A Prospect of Prospects, catalogue essay

Taking the time to look back in time

I returned from Lascaux by the same road I arrived. Though I had stared into the ‘abyss’ of history, I did not emerge from an alien world. Never before had I felt a stronger or more reassuring conviction: I am a citizen of the earth, an inheritor not only of the Greeks and Romans but of almost the whole of infinity.

Zbigniew Herbert, Barbarian in the Garden

What is our responsibility towards the past? Are we stitched out of what came before us or is it possible to form something new?

Over the last few years I visited many museums – in Basel, in Prague, in Ottawa, in Kassel, in New York City, in London, in Istanbul, and in Berlin. What was I looking for? What was I looking at?

Much of the time I looked at fragments from the past, relics set out in glass cases or suspended on walls. All objects telling stories and bearing witness to the past. And pointing at things that can’t be touched or seen, from human relationships to power struggles, from the desire to record time to the need to fill it with stories.

And I asked myself: How do these visions of the Northern hemisphere translate to the South, to the oldest place on earth? The exhibition A Prospect of Prospects is part of my answer. Thinking about the North in the South. Thinking about the South in the North. Thinking about who tells world history, any history and why. Do museums insulate us from the past or do they provide space to reflect upon many pasts? What do we actually know about where we are?

The suburb of Prospect was named in 1838 because it was seen as a “beautiful prospect” by the gazetteer. A prospect is many things – a view, a possibility, the act of looking for minerals.

The beauty of Prospect and of South Australia is subtle rather than spectacular. It is present in a sense of space, in an immense light-filled sky. It is present in the hills which are like arms holding the shelter of the plain. The most beautiful view from the hills is to the Barker Inlet where freshwater meets saltwater, where the land and the sea embrace.

Artists Martha Berkeley, William Light, E.C. Frome and Eugene von Guerard made drawings and watercolours of these prospects. I have looked at their work at the Art Gallery of South Australia and in its publications and note that what these images made less than 180 years ago show us is still present. And that the thoughts and sensations visible in those early artworks are still significant for us to have a sense of the atmosphere of this place so well known to its Aboriginal inhabitants then and now as spirit lands.

It may be that a piece of the sky has something significant to say about a place. The first professional artist in South Australia, Martha Berkeley (1813-1899), came in 1837, one year after the colony was proclaimed, and lived in a tent on the banks of the Torrens for the first eight months. Her 1838 painting of The first dinner given to the Aborigines shows this interaction taking place under a vast sky tinged with red earth.

William Light (1786-1839) who is buried in Light Square under his theodolite was the first surveyor and town-planner of Adelaide and chose the site, auspiciously the place of the Red Kangaroo Dreaming, for the city. He too made watercolour paintings in which the sky, immense and pale, is the dominant presence.

E.C Frome (1802-1890) was the third surveyor-general of South Australia. One of his tasks was to work out the best sites for the biggest landbuyers to grab. Or as the Australian Dictionary of Biography puts it:

“An immense task confronted him. Less than a third of the land sold by the commissioners had been surveyed, and hundreds of settlers were clamouring for their country sections, yet Frome had to give priority to the special surveys which entitled large buyers to the pick of the land throughout the province.”

Frome’s most well-known painting is A first view of the Salt Desert called Lake Torrens made in 1843. It shows a man on a horse lowering his telescope and just looking across a plain of what seems like almost nothing stretching to the horizon where a white patch of water or salt opens to the sky. You can’t help but imagine him shaking his head. The sky takes up three quarters of the painting and echoes the sensation of Berkeley and Light’s sky. Distinctly not a Northern hemisphere sky, distinctly an Australian sky.

Eugene von Guerard (1811-1901) spent about three weeks drawing in South Australia in 1855 and a few days in the South-East in 1857. He brought with him a certain amount of influence from Caspar David Friedrich. The view he favoured was from Mount Lofty to the Barker Inlet, that marker of the sublime – the interlacing of land and sea.

The legacy of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is a significant part of German culture. Poet, novelist, playwright, he also investigated and theorised on botany, and came up with the notion of the UrPlanze or Origin-Plant, a single plant from which all the plants in the world evolved.

My paternal grandparents who had to escape from Germany, and the Nazis, brought with them a twelve volume Collected Works of Goethe published in 1885 in Stuttgart. Turning these old books into fossils, into museum objects, is one way for me to memorialise and grasp that distant past. Each book has a piece of mica from the Adelaide hills embedded in it. Goethe’s famous last words were: “Mehr Licht” which translates as “more light”.

Stephanie Radok

_________

References
Australian Dictionary of Biography
Design and Art Australia Online (DAAO), Joan Kerr on Martha Berkeley
Eugene Von Guerard’s South Australia, Alison Carroll and John Tregenza, Art Gallery of South Australia, 1986
Visions of Adelaide 1836-1886, Tracey Lock-Weir, Art Gallery of South Australia, 2005

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Catalogue essay for A Covenant with the Animals

Kindred

We wish to explore kindness the vast and peaceful country
Apollinaire

The Daddy-long-legs spiders have just had a large family and I don’t have the heart to kill them. They start so small the big ones must be quite old. The ants are in the kitchen but I have no plans to chemically wipe them out. In fact I follow their trail and open and place the old peanut butter jar at the far end of it. They are interested for a while but then go somewhere else. I too stopped eating it a while ago.

