2016: Issue 5: ‘unknown land’, saltwater mapping, invisible genres: AGWA, LWAG and JCG.

It has, apparently, been 400 years since Dirk Hartog’s appearance on the coast of what has come to be known as Western Australia. In accordance with their more conservative and traditional roles, our major galleries have each produced an exhibition dealing with this, to varying degrees of interest. The approach of these institutions is revealing, and sets up a plethora of roles and relations not only of the institutions to the past, and thereby the future, but also to each other. Read together, they provide a view of the institutions from which they come and their prejudices, values, and predispositions. The first thing to note is that every institution mentioned considered it necessary to commemorate the occasion. A question I would like to pose is: is this actually important? Institutions often confer importance on what they present, and our state and university galleries often present things on the scale of nations – and this is surely the scale at which we are meant to remember Hartog’s landing. Recent Nobel prize-winner Orhan Pamuk provides an argument against such narratives being presented by such institutions, and I think that in this context it is perhaps a timely idea. Although his logic is not faultless, nor specific to this circumstance, it is somewhat relevant to the role we see these galleries performing at the moment:

‘The small museums in the backstreets of European cities led me to realise that museums – just like novels – can also speak for individuals. That is not to underestimate the importance of the Louvre, the metropolitan museum of art, the Topkapi palace, the British museum, the Prado, the Vatican museums – all veritable treasures of humankind. But I am against these precious monumental institutions being used as the blueprints for future museums. Museums should explore and uncover the universe and humanity of the new and modern man emerging from increasingly wealthy non-Western nations. The aim of big, state-sponsored museums, on the other hand, is to represent the state. This is neither a good nor an innocent objective…

  1. Large national museums such as the Louvre and the Hermitage took shape and turned into essential tourist destinations alongside the opening of royal and imperial palaces to the public. These institutions, now national symbols, present the story of the nation – history, in a word – as being far more important than the stories of individuals. This is unfortunate because the stories of individuals are much better suited to displaying the depths of our humanity.
  2. We can see the transitions from palaces to national museums and from epics to novels is a parallel process. Epics are like palaces and speak to the heroic exploits of the old kings who lived in the them. National museums, then, should be like novels; but they are not.’

Although it is a directive for ‘future museums’, this is an age where art galleries straddle the contemporary and the ancient, and it is relevant to consider what roles the institutions themselves should perform. While not every show nor museum should read like a novel, there is a degree to which shows that commemorate a certain protagonist (Dirk Hartog) for their role in beginning a colonial project could be reflected upon. So what are the narratives on show in our larger institutions? The state gallery clearly remains within the bounds of the dominant narrative told about the past – no matter how many quotation marks they put around it. Lawrence Wilson and John Curtin both choose marginal narratives, and occasionally contrary ones. I note also the silence that some institutions addressed the landing with: Fremantle Arts Centre and PICA, both neglected to mention or consider it as far as I am aware.

 

The particular issue to address in thinking about these shows is that Hartog’s arrival marks the beginning of an aggressive colonial project in Australia. It marks the start of colonial oppression for aboriginal people. The fact that he was sailing on behalf of the East India Company also implicates the relegation of humanity to commerce – a relationship that continues today in our globalised world.

 

It therefore seems appropriate to start with a show that is, contrary to this, quietly empowering and reconciliatory. Vanessa Russ, curator of the Berndt museum, has put together a show featuring old maps of the Dutch explorers, ceremonial aboriginal artefacts, along with contemporary aboriginal painting from the coast and a video of performance. She stated that she was interested in old manners of mapping, which used stars to guide voyages on the sea rather than physical landmarks ­– hence the title of ‘saltwater mapping’. She chose to include many maps in which Australia is incomplete, its outline unfinished. This partial and gentle erasure of borders, even if they were to be filled in later, is a thread that she picks up again and again her selection of artworks. A wooden star map on a globe, and a physical geomorphology map without any state borders, a painting mapping the sky from Yamaji art centre artist in Geraldton, all offer a vision of country as an indefinite, unfinished and fluid place, as an expanding and continuous form. The combination of aboriginal and early settler art is the beginning, it seems, or some kind of re-evaluation of different perceptions, or possible alternate narratives. Although the show is divided into a number of small rooms that each appear to lack a cohesive logic, perhaps beside the regressive singularity of AGWA’s narrative vision this disparate and yet individually thorough investigation of modes of navigating and narrating space is exactly the antidote we require.

