the return of the orientation conundrum

“…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…


#1 JC on 08.13.10 at 3:54 pm

thanks for the prod Iconophile… I know some desert artists who couldn’t give a rats arse how the painting is hung in a gallery, and others who are quite particular. It does come down (as Quentin noted in previous post) to the question of asking the artist, and then providing that preference (if indeed there is one) to the buyer or gallerists etc down the line. Some art centres actually put an arrow on the back/side linen of certain paintings to indicate that the artist intends the painting to be viewed at a certain orientation. Though this does raise the question as to whether the arrow will always index the artist’s or the art coordinator’s preference (and whether anyone down the line will actually respect that preference if they think it looks better rotated 180 degrees! I suspect not…) This is a slightly prosaic response to the bigger questions you pose re assymetry in intercultural transactions etc, but its a start.

I think the other point this raises is the reasonable-but-all-too-common escape clause, noted in your post, that all desert paintings are somehow painted from an aerial perspective and are therefore ripe for any kind of hang. All desert paintings are not painted from an aerial perspective, firstly. Often, those that seem to be are perhaps more accurately described as an artistic translation of an embodied topography (knowledge of country, of having lived in and walked through the physical terrain) rather than a simplistic aeriality. But we haven’t really developed a rich enough language yet to complement the richness of the art have we?

Might have to stick with rotating canvases 360 degrees for another decade or so!

#2 jimmcg on 08.14.10 at 6:00 pm

While I don’t know much about art (but I know what I like 🙂 ) it seems to be missing from this conversation is the buyer/end user. While you could overcome the cultural barrier of those aerial-view works by displaying those works on the gallery floor, at some stage the work has to make that cross-cultural leap to my wall. As the buyer, do I not have the right to hang any artwork I purchase (be it from Martumili, Mondrian or Modigliani) upside down if it so takes my imagination. Is that not how I can assert my own artistic influence into the artist’s intentions and make a statement in making the final choice of orientatation artwork on my walls?

To my mind (and this may be the guts of your argument), the crime is if the artist is ambivalent about the orientation but the gallery imposes it’s own interpretation on a piece without passing that information onto the buyer to make their own decision.

#3 Nigel on 08.15.10 at 10:58 am

Thank you both for continuing the discussion in useful directions. I agree with JC that we’re still searching for the language to describe the trajectory of such artefacts between one set of cultural concepts and conventions and another. I agree that “aerial landscape” is an insufficient cliche, or excuse, and I like his search for a way to describe them as a phenomenon of an embodied topography. I’m trying to remember who described them as “visual mnemonics”. While Jim may argue we can do anything we like in the privacy of our own homes – although it would be strange indeed to hang your Modigliani upside down – in these posts I’ve only been referencing those kinds of paintings which have no coded or conventional indications of an up and down orientation. In raising these issues I have tried to focus on the decisions that are made in institutional and public domains. And yes, I suggest it is analogous to what are called “moral rights” for the artist to be asked at that moment when the work transitions between its topographical origins to a pictorial frame of reference, to be hung on the art centre wall. And it would be revealing to know why the artist prefers one orientation over the other three, if that is indeed the case. And if we want to go one step further, even the rectangular format is an introduced convention…

#4 Gabrielle Sullivan on 08.17.10 at 1:12 pm

Martumili Artists (the art centre) does ask the artist which way the painting should or shouldn’t hang on the wall once the artwork is completed. Artists usually say “that way”, the way the painting is being held up for the artist to view or if the painting is on the ground “that way” could be the view the artist sees from where they are sitting or standing.
However if asked the same question a week later the artists response could be different, not different because their initial response to which way to hang the painting was incorrect, the artist is just taking time to appreciate their work and all of the possibilities of how it could be viewed or maybe they don’t care which way the painting is hung.
Many Martu artists paint landscapes with an obvious orientation, so which way to hang the painting would not be asked in this case. See works by Billy Atkins, Lily Long and Amy French
Martu artists regularly travel to see their work in exhibitions nationally and overseas, I cannot remember a time when an artist has told me that their work is hanging the wrong way, so I guess the galleries are making a good guess or it really doesn’t matter what way the paintings are hung.
My comments however are only that, my comments and observations. The artists themselves are the only ones who can provide a 360 degree perspective on orientation, so Martumili will pose the question to the artists in future meetings.
Maybe Martumili needs to include a note re: settled or unsettled orientation on artwork certificates?

