Exhibition Review: Making Connections

Written for Issue 00 of Topical Ointment. Find the original article at: http://www.topicalointment.com.au

‘Making Connections: Southeast Asian Art @ ANU’

8 – 30 May 2015

The ANU School of Art Gallery

http://soa.anu.edu.au/school-of-art-gallery

It has been 18 years since the ANU has held an exhibition dedicated to Asian art, and in the wake of the recent executions in Indonesia, there has never been a more appropriate time to remember Australia’s positive connections with our Southeast Asian neighbors. Entering the throng of patrons at the opening of ‘Making Connections: Southeast Asian Art @ANU’ I was warmly reminded of the rich multicultural community we enjoy in this country. The ANU has a long and prosperous history of collaboration with major Southeast Asian institutions, scholars and artists, and the current exhibition acts as a showcase of the rich collection of work accumulated as a result of these connections.

Redza Piyadasa, Two Malay Women, 1989 mixed media on paperboard, ANU School of Art Collection

‘Making Connections: Southeast Asian Art @ANU’ is curated by David Williams and Caroline Turner for the ANU School of Art Gallery and will be open from the 8th to the 30th of May. Artists from nine nationalities are represented, including names like Malaysia’s Redza Piyadasa, Latiff Mohiddin and Wong Hoy Cheong, Indonesia's Affandi and Dadang Christanto, and Cambodia’s Bun Heang Ung. The work varies greatly in medium, theme, and style, the traditional is interplayed with the contemporary, and the political is coupled with the highly intimate. The main connecting thread in the lush array of work is undoubtedly in the use of colour. The saturated colours of Southeast Asia seep into the very fibers of many of the works, tempting their Australian audience with a warm exotic light unknown in this land lit predominantly by the dry and harsh. Malaysian artist Redza Piyadasa’s mixed media collages burst off the walls with their rich bouquets of shapes and colours. His deceptively simple family portraits entice the viewer in with their rainbow of rich hues that leak into the very skin of his subjects. Yet in the deep inky blues that frame these bright colours, or the clenched fist in Two Malay Women (1989) there is a hint of a darker layer meaning lurking beneath.

Affandi, Untitled [Flowers], 1964, oil on canvas, ANU Collection

All 87 contemporary works seem to tie themselves in some way to the traditional. These ties can be used as a celebration, subversion, or deconstruction of the traditional. Indonesian artist Affandi’s brightly coloured Untitled [Flowers], (1964) continues the linking thread of colour through the exhibition. Affandi, working with his fingers and painting straight from the tube, creates highly emotional and tactile works that connect with the spirituality and traditions of Indonesian culture.[1] There is none of the carefully layered shapes of Malaysian artist Redza Piyadasa’s mixed media collages, but a joyful, chaotic immediacy that jumps out upon passing viewers.  In a conversation with Art Historian Astri Wright in 1987 the artist confirms this joy: ‘...when I paint I am completely happy. When I paint the only things that exist are God, the subject and myself.’[2]

‘Making Connections: Southeast Asian Art @ANU’ was based off the private collection of art collector and Australian diplomat, Neil Manton, and supported by the ANU’s own collection. During his time in DFAT, Neil Manton established many strong cultural connections with Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries. The exhibition also coincides with the 60th anniversary of Malayan and Australian diplomatic relations and was opened by H.E. Dato' Zainal Abidin Ahmad, the High Commissioner of Malaysia. His Excellency welcomed the break from relatively dry political engagements and stressed the importance of the visual arts as a means of creating constructive and positive connections between Australia and Southeast Asia.

What makes international connections within the visual arts unique is that the arts has the capacity to slide underneath the hard political crust of a country into the hearts and minds of its people. Through art we can begin to see these countries from the inside out, we can empathize with their perspectives on a social, political and personal level. The perception of single unified nation is unraveled to reveal a collection of individuals with unique experiences, thoughts and dreams. Often it is forgotten that it is not only important to connect with the decision makers of a country, but also with the very people that make up the body of a nation. Thankfully it appears this often forgotten connection has been remembered and celebrated in ‘Making Connections: Southeast Asian Art @ ANU’.

