art without artists

…not the way Anton Vidokle writes about it in e-flux. Or the fascination with the Outsider/Insider. If you’re still with me, see here for those who are simply anonymous.

new street art in Kandahar ups the ante…

Some months ago I wrote about the growing phenomenon of “street art” at the KAF base in Kandahar, in south-eastern Afghanistan. There was even a response to the incarceration of Ai Weiwei here and there on the concrete blast walls.  Now we find the Australian official war artist Ben Quilty getting in on the act. His variation on the Australian coat of arms is a radical challenge to iconographic analysis. While the Australian War Memorial has mentioned his mural in passing in last week’s pre-publicity, we are yet to see them publish a photograph of the work, or to offer an account of the meaning of its symbolism. The inclusion of skulls and serpents (locally symbolising the infidel crusader) may pose a challenge to officialdom. This may yet prove to be the most radical “war art” yet. We look forward to the official account. Here’s what they say thus far… (This photograph was published in Air Force: the official newspaper of the Royal Australian Air Force, (Vol 53, No 22, Nov 24, 2001, p.17).

And this is the first version of the image: the one above has (for better or worse) been made specific to the KAF context:

Ben Quilty, Landcruiser, 2007, Chinese Ink and Gouache on Aquari paper, 188 x 282cm (from the QUT Ben Quilty Interpretative Guide)

This text by Don Walker accompanies the image: “It’s an old trick. Take a universal, publicly owned snatch of melody, fanfare, phrase or image and pervert it. Ben Quilty has used the Australian coat of arms, an image so official and hoary it’s almost invisible, and mounted it on a mesa piled with skulls. The shield-bearers are presented as road-kill, the kangaroo muzzle flattened by a double bogie. Between them now is a cairn of skulls knitted by worms and lies. The crest is a convict shackle, looking as though it was cut from a kerosene tin, just to make it clear that not all the bones belonged to Indigenous Australians. Like most people, Ben Quilty defies caricature. A bogan who chose to pursue a degree in Aboriginal culture. A petrolhead who buys his art supplies at Bunnings, yet carries tiny notebooks full of the most exquisite pen-and-ink sketches of Venice done in his recent youth. Close in, where Quilty works, his paintings look like a bad paving job. Step back twenty feet and he’s caught the whole sorry tale, a country built by the survivors of pogroms, massacres and land clearances elsewhere, who found a haven here on land cleared by massacres of our own.”

The image and text above was found here. We’re waiting to hear the AWM’s version…


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.

Art & War

See what art means to the Marines. Read this review by Carol Kino in the NYT.

“objects of war” or objets d’art?

If this is “war art”, what position does it take? Is it sufficient to present upscaled readymades-altered to speak about the subject of war? I think not. One could hardly image a context more removed from the circumstances and experience of war than this. Fiona Banner presents Harrier and Jaguar as the Duveens Commission at the Tate Britain, seen here courtesy of ArtDaily. Each has been transformed (painted like a bird, polished like a mirror) and upended (recontextualised) in the Tate’s neoclassical museum space. The aestheticisation to which these particular functional objects have been subjected is therefore reduced to four actions: selection, surface treatment, re-orientation, and context.

Fiona Banner is quoted as saying: “It’s hard to believe that these planes are designed for function, because they are beautiful. But they are absolutely designed for function, as a bird or prey is, and that function is to kill. That we find them beautiful brings into question the very notion of beauty, but also our own intellectual and moral position. I am interested in that clash between what we feel and what we think.” How very English. Is that clash as in Margaret Thatcher, or Tony Blair? She’s not anti-war, just anti-these-wars, and their cost: “This work is not a direct response to the Iraq war. I marched against the war, we shouldn’t be there and the costs of Afghanistan are too high.”

It’s hard to find more than just the reworked press release to continue this discussion. Adrian Searle gushes excitedly at The Guardian… And Arifa Akbar is awe-struck at The Independent Blogs

camouflage and/or symbiosis

camouflage. noun 1. 1917, from Fr. camoufler, Parisian slang, “to disguise,” from It. camuffare “to disguise,” perhaps a contraction of capo muffare “to muffle the head.” Probably altered by Fr. camouflet “puff of smoke,” on the notion of “blow smoke in someone’s face.” I’m sure this isn’t what Gordon Bennett intended?

And then I wondered, there must be somewhere better than this window-sill for a moth to hang out, relaxwhich reminded me of

li-chen. noun 1. any complex organism of the group Lichenes, composed of a fungus in symbiotic union with an alga and having a greenish, gray, yellow, brown, or blackish thallus that grows in leaflike, crustlike, or branching forms on rocks, trees, or Ford Anglias.

And special thanks to Sharon Peoples who has lent me the fantastic Thames and Hudson/Imperial War Museum (2007) publication Camouflage by Tim Newark. This you must see.

Guttenfelder iPhotographs Afghanistan

These David Guttenfelder photographs for The Denver Post were taken with his iPhone. Compelling viewing. Somehow the social and political complexity of Afghanistan seems to make sense from above…

the camera in Afghanistan

Michael Yon was recently listed in the Times Online 40 bloggers who count. See why.

camouflage and/or ambiguity

The Australian National University owns the painting Camouflage #7 (2003) by Gordon Bennett. The Australian War Memorial owns the next in the series. Recently the ANU’s version has been hung in the foyer of the Sir Roland Wilson Building, the home of the Research School of the Humanities and the Arts. To hang a work which has as its primary subject a depiction of the late Iraqi dictator has raised a certain degree of controversy amongst the residents of the building. Irrespective of interpretations of subsequent events, Iconophilia was not alone in wondering the purpose in hanging a portrait of a onetime head of state, who many regarded as a brutal war criminal, and the perpetrator of many civilian deaths, or as the Kurds would say, genocide. …

With news of a potential debate brewing in relation to the hanging of the Gordon Bennett, the University provided an exegesis, which had been written for the first exhibition of this work, and the others in the series for their first exhibition in 2003 at Sherman Galleries. Never before had we seen a wall text like it. This turned out to be the text written by Ian McLean (reprinted with permission below) which contextualised the work in relation to the artist’s previous oeuvre, and the historical moment at which it was first exhibited – at a time in which time Saddam Hussein was still in hiding.

