Entries from September 2010 ↓

the rhetoric of the frame

As I’ve observed previously, the Aboriginal Memorial has been dramatically re-framed by the National Gallery of Australia. In its new location it is the jewel in the crown of the NGA’s new extension where it sits (at last) all by itself in its own gallery. This is how the architect Andrew Andersons envisaged it…

The NGA has been using the Aboriginal Memorial in all its advance publicity, including this depleted “virtual” view, but it has only just been shown in its vulgar new “frame” – the roughly crushed black basaltic rocks from the Monaro high plains (“Nimmitabel Blue”) on which the 200 burial poles are now situated.

Normally, museums of this stature go to extreme lengths to exhibit their treasures in their original frames. In this case, the Aboriginal Memorial was first exhibited on red sand at the 1988 Biennale of Sydney, echoing the way the poles are seen in their original locale in Arnhem Land. When the designers came up with this new idea, was there nobody brave enough to say “this is appalling”? “The conservators won’t allow sand” seems to be the excuse of the day. What? Surely anything is possible in the museum of the 21st century? However in this case even the normally outspoken conceptual author of the Aboriginal Memorial, Djon Mundine, seems to have gone to ground. Ouch!

Seems like if the NGA can present a work as contemporary art they can install it however they like by pushing the bounds of moral rights and the artist’s original intentions. However if it’s sacred art, surely there are limits to what you should do with it? The addition of dramatic new material qualities to the work, notwithstanding the cultural origins and potentially alien significance of such materials, is a significant transformation of its reference to the place of its origins. As has always been signalled by the form of the Glyde River, dividing it in two. And so my question is, what is this work, re-framed, now saying?

This is how the NGA first began to trivialise its Aboriginal Art collection in 2007.

The projections continue today. Like moving wallpaper. In 2007, such projections of the Aboriginal Memorial seemed like one more step along the path towards the desacralisation of the work. It is, after all, a memorial. It represents the unrepresentable, in Jonathan Bordo’s words: “[it] is the public sign of an unrepresentable practice – the Aboriginal dead lie outside this domain, outside representation”. (See his essay The Witness in Contemporary Art in Paul Duro: The Rhetoric of the Frame: Essays on the Boundaries of the Artwork, Cambridge 1996, p.187.)

On Saturday 16th October the Canberra Times has published a promotional supplement which features the begravelled Aboriginal Memorial on its front cover. In addition, there is a short article by Djon Mundine culled from material he has published before. No comment on its design transformation…

In a bizarre twist, it seems the whole extension is framed by this ugly basalt rubble. In the gap between the old and new, there is a window which marks the transition from the old children’s gallery to the new Indigenous galleries. And there, hey presto, we find a box gutter full of the stuff. It beggars the imagination to think that it’s OK to use the same material to re-frame the Gallery’s most sacred and significant work of Indigenous art, and at the same time use it to mark the transition between the old and new buildings, or just to improve the look of a gutter visible from the galleries inside…

how Aboriginal art is sold

at Yulara. I wonder does the boutique approach work at the souvenir end of the market? There are some quite well-known names amongst this “display”…

The Aboriginal Memorial

is about to suffer what is arguably a sacrilegious (grossly irreverent toward what is or is held to be sacred) design effect. Iconophilia here provides a preview – of a kind. This is a photograph of what I believe is a sample of the sparkly black “road metal” on which the 200 log coffins of The Aboriginal Memorial are now being arranged.  In the course of its history this famous work has experienced multiple variations on how its inspirational burial poles should be based, related, or sited in their various arrangements – from their best effect in the red dirt of the funky galleria of the 1988 Biennale of Sydney wharf to the troubling palatial setting of St Petersburg. Now, finally sited in a stand-alone pavilion in the about-to-be-opened newly redesigned National Gallery of Australia, The Aboriginal Memorial apparently suffers the indignity of an alien base material, which is as far removed from the bauxitic red of Arnhem Land as could be imagined. This is a design idea that has been around for some time – and yet one wonders how much consultation with its Yolngu originators has been undertaken. How to install the Memorial is not a new issue. How each hollow log relates to the whole, and to each other, especially in relation to the design of the base, has been exhaustively debated on the occasion of each of its numerous arrangements. If, as it has often been claimed, The Aboriginal Memorial is the National Gallery’s most significant contemporary work of art, will this permanent installation prove to be its least successful? One awaits with interest the reaction of its “conceptual producer”, Djon Mundine, to this latest turn. The thread continues here.

