A Carrion Call: Fiona Hall, searider in the Kermadec Trench

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)

FOOTNOTES

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.
3. http://www.thekermadecs.org/fiona-hall

First published in Artlink magazine 2013.

We are all Flesh: Berlinde De Bruyckere

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

Review of An opening: twelve love stories about art

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Stephanie Radok remembers the moment she decided to be an artist. As a child travelling in the family car, “in the usual tense silence”, she felt the certainty of it. It seemed to the child an important moment, something to keep secret. It’s significant that Radok remembers clearly what she was looking at at the time: “… the curve of a half-ploughed field divided by a sweeping line, intense green on one side, red-brown on the other. I took a deep breath and thought I definitely know what I want to do, that’s what I will do with my life, show and convey this intensity, this feeling in my heart and gut that this abrupt edge of colour gives me …”

This sort of deep thought and feeling characterises a truly beautiful collection — An opening: twelve love stories about art — in which Radok excavates the deeps layers of her love for art through the prism of her own personal history.
Using the twelve months of the year to give her stories structure, Radok walks her dog through her Adelaide suburb and the seasons, observing the world with an artist’s eye and recording it with a writer’s sensibility: she sees the beauty of the universe in a leaf.

As she does so, she walks the reader through her reflections on the artworks that influence her thinking, the images that have become touchstones in her life, from the voluptuously elaborate Hieronymus Bosch triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, to the simple, yet no-less-awe-inspiring Aboriginal rock art on Groote Eylandt.

This is where Radok first encountered the Indigenous art that would come to enthral her throughout her career as an art critic, and here she plots the blossoming of contemporary Aboriginal art as an international cultural force, and how this frames our national identity.

Radok charts her own history as well, writing about her childhood as the daughter of an East Prussian father and an Irish Australian mother, spending her early years moving from America to Austria to Australia — a peripatetic existence that contributes much to her memory and make-up. She positions her own background against a larger thematic backdrop of identity, ethnicity and human migration, constantly asking the big philosophical questions about the human condition.

This endless curiosity framed her pathway from artist to art critic with the rigour of inquiry: What does art mean? How should we interpret it? Should we listen to critics or should we listen to ourselves? How do we even decide what art means?
Radok writes with a gentle wisdom and a clear, unfettered voice. Peppered with lovely anecdotes, An Opening draws the reader into a wonderful discussion about art, culture and identity with an accessible style that suggests that thinking critically about art might be a less rarefied occupation than it might otherwise seem.

But ultimately this book is Stephanie Radok’s exhortation to surround yourself with art purely for the sake of its beauty, not its possession. The inspiring images around Radok are mostly torn from newspapers or journals, are postcards and calendars and reproductions bought in galleries over many decades. The true possession, the true investment, she says, is the way art makes us feel and think, what brings us alive inside ourselves.


Lucy Clark, September 2012, Australian Art Review

Do you remember this – do you remember that: art of Michelle Nikou

Do you remember this – Do you remember that

Desire arranges multiple ways to express itself…the least object, to which no particular symbolic role is assigned, is able to represent anything. The mind is wonderfully prompt at grasping the most tenuous relation that can exist between two objects taken at random, and poets know that they can always, without fear of being mistaken, say of one thing that it is like the other…. Whether in reality or in the dream [desire] is constrained to make the elements pass through the same network: condensation, displacement, substitution, alteration.
André Breton, L’Amour fou (Mad Love), 1937

At the beginning of André Breton’s autobiographical novel L’Amour fou he describes how, in 1934, he and Alberto Giacometti each bought an unusual object, une trouvaille (a lucky find) at the Saint-Ouen flea market in Paris. At the time he was obsessed with a phrase he had invented – cendrier de Cendrillon, the ashtray (cinder-holder) of Cinderella – a poetic intertwinement of desire (woman) and extinction (ashes). The object that Breton bought was a spoon-shoe, a wooden spoon with a little boot at the end of its handle to act as a spoon-rest. Man Ray’s photograph of it, taken later that year and entitled From a Little Shoe That Was Part of It, was reproduced as an illustration in L’Amour fou.

