Entries from December 2010 ↓

the gods must be crazy

Planning Christmas 2011 anybody? Should you be in a generous mood, this mobile anachronism is promoted by Morgan as an eco-friendly “alternative mode of transport” addressing “the two big issues, the conservation of precious  resources and the protection of our beautiful natural environment. Downsizing and a philosophy of simplicity are ways of dealing with these problems.” Gosh. There’s a twelve month waiting list. Then again, it’s made by the only remaining British car company, which deserves some nostalgia respect. Neither motorbike nor car, apparently it will never be seen in Australia. P.S. Your loyal Iconophiliacs (Nigel, Pammy, Axel and Aki) will now be offline for a few weeks planning implementing Christmas 2010…

Inbox. Outbox. Ignorebox.

One of the architectural features of the new National Gallery of Australia extension that has not attracted much attention (and was missed by Robert Bevan in his review) is the moat and drawbridge, the symbolic function of which, I suggest, is to repel critics (and anthropologists, apparently). Now read on…

Two months ago, I wrote the following letter to the Director of the National Gallery of Australia, Ron Radford. Apparently, Citizen Lendon does not merit a reply. While you might assume that the Director of a major public institution has some kind of obligation to respond to a perfectly legitimate enquiry from any member of the public, apparently this is not the case with respect to the National Gallery of Australia.

I therefore provide the following points of reference – not to blow my own trumpet, but to provide a sense of how difficult it must be to get across the moat. As well as being the author of Iconophilia, readers may know that I also write about art and its histories in a number of contexts. Among other things, I have a longstanding interest in (and a trail of curatorial projects and publications concerned with) Australian Indigenous art. I have been a guest curator at the NGA. I am also a Fellow of the National Gallery of Australia Foundation.

Now, as regular readers of Iconophilia will know, recently I have been thinking out loud about the re-design and relocation of The Aboriginal Memorial at the NGA.  And so I have been considering writing a more substantial account of its recent history. However there are some facts I would need to have clarified for the sake of accuracy. Two months seemed a reasonable time to wait for a reply to this letter before sharing it with you-all:

12th October, 2010

Ron Radford, AM


National Gallery of Australia

GPO Box 1150, Canberra, ACT, 2601

Dear Ron,

May I ask of you a couple of questions? I’m writing a piece on the new installation of The Aboriginal Memorial, and I would like to be sure I have my facts straight.

1. Whose idea was it, and who approved the introduction of the new material as a groundbase for the Memorial?

2. What was the consultation process with the artists and their heirs, at what stage of the design development, and with whom?

3. Has there been a “singing-in” ceremony, as with all the other relocations and rearrangements, (with the exception, I understand, of St Petersburg)? If so, by whom, and when?

Your reply will be much appreciated

With best wishes

Nigel Lendon

As of this date, I have received no reply.

Optimistically, this is the kind of draft response that I imagine is languishing in some hypothetical NGA Ignorebox:


12th November, 2010

<insert address>

Dear Nigel

I do apologise for the lateness of this reply to your letter of 12th October. No doubt you will understand that the first months of the reopening of the Gallery has been a very busy time for us all.

Your questions concerning the redesign of The Aboriginal Memorial are indeed pertinent. I am pleased to tell you that I have reviewed the design of the Memorial, and agree with you that the inclusion of the black basalt rocks as a plinth is indeed an inappropriate and alien material.

I have decided that we will review the decisions of the installation designers, and intitiate a comprehensive process of input concerning alternative options in consultation with the surviving artists and their heirs and representatives.

I agree that the installation is spatially compromised by the design of the wheelchair access ramp, and we will look into alternative design options going forward. At the same time we will investigate alternative modes of installing the airconditioning vents to redress the unfortunate formal association between the hollow log poles and the ring of circular vents which surround them.

In reply to your specific questions:

1. Ultimately the decisions concerning the design were mine.  However I was advised by the installation design group appointed by the architects, in consultation with my staff.

2. Indeed, I do now realize that the consultation process left something to be desired. I intend to initiate an appropriate process in the future, and to seek advice and assistance from the eminent anthropologists of art who are knowledgeable in this area.

3. A “singing-in ceremony” was conducted subsequent to the opening of the new galleries, involving both Richard Birrinbirrin, the son of the late Dr David Malangi, and Djon Mundine, the original conceptual producer of the Memorial.