The birds are in the garden, watching me. The possum/s is/are in the roof, pissing down the wall occasionally, certainly not every day nor in the same place every time, and I really should have it/them removed though as everyone knows they always come back. Possums are both regular and irregular in their habits. They sleep in, they go out, they maintain an irregular regularity though it is certain whenever there are strange and sudden noises in the middle of the night, like a heavy piece of wood being dragged across the roof, a thumping chasing bumping sound or a giant foot hitting the wall it is certain to be a possum.

Very few chemicals are used in this house and garden, even to clean. It is a biome of soft homes for all, a quarter acre block, a sanctuary in the suburbs, a shrubby garden, a sheltered workshop, a book-filled house, a place where roots may be put down and get tangled up, where the number of different overlapping territories or countries with different beings living in them is vast and uncharted. There are the rarely seen but very fierce inchman bull ants living near the clothesline in a low-lying multi-storeyed clay cave, there are the possums, there are skinks and geckoes under pots and in crevices, there are lots of snails, there are pigeons, turtledoves, galahs, rosellas and rainbow lorikeets in the front garden and there are magpies in the big blue gum trees watching over and patrolling the backyard. And the occasional koala or bluetongue lizard passing through.

And the more everything stays still the more inhabitants there are, worms and black beetles, large ash-grey grasshoppers, slugs, mottled geckoes, praying mantis, aphids, dragon flies, crusader beetles, slaters, millipedes, earwigs, small squiggly things, cicadas, crickets, tiny tiny tiny bugs, flies, bees, wasps, butterflies, mosquitoes, moths.

When you see a possum, as with many animals, you tilt your head back a little and breathe in softly through your nose, this way you get their scent or at least look as if you are. That is the movement they make when they look at you.

This garden used to be, when it was my mother’s garden from the 1960s to the 1990s, very low and flat. She called it a rock garden. And planted rockery plants in it and raked and fertilised, swept and pruned. And placed pieces of slate on the ground as rocks.

In the few photos we have of people taken in the garden during those years there are large amounts of space between their faces and the plants below them. Today in photos the people are dwarfed by the plants that tower over them. This current manifestation of the garden is full of hiding places for lizards, insects and birds. Places to hide. Places to stop. And for some reason I have always liked the idea of time stopping.

Are people just temporary visitors on the earth? Are we here forever? Or are we endangered like birds under glass bell-jars in museums, frisking up our collars of coloured feathers, standing still in our iridescent plumage, staring through windows at the distance?

In Oxford in the Museum of Natural History at the top of the stairs a large looming case of stuffed birds seemed to be hiding, a sample of murders and resurrections from all over the world, perched on branches – wonder and pity in their glassy eyes.

The greatest treasure of the Museum is a mummified Dodo head and foot collectively called The Oxford Dodo. Dodos, last seen alive in 1662, are of course bywords/poster birds/icons, emblems for extinction. The story of their brutal and heedless extermination is sadly not unusual, especially in Australia.
As I write a masked plover calls through the night. Eee eee eee. Then silence.

Dodo skeletons in museum collections are mostly conglomerations of different birds. Most of the bones come from one swamp, the Mare aux Songe (The Sea of Dreams) in Mauritius where a crowd of dodos is believed to have died looking for water in a very dry season about 4,000 years ago. The man who found them in 1865, George Clarke, a schoolteacher, did so after thirty years of looking. He was inspired by a book called The Dodo and its Kindred.

Recent research shows that the closest living relative of the Dodo is the Nicobar Pigeon, a spectacular bird with fabulous curling dark blue and metallic green iridescent feathers. Just after learning this I made a visit to Adelaide Zoo on a hot summer day, a wandering exploration kind of visit without a map and without a plan – just to see what was happening and to feast my eyes on some animal cohabitants of the earth.

I know there are people who say that they don’t like zoos because they are like prisons. I think they are more like hotels really, sanctuaries, and hospitals. Though it was very hot, and St Valentine’s Day, many families, children, tourists and couples were visiting the zoo. In a low fenced bird enclosure there was a large group of Nicobar Pigeons, sitting together. Quite a few were perched around a pool of water right near the wire fence and they looked intensely at me.

Actually almost all the creatures I saw that day met my eyes and seemed to not only notice but recognise me, or so I felt. It made me think about Dr Dolittle who could not go into a pet shop because all the animals would recognise him and call out to him to buy them and take them to live with him. I tried to acknowledge this feeling of connection and recognition by making a clicking sound with my tongue to communicate that I was alive and aware that they are living beings who see me just as much as I see them.

Stephanie Radok

Tuzlusu (Saltwater): Istanbul Biennial 2015, part 2

The cure for anything is salt water – sweat, tears, or the sea.

Isak Dinesen

Picking my way along the shores of the Bosphorus from the Galata Bridge to Istanbul Modern after a traditional balik ekmek/fish sandwich it seemed for a little while that the entire city was an installation. Broken glass, scaffolding, temporary shelters, writing on the walls, dead end streets, mysterious shops, look at enough art for long enough and you can learn to see the world as hypothetical, provisional, there in order to make you think, to focus an issue and reformulate a position. Yet it eventually generally becomes clear where the art is by the presence of well-dressed people.

It turned out to be a colour that I took away from Tuzlusu. It is a particular pink that appears on the Biennale poster/map in a shape painted by theosophist Annie Besant from her vocabulary of Thought Forms of 1901. The form is like a star or a flower, a circle with a radiating fringe of petals or beams. You might think that such a form has a verbal explanation and so it does ‘Radiating Affection’. What the colour means is less clear.

