Monthly Archives: August 2012

Bringing The Dreaming Into View: Tjukurrtjanu: The Origins of Western Desert Art

The following review was published in Art Guide Australia, November/December 2011, pp.55-59

Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri
Big Cave Dreaming with ceremonial object 1972, synthetic polymer paint on composition board, John and Barbara Wilkerson, New York, USA

According to the anthropologist Fred Myers, the Pintupi cosmos is divided into two contrasting spheres: that which is yuti (visible) and that which is tjukurrpa (Dreaming). The first of these categories, he argues, is phenomenal, the latter noumenal; one can be grasped with the senses, the other “outside human affairs and constitutes an enduring primary reality.” As everything in the Pintupi world is said to have originated in The Dreaming, a third term is needed to describe the passage between these two states – tjukurrtjanu mularrarringu – meaning literally, “from The Dreaming, it becomes real.” Thus, the visible and the Dreaming are inextricably linked, just as the stories in Pintupi paintings are said to be both tjukurrtjanu (from The Dreaming) and yutinu (revealed).[1]

Tjukurtjanu: Origins of Western Desert Art, curated by the National Gallery of Victoria and Museum Victoria in partnership with Papunya Tula, and showing at the NGV presents 200 of the jewel-like masterpieces of acrylic painting on board that emerged from the remote desert community of Papunya between 1971 and 1972. An analogy between the passage from tjukurrpa and yuti might be useful to describe these miraculous paintings, in which the once secret designs of ceremony and ritual were recalibrated into the new, self-contained and secular aesthetic of acrylic on board. If the exhibition’s title stakes an immediate claim to locate the origin of this movement in the metaphysical realm (tjukurrpa), the exhibition itself is more concerned with the tangible processes by which it was made visible in paint (yutinu).

One of the most remarkable achievements of Tjukurrtjanu is how convincingly and comprehensively this emergence is contextualised. The early paintings are situated amongst a sumptuous trove of ethnographic material – including photographs, video, decorated shields, spear-throwers, ceremonial ornaments and pearl-shell pendants – all carefully chosen to reveal the pedigree of the iconographic lexicon from which the Papunya artists drew. Moreover, in the handsome exhibition catalogue, a series of nuanced essays tease out the complex agglomeration of social, historical, cultural, economic and personal factors that catalysed the emergence of desert painting at Papunya in 1971.

If, on the one hand, this wealth of archival evidence serves to show that the emergence of painting at Papunya was not a hermetic moment of artistic epiphany, it in no way detracts from the substantial artistic achievements of this small, pioneering group of artists, nor does it dampen the extraordinary aesthetic power of the paintings gathered in Tjukurrtjanu. A comparison between the paintings and the decorated shields is revealing: although they speak in the same iconographic language, their poetry is radically different.

In one sense, the reason for this difference is self-evident. In ceremony, the meaning of decorated objects such as shields or tjurunga was not autonomously visual, but generated in conjunction with a series of other systems of meaning production that included song, dance, performance or ritual. The first problem of acrylic painting was how to distil this complex accumulation of meanings into the autonomous zone of the two-dimensional picture plain.

Uta Uta Tjangala
Women’s Dreaming 1972
synthetic polymer paint on composition board
Stephen Bush, Coffs Harbour, NSW

The second, more culturally specific problem was how to display this information in a way that did not contravene the strict Pintupi hierarchies of secrecy and revelation. The early painters at Papunya generated considerable controversy over some of their choices of image and motifs, which were deemed to transgress what could be safely represented. Critical opinions on the reasons for such transgressions are divided. In the exhibition catalogue Fred Myers mounts a convincing argument that the artists were simply overly-eager to explore the possibilities of this new medium, while John Kean suggests that it was partly due to the pioneering artist Kaapa Tjampitjinpa’s personality as a maverick prepared to transgress social mores.[2]

