Queen’s Land: Blak Portraiture, Late 19th Century to the Present.

Cairns Art Gallery, 16th June 2019

This exhibition forms part of the Cairns Indigenous Art Festival (10th-14th July 2019), and opens officially that week. The exhibition ‘explores the relationships between personal, cultural and national identity in relation to historical and contemporary portrait images by indigenous and non-indigenous artists’. The exhibits are predominantly photographic. In a number of ways, the exhibition takes me back to my first steps in the MA programme, with the engagement with the work of Aboriginal artist Christian Thompson in June 2018.

As the notes to the exhibition state:

‘The concept of portraiture is one that is challenged through works in the exhibition, as it is evident that, for Indigenous peoples, portraiture and identity extend beyond the generally accepted western notion of a vertical representation of a face to depict the image of a person. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, identity and portraiture can be represented and interpreted through a cultural totem, a marking, a foot or hand print, a name or a ritual. It is only in very recent times that photographic portraiture has been available to Indigenous artists, and through this medium they have sought to challenge common perceptions of their identity in order to present images of themselves and others as they want to be seen’.

This resonates very much with the approach I am taking to the use of artefacts, both alongside photographs and in photographs, and the use of the photograph as an artefact. It is important to note, also, that the orientation to photographic images, particularly of people who are dead, varies greatly across different Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) groups. Thompson (whose work, two images from his 2010 King Billy series, is included in this exhibition) adopts a process of ‘spiritual repatriation’, engaging with and producing work as a response to archival images of ATSI people, to avoid the reproduction of these images.

Christian Thompson, from the King Billy series, 2010.

As Lydon (2010) points out, however, some ATSI communities (particularly in South Australia) view these images as a form of Indigenous memory, creating valuable links to a lost past. This contrasts with other groups, notably from remote communities in northern Australia, for whom such images (some of which are featured in this exhibition) would be taboo. Lydon argues that archivists and curators often act, inappropriately, as gate keepers, homogenising Aboriginal culture (in much the same way that colonisers made assumptions about the homogeneity of Aboriginal languages). The point is reinforced by Michael Aird in an essay written to accompany the exhibition.

‘Regardless of how and why photographs were taken, Indigenous people are often able to look past the exploitative nature of some of these images and just accept them as treasured images of family members. To reflect on the way Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people have been represented in photographs, it is often simplified to a story of exploitation – yet, the story is much more complex, with stories of Indigenous people taking control of exactly how they wanted to be represented at different points in time’. [source unknown, quote taken from exhibition notes]

Tracey Moffatt, I Made a Camera, 2003.

As the exhibition demonstrates, photography can provide a powerful means for the exploration of identity by Aboriginal communities, and, as in a number of exhibits, portraiture, juxtaposed with other images and text, can act as a medium for political comment and activism (for instance, Richard Bell’s 1992 Ministry Kids, Tony Albert’s 2013 series Brothers and Michael Cook’s 2011 series The Mission).

Richard Bell, Images from Ministry Kids, 1992.
Tony Albert, from the series Brothers, 2013.
Michael Cook, from the series The Mission, 2011.

References

Lydon, J. (2010) ‘Return: The photographic archive and technologies of Indigenous memory’, Photographies, 3(2), pp. 173–187.

Sonification

From the beginning of the MA programme, I have been making binaural field recordings with the intention of incorporating a sonic dimension to my visual work. Installations commonly include ambient soundscapes, or videos with soundtracks. Lewis Bush incorporated sound into his book Shadows of the State (2018) by including barcodes linked to soundfiles. In my Roding Valley Park work, I put soundfiles alongside photographs to give a sense of the thundering and constant sound of traffic on the roads that ran overhead. I have struggled, though, in my most recent work, to see how a sonic dimension could meaningfully be incorporated.

