yet another Fountain, artistically installed, even

If the concept of the Readymade conditions our understanding of the aesthetic challenges posed by the mundane world of commodities within a seemingly infinite cosmos of artefacts, both artistic and otherwise, then surely there is no other art object that so fundamentally challenges our orientation towards every other work of art than the Fountain. No other object presents the viewer with such profound psycho-social and evaluative/critical ambiguities as those initiated by its original manifestation ninety four years ago. In every subsequent manifestation, both in the museumspeak of gallery directors, and in the vernacular, a Fountain is a “destination work”.

Chastened by recent debates on this site, your iconophile has thrown convention to the wind, and in the construction of his latest domestic installation he has adopted uncritically many of the design criteria espoused by his erstwhile friend Ron Radford (to whom we are indebted for the odd turn of phrase). When it comes to a work such as this, nothing is more important than the blend of architectural form and the harmonious experience of function.  Everything must express its proper relation to each other, in its evocation of its historical and contemporary cultural antecedents and environments.

And so in the midst of this post-phenomenological moment, whilesoever the body-to-body paradigm remains the conventional mode of address for the artist-beholder, so it remains the primary consideration for our critical engagement with an art object such as this. These are matters on such a high aesthetic plane that the search for meaning in social or cultural practice allows no room here for distraction, no space for disciplines other than the purely aesthetic and art historical. Whenever a replica or an analogue of The Fountain is installed, every consideration of matters of natural and cultural significance should be weighed and measured. If precedents exist, they must be properly acknowledged.

Prominence is a critical aspect of the placement of such an object, and thus this Fountain has been given a prime position just inside the door, so that it may be displayed to its full advantage as a distinctive and beautiful installation away from other things. The idea is that visitors will encounter and experience the work with a complex sense of the interior/exterior spatial relationship, in circumstances enhanced by natural light and the circulation of air to maintain its unique environmental considerations with respect to the rest of the building. Sensitive to both light and humidity, it took a great deal of consideration to get all the elements correct. The overall aesthetic consideration was to reduce the introduction of alien materials in its display so that The Fountain remains the central point of attention. The final materials surrounding the Fountain are those already embodied in the object and its surroundings, all handled with dignified simplicity.

The process of installation and design engineering set out to create a harmonious context for this great work. The vitrified china (a kind of protoporcelain) body of the Fountain itself is reflected in the ceramic tiles on the walls, which being specially imported from the historic Stoke-on-Trent potteries, reflect the complexity and contradictions of our postcolonial heritage. The stones that make the floor (tumbled grey granite sourced from Byron Bay) are part of the earth and are an ideal material for the space as they serve several purposes. They prevent humidity moving vertically downward, and they hide the unsightly infrastructure below. The stones also fulfilled our requirement for a material and colour that blended with the external surroundings of the building, which are a part of the original palette of the house, and other works within the immediate environment. We have consciously used such materials in the new space to help link the old with the new.

A substantial amount of work has gone into ensuring natural daylight would be the predominant illumination for the Fountain. Blinds on the windows come down if the light levels are too high. Artificial light can be manually adjusted to ensure a correct balance throughout the day. We have gone to a great deal of trouble and expense to achieve this lighting for this great work.

Contrary to conventional curatorial practice, during the early planning stages of his project your iconophile was assisted by an historian and anthropologist, in consultation with plumbers, electricians, tilers and others to ensure that this important work was displayed respectfully and beautifully. Visitors to the installation have unanimously agreed the new Fountain has been displayed with more dignity and more beautifully than ever before.

