April Books, Part 1: Multimedia Catalogs and Notes on Fiction

This past month I finally received catalogs from two very different exhibitions that opened in the past year. Colliding Worlds: first contact in the Western Desert 1932-1984(Museum Victoria and National Aboriginal Cultural Institute Tandanya, 2006) opened at Museum Victoria, and is currently on show at the Australian Museum in Sydney. A slim volume, the catalog is nonetheless impressive, with essays by curator Philip Batty, historian Dick Kimber, former Papunya Tula art coordinator John Kean, and Jeremy Long, who led several of the legendary patrols through the country west of Papunya in the late 50s and early 60s that assisted the migration of the Pintupi into Papunya. Kimber’s essay provides the broad historical sweep of contact; Long’s complements it nicely by giving a more in-depth look at the pivotal patrols of mid-century that changed public perceptions of traditional indigenous life. I was surprised and pleased to see how much emphasis is given to the art of the Pintupi in the documentation of the exhibition, and enjoyed Kean’s reminiscences of the creation of some of the first great, large-scale masterpieces to emerge from Papunya Tula. The historical photographs (and brief biographies of five artists) enrich the experience.

A recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald for April 9, 2007 spotlighted the opening at the Australian Museum and brought news that the Museum will be sponsoring a back-room tour of its collection of early Papunya Tula boards on May 31. The Museum acquired a collection of 94 works at the request of Papunya Tula in 1983 for $20,000. Because of limitations on exhibition space, the collection has never been shown in its entirety, and only two of the works are included in Colliding Worlds. Space on the tour is limited, so contact the Museum for information about bookings.

Last July I wrote a short piece about the online version of the NGA’s retrospective Michael Riley: sights unseen, curated by Brenda Croft. I was finally able to get my hands on a copy of the printed catalog (National Gallery of Australia, 2006), and I’m delighted all over again. The catalog not only increased my appreciation for a wonderful exhibition, but it sent me back to the NGA website devoted to it, which has been considerably enhanced since my last visit to it nine months ago. All of the catalog essays–by Croft, Riley’s son Ben, Gael Newton, Ace Bourke, Nick Papastergiadis, Victoria Lynn, and Djon Mundine–are now available online. The printed catalog supplements these more extensive commentaries on Riley’s work with personal reminiscences and reflections by a wide range of family and friends, including Lyall Munro Jr, Tracey Moffatt, Avril Quaill, and Destiny Deacon among many others. And of course, the chance to browse through the extensive reproductions of the photographs and video stills at leisure, flipping easily back and forth across the years, is worth the price of the book all by itself.

The wealth of material that has been produced about these two exhibitions is a delight, although one that raises some concerns in my librarian’s soul. On the positive side, the conventional–and in both cases superbly executed–print catalog has been supplemented by podcasts, radio broadcasts, and online representations. But I worry about the preservation of these supplemental materials, which often fall into the category of ephemera–designed to enhance the experience at the moment when they are “news,” but quickly lost to posterity, or at the least, difficult to access after only a short period of time. 

Already the interview with Barrina South, curator at the Australian Museum, that was broadcast on ABC National’s Breakfast show has dropped off their streaming audio server. Similarly the extensive interview with Brenda Croft that was featured on Awaye! shortly after the opening of Michael Riley’s exhibition disappeared from the internet airwaves in four weeks. I was lucky enough to have enabled an RSS feed for Awaye! that automatically downloaded the podcast to my iTunes folder; I didn’t think to record South’s interview when I played it last week, and now I seem to be out of luck when I try to get back to it. Similarly, a walking tour through Colliding Worlds with curator Philip Batty was available for a month on the Australian iTunes site after being broadcast on ABC’s Exhibit A, but if you’re just now seeing the show in Sydney, you can’t go to Apple’s site and order it up. Libraries are still doing a decent job of capturing culturally significant material in printed format. We’re trying to address providing access to similar resources in electronic formats. But we’ve not even begun to think seriously about collecting and preserving this flood of important ancillary cultural history that appears in the form of podcasts, videocasts (check out the interview with Kimberley artist Rusty Peters on YouTube before it disappears), and yes, I’ll say it, blogs.

