Tag Archives: art

Steve Shipps’ (Re)thinking ‘Art’

Steve Shipps, (Re)thinking ‘Art’: A guide for beginners (Blackwell 2008)

1405155639.jpgI read this book as an act of solidarity with The Emerging Artist. Thanks to a year-long series of lunchtime lecture–slideshows given by an art enthusiast in the French Department in my undergraduate years, I had a general idea of the history of Western art up to Picasso, so I could engage intelligently as she tackled assignments on Rembrandt or Watteau, but when she needed a sounding board on anything postmodern, I didn’t even know when to nod interestedly. She said she found Steve Shipps helpful.

The first sentence gave me hope: ‘This book grows out of bewilderment, skepticism and something like awe.’ Visits to contemporary art exhibitions have often enough evoked in me just that mix of emotions, plus occasionally the urge to deride. The book starts out with Doug Fishbone’s work 20,000 Bananas, which is what it says, a big pile of bananas dumped in the street, but could easily have started with Robert Gober’s  Drainsor Aleks Danko’s Trick Bricks or Sandra Nori’s amateur video of a Japanese anti-nuclear demo in the last Sydney Biennale.

Now that I’ve read the book, my bewilderment, scepticism and awe are pretty much still in place, but now they’re better informed.

It’s a short book, a guide for beginners as promised, that sheds light on a lot of contemporary discussions of art, not to mention art works themselves. There’s a terrific chapter titled ‘Pragmatics’ that describes a way to think about any given work of art – designed mainly for the student who has a paper to write, but with much broader application. But the book’s real interest is in its trickier and more provocative elements.

Shipp worked the book up from college lectures he has been giving since the 1980s, but he doesn’t patronise the teenaged student who is its imagined reader. In talking about de Saussure (Course in General Linguistics) and Danto (After the End of Art) and the Prague Linguistic Circle, he’s exemplary in his concern not to leave the reader behind, always carefully defining his terms and introducing his characters. It’s not ‘talk to me like I’m stupid’ or even ‘”art for dummies’ but it provides what the readers of such texts are looking for.

Apparently the idea of ‘art’ as we understand it today didn’t appear in the West until the Renaissance, and that the idea of art history didn’t appear until the late 18th century. ‘Art history’ traced the development of art – mainly painting and sculpture – from the Renaissance to the historian’s own time, and projected the new concept back onto works dating from cave paintings and the Venus of Willendorf. When the sculptures and plays of the ancient Greeks were created, Shipps maintains, they weren’t seen as ‘art’ in the way we have understood it for the last 600 years or so, but as what we would call craft. I have trouble getting my head around that, because surely Euripides and Praxiteles were famous for their works in their own time. But Shipps is adamant, and he backs his argument up with solid argument and lucid examples.

‘Art’ is not something that exists independently of what we call it, like a cow in a field, which is still there whether we see it as prospective food, a deity or an outsized pet. The term ‘art’ refers to disparate objects and activities, linking them in a category that exists only because of the term itself, and so it becomes hard to define. After much complex but always readable discussion, he says this on page 120:

what we seem to have come to, finally, is this: when we say ‘art’ what we mean is something  that invites – and justifies – a certain kind of attention. It seems to be that simple.

I love that, especially the word ‘justifies’. But, even given the interesting challenge of describing the kind of attention art invites, life isn’t that simple. The book goes on for another 40 pages, first arguing that we should describe as ‘art’ only those works that are created in a state of ‘flow’ and finally calling on us to stop thinking in terms of ‘art’ and ‘artists’ at all, and get on with doing for ourselves the things we have outsourced to them:

So much of the world has been described by now, and so many of those descrioptions made the more permanent for being ‘written down’ in whatever form, so much of our described experience has thus come to seem to be the way it ‘is’, that most of us are forced today to spend unprecedented amounts of time learning how things are ‘supposed to be’ and/or ‘supposed to be done’, and then doing them that way, so that our lives will proceed satisfactorily …
We are numbed by all the information through which we have to sort every day, so our experience of our experience, of ‘art’ or of anything else, becomes increasingly numbed as well … becomes, that is, increasingly anaesthetic …
We needn’t look far to see that there are things in our world today that could surely use some (re)thinking, and (re)describing. And I suspect that if we didn’t have ‘artists’ making ‘art’ to trust with doing that for us while the rest of us got on with our conventional, anaesthetic day-to-day lives, we all just might then tend to do more of it ourselves.

