Category Archives: Blog

Corey Bulpitt and Larissa Healey: Permanent Presence

With the start of the Fall semester, I am beginning to think that my aim to do a blog post a day was a little too ambitious… Nevertheless, despite having missed a few days, I am going to try and get back on the horse!

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Larissa Healey and Corey Bulpitt with their mural Salmon Cycle – The Spirit Within 2013, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Canada.

On my recent visit to Vancouver, I became a little obsessed with Northwest Coast Indigenous art. It really is hard not to: it is extremely visually compelling, and speaks so beautifully to the landscape from which it comes. It certainly didn’t hurt that I spent much of the week at the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology, which houses so many cultural riches of region’s traditional owners. Lacking the budget to acquire any artworks, I returned with a lot of presents for my young son: a very nice t-shirt designed by Eric Parnell; an animal puzzle designed by Doug LaFortune (which Gabriel loves) and the Book of Play with Northwest Coast Native Art .

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Corey Bulpitt and Larissa Healey, The Storm, 2011, Grenville Street Bridge, Vancouver, Canada.

This evening, as Gabriel and I were reading the Book of Play, one image in particular caught my attention. It was the Haida artist Corey Bulpitt‘s depiction of the rainbow. It is a striking image: the contrast between the multi-colour of the rainbow and the thick blocks of black and white typical of northwest coast art causes the image to leap out. Seeing the image in Gabe’s book reminded me of the first time I had seen this motif, in a different work of Bulpitt’s, which I stumbled upon quite by accident while in Vancouver. In 2011, Bulpitt included the rainbow motif at the very centre of 50 foot mural entitled The Storm. The Storm is one of two murals underneath the Granville Street bridge in Vancouver; the other being an equally impressive work by Bulpitt’s frequent collaborator Larissa Healey (which I believe pre-dates The Storm by 3 years). I was very pleased to stumble on these works, because I had recently seen Bulpitt and Healey’s wonderful mural outside the National Gallery of Canada, which had been commissioned for the exhibition Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art.

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Larissa Healey and Corey Bulpitt, Granville Street Bridge Mural, 2008, Vancouver, Canada (photo 2013 by author).

As my photos show, the Grenville Street bridge murals have suffered a bit from the elements. Nevertheless, the rainbow beams out with an irrepressible luminosity. Bulpitt and Healey’s murals clearly belong to two identifiable traditions: Northwest Coast Native art and the more recent graffiti styles. In their dress and invocation of the parlance of hip-hop, they clearly find this to be a compatible marriage; certainly, their artwork moves fluidly within and across both circles of influence very productively. This week, however, I have been thinking about these works in slightly different terms.

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Corey Bulpitt and Larissa Healey, The Storm, 2011, Grenville Street Bridge, Vancouver, Canada (photo 2013, by author).

In the 1920s, when Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros revived the Mexican tradition of mural paintings, the attraction of muralism to these artists was, in part, that it was anathema to the formalist traditions of easel painting. Murals were a way of reconnecting modern art to the people; of inserting it into the very architectural fabric of society. To this end, the Mexican muralists revived the Renaissance tradition of fresco painting, in which paint is applied to wet plaster, literally becoming part of the substance of the wall upon which it is painted. In some ways, I see a very obvious parallel here to what Bulpitt and Healey are attempting to do through uniting traditional Haida and Anishinaabe designs with the modes, mediums and language of the street. But there is something more here I think needs to be teased out. As a medium, fresco also attracted the Mexican muralists because of its permanence; it was intended to last forever, just like the revolutionary governments that it celebrated. How does this compare to Bulpitt and Healey’s murals, which belong to the ephemeral tradition of graffiti?

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Larissa Healey and Corey Bulpitt, Salmon Cycle – The Spirit Within 2013, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Canada.

