thoughtful engagement with actors and films from over 120 years of cinema. Vertical strip screens play celebrated moments in film, such as Bette Davis's “Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night” from All About Eve (1950) and Rosamund Pike's chilling “Cool Girl” speech from Gone Girl (2014). From the outset, the exhibition addresses the struggles of women in the film industry against discrimination based on gender, race, age, and sexual orientation. These issues are explored through an eclectic collection of mixed media, interactive experiences, costume, photography, and ephemera. Though not large, the exhibition design makes impressive use of the space, drawing viewers through a curved, elongated gallery. While relying heavily on video and audio excerpts, clever audio design avoids any potentially jarring discordance between individual exhibits.

Figure 1.
Figure 1.

Goddess: Glamour, Power, Rebellion, installation view, ACMI. Courtesy Caroline Colbran.

Citation: Museum Worlds 11, 1; 10.3167/armw.2023.110119

Glamour as a source of power to rebel against discrimination and exploitation is a central message of the exhibition. With original costumes from international collections, Goddess explores the power of glamour through dress. The first display introduces icon of feminine glamour, Marilyn Monroe. Monroe weaponized her stardom in her struggle with film studios against pay inequity, censorship, and studio control. Monroe's hot pink gown from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) is spotlighted as one of the most legendary ensembles in the history of Hollywood, with artists such as Madonna, Margot Robbie, and Megan Thee Stallion recalling the gown in creative re-imaginings of the feminine ideal. The white tuxedo of bisexual icon Marlene Dietrich is displayed alongside the pink and red tuxedo-gown worn by actor Billy Porter to the 2019 Tony Awards. Both Porter and Dietrich, as well as Harlem Renaissance performer Gladys Bentley, are lauded for their rebellion against restrictive binary dress codes. Radical possibilities in costume design are further explored through the Black Panther-inspired beret worn by the Godmother of Blaxploitation Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (1997), the dazzling brocade gown worn by Quentin Crisp as a queer Queen Elizabeth I in Orlando (1992), and Anna Tscuhiya's “punk rock” kimonos from Sakuran (2006).

Stills from Hollywood photographer Will Connell's In Pictures: A Hollywood Satire (1937) illustrate how he helped “studios construct the image of their stars,” and expose the moralizing overreach of studios into the private lives of the actors they were crafting into their stars. Goddess champions the stories of actors who use their talent, determination, and mystique to challenge the discriminatory and stereotyped narratives studios wish to perpetuate. For example, 1930s Hollywood star Anna May Wong was continuously typecast as either the “villainous Dragon Lady” or the “subservient Lotus Flower,” while more complex characters were offered to white actors in “yellow face.” Against the backdrop of the Chinese Exclusion Act and anti-Chinese sentiment, Wong publicly denounced the racist roles offered to her as an Asian-American actor.

Figure 2.
Figure 2.

Goddess: Glamour, Power, Rebellion, installation view, ACMI, Melbourne. Courtesy Caroline Colbran.

Citation: Museum Worlds 11, 1; 10.3167/armw.2023.110119

Bethan Johnson's curatorial design successfully connects the stories of struggle against discrimination by women across film history. Innovative use of excerpts from acceptance speeches and interviews allows for seamless dialogue between exhibits. The ageism experienced by Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Josephine Baker as their careers progressed is mirrored in the experiences of Frances McDormand and Michelle Yeoh. Halle Berry, the first and only Black woman to win an Oscar for Best Actress in a leading role, dedicated her Oscar to the “nameless, faceless women of color” in film history.

As more women take on leadership positions in the industry, films that directly challenge patriarchal structures of power have emerged. Released during the height of the #MeToo movement, Promising Young Woman (2020) recalls precursors of the female revenge fantasy film such as Thelma and Louise (1992). Displayed towards the end of the exhibition, costumes from the two films are presented against an action-packed montage where women take the law into their own hands. Goddess presents a dialogue between Thelma and Louise and Promising Young Woman, which seems to suggest that while women now wield the weapons, violence remains the best option for women against patriarchal violence and inadequate systems of justice. The ethos underpinning these films remains ultimately pessimistic in its view of the potential for revolution, as opposed to just revenge-fantasy-cum-rebellion.