This piece of cutlery made of wood possesses a fairy-story element, a dream-like inevitability. Its bowl could be used as an ashtray and its single shoe associates it with Cinderella and her lost slipper. Breton wrote about this object as an exemplar of ‘convulsive beauty’, that elusive quality he continued to seek all his life. In the early 1940s he went weekly with Marcel Duchamp and Robert Motherwell through the streets of New York to identify examples of such beauty in the windows of secondhand shops on Third Avenue, after sharing an inexpensive lunch in a French bistro on West 55th Street.

Defining convulsive beauty, a fundamental concept of surrealism, is no easy feat and is deliberately intellectually challenging as this slipperiness and mutability prevent it from fossilising. Breton wrote the first Surrealist Manifesto in 1924 and kept on redefining it until the 1960s. At its heart surrealism, like dada, is anarchic and its politics is about freedom not conformity. In a speech in Prague in 1935 Breton said: ‘The thing that characterises surrealism is that it proclaims the equality of all normal human beings before the subliminal message.’ Whether found or constructed the surrealist object is a passage to the unconscious.

According to Hal Foster the mysterious spoon-shoe is a symbol of woman yet at the same time it is a symbolic penis or indeed, that rarely located but often discussed organ, the maternal penis. In L’Amour fou Breton wrote: ‘it symbolised for me a woman unique and unknown’.

I first read about this legendary shoe-spoon, probably whittled by a French peasant in a surrealist burst of freedom of association and chance connection while researching some of Giacometti’s early works like Woman with her throat cut (1932) and Disagreeable Object To Be Disposed Of (1931) after being reminded of them by the intense, inscrutably quirky mix of personal and impersonal sensations in the sculpture of Michelle Nikou. Having read about the spoon-shoe before I saw its photograph, I imagined a tiny woman’s shoe carved under the spoon’s handle, a shoe that would not be visible but that the hand would feel as the spoon was being used. Thus it would be discovered by touch, and would have a secret erotic existence.

The actual spoon-shoe, Man Ray’s photo of which is reproduced in Hal Foster’s Compulsive Beauty, uncannily echoes some of Nikou’s artworks. This is particularly true of the recent Rack (2004), a bronze toast-rack shape which, because it maintains the furniture (funnel and sprue) associated with lost wax casting, appears to have a heel and thus be a strange kind of metal platform shoe; and a work made in 1994, a single narrow high-heeled shoe made from nail clippings embedded in chicken shit. Both these ‘shoes’ are resonant with potential narratives. Rack reminds me of a fairy story/folk tale read long ago involving the painful wearing of heavy metal shoes as part of a series of trials, like knitting grey-green yarn spun from nettles gathered in cemeteries at midnight, endured over several years by a princess to overcome a witch’s spell. The little ‘nail’ shoe’s materials immediately evoke ideas of sorcery, fetish and transformation. Either work could be read as a version of a Cinderella shoe, even a cendrier de Cendrillon. Almost anything can be used as an ashtray after all. Nikou titled the ‘nail’ shoe Grapnel (1994), another name for a grappling iron, in her words ‘a clutching word for a clutching object’. She describes the size of the shoe as ‘Cinderella’ meaning slightly smaller than average.

Grapnel was shown in a group exhibition called Fania curated in 1994 by Erica Green at the University of South Australia Art Museum for the centenary of women’s suffrage in South Australia. The exhibition was named after Nikou’s grandmother, Fania, a Macedonian peasant woman who, having migrated to Australia and unable to speak English, compulsively made dresses for herself in a particular design using pieces of hessian for her pattern. Her compulsion extended beyond the borders of practicality as she continually asked the family to take her to fabric shops and then endlessly cut and sewed dresses out of inappropriate and randomly patterned cheap cotton fabrics. The repetitiveness and impracticality of this task allies it to some perceptions of the activities of artists. The dresses became legendary within the family, representing storage problems – she made one hundred of them – as well as embarrassing examples of foreignness and obsession. Yet they are impressive signposts of the tough peasant qualities of tenacity and productivity, precious cargo echoing a task in a fairy tale.

My discovery of an unexpected but genuine association of Nikou’s artwork with the spoon-shoe of L’Amour fou thickens again when attention is drawn to the various works she has made using cutlery. Spoons (2000) are thirteen roughly cast lead spoons of different sizes, each with one or two lead lumps of chewed food stuck to its bowl. They stick to the spoon like lumps in the throat. To me they suggest indigestible food and long leaden family meals in which time stands still. Nausea and an inability to eat are frequent responses to repressed strong emotion in such situations.