There was a level in Tuzlusu in which the pink was connected to political events specifically the Armenian genocide that took place in 1915. There was the pink colour or something very near to it in Aslı Çavuşoğlu’s work Red/Red a row of framed recycled pieces of paper and old handmade notebooks held open on bookstands which had drawings in them in red ink made from cochineal beetles who live on the Ararat Plain, the border between Turkey and Armenia. The colour is called Armenian Red.

Not the form but the colour appeared again in the shadowy, sketchy work of Bracha L. Ettinger whose 75 notebooks and midnight paintings made in the dark over several years had some likeness to the loose combinations of shapes and words in the notebooks of Orhan Pamuk. Her works are a representation of thought with all its comings and goings, splitting, pausing, regrouping, gathering and ordering.

Pamuk’s own Museum of Innocence, is a three storey building dedicated to displays of the ephemeral objects and mementoes described in his eponymous novel such as butterfly brooches, cigarette butts, matchboxes, perfume bottles, marbles, coins, lighters, glasses of antacid, photographs, menus, crockery and postcards. Each display, sometimes reminiscent of a Joseph Cornell artwork though much less discriminating, recalls a moment in time and place. On the top floor of the Museum were two Arshile Gorky drawings Act of Creations from 1949 and Vale of the Armenian from 1944. And the quite charming guard came and stood next to them while I looked at them as if I might, like a crazy iconoclastic Australian, break the glass.

At SALT Beyoğlu in the exhibition How did we get here Aslı Çavuşoğlu had a work called ‘191/205’ that was a turntable with a record playing a song on it. The song, created with the Turkish MC Fuat, used 191 of the 205 words banned on TV and radio broadcasts in Turkey in January 1985 by the General Directorate of the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT) on the grounds that “they did not comply with the general structure and operation of the Turkish language and that they were beneath the level of standard Turkish.” The banned words included “memory, remember, recollection, experimental, motion, revolution, nature, dream, theory, possibility, history, freedom, example, conversation, whole, life”.

At the top of the SALT Beyoğlu building was a roof garden and on the floor just below that a vast and amazing bookshop/library asserting the immense power of writing, of books, of ideas, of language. And the presence of Europe and other places as represented by their writers – postcolonial ones as well as the old staples. On the wall were written the words of Mallarmé: “Tout, au monde, existe pour aboutir à un livre”.

In the library I overheard two students laughing and asked them if they could repeat the words they were quoting to me. They said “Those who were dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music” from Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols. “And he is a dancer and I am a musician”, the tall one said.

Another work that echoed the Tuzlusu pink was by Theaster Gates. It was located on the ground floor and upstairs in an empty shop. This work was called Three or Four Shades of Blues.

Gates is an artist engaged with making art projects that try to effect social change by retrieving and repurposing buildings and artefacts. In Chicago in the Dorchester Projects his Rebuild Foundation renovated two houses on Dorchester Avenue, one called the Archive House which holds 14,000 architecture books from a closed bookshop and one called the Listening House which holds 8,000 vinyl records.

In 2013 Gates purchased the Stony Island Savings Bank restored old buildings now known as the Stony Island Arts Bank. It contains the book collection of John H. Johnson, founder of Ebony and Jet magazines; the record collection of Frankie Knuckles, the godfather of house music; and slides from the University of Chicago’s and Art Institute of Chicago’s collections.

The ground floor of the shop in Istanbul was set up like a potter’s studio where at times Gates was there making imitations of a genuine Iznik bowl from the local Museum. The Iznik bowl was on display alongside his raw clay forms. And a record player.

Up the precarious stairs was a room with a screen and some chairs. A video showed a series of slides of ceramics from all over the world, some of which were miscoloured with that recurring pink, as well as a video of a recording session at Atlantic Studios. It was a Turkish man Ahmet Ertegun who started Atlantic Records with Herb and Mariam Abramson in 1947. This work entranced me, the slides taking me back to sitting in the dark in old lecture theatres, to illustrations of vases in books and to the mutable chemical characteristics of analogue photography, and the video slid me into the making of music and the relationships between the people making it. With projections and videos let’s face it either you duck out straight away or tune in to some level of trance that takes you inside your body, your memory and your mind.

After recalling these experiences back in Adelaide I went out in the early evening for a walk across the park where, in the summer heat, great shards of marsupial-coloured bark had fallen off the big blue gums and lay all over the ground where nine magpies stood facing into the wind. Then I saw the Tuzlusu pink on the chests and wings of a flock of galahs making their characteristic tzut tzut sound.

TO BE CONTINUED

Tuzlusu (Saltwater): Istanbul Biennial 2015

Our tears are salty.
Griselda Pollock in her essay, The Cure for Anything is Salt Water in Tuzlusu (Saltwater) catalogue

The curator of the 14th Istanbul Biennial Tuzlusu (Saltwater): a Theory of Thought Forms was Italian-American-Bulgarian art historian and ex-art critic Carolyn Christov-Barkagiev (CCB) who also curated the 2008 Sydney Biennale subtitled Revolutions – Forms that turn and the massive 2012 Kassel dOCUMENTA (13), the five yearly global exhibition in Germany which acts as a punctuation point in global contemporary art. It is just a matter of time before CCB curates the Venice Biennale though she doesn’t like to be called a curator and calls herself the drafter instead, taking the term from draftsman. And usually uses a curatorium of colleagues or ‘agents’ to bounce ideas around.