 

One of the most fascinating set of works is Roy Wiggan’s contemporary art and Billy ah Choo’s ceremonial artefacts. These works are something I had, perhaps due to my ignorance, never seen the likes of before. With the implication (and also presence in photographic documentation in Kim Akerman’s wonderful photos) of kinetic motion, these coloured shapes, bound together in an incredible set of different arrangements are something extraordinary to see. Their narratives remain hidden – both in their abstraction, and that Wiggan has opted not to reveal them. Though it clearly defeats any attempt to offer an alternative narrative that I can see or attempt to relay, perhaps this mysterious presence is a reminder that there are stories that are not told, and there are stories we also do not know, not always so necessarily out of choice, and perhaps never will.

 

A counterpoint to this is the photographic and video work of Joseph Mallard and Dalisa Pigram, both of which are powerfully visual and figurative. Dalisa Pigram’s work deals with existing at cultural intersections, and the prevalence of young aboriginal suicide and violence. It, like the show, is a disorienting experience, filled with references and artefacts and stories that it can barely contain. This fullness is again entirely warranted though, and ample evidence of the narratives that are not being told enough, and yet deserve and need to be seen. Mallard’s work meanwhile is almost traditional western seascape photography, but without device or drama, they become documents of a peaceful landscape, and a journey through a remote place, nearly empty of other people than the implied photographer. There is a text in the state library that is particularly interesting to read, Mallard’s own journal and thoughts that accompany the photographs: http://purl.slwa.wa.gov.au/slwa_b3291099_1

This document references D.H. Lawrence, mentions Van Gogh and most interestingly evocative visual descriptions of landscape that take from a western, romantic tradition. The complexities of these narratives are precisely the things that this show begins to reveal so effectively, transference, reciprocation, and difference, the heterogeneity necessary to really look back on the past and many stories, rather than reiterate one among many.

 

The narrative that develops is quite different from the investigation AGWA has chosen to undertake. This show presents a diverse narrative – one with multiple protagonists, one with multiple participants. The emphasis on mapping rather than pictures is also important – these are works of art that were also tools, used to navigate the world (well, at least some of them). Maps do often prescribe a viewer, and a vision, but they do not prescribe a journey, and though Russ’ show is small, and somewhat difficult to form a cohesive vision of, it has great strength in its breadth and encompassing nature.

 

The show, with its emphasis on the erasure of borders, makes a cool and peaceful response. It seems, politically, to be pointing out the kinds of perceptions that European explorers had that aboriginal people also use to navigate. It is a powerful evocation of the possibility of reciprocal mapping tendencies. While it is peculiarly fragmented and there is not a thoroughly developed narrative, it is probably the most important show about Hartog’s landing, in its willingness to look back, but also to the present, and to investigate narratives that have not yet been totally uncovered.

 

It seems oddly dissatisfying then, to travel to AGWA and view ‘unknown land’. The works that are on display (except the middle room that appears as an afterthought and not the focus of the show) offer a window into the past, and provide us a view of what it was. Except it is extremely biased and troublingly exclusive. The show features singularly the works of European settlers to Perth – then the Swan river colony. What else was happening at this time? Where are the other narratives? Even if they were to investigate some other narrative that played out alongside the colonial project (like the narrative of being colonised), to merely add to a narrative is not to change its protagonists or its plot. Even taking Dirk Hartog’s landing as a starting point already predilects a certain protagonist. There is a narrative here that has not been written yet – that Russ picks up on this in completeness is important, but AGWA avoids it, and weakens its critical position. What is the responsibility of the state gallery in writing this narrative? It is presumably to at least represent the story that was told before, during, and after colonisation, and that also represents a portion of this states inhabitants, and by far it’s longest. As it is, the show is remarkably specific and exclusive – to its detriment. The redeeming fact of the show is its thorough nature, despite its specificity. I have no doubt that it was carefully researched, but the state gallery celebrating a state occasion surely has a responsibility to the people that lived here before it existed, and who continue to live here now. While it has done its best (I suspect after the fact of the show’s development) to mitigate its rather singular narrative of settlement, it is undeniable and impossible to avoid the criticism that it is simply not good enough to take the arrival of Europeans as the starting point, and only present their point of view of the origin and founding of a colony.

