Anti-Soviet Realism


In late 1989 the last troops of the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan had left after a decade of resistance by the various forces of the mujihadeen. During this period of time one finds an extraordinary profusion of visual media opposing the Soviet occupation. Contradictions abound in the visual record of this unhappy decade. The non-traditional narrative carpets of this period constitute a form of indigenous modernism which occurs independent of other modes of contemporary visual art occurring elsewhere in the world. However the rug shown here is an exception to the rule. One of only two known examples, each of which differs slightly from the other, this remarkable image is clearly derived from the Socialist Realist style of the post-WW2 era, in a complex pictorial montage which depicts the heroic resistance of the mujahideen against the military might of Soviet heavy armour.

What makes the this carpet so unusual, and surprising, is the way it breaks with (almost) all the conventions of carpet tradition. It is proof (if we needed convincing) that carpet weavers could indeed “make anything.” Its design is familiar to a Western modernist eye insofar as it deliberately combines a number of models of representation in a mode of simultaneity – not unlike its 20th century precursors of cubist collage and photomontage. The production of an explicitly “Western” representation in celebration of the defeat of the Soviets makes another kind of claim for modernity – or rather, for a modernity that is not dependent on the exercise of Soviet military power. Continue reading →

Was Alighiero Boetti the last Orientalist?

Hopefully, yes. In the text below you’ll find me proposing that the work of the late Alighiero Boetti should be recognised as a contemporary form of Orientalist practice, despite all the protestations to the contrary. And further, that the surge of biographical and curatorial activity of the last few years – culminating in Boetti’s recent retrospectives at the Museo Reina Sophia, the Tate Modern, and the MoMA, another at the Fowler, and soon another at MAXXI – has produced its own form of a contemporary Orientalist discourse. This has been achieved in the Boetti literature through strategies of denial and negation which have amplified and exaggerated the artist’s original avant-gardist postures. This is posited through a strategy of inversion: the artist’s own denial of agency is set against the retrospective claims now made for his refugee camp workers’ “co-creative” “relational” “collaboration” in the production of his embroidered works. So suggests Mark Godfrey, his most recent biographer, and the Tate Modern curator of his retrospective. To the contrary, I argue that his workers’ anonymous, abstracted, and mystified representations, both in the work and in the literature, is but the latest manifestation of a contemporary orientalism.

Sceptical? Listen to this: “Ali Ghiero, the Bedouin in transit, camped next to the Pantheon” – exemplifies how the latest blurb from MAXXI has (even further) mythologised/orientalised his practice. See here.


In recent years biographers, curators, and followers of the late Italian Arte Povera artist Alighiero Boetti have gone out of their way to deny the orientalist character of his work – in favour, even, of presenting him as a prophet of globalism. And yet although Tate Modern’s Mark Godfrey at one point recognises the inherent idealisation in Boetti’s engagement throughout the 1970s with his Afghan “Others”, he also remains convinced that, for Boetti, “Afghanistan should be understood neither as some “other” place untouched by Western civilisation nor as a culture somehow under-developed or ahistorical.”[1]  How can such contradictory views be reconciled? Despite all the evidence to the contrary, including Boetti’s opposition to the modernisation of Afghanistan and his problematic “relationship” with his outsourced workers in the refugee camps of Pakistan, in his recent biography Godfrey asserts his mode of production was evidence of Boetti’s  “determination… [not to] represent them… the peoples he met… as an exotic other.” Such are the twists and turns of the logic of denial and inversion in the Boetti story.

Art History 101 teaches us that Orientalist Art is characterised by analysis of the representation of “exotic” Others and the conditions of their presentation and reception in the Euro-American West. The consequences for an understanding of the historical context of the colonialist relations between ‘the West’ and its ‘Eastern’ subjects places such art in its wider socio-political context. So it goes, in university classrooms around the world.

Continue reading →

out of the studio

and into Neon Parc. Last week I visited Trevelyan Clay’s studio at Gertrude Street to see his new work, which looked very persuasive. The exhibition at Neon Parc is titled “Altar”, opens on Thursday 29th November, and runs until December 21st. A must-see for Melbhattanites, as they’re now called…

Neon Parc is at 1/53 Bourke St, Melbourne.

And Quentin Sprague contributes more here at Stamm.

emaj goes live

Artist unknown, Hazara people, prayer stone cover (mohr posh), 1965 -1975, embroidery (silk or mercerised cotton on cotton) 28 x 28cm, Max Allen collection, Canada. (photograph Max Allen)

Emaj is the only Australian online refereed art history journal. Its latest issue includes contributions by Helen Hughes, Keith Broadfoot, Roberta Crisci-Richardson, Darren Jorgensen, Danni Zuvela, Chris Adams plus your iconophile. Its editorial panel is Nicholas Croggon, Jane Eckett, Justine Grace, Katrina Grant, Helen Hughes, Tim Ould, and Francis Plagne.

