Drill Hall Gallery, Australian National University, Canberra
27 September–4 November 2012
by Dr JANET McKENZIE
The 20 years since its establishment has seen Australia transformed by the multi-cultural immigration policies of Paul Keating’s Labour government in the 1980s. This followed a history of suspicion and a guarded policy over non-white immigrants. The artists in Convergent Worlds, celebrate the contribution made to Australian society by stellar figures who have migrated to Australia in recent years – Juan Davila from Chile, Petr Herel from Czechoslovakia and Guan Wei from China – and have brought with them experiential phenomena in their art practice. They are presented with Indigenous artist Fiona Foley, to show a rich and varied cross-section of contemporary Australian art. Among many issues to address are those of prevalent cultural bricolage and the resultant visual dynamism, which is central to much of their work, alongside the fundamental struggle for identity and survival.
Underlying a study of contemporary art in Australia it is necessary to find an appropriate balance between aspects and issues that are unique to Australia with the population made up of Indigenous Australians, the descendents of white settlers and the generations and waves of immigrants, who have created an extraordinary society and culture that is viewed by the rest of the world as unique and challenging, and combined with the fact that Australian artists firmly now exist within a global culture. Australians have long been aware of what Geoffrey Blainey called, The Tyranny of Distance.1 Overseas travel has always been vital to Australian artists, and a central theme in the development of their work. Where travel was done for lengthy periods of time by artists such as Arthur Boyd and his generation, who travelled to Europe and stayed for some years, travel today can be quick and regular, enabling artists to exhibit abroad, to visit the circuit of international fairs and biennales, to be active players in international art. Julie Ewington in her essay for Face Up, in Berlin observes: “Changes in communications technology have blessed the settler societies of the southern hemisphere in the last thirty years: jet travel, developments in telecommunications and digital technologies, all the globalising trends that have brought countries, economies and cultures into closer contact, have profited Australian art and artists. This has been neither a purposeless, nor inadvertent drift. Australians have seized on those new possibilities to defeat distance with knowledge, as they previously seized on books, films and television; in the process they have become world leaders in experimental photography and the digital arts”.2
Director Nancy Sever points out that Drill Hall exhibitions "are designed to provide a cultural outreach for the Australian National University at community, national and international level and to showcase the University as a patron of the arts. In choosing the four artists for Convergent Worlds, Sever looked beyond the purely visual to four artists whose work is: "technically masterful, meaningful and charged with literary, historical and socio-political references. Juan Davila, Fiona Foley, Petr Herel and Guan Wei have each made a key contribution to art practice in Australia."3
Juan Davila’s (b. 1946) art practice has always addressed social and political issues with provocative images, through which he engages in philosophical critique. Born in Chile, Davila studied Law at the University of Santiago (1965–69) and Fine Art (1970–72). Two years later he moved to Australia, and lives in Melbourne. The abstract works in Convergent Worlds come as a surprise, having seen no work by Juan Davila since leaving Australia myself over 20 years ago. Inspired Abstraction: Commentaries on Presence and Time, are according to psychoanalyst Dr Kate Briggs, made to capture, “that moment of creation where time stands still as its dimensions are taken and inscribed forever in another place. After Images are the impressions left when we close our eyes; they are subjective studies in the nuance of being and relationship, the manner in which perception dwells in the body. Painted lines and marks, drip lines on the canvas: traces left by the fluid intensity of movement capture the pulse of the real, that which cannot be otherwise represented.”4
The largest painting in the exhibition is a collaborative work with Constanze Zikos. The painting, Untitled (2012) is more than six metres long and three metres in height. Indeed Untitled dominates the first gallery with a quotation of Venetian form. In its original context the patterning was the composite effort of craftsmen who had plundered ancient buildings and places in order to reconfigure pieces of marble, sculptures and marble in a wall in the cathedral in Venice. The practice referred to here, is of course not confined to the example, cited by Davila’s work. The ruins of ancient and medieval buildings have been plundered over the centuries with little regard for the original building, or its function and significance. Pieces of buildings were used for new buildings, examples of which can be found in most towns and villages in Europe. Juan Davila alludes not to this, a common practice, but to how these notions of disassociation and the real can be used to convey the ideas based on experiential information cited by Freud and Lacan.
