Monday, 31 March 2014

Postcard from Perth 18

WA Reviews and Reflections on Theatre and the Arts

Bali: Return Economy/Richard Bell: Embassy/PICA: Practising Resistance

Post-Colonialism, Art and Politics

I went to Bali in the mid-80s with my partner at the time and another couple. We stayed in Ubud, in a house that was shadow-owned by an Australian who had an import-export handicraft business (foreigners can’t directly own property in Indonesia). Facilities were simple, with buckets for showers, but it was a magnificent old meandering complex of buildings, courtyards and pools. We were served breakfast by staff, including a young high-caste headman with the title of gus (‘prince’); there was also an ancient foot-masseur who had fingers like iron rods and gave me a massage that traumatized me for years.

In fact the whole ‘staff’ routine made us a little uncomfortable (two fringe actors and two lefty journalists all in our mid-twenties) and we agonised over whether and how much to tip. We paid only a nominal amount to the owner in rental, and local restaurant and hawker food was ridiculously cheap by Western standards. I also felt awkward about the process of ‘bargaining’ in shops, which was apparently de rigeur (at least according to other Westerners).

Ubud was the centre of cultural tourism on the island, and there were barong and kecak dance performances every night; we also went to one in an outlying village which was much more spectacular and wild. I’m told Ubud is even more commercial now, and I’m not sure I’d want to go back. On my last night in Bali, I went to Kuta and witnessed tourism on an industrial scale. I had a coke and ice at one of the beach bars, flew home to Melbourne and later woke up in the middle of the night with the most violent diarrhoea I’ve ever experienced.

So I had mixed feelings about heading down to Freo Arts Centre last week to see Bali: Return Economy, curated by Ric Spencer and Chris Hill as part of the Perth Festival visual art program. The exhibition juxtaposed traditional and contemporary work by Balinese and WA artists as well as collaborations and purchases (though the latter are mostly one-way). To be honest, I wasn’t too sure about the whole complex notion of cultural trade and exchange in the context of a globalization that to my eyes still has all the hallmarks of neo-colonialism, whatever cool labels it wears.

From Bali, there were magnificent works by traditional painters from Kamasan using natural and commercial water-based pigments on cloth prepared with rice paste and sealed with cowrie shell, depicting sacred scenes from the Ramayana and collected by WA painter and scholar John Johnson. These made for fascinating comparison with works in the same style, but in ink and acrylic on canvas, depicting contemporary life and events ranging from surfing to the attack on the Twin Towers or the Bali bombings. If the former paintings displayed for me a much greater command of formal artistry, the latter derived a paradoxical power from the collision of style and subject and reminded me in their teeming detail and ferocious energy of hellish scenes by Brueghel or Bosch.

I found the works from WA on the whole less interesting. An enchanting traditional landscape of rice fields and forests drawn en plein air in pastel on industrial sandpaper by Kerry Pendergrast curiously had little to distinguish it from a companion drawing of the Stirling Ranges by the same artist. John Teschendorff’s haunting charcoal, chalk and pencil drawings from his series Tales of Life and Death illustrated scenes derived from an Egyptian Book of the Dead papyrus with figures from traditional Balinese wood-carvings; but the drawings were completely overshadowed by an actual carving from Teschendorff’s collection of a Seated Figure by an unknown artist from Ubud. In stark contrast Fremantle-based artist and designer Lucinda Crimson’s installations featured tourist-slogan bumper-stickers, tricycle trinket-shops and stalls selling bottles of contaminated water; while Toni Wilkinson’s Balinese Boy from the Bintang Shopping Centre and Aussie Girls in Bali consisted of photos respectively showing Balinese souvenir dolls in the form of blond-haired, blue-eyed boys in sarongs, and a group of bikini-clad tourists in a spa. However, the glib irony of these works was completely upstaged by the savage satirical humour and vital artistry of Jango Pramartha’s political cartoons attacking globalisation, with images like that of a smoking Balinese prostitute perched on top of a wine-glass with the caption ‘Australia Today, Bali Tomorrow’ (with a ‘Today’ sticker covering the last word) – images which reminded me of the pre-Nazi Berlin caricature-art of George Grosz or Otto Dix.

In general the more traditional WA artists and collectors on show had lived and worked on Bali, while the contemporary artists and collectors were either tourists or had family or business connections there. I couldn’t help feeling that work from the former group had more authenticity than the latter, however effective or original the results. For me the most illuminating works in this regard were three videos (screened on a loop) of documentary films by poet and academic John Darling. The one I saw when I happened to be there was Lempad of Bali, a portrait of the 116-year old master artist, painter, sculptor and architect, a kind of twentieth-century Balinese Michelangelo whose work, life and impact were lovingly recorded in footage that documented a culture and society in transition and in many respects now vanished forever.