My essay “A tournament of shadows: Alighiero Boetti, the myth of influence, and a contemporary orientalism” may be accessed here.

How to look at a Rothko

Answer: through a guard, sideways. This prescient photograph is from Meredith Rosenberg’s analysis of the effects of the recent Basel art fair, here discussed at Hyperallergic.

The Origin of the Dot in Art History

Nobody owns the Dot. Whether by Damien Hirst, by Indigenous Australians, by their PoMo Appropriationists, or as far back as the Pointillists, the Dot has a serious Art History. Here the eminent art historian John E. Bowlt introduces us to its roots in the revolutionary moments of Soviet Constructivism. Or perhaps, as in this case, Productivism. Here is his exegesis of the work ‘Kinetic Composition’, (1920), by Alexander Michailowitsch Rodtschenko (1891-1956):

The most remarkable aspect of Rodtschenko’s work is the multitude of artistic media and forms. [In] 1912-13 he created works with exotic dancers and femmes fatale in the style of Jugendstil. However, already  in 1915 he had made his first laconic (concise?) abstraction drawn with compass and ruler. Since 1923 Rodschenko concentrated on photography because of its documentary exactness. However , in the same year he created his eccentric often cryptic photo montages for Wladimir Majakowski’s love poems “pro eto”. With other works, like many of his colleagues  of the Russian avant-garde (Iwan Kljun, Kasimir Malewitsch, El Lissitzky), Rodtschenko moved continuously in an unexpected way between the objective and the subjective, what  the art critic Waldemar Maywei called the ‘non- constructive’ and the ‘konstructive’ pole of the artistic experience. This dynamic correlation in Rodtschenko’s aesthetic expression is particularly visible in his oil paintings of the 1910s. On one hand he created monochrome reductions like the series ‘Black on Black’ (1918) or ‘Red, Yellow, Blue’ (1921), and on the other hand he painted his nervous, galvanic expressions as, for example, in ‘Resolution of the Plain” (1921). [This work] ‘Kinetic composition’ can in fact be connected with the non-constructive as well as the constructive impulse. But without doubt there is a direct connection to the series of the cosmic ‘abstractions’, which Rodtschenko created in 1919-20. Generally, the work is in close connection to the topic of (outer) space like many experimental artists of the 1920’s imagined and depicted it (Kjun, Alexander Lobas, Wladimir Ljuschin, etc).

This interest in space developed through the tremendous popularity of Jules Verne and H G Wells in Russia, through the closeness of Komstantin Tziolkowski, the father of the Russian rocket science and through the belief in the abilities of technology.  It inspired many depictions of the stratosphere and space, for example, Malewitsch’s ethereal Suprematism (1918-19), Ljuschin’s drafts of an inter planetary space station from 1922, Iwan Kudriaschew’s forces racing through space (1923-25), and Michal Plaksin’s ‘Planetarium’ (1922).

Rodtschenko was also inspired by these journeys through space. Some of his abstract paintings can be interpreted as depictions of planetary bodies, of eclipse’s, or meteors against the infinite night sky. The painting ‘Kinetic Composition’ has a visual connection to Rodtschenko’s cosmic use of forms from 1919-20 and can at the same time be seen as a formal painting that foreshadows his action paintings of the 1940s. Although microscopic, what fascinates Rodtschenko is recognisable: the interplay of spheres on a monochrome background (black, brown, or grey), or the confrontation of unequal masses and the tension of an asymmetric composition and their symmetric formats. The result is a moving whole that vibrates and oscillates in a breathless tension like the Milky Way in an immaculate night sky.

How this particular “painting” made the transition to the truly kinetic form of the necktie may be lost in history. However, the exegesis above came with the tie. I am obliged to my friends Weston Naef (for the gift) and Christiane Keller (for the translation) for helping me plug this significant gap in our Art Historical knowledge.

beyond photography

Light Painting was widely hailed as the best work in the Biennale of Sydney – apparently also by Thierry de Duve, among others – but you have to have seen this work by Nyapanyapa Yunupigu to understand why its random streaming imagery is “beyond” the documentary potential of still photography. Then again, Will Stubbs’ explanatory label was also far and away the most thought-provoking piece of text generated by this guff-laden event… Equally interesting was the fact that the collective mode of its production suggests an entirely new mode of art-making coming out of Yirrkala. Collective agency is in their blood…

