“Inside” the Australian Indigenous Art Commission

During much of the week preceding the opening of the Musee du Quai Branly there was considerable talk about the Aboriginal work being installed in places that were not open to the public. Despite the architects’ repeated protestations that the work was meant to be seen from the street, the story wasn’t selling well on the street.First of all, we’d all flown considerable distances to attend the opening and, dammit, we wanted the chance to inspect the work ourselves. Secondly, Judy Watson’s two halves with bailer shell installation is not visible from the street. There’s a blur of light that you could guess is the work, but the surface is so highly reflective that all you can really see is the floor and the steps underneath it. Judy’s other work is clearly visible on the glass wall of the facade at street level, but since Michael Riley’s photographs and John Mawurndjul’s ceiling painting lie behind her acid-etched glass designs, they are pretty easy to overlook unless the light is just right.

Paddy Bedford’s work was originally planned for the front of the building, left of the staff entrance. That space is now occupied by a large bank of pipes that might provide water to the fire service in the event of a serious conflagration. It’s hard to argue with public safety, but it’s harder to see the Paddy Bedford in the alley that fronts the service elevator for the curatorial wing.

Tommy Watson’s work is in a space at the end of the top (third) floor of the building, and from ground level you feel like you can see about an inch of it. So we all wanted in. We wanted to really see the work we’d come so far to celebrate.

On Friday morning, after the opening ceremonies, we had our chance. A small, informal tour, led variously by Hetti Perkins, Brenda Croft, and Peter Lonergan (of Cracknell and Lonergan, the Sydney architects who were responsible for the execution of the Commission) went through the spaces on the first through third floors. There was commentary about the execution of each work. The Tommy Watson,done in enamel on steel plates, was the most difficult of all, and required 18 separate firings. The works by Gulumbu and Ningura were done on wallboard from designs gridded out and carefully reproduced, centimeter by centimeter from a detailed plan. 

The movie that we later saw at the Embassy showed some of this happening. The artisans worked with a precise drawing in hand, and counted dots of each color, applying them with large, rubbery pads attached to long poles. We heard later that there was a moment of contention during the execution of Mawurndjul’s ceiling work, as in the original there is a small area where the rarrk does not completely reach the edge of one of the large circles. In the original painting, this isn’t noticeable unless you’re looking with a magnifying glass, but the process of transcription to the large ceiling format acting as just such a glass and made the moment very noticeable. The artisans claimed that they were reproducing the work precisely and had to be convinced to make the slight alteration required to extend the cross-hatching all the way to the edge of the circle.

Up close, the works are quite amazing and sometimes overwhelming. It became obvious that the installation really was meant to be seen from the distance of the street: as much as I love Gulumbu’s garak design, I don’t think I could live with it two feet from my face at the scale required for this installation, as I think the photographs below will illustrate. I had been more than a little indignant earlier in the week at the bureaucratic refusal to allow visitors inside the building for this close-up view,and at the general notion that these magnificent examples of indigenous art were not available to the general public, but in the end, I had to say that I understand the architect’s intent much better for finally having seen it up close. 

But again, on the picture-worth-a-thousand-words principle, here’s the slide show, starting at the first floor.

A view of the hallway facing the street with Ningura’s work. Notice that the upper edges of the window enclosures are painted rather than being reflections.

The large room at the east end of the building. Because of all the white in this design, this space is almost blindingly bright and feels very open from the inside.

This is the view of Gulumbu’s painting down the hallway that runs the length of the building’s street side. The windows are to the left, and the images of garak that you see on the right are actually reflected in mirrors on the back wall of the hallway.

Another shot of the hallway, looking out the windows. From this angle you can see the mirrors along the frame of the windows reflecting and distorting the buildings across the street. From outside, of course, they catch the garak.

Looking down the length of the large room at the east end of the building. I liked the effect that you get as the image recedes in the distance. I immediately thought of the way stars in the sky coalesce into the bright mass of the Milky Way. The bright streak of light on the right side comes from mirrors along the top edge of the window, which help to extend and reflect the image outward for better viewing from the street.

I took this shot with my back to the windows and the street side, looking into the mirror on the back wall of the hallway. It shows how the inside of the external wall is painted with the artist’s design, which then gets reflected out by the mirrors on the wall. It’s more than a little disorienting when you’re actually in the hall, but you can see the effect if you look again at some of the street shots in earlier posts.

Tommy Watson’s ceiling on the third floor. This is the most problematic of the rooms, in my view. The ceiling is much lower than in the floors below, which made it very hard to photograph. It also means that from the street perspective it’s doubly hard to see: it is the farthest away, and because the ceiling is so low, you get very little angle on it and hence can only see a bit of the edges. The shiny enameled finish, like that on the Judy Watson piece in the staff entrance also means that your vision is constantly trying to disentangle the image itself from the reflections of what is in the room. That’s Bill Nuttall gazing up at the ceiling on the left; Nyakul Dawson in his golden headband on the right.

Early Friday morning before the opening ceremonies, the light was just right to catch Judy Watson’s acid-etched design in the glass wall of the building’s facade. The designs are based on ethnographic artifacts found in museum collections.

A view from the side of part of the Judy Watson piece over the staff entrance. The deep Prussian blue is exquisite when the light catches it right. The smoke detectors and sprinkler heads that stud all of the works are quite clearly visible in this shot.

This is the best view of the bailer shell in Judy’s piece that I was able to snap.

Paddy Bedford’s design lives in a service corridor at the west end of the building, opposite the freight elevator. I’ve said before I think it’s a disgrace. The design’s simplicity and balance is hard to appreciate and marred by the “window” in the middle of it. Although the plans for this design show it exactly as it appears, window and all, I’m deeply disappointed in the execution here. 

A closer look at the central portion of Paddy’s piece. The window appears to look out into a courtyard in the building that fronts on Avenue de la Bourdonnais, just to the west, and which also houses administrative offices for the MQB. I wonder what would be lost if they had plastered it over. It does allow some light into the service corridor, which otherwise is enclosed by heavy glass doors streetside, and open to another courtyard at its further end.

Afterwards a small group gathered in the corridor outside the freight elevator. Left to right, Ros Premont of Gallery Gondwana, Josh Lilley, Stephane Jacob, Margaret Levi, and Barbara Glowczewski.

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3 Responses to “Inside” the Australian Indigenous Art Commission

  1. Pingback: Video Culture / Museum Culture | Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye

  2. Pingback: Aboriginal Art Museum Utrecht | Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye

  3. Pingback: Aboriginal Art Museum Utrecht | A Lifetime Is Required

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