I should add that we are in the process of producing a pamphlet which explains the original intent of the Aboriginal Memorial, and that we will redesign the wall plaques so that the artists who produced the work are formally named, in accordance with moral rights protocols.

Such critical commentary and feedback as yours is much appreciated and encouraged by the Gallery.

Yours faithfully

<insert name and signature>

P.S. On 6th November the “conceptual producer” of the Aboriginal Memorial Djon Mundine gave a talk at the NGA. The only new and relevant piece of information was that he showed a brief video clip of Richard Birrinbirrin and himself “singing in” the Memorial in its new location on (presumably) the day after the gala opening of the new wing of the NGA. For all its personalised austerity, it was quite a moving record of what actually occurred.  The audience for this apparently impromptu event appeared to be the thirty or so people who happened to be passing by, visitors to the Gallery at that moment. From what we were shown, there appeared to be no other members of the Gallery hierarchy present, or taking part. We were shown no reciprocal ceremony. Unlike every previous occasion, when the “singing in” ceremony has been quite an event.

Indigenous art in a Chinese frame

As introduced in a previous post, Quentin Sprague was recently involved in the No Name Station project, a residency for a number of Chinese and Australian artists and curators (and a writer) in the remote Gija community of Warmun in the North East of WA. The resulting exhibition opened in October at Iberia Centre for Contemporary Art in Beijing, which will travel to Gertrude Contemporary in Melbourne in 2011. Here Quentin pursues some pertinent issues raised by the experience of the project:

“A project like this raises a number of questions about how remote Indigenous Australian works of art operate when seen from outside the established framework that exists in Australia. In a broad context of contemporary practitioners, without the presence of didactic wall texts, and across the barrier of language that exists in a place like China, an audience can only approach these objects as art – or so the logic goes. That is, in its Chinese frame, an awareness of relevant traditional, historical or contemporary contexts cannot be assumed to underlie any reading. So, what’s left when these various groundings are removed? What are other cultures seeing when we present remote Indigenous practice as a dynamic contemporary form?

Zuo Jing photographs Alex Hall, Great Northern Highway near Warmun, WA (author’s photograph)

For the Chinese artists and curators during the residency in July this year, it was perhaps hard not to approach Gija practice as a kind of ‘folk art’, and draw comparison to the practices of minority groups in China. So while dialogue with the urban based Australian artists was fairly easy to establish within the common grounding of International contemporary art, the practice of the Gija was much harder to place, at least in similar terms to how key practitioners are seen in Australia. This is not necessarily meant as a criticism – rather it is a response that I feel highlights differences in production and representation which, let’s face it, still presents challenges in the Australian art world, let alone in International contexts.

Representing cultural difference now forms a significant part of a global contemporary art discourse. This fairly recently emerged willingness on the part of artists and curators to actively explore points of cultural exchange can sometimes be a difficult process. As the No Name Station residency group discovered, actual cultural differences can be fundamental and although art practice can present a common grounding in these contexts it doesn’t necessarily offer up easy resolutions.

Installation view of No Name Station at Iberia Centre for Contemporary Art, Beijing, (L-R), Rusty Peters, Berrngalanginy, 2008, Newell Harry, Lloyd Treistino, 1967-2009 (installation in progress) (author’s photograph)

The image above shows Gija artist Rusty Peter’s work alongside the installation in progress of Newell Harry’s work Lloyd Treistino, an exploration of his family’s story of migration shown through selected family photographs and related archived materials presented in vitrines, including letters, watercolours and objects.

The desire to explore this area in regards to the representation of remote practice within wider frameworks raises a series of valid questions, often resulting directly from such difficulties. Like how to negotiate the contemporary in ways that resonate across truly different cultural contexts. And, what does ‘contemporary’ really mean when applied to remote practice anyway? Simply that the art is being made now? Maybe the term is best seen as a particularly Western one – one that emphasises innovation and change – rather than a concept projected onto a totally different tradition of cultural production that has largely emphasised the relative immutability of cultural forms. Does its use set up expectations that aren’t necessarily helpful when considering the real position of the work in question?

The argument can be made that the complex series of exchanges that the indigenous art object represents is perhaps its most interesting aspect in a contemporary art context. When presenting remote indigenous practice in an International arena, or anywhere really, the question of how to articulate its various realities in relation to broader notions of contemporary art is ever present. Maybe without this area being explored in the exhibition context, or at least without it being apparent to some extent to the audience, the work is presented with an unescapable element of artifice…”