I left the exhibition with re-mixed feelings – both enriched and saddened by the experience. These feelings were encapsulated by Annette Seeman’s Tiger Tales, based on family stories and photos of her father aged ten on his first tiger hunt in Bali, and culminating in a collection of wooden semi-abstract ‘guardian’ figures carved by Seeman herself in collaboration with Balinese artists and completed with her father back in Fremantle. The image of the slain tiger and the ambiguous ‘guardian’ figures together seemed to symbolize both the process of colonization and loss and the possibility of a genuine cross-cultural and trans-generational memory and collaboration which would not simply be another form of cultural appropriation.


Upstairs from the William Kentridge installation at PICA (which I wrote about in a recent postcard) is another exhibition that deals with issues of post-colonialism: Richard Bell’s Embassy, curated by Leigh Robb. In fact one might argue that both Bell and Kentridge are ‘post-colonial’ artists, albeit of a very different stripe. In comparison with The Refusal of Time or Bali: Return Economy, Embassy (as its title suggests) makes much more concise, direct and head-on statements about issues of appropriation that lie closer to home.

On closer inspection Bell’s work is more subtle than at first appears, and there are deeper similarities between him and Kentridge, which their juxtaposition at PICA serves to heighten. Both artists appear in person as characters in their own video work, and both use collage as a fundamental technique in terms of media and styles: but where Kentridge’s version of collage refers more to the earlier modernist avant-garde tradition of Russian futurism, Dada, cubism and surrealism, in Bell’s case the more immediate reference is to postmodernist collage and Pop Art from Rauschenberg and Lichtenstein to Andy Warhol or Cindy Sherman. Indeed, as I’ve suggested previously, Kentridge’s work as a whole is characterized by a typically modernist interest in the experience of continuity and duration, whereas Bell is more interested in rupture, reversal, revolution and making a clean break with the past.

It’s also no accident that Kentridge’s screen persona is silent, whereas Bell’s never stops talking. This too is consistent with what I would call a broadly modernist ‘aesthetics of silence’ (including silence with regard to artistic intentions), as opposed to the postmodern propensity for art and commentary to coincide. Underlying this aesthetic distinction is a more personal or at least positional one. If both are post-colonial artists, Kentridge’s heritage and position is as a member of a sovereign social class (white European South Africans) commenting on a world which that class has had a dominant hand in constructing (at least until the end of apartheid) – and which white middle-class male Europeans continue to have a dominant hand in constructing on a global scale. Bell on the other hand as an Aboriginal man is a member of a subject class whose position has been largely constructed by others for the last two hundred years. In other words: Bell turns the tables by speaking for himself, playfully but with serious purpose deconstructing and reconstructing a racially divided world.

Despite its apparent simplicity of utterance Embassy is in fact a complex multi-layered installation, in terms of artistic form and social-historical content. It centres on a recreation of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy which was set up outside the old Parliament House in Canberra in 1974. Inside the tent are camping chairs facing a video triptych, Imagining Victory, which features Bell himself and others. These include the hilarious and scathing Dinner Party – which is set on the night of an election victory by an Aboriginal President (played by Gary Foley) and makes Don’s Party look like an episode of Play School – and Scratch an Aussie, in which Bell psychoanalyses a series of beautiful blonde Anglo-Australian models in gold bikinis on a leather couch, and is then analysed himself by his old friend and fellow-activist Foley. The tent is surrounded by placards from the original embassy repainted by Bell, and the walls of the gallery around it are lined with massive canvases painted in acrylic that juxtapose slogans like ‘Western Art Does Not Exist’, ‘Not Just Greed and Fear’ and ‘In The End There Will Be Painting’ against richly decorative patterned backgrounds that deliberately ‘appropriate’ devices from Pollock, Imants Tillers and Central Desert artists like Emily Kame Kngwarreye (whom Tillers himself has previously appropriated in some of his own paintings). Most spectacular and moving of all is a huge long polymer mural on board painted in collaboration with San Francisco Black Panther activist and artist Emory Douglas and entitled Peace Heals, War Kills (Big Ass Mutha Fuckin Mural). In the corridor around the corner is a Roy Lichtenstein Pop-Art acrylic pastiche featuring a cartoon orgasmic blonde woman with the accompanying thought-bubble ‘Thank Christ I’m Not Aboriginal’.