“The collaboration here, a marriage of two approaches, works off an image of this tableau to depict the stitching of links, of representations across a field that thereby appears as a portal to the real. A portal in the sense that the real is where death awakes, it depicts the frame of the symbolic in a moment of condensation, a demonstration of representation and artifice similarly applied to create a sacred shimmer. As if painting the moment after Freud’s realization on the Acropolis, that the Other does not exist, the centre is empty. This is a painting that captures that moment which stayed with Freud for decades. Writing of it was his gift to the esteemed Other, a gift to a fellow mortal, to address someone he once described as a man who knew how to give, for there is a moment perhaps when one becomes mortal, and prior to that point we are as yet really unaware”.5
Untitled, the collaborative work, which uses a central rectangle and repeated ovals, orbs and circles, all framed becomes a paradigm of interior space, inner being. Characterised by a curious wonderment the works that make up Davila’s After Images, are alluring yet ambivalent compositions of an other worldly place, beyond life and therefore not fully knowable.
Fiona Foley’s Indigenous people are the Badtjala of Hervey Bay and Fraser Island. Foley’s diverse art practice (painting, drawing, sculpture, photography and installation) is part of recent Aboriginal art that has reinvigorated Australian visual culture in a dramatic manner. There is no precedent or parallel anywhere else in the world. Aboriginal art has provided a focal point for the profound changes that have taken place in attitudes and policy in Australia regarding its indigenous population. Aboriginal art is driven by deep political and cultural necessity, as can be seen in the work of Fiona Foley represented in the present exhibition. Cultural pride on the part of Aborigines against the appalling treatment of Aboriginal culture by white settlers since 1788 onwards, has resulted in a diverse art with rare and powerful qualities. Numerous important exhibitions of Aboriginal art have been held at Drill Hall Gallery, and their scholarly publications have played a key role in furthering research in areas of Art and Human Rights, at the Australian National University.
Where Conceptual art in the 1970s drew inspiration from non-Western sources, such as Joseph Beuys’s shamanism, it has been a development unique to Australian culture in the past 20 years in particular, that Aboriginal culture has reinvigorated contemporary art. Linking contemporary developments with the millennia-old culture of Australia has created an intense and vital cultural dialogue. The dynamic juxtaposition of ancient and contemporary culture is borne of necessity, in response to the inhuman manner by which the Indigenous population has been treated since White Colonisation in 1788.
In her work for this show, The Oyster Fishermen Foley specifically addresses the terrible treatment of young Aboriginal people who were forced to work in the pearl and bêche de mer industries in Northern Queensland in the 19th century. Sixteen photographs telling a historic narrative portraying the colonizer/Indigene conflict are presented to highlight the overlooked reality, where young workers were “often abused, not paid, and injury and mortality rates were high.”6 Foley’s fictional tableau is based on actual events, forming as they do an exposé of a little known injustice. In a tale of good and evil there is no happy ending: the colonial intruder is seen to exploit both the environment and the innocence of young lives. Acting as the main character and victim, Fiona Foley’s directorship enables her sensibility to pervade the work with a physical and personal presence. The final frame nonetheless comes as a great shock: the artist’s body is floating face down in the sea – an image of great poignancy, for it is not clear whether following the violence inflicted on her she has taken her own life or been murdered.
Louise Murray-Crew writes, “In The Oyster Fishermen, [Foley] allows us to see the amplification of grief down the centuries with ongoing indigenous inequity. There are multiple backstories here. The tragedy is suggested in the first frame with the dripping water that falls from the shell. The fish skeletons speak of death, then the images of the men have a malevolent presence although they are at rest. Their beer bottles speak to the violence that came to indigenous communities with alcohol. Our protagonist’s appearance is relatively brief, her death sudden and dramatic. In the final frame, oysters, visible on nearby rocks, evoke treachery, blood flow and death”.7
Petr Herel arrived in Australia in 1973 from Czechoslovakia, after establishing considerable reputation as a printmaker in Prague and Paris. He returned to France to teach (1977–78) but returned to Australia when he was offered the position of Head of Graphic Investigation at the Canberra School of Art, where he stayed until he retired in 1998. A retrospective at the Drill Hall Gallery in the same year marked the remarkable contribution to teaching there. With Jorg Schmeisser, (d.2012) Head of Printmaking at the CSA, Herel established a unique course in Australia, deeply rooted in European tradition. Technically his work is assured and highly skilled with a fluency in his imagery that displays a wide interest in poetry and ideas, an observer of the natural world, and the culture of Czechoslovakia. Hand-made books enable Herel to combine text and image, which Alex Selenitsch astutely observes: “For artists, another kind of symmetry emerges as part of the book’s properties: that of writing to drawing, of text to image. This relationship is a source of much discussion. ..those who think, look, write and draw, know that the line, the brush, the pen, the engraver’s needle, the ink, the flat surface, belong to an extensive mark-making domain.