At other times Nikou has cast chewed mouthfuls of food (bronze) in InLovewaste (2002), Lifesavers (lead) in Life’s over Candy Neck (2002), and half bitten Yo-Yo biscuits (lead) in Half of Everything (2002). She made all of these objects into jewellery – extensions of and furniture for the body, a place where statements can be made. All are metaphors for emotional states that are hard to put into words. Certainly I can’t say exactly what they mean though Half of Everything (2002) has some connection to the division of property through inheritance or fractured relationships.

Another piece of cutlery Untitled (1998) is a thin metal knife with a hole bored into it and nails soldered around the hole through which a small piece of circular knitting hangs down. It looks as if it was created by someone in solitary confinement. The knitting nancy has its origin in the medieval lucet, a harp-shaped two-pronged fork with a hole in the handle used for ‘French knitting’ to make braids to be sewn onto dresses or used as cord. Had Breton and Giacometti found a lucet in the marketplace they may well have considered it as an example of convulsive beauty.

How eloquent, how sensual something like cutlery can be is quite remarkable, this also applies to crockery. The plates and cups, the knives, the spoons and forks that we handle by eating and washing every day are touched as often as we handle our bodies and have an intimacy with us of which we are mostly unaware. They are almost like body parts or perhaps more like Stelarc’s prostheses, inanimate extensions which will outlive us but retain a history of our association.

***
Such linked chains of connections and echoes – into and out of art and literature, everyday life and family interactions, relationships and poetry – characterise the art of Michelle Nikou which traces lineages into both high and low cultural references (with a quietly persistent layer of deadpan humour.) Nikou trained in the late eighties for four years in the discipline of ceramics and found empowering mentors in ceramics lecturer and artist Liz Williams and artist-in-residence ceramicist and jeweller Gerry Wedd, both at the South Australian School of Art. Subsequently when Nikou turned away from the functionality of ceramics towards fine art, travelled and undertook postgraduate study, she looked closely at the work of surrealist artists as a starting point for constructing her methodology for making art. There she found such principles and strategies as chance, automatism, spontaneity, correspondence, the dream, compulsion, found objects, detritus, collage, the discovery of sexual or psychological metaphors in everyday objects, humour, surprise and juxtaposition as well as the latent political subtext of locating and transforming the marvelous in the everyday.
This is not to say that Nikou is a card-carrying surrealist but that her practice has productively drawn on and reflects back upon surrealism. And perhaps surrealism, whether it is named as such or not, is around us all the time. Maybe Breton and his peers did not so much invent surrealism as uncover it.

***

Tristan Tzara and Max Ernst’s preface for the 1933 Pierre Colle gallery’s Surrealist Exhibition includes a list asserting the vitality of the object: ‘…automatic or inadmissible objects…everyday appliances…retrospective bosoms…fried eggs; atmospheric spoons…loaves of bread.’ This roll call finds distinct echoes in Nikou’s frequent use of essentially domestic items. She has often used the kitchen both for raw materials and as a studio. The work Potatoes (1999) consists of eight potatoes cast from lead, which sit on their little funnels like boiled eggs or tiny sculptural busts, coronas of leaked lead surrounding some of them like elaborate hairdos. Carrot Necklace (2002) is a concrete carrot, painted to look remarkably like a carrot, which hangs from a copper neck-ring. Then there is crockery like Revenge (2004) the six earthernware plates made for a group exhibition on the theme of revenge at Downtown Art Space in Adelaide in 2004. Each plate, which is deliberately awkwardly dipped in dripping and pooling dull green, beige, blue and tan glazes, contains a large finely made three dimensional dog’s tail with the fur carefully built up from very thin rolled worms of clay, except for the one smooth dog’s tail. The work draws on two maxims: ‘Revenge is a dish best served cold’ originally occurring in Pierre Choderlos de LaClos’ Les Liasons Dangereuses of 1792 and the child’s nursery rhyme line ‘What are little boys made of?’ Nikou is deeply engaged with language and frequently makes a work around a single phrase or word that then becomes concrete poetry. She even used concrete, again to cast potatoes, this time for Concrete Potato Necklace (2001) a somewhat heavy necklace in which the grey and somehow expressive potatoes are fairytale pearls or wave-worn pebbles as much as vegetables. Again the emotionality of food and families, poverty and fantasy forms an implicit subtext to the work.