One answer might be found in the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. In the museum’s Great Hall are dozens of examples of Northwest Coast art in varying degrees of repair. In their traditional settings, the giant totem poles preserved at MOA would have eventually deteriorated, to be replaced by new poles. What remained was the imagery, passed on through generations, persisting long after the objects had returned to nature. In a sense, the medium of graffiti is somewhat more permanent, but its associations with the outlaw and the ephemeral is particularly poignant in the case of Indigenous cultural representations. This is a very bold assertion of permanent presence. These murals powerfully declare: “You might outlaw our culture, you might repress our imagery, but like the salmon we will return against the tide; our traditions are permanent.”

stepping forward quietly and boldly
elders watch as we stand our ground
once again the silence is broken
hear our songs under your bridge
we have not left n we rise again

Gurl 23 [aka Larissa Healey]

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Lisa Uhl: Repetition and Transformation

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Lisa Uhl, Turtujarti 2012, acrylic on canvas, 120 x 240 cm.

Recently, I was asked to write a catalog essay for a forthcoming exhibition featuring nine senior men from north Western Australia. In the essay, I note that one of the things that made these artists great (sadly eight of the nine are deceased), was their ability to constantly shift their practice, which I argue is symptomatic of a kind of “transformational ontology.”

For Indigenous people, the visual activity of the landscape (the shimmer of a dried waterhole, shifts in light and color, blooms in Spring) are all tangible expressions of ancestral experience. They are the bridge between the phenomenol and noumenol worlds: the way in which the Dreaming is made visible. Recreating these visual effects is not about creating a representation of the landscape (as in a western landscape painting, which is always a copy of the “real” world), but rather, a re-enactment of the power of the Dreaming. As such, paintings become an active part of imagining country, participating in this transformational process, and giving them power to literally change the world! […] Despite their relatively short careers, all nine artists were extraordinarily mercurial in their artistic practice, experimenting, innovating and shifting styles with alacrity. This peripatetic drive stands to reason; re-energising the Dreaming was a full-time creative exercise: a life’s work.It is impossible to grasp the immensity of such a project from a single painting. Just like the landscape, which reveals its ancestral energy through constant change, the profound success of these artists must be measured through their own continued processes of innovation and transformation.

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Lisa Uhl, Four versions of Turtujarti, 2012-2013, acrylic on canvas, 90 x 90 cm each.

This is more or less the same argument I offered in my discussion with Will Owen at the Toledo Art Museum, and I think it is more or less accurate. What it ignores, however, is the question of repetition. Indeed, as an artistic strategy, repetition is integral to many of the finest Aboriginal artists. How might we begin to reconcile this with the idea of a “transformational ontology?”

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Lisa Uhl, Turtujarti, 2011, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 90 cm.

One artist we might consider is Lisa Uhl. I really admire Uhl’s paintings: they have a beautifully raw elegance that is deeply expressive, while speaking to a local art history. Along with the equally exciting, but slightly older Sonia Kurarra, Uhl is one of the rising stars of the Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency at Fitzroy Crossing. In her short painting career, Uhl (born c.1976) has clearly imbibed the influence of her aunt Jukuja Dolly Snell (who raised her from an infant), but has managed to find her own voice through her signature motifs of the Turtujarti (walnut trees from the Great Sandy Desert) and Kurrkapi (Desert Oaks). Uhl clearly does not tire of painting this limited repetoire of motifs (which, to be honest, are pretty much indistinguishable). But to call this a limitation in Uhl’s oeuvre, is like dismissing Mark Rothko because he only painted squares! While it would be wrong to call Uhl a formalist, her paintings are similar to Rothko’s in the sense that their charge comes from their exploration of light and colour: a line of white against a mauve background breaks like dusk through the trees, or a halo of amber emits the pulse of a languid afternoon.

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Lisa Uhl, Turtujarti 2013, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 60 cm.

Sure, some artists tear through styles and motifs, but. Uhl is on a different track. In her works, the motif of Turtujarti works as the earthly bedrock upon which the transformational actions of ancestral presence take place. Her motif is the immutable landscape, but its power is revealed through the ability of its surface to change. Uhl’s practice is a beautiful metaphor for this process. Painting might be used to rejuvenate this ancestral power, but it cannot be at the expense of this mutability. Perhaps Uhl’s focus is also a sign of her youth, revealing a sensible trepidation not to transgress the bounds of her authority. As she becomes an elder in her own right, perhaps her practice will transform; but for now, I am happy to enjoy her patient meditations on Turtujarti and Kurrkapi.