But perhaps a simpler answer might lie in the idiomatic conception of these works. In ceremony, the rules of revelation and concealment – of precisely what and how designs could be represented – was always negotiated in advance amongst the ceremonial leaders. In contrast, as curator Judith Ryan notes, the Papunya artists all worked “independently, and not collaborating with others, as customary ritual required.”[3] As the new painting was not governed by these ceremonial rules, there was no firm consensus on the boundaries of representation. Similarly, although drawing on a pre-existing iconographic lexicon, the poetics to which this language could be utilised were similarly fluid. As a result, as Ryan continues, “The early paintings are a series of discrete aesthetic experiments with line, colour and pictorial space that enabled the painters to analyse and objectify the tangible elements of myth and ritual, using a shared visual language and hermeneutics of meaning.”[4]

These experiments are stunningly displayed in Tjukurrtjanu. Each of the twenty artists included is represented with multiple, fine examples of their early work, allowing us to compare both their artistic differences and their individual development of distinctive motifs, styles and iconographies. It is here that we can see the true greatness of these artists, as they each grapple with different conceptual and aesthetic difficulties posed by the translation of traditional iconographies into masterpieces of contemporary art. The sheer inventiveness of these responses is breathtaking.

Freddy West Tjakamarra
Man’s corroboree story 1972
synthetic polymer paint on composition board

The meanings that these paintings express are necessarily difficult for us to grasp – they come from a tradition and worldview that is markedly different to our own. However, this process of experimentation reveals a group of artists using every available aesthetic mean to create cross-cultural explanations of their complex cosmology to an ignorant white audience. Whether out of calculation or exasperation, the medium that these artists chose for this explanation was painting. In doing so, they chose a means of communication that was insistently and undeniably pictorial. If we accept the meaningfulness of this pictorial representation, then it is surely in the systematic refinement of this pictorial message that the best clues to its meaning must lie. It is in this space that the genius of these artists is revealed through their ability to bring The Dreaming into view, to transform tjukurrpa into yuti, and to make compelling contemporary visual statements from an ancient conceptual schema.

Tjukurrtjanu offers a rare opportunity to see these seminal works en masse in order to fully assess the magnitude of their aesthetic and conceptual achievements. This masterfully curated exhibition offers the chance to witness a moment of profound brilliance when all the majesty of ancient traditions were condensed into some of the most extraordinary paintings ever produced in this country. The fact that this movement arose as an aesthetic olive branch stretched across the cultural divide only serves to magnify the munificence of this gesture.

Tjukurrtjanu: The Origins of Western Desert Art  is on display at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne from 30 September 2011 – 12 February 2011 and the Musée du quai Branly, Paris, from 9 October 2012 – 20 January 2013

[1] Fred Myers, Pintupi Culture, Pintupi Self: Sentiment, Place and Politics among Western Desert Aborigines, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, 1986, pp.48-52.

[2] Fred Myers, ‘Intrigue of the Archive, Enigma of the Object’, in Judith Ryan and Philip Batty (eds.), Tjukurrtjanu: Origins of Western Desert Art, exhib. cat., National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, pp.30-31. John Kean, “Catch a Fire’’, in Judith Ryan and Philip Batty, op. cit., pp.48-50. 

[3] Judith Ryan, ‘Aesthetic Splendour, Cultural Power and Wisdom: Early Papunya Painting, in Judith Ryan and Philip Batty, op.cit., p.18.

[4] Ibid, p.18.

Comments Off on Bringing The Dreaming Into View: Tjukurrtjanu: The Origins of Western Desert Art

Filed under Uncategorized

Bardayal ‘Lofty’ Nadjamerrek

The following essay was published in Art Guide Australia, November/December 2010, pp.45-49

It is a strange feeling to be waiting for a giant. That is how I found myself, on a particularly hot afternoon in February 2006, as I watched passengers disembark from an aeroplane into the terminal at Tullamarine Airport. I had never met Bardayal Nadjamerrek, but I knew his artworks intimately. From the moment I first saw them, I was transfixed by their gravity and seriousness. Though I could not yet interpret what they were saying, I could recognise the terse eloquence and profound conviction with which they spoke. It was the paintings of Bardayal Nadjamerrek that awakened me to the beauty and relevance of Indigenous culture, and helped shape my appreciation and understanding of Aboriginal art. Such a personal tribute might seem small recognition for an artist of his standing, but it is a fitting salute to an artist and leader who spent much of his life striving to make people realise the value of Indigenous knowledge. Over the past four decades, he was a towering figure in Indigenous art and culture, more than living up to the epithet ‘Lofty’ that was foisted upon him as a young man working on the tin mines at Maranboy. Platitudes are hardly necessary; his legacy is assured.

