There are a couple of laugh-out-loud moments in Andrew Pike’s documentary, Emily in Japan: the making of an exhibition (Ronin Films, 2008). They are good laughs, not nasty laughs, and they tell the viewer a lot of the dual focus of the film.
The first involves an interview with Akira Tatehata, then the curator of the National Museum of Art in Osaka, the originating venue for the important international retrospective of the work of Emily Kngwarreye that went on to break all audience records for a contemporary art blockbuster in Japan. Tatehata had seen the smaller 1998 retrospective of Emily’s work at the Queensland Art Gallery, which had been curated by Margo Neale of the National Museum of Australia. Deeply moved by Emily’s creativity, which Tatehata felt to be on a par with the great abstractionists of the twentieth century, most especially Jackson Pollock, he wanted to bring her genius to the art galleries of his native country, and he wanted Margo to be the curator once again. As the work of pulling together the massive show moved on, Tatehata confessed, he began to think of Emily and Margo as the same person. This occasioned the first burst of mirth for me, for in many ways, it would be hard to confuse the two women, one elderly, frail, and deeply embedded in her traditional lifestyle, the other….
Well, how to characterize Margo Neale? The answer to that question, courtesy of the art critic John MacDonald, provided the other bellylaugh of the film. A text panel inserted in between two scenes later in the movie quotes MacDonald on Neale: “In the precious world of curatorship, where people tend to be reserved scholars or shameless trendies, Margo is a bar-room brawler.” Spot on. And I mean that, as I hope MacDonald did, as a compliment.
If you pick up a copy of Emily in Japan in the hope that it will give you 90 minutes of reveling in the glories of Emily paintings, you’d be better served to pick up a copy of the catalog, Utopia: the genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye (National Museum of Australia, 2008), instead. The catalog is brilliant, full of gorgeous reproductions of Emily’s paintings and batiks and graced with essays by authors both Japanese and Australian.
The film, on the other hand, truly is about the making of the exhibition and in some ways is about Margo Neale herself as much as it is about Emily. And here we can see why Mr Tatehata might have come to conflate the two in his mind, for Neale is as brash as an oversized Yam Dreaming, and as much larger-than-life as Emily’s reputation itself. They are both, in their ways, superstars, and the combination makes for an entertaining evening of film.
Having agreed to undertake the exhibition, Neale takes the filmmakers on the odyssey of doing it right. This begins with the appropriate forms of cultural consultation, driving out to the Utopia region to meet with Emily’s relatives. In this she is guided by Barbara Weir, Emily’s niece, who provides a sympathetic introduction not just to Emily’s story but also to her relatives in the desert communities of her country. We are introduced to Lindsay Bird Mpetanye, and to the late G. P. Petyarre, an old man whose lovely paintings of the pencil yam dreaming are among my favorite paintings from Utopia and whose rare collaborations with Emily were minor gems of 1990s Indigenous art.
The filmmakers take us to visit Janet Holmes a Court, who purchased the 88 paintings from Utopia known as “A Summer Project,” the first acrylic paintings done by the women of Uotpia and in which Emily’s particular genius was first recognized. We go behind the scenes at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the National Gallery of Victoria to watch curators do meticulous examinations and condition reports of the works in their collections, noting embedded brush hairs, desert sand, and the footprints of camp dogs that have become integral to the masterworks. And we get to watch, at various stages in the preparation of the exhibition, the unpacking, stretching, and mounting of famous 1995 Big Yam Dreaming, a painting that measures eight by three meters.
In the second half of the film, once Neale arrives in Japan, a different kind of cultural consultation takes place as Neale fences and parries with the museum officials in Osaka and Tokyo over the hang of the show in each location. Despite Tatehata’s enthusiasm, it seems that the museums themselves and Yomiuri Shimbun, the newspaper conglomerate that sponsored the exhibition, were less sure of the appeal and (to be blunt) the commercial potential of an exhibition of Australian painting, let along Aboriginal Australian painting. This conflict between aesthetic fervor and capitalist pragmatics simmers not too far below the surface of the story being told, and provides the context for MacDonald’s sharp assessment of Neale’s skills.
Neale is joined at many points in the film by Christopher Hodges, whose Sydney-based Utopia Gallery is described in the film as having been started in response to a request from the community itself to provide a place in the urban world of the art market to present and sell their output. Hodges speaks knowledgeably and eloquently about the art, and it was while watching him do so that I really became aware that in an unfortunate respect, the art itself does play second fiddle to the story of the exhibition. In several scenes early in the film, Hodges stands before an early and unidentified work of Emily’s as he offers commentary on her innate skills. Sadly, the camera frames Hodges and not the painting, and it isn’t until much later that one gets a glimpse of the work in its entirety.
Similarly, the vast sweep and scope of the exhibition itself is given short shrift until the film’s final moments, when Hodges joins Neale in a walkthrough of the show prior to its official opening. The film is speeded up, and the pair seem to rush through the galleries, hung with their enormous and resplendent canvases, like comedians in an old silent film. The technique has the virtue of compressing the dazzle of the show into a few moments, but it’s a bit like watching the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s production of the Complete Works of the Bard in ninety minutes. It has its moments, but they tease rather than satisfy. Likewise, Kevin Rudd’s Tokyo visit looks, however truthfully, more like a photo op that an appreciation of Australia’s native genius.
In truth, there probably was no way in which a film could do justice to the works of the artist and it was probably wise not to try. Emily’s genius doesn’t translate well into any other medium: the works need to be encountered in person to be adequately appreciated at all. The film tantalizes in that respect, but in another it offers up a wonderful repast. Margo Neale’s passion for the work, her determination to do right by it, and her brash joie de combattre, in combination with the lessons on what it takes to mount such a major exhibition, are what this film is really about in the end. If it inspires its audiences to return to the galleries for another look at the magnificent paintings that form its subtext, it will have succeeded admirably.