Bathurst Regional Art Gallery and Rhyme #5

On Saturday we drove to Bathurst to see an exhibition John McDonald had reviewed in the previous weekend’s Sydney Morning Herald. The exhibition’s full name is guwiinyguliya yirgabiyi ngay yuwin.gu gulbalangidyal ngunhi (they made a solitude and called it peace) by Jonathan Jones, in collaboration with the Bathurst Wiradyuri and Aboriginal Community Elders, commissioned  as part of the Bathurst Bicentenary.

Musket_and_spearIt’s  not a vast exhibition, but its powerful. There are stunning video works – a giant screen on which the camera glides endlessly through beautiful bush, and a room with six portraits of Wiradyuri elders looking out at us from significant locations in the Bathurst area. The main room has a musket and a spear on the wall (though the image above, lifted from the BRAG website, is missing the musket’s lethal bayonet), and in front of them on the floor a circular arrangement of flint fragments and grevillea flowers: the catalogue explains that the stone is waste from a Wiradyuri and Aboriginal community stone-tool making workshop. In a second room an elegant shape on the floor, made up of mussel shells cast in bronze mixed with lead musket balls, points at a pile of dusty potatoes – again, the catalogue adds to what’s already a strong image by telling us that the Bathurst wars of the 1820s began when a Wiradyuri family was massacred over some potatoes. There’s a room with surveyors’ maps and traditional parrying shields around the wall, and another with the cadavers of six small trees painted gold. All of it is very beautiful, and all invites the viewer to find out more about the history of the Wiradyuri wars, and to meditate on that history.

If you’re interested you can download a PDF of the catalogue from the Bathurst Regional Art Gallery web site, but I recommend taking the trip to walk through the six small rooms of the exhibition in person. Apart from anything else, it’s a stunning example of work created by a very fine artist collaborating humbly with a community. In the catalogue, the Bathurst Wiradyuri and Aboriginal Community Elders say they have been working with Jonathan, ‘directing him, teaching him and supporting him’. The drive from Sydney isn’t so long. We stayed overnight because the weather was threatening, but we could have done it as a day trip.

There is one room we didn’t see. It features two possumskin cloaks, made by members of the local community and evoking a moment when Windradyne, the great warrior leader, presented a similar cloak to Governor Macquarie. It was our good fortune to visit the gallery while a weaving workshop was happening in that room, so we stayed out. (We did see the gorgeous cloaks in a room that isn’t part of the exhibition but which, on Saturday, was temporarily home to them and an array of objects woven by local people.) This was good fortune for two reasons: first because during our visit the gallery was filled with the sounds of Aboriginal people enjoying each other’s company, in effect proclaiming their resilience; and second because two elders generously absented themselves from the workshop to chat to us whitefellas about the cloaks and the woven objects, about the Wiradyuri dictionary app, about the uses of some woven objects (‘Good for carrying babies, but not much good for water. That’s why we have bottles for beer.’).

And it’s November, so here’s an attempt to say in verse what I can’t figure out how to say in prose:

Rhyme #5: An exhibition in Bathurst, November 2015
Steel v hardwood, stone and blossom,
mussel shells v musket balls,
prim English maps, cloaks of possum.
Unsmiling elders on the walls
Look out from Country. Devastation
here finds mute  commemoration.
The Romans made their solitudes
and called them peace. Such platitudes
prevail now too, the past obscuring.
But lively voices here resound,
Wiradyuri are still around. 
They greet us, chat with us, ensuring
that we whitefellas will own
that solitude, but not alone.

Vivien Johnson’s Streets of Papunya

Vivien Johnson, Streets of Papunya ( 2015)

9781742232430This is a gorgeous book full of dazzling images from Australia’s Central Desert. Its publication coincides with an exhibition of the same name at UNSW Galleries, which is showing until 7 November. If you can’t get to see the paintings the book is the next best thing.