Bell is a wickedly clever and hugely talented conceptual-political artist with a great compositional eye. He’s also (and equally) an activist with a particular focus on the issue of appropriation – a term similarly applicable in this context to land and culture. In this regard perhaps the keystone of the whole exhibition (and as with Bali: Return Economy for me perhaps its most compelling exhibit) is an absorbing video on continuous loop at the end of the corridor entitled Ningla-a-Na: Hungry for Our Land. This is a beautifully shot and edited black-and-white documentary by Alessandro Cavadini recording the establishment of the original Tent Embassy, and including riveting footage of demonstrations, police violence and debates – including a particularly revealing one between Aboriginal women and non-Aboriginal feminists about their respective priorities for political action. This debate speaks with particular urgency across the decades in the context of the Northern Territory Intervention, and broaches the thorny question of how to reconcile apparently conflicting rights like those of ownership, artistic license, free speech, freedom from intimidation, and the rights of women, children and other disadvantaged groups – especially in the light of currently proposed reforms to the Racial Vilification Act.


Last Saturday PICA opened this debate up further with a Symposium entitled Practising Resistance presented in partnership with Curtin University’s School of Design and Art, in which I was invited at the last minute to participate. The afternoon began in the PICA Performance Space with a lecture trilogy on ‘Resistance in the Asia Pacific’ featuring presentations by Simon Soon on the relationship between street protest, art and popular culture across South East Asia; Taloi Havini on her photographical project focussing on members of the ‘Blood Generation’ who have grown up during the era of violent conflict between indigenous land owners and mining companies in Bougainville; and Sumugan Sivanesan on the complex media story of Tamil asylum seeker ‘Alex’ Kuhendrarjah (and Sumugan’s own role in that narrative). I found these presentations increasingly problematic in the way that (with the best of intentions) they objectified and aestheticised their subjects (i.e. real suffering or resisting people) and turned them into images, artworks or even experiments. In the case of ‘Alex’ in particular I felt deeply uncomfortable about the risk of asylum-seekers becoming political totems – or worse, personal fetishes. I wonder if it does them more harm than good, and who it's really for.

This session was followed by a panel discussion on ‘Memory and Resistance’ in Australia with Richard Bell, local Noongar artist Peter Farmer (whose presence was supported by his wife Miranda Farmer as their father had recently passed away) and Perth-based artist and academic Thea Costantino. Richard gave a short and typically spirited address about Australian racism; Peter, a moving eulogy to his father and commentary on his own ‘blue wren’ paintings; and Thea, a more theoretical paper about the legacy of colonialism, the delegitimization of Aboriginal art and the need to counter the racism of ‘mainstream Australia’ with Habermas’s notion of ‘the public sphere’ as a space for rational debate. The discussion was then opened to the floor, and produced more angry examples of racism and an awkward question from a self-described descendant of white colonialists about how to deal with his own guilt. I found the tone of this discussion increasingly unproductive. An older woman sitting next to me spoke out and said that in her experience Australia was the least racist country in the world, provoking scornful laughter from the panel. I quietly reflected on the idealism of Habermas in assuming that ideal speech situations ever exist anywhere, and the presumption that ‘we’ artists or intellectuals are somehow more enlightened that ‘mainstream Australia’ – the latter being as much a political construction as race itself (or indeed ‘Aboriginal art’, as Richard himself has acknowledged in his famous slogan: ‘Aboriginal Art: It’s a White Thing’). I came away wondering if we wouldn’t be better off ditching terms like ‘race', 'black or 'white' completely, and viewing racism as a practice rather than a personal or national characteristic. Otherwise we risk perpetuating the very identity politics that racism itself is founded on.

The day ended with an informal session unpacking the themes raised during the afternoon (and any others that came up). 'Activating the Embassy' took place upstairs in front of the Tent Embassy over refreshments; I was billed as ‘MC and provocateur’ with Richard ‘leading the charge’. We sat outside the tent with about forty or fifty people sitting or standing around in a tight circle. Discussion ranged from questions of racism, activism, art and education to specific issues like the Racial Vilification Act, free speech versus hate speech, and the recent action by the Biennale artists against the offshore detention of asylum seekers. The discussion was sometimes heated and emotive, but open-minded – and perhaps more importantly open-hearted. It concluded with a moving plea from a young woman for empathy as perhaps a more productive emotion that shame in terms of social change. I thought it was a good note to end on, and went home wondering if Tony Jones felt as exhausted as this after Q&A – but sensing that Richard’s installation had indeed been ‘activated’.


Embassy is at PICA until 27 April.

Bali: Return Economy closed on 27 March.

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