Goddess successfully spotlights screen goddesses who have “shattered glass ceilings” through their trailblazing work. However, beyond celebrating individual successes, the calls to continue the fight for more radical change come from the artists themselves, who use moments of personal achievement to call for greater equality of opportunity and representation. Accepting her Emmy Award in 2015, Viola Davis reminds us that “the only thing that separates women of color, from anyone else, is opportunity” and praises artists who have “redefined what it is to be beautiful, to be sexy, to be a leading woman, to be Black.” Through impressive engagement with film archives, costumes, posters and ephemera, Goddess asks the viewer to reflect on the powerful sentiment expressed by Davis to challenge all forms of exclusionary and discriminatory notions of what it is to be a leading lady, to be a Goddess. This thought-provoking exhibition invites us to share in the joys of women's work, while considering the significance and complex interrelationships of glamour, power, and rebellion in film.

Caroline Colbran

Independent Researcher

The Tenth Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art

Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane (4 December 2021–25 April 2022)

In 2021–22, the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) hosted the tenth iteration of the Asia Pacific Triennial, the state's most significant ongoing visual arts event. As regular visitors of the APT have come to expect, the scale and variety of the exhibited works was substantial. Curated by a team of 15, led by Tarun Nagesh, Reuben Keehan, and Ruth McDougall, APT10 included 69 projects created by more than 150 artists and filmmakers from over 30 countries in the Asia Pacific region (QAGOMA 2021).

Overall, APT10 resists easy summation. The wide range of objects included in the exhibition—paintings, sculptures, site-specific installations, films and video art, murals, textiles, sound works, ceramics, and ceremonial dress—pay respect to the cultural and creative diversity of the contributing artists. While the APT is not curated to any predetermined theme, the artists represented inevitably tackle shared international concerns, including environmental and economic stability, resource management, climate change and social justice issues. In communicating their perspectives, these artists maintain deep-set connections to cultural traditions invigorated with an eye to the present, the contemporary, and the futuristic.

Water—a central concern for all of us—appeared in APT10 in a variety of guises: as a force of creation and destruction, a precious commodity, a signifier of place, an obstacle to migration, and a literal flood. In early March 2022, the nearby Brisbane River unexpectedly overflowed into the lower floors of both QAGOMA buildings, forcing APT10 into hiatus for two weeks. Positioned on the third floor, Dhartari: The Creation of the World (2021) was painted by brothers Mayur and Tushar Vayeda. The work demonstrates the significance of flooding to traditional Warli cosmogony by presenting a visual account of the formation and reformation of the universe by water (see Figure 1). According to the Warli people of western India, the earth became overpopulated and needed to be rebalanced by a flood. Every living creature died in the waters, except for a man named Pandu, who rescued every kind of seed and a pair of every animal and survived in a boat made from a water gourd (Mayur and Tushar Vayeda in Nagesh 2021b: 167). Building on ancient Warli techniques, the Vayeda brothers used cow dung and water-based paint to create an intricate, 18-panel series that pays homage to the beauty and diversity of nature and to the power of human resilience. As explained by a nearby exhibition label, Varli (the language of the Warli people) does not have a formal writing system, so narrative images are an essential aspect of knowledge preservation and testify to the tenacity of Warli traditions. The Vayeda brothers have described their ongoing artistic practice through a watery metaphor, as “[moving] Warli tradition forward without diluting its essence” (Vayeda and Vayeda 2020).

Figure 1.
Figure 1.

Mayur and Tushar Vayeda, detail of Dhartari: The Creation of the World 2021, water-based colour and cow dung on cloth, 18 parts total, 148 x 3162 cm (overall). Purchased 2021 with funds from the Ashby Utting Foundation through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation. Courtesy Emily Poore.