The book is more than its images. It is also a story of Papunya the place and the artists who live there.

The word Papunya has entered the general Australian and perhaps world vocabulary as synonymous with the rise of contemporary Australian Aboriginal art in the 1970s. It was in the small, artificially created settlement of Papunya that Aboriginal men, under the tutelage and encouragement of Geoffrey Bardon, began to use acrylic paints to depict traditional designs for non-Indigenous viewers. The company Papunya Tula must be the most recognisable name associated with Aboriginal art.

But Papunya was there before Geoffrey Bardon arrived. And so was Aboriginal art. Albert Namatjira painted his last watercolours while living there, and many of the local men could imitate his style (but chose not to because he was from a different country). And there was art in Papunya after Papunya Tula relocated in the 1980s and many of those original artists moved to other settlements. The town remained, as beset by disfunction as many other Aboriginal settlements in the Northern Territory, its artists left to pursue their talent without an art centre or any substantial support.

The history of Papunya has been told many times, possibly most beautifully in The Papunya School Book of Country and History, created by Nadia Wheatley and the children and adults of Papunya in 2002. That’s nominally a children’s book, but like that other great ‘children’s book’, Maralinga: The Anangu Story (by the Yalata, Oak Valley Communities with Christobel Mattingley), it tells an important story from an Aboriginal perspective. Without glossing over the terrible realities the consequences of colonial policies, these books convey a sense of Aboriginal agency and  intelligence.

Streets of Papunya is not a children’s book, and at times it can be hard going because it assumes prior knowledge, or else a high degree of interpretive skill on the part of the reader. But Vivien Johnson tells a story that has grown from her relationship with artists who have remained in Papunya. They may have been sidelined by the departure of Papunya Tula, but they continued to paint, and now, with the establishment of Papunya Tjupi, they once again have infrastructure to support their creative work.

There’s a lot of nitty-gritty in the book: the details of how the artists have been supported with supplies of canvas and paints over the decades; the legal wrangling over ownership of the 14 paintings from the 1970s known as  Papunya Community School Art Collection; the role of white managers in helping artists break out of narrowly conceived commercial imperatives; the arduous four years it took to get a new Art Centre up and running after two decades of false starts.

There’s also some splendid revision of received history. For example, you may have thought, as I did, that those early Papunya painters didn’t include women because of cultural considerations. But no, it was because the white managers couldn’t see their way to stretching the genuinely limited resources to a whole new population of potential painters. The impetus to include women in the ranks of the painters came, often enough, from the old men. You may have thought, as I did, that it was the lawmen, men of high cultural influence, who began the contemporary art movement.  But no, the first Papunya painters were risk-takers, cultural innovators, whose showing of painted stories to non-Indigenous people won the approval of the serious lawmen only after it was seen to succeed.

There are many stories on this book of frustration and defiance and hard work and triumph. Vivien Johnson sums things up nicely at the end (the lines of verse at the end are from Billy Marshall Stoneking’s ‘Passage‘):

These artists of Papunya live their lives amid the residue of successive government policy and planning failures over the half-century of Papunya’s existence. … Art centres are for them a kind of oasis from that devastation, places where through tirelessly painting the stories in which their ancestors’ deeds are recounted for the delight and edification of whitefellas, the painters symbolically invoke the power of those ancestors, just as Papunya’s street signs now invoke its cultural and artistic heroes. Surveying the ruins of their colonisers’ attempts to bring them into the mainstream of Australian life, for which places like Papunya were originally created, they are a reminder of another force at work here, underpinning all endeavours in its various names:

… the Dreaming does not end; it is not like the whiteman’s way.
what happened once happens again and again.
This is the Law. This is the Power of the Song.

‘Through the singing,’ the old men say, 
‘we keep everything alive; through the Songs,’
they say, ‘the spirits keep us alive.’

aww-badge-2015 Streets of Papunya is the nineteenth book I’ve read for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Hidden glory

I’m just back from the opening of the HIDDEN Sculpture Walk in Rookwood, Australia’s oldest, biggest and most culturally diverse cemetery, also the one with a sculpture exhibition showing from  sunrise to sunset from tomorrow, Friday 18 September to Sunday 18 October. Entry is free.