Clearly CCB likes the word ‘Forms’. And uses it as a term to free art from any specificities of media or task.

Curators have favourites and inclinations just like anyone. CCB’s shows tend to have a voracious and voluminous inclusivity often including, in some way, masses of dead people whether artists, philosophers, spiritualists, writers or whatever as well as lengthy writing components such as dOCUMENTA (13)’s the 100 Notes—100 Thoughts series and its The Logbook and The Book of Books, and even out of reach exhibits. Thus dOCUMENTA (13) had components in Kabul, Afghanistan; Alexandria and Cairo, Egypt; and Banff, Canada, as well as in Kassel which is situated in the navel of Germany.

Tuzlusu (Saltwater) included imaginary, unattainable and out of reach spaces like Pierre Huyghe’s underwater theatre for jellyfish as well as accessible ones. And for navigation – a slim map, a paperback guidebook and a fat bilingual Turkish-English Bible-dimensioned hardback catalogue of essays, quotations and drawings.

They said it was possible to encompass Tuzlusu in three days. Works by over eighty participants from Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and North America, were displayed in over thirty venues on the European and Asian sides of the Bosphorus in museums as well as temporary spaces such as boats, hotels, former banks, garages, gardens, schools, shops and private homes.

Depending on how many days you had, what the weather was like, whether you took a tour and how good or bad your map-reading companions were you may or may not have seen everything. But I am not sure that that is important. I am coming increasingly to think that it is the experience of being somewhere at a particular time that makes an exhibition valuable.

If you went to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam or the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, the Louvre in Paris, MONA in Hobart or indeed the Gab Titui Cultural Centre on Thursday Island and saw just one work because the building was being cleaned or whatever it is very likely that that one work and that experience would stay with you for much longer and mean much more than walking in endless halls and galleries until you became numb with looking. That said, part of the fun of biennials or other large art events in which work is scattered through a city is the sense of hard sweaty work and harmless adventure in finding the art, as well as the value of experiencing the way it is embedded and makes commentary in non-gallery venues. But surely it is best to be not ticking each exhibit off systematically and treating the whole event like a battle to be won, rather we should see it as a cocktail, an experience to be savoured.

And if you stop to dream and think … who knows where you might end up?

CCB is steeped in European art history, in fixed precedents and lineages which can sometimes produce an insular or smug view of contemporary art. Yet she also works at implementing new lineages and sightlines. As CCB spent some time in Australia working on the Sydney Biennale this means that she includes Australian indigenous artists in Tuzlusu but she hasn’t raised her head to see the Pacific or indeed New Zealand. So it is in many ways a limited kind of saltwater that she presents.

A wonderful and delicate sense of cultural, intellectual, historical, aesthetic wealth was present for me in the experience of the city of Istanbul, in freshly made pomegranate juice, in the architecture, the opulent building materials, the elegance of the furniture and environments of the privileged places I visited through the Biennial. This sense of the marriage of culture and power exists all over the world but in this legendary city, memorialised over recent years by the novels of Orhan Pamuk whose work focuses on the deep provincialism and melancholy yearnings of himself and his compatriots, it is even more prominent. Luxury is here, and poverty is here, and all the stages in-between … but it is especially opulent luxury, and it is defiant poverty, no not defiant there are other words – hard-working, resigned, watchful, aware of the potential suddenness of change, and the gripping weight of history and location.

Istanbul is on the must-see list for many world travellers, its past life as Constantinople and Byzantium, its location and architecture make it irresistible to tourists. My own tolerance for iconic historical sites is fairly limited though watching tourists is rich terrain. Many of the people who live in Istanbul have no prospects of travelling anywhere ever, many are refugees from other countries, and in talking to locals – people working in hotels, restaurants or shops about the Biennial it became clear that most of them didn’t know that it was happening.

Being in Istanbul for the first time and having more than historical monuments to see was excellent, it reminded me of the fellowship of the global community sometimes called the art world, a more or less moveable feast. And the importance of art as a language that is not the same all over the world but which has persistent ambitions for a kind of Cultural Esperanto, a belief system that evades art’s forced marriage to money and power and sees it as working optimistically as the very best kind of infotainment and as an agent for change or at the very least accessible and thought-provoking analysis.

The remarkable exhibition How did we get here: an exhibition exploring Turkey’s recent past through social movements and elements of popular culture that emerged after the coup d’état on September 12, 1980 which was on show at SALT Beyoğlu and at SALT Galata during the Biennial, though not an official part of it, demonstrated brilliantly how an international audience may be urgently washed in the recent history of a country.

It showed how a grand biennial of contemporary art away from home or even at home is always potentially much more than a venue for art. It is urgent for everyone in the world to know more about everyone else’s recent past.

And travelling to see an exhibition … when at the same time a short distance away thousands of refugees are endangering their lives on the sea has a sharpening effect on the occasional solipsism of the cultural life.

To me Istanbul was friendly, gracious and thoughtful. Yet the stenciled graffiti I saw there which stayed with me most intently said: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”

TO BE CONTINUED

A social realist in Adelaide

Lidia Groblicka: black + white as seen at the Art Gallery of South Australia in 2012

In the late Bernard Smith’s book on Australian art Place, Taste and Tradition published in 1945 he put forward the idea of exhibitions being held and art being made in communities all over Australia. Such workshops would harness the creativity of people and would make an art for the people. Smith was a socialist and believed art should be intelligible and accessible, hence he drafted the Antipodean Manifesto in 1959 that was, above all, against abstraction in art.