Brain@WattSpace opening, 6th June 2019

A chance meeting with composer and sound artist Jon Drummond at the opening of the excellent Brain@wattspace exhibition (a collaboration between cognitive scientists and artists) has led me to think differently about this. Jon works in the area of ‘sonification’, which involves representing data in sound. Heyler and Drummond have recently written about two of their sonification projects:

”Heavy Metal” [which] is focussed upon the real-time analysis and sonification of the chemical elements in a painting via a camera vision system, [and] “Oratorio for a Million Souls” [which] concerns the behaviour and acoustic properties of live bee colonies manifest in the creation of real-time multi-channel sound compositions and associated sound architectures (Heyler and Drummond,2019:1).

For my own project, rather than present the soundscapes or samples from the settings I am exploring, I could (possibly incorporating environmental sounds) translate data relating to the settings into sonic form. This picks up the strand of the work which address the use of data in decision making about planning, the rendering of residents and their lifeworlds as data, and the corresponding movement in my own images between analogue and digital forms. It also fits with my intension to use maps and other form of data visualisation in presenting my work (a post about this will follow shortly). One question would be whether or not to have a real-time component in the data sonification. The sonic dimension of the work could provide a direct link to environmental changes taking place, and/or the projected population/demographic changes projected in the development of the area.

In making a case for this form of environmental data sonification, and articulating it with other forms of ‘eco-aesthetics’ (such as land art, earthworks and nature-based installation work), Heyler and Drummond (2019: 4) cite Cubitt’s (2005: 9) assertion that eco-politics is ‘the single largest unifying political discourse of the early 21st century’ and that art is uniquely placed to explore the complexity and contradictions of this period, including the role played by technology, which can act both as an instrument of domination over nature and of illumination, empowerment and critique.

References

Bush, L. 2018. Shadows of the State. London: Brave Books.

Cubitt, S. 2005. EcoMedia. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Helyer, N. and Drummond, J. 2019. ‘Heavy Metal and the Oratorio for a Million Souls’, EasyChair. Preprint No. 971. Available online at: https://easychair.org/publications/preprint/NDGB.

Janet Laurence: After Nature

Janet Laurence: After Nature, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, 1 March – 10 June 2019

Janet Laurence, Heartshock (After Nature), 2008/2019. Photograph: Jacquie Manning/MCA

As usual, I took in a few exhibitions on recent trip to Sydney. It was really fortunate that the visit coincided with this retrospective, plus a major new work, at the MCA. I wasn’t familiar with Laurence‘s work (though I now do remember her installation at Changi Airport in Singapore), but it is clear that there is a substantial overlap with a number of emerging themes in the development of my own work, albeit in a very different context, and with a very different emphasis. Engaging with, and reflecting on, Laurence’s work has enabled me to make a number of bridges and connections between aspects of both my visual and conceptual work. I’ll summarise these here, in relation to the exhibition, and will return to the themes in the development of my work over the coming weeks. In particular, the exhibition, and subsequent reading about Laurence’s work, has enabled me to think more clearly about the form that the outcomes of my final major project might take, and how this relates to my methodology and broader conceptual framework.

Janet Laurence, After Eden, 2012. Installation view, Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, Sydney. Video, mesh, acrylic, steel, scientific glass, taxidermy specimens. Photograph: Jamie North

This exhibition includes key works by Laurence, from early pieces using metal plates, minerals, organic substances and photographs mounted on lightboxes (exploring, for instance, the periodic table), through installations from the 2000s featuring plant and animal specimens and ‘wunderkammer’ (box of curiosities) environments, to a contemporary commissioned piece, featuring floor to ceiling ‘veils’ printed with tree images, arranged in three concentric rings through which visitors can walk, and quasi-scientific collections of plant samples and apparatus (a herbarium, an elixir bar and a botanical library). As the curator’s notes state, Laurence explores ‘the interconnection of all living things – animal, plant, mineral – through a multi-disciplinary approach’ using ‘sculpture, installation, photography and video’ (Kent, 2019, online) . As Gibson (2015a) notes, Laurence has a ‘biocentric’ view of the world, and that, through incorporation of live biotic material in her work, she goes beyond just the entanglement of the human and the (other non-human) natural to focus on questions of care and the possibility of repair and reparation.