As I mentioned last week, the Emerging Artist is in the exhibition, and today when the prizes were announced,  she was one of the three commended works. (There are also three highly commended works, plus two that shared the $10,000 prize. Both the Emerging Artist and I were too thrilled to make  dependable notes on what the other 7 works were, but I expect they’ll be listed on the Hidden website soon.

Heavy rain was forecast today, but the weather for the opening was cool, dry and very bright. Here’s yet another picture of the work and the artist:

IMG_1390

Coming Soon

If you live in Sydney, you ought to know about two fabulous things coming soon.

1.
HIDDEN: Rookwood Cemetery, from sunrise to sunset
Friday 18 September to Sunday 18 October
ENTRY IS FREE!

The Hidden website says it well:

Hidden is an outdoor sculpture exhibition that takes place amongst the gardens and graves in one of the oldest sections of [Rookwood] Cemetery. The exhibition invites artists to ponder the notion of history, culture, remembrance and love and allows audiences to witness creative expression hidden throughout Australia’s largest and most historic cemetery.

This is Hidden’s seventh year. I’ve been in previous years, and there’s something  marvellous about the sculptures placed among the tombstones. (It’s in an older part of the cemetery – no one will see the grave of someone who died recently being visited by an antic Don Quixote or a bright perspex rainbow.)

This year the Emerging Artist formerly known as the Art Student is part of the exhibition. Her piece, Bush Memorial, comprises two giant ceramic banksia seeds. Yesterday we installed it.

2.
THE WAY: Bankstown Arts Centre, 1-10 October. (It’s not free but it’s unbelievably cheap)

The WayThis is the third play in a trilogy that has grown out of a collaboration between BYDS (Bankstown Youth Development Service) and the Sydney Theatre Company.  I saw the second play, The Other Way, in 2013. The collaboration of professional actors with local community members, led by actor/ writer/ director/ musician Stefo Nantsou, produced a brilliant evening of theatre. Here’s a bit from my blogging about it:

This isn’t professional/industrial theatre, where success is judged by the length of the run and size of box office takings. It’s community, where the division between audience and performers is porous, where there’s an intimate sense that people are telling their own stories and those of their neighbours.
There’s a wonderful scene where a group of boys are teasing/harassing a group of girls, who are giving back as good as they get. In the middle of the chiacking and posturing one of the girls looks one of the boys full in the face and says, ‘Hello!’ and the group falls silent. The whole thing falls apart, moves onto a different plane. Sure, it was scripted and stylised, but it felt like it was really happening right then and there.

I gather that The Way has a similar structure to its predecessors: over a single day in Bankstown, storylines intersect as people from diverse backgrounds experience their multitudinous joys and crises. I’m looking forward to it.

The Other Way was evidently seen by a relatively small total audience over its short run. The Way has eight scheduled performances. If you live in Sydney I recommend that you put it in your diary and book seats soon. You can read more about it here. Bookings: 02 9793 8324 or http://www.trybooking.com/isqy

Mark Doty’s Still Life with Oysters and Lemon

Mark Doty, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon: On Objects and Intimacy (Beacon Press 2002)

0807066095My copy of this book doesn’t have the subtitle it evidently carries in other editions: On Objects and Intimacy. If the subtitle had been there I might have been better prepared for what the book is. What it’s not is a dissertation on the painting it is named after (whose title has been changed to Still Life with a Glass and Oysters and which can be seen at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, or online here).

The book starts with the painting, or at least with the writer’s having fallen in love with it, and it does discuss it and other still lifes from the period, but it roams far and wide, through memoir about objects and how they – or their memories and representations – can come to embody emotional truths, to lyrical reflections on love, mortality, bereavement and poetry. It ranges through cute childhood memories of bears and boiled lollies, a fortieth birthday in Amsterdam involving visits to the Rijksmuseum, a Gay bathhouse, and a fine Thai restaurant, and wonderful writing about the consolations of art.

