Entries from November 2010 ↓

When is a Beuys not a Beuys?

To what extent can a work of art – like this Joseph Beuys – be rearranged? This is the Joseph Beuys from the collection of the National Gallery of Australia, currently on loan to the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen. One of the NGA’s many many masterpieces. Now compare the arrangement above with the image from the NGA website below – which was first installed under the direction of the artist himself, down to the fine details of how the entrance to the space was to be (re)built.

I have it on good authority that the floorplan of the space is the same as the Anthony d’Offay Gallery in London where it was originally displayed in its 1980 manifestation, and from whom it was purchased. And that Beuys required the NGA to take down a wall/door and rebuild it before it was opened for viewing. Then how at first you could walk through it (as it was in London), but within a few days the viewer was constrained, and it became a bit like viewing a diorama, from a limited space at the end of the room. This work, titled Stripes from the house of the shaman 1964-72, (1980) is now on show in Europe now for the first time, according to the KN-W.

The complicated dates suggests that either there was an earlier version, or that Beuys had thought about it for eight years, and then taken another eight years to get around to making it (in London, finally). At first I wondered whether it was another version, because (a) it looks a bit different and (b) I could find no reference to the NGA in either the website text or the slideshow of this Beuys exhibition at the KN-W. Something seemed not quite right…

The image above is how the NGA last installed it, in the Droopy Fluffy Liquid Plastic Puffy Squishy Moulded section of its the recent Soft Sculpture exhibition. Not its finest hour. And so I’m having an authenticity moment here. It’s a work of (visual) art, right? So how it looks must be significant, yes? But how much can you vary how a work of art looks before it becomes a different work of art, or not a work of art? Yes, you could argue that this is a work of art that comprises 15 (or so) elements and that the important thing is the material and fetishistic/symbolic qualities of the elements, and that their spatial relationships are relatively immaterial to our aesthetic response… But would this still be a Beuysian concept? Maybe, but where’s the evidence? Given that he was pernickety about the first arrangement, it seems unlikely.

Hands up those who think it’s OK to take such liberties with the installation? I guess it all depends what the artist had to say about such things, or whether there are examples of him allowing others to arrange his works. It seems unlikely to me, given that we know he was very specific about spatial effects when it was first installed at the NGA. So is this another one of those (usually posthumous) curatorial decisions? As, more infamously, in the case of The Aboriginal Memorial. So when is a Beuys (or any other work of art) not a Beuys (or any other work of art)? Answer: when you fiddle with it too much…


Forgive me. Trying to fit Afghan war art into a western canon of art history sometimes results in jokes at our own expense. Putting “our” art history to one side, this is a detail of one of the few Afghan “war carpets” I have seen that could be said to represent the outsider symbolically. Images of snakes and dragons are a common way of representing the evil Other in the pictorial carpet tradition. And given that the word “Omar” is written in Roman script (that is, not in Dari or Pashtun) one could say that it is meant for the outside world to take heed… Let me just tweak the colours a bit so you can read the letters on the cuff…

The disembodied hand itself is not new. Precursors exist in the propaganda posters of the 1980s, and subsequent carpets, representing the Soviet Union.

P.S. And, to bring  the metaphor into the present, Reuters reports (ex WikiLeaks):

“Cut off the head of the snake,” the Saudi ambassador to Washington, Adel al-Jubeir, quotes the king Abdullah  as saying during a meeting with General David Petraeus in April 2008.

Forever Young: beginnings, no end

Iconophilia is pleased to introduce the work of The Precisionist of Pambula, Tom Bosman. Born in the Netherlands near Amsterdam in 1931, Tom came to Canberra in 1958, and has been a regular exhibitor with the Canberra Art Society since his early years here. Since his retirement to the coast he has devoted himself full-time to his passion for painting his surroundings.

Trained as a carpenter, draftsman, builder and engineer, Tom’s attraction to painting has been a constant if secondary factor in a busy life in many parts of the world, and finally in Australia.  In the post-war years his association with the Free Academy in Amsterdam (working at first with Willem Douch) introduced him to both historical and contemporary art.

This week Tom shares the spotlight at the Bega Valley Regional Gallery with The Magic Realist of Braidwood Jack Featherstone (born 1929), together with a bunch of local Bega High School students (born c.1994) in the show Forever Young: beginnings, no end. This exhibition, with its mellifluous title, is the curatorial work of Megan Bottari, and features the work of these two elders of the brush, plus the futurists of Gen Z, and is on show for the next month.

You can find Jack’s works in previous posts on Iconophilia. These iPhone snaps of Tom’s works date from the late 90s (Way behind Cobar, The Monaro, The Murrumbidgee Valley) and are characteristic of his Precisionist style, which seems to carry both echoes of his Dutch heritage, together with his home-grown sense of form, colour, and design. Precisionist, you ask? See here. Well spotted, Megan!

in advance of the broken column

Do architects have a sense of humour? They must have. Yet when an architect puns, it’s a private joke at the public expense. When is a column not a column? When it’s a pun, stupid. The primary architectural feature of the National Gallery of Australia’s new facelift is this singular column. Judging by my photograph of their photograph, above, the purpose is to assert its status as an icon, signifying the character of the new building. There’s certainly nothing like it in the old building – although admittedly the Nolans are now shown in a new gallery shaped like a spa-bath. Now let’s think this through. Like a temple, a proper museum needs columns to signal its entrance, right? Maybe we can make do with just one column? That appears to support nothing? Except maybe a plastic dome? Get it?

Here’s the approach…

There’s no word in the architectural lexicon for a thing like this. So maybe this virtual column can be interpreted as both an oh-so-cautious nod towards postmodernism, while at the same time it reinforces the sphere and dome theme, to the left and right of the entrance, and inside as well. The problem is, like much of postmodernity, it’s a one-liner. So every time you swing by, you’ll be reminded of the same visual pun thing.

But wait! There’s more… Just beside the front door there’s a broken column, a modest little neocubist artefact, reminiscent of the style of the late Mari Funaki, but with no apparent attribution. It stands on a base inscribed to commemorate the opening of the new galleries. It’s about life-size, and it leans as if it wants to have a rest against the glass wall.  In its ambiguous anonymity it carries a certain mysterious status. As an artefact without the authority of an author, it somehow suggests a subversive purpose, loitering with intent, seemingly condemned never to reach the status of a work of art… Perhaps there is a prize for guessing its identity?

Methinks someone’s lost control of their signifiers… Want more? The thread continues here.