Janet Laurence, Cellular Gardens (Where Breathing Begins) (detail), 2005. Stainless steel, mild steel, acrylic, blown glass, rainforest plants. Museum of Contemporary Art, purchased 2005. Back: Janet Laurence, Selva Veil, 2005. Archive film with ultrachrome pigment inks, aluminium brackets. Museum of Contemporary Art, donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program by Janet Laurence, 2013.

Gibson and Laurence (2015) explore the relationship between this work and contemporary post-humanist theory (and this is further explored by Gibson, 2015a and 2015b). Focusing on the piece Fugitive (2013) they argue that Laurence entangles the (human) viewer in the natural, making us all complicit in ecological/environmental decline, but, in the light of Barad’s non-dualist ontology, whilst shifting the human from the centre, resists re-assertion of a culture/nature divide. The collection of organic and animal material, and the multi-modal form, subverts scientific objectivity whilst questioning human subjectivity.

Citing Barad (2012) and Harraway (2004), they state that

‘The reason Karen Barad is so helpful in a discussion of Laurence’s artwork, that deals with human ruination of nature and re-performances that might create a new emergent force, is that she warns against simply inverting humanism, in order to avoid anthropocentrism. She warns against blurring boundaries between human and non- human in an effort to equalize ontology. These cautions are also iterated by Donna Haraway’s discussions of leaky distinctions between human, animal and machine. Haraway says, ‘Movements for animal rights are not irrational denials of human uniqueness; they are clear-sighted recognition of connection across the discredited breach of nature and culture…the boundary between physical and non-physical is very imprecise for us. (Haraway, 2004: 10-11)’’ (Palmer & Laurence, 2015: 46-7).

Central to this work is Barad’s idea of ‘intra-action’. As Palmer and Laurence (2015) state

‘The matter is there in the forceful enactment. The reason Barad’s concept of intra-action is so exciting is because her quantum physics expertise develops into an exploratory elaboration of this idea into the realm of phenomenology. In other words, she sees phenomena as quantumly entangled, but this is not individual entities becoming entangled but where intra-acting components are inseparable or indivisible. Perhaps, the entities don’t come together and become entangled, they already were entangled primordially’. (47)

Laurence produces places where crossing-over can take place, where difference can be questioned and entanglement experienced. There is also a sense of slowing down and focusing of attention when presented by the sheer volume, and forms, or artefact, both veiled and brightly illuminated. As Miall (2019) notes, this effect is particularly marked in Laurence’s site specific works,

‘The spatiality of installations, their insistence on embodied contemplation and the way in which they engender a haptic, bodily awareness through overlaying the processes of memory and perception with the work’s materiality, are central to the transformative experience of Laurence’s public projects’. (86)

Deep Breathing: Resuscitation for the Reef (detail) by Janet Laurence, 2015–16. Photograph: MCA

Engaging with Laurence’s work has influenced my own thinking in a number of ways. It has helped me to think more clearly about the link between post-humanist theory and art, as it relates to the kinds of contexts I am exploring. She highlights the co-dependence of the human and the natural and the reciprocity of care (which in turn, and in intention, undermines the human/natural dualism). Post-humanism is not anti-humanism, and, for me, the challenge, artistically, is to explore the de-centring of the human whilst maintaining an active commitment to equity and social justice. There is no necessary tension between non-anthropocentric view and a ‘good life’, in fact, for the latter to be sustainable the former is a necessity. The experience of Laurence’s work has given me some insight into how I might provide a sense of entwinement of individuals and communities in place, and the alienating nature of contemporary developments. This enriches the insight provided by more sociological analyses of urban development (like Klinenberg’s, 2018, studies of social infrastructure) , and provides a bridge to the neuroscience influenced work of Fitzgerald et al (2018 & 2016), which brings us back, by a different route, to the entanglement of the human and the natural in the ‘neuropolis’.

