Of Barks and Biennales

In addition to the Papunya Painting show at the Australian Museum, we were fortunate enough to catch another exhibition that I’d previously known only from its catalog, They Are Meditating at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. Like the Papunya show, this one made me realize how poor an experience even the best catalogs can offer–and these were very good catalogs. But in both cases, and this should really be no surprise, though it was, the physical presence of the paintings was a revelation.

Perhaps scale is a critical factor in my response to these two shows. The Papunya paintings were majestic and grand; the barks in the MCA show were mostly quite small. And it seemed often that the intimate size of them worked in surprising ways.

The best paintings in the show–indeed the best room of the five devoted to the Arnott’s collection–were those by Yirawala. The sheer variety of styles that the master exhibiting in the relatively short span of time during which these works were collected would be enough to qualify for a significant show in itself. But the mastery, the vivacity, the draftsmanship! Small mardayin paintings made clear just how great the debt the modern Maningrida masters owe him: in one of Yirawala’s works on display here you could see the genesis of the mature styles of both Mawurndjul and his brother Iyuna.


Mimihs and mardayin by Yirawala at the MCA

In other tiny pieces, the energy and life force and sheer exuberance of dancing mimih spirits were conveyed beyond compare. If I were ever to need convincing that these are the spirits that originally painted their images on cave walls and in doing so taught men how to paint, I would need to go no farther than these tiny gems to become a believer. All the joy that art induces can be found in the few square centimeters that Yirawala has graced us with.

The other big surprise of the exhibition was the work of Dick Ngulangulei Murrumurru. In the first hall we looked at, each time I’d be taken with the composition or the draftsmanship of a work, I would consult the gallery guide to discover that it was by Murrumurru. The range of styles was astonishing, from finely crafted barramundi to delicate, dynamic spirits like the trio in this unusual piece.

Mimih spirits by Dick Ngulangulei Murrumurru

The controversial foyer by Richard Birrinbirrin turned out to be something on an anticlimax, and overdone at that. Some commentators felt that curator Djon Mundine was reducing sacred design to the level of decor; some of Birrinbirrin’s countrymen claimed he had no rights to the design he painted. One report I heard was that after the show’s opening “words were exchanged” on a QANTAS flight back from Sydney to Darwin, and all was amicably resolved by touchdown.

Richard Birrinbirrin’s painted foyer for They are Meditating

Sharing space at the MCA and almost every other art venue in town was, of course, the Sydney Biennale. My interest in Aboriginal Art was born twenty years ago in part out of my profound dissatisfaction, disillusionment, and boredom with contemporary art in America; the Biennale did little in any of its venues to convince me that I missed anything in the last two decades. There is entirely too much video in most Biennales, and although William Kentridge’s piece here was compelling, I found it the exception rather than the rule. Penny said she wants art to make her think, or to awe her with its beauty; we agreed that not much happened on either score at the Biennale.

In fact, in the afternoon that we spent on Cockatoo Island with friends Jonathan and Penny, I was often more intrigued and amazed by the rusting hulks of the shipyards machinery than I was by the art installed alongside them. We most certainly won’t be returning to any of Mike Parr’s exhibitions in the future. Vernon Ah Kee’s toilet-based installation was about as appealing as Parr’s work, and perhaps even more offensive to the sense of olfaction.

Vernon Ah Kee’s portraits at the Sydney Biennale site on Cockatoo Island

But Ah Kee’s enormous family portraits in pencil and chalk were worth the effort it took to find them amidst the abandoned industrial halls of the Island. The directness of the gazes, the beauty of the execution, and as Jonathan pointed out, the haunting strains of “The Internationale” drifting in from the exhibit hall on the other side of the walls combined to lift us out of the moment, just the way the best art ought to. These portraits were the best work I saw in any of the Biennale’s venues. The other location where I caught some of the Biennale was at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, but I’ll leave that to another post.

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