Entries from October 2010 ↓

Made in China

Iconophilia is pleased to welcome Quentin Sprague as a contributor. Here he is writing about a recent visit to Beijing. Amid much Chinese contemporary art which is flashy and over-scaled lies some truly fantastic art practice. Visiting a country with such a rich and ever present cultural history, it’s hard not to be a bit jealous of the wealth of material available for artists and other cultural producers to draw on, and also of the opportunities presented by a dynamic, entrepreneurial art scene and an international appetite for things Chinese. Here the ‘contemporary’ often presents as a particularly dense proposition. Ai Weiwei is perhaps currently the best-known contemporary Chinese artist internationally. His current Turbine Hall commission at the Tate Modern has occupied the space with 100 million hand–painted sunflower seeds in a work which comments on Chinese history, globalisation and the human labour that fuels China’s transition into a contemporary world power.

Zhao Zhao’s “EURO” (2008), a set of eight “Euro coins” made of lead sheath taken from Anselm Kiefer’s “Volkszählung” (1991)

Maybe most interesting is not only the relationship an artist like Ai Weiwei displays to his country’s cultural history, but to the position he now occupies in China’s cultural landscape.  For instance, a work by the younger generation artist Zhao Zhao (b.1982) presents a group of thirty toothpicks tooled from wooden shards taken from one of Ai Weiwei’s reconfigured temple sculptures, itself made from pieces of Qing dynasty temples salvaged from the wreckers ball in ever modernising Beijing. As well as completing a material transition from the sacred to the mundane Zhao’s work highlights a complex intergenerational exchange, one that I read as particularly Chinese in character and lacking the attendant irony one might expect of a similar work in an Australian context. Illustrated here is a 2008 work – a series of replica Euro coins pressed from lead stolen from Anslem Keifer’s “Volkszählung” (1991) similarly presenting a riff on value and the role of the young artist in existing networks.


View of courtyard 104, Caochangdi, Beijing, designed by Ai Weiwei for Fake Design, 2006

In July this year Zhao attended an artist’s residency in the Gija community of Warmun in WA along with a small group of curators and Australian and Chinese artists as part of the No Name Station project (I took part as a curator). During the presentation of an exhibition in Beijing resulting from this exchange the project group attended a BBQ at Zhao’s apartment in the Caochangdi district of Beijing. This was notable for a number of reasons, but is relevant here because of the architecture of the compound-style network of privately funded galleries, studios and apartments where it was held. The compound itself seems to architecturally embody some of the density of contemporary art in China, representing some of the framework against which its production and engagement plays out. Designed by Ai Weiwei for his own architectural firm Fake Design , it is in a style that effortlessly blends new Chinese modernism with its ancient antecedents. Walled like a commune, the various buildings are linked by a network of alleys linking larger communal areas to smaller internal and external spaces, just like a traditional Chinese courtyard house or the hutongs (alleyways) which used to be a major part of Beijing’s urban space but which have largely been destroyed in the lead up to (and following) the 2008 Olympics. Ironically, at the time of our visit it was unclear whether this development, and others like it in the area, would survive proposed demolition. Fingers crossed it does.

Postscript: the demolition of Ai Weiwei’s studios is reported here at ArtObserved.

Quentin Sprague has a background as a practising artist, arts administrator and curator and has held positions with a number of organisations including Jilamara Arts, NT and Artspace, Sydney. From 2009-2010 he worked directly with a number of senior artists in the East Kimberley region of WA. He is currently developing a curatorial project, Groundwork, for the Ian Potter Museum of Art at the University of Melbourne in 2011.


Lest We Forget

Am I alone in thinking there’s something a bit off about the National Gallery of Australia’s happy snaps design approach to branding? Is this how we are to EXPERIENCE THE BIG PICTURE? What’s On, you may well ask.

Here’s four variations on the way the NGA has represented itself through the imagery of burial poles, that is, via the reproduction of details of The Aboriginal Memorial.

Both in its old and new (begravelled) guise, the Aboriginal Memorial is now made to stand for the Gallery as a whole.

Is this another subtle form of desanctification? It’s not until you get to the second last page of this Canberra Times promotional insert that you are reminded why this is The Aboriginal Memorial. When you read the opening words of Djon Mundine’s essay (reprinted from the NGA’s ‘treasures of the collection’ book): “Since 1788 at least 300,000, perhaps a million, Aboriginal people have died at the hands of white invaders.” Now that’s the big picture… In respect of which, perhaps it’s time to suggest the NGA backs off its current branding strategy? (And remove the gravel while they’re at it?)