Citation: Museum Worlds 11, 1; 10.3167/armw.2023.110119

Taking a different approach, Alia Farid's In Lieu of What Was (2019) monumentalizes water by presenting the viewer with five large-scale water containers that stand almost three meters tall (see Figure 2). Each is shaped like a different vessel, including a zamzamiyah (for carrying holy water in Mecca), a disposable water bottle, and a mushroom-shaped water tower. At this scale, the vessels also resemble the architectural drinking fountains (sabil) located in Islamic nations. Farid's work highlights the precarity of water in her Kuwaiti homelands; the country has no rivers and so relies on expensive and ultimately unsustainable means of hydration, including water importation and desalination plants (Buttrose 2021).

Other artists worked with a different kind of precious fluid. Working as the collective 3AM, Myanmar trio Ma Ei, Ko Latt, and Yadanar Win created Gold (2016). This video shows the artists slathering one another with gold paint while wearing earrings and lipstick—signifiers of both femininity and queerness. The metallic liquid coats their skins as it settles into pores, and slides across veins, wrinkles, and moles. Ironically, the luminous gold draws attention to the surfaces of their bodies while also covering them, simultaneously highlighting yet hiding their skins—and by extension, their individual identities—from view. Gold, which is ubiquitous in Burmese Buddhist culture, is used here to critique superficiality and materialism (Nagesh 2021a: 26), and to draw attention to the plight of LGBTIQ+ people of Myanmar, where homosexual acts are a criminal offence (Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade 2023).

Figure 2.
Figure 2.

Alia Farid, foreground, detail of In Lieu of What Was 2019, fiber-reinforced polymer, 5 pieces, tallest 297 x 100 x 100 cm. Courtesy Emily Poore.

Citation: Museum Worlds 11, 1; 10.3167/armw.2023.110119

In contrast, Thai ceramicist Vipoo Srivilasa employed gold to evoke feelings of joy, acceptance, inclusion, and hope for the future. His Shrine of Life/Benjapakee Shrine (2021) consisted of five white and gold ceramic deities standing in a bright blue niche adorned with ceramic flowers. The work was inspired by the Lak Mueang shrine in Bangkok; however, Srivilasa's statuettes have a cartoonish style, which lends a whimsical appeal to his work. Each deity represents qualities important to Srivilasa: love, equality, spirituality, security, identity, and creativity. His works have often included participatory elements, and for Shrine of Life, he invited viewers to participate in a new ritual by taking a paper jasmine flower, holding it above their head, and offering it to the deity of their choice. Like the shrine at Lak Mueang, the scent of jasmine permeated the space; at APT10 the air was perfumed by a “secret recipe” created especially for the event. Srivilasa understands his newly created devotional space and new ritual as a metaphor for his experience of migrating to Australia to create a new life (Srivilasa 2021).

As APT moves into its third decade, it continues to provide an Australian platform for an intriguing spectrum of works, each reflective of their creators’ unique experiences, perspectives, and diverse cultural influences. Through their ongoing mission to represent the cultural diversity of the Asia Pacific region, which has often been represented in a reductive, orientalizing manner by the West, QAGOMA pays due honor and respect to the fascinating cultural expressions of this diverse geopolitical region.

Emily Poore

Griffith University

References

  • Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. 2023. “Myanmar.” Smarttraveller. https://www.smartraveller.gov.au/destinations/asia/myanmar (accessed 1 April 2023).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Buttrose, Ellie. 2021. “Alia Farid.” In APT 10: The 10th Asian Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, 6465. Brisbane: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Nagesh, Tarun. 2021a. “3AM.” In APT 10: The 10th Asian Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, 2627. Brisbane: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Nagesh, Tarun. 2021b. “Mayur Vayeda, Tushar Vayeda.” In APT 10: The 10th Asian Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, 166167. Brisbane: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • QAGOMA. 2021. “The 10th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT10).” Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, What's On/Exhibitions. https://www.qagoma.qld.gov.au/exhibition/the-10th-asia-pacific-triennial-of-contemporary-art/ (accessed 23 August 2023).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Srivilasa, Vipoo. 2021. “Shrine of Life.” Vipoo Srivilasa. https://www.vipoo.com/exhibitions/shrine-of-life-2021 (accessed 1 April 2023)

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    • Export Citation
  • Vayeda, Mayur, and Tushar Vayeda. 2020. The Deep. Chennai: Tara Books.