There is frequently something obsessively domestic and suburban in Nikou’s work. It is especially apparent in the handmade metal curtain rings which contain phrases from the soap operas The Young and the Restless, The Bold and the Beautiful and Days of our Lives carefully stamped inside their coils. My experience of daytime soap operas is linked to watching them with old people, sick people, unemployed people – those who are often considered in some way marginal to mainstream society. Thus, the words of these stereotypical soap operas evoke for me not just their creators and actors but the presence of all the people who, for whatever reason, are sitting inside during the day, drawing the curtains on the wider world. I sense their lives as a subtext to the aspirations and voices released by these artworks. Nikou conflates the clichés of sentimentality (unearned emotion) into serious and hard-won objects which speak of interior lives and private places. The letters are laboriously stamped onto the rings before they are coiled. The unevenness of the letters and thus their lack of a machine aesthetic suggests to me that these banal statements are used to express genuine emotions well as fake ones. Their poignancy stumbles against the shininess of the metal; the artist does not simply or easily disparage the inadequacy of the words but offers them as hiding places of the heart.

In conversation with me in December 2005 in her Adelaide kitchen as I prepared to write this essay, Nikou imagined a house in which every ordinary functional element has text upon it and thus embodies a voice, like her work Swan Season (1998) which consists of six cast aluminum door handles with letters beneath them which say: ‘don’t – pass – the – ball – to – me.’ Her embrace of this dream has also edged into reality in her toilet paper projects. A few years ago she removed toilet paper from restrooms in small country towns north of Adelaide and from the Art Gallery of South Australia. She then imprinted the toilet paper with stamps she had ordered, rolled it up again and replaced it. Thus the visitor to the Ladies’ toilets, at Burra or Saddleworth, or on North Terrace in Adelaide’s cultural precinct, would tear off a length of paper and, gazing absentmindedly down at it, read something like ‘that’s what me and the others think’ or ‘make me’ or ‘do you remember this – do you remember that’ or ‘we’re losing our atmosphere’ or ‘I called you majesty’. The desire to situate art in daily life rather than the gallery environment is a concern for many artists; early in her career Barbara Kruger pasted her statements in public phone boxes. Nikou’s toilet paper stamping has reappeared in a recent work, Untitled (love has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement) (2002), which contains the paper reading ‘do you remember this – do you remember that’ accompanying a toilet seat cover and two toilet paper roll holders covered in grey tapestry. The title of this work refers to W.B. Yeats’ 1933 poem Crazy Jane talks to the Bishop.
‘A woman can be proud and stiff
When on love intent;
But Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.’

The mildly inept grey tapestry used in this work reappears in other pieces as slightly bumpy tissue box covers, as a covering for a door-stopper (a brick), as a sausage-like draft-stopper and as match box covers. Nikou has exhibited the latter as flat abstract forms on the gridded tapestry mesh on which they are stitched. Somehow the greyness and muffling quality of all these works returns me to Nikou’s evocation of soap operas. They do not attempt to cheer up, brighten or ameliorate the day and the shining hour like handicrafts are supposed to do (think of the charity shops and stalls and their millions of bright aprons, plastic-bag holders, tissue box covers, and knitted grimacing bears and dolls – testimony to the hours – loving, wasted, frustrated – spent upon them by women with busy hands). Instead they emphasise numbness, dullness, the potential nihilism and anomie of suburbia. In an earlier work Signifying nothing (1998) the artist collected lint from laundromat dryers to make four grey, fragile, non-functional pockets on the backs of which are crudely stitched William Shakespeare’s words from Macbeth’s speech that begins: Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow…