P.S. Lest you think I’m suffering from hyperbole, this is not the first time the invocation “lest we forget” has been used in relation to The Aboriginal Memorial. According to Susan Jenkins’ account, these words are to be found on the back cover of the explanatory brochure produced by Ramingining Arts (and sanctioned by the Gallery) when it was first installed in the NGA in September 1988.

in black and white: more on the orientation of Aboriginal art

Thanks to Helen Vivian’s detective work, I was fascinated to read how the London-based Frieze had reviewed Utopia: the genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye, the Emily Kame Kngwarreye exhibition at the (then) new National Art Centre Tokyo, while on tour in Japan from the new National Art Museum in Osaka, in June 2008.

Contrary to the self-adulatory press this exhibition received in Australia, in this review Edan Corkhill makes no mention of its institutional origins (The National Museum of Australia) or its local curator, Margo Neale. According to this reviewer, it’s all down to its Japanese curator, Akira Tatehata, as is his “impossible modernist” rubric. As is to be expected, cross-cultural projection is the primary means by which the late Emily Kame Kngwarreye is to be understood in such circumstances. Once in the mainstream of contemporary art, the problem is just how is Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s (or her contemporaries, for that matter) achievement to be judged?

In this instance while the reviewer’s point is to congratulate the curator for stepping outside “the Euro-American mainstream… [which is] a watershed in Japanese museum history”, the standards of evaluation remain firmly within its mainstream rhetoric. So, one finds the curators quoted exclaiming that it displays “all the techniques honed by the Abstract Expressionists”. Once Terry Smith had compared Emily to Monet, everyone else was on the same track. Janet Holmes a Court is quoted as proclaiming “she’s up there with Monet, Modigliani (??) and all the rest…” This is an example of what Darren Jorgenson refers to as “codes of similitude”. By the way, that’s the same M. Monet who, as this reviewer coincidentally commented, had by comparison, seemed “fiddly” when seen in the same venue…

Following our previous thread, I was also interested to read that while describing the extraordinary scale of Emily’s work, (in relation to the dimensions of the National Art Centre’s walls) the writer informs us: “the artist painted on the ground, so the work’s orientations are determined by the curator”. So there you go. It’s mainstream. In black and white. And still my problem remains unresolved…

Black Poles

What is wrong with this photograph? In its relentless quest to trivialise its treasures, (vide the moving wallpaper effect of projecting fragments of its Aboriginal Art collection on the walls at night) see how the National Gallery of Australia represents itself with a fragment of Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles on the parking signs. Not only a crass concept of branding, but turning the painting into a three dimensional object? Whoever thought of that should creep back to whence they came…

Wouldn’t you love to see the request letter to the Pollock-Krasner Foundation?

Does the NGA’s new extension eclipse The Aboriginal Memorial?

Imagine my surprise when I was shouted at for attempting to photograph the new architectural extension at the National Gallery of Australia! There are no signs forbidding such activity. Just an ambiguous little pamphlet you could ask for at the desk. “I wish to photograph the space, so that I can critique the architecture” I said. No way! came the reply… So you’ll have to make do with my drawing of the core structure of the building extension (by Andrew Andersons).

The two story main gallery contains a cylindrical form which appears to hang from the ceiling above the Aboriginal Memorial, containing a dome to echo the Turrell outside. The access ramp separates the Memorial from the outside world. Upstairs the cylinder provides the structure to contain the quadruply unfortunate corridor gallery in which are hung the Gallery’s collection of early Papunya boards. Quadruply unfortunate for (a) the colour of the gallery, (b) the unavoidable view of the fixtures behind the boards on the convex wall, (c) your inability to get a long or comparative view, and (d) the claustrophobic sense that you’ve got to keep moving down the tunnel. Like the entrance to the Musee du Quai Branly. We’ve heard Norman Day on ABC Artworks, but other reactions to the facelift have been few and far between. So who out there would like to write a comprehensive critique of the building in its new guise?

Here’s the NGA’s own view of itself…

And here is a NGA photograph looking the other way.

And notice the subtlety of the ring of circular airconditioning ducts embedded in the gravel which encircles the poles? Framed by invisible sculptures! I wonder who thought of that?

And this is how it currently appears on the Tourism Australia website… Which gives you a sense of how the design was virtualised to the Gallery at an earlier stage of decision-making.

