The theme of this year’s Asia Triennial in Manchester is Conflict and Compassion. It’s a neat, corporate alliteration with little meaning, like those adverts that tell you that your car has ‘creative technology’ or ‘emotion in motion’ or, my favourite, ‘designed for humans’, as if it would be designed for anything else? I mention this because we seem to live in a world with a lot of conflict and very little compassion. Would the brief of an art show held every three years be able to redress that imbalance? I had my doubts as I set off on the press trek across the cultural environs of Manchester in search of an answer.

The ATM14 tour started appropriately enough in the Imperial War Museum. I love Daniel Libeskind’s bold, iconic building. It is a near perfect symbol of a globe riven apart by conflict and glued back together like some Airfix model without instructions by a school boy in a hurry and high on model adhesive. The museum is a curious mixture of conflict and compassion, full of the machinery of conflict but full also with the compassionate stories of those affected by the machines.

Bashir Makhoul, 'Enter Ghost Exit Ghost, the Genie'The Imperial War Museum North was brave enough to give over spaces to the selected ATM14 artists to explore the creative brief and I liked what they’ve done. Bashir Makhoul’s Enter Ghost Exit Ghost, the Genie installation in the Air Shard looks like temporary cardboard structures pocked with shrapnel, reminiscent of many of the images from his Palestinian homeland. Most of the artists created an interesting dialogue with the building and its contents, though some are a little overwhelmed by it. The impact of Shezad Dawood’s Babalon Rising is overshadowed by the T34 Tank next to it. Though I have to admit I was a bit distracted by the notion of how Stalin’s copywriters would sell the T34. I saw the T34 being driven through a montage of dramatically-lit ruins of Stalingrad, probably by Jude Law and Kate Winslet (see Enemy at the Gates for the full cinematic reference), with the Beatles’ Back in the USSR blaring out of the tank stereo and a sotte voce rasping ‘conflict and compassion’. Chen-Chieh-Jen-Realm-of-Reverberations-still-2014-2-e14110359515961-310x175

I’m still looking for a collective noun for journalists and the best I’ve come up with so far is ‘hacking’, a hacking of journalists. If you forgive the pun, it has a nice ring to it. But I digress again. I did warn Catharine Braithwaite, whose unenviable task it was to shepherd this hacking around the various venues, that mine would be a ‘mood’ piece as apposed to a straight review. My early career as an art critic was wrought with magazine closures, hence my reluctance to commit to a full review. I was very happy to jolly along in the company of the ever wondrous Miss Braithwaite and the others as the journey into the heart of artness unfolded, or should that be the art of darkness?

After a brief visit to the Pop-Up Republics in ship containers in the north car park of the museum, all of which were full of interesting concepts, we moved on to the Harmonious Society. This section of ATM14 was curated by Jiang Jiehong over six sites and is the largest exhibition of Chinese art ever held in the UK. artwork

As the weather began to take a turn for the worse, we arrived at ArtWork, a relatively new studio and exhibition space in Salford. We were greeted by Ying Tan, who I know has worked tirelessly on this and on the National Football Museum and Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art. She showed us around with good grace and sound knowledge. As in all these things it is difficult to pick out single artists, but I liked Leung Chi Wo’s Untitled (Love For Sale) for his investigations into the history of Manchester and an unexpected twist in his tale. Zhang Peili’s flags and It is forever not by He An also caught my eye.

Wang-YuyangOnward to the Castlefield Gallery for new work by the emerging and engaging Hardeep Pandhal, followed by a linger at the Museum of Science & Industry for a wonderful selection of Taiwanese contemporary art curated by Yu-Ling Chou. The highlight for me in the triennial was Realm of Reverberations by the renowned Chen Chieh-jen, the outstanding show in the entire ATM14. I did make it to the beautiful John Rylands library for the work curated by Ying Kwok, who also oversaw the collaboration with Manchester Cathedral where Wang Yuyang’s Breathing Books is a technical tour-de-force.

At this point, my little fat hairy legs began to give out and I headed for a much needed, restorative G&T (‘a’ is obviously a metaphor for many). I did make it to the other venues the next day where I was impressed by the National Football Museum and the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art. There is also a triennial film programme at Cornerhouse, curated by Sarah Perks and Andy Willis. Rigor Mortis directed by Juno Mak scared the living bejesus out of me and Catharine Braithwaite on Saturday night, and there are other great films to follow.

From my starting point, did I learn much about conflict and compassion? Well, artists are more compassionate than warmongers, that’s for sure. With Hong Kong possibly about to implode, Iraq and Syria continuing to explode, and Gaza and Ukraine still seething, I feel that art will only ever be able to pass comment on conflict, but maybe compassion is all we have left.

By Robert Hamilton