Janet Laurence, The Green That Was (detail) from the Crimes Against the Landscape series, 2008. Duraclear, polished aluminium, pigment on acrylic, mirror, burnt wood

References

Barad, K. 2012. ‘Nature’s Queer Performativity.’ Kvinder, Køn og forskning/ Women, Gender and Research. No. 1-2: 25-53.

Fitzgerald, D., Rose, N. and Singh, I. 2018. ‘Living Well in the Neuropolis’, The Sociological Review, 64: 221–237.

Fitzgerald, D., Rose, N. and Singh, I. 2016. ‘Revitalizing sociology: Urban life and mental illness between history and the present’, British Journal of Sociology, 67(1): 138–160.

Gibson, P. and Laurence, J. 2015 ‘Janet Laurence: Aesthetics of Care’, Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture, (31): 39–52.

Gibson, P. 2015a. ‘Plant thinking as geo-philosophy’, Transformations: Journal of Media & Culture, (26): 1–9. Available at: http://www.transformationsjournal.org/journal/26/02.shtml.

Gibson, P. 2015b. Janet Laurence: The Pharmacy of Plants. Sydney: NewSouth Books.

Haraway, D. 2004. The Haraway Reader. New York, Routledge.

Kent, R. 2019. After Nature: Janet Laurence. Online at https://www.mca.com.au/artists-works/exhibitions/829-janet-laurence/ [accessed 02.01.19].

Klinenberg, E. 2018. Palaces for the People: How to Build a More Equal and United Society. London: Bodley Head.

Miall, N. 2019 ‘The Constant Gardener: On Janet Laurence’s Site-Specific Works’, in Kent, R. (ed.) Janet Laurence: After Nature. Sydney: Museum of Contemporary Art Australia: 83–95.

Watt Space Exhibitions

Ella Dreyfus, Under Twenty-Seven, Watt Space Gallery, Newcastle, 01.05.19-26.05.19.

Beyond the Binary, Head On Photo Festival, Watt Space Gallery, Newcastle, 01.05.19-26.05.19.

Dreyfus is an established and widely exhibited photographer. This work charts the physical changes over time of a group of boys (members of her son’s primary school football team) photographed at the ages of 11, 18 and 25 (reminiscent of the TV documentary 7Up, which reaches 63Up this year). The impact of the exhibition rests on the formal nature of the portraits, of identical form and format at all three points in time, and the formality of the arrangement in the gallery, in which each of the three portraits in a sequence are placed side by side. This effectively accentuates the changes that have taken place over time, as the boys mature into young men.

Ella Dreyfus, Under Twenty-Seven, 2019

Beyond the Binary is a group show exploring subjectivity, sexual difference and gender division. There are two points of particular interest. One is the use of construction, montage and mixed-media.

Beyond the Binary, 2019

The other is the variety of hanging and display methods used, and specifically the use of frameless forms of display (for instance, the use of bulldog clips on the print, hung on nails, and of pins stuck through the print into the wall). Given the low contrast of some of my images, it is necessary to explore glass-less forms of reflective display (as well as projective forms of display, but this removes the materiality of the photographic print).

Beyond the Binary, 2019

Installations, the body and constraint

Kathryn Jeanes. Biloela: Afore and Beyond. The University Gallery, University of Newcastle, NSW. 24.04.19-08.06.19

Kathryn Jeanes. Biloela: Afore and Beyond, 2019

The Biloela installation is part of a PhD project. It is based on research into nineteenth century schools for ‘wayward’ working class girls in Newcastle and Parramatta.

Kathryn Jeanes. Biloela: Afore and Beyond, 2019

There are no visual records of the girls, so Jeanes has created her own archival works to convey some sense of the traumatic experience of incarceration. The work is about exploring a gap in accounts of the past and exposing brutality. The exhibition comprises of text (on the wall, accompanying images, in books), artefacts (piled up packages, overalls, books), images (mounted directly on, and curving away from, the wall) and a concertina, sewn book with text, on a shelf running along three sides of the gallery.