As the stream of passengers slowed to a trickle, at last an old man was wheeled from the aeroplane. Sensing us approach, he pushed himself up from the chair, unfolding to his towering height. Waving his long spindly arms upwards, he gestured towards us, and in a rich husky voice, declared, “I’m Bardayal Nadjamerrek.”

Bardayal was born around 1926 at Kukkulumurr in the upper reaches of the Mann River region of Western Arnhem Land. His father, Yanjorluk, was from the Honey Dreaming Ankung Djang estate of the Mok Clan. His youth was spent traversing the Arnhem Land plateau with his family, developing a detailed knowledge of the stone country. During this time, he began his long artistic apprenticeship, watching his father and other men paint on the rocky outcrops and shelters. With the onset of World War II, Bardayal was indentured to service cutting timber for the war effort. Later in life, he worked as a miner, stockman, buffalo shooter and market gardener. Despite this, his connection to traditional culture remained strong, and he remained active in the ceremonial activities of the region.

In his later years, Bardayal would come to be respected as one of the most senior and important leaders in Western Arnhem Land. From the 1970s, he was instrumental in assisting Indigenous families to return to their traditional lands, helping to establish six different outstations. It was only in the mid-1990s that he was able to achieve his goal of returning to his own clan estate, by which stage government funding for outstations had ceased. Not to be deterred, Bardayal funded the creation of an outstation at Kubulwarnamyo himself. This tiny, makeshift community became like a bush university – a magnet for anthropologists, ecologists, linguists, botanists and art historians, all congregated around this grand sage of the Arnhem Land plateau. Bardayal was a true renaissance man, an encyclopaedia of knowledge on every subject of the stone country. Countless research projects and community programs poured from his tiny outstation, promoting Indigenous land management, heritage and culture.

In some ways, the magnitude of Bardayal’s cultural, social and environmental accomplishments has obscured his artistic achievements. In part due to the market fetish for ‘abstract’ Indigenous art, Bardayal’s work has often been consigned to the unfashionable margins of ‘ethnographic’ art. Even his strongest supporters have tended to focus on his close connection to the rock art heritage of Western Arnhem Land. But Bardayal Nadjamerrek was also a pioneering contemporary artist of the highest order.

Bardayal began painting professionally in 1969 at the Church Mission Society’s Oenpelli mission, under the encouragement of linguist Peter Carroll. Although aged in his mid-forties, he was already an accomplished painter, having many years experience in the rock-art galleries of the stone country. In this sense, Bardayal belonged to an ancient tradition, but it was far from a static tradition. On the rock faces, Bardayal was exposed to a palimpsest of styles, from recent images painted by his father and relatives through to much more ancient images attributed by the Kunwinjku people to ancestral mimih spirits. Bardayal’s paintings were not simply facsimiles of older works originally painted in rock shelters; his was a singular and extraordinary talent. Immediately recognisable, his work stands out from that of his peers in both its individuality and quality.

Bardayal Nadjamerrek was thus a renaissance man of Western Arnhem Land, at a time when the region as a whole was experiencing huge cultural transformation. In thinking about the idea of renaissance, it is worth comparing Bardayal’s achievements to an artist who might be thought of as his Italian counterpart: Giotto di Bondone. Like Bardayal Nadjamerrek, Giotto’s work was steeped in tradition – in his case, the extraordinary aesthetic accomplishments of the Byzantine Empire. Yet, through their individuality, both artists helped spark an artistic revolution. Like Giotto, Bardayal Nadjamerrek should be seen as a pioneering artist who paved the way for the radical developments that would follow him. Kenneth Clarke once said of Giotto, “Once we have learnt Giotto’s language, we can recognise him as one of the greatest masters of painted drama that has ever lived.” The same could be said for Bardayal Nadjamerrek.