Notes:

[1] Caroline Turner extract from Turner, ‘Affandi in Bali’ in Crossing Boundaries: Bali: A Window to Twentieth Century Indonesian Art, Asia Society AustralAsia Centre, 2002, pp. 41–44.

[2] Astri Wright, Soul, Spirit and Mountain: Preoccupations of Contemporary Indonesian Painters, Oxford University Press, 1994, p. 111.

 

Feeling Flesh

Patricia Picinini The Long Awaited (2008) Photo: Shan Crosbie

­­­­In 2014 three major exhibitions were held in some of the largest gallery spaces in the nation’s capital; Canberra Museum and Gallery’s Pulse, Reflections on the Body exhibition, The National Portrait Gallery’s In the Flesh, and After Afghanistan at the Australian War Memorial showcasing the work of 2011 official war artist, Ben Quilty. These exhibitions are all linked through one question: ‘What does it mean to exist in a human body?’. ACT Museums and Galleries Director, Shane Breynard in the introduction to CMAG’s Pulse, Reflections on the Body exhibition presents the paradox that “Our experience of ourselves as corporeal beings is both uniquely personal and common to us all.”[1] It is through this common yet completely isolated state of being that each exhibition explores what it is to be human.

When visiting these shows we are thrown right into the guts of the subjects, of ourselves even, and we are left to dig our way upward and outward. The works in all three shows are physical representations of the body; cells, skin, hair, and bones, yet it is the way in which the mind and emotions reside within these physical vessels that underpins these exhibitions. CMAG’s exhibition Pulse features 27 interstate and local artists and provides the most thorough dissection of the body, and of the question: ‘What does it mean to exist within a human body?’.

The show opens with a poem called The Pulse is a Dangerous Thing by Dr Sarah Rice. This bold multidisciplinary addition lays the foundations on which the visual work can grow from and explore. Pulse, as its name suggests, showcases work from underneath the surface of the flesh, from the inner workings of the mind and body. Rice’s poem explores the mind’s perverse relationship with the body it inhabits. The horror of the backs of knees, flesh covered rocks of the wrist, and the ominous pulse lurking just below the surface of the skin.[2] The mind trapped hostage within a hostile body that it is repulsed by.

 However, when standing before Jude Rae’s Interior series (2004 -05) we find ourselves on the other side of the flesh. Rae’s portraits are simple and traditional portraits of sitters with their eyes closed. Unlike Rice’s intimate confessions of her personal experience underneath her skin, Rae’s unseeing portraits firmly close their front doors to their viewers. We are left staring at the subject like disgruntled peeping toms whilst they enjoy a completely private experience of themselves that we are completely excluded and isolated from.

Jude Rae Interior series (2004-05) Photo courtesy of the Canberra Museum and Gallery website

In the Flesh held at the portrait gallery also addresses this paradox of the human experience being at the same time common and unique, yet it goes about it in an entirely different way. Featuring internationally renowned Australian artists such as Ron Mueck, Patricia Piccinini and Sam Jinks, instead of dissecting the body, the artists have carefully and painstakingly reconstructed it. These reconstructions manifest themselves as highly realistic three-dimensional humanoid creatures. Often presented in the nude, these creatures share the space with their viewer, sometimes unaware or disinterested, other times desperately uncomfortable with their close proximity to us. Some are giant, some tiny, and some unnervingly only slightly too far one way or the other. The lights in the gallery are purposefully dim and standing next to one of Ron Mueck’s or Sam Jink’s impossibly realistic silicone and fibreglass creations one is struck with the terror that at any moment the viewer/work relationship will be broken and there will be some explaining to do as to why you are standing there gawking at their naked body.  There is even a slight draft in the room that gently moves the hair of these creatures, adding beautifully to the illusion of vitality even stronger than your own.

Ron Mueck Wild Man (2005) Photo: Shan Crosbie

 Within each of these figures there are undeniable narratives of emotions and histories written into their bodies, features and posture. Such is the power of these emotional narratives, that upon walking around the base of Ron Mueck’s Wild Man sculpture depicting a giant terrified and naked man perched upon a chair, I have the sudden urge to complain to the gallery staff for the inhumane conditions that he is existing in. “I’d look like that too if I were sitting there naked”, remarked a fellow viewer, confirming I was not alone in feeling empathy for the mortified giant.