The story of social realist aspirations in art in Australia is often covered up by stories of art as a pursuit of privilege and riches. Success is measured in acquisitions and prizes. Yet success for a social realist is about being able to communicate and to make biting comments on society. In art history socialist realism is associated with paintings of crowds of ruddy-cheeked Chinese peasants bringing in huge harvests and sculptures of strongly muscled Soviet mothers and soldiers bearing children and saving the world. That is another story – state-dictated socialist realist art rather than social realism. Social realism is biting satire not false facades.

Lidia Groblicka, the recently deceased Adelaide-based printmaker and painter, trained at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków, Poland at a time when Soviet style socialist realism was being taught. But as she says in the filmed interview on show “The Poles are disobedient people”.

Printmaking is the ideal democratic art, it creates multiples and its technical aspects enforce limitations that can make its messages forceful and clear. In the exhibition Lidia Groblicka: black + white, an exhibition of prints curated by the AGSA’s Julie Robinson and Elspeth Pitt, the early works show Groblicka clearly looking at the paintings of Vincent van Gogh and his grim depictions of the miners of the Borinage. Born in 1933 Groblicka’s own life was shaped by World War II and she came to Australia as the outcome of a compromise with her husband when they were living in London. He wanted to go to America while she wished to return to Poland. She did not regret living in Australia as she loved trees and bushwalking but missed European architecture, the Polish language and countryside. One of her first works made in Adelaide For the individualist only (1969) responded to the conformity of the suburbs by showing rows of identical houses and their electric poles. It belongs to the genre of art and writing by displaced migrants coming to terms with the apparent emptiness of Australia. Many stories of discrimination also appear in this genre. Groblicka’s work Odd flower out (1992) shows ‘the different one’ being crucified.

In the interview with Groblicka recorded by the Adelaide Art Society in 1996 and playing in the corner of her exhibition (though unfortunately with the sound much too low and no headphones provided) she says that she wants her work to “be understood by children and even the housewives”. (She also seems to say “I am not a beaver” but I think this is part of the sound problem.) Groblicka’s work makes biting commentary on life, on society, on environmental destruction. It is a dark vision constantly kicking against authority and capitalism. Money is represented as evil. Soul of the corporation (2008) depicts a cash-bloated figure. One tree hill reserve (2006) shows a sole tree surrounded by roads and arrows going nowhere. Beneath the tree a bird has collapsed. The whole life of Mr Bug (1996) cheerfully shows the short and futile path between birth and death.

I often saw Groblicka’s work in exhibitions at the Royal South Australian Society of Arts (RSASA) where her work stood out in its political and graphic force. The Art Gallery of South Australia exhibition shows archival material of Groblicka cutting and printing her woodblocks. We see her printing in bare feet, cutting woodblock while sitting on the ground cross-legged balancing it on a board across her knees with her shoes beside her and our eyes are drawn to the folk art embroidery repeat pattern of lions on the sofa cushion behind her. The sense of great honesty and purpose that is conveyed in the work is present in the person.

Groblicka’s prints possesses intense precision. The print from which an amazing wallpaper has been made especially for the exhibition shows rows and rows of skulls from which dollar signs sprout and next to which tiny smiling angels stand. This repeat pattern is both relentless and mysterious. Its title is Plantation in Spring (2001). Being neither a child nor a housewife I don’t quite get it, or maybe I don’t want to get it. A local printmaker recalls seeing Groblicka demonstrate her printing technique, handprinting on thin paper with a bone held in her palm as a printing tool. Groblicka’s work is certainly close to the bone.