But how do we now understand this work, hanging on our wall? Subsequent historical events, his discovery, his trial, his execution, the failure of the invading forces to discover any evidence of weapons of mass destruction, the ongoing occupation, Abu Ghraib, and the ensuing civil war, now creates a very different interpretative context to that of 2003.

So it is interesting, your Iconophile thought, that a painting should require such an extensive exegesis to justify its presence in a context such as the RSHA. Perhaps, I wondered, these paintings had lost their provocative ambiguity through the passage of time and changing political circumstances? It seems some works of art keep getting better and better, and others just lose it. How a painting might seem to have a special kind of potentiality at one moment, which becomes lost in its subsequent historical context, is a perennial problem for works of art. Nevertheless, this is precisely one of those instances when the work of art succeeds or fails by itself, on its own terms, and whether it survives the changing circumstances of its referents.

How would the University community react, I wondered, if I loaned my Turkmen portrait of Stalin to complement this ensemble? I suspect it would require some justification.

Of course, the carpet is a different kind of artefact, without the kind of intention or agency we expect of a painting. It was produced to commemorate Stalin and his regime, while the Soviet Union was still intact. It is best understood as a cynical form of tourist art. It embodies no complex inversions of meaning. But sometimes such contrasts are productive…

In this instance, there is an intriguing textile connection. I was curious as to Bennett’s pictorial strategy of painting a portrait with the face overlaid with a very specific kind of pattern, like a veil, and whether this signals the artist’s intentions, and his position in relation to his subject? Perhaps this lattice pattern (technically, derived from Turkish ogival woven designs, but also related to carpet designs, or wallpaper) could be interpreted as a means to further orientalise the image of Saddam?

Might we have expected some further kind of critical displacement in a portrait of Saddam from the way his political reputation was understood? Bennett’s intent is elusive, at best. So how are we to read his use of camouflage devices, as signalled by the title of the work itself? According to a number of sources (see  Zara Stanhope, and the AWM’s own account), the ogival pattern was “derived from the inside papers of the Koran.” In the same manner as the Prophet’s face is conventionally hidden from view, Saddam’s face is here partially obscured, perhaps as if he is sheltered by one of those camouflage netting sheets used to protect weaponry from surveillance, but this time with a strangely archaic cultural and religious twist.

If so, could this not be read as an auratic device, as an allusion to martyrdom? Is Saddam Hussein here represented as a victim, in the face of an overwhelming invasive force? Alas, the AWM doesn’t contribute very much to this debate when it suggests its very similar work “alludes to the disturbing, unknown and hidden reasons, hence the ‘camouflage’, behind the war in Iraq” – itself an unusually independent position for the AWM to take – plus an unattributed quote: ‘so the whole Iraq war seems a camouflage for secrets that may never be revealed’. Is this the limit of the artist’s own account?

Laura Murray Cree is quoted by Bennett’s dealers (and others down the line) when she also references such “issues of secrecy” as if that is a motive or justification for his pictorial ambivalence… Drawing a longer bow, McLean suggests that this is “an art of reportage”, motivated by Bennett’s desire not to forget the foundational “terror and trauma” that “still constitutes the Australian nation.” Is either position sufficient, in the current circumstances, for a reading of the painting’s continuing contradictions? Iconophilia thinks not…

So we have an ongoing artistic war of allusions, veiled in secrecy, with little to suggest the artist’s own motivation, or his views on Saddam Hussein, his subject, then or now. Granted, the artist has only given us the three painterly elements to work with: the recognisable drawing of the subject, plus the two patterns, one of which references Islam. With, maybe, just a little post-Pop irony. This doesn’t provide many options for a nuanced reading of the artist’s intention – and thus the effects of the interactions between these elements seem relatively arbitrary, as these differing and ultimately unsatisfactory interpretations suggest.

Such retrospective evaluations as these also behoves us to attempt to understand the moment of a work’s creation. In 2003 McLean wrote the text below, which remains as the most comprehensive interpretation, written to accompany the  work’s first exposure:

“Bennett’s recent reflections on the Iraq war in the Camouflage series continue a prolonged interest in American affairs. It began in the late-1990s with his Notes to Basquiat series that culminated in an exhibition relating to the September 11 terrorist attack on New York. However the terror of colonialism and the trauma of being Australian that had previously preoccupied Bennett have not been forgotten. Rather they have been displaced onto contemporary global events, as if Bennett is developing an art of reportage.

This apparent shift in Bennett’s work is partly due to a long expressed frustration at being pigeon holed as an Indigenous artist. Not only did this elicit a burden of representation that he was unwilling and unable to bear, but it limited and indeed reduced the meaning and range of his art. Bennett’s earlier art consistently addressed the logic of settler desire and Australian national identity, thus situating itself within the traditional concerns of Australian art and history. However Bennett was also acutely aware that the idea of an Australian art or identity has long been an ideological smokescreen for the global aspirations of European Empire. Australia’s wars have always been ones of empire fought away from home; while the local war of settler conquest remains invisible, or when brought to our attention, denied. Thus his work also insisted on the global or even universal structures of this settler desire and its national discourses by showing the ways in which the paradigms of twentieth century Western art were ever-present in the constructions of Australian identity and its Aboriginal other. Continue reading →