We wish to explore kindness the vast and peaceful country
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.
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
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 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.”
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.
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?
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.
The Maori creation story for Aotearoa New Zealand is that the demigod Maui fished up the North Island from deep in the sea. After a miraculous birth and upbringing Maui won the affection of his supernatural parents, taught useful arts to people, snared the sun and tamed fire. But one of his most famous feats was fishing up the North Island.
So the North Island is known to Maori as Te Ika a Maui or Maui’s fish. If you look at a map of New Zealand you can see the fish’s tail flicking up into the Pacific Ocean. Moving north from its eastern tip you travel along the Kermadec Trench, stretching between New Zealand and Tonga, which incorporates the subtropical island arc of the Kermadec Islands, a little known region (barely visible on most maps) of the volcanic Pacific Ring of Fire. The 2,500 kilometre long Kermadec Trench is more than 10 kilometres deep and alive with a mixture of tropical and temperate, rare and common species of fish, crustaceans, turtles and other seabeasts. National Geographic calls it one of the “last pristine sites left in the ocean”.
The Kermadec Trench is an oceanic asset that could potentially be worth billions of dollars to mining and fishing industries. Hydrothermal vents 2 kilometres below sea level shoot mineral rich streams of zinc, lead, copper and gold into the ocean. Conservation groups are campaigning for the area to be listed as a World Heritage Site, extending the current marine reserve to cover the 620,000sq km, which would make it the largest ocean sanctuary in the world.
And on October 8 2013, Green Party MP Gareth Hughes introduced a private member’s bill to the New Zealand Parliament calling for the creation of a Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary.
In May 2011, the Pew Environmental Group’s Global Ocean Legacy arranged for 8 prominent artists from New Zealand ¬¬– Bruce Foster, Elizabeth Thomson, Jason O’Hara, Robin White, Gregory O’Brien, John Pule, John Reynolds, Phil Dadson, and one from Australia – Fiona Hall, to travel by navy frigate HMNZS Otago up to remote Raoul Island at the north end of the Kermadecs and beyond to Tonga, in an effort to raise the profile of the area.
In March to July 2013 at Heide Museum of Modern Art in Melbourne the works made by Fiona Hall in response to her time as a searider (the naval term for non-naval personnel on a navy boat) were shown, along with other works made by Hall over the last few years, in an exhibition called Big Game Hunting curated by Kendrah Morgan. The works on show included Hall’s camouflage-painted beehives The Barbarians at the Gate made for the 17th Sydney Biennale: The Beauty of Distance: Songs of Survival in a Precarious Age in 2010, and the extraordinary trophy animals of Fall Prey made for dOCUMENTA (13) in 2012.
Fall Prey is an intense memorial to a selection of endangered animals on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) list. The works possess great passion and ferocious ‘outsider art’ energy. The hunting trophies are made from the ripped and knotted camouflage army uniforms of each nation that the animals live in. Their ears and noses are flattened and beaten recycled metal cans, and they are draped and punctuated with the flotsam and jetsam of culture and waste. The chimpanzee from equatorial Africa has an aluminium can ring-pull for an ear to remind you of the human-made garbage littering the world.
“Mother fucker” reads the sign, partly beaded and partly made from a can of the ‘macho’ soft drink Mother, hanging beneath the chest of the Californian condor whose head and neck are made from Coke cans, Budweiser beer caps, and whose wings are torn from US desert camouflage fabric. When it was installed at dOCUMENTA (13) in a claustrophobic hunting lodge in the baroque Karlsauhe Park, originally designed in 1570 as a pleasure garden, Fall Prey was like a blast of contemporary lightning.
This ferocity has entered Hall’s Kermadec works that, unusually for her, are not elaborately constructed or intensely fabricated over many hours but painted fairly rapidly and loosely. Hall is not known as a painter though she will do whatever she needs to do when the occasion demands it. While in Tonga she took up the offer of lessons in painting on barkcloth. And decided to make several large works about the situation of the Kermadecs in the medium.
To some viewers there is necessarily a sense of transgression in this work. Barkcloth, made by beating the bark of the mulberry tree into something flat, fabric-like and receptive to dyes (traditionally brown and black, made from treebark), is organic, contains texture and a life of its own, and, of course, a traditional provenance. In his essay in the Big Game Hunting catalogue, fellow searider to the Kermadecs, Gregory O’Brien describes the many functions of barkcloth: “bedspread, veil, bodily covering, flag, history lesson, map/chart – or even shroud”. (1)
Did Hall need permission to use these traditional materials? Does her transgression reflect the urgency of the “carrion call, sounding the siren in a dying wilderness” (2) being made by Hall as well as the completely un-unutterable (and terrible) global transgressive insult of the potential invasion of mining into the Kermadecs?
In Tonga ngatu (painted barkcloth) is a part of everyday life, of connection to ancestors and the environment, of respect and tradition, and also inescapably of the richness, urgency and necessity of innovation, storytelling and responding to change. Synonymous with the Pacific, with centuries lived by the sea, as a medium painted barkcloth possesses immense gravitas.
Hall stumbles in amongst these traditions with her conviction, her emotions and her beliefs. And her courage. Hall is not concerned that her compositions, her designs, are not fully resolved, are awkward; the urgency of her cause precludes such niceties. There is a powerful raw emotionality palpable in these banner-like works. I read in the first wall-text at Heide of Hall’s self-declared carrion call and first thought – this is a misprint she means clarion call ¬– but then I understood. The artist makes her work in palpable tears at the thought of both current loss and potential destruction. And the tears weigh heavily.
