Visiting Brisbane Part 2 of 2
After stopping in Brisbane to visit the Asia Pacific Triennial, CA+E Archivist Sara Frantz and I flew to Melbourne for meetings with Guy Abrahams of Climarte, a nonprofit that uses art to address climate change, as well as to see Linda Williams and Leon von Schaik at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology schools of Art and Architecture, respectively. We then toured the Heide Museum of Modern Art grounds and archives with director Jason Smith to discuss possible collaborations with Climarte. In between everything else, we worked in a visit with artist Mandy Martin and conservationist Guy Fitzhardinge at their pastoral property, Pennyroyal, where Mandy has a large studio and Guy runs a large network that connects organizations such as The Nature Conservancy and Bush Heritage with cattle ranchers and Aboriginal groups.
Visiting Guy and Mandy was prelude to our flight to Alice Springs, at 55,000 people the largest city in the Australian interior. Imagine a country the size of the United States with one paved road connecting the south coast–let’s say New Orleans–with the north coast–that would be Canada in U.S. terms. And along the way the only center of any size is a single town. That would be Alice. It’s there, at the Araluen Arts Centre, that the Paruku Project opened this spring.
If you look at the map, you’ll see in the upper left of the country a blue patch called Lake Gregory (not to scale, obviously). That lake is the central feature of the Paruku Indigenous Protected Area, where a remarkable project was created by Mandy and Guy, along with artist/writer Kim Mahood, CA+E Research Fellow John Carty, and others. The Paruku Project has helped a local Aboriginal art center expand and produced a conservation plan.
I visited Paruku in summer of 2011, and have been working with everyone involved since then to bring back to the CA+E a large archive and body of art produced by both the visiting artists and scientists, and the local people. You can find a longer description of the project on my blogs from fall of 2011. The reason Sara and I were in Australia was to attend the opening of the exhibition at Araluen, and to arrange for that archive and collection to be shipped to Nevada, where it would join other art & science projects from around the world.
The work and archives have now arrived and will be exhibited in the summer and fall of 2014, part of our Art + Environment season timed to coincide with the third A+E Conference, more about which later this year. The Paruku Project is the first Aboriginal art exhibition by the Museum with more to follow in subsequent years. The painting above is one of the related artworks produced by Mandy Martin that was shown at Araluen.
Visiting Brisbane, Part 1 of 2
After the sunless days in Tromsø this last January, it was positively antipodal to fly into Australia during February with CA+E Archivist and Librarian Sara Frantz. We were there to help open the exhibition of the Paruku Project in Alice Springs, which we’ve been working on for two years. Alice would be about 90ºF warmer than Tromsø–but more about that in the following blog. First, let me tell you about visiting Brisbane and the seventh Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT).
Most of Australia’s population is concentrated in the three largest cities of its East Coast: Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane. Founded in the state of Queensland around 1825, Brisbane is the youngest of the three, but its conurbation now runs to three million people perched around the serpentine spine of the city’s perpetually flooding river. Global warming every year brings closer the possibility that saltwater crocodiles from up north will be documented in downtown Brisbane waters.
We flew out of Los Angeles and crossed the international date line to arrive in Brisbane fourteen hours and a day later. With a long layover, we decided to take the train into the city so we could visit the APT, which was at the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art. The APT is the museum’s signature contemporary art event. It focuses on Asia, the Pacific region, and Australia, and is unique among biennials by virtue of commissioning and collecting significant portions of what it shows.
Once inside the museum, we were greeted by Huang Yong Ping’s Ressort, a fifty-foot-long aluminum snake reminiscent of a dragon stripped bare by the artist that connects sky and water. If Ping’s sculpture is a metaphorical totem for the deconstruction of traditional Chinese symbols, then the large-scale commissioning of a facade akin to those found on a Papua New Guinea men’s spirit house was a more literal recreation of totemic architecture. These two works set up a dialogue that would be carried throughout the exhibition between old and new, original and appropriated themes, the minimal and the maximal.
One of our favorite works was Takahiro Iwasaki’s cedar model based on the Byodo-in, a tenth-century temple outside Kyoto. This elaborate miniaturized structure, suspended from the ceiling to hang in front of viewers, was so elaborate it seemed more like a hologram than a solid object. The play in scale between Ping’s snake and Iawasaki’s temple was yet another oppositional strategy in the exhibition.