This and other images of The Aboriginal Memorial can be found on the NGA’s Flickr feed.

P.S. For an example of the positive spin, read Christopher Menz’ commentary in the ABR.

Jack Featherstone (and his world of parallel universes)

The magic realist Jack Featherstone is the same age as Richard Larter. Both were born in 1929. By coincidence, both are currently exhibiting in adjoining galleries at the ANU School of Art. Jack is holding his second solo exhibition in thirty-five years. Dick is exhibiting in the group exhibition This Way Up, one of a series of shows in Canberra which explore the nature of contemporary abstraction. Of course, Dick Larter has exhibited in innumerable exhibitions over his illustrious career. Jack has kept his art to himself.

Clearly Jack is no abstractionist, but without the abstract sensations of sublimity his paintings would not exist. In music, for instance, it is the passing notes, or the dominant sevenths of the symphonies he listens to while he paints, which confirm his motivation to paint. Whether in the bush, or on the main street of Braidwood, it is those fleeting moments of existential clarity that suggest to him the subjects for his paintings. When Jack speaks about his stimulus to paint a particular image, it is sometimes as if the scene has taken him by surprise. He relates how seeing the intense blue of the mountains in his view of Mt Dampier: “it was just like that”, he said, as he recalled calling out to his son: “stop! stop! I must record this in my head!”

It seems to me the most relevant way of accounting for work like this is to look back to the Magical Realism of 1920s Germany. Franz Roh was the first art historian to apply the term to the New Objectivity of the post-expressionists. For Roh, it was a way of pointing towards the heightened objectivity of a generation of painters led by George Grosz and Otto Dix who were establishing a path away from the “shocking exoticism” of expressionism, and skirting around the avant-gardist revolutions of Dada and Surrealism. This was a moment when Roh noticed a movement towards a kind of intensified genre painting, “a style that celebrates the mundane”. These artists, according to Roh, embodied a “calm admiration of the magic of being, of the discovery that things already have their own faces”. This led to a particular kind of hyper-objectivity where the depiction of the everyday “once again becomes the most intense pleasure of painting”. Subsequently the concept was appropriated by literature to describe the qualities of post-war European and (particularly) South American novelists. Unlike Australian art history, a whole string of Australian writers have also been associated with these ideas, most recently the novelist Glenda Guest, here interviewed by Jack’s son Nigel. Parallel universes, indeed.

And so it seemed to me that almost a century later, our Jack Featherstone has invented a painting mode which had much in common with the motives of his predecessors. He shares a similar capacity to see the extraordinary in the everyday, and depicts his experiences in minute detail. He has produced a way of observing the world as if from some out-of-body perspective, and his painting has evolved into a similar style, worthy of the attribution as a latter-day “Magic Realist”. When you see a number of his works you will notice how he paints his scenes from a floating perspective, a few meters above the ground, above the trig points on the tops of the mountains from which he depicts a scene, or just above the surface of the street in his townscapes.

His experiences in the bush provide him with a choice of materials as the substrate of his pictures, whether pieces of rock, stones or the pieces of bark or wood. Each “must have a sense of place”, on which he can imagine, project a painting, even if they are the very large pieces harvested from dead eucalypts near Tilba Tilba, or the seemingly impossibly heavy slabs of stone he collects on expedition. These then become the direct reference for his paintings to their place of origin. While sometimes the shape and contour of the material directly determines its pictorial form, or in other cases the picture is made to fit its eccentric frame, creating a kind of dynamic synthesis between these two elements.

As we were hanging the show, Matt Smith and I both took pleasure in the way the irregularity of the materials on which Jack paints produces their engagingly distinctive pictorial effects.  Unlike the window-effect or the architectonic conventions by which we view rectilinear pictures, Jack’s paintings appear like chunks of reality: “as if fallen from the sky”, said Matt. Their irregularity against the white gallery wall sometimes suggest a kind of rupture in the space-time of experience. Again, this “magical” sense of parallel realities is reinforced by sensations such as these.

Want more? You can listen to Jack interviewed on ABC Radio here. There’s also a nice piece by Jacqueline Williams on p7 of the CT (Oct 7th). And the artist will be present in the gallery from midday on Saturday. Or you can follow the thread of previous posts by typing Jack in the search box. And here’s his son Nigel, writing a beautifully familial piece on his own blog. And today (12th) a longer piece by Jacqueline Williams in the CT’s Times2 section…