I came away from the book liking Mark Doty a lot, and with a sense that my heart had been rendered that much more open to the world.

To give you a taste of the writing, here is a passage that crops up as a digression in a story about a chipped blue and white platter that Doty bought at a sale table when out walking his dog, at a time when his partner was gravely ill:

The most beautiful still lifes are never pristine, and herein lies one of their secrets. The lemon has been half-peeled, the wine tasted, the bread broken; the oysters have been shucked, part of this great wheel of cheese cut away; the sealed chamber of the pie, held aloft on its raised silver stand, has been opened. Someone has left this knife resting on the edge of the plate, its handle jutting toward us; someone plans, in a moment, to pick it up again. These objects are in use, in dialogue, a part of, implicated. They refuse perfection, or rather they assert that this is perfection, this state of being consumed, used up, enjoyed, existing in time.
But there’s the paradox – they are depicted in a moment of being seen, contemplated between the experience of tasting, smelling, devouring; but this depiction places them outside of time, or almost outside of it, in a long, slow process of decay, which is the process of oxidation, of slow chemical transformation … Whatever time may have done to the original fruits, their depiction is now safe from the quick corrosions of local time and subject to the larger, slower, depredations of history.
And thus something of the imperfect, the quickly passing, the morning meal with its immediate pleasures has been imported into the realm of perfection, into the long, impersonal light of centuries.

PS: In the little blog that appears over in the right hand column of this one, I expressed frivolous misgivings as I was starting this book:

It’s a slender volume, published by a Unitarian publishing house. Is it a mattress to catch a falling Protestant and so of little interest to those who had a Catholic childhood?

Will commented:

No, not at all. It’s a lovely book of reflections on the real world as we see it. Painting and memory, seeing and interpreting. I hope you enjoy it.

It’s worth mentioning that Will is a librarian, and so may have a slightly more precise meaning in mind for the word ‘real’ than most of us do (see realia). He was right.

Half an acquisition

One by-product of living with an Art Student is that works of art proliferate around the house. Some are produced by the AS herself, some given to her, and some we buy. Our latest acquisition, which we bought jointly with another Art Student couple, is this photograph:

Janet-Tavener-Figs

It’s Figs, by Janet Tavener, from her recent exhibition at the Brenda May Gallery. The Art Student wanted to hang it over our bed, but it’s the middle of winter and the bed is generally cold enough to get into without having a huge photograph of melting ice sculptures hanging over it. So it has pride of place in the dining room, and the Art Student’s bright portrayal of the poppy’s life cycle keeps its place in the bedroom.

Incidentally, when we dropped in to pick up the photo today, we spent a good time enjoying Brenda May’s current exhibition, Mighty Small.

A parthian shot

The campaign to persuade the O’Farrell government to change its mind about precipitately withdrawing funding from fine art education in NSW TAFE has met with stony silence (if you don’t count the occasional statements by the premier about how he values art). When I saw the fact sheets on the coming changes to the TAFE system, I couldn’t resist:

art killed001

 

Enter the Duck

Whatever the ghost of Rembrandt might think about the state of Dutch art in the early 21st century the arrival of Florentijn Hofman’s magnum opus in Darling Harbour today was a hit, even after the seeming endless and mostly lame concert and tumbling act that preceded it. The figures beneath the yellow banners up on the Pyrmont Bridge are taiko drummers. They were splendid.

ducky

And so the 2013 Festival of Sydney begins. No first night celebration in which the city becomes a giant concert venue, but a giant rubber ducky isn’t too poor a substitute.

Enter the Duck

Whatever the ghost of Rembrandt might think about the state of Dutch art in the early 21st century the arrival of Florentijn Hofman’s magnum opus in Darling Harbour today was a hit, even after the seeming endless and mostly lame concert and tumbling act that preceded it. The figures beneath the yellow banners up on the Pyrmont Bridge are taiko drummers. They were splendid.

ducky

And so the 2013 Festival of Sydney begins. No first night celebration in which the city becomes a giant concert venue, but a giant rubber ducky isn’t too poor a substitute.