BY CHARLES GREEN
Artist and critic Charles Green raises the issue of subjectivity and the mystical journey in Australian art over the last two decades...
The last time that I felt part part of the '70s had all the cliches. I sat for two hours in a darkened room in a castle on a stormy hilltop in Little Tibet while the wind howled against tiny opaque window-panes. The room itself must have looked like a cross between the collaged perspectives of a Victor Rubin interior and the handcrafted hippy weirdness of a William Wiley painting.
A year later I was to develop the film that I took in that room. I couldn't see anything in the pitch black, but over a minute the camera's lens etched out a fantastic horned figure - antlers, gilded skull, brocade embroidered robes - dangling from ropes like the tarot cards' hanged man.
A monk had sat with me in the room; partly to make sure that I did not remove the paintings, which would have been worth five figures in New York. In that darkness I actually lost track of who I was. We've all had the experience of getting lost, most of us as children, and then trying as if in a dream to remember not only where we are but also, since our identity is tied to place, who we are supposed to be. Three hours later I walked down the hill towards the valley floor and the wind stopped. The late light of evening saturated everything with an almost frightening flood of gold. The landscape was so weird, so grotesque and fluid, that belief was temporarily suspended in the mid-air of one of Calvino's hundred fictitious places in Invisible Cities. In that book, whole towns were suspended from cliffs by rope, and languages were changed each day so Marco Polo could describe his many Venices to Kublai Khan.
Three weeks later I was in New York, standing at the 'world's centre' thinking about Australia on the periphery, in the Museum of Modern Art's ill conceived Primitivism show. Browsing through the catalogue of An International Survey of Painting and Sculpture, in the Museum's bookshop, I found the names of Australian artists Peter Booth and Mike Parr. Though both are complex and highly regarded artists, in the company of Paladino, Salle, Kiefer and a legion of neo-expressionist artists they had been positioned by the curators as noble savages to confirm American intentions; that year savagery was 'in'. In every exhibition from Australia held at that time, Australia was depicted as violent, empty, dead and excessive; the continent found representation in shows like L'Australie: le Reve et le Reel (Australia: The Dream and the Real) in Paris. Whose dream? Who was dreaming? Who was dreamt?
One of the sleeper issues in contemporary art is the renegotiation of subjectivity. Since the zone of private experience is claimed by conservatives for a regressive humanism, its role in avant-garde art has been marginalised in the '80s. Everyone forgets that deconstructionist commentary long ago annexed irrational subjectivity. Its model was mysticism. As the Dalai Lama commented, lecturing at Harvard University on the deferral of meaning in mystical texts: "Were I to explain the position of Buddhists on this topic, not only would you become confused, but I would become confused as well".1
Travel and sexuality have been the primary images of the spiritual. Travelling, in space and with the mind's eye, is an experience based on a recognition of the subjective. This experience is accumulated and confused almost randomly with memory. The journey is a double metaphor - for mental activity and a search for meaning. Two linked themes emerge as hidden issues in recent Australian art - the importance of artists' travels, and the theme of The Journey to the East. Artists as diverse as Robert Hunter, Paul Boston, Micky Allan, Tim Johnson and younger artists like Rod McRae, Roslynd Piggott or myself all exhibit these tropes - in images of movement, allusions to travel, and construction of imagined landscapes that read in non-narrative but nevertheless literary ways. One of the important features of Robert Hunter's paintings is the formation of profoundly subjective identities by projecting the viewer into flight and levitation.
Many artists have had a commitment to different versions of The Journey to the East. Hermann Hesse's short novel. The Journey To The East, narrated the journey of members of a semi-secret League, including real and imaginary characters - the narrator, Paul Klee, Plato, Baudelaire and Don Quixote - across time and space in search for the 'East'.2 The pilgrimage by these characters embraced modern Europe, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and was emblematic of a state of mind and imagination.
Many artists in the last decade have embarked on such journeys. Micky Allan was one of those who, like myself, travelled the "overland trail' to India, and thence across Asia to London. There was then a sense of imminent excitement - the goal offered by those destinations would be remembered. Greenberg and his acolytes' internationalism are often quoted in Australian discussions of provincialism, but the waywardness of alternative culture formed another, more inclusive, cosmopolitanism.
