Our flight home to the United States left from Sydney, so our last day was spent back in the temperate sunshine down south. We ended our three-week residency by returning to the Sydney Opera House once more to see Bangarra’s Belong a second time. I’m glad we did, especially since my appreciation for Elma Kris’s “About” increased enormously on a second viewing. I think the first time around the dance’s grace left me a little cold. But on second viewing it felt sensuous and elegant rather than pretty; there was a strength in it that its beauty disguised on first viewing.
We ended up at the Opera House after a long wander through parts of the city that we’d never traveled on foot before and through some others that we knew quite well. We started off east of the CBD, geographically and spiritually close to King’s Cross. We’d walk for a few blocks, consult the map, make a decision to continue straight down William Street or take off at an angle. Eventually we wound up behind St Mary’s Cathedral and on the edge of the Domain. We skirted the Art Gallery, thought about heading through the Gardens, and finally made our way via Bent Street and Macquarie Place Park down to Circular Quay and ultimately to the Opera House.
We’d been out toward the eastern suburbs visiting Jen Deger, who invited us for coffee to the rooftop garden atop the hotel where she was staying. We spent a couple of hours catching up on where we’d been since we saw each other last in March, discussing her latest project, and hearing about developments at Gapuwiyak Culture and Arts. On the last topic, Lucy Malirrimurruwuy Wanapuyngu’s fiber and feather sculpture, Healthy Food from the Past, was highly commended at the NATSIAA this year, and it was acquired by the Museum for its collection. That acquisition was good for both the Museum and the Culture and Arts center, but disappointed many of our friends and us as well: we’d all wanted to take it home ourselves.
In the course of the conversation, we mention to Jen that we’d seen the prints from Buku Larrnggay that Nicolas Rothwell wrote about recently in The Australian (“In the Yolngu world, the future is in print,” July 25, 2011). These prints strike me as as an important moment in Aboriginal art history: the major production of a series of work by a new generation of artists, works that don’t necessarily carry sacred information. I’m thinking about photographs that John Carty had told me about from Balgo, self-portraits by teenagers that he sees as direct descendants of classic desert painters’ work. I’m thinking about the film in the NATSIAA this year from Balgo, The Lennard Identity by Davis Lans, sixty-seven seconds of a new form of self-creation. But most of all, I’m reminded of the wall text for the bark painting by Nyapanyapa Yunupingu also in the Award show: “This is a work without a sacred meaning. It is an expression of the artist’s hand.”
No sooner have I quoted these words to Jen than she begins to amplify and correct some of the basic assumptions I’m making. The prints from Buku-Larrnggay may be without sacred meaning in the sense that I’ve come to expect it in Yolngu art, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t laden with multiple meanings and don’t employ the visual vocabulary of clan miny’tji to their own ends. That the clothes people wear express identity, and that the standardized photo-frame formats they select from their mobile phone’s menus to enclose a snapshot of themselves with a grandchild don’t resonate with clan imagery deliberately chosen and playfully presented. I’m barely keeping up with the flow of ideas and wishing that I could slow time down and take notes and ask questions but mostly I’m feeling like Keir Dullea at the conclusion of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, when the lights are strobing through his eyes into his brain and beauty and information are coming too fast….
And then I realize that this is what I love about these trips to Australia.
For months on end I tend my garden here in the States, casting my American eye across the Pacific. I have countless riches at my disposal: search engines and libraries, online newspapers, a steady supply of books and articles, DVDs and iTunes, AASnet and email correspondence. And I grow a pretty good garden with all of that material. But three weeks in Australia is like suddenly having three feet of topsoil delivered to the garden: it’s incredibly enriching and holds promise for months and months to come.
I’m not at the end of the stories of my travels: there are exhibitions to report on still, photographs to share, and opinions to test out. But I’m back in America now and perhaps can reflect a bit more than I’ve done for the past three weeks. Write more slowly and thoughtfully. So it seems like the right moment to say thank you to all the people who shared this adventure with us, who welcomed us into their homes, and who shared meals with us. Thanks to those who opened their galleries for us on Sunday, and who let us into the back rooms, who introduced themselves, and who introduced us to artists and friends. Thanks to those who shared their stories with us, who listened to ours; to those friends who seem like family. We loved it all.