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Sidney Nolan and the Relativity of Otherness

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Sidney Nolan, Inland Australia, 1950, Tate Modern collection.

Yikes. It is 1030pm on my 34th birthday and I haven’t even started today’s blog. I knew the daily blog was going to be a tall order, but some days really push you!

In May this year I had the great pleasure of spending a week in London. It was the first time I had been to the UK since visiting with my parents in 1989. Needless to say, I spent my time dashing between galleries and museums, taking in the embarrassment of masterpieces on display. At one point, in the Tate Modern, I rounded a corner and came face to face with a very familiar sight: a Sidney Nolan desert painting from 1950. I haven’t been in Australia for about 18 months, so seeing Nolan’s painting was a bit uncanny; its familiar colors and textures belonged somewhere else entirely. Whether out of familiarity or surprise, it caught my attention; to the extent that I can no longer remember any of the other works in the room. Nevertheless, I approached it with some trepidation, cautious that its allure was nothing more that sentimental parochialism.

Alongside the work was a brief quote from Nolan, describing his motivation for painting these composite desert scenes:

I wanted to know the true nature of the “otherness” I had been born into. It was not a European thing. I wanted to paint the great purity and implacability of the landscape. I wanted a visual form of the “otherness” of the thing not seen.

Nolan’s statement is quite extraordinary, in that it reveals both his desire to escape the “provincialism problem” (so eloquently described two decades later by Terry Smith), while finding himself essentially trapped by his own strategies: his self-othering against the “alien” desert landscape. I cannot help contrasting this to Edouard Glissant’s assertion that the colonized is always the first to recognize the contemporary state that he terms “Relation,” because they are the first to recognise the other within, having been forcefully cast into the role by the encompassing colonial power. As always, Glissant’s description is delightfully rich:

We “know” that the Other is within us and affects how we evolve as well as the bulk of our conceptions and the development of our sensibility … In spite of ourselves, a sort of “consciousness of consciousness” opens us up and turns each of us into a disconcerted actor in the Poetics of Relation.

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Sidney Nolan, In the Cave, 1957, Tate Modern collection.

It is easy to forget that colonization  works in degrees: and as Nolan’s case suggests, the Australian settler subject could occupy both the position of colonizer and colonized. But there is still something worth thinking through about an artist standing at the precipice of this consciousness of Relation. Several scholars have spoken to me about the profound influence of Indigenous art on Nolan, although relatively little has been published on this matter. (Likewise, the incorporation of Aboriginal shield designs in Albert Tucker’s work also demands some critical attention). On the one hand, this is clearly in line with the modernist tendency to use Indigenous art as a trove of primitivist motifs to be raided at will (something clearly evident in Nolan’s In the Cave 1957, also at the Tate). But I think Nolan’s statement hints at a more profound realisation. Nolan’s problem, as summed up in this statement, is that he is looking to replicate the other within through a generalised otherness without… something that can be reproduced as profoundly alien: the outlaw, the desert, the Aborigine and so on. This is why these paintings are ultimately provincial: they pander to the desire of the center for a provincial other than is recognizable, but different. The lesson of Relation is not to try and cast this otherness in understandable terms, but rather, to recognize that it is one part of the infinite diversity of the world. It would take several decades before the true artists of the desert would jolt the Australian art world into consciousness of this.

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Albert Tucker, Untitled (Bushranger with Sheild), c.1956, private collection.

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Kutungka Napanangka and the sticky question of aesthetics

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Kutungka Napanangka, Brown Snake Dreaming, 2004

I don’t have a lot of time to blog today, so I thought I would just offer a little case study that I have been thinking about this week. There has been a lot of debate lately over the short-comings of Aboriginal art history. I have many opinions on this – and I don’t have time to share them all now – but what I would say, is that rather than a symptomatic failure, I tend to think the problems with the field are more representative of the enormous epistemic challenges that Aboriginal art poses to western intellectual frameworks.