 

One of the mitigating features, but one that seems to weaken its position, is the exhibition AGWA has pitted against ‘unknown land’. The gallery seems to have tried to sublimate every single minority into dissenting voices, its accompanying exhibition. This show ranges from Goya to Abdul Abdullah to Leon Golub to Tracey Moffat to Juan Davilla. That dissenting voices is filled with work of a calibre far beyond ‘unknown land’ is beside the point. The point is that ‘unknown land’ has been carefully and precisely curated: a piece of historical research with exacting detail and specificity that is the precise thing this accompanying show lacks. Dissenting voices, though it contains all this richness, yet appears thrown together next to it. It is not careful nor considered or specific, it is a “greatest hits” and each work is, undeniably, very impressive, but sits awkwardly against those beside it.

 

However, AGWA’s attempts to cover its tracks from ‘unknown land’ are no less indemnifying than its decision to put the show on in the first place. Filled with disappointing art, a lacklustre politics and a seeming inability to reflect on and then change its own narrative, the show is roundly the worst I have seen in a very long time. I suspect that AGWA has realised this, and will hopefully learn to represent the fullness and richness of a state that is filled with more narratives that are less well known and that each deserve a place in our cultural institutions. Not for the fact that they merely are there and exist, though this would be reason enough, but that they are powerful, evocative, and deeper and longer than anything we have yet told the story of – and perhaps that will better express the depths of our humanity. A friend expressed the judgement on this show more simply than I could, and I concur in this case with every inch of the sentiment: ‘I don’t see why this has to exist’.

 

//// Now, a long political interlude: I couldn’t help but write about the Australian’s (yes, that newspaper’s) review of this show. It begins, as every article in the Australian must do now, with a defence of Bill Leak. We only get to the show after a few paragraphs about the cartoonist that draws a very long bow in its relationship to the show. The article argues that the titles and content of this show will supposedly elicit the same response as Leak’s cartoon. There were, apparently, no alarm bells ringing in the comparison of an exhibition of colonial art all produced over 200 years ago and the cartoonists drawing from earlier this year. I think we should all be able to agree that colonial art is not only bad, but that colonialism is an illegitimate project and grave error in the past that must be addressed and corrected. I can only quote the worst line of the review, in relation to this, as: ‘all this progress meant displacing the Aborigines… though some early images imply peaceful co-existence’. It ends with an acknowledgement that ‘there is no doubt the aboriginal population suffered much oppression at the hands of the settlers’ (a strange tone of tiredness arises here, as if the reviewer is only obliged to say it to placate the constantly policing left, and would in fact rather just forget it ever happened and move on) and then continues on with the narrative of the man whose paintings are on display, who the aboriginal people were subjugated to, who dealt with the crises of displacement and disease – that are apparently ‘menaces far more destructive than the skirmishes he had depicted a generation before’ (so I guess he’s a hero for the aboriginal people then, and all that murder was water under the bridge when it comes to the diseases that white people brought over?).

 

