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.
Saami, Part 3 of 3
While in Tromsø I’ve been fortunate enough to meet two artists with Saami roots. Hans Ragnar-Mathisen was born in 1945 and trained at the National College of Art and Design and the National Art Academy , and paints with watercolors that veer from delicate somewhat abstract landscapes to his most famous works, maps that reinforce the identity of his people. His cartography of Sami language, SÁBMI (the territory of the Saami) published in 1975, ignores national boundaries from northwestern Norway to the Kola Peninsula of Russia in order to highlight the nomadic territories over which the reindeer herders have traditionally roamed. It’s a region that coheres through the shared Uralic languages and culture of the Sami as much as geography.
I have the feeling that the Saami are less hindered today in their movements by national borders than by the increasing presence of mines, roads, and tracks for motorized recreation in the winter, all of which hamper or outright break herding patterns. The Sami are among the least legally protected indigenous peoples in the world, according to the Saami human rights attorney Mattias Åhren, who spoke during the Contested Landscapes–Lost Ecologies conference I’ve been attending. Åhren also made the point that the title of the marine ecology conference of which our event is a part, Arctic Frontiers, is a bit ironic. To the Saami, the Arctic is not a frontier to be explored, but a homeland.
The other artist I met with is Aslaug Juliussen, who was born in 1953, educated along more contemporary lines, and is one of Norway’s most honored artists. She spent 25 years herding reindeer with her former husband, and now creates sculptures and installations from the the parts of reindeer not used by the meat industry: hooves, antlers, fur, bones. She laughs when we talk in her studio about how her work is received. “Outsiders think I’m an ambassador for the Saami culture–but the Saami don’t think I am, because I don’t use reindeer in the traditional ways!” Instead, she uses reindeer to tell new stories about contemporary life.
The Saami have occupied about 150,000 square miles in the north for more than 5,000 years, fishing and reindeer herding being their primary resource basis. Today perhaps 2,500 still practice herding, and most Saami are urbanised. Their homelands are threatened by logging, mining, radioactive waste leakage, and simply the expanding population from the south that moves every northward as temperatures rise in the Arctic. Although Ragnar-Mathisen and Juliussen work in very different ways, their concerns are not so very far apart.
Oslo– Part 2 of 3
After working in Tromsø, I’ve flown south to Oslo, which is equidistant between Tromsø and Rome. Norway truly is a long country! Oddly enough, it’s much colder here than up north, where the Gulf Stream moderates the temperatures. The Oslo fjord is frozen over and people are crossing-country skiing on it. The ex-pat British artist Stuart Ian Frost, who lives in the deep forest south of Oslo, has volunteered to show me around a couple of museums. Stuart, a sculptor and environmental artist, installs site-specific pieces around the world and has materials in the CA+E Archive Collections.
We visited two private museums here, each remarkable for their vision. Iceskater Sonia Henie (1912-1969) was a three-time Olympic champion and film star–but also an avid art collector. After she married shipping magnate Niels Onstad, she collected early to mid-20th century modernism. The curved and slightly futuristic Henie-Onstad Art Centre sits atop a low knoll on a headland that projects out into the fjord about six miles south of Oslo. But the most amazing set of objects were by the early 20th-century collage artist Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948), whose work presages installation art.
Schwitters was a German painter who by 1920 was constructing collages and assemblages from found materials; his work was the major influence on Robert Rauschenberg, hence installation art as we know it. Scwhitters came to a small town in Norway for vacation starting in 1930, returned in 1932, and spent every summer there until 1939. During that time he collaged the interior of the structure, creating one of his famous Merzbau works. The hut has decayed badly, but the interiors were salvaged, consolidated, meticulously duplicated and are currently on display at the Henie.
This is an important and state-of-the-art work of conservation that makes available one of the most profound transformations of a built environment in the history of art.
The other museum couldn’t be more different. Built by a group of Norwegian industrialists, and devoted to contemporary art, the new Astrup Fearnley Museet by renowned architect Renzo Piano sit on reclaimed land in the center of downtown Oslo. The roof lines decline toward the water, and although the building only opened a few weeks ago, the natural wood exteriors are already beginning to show traces of the handsome weathering they will undergo over time.
Inside the two main museum buildings 2,000 individually unique panes of glass let in what little exterior light is available during January, which is augmented by massive numbers of lights. The collection is steeped in blue chip contemporary artworks by Matthew Barney, Damien Hirst, Anselm Kiefer, Cindy Sherman, Odd Nerdrum, Cai Guo-Qiang and many more, as well as by younger artists, such as my friend Nate Lowman.
But my favorite piece is by Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping, a large earthenware recreation of the Colosseum in Rome. The eye-level sculpture is filled with potted plants that range from ferns and palms to cacti that turns the bloody arena into a potted planter. The survival of plants from such widely divergent climate conditions under the artificial lights of winter in Norway is predestined to failure, and provides is a sharp comment on the decline of empire through the lens of crossed environments. I can’t help but think that Schwitters, who worked along the fringes of Dadism almost a hundred years earlier, would have approved.