Kutungka Napanangka, Morning Sickness Dreaming 2005

 

Kutungka Napanangka is an artist that I have always found intriguing. Not only does she produce beautiful paintings, but her career encapsulates many of the peculiar challenges that Aboriginal art poses. Paintings of the western desert are created at a complex intersection of Indigenous cosmology and market forces. They reveal numerous influences: cultural, familial, more recent influences from the market and from art centre facilitators and art-coordinators. Kutungka was born at Kintore around 1950, and began painting in 1999 through Ikuntji Arts Women’s Centre (Haast Bluff). In 2005, she moved to Alice Springs, where she commenced painting with Papunya Tula Artists.

 

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Kutungka Napanangka, Claypan Site of Yulkarpa, 2007

Kutungka’s career is interesting because, it has exhibited several seemingly disjointed periods in which her art has entirely changed aesthetic direction. These changes can be clearly aligned to changing external circumstances in Kutungka’s life – such as the arrival of new art-coordinators or her move between different art centres. However, they also reflect her changing personal circumstances – such as her geographic location and proximity to different family members and artistic influences. These changes resulted in major shifts in her art practice.

 

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Kutungka Napanangka, Brown Snake Dreaming, 2000

If we are serious about discussing the role of aesthetics in Indigenous art, then I suspect a case study like Kutungka’s could be extremely useful. Perhaps, underneath the superficial aesthetic shifts, we can begin to uncover the underlying conceptual /visual concerns that shape her paintings, and by examining both the continuities and discontinuities, we might come to a better understanding of how aesthetics are contribute to these conceptual/cultural concerns? Doing so might not only shed light upon how western assumptions are brought to bear on our reading of Aboriginal art, while offering alternative ways of viewing and valuing desert painting.

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Taking baby to the Museum

This blog is a new project, intended as a space where unformed ideas 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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Discussing Carl Andre’s Equivalent V 1966-69, Museum of Modern Art, New York

As it is Friday, I thought I would post something a little bit lighter. In one of my earlier posts this week, I mentioned that museums are a guilty pleasure of mine. One side effect, is that my son Gabriel has found himself pushed around quite a few institutions.  In his short 14 months on the planet, he has been to the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Hood Museum at Dartmouth, Toledo Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Met, MoMA, the Guggenheim, and the Brooklyn Museum (just to name a few). It has been really gratifying to see Gabe become so comfortable with the museum environment, pointing excitedly to things he recognizes, clapping and smiling to video installations, or peering curiously at things he finds of interest.

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Gabriel (center) enjoying James Turrell’s Aten Reign 2013, Guggenheim Museum, New York

Clearly I am not the only parent who likes the idea of taking their children to museums (indeed, as the modern museum was founded on the idea of public enlightenment and self-improvement, it seems an inevitable result). I am not sure whether art museums can help stimulate cognitive development or produce more enlightened young citizens, but I do know that in my life the arts have always given me great pleasure. More than anything I would like to share that with my son; to inculcate the value of imaginative and poetic pursuits, so that he too can glimpse the myriad ways of seeing the world around us.

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Examining El Anatsui’s Bleeding Takari II 2007, Museum of Modern Art, New York

Most major museums now cater to children in some way or another. MoMA and the Chicago Art Institute both have terrific children’s areas. The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh has fantastic programs for slightly older kids, and thanks to Daniel Baumann, the Carnegie Museum now has a wonderfully retro Lozziwurm. The Toledo Museum of Art not only has a family center, but also offers “baby tours.” Many museums offer “stroller tours” – but more often than not, these are pitched equally at the parents as the toddlers (a bit like the moms and bubs sessions offered at cinemas). Toledo’s program differs, in that it was designed by Dr. Kathy Danko-McGhee, an expert in early child development. Designed for children from 2-18 months, these tours have a duel purpose: to stimulate cognitive development in young children, and to teach parents and caregivers how to engage babies’ with art, which in turn promotes brain growth and literacy skills. Sensibly, the tours are limited to half-an-hour, to accommodate for babies’ short attention span.  I am yet to take Gabriel on one of these tours, but am hoping we can get to one in the next few months.

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Crikey it’s big! Checking out Alexander Calder’s Flamingo 1973, Federal Plaza, Chicago.