public art in Canberra: yours for the taking

Amongst the shemozzle that is our public art display in Canberra’s City Walk sits one of my least favourite sculptures: the Danish sculptor Keld Moseholm’s “On the Staircase”, 2005. It was installed (“launched”) in 2009, having been bought, sadly, on a shopping spree at Sydney’s Sculpture by the Sea. But look closely…

Someone has stolen the smallest figure! Does anyone care? Apparently not. The top of the staircase appears to have been mended. As if some arts bureaucrat thought, let’s just patch it and hope nobody notices. A classic case for a Moral Rights lawyer, you would think.

OK, OK, the fact that your Iconophile happens not to like something is always possible. In this case, you might reasonably expect that I would argue that it’s been improved by 25% as a consequence of this nefarious act. But no, whatever my personal taste, I am appalled that public art is subjected to such vandalism. And I’m doubly appalled that nobody seems to care! Who is responsible? This is another argument for the appointment of a Curator of Public Art…

And while I’m on the case, what on earth does the message on the plaque mean? Is it some kind of hedge to an anti-intellectual populism? Just who is being quoted when they say “the more I read the smaller I feel”? The artist? Not that I can find. Was it some famous producer of literary truisms? Alas Uncle Google brings you right back to the plaque, and the press release, so apparently someone with a PhD in Spin thought it up in the office. (A press release in bronze? That sounds like conceptual art.) All the new sculptures have such little homilies, but some of the old ones (like the Les Kossatz nearby) have no identification at all (another moral rights issue). It’s not a good look.

modernity by the truckload

This little carpet arrived from Herat the other day. Tradition meets Modernity. Head-on. The (scrambled) text tells us it was made on the 25th in the first month of 1377 (1998), on a “Tuesday” [verb unintelligible] “with laughter” [or “a smile”].  I’m not sure of its proper attribution, some say “Lori Pambak”… What’s really appealing about the representation of the blue truck is its three-dimensionality. Such 3D and isometric projections appear in the earliest war carpets of the 1980s – with some precedents from the 1970s.


all that glisters is not

Your Iconophile was unsuccessful in his search for clues at the last known address of…

ACT Chief Minister reacts to polling, bets on a bronze bunyip

In his speech today at the ANU School of Art, ACT Chief Minister Jon Stanhope revealed that his motivation for dropping the two-year-old percent-for-art scheme was based on pre-election polling and focus group sessions, which revealed that dissatisfaction with the Public Art Program was consistently in the top 5 reasons why voters would switch to the Libs. So, hidden amongst other announcements, the policy was dumped just prior to the last local election. His speech (I’ll link to it when I find it) gave a history of public art in Canberra since the 60s, and some sense that some millions were still to be spent – presumably from other sources. What went wrong? he asked. He had hoped that his “expert independent advisory panel” would have taken some of the heat, but no, it all came back to him, as he “launched” one after another of the new sculptures, a fair proportion of which were “off the shelf” from commercial galleries and Sydney’s Sculpture by the Sea. As I’ve often commented (follow the thread at Public Artefacts in the sidebar), his “expert independent advisory panel” includes only one person with wide-ranging visual arts expertise (the recently appointed CMAG’s Deborah Clark) plus a token visual artist (Chrissy Grishin, aka G.W.Bot). Little wonder the streets of Canberra came to look like a weirdly chaotic private collection, with minor works scattered around higgledy-piggledy, in a manner that seems to lack any vision other than to hedge against the vicissitudes of popular taste. Speaking of which, he has just announced this horrific non-sculpture planned for the streets of Gungahlin. It’s a disaster zone. What’s the answer? 1. Appoint a Curator of Public Art with the authority to clean it all up, to curate the public spaces of Canberra. 2. Emulate Sydney’s Sculpture by the Sea and fill the city with temporary works every year or so. 3. Commission new works rather than just go shopping (sometimes it’s the CM himself). 4. Commission public works that are not necessarily lumps of bronze. 5. Emulate the Serpentine Gallery’s Pavilion program and install great works of architecture in the Dead Heart between the Melbourne and Sydney Buildings. But bronze Bunyips? It may already be too late.