Featuring some of the finest works by forty-eight contemporary artists, all of them with a deep connection to the Asia Pacific region, the Mainland Art Collection was assembled under the thematic banner – The art of humanity: a cultural march through complex landscapes. Accordingly, the collectors have acquired works which register the dynamism of the Asia Pacific region - its pervasive sense of flux but also, the irreducible complexity of the contemporary here. As the guiding phrase suggests, the Collection is informed by a deep empathy and strong sense of curiosity – a wish to know and understand (and necessary acceptance of unknowing, and not understanding). Several themes moreover run through the Collection, uniting and illuminating the individual works, while at the same time linking to broader concerns in contemporary art – both in the Asia Pacific, and beyond. Although none of the collected artworks should be reduced to any single idea or concern, five recurrent motifs may be perceived and will be discussed with particular focus upon the eleven works on offer.

With its vastness and internal heterogeneity, the Asia Pacific region – itself a conglomeration of regions – resists clear categorisation. Taking the multiple, layered entanglement within and beyond this region as their point of departure, several works thus contemplate the multi-faceted exchange and flow of ideas, images, information and peoples which give this region and these artists their dynamism. The importance of such peripatetic practices and diasporic identities are highlighted for example by Reko Rennie, who explores the appearance of graffiti and street art styles in locations far from their imagined origins in New York city – in Vietnam and in Indigenous Australia, respectively. Similarly, the works of Alex Seton and Shane Cotton reflect a desire to selectively adapt, reinterpret and appropriate aesthetic approaches from a range of different locations and cultures.

However, it is not only links between places, ideas and people that are many-directional and complex, nor is it only the borders (real or imagined) being crossed that are multiple and mysterious. Emphasising the way in which arts discourse itself has tended to reduce such complexity in an attempt to understand it, other artists in the Collection explore precisely this complexity, without seeking to simplify or make sense of it. In Mark Whalen’s Gathering, 2011 which appropriates stylistic approaches from street art, Japanese geisha and globalised Los Angeles popular culture, there are also traces of an imaginary geography that both overlaps and transcends the place where he lives and works. Likewise, in State of Being (Guitar), 2011 by Chiharu Shiota the complexity of the contradiction is fundamental - the sculpture bearing a solidity and mass which is entirely belied by the lightness and delicacy of the threads that traverse the six surfaces of the object.

Another key concern for several of the artists in the Collection is engaging with histories. Whether social or political, ancient or modern, histories are notoriously contested in the Asia Pacific region as witnessed here by Christian Thompson, who interrogates the narratives and legacies of colonialism; Tiffany Chung, who grapples with the wars and violent conflicts that have marked her place of birth (Vietnam); and Yang Yongliang, whose digital images appropriate and reinterpret Chinese ink and compositional tropes to examine rapidly transforming urban environments. Importantly, in their engagements with the past all these artists move beyond the concept of ‘tradition’ which has long defined discourses of modern and contemporary art in the Asia Pacific, to consider ways in which histories are told (or not told).

Contemplating the said and unsaid is similarly a theme pervading the art of Pinaree Sanpitak and Li Hongbo who are centrally concerned with the human body, as well as the texture and form of their materials. Highlighting the materiality of the paint she uses, indeed Sanpitak offers tantalising traces of presence with her poetic, semi-abstract forms recalling human and other organic shapes, suggestive of the body’s multiple relationships to its environments. Also drawn to the affective capacities of material, Li Hongbo here employs paper in a technique commonly used for a type of children’s toy to create an elongated figure whose legs appear too long to support its body - yet because the paper is seamless, it is also oddly graceful.

Finally, the most prominent of the thought-motifs linking the works in the Collection is arguably that of criticality and of addressing the numerous conflicts that often define both the contemporary moment, and Asia-Pacific region. Although almost all the works here contain traces of these themes, artists such as Eko Nugroho stand out in particular for the ways in which their articulations of protest are infused with a profound curiosity and creative playfulness.

Deutscher and Hackett is delighted to have the opportunity to offer here a selection of eleven works from the Mainland Art Collection. The artists represented are among the most significant and respected in the Asia-Pacific; many are also prominent outside the region, with their practices recognised by numerous institutions, exhibitions and publications worldwide.

We are grateful to Roger Nelson for allowing us to reproduce at length from his essay, ‘Five Threads (Among Many Others) in the Mainland Collection’ in the catalogue accompanying the collection, Mainland Art Fund. The Art of Humanity: A Cultural March Through Complex Landscapes, Mainland Art Fund, Melbourne, 2018.