the rhetoric of the frame

As I’ve observed previously, the Aboriginal Memorial has been dramatically re-framed by the National Gallery of Australia. In its new location it is the jewel in the crown of the NGA’s new extension where it sits (at last) all by itself in its own gallery. This is how the architect Andrew Andersons envisaged it…

The NGA has been using the Aboriginal Memorial in all its advance publicity, including this depleted “virtual” view, but it has only just been shown in its vulgar new “frame” – the roughly crushed black basaltic rocks from the Monaro high plains (“Nimmitabel Blue”) on which the 200 burial poles are now situated.

Normally, museums of this stature go to extreme lengths to exhibit their treasures in their original frames. In this case, the Aboriginal Memorial was first exhibited on red sand at the 1988 Biennale of Sydney, echoing the way the poles are seen in their original locale in Arnhem Land. When the designers came up with this new idea, was there nobody brave enough to say “this is appalling”? “The conservators won’t allow sand” seems to be the excuse of the day. What? Surely anything is possible in the museum of the 21st century? However in this case even the normally outspoken conceptual author of the Aboriginal Memorial, Djon Mundine, seems to have gone to ground. Ouch!

Seems like if the NGA can present a work as contemporary art they can install it however they like by pushing the bounds of moral rights and the artist’s original intentions. However if it’s sacred art, surely there are limits to what you should do with it? The addition of dramatic new material qualities to the work, notwithstanding the cultural origins and potentially alien significance of such materials, is a significant transformation of its reference to the place of its origins. As has always been signalled by the form of the Glyde River, dividing it in two. And so my question is, what is this work, re-framed, now saying?

This is how the NGA first began to trivialise its Aboriginal Art collection in 2007.

The projections continue today. Like moving wallpaper. In 2007, such projections of the Aboriginal Memorial seemed like one more step along the path towards the desacralisation of the work. It is, after all, a memorial. It represents the unrepresentable, in Jonathan Bordo’s words: “[it] is the public sign of an unrepresentable practice – the Aboriginal dead lie outside this domain, outside representation”. (See his essay The Witness in Contemporary Art in Paul Duro: The Rhetoric of the Frame: Essays on the Boundaries of the Artwork, Cambridge 1996, p.187.)

On Saturday 16th October the Canberra Times has published a promotional supplement which features the begravelled Aboriginal Memorial on its front cover. In addition, there is a short article by Djon Mundine culled from material he has published before. No comment on its design transformation…

In a bizarre twist, it seems the whole extension is framed by this ugly basalt rubble. In the gap between the old and new, there is a window which marks the transition from the old children’s gallery to the new Indigenous galleries. And there, hey presto, we find a box gutter full of the stuff. It beggars the imagination to think that it’s OK to use the same material to re-frame the Gallery’s most sacred and significant work of Indigenous art, and at the same time use it to mark the transition between the old and new buildings, or just to improve the look of a gutter visible from the galleries inside…


#1 FM on 10.01.10 at 10:42 am

I’m surprised you didn’t mention the new space itself. Am I the only one who felt that the circular upper story was hovering ominously above the memorial, like something out of a bad sci-fi film?

#2 Bill Kruse on 10.01.10 at 11:07 am

Hang about, surely once you put any form of religious art in a big old national gallery it is partly de-sacredised and partly re-sacredised into the national consciousness – a transformed national sacred object partly shaped by its original religious significance and partly shaped by its new national gallery status. I feel that way when I look at a prized 14th century Madonna and child in context in a big old state gallery in Italy.
Also, if Aboriginal people knowingly sell or gift art constituted/developed out of the sacred sphere, don’t they know it will be transformed? A transformed sacred object for whitefella use? I’m sure the Arnhem land lot did. Last time I looked that had that market pretty stitched up. As for the road base finish – straight out of the council depot. Very uninspired and it looks dreadful.