Although his experience as a painter of rock art made him a proficient draughtsman, there are profound difference between rock art and art painted on bark, paper or canvas. Bardayal’s career shows him tackling this with increased sophistication. By the late 1980s, he had settled into a mature style both unmistakably unique and perfectly attuned to the dramatic possibilities of the canvas. He refined the visual language learnt from the rock art heritage, but over his career, Bardayal Nadjamerrek can be seen to experiment with iconographic elements for maximum artistic and allegorical effect. Take, for instance, one of his best-known images, Ngalyod – The Rainbow Serpent, a large mural of which hangs in the arrivals hall of the Darwin International Airport. Bardayal depicts Ngalyod as a combination of animals – the body of a snake, the head of a crocodile and the tail of a fish, with water lilies growing from its back. The importance of this amalgam is threefold. On the one hand, it pays reference to Ngalyod’s status as the ‘mother of all species’, but in another sense, it is about balancing the iconic with the transformative. In the Dreamtime, Ngalyod was said to assume a range of different forms, morphing from one into another.

The severity and gravity of Bardayal’s works mean that they are not as dynamic as some of his contemporaries or followers. In this sense, he is also like Giotto – in both artists, the weight of the figures gives them a heavy sense of static solemnity, so that Bardayal’s paintings can be seen almost like the icons of the Byzantine era. However, by picturing his images, such as Ngalyod, with a transformative potential (having all options included in the image at once), Bardayal’s works become less like frozen snapshots, and become something much more ethereal, as in his depictions of Yawk Yawk – the female water spirit. Just as in the Western myth of Mermaids, Yawk Yawk are believed to have legs while on land, and a fish’s tail when in the water. In Bardayal’s painting, however, the Yawk Yawk is shown having legs within her tail – or rather, having both legs and tail simultaneously. In doing so, Bardayal suggests the presence of multiple possibilities, while creating the dynamic tension of evoking the fleeting moment of transformation.

This visual inventiveness characterises Bardayal’s best works. He was a master of narrative painting, and his images have a searing, haunting intensity. Bardayal’s works gain potency from his sophisticated sense of form and ability to devise complex visual allegories. In the generation that followed Bardayal’s, many Kunwinku artists found a new allure by the introduction of shimmering cross-hatching. It was a path Bardayal refused to go down, claiming it was culturally inappropriate for him. He preferred to stick to the old-style single-line rarrk, like the old people did on the rock shelters. This distinguished him as one of a small group of elderly artists, that included his dear friend Dick Nguleingulei Murrumurru, Peter Nabarlambarl, Bob Namundja, and Kalarriya ‘Jimmy’ Namarnyilk. Of this pioneering school of artists, only the last-named survives.

The last time I saw Bardayal Nadjamerrek was in October 2008. He had retired from painting, but his final works were hanging in the exhibition Continuity: Culture, Country and Family at Mossenson Galleries in Melbourne, alongside those of his son Freddie Nadjamerrek, son-in-law Gabriel Maralngurra, and grandchildren Gavin Namarnyilk, Maath Maralngurra, Allan Nadjamerrek, Ray Nadjamerrek, and Simone Nadjamerrek. The old man had not been expected to travel to Melbourne for the exhibition, but, against the instructions of his daughters, he had flown the coop to be with his grandsons at their exhibition. It was a powerful gesture, palpable at the opening, drawing tears from the normally stoic gallery director Diane Mossenson. On the night, Bardayal spoke of his own mortality:

I’m an old man now. Me no good. I might die soon. I don’t know yet. But I’ve lived good at Kabulwarnamyo – with lots of good balanda [whitefellas] and bininj [Aboriginal people]. But no one was doing proper bininj paintings … and that’s what they’re doing now – painting all my bim [paintings], all my stories, my grandchildren painting my way now.