In many previous works Hall has dwelled upon environmental degradation with nothing but pain in her heart. Her 1999 work Dead in the Water with its intricate combination of glass beads, silver wire and perforated plumbing pipe spoke of the heaving masses of discarded plastic creating havoc at sea as well as the glorious and infinite complexity of the marine environment. Because we are all related it is ourselves we are destroying…
And finally in the artist’s own words:
“At the top of the Trench swim the top predators of the deep; whales and sharks. And now, although nowhere (as yet) visible to the eye, other subversive life (or death) forms are circling in the water: fishing and mining interests. The ocean is not quiet; new hunts are on, greedy for a kill. New breeds of corporate pirates have their spyglasses trained on the Kermadec treasure chest below. To them, it looks like a submerged bank vault: the volcano teeth have gold fillings. Lying in the sunlight on the deck on the surface of the sea, I shut my eyes to picture the volcanoes. Blood flows. Behind my eyelids I saw red.” (3)
1. Gregory O’Brien, ‘Days of Paperbark and Sail: Fiona Hall in the Kermadecs’, in Fiona Hall: Big Game Hunting, exhibition catalogue, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, 2013, p55.
2. Kendrah Morgan, Introduction, Fiona Hall: Big Game Hunting, exhibition catalogue, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, 2013. See Footnote 26, p20.
First published in Artlink magazine 2013.
The theme of metamorphosis between all living things, and the pathos of our conjoined destinies, are fully asserted by Berlinde De Bruyckere’s work on show at ACCA. I first saw her work at MONA in Hobart where a suspended horse and a human figure in a vitrine showed me something I hadn’t seen before even as they reminded me of many artworks I had seen before – Goya’s war etchings, his Black Paintings, William Blake’s watercolours and monoprints of humans and gods, the many bodies in the work of Hieronymous Bosch, the tormented Christs of countless altarpieces.
The father of Belgian artist De Bruyckere was a butcher and she was sent to Catholic boarding school at the age of five. Here, hiding from the nuns, she poured over art history books. It shows. In a particularly kind of European humanism De Bruyckere’s sombre work draws attention to suffering and to flesh, its sentience, vulnerability and mortality.
The artist visited ACCA two and a half years ago and decided that the high ceiling of the large gallery was like a church and the side galleries like chapels. The two works hung in the large gallery are each called We are all Flesh. They look like two dead horses hanging with massive bulk, one from a strap off the wall, the other from a huge lamp-post from the Ukraine brought to Australia by ship. What at first look like two horses are revealed on closer inspection to be four horses because each horse is wedded to another horse, not mechanically but clumsily, as if with emotion, to another horse. Here there is great attentiveness to detail but the work is not about virtuosity, in fact we see stitches and loose threads in the hide of the paler horse of the two sets. And the spines of the horses do not sit straight against their hides as a taxidermist would prepare them, they have slipped, adjusted, moved towards greater knowing or intimacy. The horses are metaphors for human vulnerability and suffering, for war, for pain.
In Gallery 4 sits a work called 019 in which a two hundred year old cupboard from the Belgium Natural History Museum is placed centrally, its watery rippled glass doors open. Inside on the lower shelves are thin pale folded blankets while on the higher shelves sections of about twenty-four rough-barked tree branches are vertically arranged in groupings. As the doors are open it is as if the branches may come out. The longer you stay looking at them the more you see. Each one is covered in wax, and what seems to be all pale creamy wax also includes flecks and bands of colour, some blue, some red or pink. The trees are held up by thin string. Like bodies, dryads, they seem at once stored and escaping, an enigmatic museum display of something which we do not expect to see in a museum.
Wax is a material often used in sculpture in preparatory stages, and in painting there are the slow brushstrokes of encaustic but De Bruyckere uses wax more like the Italian sculptor Medardo Rosso or to some degree as it might be used in a waxworks but much more boldly and expressively. She layers the wax inside a mould in a process involving chance, risk and fragility, elements which are thus transferred into the sensations engendered by the work.
Since first using horses in a work commissioned for the In Flanders Fields Museum at Ypres, De Bruyckere has been asked about using other animals but has not wanted to though the five Romeu “my dear” works on show, a drawing and four sculptures involving antlers, belie that declaration. The antlers are like intestines or skin that is growing, they twist against each other, wrap into pillows and while, apparently made to register pain, try to avoid it. Another work, Inside me III seems to depict intestines yet they are also tree branches, hung in a crib of wood by thin strings, this river of white fleshliness resembles one of Francis Bacon’s tormented gutted figures. The Pillow literally shows the back and leg of a human figure disappearing into a pillow, hiding, twisting.
The four galleries at ACCA devoted to de Bruyckere’s work combine to tell a story of art full of religious intensity. In 2011-12 an exhibition was held at the Kunstmuseum in Bern, Switzerland where De Bruyckere’s work was matched with the paintings of Lucas Cranach and the films of Pier Paolo Pasolini. The tormented figures of these three artists represent important contributions to the depiction of compassion and suffering in European art.
We are all Flesh: Berlinde De Bruyckere
ACCA (Australian Centre for Contemporary Art), Melbourne
2 June – 29 July 2012