Your Iconophile admits: I don’t know how to hang a painting. But I’m not the only one with this problem. Let me show you what I mean. This is a photograph of an untitled painting by the Tiwi artist Ian Cook (2003, 480 x 520, who is represented by Jilamara Arts and Crafts Association). It poses questions that are endemic to much of contemporary Aboriginal art. It inhabits a conceptual space in between the practices of one culture and another, where the one makes paintings horizontally, on the ground, and the other culture views paintings vertically, hanging on the wall. The problem in such instances is how should the paintings make the transition? And does it matter? (Of course it matters! Otherwise you might just have hung your best Piet Mondrian upside down.) The image in question is said to be related to the painting on the Tiwi bark baskets called tunga. There are no other clues.
In Aboriginal cultural practice, most paintings are produced in the absence of a pictorial convention which determines a picture’s orientation in space, or indeed in the absence of a convention which depicts space in pictorial terms. Most Aboriginal paintings are made within a topographical conception of space. In addition, many artists work on a painting from all four sides of the canvas. The resultant ideograph (Eric Michaels and others) is then hung vertically on the wall, occupying the social space given to fine art in the western world. It becomes a picture.
Of course there are some conventions in Aboriginal art which are based on indigenous developments of Western pictorial art. There are also indigenous traditions, as for example with those that have evolved out of body painting, where the depiction of figures and forms are oriented in a pictorial space which makes clear their correct alignment for a viewer. Yet even when an indigenous culture has developed its own rules of pictorial space, and an up/down convention of viewing, curators still get it wrong. See how the Musee du quai Branly provides a stubborn example, even when the image is unambiguous, and the practice well documented. Sometimes other contemporary media are similarly ambiguous, intentionally or otherwise – I have even seen a photograph hanging on its side at the National Gallery of Australia – luckily it was quickly corrected when the error was identified! The problem is complicated by the fact that there are many conventions in contemporary art where pictorial and spatial ambiguity is an essential element in the work’s meaning. It was common in Minimalist art (Carl Andre et al) and there are contemporary mainstream painters (like Peter Adsett) who sometimes exhibit their paintings horizontally to explore the potential of disorientation of conventional ways of looking.
So what determines art advisors’, curators’, dealers’, or collectors’ choice of orientation of a picture like this? Sometimes it is simply a sense of balance. Sometimes it is a choice which is to do with the play of colour and tonal weight – a kind of imagining the effect of gravity. In other cases it is a choice how forms seem to orientate themselves in space – even when it is the spectator who invents these spatial/pictorial effects. A cloudscape, an horizon line, a series of overlapping forms suggest themselves. All culturally specific conditioned responses to pictorial stimuli. Often the judgements made reflect the way in which instances of alien painting traditions are seen as a kind of latent potential/presence in the work of the Aboriginal painter. Something in the Aboriginal painting that is a suggestion of an external referent, which allows the beholder to bridge the gap between the cultures – to allow it to make sense – even when the two cultures seems irreconcilable in almost every other circumstance.
Faced with this dilemma it is common to act out a ritual of cultural projection. Faced with ambiguity, the viewer seeks stasis. So a final aesthetic decision is made, usually completely independent of the artist’s own agency – conception, intention, or choice. That decision is the painting’s orientation in space. Innocently, almost naturally, it is usually an outsider who performs the final act which confirms the painting’s essential pictorial effects and values for the outside world. Thus when a culture possesses no intrinsic pictorial spatial conventions, it is in such a manner as this that the receiving culture projects its own aesthetic framework on the other’s cultural artefact. An outsider decides what looks best. The work is therefore completed by the imposition of the receiving culture’s own aesthetic values. This final act of pictorial effect is as significant as the final layer of paint for the way such artefacts are evaluated as works of art. See? I’ve just shown you four different paintings… Which do you prefer?
My observations above are triggered by this week’s Sotheby’s catalogue, in which there are 286 Aboriginal paintings. 167 of them are spatially ambiguous. How does one feel about the sheer scale of taste projection employed in determining the aesthetic effects which results from the orientation of these pictures, in the catalogue, and therefore for posterity? Who decides? Alas many of us are implicit in the manipulation of this asymmetrical process of cultural reception and interaction, and the consequential projection/imposition of our own taste. What is to be done?