“…because they’re aerial landscapes you can just swivel them around.” So says the gallery attendant. In a previous post I asked whether it matters that the viewers of Aboriginal art are comfortable installing it to suit their own taste – by making the final decision about its orientation on the wall – in a manner that is unique to this kind of intercultural transaction. Actually, I would want to argue something much stronger: to convert a topographical way of seeing to a pictorial way of looking adds a layer of meaning and value which is essentially alien to the originating culture. My question remains, why does this final aesthetic decision remain unproblematic? Take this example:
The snapshot above includes the painting (on the right) titled Jurnu Kup (Two Sisters), by May Chapman, from Punmu, one of the stars at the exhibition at Chapman Gallery in Manuka. This is a group exhibition Jakilpa Laju Kartyinpa: Bringing a Message showing work by some of the Martumili artists represented in the Yiwarra Kuju: The Canning Stock Route exhibition currently at the National Museum of Australia.
These two ways of presenting the same painting demonstrates a commonplace lack of resolution of this ontological dilemma. It accentuates two different ways of being in the world, of two different symbolic systems. Clearly, the painting by May Chapman doesn’t yet have a settled orientation. It was advertised and illustrated in the Canberra Times rotated 90 degrees counter-clockwise to the way it was hung in the gallery, apparently “to suit the shape of the advertisement”. In the Martumili Artists certificate for this painting it is illustrated rotated 180 degrees (upside down), but described as if it is horizontal. All of which exemplifies the orientation conundrum.
You could argue that it doesn’t matter, because a painting like this is equally valid in any of four orientations. Maybe the artist doesn’t care, or the issue is beyond their ken, or just not on their radar… You could argue these works will always be essentially ambiguous, and therefore the consumer will be wrong three quarters of the time. If indeed there is a right and wrong. Nevertheless it is usually the outsider (art advisor, curator, dealer, collector) who takes charge, and who decides which way up it should go… The deed is done, whether or not it matters to the artist. So what does this tell us about the asymmetrical relations inherent in such intercultural transactions? See comments…