Suhanya Raffel: Well, the collection is 900-strong …
Gene Sherman: 900, [from] Asia and Australia. The larger part of that collection is from Australia, about two thirds roughly. Our definition of Asia goes across what used to be called Asia Minor, the Middle East, so it goes to Turkey, to Iran, to Israel. So Suhanya had choices.
SR: Big choices … I thought immediately let’s talk about the contemporary Asian art. That’s the first curatorial decision. We have fantastic Australian art exhibitions here, modern and contemporary. Let’s work with work that hasn’t been seen here in Australia … And then to see what kind of thematic interests are there within the collection.
GS: Really naturally is the operative word … We just trundled along, buying and acquiring things as we went … It was a very natural process and very intuitive, and then Brian stopped at the intuitive side and I went into research mode because that’s my training, I trained to be an academic, and also because I enjoy it. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t just being pulled by my heart, I wanted my head to follow my heart, to be engaged. And so these themes just popped up.
SR: They became clear when I started to delve into [the collection], and I told Gene, you know the idea of social justice sits as grounding across the entire group of works really, there’s a real commitment to that idea, that ideal.
GS: Women, marginalised groups, voiceless people, people without a voice in some way, people under duress in boats … but it wasn’t deliberate.
SR: So that was clearly a strong theme across the collection. [There is also] a very strong interest in words, in text, in the importance of that in art making. So a lot of the art [in Go East] looks at words, you can see the Jitish Kallat and Chinese Bible, both of them are artworks based on books and texts and speeches and words.
GS: Definitely, and the literature. But I didn’t see it.
SR: So there are opportunistic instincts that come into play as a curator. And knowing the architectural spaces and possibilities of the building … I really did want to show some of the majestic works in the collection, and that included Lin Tianmiao’s Badges … The other major opportunity was to present the Jitish Kallat Public Notice 2 in its entirety, which has never been done before. That is a really, really important piece of art for us in the 21st century, I really believe that.
GS: Me too … The Jitish Kallat catalogue gives you the sense of Public Notice 1, which I first saw at Queensland Art Gallery, at the Asia Pacific Triennial in 2006, and then we had Jitish at SCAF as one of our projects in 2008, and now he’s here. Each one of the works represents a journey and a conversation. It’s very, very deeply layered, this show. There’s nothing that’s just popped in.
GS: I think more involved than I would’ve been if we hadn’t had such a longstanding close relationship … In a way this has been a journey we’ve gone on together: she within a public institution; me originally within a commercial institution and then a not-for-profit … It’s an unusual situation, and I have it with Claire [Roberts] as well. She did that first show for me in 1991 [at Sherman Galleries] which was a selling show, and I have been a close friend and a colleague since then.
SR: We were thinking about what we were going to call the exhibition, and what is it saying. We batted it up and down and ended up with Go East, partly to upend east and west: what does that mean given that we’re in Australia and Asia is not east from Australia, it’s north. But it’s also a personal journey, of Brian and Gene coming to Australia from South Africa, which is a journey to the east.
GS: It was to the east, and to a place and space about which we knew so little.
SR: And the first two works you see [in Go East] are works about Paris and it sets you adrift. One’s an Indonesian artist and one’s a Chinese artist, and both of them talking about Paris. But that is of course, Gene…
GS: My second city.
SR: It sets the scene to on one hand be clear about geography, but on the other hand to say geography is only one lens through which you look at the world. The world is round and it’s from where you stand that you see that world. That’s how it began. —[O]