A review of Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art

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There was no ceremony for the last day of Sakahàn the first quinquennial exhibition of International Indigenous Art, but the sky went dark grey, a thunderstorm cracked it open and heavy rain bucketed down in the last half hour. This seemed entirely appropriate as connection to nature, and therefore weather, is a recurring element of indigeneity.
And what are the defining elements of indigeneity? Frequently it is indefinable, fluid, or withheld, at other times it is definitely an overriding connection to the earth, the voices of animals and other non-human forms of life.
Certainly Indigenous art is not a monolith of any kind and perhaps a refusal to be defined is a defining characteristic of it. One of the curators of Sakahàn Greg Hill wrote an Afterword in the catalogue in which he imagines he is writing in 2038 after six Sakahàns have been held. He writes: “Strategically indigeneity is flexible enough to serve as required. As a concept or construct its defining characteristic is its mutability. Indigeneity as a concept, a container, has to be plastic enough to expand in any direction while maintaining its integrity. Indigenous artists understand this.”
Another curator Christine Lalonde quotes artist and theorist David Garneau from a paper he delivered at the 2011 Essentially Indigenous? symposium at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. “We read, write, and critique ourselves into contemporaneity. This is self-determination. Figuring out what is or who are essentially Indigenous is no longer a Settler issue, it is an Indigenous problem.” Yet another essay by Columbian Catalina Lozano speaks of “the epistemic trap of Eurocentrism” next to an image of a 2012 work by Eduardo Abaroa titled Destruction of the Museum of Anthropology.
In this exhibition with more than 150 works of relatively recent art by over 80 artists from 16 countries, by indigenous people based in India, South America, Greenland, Denmark, Taiwan, New Zealand, USA, Australia, Japan, Norway, Finland, Mexico and Canada, there is heaps of difference. So the agenda of Sakahàn, which means in Algonkian (the language of the First Peoples of the land on which Ottawa is built) “to light a fire”, is complex and detailed.
The recurring topics of the art on show, as suggested in Lalonde’s catalogue essay, are “self-representation; histories and encounters; the value of the handmade; transmigration between the spiritual, the uncanny and the everyday; homelands and exile; and personal expressions of the impact of physical violence and societal trauma.”
Sakahàn was located in several sites (in the satellite Indigenous and Urban at the Canadian Museum of Civilisation there was local Canadian material – including djs, graffiti, photographs, and dance; and at the Ottawa Art Gallery a four person exhibition called In the Flesh about relationships between people and animals which included Buffalo Bone China, a work by Dana Claxton using mesmerising archival footage of buffalo running) but the International Art was in the National Gallery of Canada. It has a large glass tower at one end and a monstrously large Louise Bourgeois Maman 1999 standing guard at the entrance at the other end. Sakahàn asserted itself immediately from outside the Gallery by an immense three dimensional photographic Iluliaq (Iceberg), the work of Inuk Silis, which was built over the crystalline glass tower which burst through it as if both were half-finished or in conflict.
The entry to the exhibition was up a long ramp above which hung Earth and Sky a banner decorated with airy symbols made by Shuvinal Ashoona and John Noestheden. On reaching the top of the ramp you entered a round room through swooshing automatic doors. In the centre of this small self-contained space was dramatically placed Michael Parekowhai’s My Sister, my Self – a black shiny fibreglass seal balancing on its nose a handmade replica of Duchamp’s Roue de bicyclette from 1913. The playfulness of this gesture, making a circus plaything from one of the iconic works of conventional European art history, was strong and lighthearted. It suggested the opening of a conversation with Eurocentric art, perhaps even a confrontation with its conventions and habits.
This idea was borne out in the next gallery which contained impressive works by Danie Mellor (blue and white chinoiserie-style drawings of rainforests and Aboriginal people with traditional shields, and above on the ceiling – a skull and a blue moon), Jonathan Jones (many lightbulbs hanging from white cords) and Kent Monkman (Boudoir de Berdashe, a teepee within which a highly camp video about race relations and the Western frontier played). And the soundtrack of Vernon Ah Kee’s cantchant could be heard from nearby. So Australian art was in the foreground, and Brenda Croft was one of eight international curatorial advisors to the show – although there was no essay in the catalogue from an Australian. Altogether there were five Australians as Warwick Thornton’s Nana video and Richard Bell’s video Scratch an Aussie and Life on a Mission painting were also included.
After these first few rooms things got very diverse and less familiar. The quantity of work and its variety made it pretty well impossible to follow any train of thought or theme – it was more a matter of does it talk to me and why? And maybe this entering into a feeling place and not a thinking place was appropriate.
I lingered over the work of Pia Arke which uses maps, photographs and substances like coffee, sugar, rice, flour and rolled oats as well her video Arctic Hysteria; and enjoyed the drawings of Itee Pootoogook of daily life in Cape Dorset. I experienced the disorientation, immersive and dreamlike, of the video installation of Brett Graham and Rachel Rakena’s Aniwaniwa about cultural loss and forced migration in Aotearoa New Zealand. Abel Rodriguez’s detailed six drawings of Seasonal Changes in the Amazon Forest were totally absorbing while Lucinations, the projection of Doug Smarch’s video which recreates the prophetic dream of a medicine man onto a screen of white feathers, was hallucinogenic. Then there was Steven Yazzie’s jittery drawings of Monument Valley made while riding through it in a buggy. And in a gallery flanked by Sol Le Witt wall drawings was Encore tranquillité [Calm Again] Jimmie Durham’s fibreglass boulder crushing a small aeroplane.
Was the work International or was the exhibition International? How many people saw it? Will its next manifestation be elsewhere? Who is it talking to? Regrettably the substantial and informative wall panels which illuminated the artworks are not in the catalogue.
As much as there were recurring references to age-old traditions there was definitely a sense of a beginning in Sakahàn. Even a sense of always beginning and of ongoing exploration, of completely unpredictable outcomes, of multiple directions, of valuable materials and territories, and important messages and observations, to hopefully continually enrich and confront contemporary art rather than conform to its paradigms. Indigeneity definitely increases the vocabulary of humanity and, just maybe, being indigenous means being human.

Stephanie Radok’s trip to Canada was assisted by the Australia Council.

Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art
17 May – 2 September 2013
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
Curators: Greg Hill, Candice Hopkins, Christine Lalonde

The Mystery of Shit: Wim Delvoye

The first time I ever saw what I thought was tattooed pigs (they were actually painted) was in the 1996 Asia-Pacific Triennial catalogue. This vivid image that etched itself into my memory shows a work by Chinese artist Xu Bing called A Case Study of Transference (1994) which involved a pig covered in nonsensical writing in the Roman alphabet fucking a pig covered in fake Chinese writing (Xu Bing devised the script) in a gallery filled with open books in different languages. It is a clever and humorous work that plays to the full the instincts of the pigs and the cultured sophistication of writing. Is or was Chinese culture being fucked by Western culture in 1994? Are four legs, speaking in the spirit of George Orwell’s novel 1984, better than two? Do we communicate best in words or through our bodies?