P.S. (which is an appropriately euphonic acronym, in this instance). As if to prove a point, (de faire un point, ostensiblement, as the ghost of MD reminds us) on this past March 24th this other Fountain appeared in Grange Park, Toronto, just next to the Ontario College of Art and Design. For one night only, alas…


“the stones are part of the earth”

…and they blend with the slate floor. So says the Director of the National Gallery of Australia, Ron Radford, in his justification of the redesign of The Aboriginal Memorial. Well, true, but surely there’s much more to it than that? Loyal readers of Iconophilia will recall that on December 10th last year I published a letter I had written to him two months previously, asking a number of questions about the decision-making and consultative process which had led to the installation of The Aboriginal Memorial in its current guise. This was my original letter:

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

In the four months since this letter, there have been many posts and commentary on Iconophilia, and elsewhere. Now a reply has arrived. I reproduce it in full below. There are so many aspects to his account one scarcely knows where to begin. So, for the time being, I leave it to my readers to decide whether it is a satisfactory account of the processes and decisions that have led to the current manifestation of The Aboriginal Memorial.

P.S.If you’re new to this thread on Iconophilia, type Memorial in the search box at the top of the side bar and press Return to go to the other posts and comments on this topic.

P.P.S. Two months ago I first published my original letter, and in frustration, a hypothetical response, here.

is The Aboriginal Memorial a work of art?

On 6th November last year Djon Mundine gave a talk at the National Gallery of Australia about the place of The Aboriginal Memorial in the context of contemporary Indigenous art, following its relocation and redesign in the new wing. One of his key claims was that the historical moment of transition between art museums’ treatment of Aboriginal artefacts as works of art coincided with the recognition of authorship. According to this criterion, Indigenous artefacts in museum collections were recognised as works of art by the act of naming their authors.

In the discussion that followed his talk, one of the members of the audience noted that the 43 artists who created The Aboriginal Memorial were not named, which, by Djon’s criterion, called into question the status of the Memorial as a work of art. Both Djon and the Senior Curator, Francesca Cubillo seemed to agree that this was a problem which should be fixed. Two months later, all that has been changed is the addition of a short wall-text edited from an excellent brochure, written by Susan Jenkins in 1997 (which did name all the artists). The new additional wall-text reads:

The Aboriginal Memorial

The Aboriginal Memorial is an installation of 200 hollow log ceremonial coffins from Central Arnhem Land. The Aboriginal Memorial was created for the National Gallery of Australia in 1988 in response to the Bicentenary of Australia, a celebration of 200 years of European settlement. The path through the Memorial imitates the course of the Glyde River estuary which flows through the Arafura Swamp to the sea. The hollow log coffins are situated broadly according to where the artists’ clans live along the river and its tributaries.

The Aboriginal Memorial was conceived by Djon Mundine, a member of the Bundjalang people of northern New South Wales and at the time art adviser in Ramingining in Central Arnhem Land. Originally Mundine approached a small group of Senior artists including Paddy Dhatangu, George Malibirr, Jimmy Wululu and Dr David Daymirringu. However the project grew to include forty three male and female artists from Ramingining and its surrounds in Central Arnhem Land.

The Aboriginal Memorial with its 200 hollow log coffins – one for each year of European settlement, in the words of Mundine, represents a forest of souls, a war cemetery and the final rites for all indigenous Australians who have been denied a proper burial.

In 1987 the National Gallery of Australia agreed to commission this installation to enable the artists, most of whom were professional painters, sculptors and weavers, to complete the project. The Aboriginal Memorial was initially shown at the Biennale of Sydney in 1988. It was then brought to Canberra where it is now permanently displayed in the National Gallery of Australia.

The Aboriginal Memorial marks a watershed in the history of Australian society. Whilst it is intended as a war memorial, its is also a historical statement, a testimony to the resilience of Indigenous people and culture in the face of great odds, and a legacy for future generations of Australians.

The label remains the same, which itself perpetuates a historical mis-attribution. If you go to the website – here – to find the artists’ locations, clans, names, and stories, you will see that a significant proportion of the work was made by artists who live/lived somewhere other than Ramininging.

Elsewhere, the Gallery claims The Aboriginal Memorial as “one of the most important works of art in the national collection”.