Perhaps the most striking concatenation of old and new was the translation by Aboriginal painter Daniel Boyd of his dot paintings into a multimedia experience. Luminescent dots coalesced, broke apart and reformed constantly in a darkened gallery bringing alive the duration and experiential nature of Dreamtime.
APT7 mounted more than 200 works by 75 artists from 27 countries. Its contents ranged from works that would once have been considered ethnographic objects more fit for an anthropology museum than an art venue, to multimedia works that would rest seamlessly in the Venice Biennale. Its very strength, in fact, rests upon the diversity of the region, which was reflected almost–but not quite–to a fault in the massive exhibition. Urbanization, industrialization, the overthrow of traditional icons, the creation of cultures neither Eastern nor Western–overall we found it exhilarating. Then it was back on the train to the airport and a flight to Melbourne and the interior.
Travels in Tasmania — Part 3 of 3
Tasmania’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) opened in 2011 to both raves and brickbats. Founded by mathematician and world-class gambler David Walsh, it at first appeared to house one man’s eccentric obsessions from old coins to works by Anselm Kiefer. Critics lambasted it as a monument to a global civilization in decline, as one might expect for a museum including a machine that processes food into odorous excrement. Admirers, however, noted that the unique juxtaposition of cultural objects from across 4,000 years could not fail to create new perspectives. The admirers are winning: MONA is now one of the most visited tourist attractions in Australia, and its new exhibition, “Theater of the World,” is utterly fantastic.
Photographer David Stephenson wrangled us an invitation to the opening, which was attended by more than 800 people. We joined a long queue from which ten people were admitted at a time. In part this was to assure a smooth descent several floors down a spiral metal staircase next to the exposed sandstone cliffs created when the site was quarried to admit the building designed by Melbourne architect Nonda Katsalidis. It’s not a small museum, holding as much gallery space as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
MONA hosts a legendarily egalitarian demography. I was there in jeans, a fleece jacket, and hiking shoes. Young women in short black dresses, young men in tight shiny suits (and short black skirts, come to think of it) mixed with the Tasmanian Premier, all of whom dove eagerly for glasses of champagne and wine from the local winery that is part of Walsh’s property (and a revenue source for the museum). Long trays of skewered roast birds, rounds of brie and slabs of ultra-rare beef were offered up as finger food. Bacchanal would be the right word. Think Burning Man in a black suit underground.
“Fantastic” is a word that conjures up the dark circuses of Ray Bradbury, interstellar voyages to galaxies far, far away, and the musings of Monty Python. It is, in short, a perfect word to describe MONA’s second exhibition. Drawing equally from Walsh’s private collection and the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery’s trove of objects, the wandering exhibition sets Picasso’s famous Weeping Woman next to the eyes of an anonymous Yoruba beaded bag. Andy Warhol meets Japanese erotica, Damien Hirst’s flies trapped in resin resonates with an Egyptian sarcophagus, and 80 tapa barkcloths from the Pacific Basin are gazed upon by a Giacometti figure. Sex and death remain evident in the new pairings, but there is a sense of play and a deep engagement of intelligence as well as the senses.
The result is a cabinet of wonder, an experimental theatre, anthropology as alchemy. It’s an exhibition that I could visit weekly to learn from, be inspired by, and occasionally groan at. I wish it were in the United States, preferably in California — close enough to visit, but not so near as to take over my life. As a consolation, the website is excellent (and strange): http://mona.net.au
The thing about Tasmania, which I happily seem to visit almost every year now in search of art and archives, is that it retains that sense of life on the edge of the world. Walking the small harbor past both TMAG and the stalwart Aurora Australis, or traveling the length of the Derwent beside which sits MONA — it’s life as recombinant cultural DNA that is evolving in front of your eyes.
Travels in Tasmania — Part 2 of 3
The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG), established in 1843, lives in a handsome sandstone building just uphill from the Hobart harbor, which at the moment has in port one of the few research ships that sails regularly to the Antarctic. The large orange Aurora Australis is an icebreaker that many Australian artists have journeyed on to the southern polar regions.
The TMAG, much of which is closed for an extensive expansion funded, nonetheless has up a terrific survey of Tasmanian landscape work titled Regarding Landscape. It starts with an elevated view of The Derwent River and Hobart Town painted in 1831, proceeds through the major 20th-century artists, including Lloyd Rees, Edith Holmes, and Arthur Boyd and into contemporary images. The adjacent gallery holds works specifically about water in Tasmania, which is capped with videos made by David Stephenson and Martin Walch from their 2012 Derwent River project (see previous post).
