Michael Riley at the National Gallery (and online!)

The retrospective, Michael Riley: sights unseen, opened over the weekend at the National Gallery. Not that I was there. But the next best thing has got to be the website devoted to the show, courtesy of the NGA. It is one of the finest productions I’ve seen devoted to any museum show.

Of course, it’s got wonderful primary material to work with. My comments here will necessarily concern what’s available online, 

To start with the most important and obvious, the website reproduces 156 of Riley’s photographs, beginning with his documentary works from the series Guwanyi: stories from the Redfern Aboriginal Community (1975) and ending with the majestic cloud series (2000)–two and a half decades of work extraordinary for its visual impact, its beauty and its ability to evoke a strong if sometimes ineffable emotional response. The range from political documentary through personal portraiture–often itself a form of political documentary–to the “conceptual” works like Sacrifice, flyblown, and cloud is stunning. Obviously, this kind of impact is to be expected from a retrospective, but the range and selection of work here puts this show into the first rank of such exhibitions. 

Curator Brenda L. Croft’s other achievement here is the long essay, “Up in the sky, behind the clouds.” It offers an excellent introduction to Riley’s life and work that allows the viewer to approach the photographs anew with a sense of their historical and artistic context. And for me, it opened new paths to explore: I was aware that Riley had a parallel career as a film maker, but I did not know how extensive and lengthy that career was. And I’m delighted to find out that many of his films, originally produced for the ABC, are available from the ABC Program Sales website. including BlacktrackerEmpireMalangiPoison, and Tent Boxers. Croft’s essay also illuminates Riley’s many connections with other visual artists that I had only dimly glimpsed or known not at all over the years. The film Blacktracker, for example, was the inspiration for Rachel Perkins’ movie One Night the Moon; Rachel is Charlie’s daughter and Hetti’s sister. In a contrasting vein, I was amused to read about the disputed influence of Tracey Moffat’s Night Cries: a rural tragedyon Riley’s Poison. These examples just touch on some of the artistic or aesthetic connections in Riley’s life; Croft sheds light on many others.

One of the wonderful things about the design of this website–and probably a significant and sensible advantage over the catalogue, is that it allow you to move through the exhibition in many different ways. The reproductions of the photographs can be sorted by date or by title. Better yet, a keyword and name search feature allows you to make easy connections between Croft’s essay and the photographs; for example, to identify all the photographs of members of the Perkins family with a few clicks.

Another great surprise lurks under the link to “Learning.” I was expected the usual sort of educational kit aimed to enrich the gallery visit, but what I found was a downloadable version of Croft’s essay, and superbly illustrated, an extensive chronology that helps put Riley’s work in a social context, plus the educational kit, itself richly illustrated. I’ve been talking in recent posts about the importance of documenting Aboriginal art and culture, and I couldn’t be more delighted to see this website’s extensive (and world-wide) offerings that supplement what must be a sumptuous catalog. (The Gallery Shop needs to get its act together and promote/provide the availability of this catalog–at this point online sales are advertised but not delivered.)

This is an enormously significant exhibition, the first retrospective of an indigenous artist at the NGA to focus on the work of an artist from the southeast part of Australia, and the first to represent a body of work in a medium other than painting. And its timing, coming on the heels of the opening of the Musee du Quai Branly, is magic (although I heard Brenda Croft swearing she would never again undertake two major projects like these back to back, and understandably so). Riley’s work at MQB struck me as in one way the most accessible part of the Commission for the museum, as the selection of photographs from cloud occupies a central space in the buildings facade, at eye level as you walk by the street, and at a scale that makes them irresistible. On the other hand, these photographs may prove to be the most enigmatic part of the architectural installation. They are certainly the least “ethnographic” art to be found at the MQB, and I hope that their prominence will help to make the point that the indigenous Australian contribution to the MQB is truly the best example of what Will Stubbs called “living, engaged culture.”

In conjunction with the opening of the exhibition, Awaye! Radio host Daniel Browning will be presenting an interview with Brenda Croft and a “guided tour” of the exhibition on ABC Radio National this coming Friday, July 21 at 1 p.m. (repeated on Saturday at 6 p.m.)

Michael Riley’s cloud images at the Musee du Quai Branly.

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