As it is Friday, and the end of the first week of my daily blogging exercise, I wanted to throw open the floor to you. What are your thoughts about taking baby to the museum? Do you think there is value in taking small children to museums? Have you had any great experiences, or shocking disasters? Is there a museum you particularly love, or a program that you think warrants commendation? Alternatively, do you think children should be left at home; that museums should be a quiet place for adult contemplation? I really look forward to hearing your thoughts, comments, stories… Till then, see you next week.

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I think I’m ready to go Dad! With Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with Straw Hat, 1887, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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I Wayan Bendi: On Looking at Looking

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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I Wayan Bendi’s studio, outside of Ubud in Bali. (Photo by author).

Growing up in Perth, Western Australia, the island of Bali loomed prominently as a tourist destination. I remember girls in primary school coming back with their hair in tight braids, while the boys sported the ubiquitous Bintang beer singlets. It was not until December 2010 that I first visited Bali, and I must admit, I found it a bit depressing. The Balinese have an extraordinarily rich cultural heritage, evident in myriad forms across the island (art, architecture, food, dance, music). But the oppressive impact of mass tourism is equally ubiquitous. I couldn’t help thinking of Johnny Rotten’s acerbic account of “a cheap holiday in other people’s misery.”

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I Wayan Bendi, Cintaku Negeriku, 2008-10

In any case, I get the feeling that most Australian visitors don’t trouble themselves too much to think about Balinese culture: which meant that when my father and I stumbled upon the Neka Art Museum in Ubud, we had the place almost entirely to ourselves. It is a pretty unusual museum for those accustomed to western institutions: most of the rooms are quite open, allowing outside air to breeze through.  Like much of Bali, the Museum has the feel of a sort of faded glory; a quiet resignation to the deleterious effects of modernity. I knew a little of Balinese art, but I wasn’t really looking for anything in particular. For my father and I, it was just nice to get away from the throng of street merchants selling tourist curios. However, in the Neka Art Museum, I encountered an artist whose work immediately struck me: I Wayan Bendi. Over the next few days, I tried to seek out as much of his work as I could.

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I Wayan Bendi, Lukisan ini memperlihatkan pertempuran melawan Belanda. (The Struggle for Independence Against the Dutch), 1985

Bendi was born in 1950 in Batuan, a village near Ubud. He is something of legend in Balinese art, considered one of the leading practitioners of the Batuan style of panting that emerged in the 1920s. In something that will certainly endear him to fans of Australian Indigenous art, Bendi attributes his own take on Batuan painting to a vision he had in a dream. Paintings in this style teem with action, and are crammed full of intricate details, pulsating with the chaotic rhythms of village life. A number of things struck me about Bendi’s work. The first, was the ease with which his narratives combined traditional/mythological elements with the mundane activities of daily life. Huge spirit figures team over scenes of people going about their routines. I was similarly struck with the adaptability of Bendi’s style to incorporate recent historical events: in Ubud I saw images that Bendi had painted of London and Singapore. In other images, he depicts the Struggle for Independence against the Dutch (see above), the World Trade Center attack on September 11, the Bali Bombings of 2002, and even the death of Diana Princess of Wales (see below). Although his style of painting was deeply rooted in his homelands, Bendi was clearly comfortable using it to depict faraway places: from Jakarta to Singapore, Hawaii, London and New York.

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I Wayan Bendi, Diana Spencer, 2007

But the detail that struck me most in Bendi’s paintings was the recurring appearence in his Balinese paintings of the big-nosed western tourist, sporting a large camera. These figures were inevitably poking their noses/cameras into everyday events – often the cockfights made famous by Clifford Geertz (see for instance, in the lower right of the painting Kebakaran 1999 shown below).

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I Wayan Bendi, Kebakaran (The Firefighters), 1999

Amidst all of the action of this Batuan scene, Bendi seems to be critiquing the very act of looking. I loved this critical representation of the objectifying representational apparatus of the tourist/anthropologist. In a place like Ubud, where the packaging of Balinese culture for tourist display has created a tired simulacra of an exquisite tradition, Bendi’s paintings seemed magnificently subversive. I really hope I have the chance to see more of Bendi’s work – I think he is a first rate contemporary artist, and one whose work really warrants some serious critical inquiry.

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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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