TarraWarra Museum of Art, May 6, 2015
Australia is home to many fine public art museums, notable among them the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, which opened in 1874, and the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, which opened in 1861 and is the oldest public art museum in the country. These are large encyclopedic art museums with collections of international importance, including significant collections of Australian Aboriginal art. Shows of contemporary art at the “NGV” can attract as many as three-quarter of a million people.
But the robust public museum community of Australia has more recently been augmented with private museums. The most well-known, even notorious example is the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Tasmania’s capital, Hobart. Dedicated to breaking down curatorial and thematic walls in its collections and exhibitions, visitors to MONA can expect to be confronted with a Egyptian sarcophagus standing opposite an elongated human figure by Alberto Giacometti, all surrounded by sloping walls draped in an astonishing collection of tapa cloth from across the Pacific. MONA has become the leading tourist attraction of Tasmania, and a must-see for any serious international museum-goer.
During my visit to Melbourne in early May, I visited another extraordinary private facility, the TarraWarra Museum of Art. Founded in 2000, its handsome single-story form arcs above the famed vineyards of Yarra Valley. The museum’s core strength is in Australian paintings, and during the Art + Climate = Change festival, it exhibited works by two notable Aboriginal artists from Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. Titled Earth and Sky, the intricate crosshatched patterns by John Mawurndjul represented landscape, while Gulumbu Yunupingu’s dense fields of small cruciforms revealed the starry night sky of the Southern Hemisphere.
Yunupingu, born in 1945, had a vision that led her to paint stars with crosses as bodies, each with a dot representing an eye in the center, the forms all floating on an even denser field of dots beneath them that represent the stars we cannot see. Mawurndjul’s seemingly infinitely detailed crosshatched painting stems from his adoption of “rarrk,” a shimmering technique of layered crosshatching that alludes to the spirit and power of place. Mawurndjul’s use of rarrk is derived from its original forms reserved for sacred ceremonies.
Both artists ground local pigments and then painted with them on bark peeled from eucalyptus trees, a medium that dates back at least into the 19th century, if not earlier. Bark paintings have been collected for their aesthetic and formal beauty since the early 20th century, although they are less well-known in the U.S. than the work of Australia’s Central Desert painters who use acrylic on canvas. Both Yunupingu and Marundjul created major works in 2006 for the Australian Indigenous Art Commission at the new Musée du quai Branly in Paris, which holds masterpieces of indigenous art from around the world.
The exhibition was a powerful reminder that the concern of contemporary artists for climate and our role in shaping it spring from a species-old relationship to an environment that is larger and richer in both reality and imagination, in science and emotion, than we sometimes remember to credit.