It’s interesting to look first at the paintings, sit with the videos and then to go back to the paintings. The first run-through of the landscape oils, which start with mostly unpopulated scenery and then become much more strident and symbol-laden over time, is just that: a run-through. You spend the stereotypical 17 seconds in front of each painting and its label before moving on to the next. The videos, as I mentioned in the last post, recalibrate your rate of cognition into a much slower mode.
The second time you visit the paintings, therefore — with your mental pulse now kicked down a gear or two — the scenes appear to be sharper, the colors inhabiting a wider spectrum, the details more numerous. It’s not an effect I could have predicted, but it is exactly the effect that Stephenson and Walch are seeking to create with viewers: to slow them down beyond simply the experience of the moment. And this also makes it a fine time to walk across the street to the Carnegie Gallery upstairs at the Maritime Museum, where the always peripatetic Stephen Eastaugh has a retrospective of his Antarctic paintings titled An Awfully Beautiful Place.
Eastaugh has been to the Antarctic nine times and is one of the few artists to have spent the winter on the continent. He’s more than familiar with the innards of the Aurora Australis, and his work uses materials easily transported, such as small squares of burlap and skeins of yarn. The results can be profound, the knitting of yarn and the sewing of thread throughout his canvases small and large a reminder of the almost quirky presence of humans in the severe strangeness of the Antarctic landscape. Most artists concentrate on portraying the Antarctic as a “white continent” seen during the six-month day. Eastaugh has managed dark views of the Antarctic as a “Big Beautiful Dead Place” (the title of a large, profoundly disturbing panorama of rafting sea ice under a black sky shot through with dark blue yarn).
Art that you see in places such as Tasmania can often remind us that abstraction, high technology, and elaborate systems of symbols can be used by artists to create more than just objects of high value in an international art market; they can also be put into service as links to our place in the world by altering our senses. Speaking of which, Hobart is also home to the world-renowned Museum of New and Old Art, which is devoted to exploring the twin themes of sex and death, and which just opened up its newest exhibition, “Theatre of the World.” Definitely disturbing — see the next post.
Travels in Tasmania — Part 1 of 3
I’m in central Tasmania attending a conference about “Imaging Nature,” which is being held at an arts-and-craft resort high in the mountains. The Tarraleah Lodge and resort was originally the village for workers constructing one of the larger hydroelectric projects in the state, and my room faces out into a eucalyptus forest that is bordered by two enormous pipes dropping water down from the King William reservoir to a power plant at the bottom of the deep gorge on the other side of the building.
The first hydroelectric projects in the southern hemisphere were built in Tasmania, the large island south of Australia that holds the grandest mountain scenery and deepest lakes in the country. The central plateau of Tasmania was covered repeatedly by glaciers during the ice ages, tongues of ice that descended to carve out deep valleys now filled with water. In order to industrialize the state of Tasmania, the government undertook a massive expansion of the early hydroelectric scheme in the 1950s and 60s.
The result is a land of contradictions. Tasmania is known worldwide for heritage wilderness parks that are among the most remote and impenetrable on the planet, parks that about some of the most severely altered landscapes imaginable. It’s ground that’s been over-grazed, over-logged, and plumbed to channel every significant lake and river through tunnels and pipes. It’s also very beautiful in its own way — pastoral lands uninterrupted by the coal- and gas-fired powerplants that would otherwise be needed to provide power on the island.
This is terrain that photographers David Stephenson and Martin Walch have long been exploring in a series of poetic video meditations and still images about Tasmania’s most historically important river, the Derwent, a project that will culminate in an exhibition and book in 2015 or so. They volunteered to take me up the entire course of the Derwent, which flows from the deepest lake in the country to the state capital, the port of Hobart, while on our way to speak at the conference.
The waters of the Derwent are controlled by seven dams that impound water for the power plants. Enough hydroelectricity is generated during wet years that Tasmania sells power to the mainland via a cable that heads north under the Bass Strait. During droughts, Tasmania buys back power via the same cable, not a cheap proposition. David and Martin have started their project by repeatedly shooting from geo-tagged sites both along the shoreline of King William Lake, and out on its waters from a specially outfitted canoe.
The lake is often shrouded in fog in the early mornings, and their slow quiet drifts through the drowned forests of the reservoir are ethereal. Slow ripples spreading out from the canoe make you feel as if you are continually falling into the water, while the stark tree trunks rotate around each other in a seemingly impossible dance. It takes a minute or so before you can slow your mind to match the pace of the videos, but once you do, you are entranced.
