AUSTRALIA and Japan are developing together a Utopia Project that would present an arts Olympics every two years in an Asia-Pacific centre. They have enlisted the potential support of eight other countries in planning to stage non-competitive arts shows that would include artists, works and performances from across the region. The project would involve exhibitions, workshops and educational presentations, and would move to a different city each time in order to share the costs and the impact.
Alison Carroll, the arts director at Asialink, which is promoting the project, says: "The problem with art biennales, which are popping up everywhere, is to sustain them for the second or third time, in the same location. Our concept would require only a very small secretariat, and tiny administrative costs."
Arts Minister Peter Garrett is being asked to come to this party. If the Australian government offers its support, then Australia and Japan would invite the eight others to join the process formally.
Carroll says: "This trend of collaboration in our region is accelerating now. The structures are growing stronger all the time, in education and the arts. Unless we're proactive, we'll miss the boat because even now, we are not always viewed as part of the region. So we have to demonstrate our commitment."
The East Asia Summit process, in which Australia participates, involves meetings of environment ministers - including Garrett - and Carroll says that arts ministers should meet regularly too.
"Arts are a great way for countries to scrape away preconceptions and present what's really happening today. And we too in Australia tend to have an old-fashioned view of Asia and culture.
"We seem to think that contemporary art only happens in New York or Venice, but it's happening all around us. That's a shame, because in some respects we know more about Asia than any other Western country does. If we don't take advantage of that, it's our loss."
This bold Utopia Project seeks to follow up an extraordinarily successful three-year arts collaboration between Australia and Japan, which has involved four pairings of leading artists. The final exhibition to emerge from a series of exchanges involving artists, curators and other art professionals of the two countries will be shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney from July 28. It brings together the works of Australian Louisa Bufardeci and Japanese Zon Ito, whose collaboration began at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo. The curators of the museums found parallels "in their symbolic use of colour and ordered forms, along with their interpretation and unconventional use of space."
Asialink has co-ordinated the exchanges, with support from agencies such as the Australia Japan Foundation. Its arts director Carroll says: "Japan can have anything it wants. It has the resources to go to the Americans and Europeans. And in the past, Australia has been overlooked or dismissed as second best. That Japan's top artists, galleries and hot young curators are today eager for this exchange at this level shows a really significant shift in thinking.
"They are seeing something here with which they keenly wish to engage."
This shift coincides, says Carroll, with a growing comprehension within Asia-Pacific countries that in the realm of contemporary culture "this is a region unto itself. And Australia, like Japan, wants to take a leadership role and be a key player. "We can now do this together, involving our funding and philanthropic organisations. That wouldn't have happened five years ago."
The exhibitions have attracted extensive public interest in Japan, with for instance 51 newspaper and magazine articles written about the most recent show that closed there last October.
Akira Tatehata, director of the National Museum of Art in Osaka, says: "Currently, Australia enjoys an important presence in the Japanese contemporary art scene and is attracting attention from the general public as well as from the art world.
"As the Australia-Japan arts relationship has reached a certain maturity, I believe that it is important for future projects to have a specific focus, to introduce areas that have not been exposed previously to each other."
Shihoko Iida, a curator at the Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery, says: "The number of mutual projects that are held in both countries and initiated by young artists and art professionals has been increasing remarkably in recent years. It is important to continue and deepen our dialogue."
"The Japanese don't want our money" to persuade them to participate, says Carroll. "They want a good show. You can't buy your way into Japan. They want some support, but they mainly want (a show) to enhance their reputations.
"They want a mature relationship" with intelligent contemporary thinkers, she says. "Works that happen to be produced by Australians, that are interesting beyond the limits of boundaries, not items that comprise national descriptors, not works that are patently 'Australian'."
It is impossible to be artistically present in Japan without Japanese support, she says. The initial three-year program - which preceded the program now being concluded - cost the federal government $500,000 and other Australian organisations $800,000. The Japanese partners contributed $1.2 million towards showing Australian art there.
The Patricia Piccinini show proved especially popular, being the subject of more than 100 Japanese newspaper articles. "We couldn't do that for her," says Carroll. "That's what a partner is about. It would be fantastic if we could develop that kind of relationship with other countries in our region, such as China."