But unlike the certainty of the folded sheet, and the pragmatics of printing, this liminal zone between writing and drawing is a place for invention, for making specific and unique gestures. This is the zone in which Petr Herel works, and it allows him to produce images of mutation, of transcendence, of suspended breath and relentless expiration, through books, book-like prints, “single” prints and drawings”.8 The works in Convergent Worlds are wide-ranging and exquisite.
Born in Beijing in 1957 Guan Wei travelled to Australia in 1989, three years after graduating from the Department of Fine Arts at Beijing Capital University and stayed for twenty years. His major installation at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, in 2008, Other Histories, Guan Wei’sFable for a Contemporary World challenged Australia’s perceptions, of national identity using an enigmatic and disconcerting lexicon of images. Where’s Ned Kelly? (2004), is an amusing and enigmatic cue for the military to look closer to home; the acceptance of a bushranger as a national hero being incongruous in the context of suspicion and inhumanity towards Asian refugees. Informed by the writing of Jean Baudrillard (1929–2007) it is the process of making maps in an additive, symbolic process that becomes the means by which Guan heightens awareness through historic precedent. A diminutive “Self”, projected in cartoon-style figuration on to political maps, becomes the symbol for the outsider in Australian society. American political hegemony and a linear reading of history, is seen through Guan’s enigmatic and theatrical language as tantamount to a deliberate misreading of history, a form of “simulation”.
In “Looking for Enemies”, (2004) Guan Wei discusses the hyping of terrorist threat by governments and media, to justify war and alarmist foreign policy. In “Simulcra and Simulations” (1998) Baudrillard referred to the Borges tale,9 “as the finest allegory of simulation where the cartographers of the Empire draw up a map so detailed that it ends up exactly covering the territory (but where, with the decline of the Empire this map becomes frayed and finally ruined, a few shreds still discernible in the deserts — the metaphysical beauty of this ruined abstraction, bearing witness to an imperial pride and rotting like a carcass, returning to the substance of the soil, rather as an aging double ends up being confused with the real thing), this fable would then have come full circle for us, and now has nothing but the discrete charm of second-order simulacra”.10
The choice of Ned Kelly as a symbol of Australian history, and a visual icon of Australian art, is inserted into Guan’s political maps, with other characters from Australia’s troubled colonial past. It is in doing so that Guan makes a primary art-historic reference to one of Australia’s most important artists, Sidney Nolan, whose first works on the theme were made in 1946–47.11 Guan Wei has taken Nolan’s Ned Kelly as the alienated and hunted “victim”, as he has become: but Ned Kelly was not a likeable figure, no Robin Hood; he was a horse thief and murderer, who was eventually convicted and hung for his crimes. Ned Kelly has nonetheless, continuously inspired artists, writers, playwrights and film makers, the most recent being Peter Carey’s fictionalised biographical study.
The son of an Irish convict, transported to Australia, Ned Kelly was for Nolan a rebellious, anti-establishment figure. Nolan’s own working-class Irish background, and the fact that his grandfather was one of the policemen who pursued the Kelly gang, enabled him to identify personally with the contradiction that many Australians feel towards their country: awe in the face of its violent past, alleviated by a tremendous love for the unique and beautiful environment. Nolan’s identification with tragic figures, or those on the margins of society, was at the time, a way of characterising Australia’s pioneering spirit and the hardship endured. Where an outlaw and murderer can become a hero/villain, a likeable rogue, upholding a racist foreign policy is conveyed as incongruous. Guan Wei amply deploys his awareness of this dichotomy in Australian minds, so much still exploited by politicians and media alike.
Convergent Worlds is a provocative and important exhibition, a must-see exhibition for those geographically well disposed. It is a fitting tribute to the last 20 years at the Drill Hall, and one hopes that the work there of Nancy Sever, the Director, for whom this exhibition forms her swan-song will continue.