The actual experience of being at the lake provokes a similar perceptual shift. The bulldozed and drowned shores are at first terminally ugly, but after an hour of walking exposed cobble and mud while the waters are low, and picking carefully through the constant lithic scatter that indicates many millennia of Aboriginal occupation — plus the odd rusted tractor parts, beer bottles tossed overboard by fishermen, and random plastic bits — you begin to appreciate the scene.
It’s winter solstice in Australia this June 20th, and there’s snow on the rocky peaks of the King William Range. Multiple streams meander into the reservoir, which at this time of year is slowly rising, and the shoreline is forested with gum trees marked with a dark plimsoll line from the high-water months. The capacity of the land to provide beauty even when so deeply modified is surprising–as is the ability of the human mind to construct such beauty around the edges of the ugly. Imaging nature is a collaborative effort between humans and their environments, a process impossible to ignore while standing on the dry bed of a reservoir.
Travels in Australia: Paruku — Part 6 of 6
At the end of the two-and-a-half weeks in Paruku, the painters from Mulan and the visiting artists, the writers and conservationists, the scientists and local Aboriginal rangers, had created a layered and linked body of work unlike anything I’ve witnessed elsewhere. A fine trope for it all was the portfolio to be created by Basil Hall, a printmaker from Darwin with whom Mandy Martin and Aboriginal artists have collaborated for years.
Basil gave the Aboriginal artists sheets of acetate upon which to paint each color from their paintings in order to reproduce them as prints. In some cases, the artists took to painting new works directly on the acetates. Notes from the scientists, sketches by the visiting artists, a poem from me–all of it would be incorporated. Even drawings by Chris Curran of the water and diesel pumps he repaired for the community would be layered into the work. Some of art would tell stories dating back thousands of years, others to last week.
And the men’s painting, although it wasn’t completely finished when I photographed it the morning we were driving back to Alice Springs, was breathtaking. A large selection of works from the project will tour parts of Australia, and the project archive and many of the artworks then come to the Center for Art + Environment. But it was difficult to envision that particular painting leaving Paruku. It’s not simply that the painting was a representation of Paruku and its Dreaming, but that the painting itself is considered country.
All of the work was linked, a culture of markmaking that started during our trip with mud being smeared on us in the lake as a gesture of welcome to country and that would continue as the artists both from Mulan and elsewhere would contribute work in future years. And, in turn, this expedition was linked into that much, much long arc of art on the continent that started with body decoration and rock art tens of thousands of years earlier.
Travels in Australia: Paruku — Part 5 of 6
The men’s painting of the dingo tracks along Parnkupirti Creek took days. At first, each of the five artists picked up one of the five panels and sat apart, painting his own style onto the canvas. By the end of the first day the panels were beginning to come alive with rich patterned color–but none of the panels matched. Dingo tracks were painted along Kim’s creekbed, and ended in a pool of blue pigment painted by Hanson to represent where the two dogs went to ground.
On the second morning the men took the five panels back down into the creekbed, along the way torching some of the spinifex. It was done casually with a tossed match, which astonished me, coming from a state where out-of-control wildfires regularly consume thousands of square acres. But, despite the fierce afternoon winds that rose, the fires stayed contained within a few square yards, a testament to the wisdom of burning country on a regular basis, and a land management tool that’s been used on the continent for at least fifty thousand years.
Hanson’s brother Cyril took each of the panels and completely covered over the white creek that Kim had painted across them with thick black paint. Then he repainted them again with white, and completely redid the dingo tracks in a manner that was consistent, thus starting to reinforce how the individual pieces would jell into a single story and work of art.
As I was sitting crosslegged on the ground nearby, taking notes about the progress of the painting, I also kept staring at the bank of the creek opposite me, which Bowler had studied and sketched. A hundred thousand years of lakeshore sediments was exposed, and the men were painting a story that was so old it was almost geological in its origins.
Travels in Australia: Paruku — Part 4 of 6
One morning Kim Mahood drove out from Mulan with a five-canvas template-map of Parnkupirti Creek, one of the feeders into Lake Gregory, to the site along the creek where the Australian geomorphologist Jim Bowler discovered the oldest human artifact on the continent. It’s also the site where the major Dreaming story of region, Two Dingoes and the Emu, concludes. Bowler has spent more than forty years untangling the paleoclimate of the ancient lake systems of the interior, and along the way done more to push back the dates of human presence in Australia than anyone else. At this site during his 2006-2007 field season he discovered worked rock between 47,000 and 53,000 years old. The place we stood with the artists from Mulan was the site of the oldest continuous cultural tradition on the planet.