Kathryn Jeanes. Biloela: Afore and Beyond, 2019

In all, it makes a hidden past visceral. In relation to my own work, it provides an example of the creation of an (imagined) archive and the mediation of this in gallery space. It raises the question of the extent to which the research should be visible. How much is experiential, how much is intellectual; what is said and what is not. Ultimately, this is about constraint of the body, but within a narrative of state and colonial brutality and control.

KNOWN/UNKNOWN, The Lock Up, Newcastle, NSW. 06.04.19-26.05.19. Featuring artists Bleck, Toby Cedar, Rakini Devi, John A. Douglas, Amala Groom and Amrita Hepi. Curated by Jessi England.

KNOWN/UNKNOWN similarly relates to the body. It is a group show, with all featured artists involved in making art with the body.

Rakini Devi, Urban Kali, 2018

In the notes to the exhibition the curator, Jessi England, quotes Tracey Warr (2000: no page given) from the preface of The Artist’s Body, and observes that each of the artists touches on one or more of the ideas and issues identified.

Over the course of the last hundred years, artists and others have interrogated the way in which the body has been depicted and how it has been conceived. The idea of the physical and mental self as a stable and finite form has gradually eroded, echoing influential twentieth-century developments in the fields of psychoanalysis, philosophy, anthropology, medicine and science. Artists have investigated the temporality, contingency, and instability of the body, and have explored the notion of consciousness, reaching to express the self that is invisible, formless and liminal. They have addressed issues of risk, fear, death, danger, and sexuality, at times when the body has been most threatened by these things.

All exhibits have a video component, with varying use of artefacts, still images, sound and text. The exhibition space is a former colonial prison, with a number of exhibition spaces of varying size (some of these very small cells). Whilst the space fits well with the theme, it appears that some of the exhibits were not designed specifically for the setting. The ‘cells’ offer a constrained viewing space, which could be used to good effect in an installation created specifically for the space.

The Lock Up, Newcastle, NSW

Reflecting on my own work, I need to think about the extent to which it is portable and adaptable to different spaces. My exhibition at the Sue Bramley Centre was very much a ‘pop-up’ that could easily be reconfigured for other places. I haven’t thought clearly yet about how best to display my more recent, less conventional, work, though I did try projection today following a workshop.

Andrew Brown, projection of image from erase series, Newcastle NSW, 2019

Getting high enough resolution is an issue. A number of the video exhibits in Known/Unknown used large LCD screens, which is worth exploring. One also used VR; a step too far for me at the moment.

Amrita Hepi’s frame from The Pace, 2018

The most impactful piece for me is Amrita Hepi‘s The Pace (2018), a three channel video work with rope artefacts co-commissioned by the gallery. The fast-paced film centres on the activity of skipping, as a historical form of women’s culture, but relates this to other social and cultural activities, particularly the indigenous art of weaving (resonating with Munro’s yarning work), and switching between practices involving rope, chains, braids, threads and spider’s web. The film is fast paced with a driving soundtrack, edited to layer imagery and resist traditional narrative. The piece occupies the larger central gallery space, giving it room to breathe and for the audience to circulate (a contrast to the more constrained and claustrophobic side cells/galleries. The exhibition impressed on me the need to design installations around the exhibition space, and brought to mind the constructed temporary ‘gallery’ spaces used by Samar Maqusi to set up exhibitions and installations in refugee camps.

References

England, J. 2019. Notes for KNOWN/UNKNOWN, The Lock Up, Newcastle NSW.

Warr, T. 2010. The Artist’s Body. London: Phaidon.

Yearning to Yarn

Simon Munro, Yearning to Yarn: The Artefact in Research, The University Gallery, University of Newcastle, NSW. Workshop: 14th May 2019.