There is, however, more hay to be set alight in the comparison of Leak and this show, and current arguments around political correctness. There is, notably, an argument going around saying that Trump was elected because of excessive political correctness on the behalf of the left – this is a discussion that should clearly be had. So what’s going on here, then? And how do these little pictures relate to it? Well, firstly as to free speech: the Australian constitution does not in fact protect freedom of expression/speech. I am fine with people talking about freedom of speech, but most arguments seem to take it as part of our constitution, and it is important to establish that we operate, in this case, off precedent. We can be said to hold it as a value, but it is not the constitution. The supposition of absolutes is always problematic in the realm of press like the Australian, but they are not free to say anything they want – particularly in their role as a national newspaper – nor are anyone else really. We are all accountable, to other and hopefully to ourselves. In a legal sense, there are only precedents of free speech, which are particularly generous. There is rather only the implication of freedom given by our inhabiting a representative democracy. I would, to the reviewer who quoted Oscar Wilde, remind him that Wilde’s teacher, Whistler, sued Ruskin for defamation, and it is laid out in his wonderful ‘the gentle art of making enemies’. Words have been hurting for generations, and they have been landing people in court as well. As much as defamation is based in the supposedly practical effects of reputation sabotage, it is not unrelated to section 18C of the racial discrimination act. Leak’s cartoons might very well have concrete effects. Preventing aboriginal people from gaining respect in certain circumstances, preventing them from getting promotions, and reiterating and strengthening negative perceptions. Having said this, I strongly believe that Leak should not be prosecuted for his words and pictures. Legality complicates and weakens the power of rhetorical debate, putting the emphasis of thought on a supposedly unbiased legal system that is invariably behind the times. Weighing argument that attempts to change minds down with legal procedure that enforces behaviours. However, accountability is necessary, and the initial response to Leak’s cartoon may have been strong, but not, as the Australian imagines, unwarranted. We have seen the Australian close ranks around its cartoonist, and we have seen it maintain its position. In this war about silencing, the truth is that publications such as The Australian seek to silence their detractors as much as they seek to be able to continue to speak (about what they have been silenced I know not). We must remember that despite pretending it is totally marginalised and oppressed, the Australian is a national newspaper that routinely presents incorrect facts or misrepresents information (I remember once picking it up and finding on the front page a graph with shark deaths seeming to rise year by year – until you realised that the last three years had been lumped into one, and in fact sharks had been killing less people nationally than before.) Breitbart is still perfectly operational, going totally uncensored, that /pol/ is still spouting racist and misogynist idiocy, that Stephen Crowder continues to manipulate and massage the truth, that Yiannopolous continues to pretend to be outspoken. Even Stephen Fry has weighed in to suggest that it is a militant left that is destroying ‘clarity of thought’. Somehow the mainstream mock conservative has successfully managed to formulate the inversion to faking the role of the oppressed, just as they have managed to steal freedom of speech. I remind them (as if any of them read this) that democracy is only good so long as it is not tyrannical. Everyone celebrates victories for ‘democracy’, when the majority wins a vote that diminishes the supposed protections of the authoritarian left, but the tyranny of the majority can be the founding of a democracy without the freedoms of the outliers and the marginal. Never forget that it has taken a long time for us to enjoy this period of relative civil liberty, and it is perilous and new and certainly not yet complete.

 

So let us turn to 18C (feel free to skip this part –I am no legal scholar, and this is a vaguely researched opinion piece). The first thing is that it is part of the racial discrimination act, and instances of concrete racial discrimination (something that prior to leak’s case and the computer lab case, this small piece of legislation was solely useful for) are what this act is addressing. It seems both obvious that discrimination on the basis of race is wrong, and that attempting to repeal this law is attempting to make discrimination on the basis of race permissible. It is interesting to note that while a case was brought against Leak, he was not taken to court, the reviewer states that he still had to ‘prove himself innocent’ – in whose court? You mean to a readership? The one you sort of have to be held accountable to if you want to be a newspaper?). Meanwhile, from the position of the Australian and the right, I think it is important to realise that offense is deliberately left out of libel and defamation cases; rather it is the perceived diminishment of reputation or business against a particular person. I would suggest in relation to this (and as opposed to mere ‘offense’), that Leak’s reinforcing of a perception of Aboriginal people as alcoholics is equally likely to prevent them finding employment, promotion, or other concrete effects as defamation against a singular person. Yet even though 18c includes offending, the offense must have been done because of race, and outside of something said or done reasonably and in good faith. In all of this, it is unlikely that Leak could be prosecuted effectively (the prosecution also said that they were after conciliation) and the case has been dropped. This naturally did not stop the Australian going after the accuser and 18C, using the myth of freedom of speech like they are wont to do. Here is where another interesting inversion (you can start reading again now!) takes place: According to this article in the Australian, no one is allowed to be offended anymore (the Australian is the only newspaper allowed to be offended!). This is not stated explicitly, but this reviewer has managed, from the sign outside of AGWA’s exhibition, to bring Leak’s case in, and this struggle. From a sign that suggests ‘some viewers may be offended’, he has in turn suggested that the sign is there because AGWA will be litigated against, and that it therefore should not be there. He only states ‘I hope it is not there because of…’ but this is not all he implies: It is after all, a sign outside an exhibition that contains actually racist paraphernalia from 200 years ago, and this reviewer hopes that it is not there because someone might litigate – but what the sign actually says is that the show may offend some people? Sure, it could be a protection against litigation, but it is also a protection against the shows insensitivity – an attempt to make it seem like the show was conceived of more accommodatingly. There is more confusion here, in that the reviewer (in implication) wishes that AGWA wouldn’t have to disclaim any possible offense at all. In other words, that it wouldn’t have to explain why it marginalised the voices of aboriginal people, celebrated colonisation, and didn’t really do anything to mitigate this blatantly ethnocentric position. None of this is said directly, but the Australian is more than adept at ideological warfare, and suggesting that all signs disclaiming offense are now related to litigation suggests that these concerns are over the top, and have ‘gone too far’ (being the rallying cry of these discussions) that they are unnecessary if people were less offended, that to be offended is wrong, specifically if you are offended by racist, sexist or homophobic comments. However. The central problem with litigation in this case is that it does imply the policing of speech and thought. Despite a lack of cases (unfortunately, they have one now in Leak), the right has been milking it. The logic of this agenda is complex yet fascinating: the issue that racism is wrong is subordinated to the wrongness of thought policing. Thus, they are able to permit racism, because to decry racism is to remove the liberty to be racist. ////