The work touches on a border, a frontier, a taboo of acceptability – watching animals fucking, whether it is meant metaphorically or not, is embarrassing. The artist invented the work without being certain how its audience would respond yet with it he approached the edges of one of those big themes: sex, death, culture clash.

The first tattooed pigskin I ever saw was at MONA in Tasmania where I encountered Belgian artist Wim Delvoye’s Untitled – Osama (2002-3) looming at me out of the darkness. Mostly in dark blue ink almost like a biro drawing and including the head and legs of the animal’s body it is displayed inside a vertical glass case like a piece of fabric or a shaman’s robe. What really struck me was the humanness of the skin with its fair reddish hair. Delvoye has pointed out that these pigs are very Caucasian in their colouring. So for a minute it was like seeing a human body and that, of course, is shocking. As is the insult to Muslims offered up by linking Osama bin Laden and a pig.

Like Xu Bing’s pigs the artwork of Delvoye confronts taboos, combining cultural signifiers and nature, though Delvoye is concerned always to embrace and exploit commodity culture at the same time as commenting on its extremities or indeed being one of its extremities.

Iconoclastic British art critic and filmmaker Ben Lewis made a documentary on Delvoye and got a Delvoye tattoo in China in 2005 to match one that a pig was getting at the same time. Lewis wrote in the British newspaper The Telegraph: “This is, of course, silly art: Delvoye’s work satirises the art world, with its inflated prices and daft intellectual cul-de-sacs.”

There is a cool exploitative level to Delvoye’s work that is married to frenetic energy. Notoriety sells art as well as drawing attention to it which may be one reason that Delvoye’s work appeals to David Walsh of MONA as confrontation with the gentility that can waft around the corridors of art is clearly important to both men. Then there is the ‘bad boy’ factor, the ‘ennui’ and novelty factors, the need to transgress, to push boundaries deeper, further, wider.

In an interview in 2003, with Ward Daenen for the Flemish newspaper De Morgen, Wim himself said: “The plebian likes me. He takes me for a Robin Hood who takes his side because I reveal what the art world is: a machine that produces shit.”

Shit happens

Delvoye has been tattooing pigs or having them tattooed on and off since 1994 when he started tattooing on dead pig skins. In 1997 he showed live tattooed pigs in Middelheim Museum in Antwerp. The main difference is that on a live pig the shaved hair grows back through the tattoo making it more like flesh and less like a conventional art surface.

The Art Farm in China started in 2004. Collectors buy the pigs while they are still alive, wait for them to grow (like carving your initial onto a baby apple the design on a small pig grows over time), have them stuffed or framed, and meanwhile watch them being pigs on live pig-cam. In 2009 a taxidermied tattooed pig called Last Port (2006) was sold at Christies for £90,000 ($A139,255). It would certainly be a startling conversation piece to have sitting around the house – spooky, sad, funny.

Some of the pigs are tattooed with Louis Vuitton brand symbols, others with Russian prison tattoos and Walt Disney characters. Disney and Delvoye share initials and sometimes a similar logo. For all its grit there is definitely something light-hearted and slick about Delvoye’s work, and a kind of brio possibly shared by a certain Mouse also bent on a kind of world domination that is both commercial and entertaining. Spectacle and empire – though shock rather than sentiment is Delvoye’s chief tool. And to extend the marketing he has brought out a Wim Action Figure complete with tattoo gun and cloaca machine.

Delvoye is reported as saying: “Instead of producing art I wanted to harvest it. The pigs are a nice allegory that makes us think about what art means to us, and where the line exists between what art is and what art isn’t.”

As a complement to the Osama pigskin there is a Jesus pig. But Delvoye is an amateur of the tattoo. I spoke to Australian long-term tattooist, photographer and painter ex de Medici about Delvoye’s work. Her opinion is that his understanding of tattoos is very elementary. For de Medici tattooing is a living art that gets its vitality partly because it is embedded in life (on a body) and cannot be commodified (that is resold). She regards Delvoye’s tattoo work as abusive to animals (even though the pigs are anaesthetized while being tattooed de Medici says the pain continues after the actual operation). Indeed Delvoye undertakes this work in China in part to get away from animal rights activists in Europe.

Turning shit into gold (Buddhist saying about meditation)

In the most recent extension of his tattoo work Delvoye tattooed a Swiss man Tim Steiner. In 2008 A German art collector bought the tattoo on Tim’s back for €150,000 ($A203,072). The collector can view the tattoo four times a year and when Tim dies he may claim it. In the meantime Tattoo Tim as he is known appears at art fairs or in exhibitions as a living canvas. What do we know about Tim? He is a friend of Delvoye, is in a band called Passive Resistance and every year teaches art to war orphans in East Timor. There are unresolved legal issues involved. What If Tim changes his mind about being harvested, what if the tattoo gets worn? What if Tim hides when he is about to die?

Curiously de Medici has also made a work on a human body that is destined for an ongoing life as an artwork though she points out this is never certain as the person must die in a situation where their skin can be suitably harvested. Skin, one of a trilogy of documentary films made in Australia by Big and Little Films in 2008 under the overall title Anatomy, is about ex-schoolteacher Geoff O. He has been tattooed with flowers, mostly Australian natives, over 15 years, and has what is called a full body suit, 90% of it applied by de Medici. It is Geoff’s dream to give his skin to the National Gallery of Australia and he has researched and put in place the complicated administrative, financial and technical work needed for it to happen. It would be a gift and in the film the National Gallery’s Roger Butler says the gallery will consider it when the time comes, to add to their collection of de Medici’s work. When Geoff dies he needs to be frozen immediately and then airlifted to Japan where the necessary work can be done.