Yet the question remains: does the absence of attribution – the artists’ names on the label which accompanies the work – render ambiguous the status of The Aboriginal Memorial as a work of art?

P.S. As noted in an earlier post, the right of attribution is recognised within Moral Rights legislation in Australia. And see other related confusions at the NGA here.

P.P.S. Links to the thread on this topic may be found here. Or type Memorial in the search box.

P.P.P.S. And for a wider perspective, read Melinda Hinkson (who describes herself – in this instance – as a “disgruntled anthropologist”) on the NGA’s lack of a relational approach to its presentation of Indigenous art. You can download her on-the-button essay from Arena 109 here: For Love and Money.

P.P.P.P.S. You can find the NGA’s own YouTube video here, which in a new description gives a account of funerary practices in the present tense, as if that is the way burial ceremonies still take place. A more nuanced account might say: “In the past…” or “Traditionally…” Otherwise, aren’t we getting a little more ethnographic than the Director might like?

STOP PRESS: 27 June 2011. At last the National Gallery of Australia has taken a step toward remedying the problems outlined above. It has only taken seven months.

But wait! Naming the artists is one thing. But it perpetuates the myth that these are all artists from Ramingining. Ramingining artists and others is the more accurate attribution.

At last the Australian equivalent of Picasso’s Guernica has been recognised by the National Gallery of Australia as the preeminent work of art of the Australian colonial era.

Another P.S.: Let’s see how long it takes to make some corrections? Jimmy Moduk is listed twice, Neville Nanytjawuy is missing.

A final P.S.: In June 2016 I published the following essay: Relational Agency: Rethinking The Aboriginal Memorial.

The Big Fishtrap

In keeping with the nation’s passion for the tourist art category of Big Things (Banana, Pineapple, Merino, Crayfish, Trout etc.), one of the features of the new wing of the National Gallery of Australia is a very large mandjabu (fishtrap). Because the photography of works of art is prohibited inside the NGA, I can’t show you an image of it. Neither can I show you what’s on the website:

All works and information that appear on [the] NGA website do so with the consent of the artist/s or copyright holder. No image or information displayed may be reproduced, transmitted or copied (other than for the purposes of private research and study) without the NGA’s permission. Contravention is an infringement of Australia’s Copyright Act 1968.

In any case, the only image of the big mandjabu I could find on the site is this partial snap on the NGA’s Flickr photostream here, where works of art from the collection are represented in a much less formal manner.

However this artefact is arguably an exception to this prohibition. That is, if it doesn’t have an author in the manner of other works of art, it’s not really a work of art. This gigantic aluminium artefact is suspended in the vault above the shop entrance and the cloak room. From the little the NGA tells you, its origins and authorship are proving to be somewhat mysterious. When the new extension first opened the label attributed authorship to the folks that made it (Urban Art Project Foundry) with the sub-text that it was “based on” an original dated c.1955 in the collection by an “Unknown Artist”.

Clearly a Foundry is not an Artist. Recently, however, new labels have been affixed to the walls which give the attribution in a different way. The “author” is now an “Unknown MAKER” and it is based on an original fishtrap in the collection, now dated c. 1995. The revised date makes more sense, given that the settlement of Maningrida hardly existed in 1955. Presumably the “original” is this one, acquired in 2006. Or there’s another example in the collection, this time with much better provenance. The replica is not listed in the collection database.  So, if it’s not a work of art, it’s something else, which surely poses other problems for the nation’s premier art museum.

Given this evolving ambiguity, I went to the Urban Art Projects site, where you will find plenty of images, plus some words of explanation from the Director, Ron Radford, who tells us:

The fish trap is based on a 1950s Maningrida fish trap and UAP have been able to interpret and enlarge the original woven piece into a stunning 12 metre long intricate metal work. The fish trap is a feature work in the atrium and the shadow pattern it produces is almost as beautiful as the work itself.

By UAP’s own account, the work was “curated by the NGA”. You can even watch its time-lapse construction on YouTube here. Fascinating.