 

Finally, we move onto the last show, which, along with Saltwater Mapping, appears to be aligned opposite AGWA’s vulnerable position. (I read with some amusement the ‘quotation marks’ JCG has been putting on every time it mentions a word like ‘discovery’.) Unfortunately, despite being the most clearly aligned opposite AGWA, and presenting itself as a show of contemporary art from lands Hartog visited, it does not succeed in its attempt at a critical position. I think this is a problem to do with the conceptual framing and curation rather than the art or selection of artworks. The underlying idea to include artists from previous Dutch colonies is one that does present a narrative related to a history that is quite interesting. Yet the problem is that these artworks reveal something else about the contemporary global condition. Though the text does not address it, there is an issue present about how easily money and capital can transfer freely throughout the world, and how hard is remains for human beings and culture to do so. Our cultural production is somewhat specific to places and to histories that remain tied to countries. There is little investigation or mention of this. In some ways, the most interesting thing about the John Curtin Show is how gaping the holes in our experiences are, how little we know about our small pockets of the world, and the negligible amount we traverse other environments and social spheres. It is a sampling, almost without through line, that attempts to relate its diverse content to dutch genre painting.

 

The stand out work is clearly Wendelien Van Oldenburhg’s video installation. This work crucially addresses the history of Dutch colonialism in a powerful and suggestive way, doesn’t shy from political issues, and is made extremely well. In a sense, this work should be our frame through which to view John Curtin Gallery’s show. It’s complications and difficult histories present a plethora of views and fascinating histories that are often poignantly revealing as to violences and oppressions and freedoms of the past.

 

Yet, John Mateer’s reading of the work is a stretch. Or rather, it is too optimistic. ‘we… may already be well within a cosmopolitan, shared democratic future which owes certain of its dynamics to the Dutch influence’. Yet, in this age where American and Australia and India are putting pressure on China, where Indoneisa and the phillipines are caught in the middle, underresourced and caught between influences, while refugees move through Indonesia and yet are turned back from Australian waters, we cannot say this. This is not a cosmopolitan democratic future. Also forgotten is that democracy can be as tyrannical as fascism, should the people will it, and the homogeneity of certain countries like Australia should not be the basis for a homogeneity of a vision of the world. In short: we are not in this future yet, though I commend John Curtin Gallery’s attempts to promote a greater cosmopolitan and cross-cultural exchange.

 

Furthermore, the homogenous nature of each artist’s work in the exhibition seems to point to the gaping holes between them more than the possibility of exchange. We do not yet live in a world where border crossing is easy. We do not live in the world we should. Capital moves freely, and our standard of living is in many ways reliant on a poorer standard of living for working class people living in China and the Philippines and other such countries with limited protections for workers.

 

There is also this idea that the genres of the Dutch are alive and well. Unfortunately, the linking of art-as-commodity instead of religious artefact, and colonialism, presents an un-investigated avenue of thought: that in the contemporary, globalised world, commodities are become a form of colonisation. That everything is suddenly become the same, ‘genre’ and that history is no longer important. The works are all wonderful, but they are introduced into this context, and it makes them seem somewhat awkward, as if they have to bend to a strange sort of context. It also seems that a denial of the past is in process, ignoring the scars that remain.

 

Coming to terms with the past is hard, and one of the things we can take from these shows is that our galleries, like our country, struggles with the burden of its violent and oppressive histories. There are yet signs of hope, inamongst the darkness that has been this year. While our state gallery fails to engage with the narratives that might fill out the past more comprehensively, our two university galleries are attempting valiantly to fill our sadly lacking narratives of the past and the globe. While not always the most successful, interesting things are beginning to emerge, and it is heartening to see these attempts to address the grand narrative of Australia’s history, and begin to point to its silences and spaces.

 

 

text by Graham Mathwin