#5 Nigel on 08.17.10 at 1:36 pm

Dear Gabrielle, many thanks for these explanatory comments, which demonstrate (to me, at least) that the issue is a live one in the art centre context. Yours, obviously, but elsewhere? I wonder… My concerns remain with the potential for all the other agents to make decisions which may be read as disempowering the agency of the artist, or their ability to re-assert themselves once the deed is done. If I had another life, I would love to learn why the artists make this or that choice as to the work’s “proper” orientation…

#6 Quentin on 08.17.10 at 2:20 pm

An interesting aside to your discussion is the representation of the late Doreen Reid Nakamarra in this year’s Biennale of Sydney and Adelaide Biennale of Australian Art.

In both cases her work was presented on the floor to emphasise its aerial quality and its basis in the sand-painting traditions of the desert. Was this her intent? Or was this an attempt on the behalf of the exhibition curators to contemporise the work in relation to other practices in the exhibition? Is this simply some kind of academic version of the ‘any which way’ approach you note at Chapman, or does it instead present an opportunity for artist and/or audience to re-examine this work in direct relation to other contemporary practices?

Another post perhaps…..

#7 Nigel on 08.18.10 at 5:50 pm

Hmmm indeed! Can we find an image of either installation? Dr Google, here I come!

#8 Nigel on 08.18.10 at 5:53 pm

Here’s a pic from designboom Now who will say whose decision this was?

#9 iain on 08.19.10 at 7:34 pm

to bring a different (nee scientific perspective) into it… humans have a built in gravitron which tells us which way is down. Would the monalisa be so heralded if she was hung upside down? and not knowing much about indigenous art, is this built in for the painter too?

#10 byrd on 08.19.10 at 9:50 pm

Do these works not leave the point of purchase/gallery with hanging devices and so a predetermined hang/view? Not to sidestep the main point about the choice/chooser.
What precedes the ‘introduced convention’ of the rectangle for traded images?

#11 Nigel on 08.28.10 at 10:46 pm

Now read this: “The paintings presented in this book have no fixed orientation. However dimensions of paintings have been given, with height preceding width, following the orientation of the paintings on the printed page… The orientation of each painting is based on its accompanying explanatory line drawing, which were commissioned by Geoffrey Bardon many years ago and drawn under his guidance.” p.xii, Bardon, Geoffrey and James Bardon, Papunya: A Place Made After the Story. The Meigunyah Press 2004.

#12 vanessa on 08.30.10 at 10:02 am

In line with Gabrielle’s experience, It was the same at Injalak arts where paintings with multiple possibilities as to orientation (due to being painted from multiple angles) were shown to the artist to determine which way up for a buyer and the artist would say yes to every possibility. This did not happen all that often due to the figurative components usually determining an obvious choice.

#13 Quentin on 09.03.10 at 1:15 pm

This thread may be a bit cold by now…but i’ll weigh in once more…

Nigel – your last post prompts the conclusion that this conundrum is part of the original blueprint of remote indigenous practice. I agree… The question is whether or not its all set to remain unresolved and hardwired into its identity. Eric Michaels wrote 20+ years ago that ‘the contradictions of this system (of production, exchange, consumption of remote indigenous art) resist resolution’. JC suggests above that now we still don’t have an adequate language to really discuss this stream of contemporary AU art practice… what gives? When will we?

Its fair enough to say that the original boards and their equivalents elsewhere are to some extent a fairly different proposition to contemporary remote practice… then should we assume the artists are now more engaged with the conventions of the art market? what is the responsibility on their part in terms of engaging with specific elements of the context they actively enter their work into (like how the work is presented)?