#3 Nigel on 10.01.10 at 11:10 am

Thanks, yes, I didn’t go to the actual arrangement of the space. The dome is strange enough, the look-down windows give the unusual perspective shown in one of the images on the post, and I find the resultant hang of the Papunya boards on the convex/concave walls of the circular gallery upstairs rather unsettling. On the convex wall, for instance, my eye kept being drawn to the back of the next panels as I progressed around the corridor. As for the Memorial space itself, the Director talks about how it speaks to the landscape, but that connection is completely interrupted by the descending ramp, leaving the now circular format rather cramped, to my eye. And see how the gravel also contains circular airconditioning vents and other bits of apparatus? I’d be pleased if anyone wants to publish a comprehensive review of the architecture?

#4 Nigel on 10.01.10 at 11:25 am

Bill, you’re an anthropologist, and so you think about such things. But as the Director said to Fran Kelly (and in his speech I believe), this is “shown as very high art, and certainly not as anthropology.” Seriously, though, in its comprehensiveness the Aboriginal Memorial makes claims on our attention that no other work of contemporary Aboriginal art does, and I argue that it therefore requires a distinctive approach, which is not served well by its re-framing…

#5 Hamish Dalley on 10.01.10 at 11:42 am

But Nigel, would it ever be possible to maintain the artists’ “original frame” while translating the work into such a radically different space? Even if it was in red earth, it still wouldn’t be Arnhem Land, it’d be (a simulation of) ‘Arnhem Land.’ Perhaps changing the base material completely is a more honest reflection of the impossibility of fully translating the work from one context into another. What if — as Bill kind of implies — it’s just not possible to retain a work’s sacred character in a secularised space like an art gallery?

#6 Bill Kruse on 10.01.10 at 11:54 am

Nigel, well I do agree the wallpaper effect turns it into something more belonging to a rave in a warehouse (just add the pulsing music and twenty somethings). It takes it a long way from being digestible by anybody as a memorial. May as well print the t-shirts and roll out the snow domes. So yes let’s please put something else on the projector.

On the other hand, back in the gallery, I’m still on the whole comfortable with the uncertain sacred/not sacred status of the memorial. Minus the road base, why not have it all hanging out as the showpiece? Once in a gallery it was always going to be somewhat compromised as a memorial. Thank god they didn’t stick in a glass box by Lake Burley Griffin.

#7 Nigel on 10.01.10 at 12:03 pm

That’s easy, Hamish, get the dirt from Ramingining. And there’s been too many “consecration” ceremonies in the NGA – the term is used by the previous Director, Betty Churcher – to now go back on it now and say it’s just art… It’s also a term Djon uses in his account on the NGA’s website.

#8 Hamish Dalley on 10.01.10 at 12:20 pm

Question: what do you object to most about the roadfill?
– that it’s ugly?
– that it changes the meaning of the art work?
– that it’s inauthentic?
– that it violates the artists’ intentions?
– that it desacralises the work?
– or something else?

#9 Nigel on 10.01.10 at 12:43 pm

Dear Hamish, sometimes the question says it all…
– that it’s ugly? a matter of taste, but clearly someone thought it was just the right thing.
– that it changes the meaning of the art work? Yes.
– that it’s inauthentic? Yes insofar as it adds a dramatic new element which has no relevance to the original forms and materials.
– that it violates the artists’ intentions? Well we don’t yet know whether, and in what circumstances, the still-living artists were consulted.
– that it desacralises the work? That it contributes to this process.
– or something else? That is this is now its permanent installation (no more trips to Switzerland or St Petersburg) it is most unlikely that these design effects are reversible, and therefore, the work has been transformed.

#10 Hamish Dalley on 10.01.10 at 1:39 pm

So it would be fair to say that your objections all revolve around the issue of change: adding an element changes the work, potentially reducing its sacred character, transforming the work in a permanent way? Presumably this would be ok if it were the artists who made the changes, ideally without any sort of outside pressure? The real problem is that the work has been changed by someone other than the artists, that the original work is now contaminated by input from outside?

#11 Nigel on 10.01.10 at 1:54 pm

Yes and I suppose behind that is the issue of agency (complicated by its collective character) and the moral rights of the artist(s).