 Although many of the works are ‘hyper-real’ the question they evoke is not as simple as what is real and what is not. For the purpose of the exhibition these works are real – more real than us at times. We empathize with the sculptures; we understand their emotions and their stories. Yet despite our close proximity and uncanny likeness, they remain permanently distant and isolated from us, as we remain from them, and even perhaps from each other.

 The trifecta of flesh exhibitions is completed with After Afghanistan showcasing the work of 2011 official war artist Ben Quilty. Quilty painted his portraits of the soldiers he met in Afghanistan back in his studio as they returned home from their service overseas. The portraits are large, yet intimate, with highly emotional mark making with thick, flesh like paint. Quilty unveils the skin to reveal the mind. As he removes the layers of uniform and armor, the viewer witnesses the relief and anguish of the soldiers as the weight of their experiences is laid out before them on Quilty’s canvas. Ben Quilty explains about his painting of Captain S that he “wanted (Captain S) to be naked, showing not only his physical strength but also the frailty of human skin and the darkness of the emotional weight of the war.”[3]

 

Ben Quilty, Captain S after Afghanistan (2012) Photo courtesy of Art Galllery of NSW website

Quilty’s depiction of the soldiers violently confirms the irrevocable connection between the mind and body. In terminal illness and in war one discovers the harsh realities of being a seemingly immortal mind residing within a mortal and fragile body. The real pain and suffering of the body translates into the real fear and trauma of the mind, and in war the pain and suffering of the one’s own body and that of their fellow soldier is violently tangible and real. The experiences of these soldiers in Afghanistan would have pushed their bodies and minds to their limits. Quilty is very aware of this connection, and in his portraits he uses the flesh to help these soldiers to reveal and decipher the trauma of their minds.

With the advancement of technology, the body is becoming strangely disconnected and obsolete in everyday life. We are constantly connected to our iPhones, wrapped up in social media, and performing the daily tasks of life digitally. With this feeling of disembodiment with our existences online, at times it can be easy to forget that we are an organism like any other made of mortal flesh and bone. These three exhibitions highlight the reality of the irrevocable connection between the mind and body and explore what this tie means to both parties. As humans, we are all in the same situation, and yet our experience is completely privatized and isolated by the nature of the flesh that creates this situation. The three exhibitions are strong, and individual explorations of the human body, and the way the mind inhabits, influences, and fears it.

[1] Shane Breynard, Catalogue Introduction Pulse, Reflections on the Body

[2] Dr Sarah Rice, The Pulse is a Dangerous Thing

[3] Talk by Ben Quilty, School of Art, Australian National University, Canberra, 22 August 2012.


Bibliography

 Ben Quilty After Afghanistan. Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 2014.

"In the Flesh." Portrait, September 1, 2014, p.4-17.

Pulse Reflections on the Body. Canberra: Canberra Museum and Gallery, 2014.

Tiananmen Square: The Monument War

Is the city a reflection of the people that live within it, or are the people the mirror of their city? Monuments and public art are seen as evidence of the character, history, values and culture of a city and its people,[1] and if the city and its inhabitants are not in agreement with each other than interesting and potentially violent repercussions can come with this imbalance. The city is a powerful political tool for both those in power and its citizens. Thus, in a political environment like communist China, it makes sense that in order to change a political regime, the people would have to attempt subvert and confront the physical symbols of the government. This essay will address the role of monuments and public art in the 1989 Tiananmen Square Student Protests, and the way in which the government and its citizens manipulate the physical layout of their city in order to alter their experience within it.

The ways in which the physical make up of a city can be manipulated to communicate ideas or to direct a certain way of living are very complex and varied. In most major cities around the world today, public visual culture can take on a variety of different forms. These forms may include government endorsed buildings, monuments, and memorials, city planning endorsed public art, and unauthorized street art and installation. There are many crossovers between all of these different forms of visual culture.