Full of it

Delvoye’s work was first seen in Australia in the 1992 Biennale of Sydney: The Boundary Rider curated by Tony Bond. The work Labour of Love (1992) consisted of a concrete mixer, wheelbarrow, lamps, bricks, shovel and road signs fabricated in Indonesia from teak and carved with decorative patterns. It dealt with economics, trade and the confounding of categories referencing colonialism and the complex layers of international trade over time like the work of Yinke Shonibare, Narelle Jubelin and Fiona Hall. It also called to mind links between the masculinity of work tools and the femininity suggested by decoration as also seen in addressing the wounds: in corde (1991) a memorable work orchestrated by deceased Australian artist Neil Roberts consisting of a work shovel the edges of which were finely engraved with delicate designs by traditional metalworkers in the Philippines.

But on Delvoye’s page in the Biennale catalogue it is not the wooden cement mixer we see but Mosaic (1990-92) a photograph of a series of glazed white tiles on which images of his own faeces are printed, their twisted curves forming a decorative repeat pattern. It is this work with which he began to ‘make his name’ at Kassel Documenta IX in 1992. The artistic director Jan Hoet stated: “The strength of Wim Delvoye lies in his ability to engineer conflict by combining the fine arts and folk art, and playing seriousness against irony.” Though curlicues of shit are surely neither folk nor fine art they do confound categories of clean and dirty. In the past Delvoye has painted blue and white Delft patterns on gas canisters and had stained glass soccer goals fabricated. More recently he has shown photographs of mosaics featuring mortadella and salami, their pale pinks and mottled reds imitating rare marbles and porphyry.

Scatology rules

Delvoye’s fascination with shit is of longstanding and has found expression in his Cloacae, only one of which he has ever sold (though many sun-dried and vacuum packed faeces have been sold) and that was to David Walsh for MONA where they say it is the most hated work they possess and yet it is the one that is the most ‘pondered’ ie that people spend the most time with. When I was there for the opening the room attendant expressed his disbelief at people choosing to stay in the room with the Cloaca Professional (2010), which seems part science experiment, part zoo animal. Maybe the zoo angle is why they stay. Zoos smell like shit but we tend to sit in them and watch, spending time with the animals.

A nihilistic ‘artwork’ about waste that is a vehicle for literal transformation and metamorphosis, the Cloacae suggest Delvoye really is a mad scientist, especially when you learn that he has made ten of them since 2000 – Cloaca Original, Cloaca – New & Improved, Cloaca Turbo, Cloaca Quattro, Cloaca No 5, Personal Cloaca, Mini Cloaca, Super Cloaca, Cloaca Professional and Cloaca Travel Kit.

To continue the mad science angle Delvoye has also made many works using X-rays, sometimes of intestines processing shit, sometimes of couples having sex.

And you think your shit don’t stink (Australian saying for puncturing arrogance)

The Cloacae are objects/machines of amazement like strange fancy milking machines they churn and chug and turn the bright colours and varied shapes and textures of food into smelly brown paste. As we all do, only more privately. Here the art material used by babies and madmen finds its apogee as both contemporary art and quasi-fart joke. Cloacae take the work of the stomach changing food into shit as their task and the simple mystery of shit is thus foregrounded. Why is it brown and why does it smell so?

A reductive reflection on human life – a futile journey of waste – the Cloacae are missing what happens in the human body in-between the mouth and the anus, ie not just digestion but everything else which is also admittedly fuelled by air but also intensely, unreasonably, by the food we eat. This thought was once a bowl of soup.

It is valuable to think about Delvoye’s work in relation to that of Fiona Hall or indeed that of Ex de Medici. Each possesses an intense creative frenetic energy. Hall makes her work laboriously by hand, the bird nests are woven from paper money, the beaded seedpods and coral polyps threaded onto wire and formed over many hours; De Medici tattoos intricate designs for hours and paints very large finely detailed watercolours of guns camouflaged as moths, militaria and mining sites; while Delvoye designs his carved rubber tyres, gothic CADCAM laser cut corten steel cement trucks and twisted gothic crucifixions and has them made by others. The fact that Hall and de Medici make their work and for many years Delvoye has had his work made is not really the issue here. In each case the nature of work, of crossing categories, of layering tradition, of the clotted histories of humanity, art and ideologies are present yet in the case of the work of both Hall and de Medici there is a moral agenda of revelation, not of mystic truths but corporate truths, about corruption, environmental destruction and exploitation while Delvoye’s work seems to revel in amorality and to end up both talking about exploitation and being it.

When the shit hits the fan

David Walsh reflects on Wim’s work: “…mostly he is trying to think about things that he can’t quite grasp, that his audience can’t quite grasp. Nobody has captured these ideas yet, we can’t see them in focus, just descry them from the corners of our eyes.”

Maybe Delvoye’s work is making critiques (I’ve never been good with irony) or is he helplessly joining the corporations, seeing art as just one more game to be won by a smart cookie who knows how to play dirty? Or perhaps his work is the guffaw-provoking spectacle that gets all kinds of people into art galleries and who knows what might happen then?

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Over one hundred works by Wim Delvoye curated by David Walsh and Olivier Varenne with Nicole Durling and the MONA team was on show at MONA in Hobart from 10 December 2011 to 2 April 2012.