I still think that ongoing opportunities like the Biennale of Sydney (acknowledging that remote artists have participated since day one) or the Adelaide Biennale, or inclusion of artists in shows like Primavera are good and prompt these discussions in a way that endless commercial shows don’t…. any construction in the presentation of the work in these more ‘contemporary’ non-commercial shows actually help unpack established distinctions perhaps…

#14 Nigel on 09.03.10 at 3:16 pm

Dear Quentin, thank you, no I’m sure this thread will continue. I was pleased to read Geoffrey Bardon’s awareness of this predicament, and therefore to see it taken back to the early 70s. Does Fred Myers discuss the question of orientation? Let’s have a look at his “Painting Culture”? And in the past week I’ve just spent time watching someone painting a painting which is neither topographical nor pictorial, and which seemed to make my “visual mnemonic” hunch gain some relevance… A square painting, describing a place, but by means which seemed to have no visual referent at all. What we would call “abstract”. If I’m allowed to, I’ll let you know how it plays out. Yes, I can’t wait for JC to say more about embodiment, based on his extensive knowledge of Western Desert traditions. And, incidentally, it seems that work of the late DRK was controversial for reasons other than its spatial orientation. But I wish I had time to track down all such precedents. You?

#15 Quentin on 09.04.10 at 12:52 pm

Myers says something kind of relevant to this (I’m sure he says a lot more elsewhere) – he suggests that ‘aboriginies are triangulated by a series of discourses……in which (they) are central but usually absent’. Apart from the terrible thought of being ‘triangulated’ by anything, especially discourse, it seems that this discussion still features the same absence. I think JC is suggesting ways past this absence with his idea of embodied typography, based on a close understanding of the context of production.

My original call of ‘ask the artist’, was in reference to the fact this may well be the simplest route to the right answer, but also suggesting that it places the artist in a position where those questions are left open to become considerations in the process of making, extending past the actual action of painting… (acknowledging that in some cases the artist may be much more concerned with the process, rather than what occurs in terms of representation after).
I’m not suggesting correct orientation is the end point of this process, instead these considerations may lead elsewhere entirely – Nakamarra at the BOS for example where orientation is removed from the equation and there is an attempt to present the work outside of those easy connections to ‘painting’ and perhaps allow ideas like those you and JC mention to play out for a wider audience.. I would like to think that Nakamarra was engaged in the process that led to paintings being displayed on the floor rather than wall. What do you think? Maybe these questions are of little concern, practice instead being embedded in more relevant internal structures that take precedent. I should point out I bring an art perspective to these thoughts and so struggle with questions of agency and representation. I’ll check out the article you mention.

#16 Nigel on 09.06.10 at 9:42 am

P.S. this thread has jumped to the camel plague post!

#17 Nigel on 09.07.10 at 10:22 am

Fred Myers has added the following to this discussion: “When I spent my time with painters in the earlier period, they did work around the paintings but usually with the smaller, standard ones that were 36 x 24 inches, I think there was an orientation that was involved — at least in some. In the footage shown at NMA a couple of years ago, Pintupi painters at Yayayi, you can see the paintings stood up, usually with them standing on the narrower side, so that they seem to be painted to be vertical. Also, at least in some of those paintings, there are covert objects that may be hidden in the paintings and these may sometimes define an orientation. In other paintings, this doesn’t seem to hold as much, and they may be more associative, linking a bunch of features of a story within a frame. In the film, you can see Shorty Lungkarta pretty much positioning himself at the bottom of a vertically held painting. When it might come to dotting and infill, he would move the board around, or if someone helped him, they might sit at a corner, but in some paintings at least you can discern an orientation from the painter.

Now for bigger canvases, they had to move around them, sit on them, and so on simply to do it, and that influences something of the painting. In Uta Uta Tjangala’s big painting known as Yumari 1981, the figure is in a central place, which seems more important than if it is hung or viewed in the horizontal or the vertical. I can’t remember the sequence of its being painted, but I always imagined it as vertical, and that was how I drew it when he explained it to me. I couldn’t imagine the painting of himself, as the Dreaming, lying on its side.

If the painting is very maplike, they probably don’t care whether it is vertical or horizontal, or whatever, because the relationship of elements would be central. But I think one of the commenters is correct in saying that we don’t necessarily have a critical discourse for their practice. I think you can ask people, but in the Western Desert that didn’t always produce a clear answer anyway. But you can watch people at work and sometimes discern what matters to them as they do it. There are clearly decisions made about how it looks — whether circles are big, how they are colored and so on, spacing, what the constraints of the canvas are … and probably how these relate to ideas and experiences people have of place and story. What their aesthetic criteria are, what judgments they make… well, if this were easy to know, wouldn’t all art practice be easier to discuss?” And then he adds that he is “thinking that this whole question imposes a particular notion of aesthetics on this work. My own preference would be to treat them as conceptual traps a la Gell.”

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