#12 Hamish Dalley on 10.01.10 at 2:06 pm

Fair enough. I’d definitely like to hear more about who is making these decisions. But I guess I’m a bit sceptical about the implication that an artwork can avoid transformation — not necessarily as radical as putting it in a different frame or changing what it sits in, but simply installing it as the centrepiece of a permanent national exhibition is inevitably going to change what it means. Can an artist’s agency really stack up against the institutional and discursive power of a ‘national’ context? Perhaps rather than the rocks it’s sitting on a more significant ‘framing transformation’ is its use as advertising material for Australia’s artistic identity.

#13 Nigel on 10.01.10 at 3:12 pm

Agree. Its use as a branding icon is an important additional context in which the AM is used by the NGA – and often in the most casual and fragmentary manner. Which sometimes gives it an almost ironical relation to its original meaning as a memorial.

#14 Bob Gosford on 10.01.10 at 5:26 pm

and a timely discussion – in another “art” context – at Crikey here:

#15 Jon Altman on 10.01.10 at 8:32 pm

Surely much of this discussion is idle speculation until we know the view of the creator of the memorial Djon Mundine and how this re-hang was negotiated; if he agreed to the modification of his art (bearing in mind none of the 200 components have been modified) then this suggests a conceptualisation of art as something organic an adaptive to sit in a new modified space that itself was the subject of some moral rights (of the architect) debate. So I guess we need Djon’s (or another insider’s) view to assist us in this debate. I would also add that there is diversity in how bone poles are seen across the large area from which those in the Memorial originate; and in the sacredness of the objects and the ceremony that accompanies their customary (for local jural publics) as distinct from commercial and symbolic presentations (to wider global audiences at the NGA).

#16 Nigel on 10.01.10 at 10:45 pm

Thanks Jon. Two immediate responses. Djon has avoided commiting himself to an opinion on a couple of occasions. But contra your comment I don’t believe he has ever assumed the status of the “creator” of the Aboriginal Memorial. Over time he has been described and described himself in a number of ways, but never to assume that it was “his” work. “Conceptual producer” is his term. It’s an instance of complex collective agency. The NGA’s own account gives him as the “initiator” of the work. Not unlike the role of a curator. But indeed, until we know what the consultative process was in relation to this re-installation, you’re right, our speculation may well prove to have been idling. But not mute, thankfully.

#17 Jon Altman on 10.02.10 at 9:04 pm

I want to add a couple of comments. First, of course proper Yolngu decorum precludes Djon Mundine unilaterally asserting that he is the creator of the Aboriginal Memorial, and he may not be according to Yolngu custom, but he is, at least in terms of western notions of authorship: such is the conflicted intercultural nature of the Aboriginal Memorial. And second, while we celebrate the Memorial’s centrality, architecturally and symbolically, in the new suite of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Galleries, how many admirers of this art work pause to seriously reflect that the Memorial represents 200 coffins, the casualities of invasion, 1788-1988. If the Memorial is indeed organic and can be unilaterally modified without consultation either with author or participating community of artists, or consideration of moral rights, then perhaps we should encourage the author and community to consider insisting on the addition of another hollow log coffin to the Memorial annually (we would be up to 222 by now) as a symbol of the unfinished business of settler majority Australian society? Such addition could occur each year till some negotiated marker of closure, like the elimination of the life expectancy gap between Indigenous and other Australians, is reached; or some form of constitutional reform that extinguishes the possibility of blatant racial discrimination towards members of Northern Territory communities like Ramingining, where most of the participating creators reside or resided, is achieved. Such reform might constitute a national commitment to enshrine cultural plurality, so celebrated at the National Gallery of Australia, into the nation’s charter so that connections between high culture and everyday cultural practice are properly recognised and respected.

#18 Nigel on 10.08.10 at 2:59 pm

Nothing here I can disagree with. But I for one would love to know: 1. Who approved the introduction of the new material as a groundbase for the Memorial? 2. What was the consultation process, 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)? Maybe I have to write to the Director.

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