Monuments have long been used as a way to provide insight into the culture, values, events, technology, and society of a city.[2] . However, as contemporary society changes, new demands are made upon civic monuments to stand up in a value pluralist world.[3] Many of these new demands have been addressed by the growing popularity of public art that, theoretically, has more freedom of expression than that of government monuments or memorials.[4] Public art is commissioned art from a city’s planning committee and is usually judged on the criteria of what value it will give to the environment it is situated in.[5] There is inevitably heavy censorship involved with the commissioning of public art works, but a successful work of public art has the power to “enrich a city, reinforce its culture, create identity… encourage risk, represent diversity, give voice to the unsung, and allow us to remember.”[6] Artist John Latham said, “the context is half the work”.[7] Public art is both bound and inspired by Latham’s statement in that it can only make sense, and potentially only exist, in its intended setting.[8] When making public art, the artist has to adapt their studio practice to address the new challenges of a public environment.[9] The artist has to take into consideration their audience, the surrounding buildings, monuments and other works of public art, and the durability and safety of the materials used in the construction of the work. [10]

There are still limitations in public art practices in the fact that if the government or appointed city planning committee does not feel an artist’s work is suitable for public exhibition, no matter how relevant or necessary the ideas within that work may be to a society, it will never be legally displayed.[11] To fill this gap in the system, many artists will install unauthorized work in order to convey their message.[12] Such works are often criticized as vandalism, but many people are beginning to see their value in their cities as a way of avoiding government censorship and communicating about real, and controversial issues.[13]

The destiny of city, for the most part, is to outlive its inhabitants, and the city of Beijing has survived a massive 3,000 years worth of inhabitants.[14] Since its origins as the capital city of the ancient state of Ji in 1045 BC, it has had 12 different names, survived through 20 dynasties, and remained the capital city of China since 1279.[15] Over these three millennia of changing rulers, peace, war, poverty and prosperity, the city has changed immensely, although interestingly, most of this change has occurred in the last century of its life.[16] This is in great part the result of technological advancements in city development, but it was also due to the vastly different political agenda of Chairman Mao to his imperial predecessors.[17]

   
  
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     Beijing in 1945     Nigel Cameron and Brian Brake  Peking: A Tale of Three Cities  (New York, 1965)

Beijing in 1945

Nigel Cameron and Brian Brake Peking: A Tale of Three Cities (New York, 1965)

City design and development in pre-Mao, imperial China was distinct from the western tradition of city planning, in that despite the changes of rulers, time, and ideologies throughout history, certain design elements of imperial Chinese cities have remained unchanged for millennia, regardless of when they were built, their locations, and the nationality of their patrons’.[18] This was due to the cultural requirement that the current ruler maintained their role as the guardian of tradition, and therefore made little or no challenges to the architectural ideologies of the past.[19] The imperial city is characterised by a four-sided boundary, often in the form of a wall with three gates interrupting each side.[20] Within the external boundaries, a second or third smaller rectangular internal boundary is created to show the division in rank, with gates leading seemingly endlessly along a central horizontal axis.[21] For example, the Forbidden City in Beijing was located in the central, innermost walled boundary. This layout is based on the traditional belief in a four-sided universe with the Son of heaven at its centre, or the emperor of at the time.[22] Despite this concern with maintaining tradition, the main goal of the new ruler was still, of course, to mould a spatial layout of monuments and buildings that would symbolize the ruler’s goals and values.[23] However, this was often achieved through re-arrangement and re-labelling of the pre-existing layout, rather than through complete demolishment.[24]

  Idealized plan of Imperial Chinese capital city from   Yongle Dadian   (The Great Encyclopedia of the Yongle Period; Beijing 1949)

Idealized plan of Imperial Chinese capital city from Yongle Dadian (The Great Encyclopedia of the Yongle Period; Beijing 1949)

The scene in which the 1989 Tiananmen Square Student Protests occurred was created through a new process of, appropriating, re-arranging the spatial layout of monuments, which did include extensive demolishment.[25] Tiananmen Square was up until Chairman Mao’s take over in 1949 the Palace Square of the Forbidden City.[26] The Forbidden City was a central area within Beijing reserved for Royal inhabitancy, sealed off from the public by a series of gates and walls.[27] In order to establish authority and distinguish his revolution from imperial China, Mao symbolically addressed his public from on top of the main gate to the Forbidden City, the Tiananmen Gate.[28] This action secured Mao’s People’s Republic, as it represented the exposure and submission of authority to its people.[29] Mao took the Tiananmen Gate and the Square out of their politically symbolic roles in Imperial China and gave them new roles it as political emblems for his Republic.[30]