In Allan's work today this theme persists - she has continued to travel, and to create series of works around journeys, implying travel in search of secrets. One work in her Places in Space exhibition (1988), featured a drawing of travel to Tibet. In paintings like Flaming Pearl over the Bay of Naples (1986), the way in which motifs are only slowly apprehended in that piece mimics the gradual acclimatisation of eyes to darkness. A blue pearl is of course an image of inner light; this allusion is reinforced by the figure underneath, and by Naples' metaphoric glitter and shadowy darkness. The hermetic designs she found on the floors of churches are mirrored in Naples' sky. This is the sensation of looking at a mosaic. Continual references to science as alchemy, and the implications of movement and transcendence symbolised by dolphins, saturated Untitled, 1986.
Tim Johnson, on the other hand, has consistently cast Australian experiences amongst aboriginal communities in terms of the Journey. In a remarkable, arresting image in an early Tension he recounted his prophetic dream in which Keith Relf of the English band The Yardbirds painted him in the direction of the Red Centre.3 His dreams, and the aboriginals who 'expected' his arrival four years later, were clairvoyant. Johnson's "wise men" - Magi, Buddhist saints and gods - in all his works, conflate cultures and spaces with exemplary care in the ends of a contemporary Journey to the East.
In the late '80s it is easy to see affirmative dreams from the wrong end of a telescope. What we see in this work are the virtues that belong to this decade, especially concerns about the representation of the Other. We tend to ignore the implications of taking these artists at their word, in our almost exclusive privileging of irony. Johnson has attracted his share of disapproval, but most critics have acknowledged his awareness of the responsibilities of appropriation of Aboriginal art. The implications of his Buddhist saints and monasteries, and his repeated images of reverence, are generally downplayed. For example, Johnson's use of the aboriginal artists' irregular dot-screens is seen as evidence of his mimicry of the appearance of these works, and their use of dots as a means of hiding secrets. There's another intention behind the aboriginal painters' fields of dots - the evocation of shimmering hallucinatory light. This is an effect clearly welcomed by Johnson, and confirmed by his Eastern metaphors; the result is like a flashback to '60s drug-induced visions, and the associated funk and humour of Californian '70s culture. One of the best of these artists was William Wiley, who visited Australia at the end of the '70s and whose appropriately titled Nobull Savage sits in the vaults at the National Gallery of Victoria. Strangely enough, Tim Johnson's recent works, at Tolarno gallery in Melbourne in September, conflated American Indians, Aborigines, and Buddhist sages. Through the purple and gold colours, and sour-dough hippy imagery, Johnson's Little Big Horn (1989) suggests a desire to relocate internationally. Its initial impact remains strangely elegiac and Intimist - an evocation of Golden Age plenitude, underscored by an experience of minute detail which unfolds as in an Edouard Vuillard painting.
The personal implications of the Journey to the East, as well as the commitments implied in the artists' biographies, are incorporated in these works. Much '80s avant-garde art implied the spiritual in a different sense, as referent. Jenny Watson made it clear, in a 1989 radio interview, that the effect of alchemy was a possible property of works of art - the pictorial magic of reductive images. Many artists concerned with travel would have seen the reverse, as did Joseph Beuys; art was a possible property of a science of transformation. A lack of avant-garde reductiveness or Modernist trademarking profoundly distorted the acceptance of this art. Where painting of imagined travel has appeared, it has fitted neither Modernist nor postmodernist agendas.
Since white settlement, Australia has been largely invisible to the world outside. If people have thought of this continent at all, it has been as a symbol of the unknown. We white Australians remain as distant as the nation's first inhabitants. We know from their contemporaries that many eighteenth century artists painted from drawings. It was their method to keep studies bound in large books, so when they wished to compose a painting they simply chose and rearranged from these drawings. Many artists owned sets of costumes in which they dressed their friends. Things haven't
changed, now we occupy walk-on roles, wear costumes and are made up to look native. From the point of view of the 'world centre', the Australian artists I glimpsed in New York had been seen as both exotic backwoodsmen and colonial representatives of the First World - The United States and Europe. Our Australia is another's dream. Dreams are ambiguous and interpretation is confused by distance, but it's fair enough to surmise that New York mistakes our journeys for its own. More attention is focused on the Australian landscape right now than at any time before. Both Art and America and the enormous exhibition Magiciens de la Terre in Paris, recently confronted the issues of ethnocentrism in relation to cultures at the periphery like our own.4 Whilst this represents a unique opportunity for some, it is doubtful whether the gaps are being filled in.