PS See what I mean here at Ros Oxley’s website

some more at Less is More

One of the unexpected pleasures of visiting Less is More: Minimal + Post-Minimal Art in Australia at the Heide Museum of Modern Art was the game of retrospection: what the work meant then, compared with how it looks now. As I remember it Untitled Floor Structure (1969) was meant to be seen ambiguously as both abstract form (rectilinear, coloured, layered, optically active, with a physical presence, and aesthetically engaging) and at the same time looking like a stack of paintings. As if they had been taken off the wall and piled up on the floor, these ‘painting objects’ were seen to be out of place in the habitat of sculpture, that is, the three dimensional space between the walls of the gallery. Occupying also the space of the spectator, who might wonder if they had wandered into a de-installation, such works set out to confuse conventional (orthodox, in some cases) ways of looking.

At the time such category confusion seemed like a pointed way of challenging the predictability of the conventions perpetuated by the Greenberg/Fried formalist dogma – where art was only Art when it knew its proper place – and when it remained within a narrow (and exclusive) essentialist frame of reference. Minimalism and conceptual art opened the door to subversive strategies, when colour and form were shown to be no longer sufficient as the apotheosis of the modern. Breaking with convention, abstract art still seemed to have the potential to be meaningful, or phenomenologically challenging, or conceptually engaging. And so the challenge was to see whether material, colour and form could still be significant – or meaningful – depending on its origins, associations, or presence in the gallery. Art could, it was argued, be propositional: its if, then, and maybe opened the way to forms of aesthetic experience no longer dependent (or so it seemed at the time) on precursors and traditions. For a brief moment abstract the noun was superceded by abstract the verb.

I’d forgotten, for instance, how my Untitled Wall Structure (1970-2012) picked up ambient colour and movement from other art works and from its surroundings – and how the shadows added to its illusionism. The original of this piece was exhibited in a number of different configurations: this third layout mirrors the first, which was destroyed in transit in 1972.

For even more, see the show, and read the excellent historical account of these fleeting moments in Australian art history written by curator Sue Cramer in the extended catalogue essay. And special thanks to Pamela Faye McGrath for these photographs…

PS Robert Nelson reviews here

Less is More

Less is More: Minimal + Post-Minimal Art in Australia is the next exhibition at the Heide Museum of Modern Art. It begins with Australian artists like Robert Jacks, (above, Red Cut Piece (45-90 degrees) 1969-2012) alongside works from Australian collections by Judd, Morris, Flavin et al., together with subsequent generations of Australian artists in the same vein.  Curated by Sue Cramer, the show will run from 3rd August to 4th November.

In one sense, the show echoes the provincialism debates of the early 1970s. Of the 40 artists in the show, the seven American artists are represented by works from Australian collections (Andre, Benglis, Flavin, Judd, LeWitt, Morris, and Nauman). Just when these particular works actually arrived in Australia would tell us something interesting about patterns of acquisition by state and private collections. However by the time they did arrive, the die was already cast. More important for the other artists in this show was the transmission of such ideas in mediated forms, and how persuasively the works of these artists exercised their rhetorical power in the pages of the art journals of the day, in the receptive environment of the post-formalist and anti-modernist Australian artworld. As someone said at the time, minimalism reproduces well…

Three of the best informed Australians of the first generation (Burn, Ramsden, and Jacks) produced their works in the show while they were overseas, yet only Ramsden and Burn had any significant impact back in Australia, when they (controversially) exhibited minimalist and conceptual works in The Field exhibition of 1968. Of the remaining thirty artists in Less is More, half were born before 1950, the oldest in 1936, the youngest in 1972. Thirteen of them (including your iconophile) are graduates of The Field.

And so, with the benefit of hindsight, and in another sense altogether, Less is More promises to be a provocative study of inter-generational continuity and change. The question will be how far these artists pushed the boundaries of what they saw…

P.S. Now that I’ve read Sue Cramer’s excellent catalogue essay, I find that in addition to Ramsden, Burn and Jacks, one should note that three other artists in the exhibition (Robert Hunter, Richard Dunn, and Wendy Paramour) also spent significant time in the U.S. and the U.K. in the late sixties.

P.P.S. And you can trace the details of the circumstances and dates of the collection and exhibition of the American works in the catalogue essay as well.

Syria via Goroka

Simon Gende is Goroka’s history painter. Goroka is as far as you can get from the Syrian conflict, and yet Simon is compelled to record the world’s historical events as he sees them, via CNN. You can find the rest of his exhibition at Damien Minton Gallery, or on the website. Don’t miss.

PS And more here in a review by Tracey Clements in Art Guide Australia