Though made by a well-informed contemporary artist, Nikou’s oeuvre often borrows the awkwardness and solipsism of outsider art. Taking ordinary emotions that are responses to everyday situations but rarely put into words, and finding physical form for them is a creative effort that involves both courage and wit. Even though Nikou frequently deals with painful and solemn subject matter her self-awareness and sense of the absurd are never far away. One of her most recent jewellery works in the form of a text necklace says not the stereotypical ‘I love you’ or ‘hug me’ but go away (2005). An accompanying series of large cast bronze text-works monumentalise grumpy or hostile monosyllabic exchanges.
Combining opposites – soft with hard, food with lead, ordinary objects with venerable sculptural techniques – Nikou is as much an object-maker as a sculptor. Her work does not order space so much as be a space. We do not look at what surrounds it but at what and how it is. Her recent bronze works – hand-built mounds onto which thin broken threads are pressed or through which Braille letters are perforated; cast tissue boxes; the letters of single words; cast doorstoppers on little supports and giant wedding rings with doorstoppers draped over and around them – all mostly still covered with the debris of their manufacture – contradict the dignity and history of their fabrication with their deliberately awkward appearance. Parts of the works are finely and carefully made, (the wax that becomes the wedding rings is smoothed till it looks like tempered metal), while in other sections a lumpy texture including fingerprints emphasises their slow formation by hand. Many resemble the sort of enigmatic and awkward object that might be found in a shelf at the back of a dusty shop, some ‘thing’ or cendrier de Cendrillon handmade by an amateur art/craft person whose clumsiness and rawness are equaled by their zeal and obsession. Nikou’s totally professional and knowing artwork does an uncannily good and often ironic job of somehow evoking every complex element of that anonymous person’s passion and inarticulate longings.

A review of An Opening in M/C Reviews

Part art criticism, part philosophy, and part memoir, An opening: Twelve love stories about art is both informative and entertaining. Stephanie Radok takes her reader on an absorbing journey while seamlessly interweaving intense visual imagery, reflection and her own personal story. Radok is an artist, art-critic and journalist. She has contributed to Art Link, Art Monthly, The Adelaide Review and other publications. In 2011 she exhibited at Flinders University City Gallery and her works are found in many galleries. Her interests and knowledge are broad, but her main area of expertise is in Aboriginal art.

Much of the book’s charm rests on the inclusion of the author’s own story. She had an interesting childhood, living for some time in The United States and in Austria, and believes that the dislocation she experienced led to her passion for art. ‘Art became a kind of homeland for me beyond and between countries’ (69). Throughout the book, snippets of memoir are interwoven with information about art, and each chapter concludes with a short scene where Radok walks her dog through the suburbs, reflecting on what she sees.

An opening contains a considerable amount of information about art and the artistic processes. Radok describes her emotional reaction when viewing a plaster cast of a woman and dog who died in the volcanic eruption which destroyed Pompeii, and then goes on to detail the qualities of plaster and how an artist works with it. A description of two of Ah Xian’s work is followed by information about cloisonné, with which he forms his sculptures. And she does not confine herself to art; a discussion of Hieronymous Borch’s The garden of earthly delights leads to a history of dragon trees and their mythological meaning.

But, of course, Radok’s chief interest is in Aboriginal art. She tells of her first awareness of its extraordinary power when she viewed rock art on Groote Eylandt in 1974, and traces her own voyage of discovery. She provides a wealth of information about its development from its early, marginal days to its present central position in the Australian art world. Those works which she found particularly moving are described in detail.

Radok’s stated theme is that art is an experience; its significance is what it makes people think and feel. The overlapping of art and life in the structure of the book underlines her argument. It is also reinforced by her detailed descriptions of art works creating striking visual images in the minds of the reader as she describes her own emotional reactions.

A second theme is of the importance of connections, people and people, people and land. She illustrates cross-cultural connections by discussing the works of Lin Onus and describing the collaborative installations of Anne Mosey and Dolly Nampitjinpa. Radok seems to be living her own philosophy when she paints at Ernabella (now called Pukatja) in the Western Desert, the oldest Aboriginal art centre.

The main purpose of the book, however, is to support and promote the Aboriginal point of view; not just art, but also their belief system. ‘In Australia there is a turning point at which you suddenly really see or feel the land for the first time as Aboriginal land’ (133). Radok is not only sympathetic to this view but appears to have adopted it for herself, ‘the land is the people, the people are the land, they are one’ (140). And. as always, she illustrates her points and conveys her passion with detailed descriptions of art works.

For those already familiar with the works discussed, this book offers an interesting point of view. For new comers to the world of Aboriginal art, it could serve as an introduction. An opening is persuasive, informative and entertaining, and above all, readable.

Eileen Cooke in Media Culture Reviews