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…”

15 comments ↓

#1 Brook Andrew on 12.05.10 at 12:29 pm

Interesting ideas. I think that art, regardless of it’s ethnicity or remoteness, when exhibited internationally does have the opportunity to drop local ways of seeing. These local ways of seeing are in most cases the results of complex local social and economical histories, which is at one point obvious, but also can be, as you suggest, a possible burden. This is why I love, and also many remote artists (regardless where they live in the world) sharing art internationally and seeing it in that context. Where the local complexities, and in this case racism and projected local ‘ideas’ can melt away. I don’t necessarily think that the paintings in the exhibition are that related to remote art in China. They could be similar to many art forms, but if any thing they are authentic to their own experience, as is mine to my experience. This is what I see as the joy of exhibiting internationally. And the beginning to break with the tradition of not only romanticisation but de-mystifying ‘primitivism’ and the heavy burden anthropology and colonialism has in colonised countries. To de-colonise is to re-contextualise where the local is immediate to the artists own experience and geographical patterns. The centre is not for example ‘a city’ it is where the artist is.

#2 Quentin on 12.06.10 at 1:13 pm

Hi Brook – I like your idea that an International context offers up a kind of new space where the specificity of the ideas unavoidably relate back to a new framework, and this in turn offers new opportunities. I can see why you would appreciate this in terms of your own practice existing outside similarly established frameworks, and why some ideas, like your jumping castle memorials, are best left non-specific for exactly this reason.

It’s still hard though, as we saw, for established ideas and/or prejudices not to come through well before those responses which may be more reflective and allow for difference… By observing superficial relationships to their own cultural experience, perhaps the new viewer can easily ignore the fact that some artists are coming from a different centre entirely. Its hard to conceptualise histories separate to one’s own -in this case an art history [on a very different trajectory – Ed.]…

#3 Nigel on 12.06.10 at 5:48 pm

I think I have a different take on this to both of you. While I haven’t personally jumped into a Brook Andrew, I would imagine that nearly all the subtler nuances of his work would be lost in another cultural context. That Brook sees these as a possible burden worries me. I would have thought it is the local complexities that are cause the work to stand out in the first instance, that give it its edge. What is Brook’s work without the sting? I’d be worried that the new melting-pot favours effect rather than reflection, all front and no side? And I would have thought that to sort out “the heavy burden [of] anthropology and colonialism” as it applies to the contemporary moment would necessarily require a great deal of specificity and historically informed interpretation… And so to project oneself out of that possibility – of de-colonising strategies, via re-contextualisation – is like leaving your politics at the door, only to find they’re no longer there when you go back to collect them…

#4 brook on 12.06.10 at 7:28 pm

Quentin … i think the ‘observing superficial relationship’ is my point. i think that a touch of anonymity is essential. i also think that the superficial connections we all have when we travel, which is increasingly the case, where people think they know someone else’s ‘story’ but don’t is not such a bad thing. the crossing over and complexities, i think, has always been the case and absolutely in our very multicultural world. the disappearing and appearing or seeming as something or someone else is interesting.

i think that artwork, including my own, has unique power to translate into other contexts and languages when experiencing them in different locations. of course some artists like to be absolutely specific, but how can we always control the very essential idea. i suppose the work has it’s a marker of ‘sting’ as you say nigel… and i do love this surprise in artists work no matter how gentle or otherwise. for art to be read on a truly open paradigm, i think there needs to be room for differences of observation and opinion and surprise. the absolute obvious is not something that personally attracts me, but then again art is like this, it’s opinions of what people are attracted to or not.

#5 brook on 12.06.10 at 7:36 pm

nigel. the very ideas inherent in de-colonisation and as you note “the heavy burden [of] anthropology and colonialism” is an entendre. a deliberate, almost useless inevitable one. but if there was no colonisation and horrific damage there would be no discussion in this context and for i.e. contemporary art for thou. as you say ‘leaving your politics at the door…’ – i absolutely wish we could in one way because then the inherit racism in the vein of australian cultural activities and language would not be so painful. maybe there is a time when this will wash away. but maybe not. and we have to live with it all.

#6 Nigel on 12.06.10 at 8:55 pm

Dear Brook, my limited knowledge of the French language stretches to “double-entendre” but I’m lost with your meaning of the single entendre. I used your expression in concern for (to draw attention to) your blanket condemnation of the discipline of “anthropology” – almost in the same manner as the Director of the National Gallery of Australia. See the references in other posts. When Ron Radford said (several times in the course of opening the new galleries of Indigenous art at the NGA) “this is art not anthropology” he probably meant “this is art not ethnographica”. It coincides with his rationale for not having contextual texts. To the point where The Aboriginal Memorial is treated as if it’s just a work of art, without any explanatory pamphlet (as it used to have) and yet without naming the artists who produced it. A more anthropological approach may not be such a bad thing…

#7 brook on 12.07.10 at 8:56 am

Apparently my ‘French’ is out of order…as are a few other notes. It seems this discussion is muddled, which is the great challenge in my eyes to ‘de-colonise’.

