Entries from July 2010 ↓

the problem of cross-cultural projection

Your Iconophile admits: I don’t know how to hang a painting. But I’m not the only one with this problem. Let me show you what I mean. This is a photograph of an untitled painting by the Tiwi artist Ian Cook (2003, 480 x 520, who is represented by Jilamara Arts and Crafts Association). It poses questions that are endemic to much of contemporary Aboriginal art. It inhabits a conceptual space in between the practices of one culture and another, where the one makes paintings horizontally, on the ground, and the other culture views paintings vertically, hanging on the wall. The problem in such instances is how should the paintings make the transition? And does it matter? (Of course it matters! Otherwise you might just have hung your best Piet Mondrian upside down.) The image in question is said to be related to the painting on the Tiwi bark baskets called tunga. There are no other clues.

In Aboriginal cultural practice, most paintings are produced in the absence of a pictorial convention which determines a picture’s orientation in space, or indeed in the absence of a convention which depicts space in pictorial terms. Most Aboriginal paintings are made within a topographical conception of space. In addition, many artists work on a painting from all four sides of the canvas. The resultant ideograph (Eric Michaels and others) is then hung vertically on the wall, occupying the social space given to fine art in the western world. It becomes a picture.

Of course there are some conventions in Aboriginal art which are based on indigenous developments of Western pictorial art. There are also indigenous traditions, as for example with those that have evolved out of body painting, where the depiction of figures and forms are oriented in a pictorial space which makes clear their correct alignment for a viewer. Yet even when an indigenous culture has developed its own rules of pictorial space, and an up/down convention of viewing, curators still get it wrong. See how the Musee du quai Branly provides a stubborn example, even when the image is unambiguous, and the practice well documented. Sometimes other contemporary media are similarly ambiguous, intentionally or otherwise – I have even seen a photograph hanging on its side at the National Gallery of Australia – luckily it was quickly corrected when the error was identified! The problem is complicated by the fact that there are many conventions in contemporary art where pictorial and spatial ambiguity is an essential element in the work’s meaning. It was common in Minimalist art (Carl Andre et al) and there are contemporary mainstream painters (like Peter Adsett) who sometimes exhibit their paintings horizontally to explore the potential of disorientation of conventional ways of looking.

So what determines art advisors’, curators’, dealers’, or collectors’ choice of orientation of a picture like this? Sometimes it is simply a sense of balance. Sometimes it is a choice which is to do with the play of colour and tonal weight – a kind of imagining the effect of gravity. In other cases it is a choice how forms seem to orientate themselves in space – even when it is the spectator who invents these spatial/pictorial effects. A cloudscape, an horizon line, a series of overlapping forms suggest themselves. All culturally specific conditioned responses to pictorial stimuli. Often the judgements made reflect the way in which instances of alien painting traditions are seen as a kind of latent potential/presence in the work of the Aboriginal painter. Something in the Aboriginal painting that is a suggestion of an external referent, which allows the beholder to bridge the gap between the cultures – to allow it to make sense – even when the two cultures seems irreconcilable in almost every other circumstance.

Faced with this dilemma it is common to act out a ritual of cultural projection. Faced with ambiguity, the viewer seeks stasis. So a final aesthetic decision is made, usually completely independent of the artist’s own agency – conception, intention, or choice. That decision is the painting’s orientation in space.  Innocently, almost naturally, it is usually an outsider who performs the final act which confirms the painting’s essential pictorial effects and values for the outside world. Thus when a culture possesses no intrinsic pictorial spatial conventions, it is in such a manner as this that the receiving culture projects its own aesthetic framework on the other’s cultural artefact. An outsider decides what looks best. The work is therefore completed by the imposition of the receiving culture’s own aesthetic values. This final act of pictorial effect is as significant as the final layer of paint for the way such artefacts are evaluated as works of art. See? I’ve just shown you four different paintings… Which do you prefer?