Tromsø– Part 1 of 3
I’m blogging from Tromsø this week, the largest city in northern Norway, and the second largest city above the Arctic Circle after Murmansk in Russia. Tromsø is mostly dark or in twilight at this time of year–during January it receives only a few minutes of direct sunlight during the entire month–and candles burn all day in the restaurants and hotel lobbies. This is one of the world’s most renowned places from which to see the Northern Lights, but the tourists here have been disappointed, as it’s been snowing all week. Each day I walk by a three-meter Sun of Tromsø installed late last year by artists Lisa Pacini and Christine Istad above the front door of the Tromsø Kunstforening. It’s due to come down as soon as the real sun returns to the city.
Many of the city’s 70,000 residents are students attending the University of Tromsø, where I’ve come at the invitation of Janike Larsen and her colleagues to the newly-formed Tromsø Academy of Landscape Studies. The Academy is designed to train people to understand and influence the future of urban planning, ecosystems, infrastructure and more in what is one of the fastest changing regions in the world. The melting out of the Northeast Passage above Siberia, the discovery of enormous natural gas fields, and China’s endless appetite for iron and other raw materials have every city in the circumpolar north scrambling to become an industrial hub. The intense resource extraction coupled with climate change is erasing old landscapes and memories even as it creates new ones, which is always fertile ground for landscape studies.
Each year Tromsø hosts the Arctic Frontiers Conference. The title is a dead giveaway to the tilt of the conversations, which are both about marine ecology and the geopolitics of the developing north. The Academy puts together a side conference to discuss the “lost ecologies” created by the regional changes. The speakers range from artists and filmmakers, to geographers and historians such as Michael Bravo from the Scott Polar Research Institute, to representatives from the Saami, the native rein-herders of northern Scandinavia and northwestern Russia.
The Academy will move into a newly refurbished brewery built in downtown Tromsø in 1870. It will join interdisiciplinary field programs such as the Land Arts of the American West, John Reid’s Art & Ecology operation at the Australia National University, and Liam Young’s Unknown Fields Division at the Architecture Association School of Architecture in London. Increasingly, the demand for quick and intelligent responses to the challenges of global change require the collaboration of artists, architects, and designers–which, in turn, breaks down traditional barriers between those disciplines. All these organizations are partners of the Center for Art + Environment precisely for that reason.
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 Chile — Part 3 of 4
On our last day in Chile, David Walker, the architect Cecilia Puga, and I – along with our host, artist Josefina Guilisasti (http://www.josefinaguilisasti.cl/biography/), drove two hours north of Santiago to Bahía Azul (http://coolboom.net/architecture/bahia-azul-house-by-cecilia-puga/), a small collection of houses perched above the rocky coastline. Cecilia has designed one of the most remarkable residencies that can be seen anywhere, a family retreat named “Casa Larrain.” The house, consisting of three sheds, is constructed out of concrete. Although a relatively expensive material to use initially, over time its cost is justified by how well it withstands the fierce storms and salt air from the ocean.
The great trick of the house is that the central third of its three shed shapes is nestled upside down between the other two, a pun on the weight of the material, but also a cost-effective and handsome solution to using repeated forms in an unexpected way. Indeed, what could have had the heavy-footed appearance of a coastal defense bunker is instead a structure that opens itself to the light and air.
Travels in Chile — Part 2 of 4
Josefina Guilisasti, an internationally renowned Chilean painter, introduced David Walker, CEO Nevada Museum of Art, and Irene Abujatum, the director of Galleria AFA (http://www.galeriaafa.com/). The gallery is housed in a suite of rooms on the second floor of an older building in the downtown area near the national museums. Irene is one of the country’s leading contemporary art dealers, and while in her gallery we met Cristián Salineros (http://www.cristiansalineros.cl/), a sculptor who has been working around both Europe and South America. His series on transmission towers, an ever-present figuration up and down the length of the world’s longest country, changes the viewer’s sense of scale and orientation in the landscape by rotating an element of exterior infrastructure inside the gallery – a neat perceptual trick as well as a handsome sculpture.
Sachiyo Nishimura (http://www.snishimura.com/), a Santiago-born artist living in London who also shows at Galleria AFA, has been photographing another segment of the electrical grid, the wires above railroad yards. She then superimposes a grid of her own, which fragments the aerial fabric into discrete units. The resulting works, black-and-white photographs that show how we subdivide sky as well as ground, are striking.
Travels in Chile — Part 1 of 4
David Walker, the director of the Museum, and I flew to Santiago, Chile a couple of weeks ago to work on an upcoming CA+E exhibition, The Fog Garden.
The structures of the ironically titled “garden,” are being developed by architect Rodrigio Perez de Arce and his students at the Catholic University of Santiago. They are based on field в studies in the Atacama Desert, where scientists have been conducting research on fog collection in the world’s driest desert since the 1950s. The structures are designed to wring moisture out of clouds as a source of potable water.
The research site is Alto Patache, a steep and dramatic ridge that rises 2600 feet above the narrow coastal flats below. The only source of moisture in the region is the fog that rolls in nightly from the Pacific Ocean, and centuries ago native people walked up from the shore to collect water dripping down the uppermost cliffs. Today, Rodrigo and his students are designing sculptural forms that will both irrigate small gardens at the site, and collect enough water for piping to other locations.
Working on The Fog Garden was just the beginning of a series of extraordinary encounters with art and architecture in what is one of the most prosperous nations in South America