It’s been two months since I returned from Australia. At the NGV Tjukurrtjanu, the new blockbuster exhibition of Indigenous art, has opened to complement Living Water. The two together must surely account for the largest display of the masterworks of desert painting ever to grace the planet. I received the new catalog for the Tjukurrtjanu in the mail this week, but before I indulge myself with its glories and mysteries, I want to look back to my time in Melbourne in July.
Both shows help to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the NGV, but running in conjunction with Living Water are installations that explicitly address the time of the Gallery’s founding through the commission of three works by contemporary artists of a cosmopolitan stripe: Brook Andrew, Jonathan Jones, and Vernon Ah Kee. Each of the resulting artworks is a tribute to the great nineteenth-century Indigenous artist and chronicler, William Barak. Legend has it that Barak was present when John Batman took control of the country that is now Melbourne from the Wurundjeri in 1835. A quarter of a century later, at about the time of the founding of the NGV, Barak relocated to the Coranderrk Station where he painted and lived out the rest of his days, dying there in 1903. A hundred years after his death Barak was a celebrated artist whose works commanded high prices and consistent sales in the burgeoning secondary market for Aboriginal art. And so in some ways he can be seen as the alpha to the moment’s omega, an “urbanized” artist who both preserved and adapted visual traditions in ways not unlike the three men who have been selected to explicitly celebrate his achievements.
Of the three commissions, Andrew’s Marks and Witness: a lined crossing in tribute to William Barak (above, left) is in its iconography the least specific to the particulars of Barak’s art and milieu. Climbing the walls of a passage from the ground to the upper floors, Andrew’s installation deploys his trademark black-and-white petroglyphic designs, spruced with neon tubes that reach across space (instead of, or in addition to, reaching across time?) It is a dazzling installation, playful and vertiginous, but I’m not sure that I would have identified the link to Barak without some instruction.
Jones’s Untitled (muyan), fluorescent variations on the the designs of Wurundjeri possum-skin cloaks, is more evocative of the old master’s paintings. Like Andrew’s work, these sculptures are situated between floors, on the landing of a staircase just to the right of the Gallery’s Russell Street entrance. The lights were glowing ghostly white when I saw them, but I understand that the display has been programmed so that the sides facing the walls will by now have taken on a yellow glow that marks the blooming of the wattle (muyan), marking the time of the year when Barak prophesied his death would take place. It is an austere installation, shining somewhat coldly amidst dull concrete and polished hardwood.
Vernon Ah Kee’s multipart tribute installation, Ideas of Barak, shares with its counterparts a somewhat odd location: it is set within the main galleries of Living Water, but perhaps due to the requirements of finding isolation from both light and ambient sound, it is tucked away in the back end of the space, easy to overlook and as seemingly out of place in its own way as the other two commissions. But I was happy for the obscurity of its location, for I found Ah Kee’s work the most engaging of the three, the most challenging, and the most provoking.
The work has three parts, mounted on the three walls of a small, black enclosure. To the left, near the open, theatrical “fourth wall,” a small mounted video screen with attached headphones for listening offers a documentary film of Ah Kee himself exploring sites that Barak moved among in the late nineteenth century intercut with images of and commentaries on Barak’s paintings. The film tells the story of Barak’s life and art and of Ah Kee’s own researches and discoveries about the earlier artist’s achievements and challenges. Like much of Ah Kee’s video and photographic work, it is an intellectual inquiry, a dialogue, and a dramatization of conflicting cultures. It speaks to memory and loss and recovery.
Loss, memory, recovery, and reconstitution are themes that emerge from the second part of the installation. On the middle wall five embedded video monitors present a changing display of talking heads, all members along with Ah Kee himself of the Brisbane art collective proppaNOW! Each of the artists speaks of his or her own “relationship” with Barak. They confess their ignorance of him, their discovery of his work, their personal interpretations of its meaning to themselves, to Indigenous people, to Australia. Each of the seven or eight artists (my memory has grown fuzzy) speaks to the camera; we hear only one at a time, and can see only five at once. They appear to be listening to one another: nods of agreement or furrowed brows indicate some kind of engagement, but each is separated from his fellows. There is no dialogue among the speakers; occasionally one or another of them even looks disengaged, pre-occupied, lost in thought. Their reflections are highly personal and subjective.
The third wall, to the right, contains a massive portrait of Barak drawn in the style that Ah Kee began exploring five years ago in his attempts to bring to life photographs of earlier generations of his family and to capture his cogenerational relatives for posterity. The portrait has a blazing intensity to it, an intimation of Barak as a severe Old Testament figure whose eyes shine with a light that is both reflection and an inner fire. The drawing’s very silence and immobility stand in sharp contrast to the video elements of the overall installation and seem by turns reproachful, determined, watchful, inquisitive, demanding, superior, implacable. Like all of these large (6′ x 8′) monochrome portraits of Ah Kee’s, it is above all utterly compelling. I wanted to get right up close to see what was being reflected in those eyes–and of course, found nothing but pencil and chalk, hard as that was to believe.
Taken together the three parts of the installation depict a process of investigation, reaction, and interpretation. In the documentary film, Ah Kee plumbs history and art criticism to fill in the gaps in his own understanding of Barak. He travels to places where Barak lived and where he is commemorated to become physically immersed and attuned to Barak’s life, as much as that is possible after a century and more has passed.
The talking heads of the proppaNOW! artists provide reaction: they are both stand-ins for Ah Kee himself and members of a community (and members of Ah Kee’s chosen community of artists) that has been severed from its language and traditions in ways that Barak was; indeed they have been farther removed from that connection to the old ways through the passage of time and the force of history. Alter ego and community, they represent the artist in his attempt to make sense of the past and its legacies. They speak, to use James Joyce’s words, of a history that is the nightmare from which they are trying to awake.
The portrait of Barak is the final stage in the process. It is the means by which Ah Kee wrests himself from the nightmare. It synthesizes the objective research and the subjective reaction into a drawing that is true both to the external facts and to the internal imagination. The act of making art takes up the tradition and carries it forward; it interprets and reclaims the past for the contemporary. It takes the old and makes it new. I can not say whether it is a redemptive act, but Ideas of Barak is regenerative and revitalizing, almost like the blossoming of the wattle.