European metaphors include American perspectives. Their subterranean images and deep meaning, have dominated the interpretations artists have attached to Australian travel; we have been encouraged to emphasise the hidden, the heart and whatever is beneath the surface, mistaking depth for profundity. On the other hand, Tim Johnson's newer works include Red Indian motifs, like. Wounded Knee, implying the equivalence of different exotic national experiences, chapters in a Grand Tour across the surface of the Fourth World - the territory of the international dispossessed. We forget that landscape may be thought of as what is above the ground, covering, moving across and obliterating something else - geology. Initial examination of Aboriginal art suggests a different set of metaphors that concentrate on the surface and a self-definition based on experience that extends and proliferates laterally; exhaustive descriptions and additions and lists in Aboriginal song and painting - a journey - constitute definitions of self that are also titles and deeds to land.
It is time to suggest a few convergences of approach, but not as a means of better projection onto the Other. The appearance of images of travel has mirrored the progression of the artists themselves into the late '80s, and coincidentally confirms an off-hand remark made recently by Donald Kuspit, reviewing Alun Leach Jones in Art and America.5 Kuspit states that Australia may be the last place on the planet where an authentic experience of the Other in nature is actually possible. Kuspit is correct, though that experience is more complex and underlined by ambivalences than he would allow. One is always circumscribed by place and privilege. However, from the viewpoint of a global tourist, like Jean-Hubert Martin, curator of Magiciens de la Terre, one's own ethnocentrism is inescapable. All that can be done is to acknowledge it and explore the consequences. The possibility of a wilful and subjective postmodernity exists in Australia as it does in a Journey to the East. For a European, the first glimpse of Australian landscape, for instance Kakadu, brings a moment of recognition - of the exotic that is a projection of desire and memory. After a breathing space one realises that the experience of a journey, that is usually a walk, is based on pauses and disconnected moments. Far from offering the Sublime, perception orders Kakadu into a structured classicism. Since the landscape is inhabited and used it is like an eighteenth century Salvator Rosa painting. A sense of wonder in Kakadu is not located in a view or an effect, but in sequences and placements, and in the endlessly circuitous walks one is forced to take.
The terms in this dialogue with travel find no comparable tradition in modern culture. The illusion of shared tradition disguises an abyss. Where Modernity set itself on a linear path, these Journeys eternally defer return to a beginning. In the '80s, if artists continued to paint, read or write about their search for the soul, not the heart or the head, it was not to comfort themselves in their illusions. They questioned their own motives and exacerbated their unease at the erasure of experiences that they knew to be important. Thus, for Tim Johnson, the attraction of the lateral subjectivity of Aboriginal art - a model of postmodern travelling and for Micky Allan the metaphor of a search. The traveller experiences himself or herself as a subject in temporal extension; the characteristics of travel include disorientation, empathy and unexpected intimacy. Travel is a metaphor for the spirit; this was the attraction for many artists last decade, like Hamish Fulton or Marina and Ulay Abramovic, in making a walk... In the end, a journey is a spiritual manoeuvre that establishes distance. There is a secret history of motion and space hidden in the Australian art of the last two decades.
1. The Dalai Lama, quoted in: Nathan Katz, 'Prasanga and Deconstruction: Tiberian Hermeneutics and the Yana Controversy', Philosophy East and West, 34, No.2, April 1984.
2. Hermann Hesse, The Journey to the East, London, 1956.
3. Tim Johnson, 'Nine Bends of the River', Tension/9, 1986.
4. Global Issue, Art and America, 77/7, July 1989.
5. Donald Kuspit, 'Alun Leach-Jones', Art and America, 77/6, June 1989.
Tension/18, October 1989