A near immersive art experience

The one formerly known as the art student (TOFKATAS) and I are just back from a short weekend in Canberra – overnight in a wotif mystery hotel, and most of the rest of the time at the National Gallery.

The gallery’s new Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rooms are just fabulous, and I hope to spend a lot more time in them. From early Papunya boards to the work of urban Aboriginal artists, the collection is dizzyingly rich, and the presentation is superb. And occasionally it got personal. Tony Albert’s ‘Ash on Me‘, for one tiny example, consists of the words ‘Ash on me’ painted on the wall and, as you might not be able to tell from the photograph at the link,  decorated with actual ashtrays, most of them with images of Aboriginal faces or figures, some with Australian flora or fauna. It’s a powerful statement in anyone’s terms, but I was grabbed by the throat when I saw this on the S:

In  case you can’t see, it’s a kookaburra with the words ‘Innisfail Qld’. It was borne in on me that this was an object from my Innisfail childhood, that ashtrays just like these with cute, noble, comical or otherwise stereotyped Aboriginal figures were an unquestioned part of the world I grew up in. I was implicated.

We also spent time with James Turrell’s ‘skypace’ Within Without, which from the outside looks like an artificial grassy hill with a rock dome rising from the middle of it, approached by a path between expanses of water. Inside, it’s an ochre pyramid with a huge basalt stupa in the middle, surrounded by eerily turquoise water. The space is filled with the sound of water overflowing. You walk across a flat bridge to enter the stupa – around its inside wall is a bench that seats about 20 people. The bench, it turns out, is heated. There’s a large oculus (a word I know from the Pantheon in Rome) in the middle of the roof, and a patch of coloured stone in the middle of the floor. If I hadn’t been introduced to Turrell’s work on Naoshima in Japan a couple of years ago, I might have had a quick look and moved on, because nothing much was happening. But we sat for at least an hour, and watched the oculus as its patch of sky grew deeper and deeper blue until it was pitch black against the whiteness of the inner wall, which we gradually realised has its own light source, and wasn’t somehow trapping light from outside. The sky couldn’t really be as black as it looked to us, I thought, and announced that I was gong to take a stroll around the inside of the triangle. I walked out the door of the stupa and, looking up at the deep blue, starry sky, took a step to the right – up to my calves in now invisible water. Fully shamefaced, I went back to my place on the heated bench, took my shoes and socks off and endured the amiable mockery of what had become a small community of Turrellites.

If you’re in Canberra, I do recommend that you spend time in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Galleries, and that you let the James Turrell space work on you – but take seriously the signage saying that the work of art does not meet Australian Safety Standards for Buildings.

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