In November 2009, I travelled to Gunbalanya for the state funeral of Bardayal Nadjamerrek. It was late in the build-up, and the air hung heavily, as though in sympathy to the sense of irreplaceable loss that hovered in the crowded Uniting church. After the funeral, over tea and biscuits at Injalak Arts and Craft, the art centre’s director Anthony Murphy pulled out a body of paintings by Bardayal’s grandchildren, destined for a forthcoming exhibition in Melbourne. In the year since his visit, the young men had grown in confidence and assurance. They had kept the single line of their grandfather, but slowly their individual identities were becoming apparent beneath his lofty shadow. In that moment, I was transported back to Melbourne in 2007. Sitting before one of his paintings – a beautiful, delicate figure on a red ground – Bardayal had sung the song of Karrarrkbarl – The Moonman. It was not one of Bardayal’s stories, but one that had been entrusted to him by a dying friend. At the end of each month, as the moon wains, Karrarrkbarl sings a mournful song because the moon is dying. At the beginning of the new cycle, as the moon reappears, he begins to sing a happy song to bring the moon back to life. But if Karrarrkbarl does not sing, the moon will not return. In the tentative paintings of Bardayal’s grandchildren, I heard the murmur of a familiar old tune. On bark, paper and canvas, Bardayal Nadjamerrek left an indelible song whose echoes will continue to brighten the cultural landscape for many years to come.

Comments Off on Bardayal ‘Lofty’ Nadjamerrek

Filed under Uncategorized

Susan Wirth: Diorama

The following essay was written to accompany the solo exhibition Diorama by the Melbourne-based artist Susan Wirth. The exhibition was held at Gallerysmith in North Melbourne from 3-26 March 2011.

For nearly 100 years, Victorian school kids had pushed their noses against the glass and stared transfixed. There, just beyond the portal stood another world, a distant place, unfamiliar, but almost within reach. Behind the glass, a group of Yarra Yarra Aborigines stood frozen in time. Outside, Melbourne had boomed into a bustling metropolis, but here, in the silent confines of the museum, traditional Aboriginal lifestyle had stayed the same, undisturbed by the arrival of European colonists. When the display was first acquired, it had been the pride of the National Museum of Victoria. Commissioned by the Victorian government for the 1886 Colonial Exhibition in London, it was the very first diorama owned by the young institution.

In the 19th century, dioramas represented the height of a museum’s aspirations. For the National Museum of Victoria, the Yarra Yarra Aborigines diorama symbolised a particular moment of triumph; after three decades of financial and political struggle, the Museum had finally established itself as an integral part of Victorian society. Increased government funding meant that the institution could finally realise some of its grander aspirations, and the family of Yarra Yarra Aborigines was soon joined by a series of elaborate and expensive dioramas – lions on the savannah, polar bears in the arctic, kangaroos on the plains – all displayed in artfully illusory settings designed to transport the viewer to distant lands.

As a symbol of the 19th century museum, the diorama was, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, natural history as written by its victors. The diorama offered a frontier through which the entire world could, very literally, be laid out for European consumption. In the case of displays like the Yarra Yarra Aborigines, this presented a particularly insidious metaphor. Under the sway of orthogenetic theories of evolution, Aboriginal culture was seen as an earlier stage in the teleological progress of human civilization. Aboriginal culture was seen like an archaeological remnant of primeval man. Once contact was made with the more ‘advanced’ cultures, it was inevitable that this ‘primitive’ culture would disappear. Not only did this lead to an urgency on behalf of early anthropologists to record and collect ethnographic data for the information it could shed on the development of humanity, but it also made displays like the Yarra Yarra Aborigines diorama a melancholy snapshot of the end of the line for stone-age man.

If, a century later, things had not changed much for the family of Yarra Yarra Aborigines, by the 1980s, the modern world had begun to creep into the halls of the museum. Static displays gave way to interactive learning terminals, symptomatic of a new postmodern inclusiveness that posited history as open to multiple subject positions. History was repositioned as a mythopoetic process in which we were all participants; it was, as Greg Dening has argued, “metonymic of the present, metaphoric of the past; it presents – makes a now of the past, delivers the past in some dramatic display.”

The role of the new museum was not so much to show history, but to unveil the mechanisms of its performance – like a magician revealing his own tricks. The static diorama had no place in this new regime, unless used as an object for a knowing self-critique. And so, in 1980, the Yarra Yarra Aborigine diorama was dismantled, along with each of the other scenes. Once the pride of the museum’s displays, they were now relegated to storage, the quaint relics of a bygone era: ‘museum pieces’ of past museological practice.