  Map of Tiananmen Square and its monuments   http://www.chinaspree.com/china-travel-guide/images/tiananmen-square/tiananmen2.jpg

Map of Tiananmen Square and its monuments http://www.chinaspree.com/china-travel-guide/images/tiananmen-square/tiananmen2.jpg

During the Cultural Revolution, Mao continued to demolish and rebuild Beijing to represent the ‘New China’.[31] Over three decades he demolished the surrounding gates and walls that had been so central to the imperial city’s design.[32] He expanded Tiananmen Square to hold 400,000 people,[33] demolished imperial buildings around the Square and replaced them with the Great Hall of the People and Mao’s Mausoleum,[34] and erected the 37.4-meter high obelisk entitled The Monument to the People’s Heroes.[35] The final result was the Tiananmen Gate, a commandeered symbol of Imperial China, standing alone in a sea of new political monuments, stripped of its surrounding walls, with a 6 x4.6 meter high portrait of Mao hanging around its neck.[36]

  Tiananmen Gate with Portrait of Chairman Mao   http://america.aljazeera.com/content/dam/ajam/images/articles/tiananmen_square_gaurd.jpg

Tiananmen Gate with Portrait of Chairman Mao http://america.aljazeera.com/content/dam/ajam/images/articles/tiananmen_square_gaurd.jpg

Tiananmen Square has always been a place of high political tension, being the stage for many pre- and post-Mao demonstrations.[37]  The 1989 Tiananmen Square Student Protests were the result of growing tension between the government and the people and was sparked by the death of controversial Party member, Hu Yaobang in April 1989[38]. A week later, hundreds of thousands of students converged around the Monument to the People’s Heroes in Tiananmen Square to mourn and protest the government’s regime, demanding democracy.[39] In embracing the Monument to the People’s Heroes, they re-claimed the giant obelisk from Mao as a representation of the People’s Republic, and transformed it into their own symbol of political reform.[40] On May 15 students began a hunger strike, the numbers of the strike grew to over three thousand over the seven weeks of occupation.[41] The movement was widely covered by international news and supported by Chinese and non-Chinese alike in different communities all over the world.[42]

   
  
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     1989 Tiananmen Square Student Protests   http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2014/04/29/world/29sino-may401/29sino-may401-tmagArticle.jpg

1989 Tiananmen Square Student Protests http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2014/04/29/world/29sino-may401/29sino-may401-tmagArticle.jpg

On the morning of the 30th of May 1989, the Tiananmen Gate awoke to see a new monument constructed directly in front of it staring down the portrait of Chairman Mao on its façade.[43] The student protesters from the surrounding art schools had managed to create and assemble a seven-meter high statue depicting a young woman on a pedestal holding up a torch with both hands.[44] They called her The Goddess of Democracy. The Goddess of Democracy was created as a work of public art that functions in a similar way to a government endorsed monument, speaking to the surrounding monuments, and to the government, in its own language. Through the common language of monumentality and public art, the protesters had managed to challenge the symbolic physical layout of their city, and in turn, to challenge the values and ideologies of the government.

The success of their makeshift monument was highly criticised by pro-democracy and pro-communism supporters alike,[45] much in the same way unauthorised ‘street art’ is criticised by the public. In the Beijing People’s Daily newspaper the next day, journalist Wu Ye scorned the statue saying, “The Square is scared. No one has the power to add any permanent memorial or to remove anything from the square. Such things must not be allowed to happen in China!”[46]

On the morning of the 4th of June, it appeared that the statue had been exhausted the government’s patience, and the military was given ordered to have the square cleared using tanks and firearms.[47] The result was reports of the massacre of thousands of protesting youths and the inevitable destruction of The Goddess of Democracy. The statue was made of white plaster and Styrofoam[48] and was always destined to die a martyr.[49]

Later that year the government erected a new monument where the Goddess of Democracy had stood.[50] The statue depicted four plain, submissive figures: A farmer, a worker, a soldier and an intellectual, all standing with arms lowered, resigned to their prescribed roles. The new monument represented the government’s forced and arguably ‘weak’[51] response to the protests.

   
  
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     New sculpture erected by the Chinese Government in the Place of  The Goddess of Democracy  from  Newsweek,  9 October 1989