How myths are made: Marina Abramovic remembers Lake Disappointment.

In his cover story for The Weekend Australian Review, Tim Douglas interviews Marina Abramovic in Abu Dhabi. However the account of her experiences in the Australian desert three decades ago leaves a seriously problematic trail for its account of her cross-cultural relationships.  (“Primal Performer: Artist Marina Abramovic was transformed by a desert epiphany.” Weekend Australian Review, March 30-31, 2013, pp. 6-7.) In this promo piece for the upcoming Kaldor project, Douglas gives us the latest version of Abramovic’s story:

Following an appearance at the third Sydney Biennale in 1979, Abramovic and her artistic collaborator and lover Ulay – German artist Frank Uwe Laysiepen – trekked out to  central Australia and requested to meet the indigenous people of Western Australia’s Little Sandy Desert, near Lake Disappointment [according to Douglas’ interview]. That meeting [he relates] would become the best part of a year living with the local Aborigines.  “For me, Aborigines are the most natural human beings: they live not in the past or in the future but in the present. They have a story and a meaning  for everything, “ she says. “In that desert I spent a lot of time just sitting down: meditating, listening to the silence. This is what opened my universe.”

According to Douglas’ interview, it was in the desert that Abramovic had her epiphany:

…what she terms a “non-rational extra sense of perception”. “I walked out of that desert after a year and had this realization that, ‘Wow. I see things differently. I am new.’”

The historical account tells it somewhat differently, as history is wont to do. In The Third Hand: Collaboration in Art from Conceptualism to Postmodernism (Sydney, 2001), in a chapter devoted to these artists, author Charles Green concludes his description of Ambramovic and Ulay’s experience as a form of contemporary “primitivism.” What follows is how he comes to this conclusion: Continue reading →

Who would have thought relational art would become so lucrative?


Nearly two decades ago Nicolas Bourriaud coined the term ‘relational art’ to describe “a set of practices which takes as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space.” (Bourriaud 2002: 113) Relational artists are, he said, orientated towards collective rather than individualistic expression, and envisage their art as a political rather than aesthetic project. Nowadays everyone is a relational artist, or so it seems.

With the latest acquisition by the National Gallery of Australia of the work ‘A–Z homestead unit’ by the Californian relational artist Andrea Zittel, it is the presence for ten days of the Canberra/Melbourne artist Charlie Sofo that will provide the work with its social context, as he “customizes” the work, (according to the Gallery blurb) and blogs his experiences. Sofo has been invited to inhabit this diminutive “dwelling” – on his own terms – using it either as a space for work, for thought, or to sleep over.

In itself, habitable art has been around for a lot longer that relational art. In the mid-seventies, the Californian/Australian artist Marr Grounds, together with his two dogs Mutt and Pete, “inhabited” a sandbag bunker (entitled the “art thing”) that he had built under the stairs in the Art Gallery of New South Wales.


People visited, and contributed to his evolving concept of a participatory art practice: visitors to the “art thing” poured sand onto prepared “art bit” cards, and took them away as their own work. Grounds’ motive was as much a commentary on the elitist climate of the art world as it was an experiment in a “democratic” mode of practice.


Like the later work by Tim Burns and Michael Callaghan in the same museum, living in the gallery space was a deliberately disruptive gesture aimed at challenging the prevailing modernist dogma of art’s autonomy from its social context, intending instead to  re-conceptualise the gallery as a social space.

If these were some of the precursors of relational art in Australia, Zittel’s work occupies another world indeed. Like a piece of DIY backyard furniture, if it were more functional, and a lot less expensive, it’s the kind of thing you might buy at Bunnings, the local hardware store. More like a commodity than a piece of sculpture, it gestures towards lived spaces, without having to function in anything but a nominal manner as a space in which anyone might actually live.

Made of steel, glass and chipboard-based building materials, it’s about the size of two double beds, and contains the kind of basic equipment you’d need for a camping holiday. However its functionality leaves a lot to be desired. There are no windows to open, no screens, and the mosquitoes are free to come and go through the gaps around the roof. The glass walls are enhanced by printed imagery which depicts a kind of abstracted reflection of a surrounding landscape. Other than the print imagery, there is nothing to suggest that this is a sculptural object, or a work of art in any recognizable sense. It is so loaded with other kinds of referents (to homelessness, to isolation, to incarceration, even) that it functions both as a kind of inversion of an aesthetic discourse as much as it suggests its impossibility as a space to live in.

While this work has been located on the lawns of the NGA sculpture garden, for it to have any kind of longevity it will ultimately have to be moved to a sheltered environment, or the galleries indoors. In that context its aesthetics will be rendered even more bizarre. One wonders in what context this could be shown… as some banal parody of Utopian Design, perhaps?

Perhaps it is only its rumoured price tag of $150,000 that will signify its institutional significance as a work of art. Clearly relational art is no longer a zero-sum game.

Author’s disclosure: Pete the dog also belonged to your iconophile.

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