My observations above are triggered by this week’s Sotheby’s catalogue, in which there are 286 Aboriginal paintings. 167 of them are spatially ambiguous. How does one feel about the sheer scale of taste projection employed in determining the aesthetic effects which results from the orientation of these pictures, in the catalogue, and therefore for posterity? Who decides? Alas many of us are implicit in the manipulation of this asymmetrical process of cultural reception and interaction, and the consequential projection/imposition of our own taste. What is to be done?

pixelated portraiture

The knotted carpet is the oldest form of digital art. While a good likeness is hard to achieve when the medium is inherently pixelated, a “portrait” such as this may serve many causes.

The text above these three figures is not easy to translate. However this triple portrait is said to be of the turn-of-century King, Habibullah Khan, and his two successors, his brother Nasrullah Khan (who ruled for a week after his brother’s hunting accident assassination) and his third son Amanullah Khan, who lasted until 1929. Amanullah Khan is now revered as the moderniser who was responsible for disposing of the British in 1921.

Afghan carpet makers still produce images of Amanullah, now updated with modern militaria to reference the current conflict. Such imagery serves as an evocation of a more peaceful past, as history morphs into allegory, and as the roles of historical figures become mythologised.

an image to live with

is a strangely reliable criterion. What do you hang on your bedroom wall?  So when I came upon this 1929 Rodchenko I decided I could very happily brush my eyes with it morning noon and night into these days of the 21st century. Going forward, as they say. Even though it looks like a print from a scratchy old negative, what would you expect with a subject like this? See the origin of this image here, and treat yourself to the particular kind of time travel that takes you back to the last years of the Vkhutemas. P.S. Perhaps I need a new sidebar category: WISHFUL THINKING…

why does the figure of death haunt Nicolas Rothwell’s writing?

Even when he’s writing at his best, positively, with seemingly genuine enthusiasm about a (relatively) young Indigenous artist, News Limited’s Nicolas Rothwell can’t help but invoke the figure of impending death. Here he is writing about the inspired Jilamara artist, Timothy Cook, who is working at the height of his powers. And yet The Roth feels the need to invoke the hereafter:

An inclination to dwell on death’s transforming touch and the life beyond can also be traced in Cook’s routine conversations while at work at Jilamara. Often, he tells art centre co-ordinator Cher Breeze of his anxieties about the moment of his entry into heaven. How will people know him there, how will they recognise him? He has a plan: to take a painting with him, stored in his coffin, so his mother will be sure it’s him when he arrives.

Should such intimacies be chattered about in the press? Why does this particular aspect of an artist’s concerns fascinate Nicolas so?  And should your Iconophile worry about this theme in The Roth’s writings? Only because he has been banging this drum for years. Read on

And P.S. In the same article The Roth perpetuates another myth of Australian art history:

Cook’s own work increasingly is compared with canvases by the modern, Western master who commissioned those same poles for the gallery, Tony Tuckson, a painter whose use of line and colour field weaves a net of associations between contemporary and indigenous art-making.

What kind of weird retro-projection is this? Sure, Tuckson was a key figure in the recognition of Indigenous artefacts as art, but to his credit there’s no iconographic or other evidence that Tuckson’s own work evoked the art he so admired. Sorry, Nicolas, that’s just sloppy art history. And anyway, what does it mean to compare a contemporary artist’s work with a “modern, Western master” who last painted four decades ago? When artist B is neither a postmodernist nor knows anything of artist A, and we’re not into channeling, not just yet. Projection (a Theory for Troubled Minds) such as this says more about outsiders’ own inclinations to meddle with the history of Indigenous art, and to validate their own tastes, retrospectively.

ecclesiastical scatological scopophilical

Puzzled by the necessity to post warnings against rampant ecclesiastics by the good burghers of Freiburg, I was directed to look again at das Freiburger Munster

Good grief! What were they thinking? (What were they doing?) But don’t be deterred from risking a visit to see for yourself. It is indeed a miracle the Munster survived… If you missed it, see my previous panoramic view in which I remind you that the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt once said that the church’s 116-meter tower “will forever remain the most beautiful spire on earth”.