But turning back to the world of conventional publishing, I was happy to hear this week that Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria has been short-listed for both the Miles Franklin Awardand the NSW Premier’s Literary Award for 2006. To celebrate the occasion, I decided to turn back the literary clock to read what is looked upon as the “first” novel by an Aboriginal author, Wildcat Falling by Mudrooroo (Angus & Robertson, 1965). 

At first glance, it would be hard to imagine a starker contrast between two novels that between Carpentaria and Wildcat Falling. (For my reactions to the former, see the postfrom March 3 of this year.) Wildcat Falling is short and spare. The plot follows a conventional arc: a problem is set, explored, and resolved in three parts, almost like a stage play in its construction if not in its action. The prose is simple, infused with jazz-inflected slang that is heavily indebted to the American Beats of the 50s. The novel is a battleground–an internal one this time–where hope and despair struggle for the upper hand, and the cultural metaphors that seem most appropriate to the unnamed narrator come from the wildly divergent spheres of barely remembered tradition and glimpsed but not truly comprehended existential absurdity.

The disjunction between memory and existence is at the core of the unnamed protagonist’s dilemma and provides the narrative engine for the novel. It begins with his imminent “Release” from jail in the first part. The second part, “Freedom” chronicles the hero’s chance encounter with a young woman, a university student, on a windy beach. She invited him to meet her friends; with some trepidation, he accepts. While loitering in the bookstore in the hour before meeting her the second time, he chances on a copy of Beckett’sWaiting for Godot. The aimless, repetitive dialogue of the play speaks to him: it captures both the experience of prison and of his new freedom. The second meeting with the girl leads to an invitation to a party that evening, where his sense of alienation from the pretentious young crowd results in the narrator grossly insulting (perhaps with the truth) another of the students and fleeing to his old haunts.

The novel’s concluding part, “Return,” tells of two different kinds of homecoming. Angered by his inability to fit in with the university crowd, or seemingly anywhere outside the prison, he returns to the milk bar that is his sole point of reference on the outside. Hooking up with an old mate, he takes off for his hometown, intending to steal enough money to flee interstate and begin a new life. But a watchman interrupts the crime, with disastrous results. The hero flees into the bush, where he encounters an old man, who is revealed as his unrecognized, full-blood uncle. For a moment, there seems to be some hope that the hero can return to country and find his place there. But instead, despite the old man’s kindness and assistance, he is tracked down by the police and returned to jail.

The path from release to return is what I’d call the “narrative present” of the novel–the time during which the action takes place. Yet almost every chapter’s core–literally middle–pages are taken up with memory: the backstory that explains how the hero has arrived at this place in time. The memories that are recounted early on, of his childhood, his mother’s attempts to distance herself and him from the Aboriginal community, work to explain the fact that he ends up belonging neither world. These memories set up the double irony of the novel’s conclusion: that his wise old rabbit-hunter uncle might have offered him a place in the world but by the time he recognizes that truth, he cannot return. He can only return to jail. At another level, that is no return at all: he’s never left the prison of his own alienation. Like Beckett’s tramps in Godot, he experiences no real change. Past and present, though they may appear superficially different, both amount to being alone in the world. Freedom is a prison; the promises of art and literature that he encounters turn out, like Lucky’s monologues in the play, to be ravings full of sound and fury. The narrative present of the novel turns out to be empty, but the core of memory disappoints as well.

Wildcat Falling, groundbreaking as its achievement was forty years ago for an Aboriginal writer, still seems very much of its time. By this I mean more than simply the echoes ofCatcher in the Rye, the American slang, the jukeboxes and milkbars. The mood of the novel is post-war, post-apocalyptic, existential. I’m tempted to make too much of the contrast between Mudrooroo’s short novel and Wright’s epic Carpentaria. For although the latter has its own apocalypse, it is ultimately optimistic and doesn’t share at all in the mood of nihilism. Drenched as it is in strife, Carpentaria finds the key to survival in kicking against the pricks. Likewise, I’m tempted to read too much into this change of heart in forty years: as desperate as these times seem to us now, perhaps there is more cause for hope for the indigenous future than existed a generation ago.

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