The Dreaming–or Dreamtime as it is sometimes called–is the period when country was created, but it’s also a system of beliefs and practices that govern everything from hunting and marriage to land management. The stories are an ancient oral system of knowledge that’s the basis of what has been called the most complicated non-technological society in the history of the world. The Dreaming story where Kim spread out her painting is about two dingoes hunting and eating an emu, then going underground where they still reside. Kim had painted one of her topographical templates of the creek for the women to talk over and paint, but after a few minutes of discussion, the women decided that this was “men’s business,” and that the men should take responsibility for the project.
Hanson Pye, the senior man of Mulan, led the men down into the creekbed by Bowler’s dig site, where they set out the five panels, the creek a meandering white path connecting each of the canvases to one another. Then he pulled out a printed reproduction of the only painting ever done of the story, one done by his father during the 1990s, and began to compare it with the template. To paint the creek, the country, is to paint the Dreaming, hence using art to express and maintain the relationship of the people to their environment. It was not something to take on lightly.
Travels in Australia: Paruku — Part 3 of 6
The Paruku Project out at Lake Gregory in Western Australia wasn’t just about Indigenous people painting, but also work by the artists Kim Mahood, Mandy Martin, and David Leece. David, who is known more for being one of Melbourne’s leading architects and photographers, worked on a series that captured two views of the same scene on a single canvas, one horizon stacked above the other, a cognitive record of how we never see the same scene twice in an identical manner. Mandy, who is the definitive Australian painter of the romantic sublime, used various ground earthen pigments and acrylic to built up complex 5-part field sketches. They’re complete works in and of themselves, but also notes toward the much larger oil paintings she’ll do back in the studio.
Kim, daughter of a Tanami rancher, grew up in the region and was raised in part by Aboriginal people; she has a distinctly different and deeper relationship with the community here, living and working in Mulan for three months out of the year. Since 2007 she’s been painting a set of very large canvases that are at first simple topographical maps of the land. But the ochre-colored canvases showing the location of the lake and creeks and dunes are just the start. The community women then sit with her, tell stories, and paint information into the work. One map might be a history of local events, another the extent of water from year to year, and a recent one documents burn scars where fire has swept through the spinifex and grasslands during the last five years. The maps are both works of art, but also documents that can help influence politics and policies.
When you look at the story paintings that the Mulan women are doing, the work by the visiting artists, and Kim’s maps, you begin to get an inkling of the layers involved both in landscape as a human construct, but also how deep here those physical layers extend.
Travels in Australia: Paruku — Part 2 to 6
One of the objectives of the Paruku Project is to energize the Warruyarnta Art Centre in Mulan, the newest and perhaps most modest art center of the approximately 44 such organizations in central Australia. Aboriginal communities have few opportunities to generate income, and art centers have become a primary venue for doing so. The predominant painting style in the region consists of acrylic dots thickly applied to build up iconic pictures of “country” (a term meaning both terrain and territory) and “bush tucker,” or sources of food found in the wild. While the project generated several beautiful examples of such paintings, such as the one above by Daisy Kangah, project artists Mandy Martin and Kim Mahood also worked with the local artists to develop a style somewhat unique to Mulan, one based on more personal stories and community events.
Australia is the flattest continent (as well as being the lowest, driest, and hottest). Runoff from rain in the interior doesn’t really run downhill in rivers, as we experience in North America, but rather flows across the desert in enormous and slow puddles. Lake Gregory is actually one of those moving puddles that was blocked by a buildup of sand dunes during an ice age within the last 200,000 years. As a result, it is a shallow body of water that fills during wet years and evaporates, sometimes entirely, during dry ones. It’s therefore a very delicate ecosystem easily affected by global warming, and the spangled perch that live in the lake have recently experienced the worst known infestation in the world of a parasitic red worm.
Shirley Yoomarie painted her story of community members working with scientists to net fish for sampling, a painting that is at once a picture of country, a document relevant to climate change, a communal narrative, and a personal story. It’s also evidence of aesthetic evolution in the community–the dots are still there at the top and bottom of the painting, but they frame a flat representational scene.