It is, therefore, a curious decision by Melbourne-based contemporary artist Susan Wirth to title her latest series of works Diorama. The works are certainly not dioramas in any traditional sense. Rather, they consist of a delicate assemblage of lace, fabric and embroidery tacked flat onto board. From this artful arrangement shimmer the images of explorers in the landscape, recreating the etchings of the 19th century naturalist and ethnographer Wilhem von Blandowski (1822-1878).

Despite having the distinction of being the first employee of the National Museum of Victoria, Blandowski can hardly be considered a victor in the spoils of history. Due in small part to fate, and perhaps in large part to his obstreperous temperament, Blandowski’s achievements as one of Australia’s pioneering natural historians have, until recently, gone largely unnoticed. After committing an egregious error of taxonomic etiquette – naming two unsightly fish after distinguished gentlemen who felt slighted by the comparison – in 1859 Blandowski left Australia in disgrace, his grand scientific visions unrealised.  After failing to find support for his natural history projects in Europe, Blandowksi abandoned science altogether, finishing his life as a portrait photographer in the Polish city of Gleiwitz.

While the mythology of Australian nationalism has often heralded the lone figure – the solitary explorer, lone bushman or heroic stockman – as a historical figure, Blandowski exists so far on the fringe, so ‘outside’ the establishment, that he was almost entirely forgotten by Australian history. His memory was erased almost without trace, discovered only in the scant echo of a few prints found in European museums. It is these images that are revived in Wirth’s latest series of works.

In some ways, Wirth is also an artistic outsider – not cantankerous like Blandowski, but certainly cut from a different mould to the average hip young Melbourne contemporary artist. Wirth came to art after an extended period of travel in Europe. Like many young Australians, she felt the need to leave Australia, to see the world and escape the wasteland of cultural cringe. And yet, like so many exiles, Wirth began with the perspective of distance to yearn for the place she had left behind. Rather than returning to one of the urban centres, Wirth relocated to Darwin. Even today, when expensive apartments crowd the coast and the skyline is abuzz with the storking cranes of development, Darwin remains very much a frontier settlement, a border-zone between European civilization and the vast heartland of the Australian wilderness. The town is a magnet for drifters and chancers; a place where two cultures are thrown together; where all human endeavours seem based upon improvisation; a bricolage town where impermanence is a permanent state of being. In this sense, we might say there is something uniquely ‘Darwinian’ in Wirth’s most recent body of work, where fragments of the past – lace, embroidery, fabric and quilts – are refashioned into something new, their patterns and rhythms reordered into a new image.

It is important here to make a distinction between Wirth’s ‘recycling’ of old materials and the ironic, postmodernist act of appropriation. Wirth’s use of fabric and lace – whether handed down from her mother and grandmother, or purchased in thrift shops – is less about the appropriation of pre-existing meanings than a wholesale systematic re-imagining. For Wirth, the usefulness of an object such as a piece of fine lacework is not in what it reveals about the past, but how it can be reused in the present. In the artist’s hand, the fragment can be cut, torn, dyed, twisted, reassembled and remade into something entirely different. Thus, Wirth’s grandmother’s quilt – an object seemingly rich in nostalgic possibilities – is transformed into the writhing umbilical chaos of Spillage 2011. It is an evocative transformation in which the quilt becomes its own biomorphic entity, part of a slithering alien landscape that belies little trace of its past.

It is tempting to extend a similar logic to Wirth’s two-dimensional works, such as her Diorama series or her images drawn from old family photographs, such as Stella 2010. This is precisely the reasoning used by Kate Just in her nuanced critique of Wirth’s 2005 exhibition She’s crafty… and she’s just my style held at West Space in Melbourne. Commenting on Wirth’s recreation of family photographs – in many instances containing relatives about whom Wirth knew little or nothing – Just argues that Wirth’s “subject is the disconnection from (or lack of) a defined personal culture. … [T]ime intensive processes like knitting, stitching or carving … allow the artist time to question, retrieve and rebuild a real or imagined history.”

