Aboriginal Art and the Archive

This blog is a new project, intended as a space where unformed thoughts might find their first articulation. Over the 2014 Fall semester I am going to attempt to record a daily thought: just something small that is interesting or troubling me. I welcome your feedback, and hopefully some of these posts can spark further thoughts, debate or critical exchange.

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Brook Andrew, 52 Portrait, 2013, installation view Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne.

Museums are my guilty pleasure. When we go on holiday, I am sure I drive my wife crazy wanting to spend all-day-every-day in museums. I say they are a guilty pleasure, because I completely recognise that museums embody all of the problematic features of western modernity. Critically mining the museum/archive is a pretty popular strategy among a current crop of young, urban based Indigenous artists in Australia (Brook Andrew, Christian Thompson, Danie Mellor et al). This is ostensibly the topic of Emily Cloney’s article in the recent edition of Artlink.

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Christian Thompson working in the archives at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford University.

All three are highly sophisticated artists, and I have a great respect for their work. But in the past few months, I have been giving a lot of thought to whether the space of the archive really offers the transgressive potential that these artists are looking for. My thinking here is obviously filtered through Foucault and Bennett – so you must excuse the monolithic epistemic power I attribute to the museum. But I wonder if a different way to think of it might be through Hal Foster’s essay on the contemporary arist-as-archivist. Consider Foster’s assertion:

Certainly the figure of the artist-as-archivist follows that of the artist- as-curator, and some archival artists continue to play on the category of the collection. Yet they are not as concerned with critiques of representational totality and institutional integrity: that the museum has been ruined as a coherent system in a public sphere is generally assumed, not triumphally proclaimed or melancholically pondered, and some of these artists suggest other kinds of ordering—within the museum and without. In this respect the orientation of archival art is often more “institutive” than “destructive,” more “legislative” than “transgressive … Sometimes strained in effect, archival art is rarely cynical in intent (another welcome change); on the contrary, these artists often aim to fashion distracted viewers into engaged discussants (here there is nothing passive about the word “archival”)

Hal Foster, “An Archival Impulse,” October 110 (Fall, 2004), 4.

Foster is clearly celebrating a different kind of contemporary artist-as-archivist here, but I wonder if we can’t read him against the grain. Being “institutive” than “destructive,” more “legislative” than “transgressive” certainly runs counter to the kinds of critique envisaged by people like Andrew, Thompson or Mellor. To me, it sounds more applicable to the work of Aboriginal painters in Arnhem Land, the Kimberley or the Central Desert, whose works consist of a vast repository of deeply felt experiences, registered in a palimpsest of historical meaning.

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Peter Mungkuri, Ngura (Country), 2012

The type of archive found in remote Aboriginal art differs in one key respect from Foucault’s definition; where Foucault sees the archive as composed of statements existing solely in an exterior space, without dependence on a subjective interior consciousness, the archive of Aboriginal paintings maintains a defiant indexicality to the landscape. All of which makes me wonder, whether in fact, Aboriginal art is always going to be in fundamental tension with the western archive, museum and curatorial endeavor. What kind of archive could possibly be appropriate to mediate the sharing of the archives without absorbing them into an external “law of what can be said?”  I am not sure of the answer to this question, nor do I suspect there is a single answer. Perhaps I will just end where I began, with Foucault:

In this sense, the diagnosis does not establish the fact of our identity by the play of distinctions. It establishes that we are difference, that our reason is the difference of discourses, our history the difference of times, our selves the difference of masks.

Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, A.M. Sheridan Smith, trans. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972), Part III, Ch.4.

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