The question remains, who is the author of this feature work? It seems almost inconceivable that if the original fishtrap from Maningrida was made in circa 1995 it could lose the attribution of the artist who made it. Whatever the circumstances of the acquisition of the original, with a little research the problem of authorship could have been easily solved, surely, and permissions for a named (or attributed) replica negotiated. However when you go to the UAP site (but not the NGA site) you find that it was produced in collaboration with the Maningrida artist George Ganyjbala:

The Maningrida fish trap is an important sculptural commission and presents a contemporary interpretation of a traditional woven fish trap from the Maningrida Aboriginal community in Australia’s Northern Territory. Works of art from Maningrida carry a strong reputation and are represented in collections nationally and internationally. UAP’s design team travelled to the Northern Territory to work with George Ganyjbala, Maningrida elder and skilled fish trap maker and his family.

So while there was a UAP “design team” who “interpreted” the “original” in collaboration with George Ganyjbala, the author of the original remains unknown. Who would know?  Maningrida Arts and Culture is one of the most professional art centres in the country, which has paved the way in the attribution of artefacts other than paintings and sculptures as the work of individual artists. In the nineties there were several well-known artists who made mandjabu, among other things, for sale at MAC. As do a number of contemporary artists today. However, surprisingly, MAC is not mentioned anywhere in this thread.

If research, discussion, permission, or commission with the the original artist (or their heirs) was a part of the process of curation, why are they not named or attributed by the NGA? In the absence of such a curatorial process, is it the NGA that is the “author” of this “feature work”, by default? Whose idea was it? Who had carriage of its production? So long as the replica’s authorship remains unresolved, or unrecognised, so does its ambiguous status as a work of art. Not. Which means, among other things, I should have been allowed to photograph it.

And finally.


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.

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…

The NGA’s facelift: “peculiar design choices”

“Westfield”, “municipal”, “truly awful”, “ungainly” are just some of the expressions Robert Bevan uses in The Oz here.

“a mnemonic device”

“A mnemonic device that triggers our memory” is how the “conceptual producer” (his term, quote: “it was my idea”) of The Aboriginal Memorial, Djon Mundine, would like us to understand the work. Which the National Gallery of Australia’s Senior Curator, Francesca Cubillo introduces as “the most significant Aboriginal work of art in Australia”. At a wide-ranging lecture today on the place of The Aboriginal Memorial in the history of the colonisation of Australia, the frontier wars waged with its Indigenous inhabitants, and in contrast to the much-memorialised histories of other wars, Djon said and showed little that had not been said or seen before, by himself in various publications and forums, and by others. In answer to a question that has been raised in this forum, we were shown a clip of the “singing-in” ceremony by Richard Birrinbirrin and Djon himself which apparently took place in the Gallery the day after the official opening of the new extension. This appeared to be a rather impromptu affair, watched by thirty or forty visitors to the gallery. We were shown no evidence of any institutional reciprocity. The various installations and relocations of The Aboriginal Memorial that have taken place over the last 23 years (other than that in St Petersburg) have always been accompanied by such ceremony. In this instance, however, as the Memorial is located in its final resting place, the ceremony was accorded far less significance, judging by the lack of publicity, and the attendance at the event. Alas Djon made no mention of the new design, or the new materials on which the burial poles now rest. His concluding words were “lest we forget”. Indeed. In question time the need for a comprehensive publication was acknowledged. Those wishing to learn more can find such a study in the excellent MPhil thesis undertaken at the ANU by Susan Jenkins: “It’s a Power; An Interpretation of The Aboriginal Memorial in its Ethnographic, Museological, Art Historical and Political Contexts” (2003). Published by Lambert Academic Publishing.

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.

short memory?

Meaghan Wilson-Anastasios makes an interesting connection between the treatment of Indigenous art at the NGA and the Musee du quai Branly on her blog Art Matters. There’s a thread in the ArtWranglers archives which discusses similar issues.