#8 Nigel on 12.07.10 at 10:27 am

Indeed! a multi-dimensional problem…

#9 Quentin on 12.07.10 at 2:51 pm

Apologies – I’ve been out of the loop as this discussion has unfolded. Brook – great to discuss some ideas post NNS, and Nigel thanks for the forum and comments too. If only we could have those conversations in Gija or Mandarin all might be revealed.

#10 Nigel on 12.07.10 at 2:54 pm

I agree… I can see the framework of a really interesting discussion at the Melbourne venue emerging out of these questions.

#11 Alexie on 12.08.10 at 2:08 pm

I’m coming in late to this thread but we should certainly make room for a discussion of these issues when the show opens at Gertrude – I think being so close to this project its only now that we can begin to disentangle our intentions, the experience and the outcomes to look critically at these sorts of frameworks…

#12 brook on 12.09.10 at 3:02 pm

hi alexi. yes, this discussion has been very interesting indeed. especially where often ‘fixed’ ideas of aboriginal identity are often spoken about as if they are blanket…and this is the v problem when it comes to a discussion of interpretative discourse across the divides of identity. a challenge which often finds the aboriginal outside of it all – unless of cause one does chose to get on and say something but then is judged by another as being something else.

the no name station project is revealing in other ways than a mere focus in only on aboriginal projection into the world. i am interested how the inward gaze from the outside is often so cluttered it’s like the ‘rear window’ on heat.

let’s not forget the nuisances evolving around the very act of ‘space’ and how aboriginal people have it when others try to continually create and hold it whilst they say they are allowing for other spaces to be in. i think the view of individual and community thought regardless where you are from is the most useful. i mean, who in the ‘city’ in their right mind would allow for such trappings? (this is not a question)

i look forward to breaking down that which is so deeply embedded in itself – the splinter from ‘1992’ (or what ever date) finally surfaces. ‘Oh, that’s what was the problem…i didn’t even know and it was inside of me’.

#13 Lucie Hilditch on 03.17.11 at 2:56 pm

Either way, good art, meaningful art, replete with visual integrity, will present itself to the viewer of whatever cultural persuasion as something recognizable for what it is. Something that crosses and cuts across cultural boundaries and the white noise of pontificating discourse to a point of recognition that fits with the soul-view of the viewer. How nice to travel amidst travail and come to a place and recognize it as familiar as though for the very first time. We’ll see whether this happens
Quentin’s collaborative Chinese-Australian work takes two (on the surface ) apparently disparate cultures and presses them, perhaps uncomfortably, together. Whether during the process the participants, as opposed to the viewers, truly felt they were part of the same or similar ancient continuum of story telling through art has not been revealed. We may see later. Unfortunately the political imperatives that tend to drive such contemporary expression (such as expectation, style, popular content, ego and reputation, the participation of dealers and curators etc) can warp the outcomes in a way that can challenge the efficacy of the whole exercise. As Quentin so rightly says, the interpretation ( and comparison ) of ancient indigenous art in a contemporary situation leads to challenges that may, if unresolved, see the unavoidable feeling of artifice creep upon the viewer.
But, hey, let’s not chuck the baby out with the bathwater, as me Gran used to say. Just don’t get too serious about trying to make correlative judgements.

#14 Lucie Hilditch on 03.17.11 at 6:06 pm

Either way, good art, meaningful art, replete with visual integrity, will present itself to the viewer of whatever cultural persuasion as something recognizable for what it is. Something that crosses and cuts across cultural boundaries and the white noise of pontificating discourse to a point of recognition that fits with the soul-view of the viewer. How nice to travel amidst travail and come to a place and recognize it as familiar as though for the very first time. We’ll see whether this happens
Quentin’s collaborative Chinese-Australian work takes two( on the surface ) apparently disparate cultures and presses them, perhaps uncomfortably, together. Whether during the process the participants, as opposed to the viewers, truly felt they were part of the same or similar ancient continuum of story telling through art has not been revealed. We may see later. Unfortunately the political imperatives that tend to drive such contemporary expression ( such as expectation, style, popular content, ego and reputation, the participation of dealers and curators etc ) can warp the outcomes in a way that can challenge the efficacy of the whole exercise. As Quentin so rightly says, the interpretation ( and comparison ) of ancient indigenous art in a contemporary situation leads to challenges that may, if unresolved, see the unavoidable feeling of artifice creep upon the viewer.
But, hey, let’s not chuck the baby out with the bathwater, as me Gran used to say. Just don’t get too serious about trying to make correlative judgements.

#15 Lucie Hilditch on 03.17.11 at 6:19 pm

Just another word to Quentin Sprague. I met an artist called Les Sprague last year. He does extraordinary art which takes as its root the tragic story of black-white relations from early colonial days. Mostly allegorical. Also site-specific works in the Outback, where I met him outside William Creek. Any relation??

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