And yet, it seems to me that there is a much more complex relationship between image and medium at play in Wirth’s work. One of the first things that most people notice when viewing these works is their virtuosity – how skilfully the artist is able to recreate a photographic image from an assemblage of found objects. From an abstract farrago of patterns, a clear, precise image shimmers into being. This creates a crisis of precession: what comes first, the image or the object? In some ways, the image feels almost like an afterthought, in other ways, like an act of elaborate trickery. The end effect is the sense that the image is always present, waiting to be teased out – or, put another way, that no object is without echoes of an image, the traces of which remain even if we do not know precisely how to read them.

What, then, is the meaning of Wirth’s appropriation of Blandowski? Even if Blandowski had not left Australia in disgrace, it is doubtful that his works would have ever entered into the nationalist canon, so far divorced are they from the dominant themes of the Australian mythos. Unlike the tragic figures of Burke and Wills, Blandowski’s vision of the Australian wilderness was not one of death and desolation, but rather, one of  grandeur and beauty. Take for instance his rapturous description of the scene that forms Wirth’s Diorama 2 2010 (pictured above): “a massive wall of dolerite whose deep blue and sombre hues is in exquisite harmony with the dark green of the eucalypts.”  Blandowski was equally quick to find merit in the knowledge of Australia’s Indigenous inhabitants, chiding the government for its maltreatment and failure to protect the country’s first inhabitants.

At the same time, Blandowski was not averse to performance and illusion in constructing the narrative of his images. In his etchings, he would often insert himself as a lone figure, dwarfed by the landscape, suggesting a moment of first sight. Wirth’s choice to appropriate these etchings, displayed like faded snapshots across board, draws attention to the very constructed nature of the imagery they contain. If Blandowkski was attempting to construct a vision of first sight, Wirth’s appropriation suggests that this first sight is always mediated, its representation simply the repetition of an imaginary moment. Like the museum diorama then, Wirth’s Dioramas are about illusion: the illusion of life, the illusion of presence, the illusion of history.

It is worth noting the strange visual affinity between Wirth’s Dioramas and the paintings of Fred Williams. Williams holds a unique position in Australian art history as the artist who most successfully married the lessons of Modernism with the Australian landscape. In other words, Williams took the specific (that is, the Australian landscape) and united it with the generic (international modernism, with its Greenbergian teleological progression towards the specificity of the medium). Following this logic, in his simple flecks of paint on the flat ground of the canvas – such as in his Yellow Landscape 1968-1969, in the collection of Geelong Art Gallery – Williams was able to create a landscape that was simultaneously here and everywhere; a particular place and nowhere at all. If we continue this reasoning into Wirth’s work, then the tension between medium and image becomes about making something very specific (nostalgia, memory, family) into something generic (the illusory performance of the diorama).

But if the narratives of place, history, family, and so on, are nothing but a literal veil, then what is left? In the case of Williams’ paintings, it is the flat canvas – the very endpoint of Greenbergian modernism. In Wirth’s work, it something quite different: the flat sanded grain of commercial timber. The polished boards, with their faint memory of nature in the still-present rings of the tree trunk, become like the museum diorama, where nature is brought under human control, just as it is in the supposedly scientific natural history etchings of Blandowksi. The landscape – from the trees to the birds – becomes nothing but a pastiche, ready to be re-stitched and reordered, to be put to work of construction of history and mythology. This is Wirth’s dangerous idea. For if all history is simply a performance – a dioramic stage that can be either playful or serious – what is to become of the hierarchies upon which our established mythologies have been based? To return to Dening, it creates a history that does not believe in its own fictions: a history that does not attempt to replicate reality, but to redress reality.  It would be very wrong to read this as melancholy in Wirth’s work, or to suggest her collages attest to the emptiness of signs. For there is a heroic pleasure in Wirth’s performance – a mythic figuring in which the diminutive figure of Stella Wirth might stand in for Heracles or Perseus. Wrought large on the stage of the canvas, in a sparkling brocade of jewels and lace, Stella is the hero of a new history written not by the victors, but by the performers: those ready, like Wirth, to take centre stage.

Comments Off on Susan Wirth: Diorama

Filed under Uncategorized