Simon Munro, Axe from Yearning to Yarn, 2019

This exhibition is the culmination of a research project at the University of Newcastle Department of Rural Health in Tamworth, NSW. The project explores the ways in which aboriginal ways of knowing can be used to support the clinical placement experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health professional students. The project was part of one of the research programmes funded and supported by the Centre for Excellence in Equity in Higher Education, in which I work. My role has been to run workshops on research design, methodology and methods, and on academic writing and publication, and to advise and mentor grant holders. In this CRJ post, I am going to focus specifically on the arts-based methodology used in this project, on the exhibition and associated workshop and on the more general issue of the significance and use of artefacts in enhancing our understanding. The work also raises questions about how we understand our relationship to the land and the environment (a key component of Australian aboriginal culture). These are all issues at the heart of the development of my photographic practice. The exhibition, and reflection on the process developed by Simon and the project team, provide an apposite opportunity to gather together thoughts and relate these to the development of my FMP and my photographic practice more generally.

Cordage from Yearning to Yarn workshop, 2019

At the heart of the project is the use of the practice of ‘yarning’ to meet together, talk and to exchange ideas. Yarning involves both making of artefacts (in this case, weaving and making cordage, see example above) and conversation/storytelling (in this case, exploring a number of questions relating to the research). The underlying principles of the approach are based on the notion of Winanga-Li, a word/concept from the aboriginal nations of the North-West and Northern Tablelands of New South Wales, meaning hear, listen, know, remember. The starting point for the conversation related to kinship and land, with the initial question ‘where’s your mob from?’.

Simon Munro, Box 3: The pedagogy of Winanga-Li, from Yearning to Yarn, 2019

This is not the place to go into the process and outcomes of the research (that is covered in Munro, 2019), but rather to relate these specifically to the development of my project and photographic practice. The exhibition included a number of boxes made by Munro which ‘contain’ the principles, processes and outcomes of the project. It also included some of the weaving and other artefacts produced and Munro’s own artwork, including a number of tools and artefacts made through a combination of Aboriginal and European techniques (reflecting Munro’s own dual heritage, something that is difficult to address both within Aboriginal and European heritage communities). Visitors are encouraged to handle the exhibits. The exhibition thus addresses a range of complex issues in a way that places artefacts at the core and puts very different cultural understandings and practices alongside, and in dialogue with, each other.

Yearning to Yarn workshop, 14th May 2019.

The opening of the exhibition was accompanied by a workshop led by Munro, in which participants did some ‘yarning’ (that’s my cordage in the photograph above) while he mapped out the development and outcomes of the project (there was a longer workshop the following day around the making of a possum-skin cloak), and I was fortunate to be asked to make a response and give an appreciation of the work by Munro and the team at the Centre for Rural Health.

Like this project, the work I have done to date on my project has been collaborative and interactive. I have treated photographs as artefacts, using a portable printer to produce prints in situ, and encouraging members of the community to bring photographs of their own (and also to bring artefacts). Munro’s exhibition raises the question for me about the extent to which I want to make objects, and the production of artefacts, a more prominent feature of the work. Critical engagement with post-humanist theory, new-materialism and object oriented ontology gives a theoretical basis for engagement with objects, and the work done as part of the ‘Object Lessons’ course and consideration of the work by Fitzgerald et al (2018) on the ‘neuropolis’ reinforces both the conceptual and practical base for this (explored further in another post). Aboriginal conceptions of the relationship between human activity and the land/environment also holds potential, though how this relates/translates to the contexts within which I am working is an open question. Looking forward, Munro’s exhibition and workshop leads me to think more broadly about the potential outcomes of the Final Major Project, both in terms of a possible exhibition/event (which will be multi-faceted and multi-modal) but also about whether some sort of workshop (or interaction or performance) should be a component of this. That’s not to be settled here, but should be high amongst my own objectives for the Surfaces and Strategies module. Having run, for the second year, the national writing programme for equity practitioners in the week following the exhibition, I am also thinking about the relationship between my writing and my photographic work (and the relationship between the production of visual work and the process of writing – and, provoked by engagement with Ruscha’s art, text as a component, or primary focus, of visual work).

References

Fitzgerald, D., Rose, N. and Singh, I. 2018. ‘Living Well in the Neuropolis’, The Sociological Review, 64: 221–237.

Munro, S. 2019. Yearning to Yarn: The Artefact in Research. Newcastle, NSW: University of Newcastle.