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Museum Worlds

Advances in Research

  • Figure 1.

    Iceberg Interior. Courtesy of and reprinted with permission from Hendrik Zietler/Nordiska Museet.

  • Figure 2.

    Birchwood Interior. Courtesy of and reprinted with permission from Hendrik Zietler/Nordiska Museet.

  • Figure 1.

    First view of the exhibition, a mask display and Robert Davidson's Totem Pole. Photo courtesy of the author.

  • Figure 2.

    View of an exhibition space showing the varied media, wall colors, and architecture of the space. Photo courtesy of the author.

  • Figure 1.

    A miniature model depicting the structure and relationship of the three tombs in the first part of the exhibition, “Great Archaeological Discovery,” Hunan Museum. Courtesy of the author.

  • Figure 2.

    Outer Coffin in the fourth part of the exhibition, “Dream of Life Everlasting,” Hunan Museum. Courtesy of the author.

  • Figure 1.

    Goddess: Glamour, Power, Rebellion, installation view, ACMI. Courtesy Caroline Colbran.

  • Figure 2.

    Goddess: Glamour, Power, Rebellion, installation view, ACMI, Melbourne. Courtesy Caroline Colbran.

  • Figure 1.

    Mayur and Tushar Vayeda, detail of Dhartari: The Creation of the World 2021, water-based colour and cow dung on cloth, 18 parts total, 148 x 3162 cm (overall). Purchased 2021 with funds from the Ashby Utting Foundation through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation. Courtesy Emily Poore.

  • Figure 2.

    Alia Farid, foreground, detail of In Lieu of What Was 2019, fiber-reinforced polymer, 5 pieces, tallest 297 x 100 x 100 cm. Courtesy Emily Poore.

  • Frank, Susi K., and Kjetil A. Jakobsen. 2019. “Introduction: The Arctic as an Archive.” In Arctic Archives: Ice, Memory, and Entropy, ed. Susi K. Frank and Kjetil A. Jakobsen, 920. Bielefeld: transcript Verlag.

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  • Reinius, Lotten Gustafsson, ed. 2020a. “Special Issue: Tracing the Arctic; Arctic Traces.” Journal of Northern Studies 14 (2).

  • Reinius, Lotten Gustafsson, ed. 2020b. Arktiska spår: Natur och kultur i rörelse. Stockholm: Nordiska museets förlag.

  • Fields, Brandon Eugene. 2017. “Tangible Memories” (MFA thesis, Herron School of Art and Design, Indiana University).

  • Popper, Karl. 1987. Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Study. Translated by Shu Weiguang et al. Shanghai: Shanghai Translation Press.

  • Rand, Judy. 2001. “The 227-Mile Museum, Or a Visitors’ Bill of Rights.” Curator: The Museum Journal 44: 714.

  • Yong, Jiang. 2021. The Journey of Hunan of the Hundred Years Party. People's Oriental Publishing and Media Co.

  • Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. 2023. “Myanmar.” Smarttraveller. https://www.smartraveller.gov.au/destinations/asia/myanmar (accessed 1 April 2023).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Buttrose, Ellie. 2021. “Alia Farid.” In APT 10: The 10th Asian Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, 6465. Brisbane: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Nagesh, Tarun. 2021a. “3AM.” In APT 10: The 10th Asian Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, 2627. Brisbane: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Nagesh, Tarun. 2021b. “Mayur Vayeda, Tushar Vayeda.” In APT 10: The 10th Asian Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, 166167. Brisbane: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • QAGOMA. 2021. “The 10th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT10).” Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, What's On/Exhibitions. https://www.qagoma.qld.gov.au/exhibition/the-10th-asia-pacific-triennial-of-contemporary-art/ (accessed 23 August 2023).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Srivilasa, Vipoo. 2021. “Shrine of Life.” Vipoo Srivilasa. https://www.vipoo.com/exhibitions/shrine-of-life-2021 (accessed 1 April 2023)

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Vayeda, Mayur, and Tushar Vayeda. 2020. The Deep. Chennai: Tara Books.

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