Insights into Cai Guo-Qiang’s paradise regained

 

The Gallery of Modern Art’s (GOMA) major summer exhibition for 2013 is ‘Cai Guo-Qiang: Falling Back to Earth’ — spectacular installation works across the ground floor of GOMA by renowned New York-based Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang — two of which are brand new.

Imagine this: one day you walk into GOMA — and find a watering hole. In the middle of the room, 99 animals are gathered together, drinking: carnivores and herbivores, giraffes and elephants, wombats and kangaroos, and so many more. Stand quietly and you’ll hear a single drop of water as it hits the centre of the pond’s limitless blue, producing ripples across the perfect colour. It would be mesmerising, dislocating, magical. And it’s going to be a reality, thanks to the imagination of Cai Guo-Qiang, one of China’s leading artists. This is Heritage 2013 (illustrated), the centrepiece of ‘Falling Back to Earth’, Cai’s first solo exhibition in Australia.

Heritage has its genesis in a research trip Cai took through Queensland, visiting Lamington National Park and Stradbroke Island, in the winter of 2011. On Stradbroke he saw Brown Lake, a perched lake in the island’s centre. ‘The clear water and the contrast of the sand left a very deep impression on me,’ he says from his base in New York, ‘as did the memory of [children] bathing in the clear water, and how they were playing together’. The idea of these animals ‘putting their differences aside and enjoying and sharing the pond of water together’ is surreal, but Cai sensed it was also a sort of last paradise — ‘which isn’t dissimilar to what most people feel about Australia,’ he adds. ‘At the same time, there are some undercurrents, something sad, if not tragic, that spring from our fears for the future.’

Cai Guo-Qiang ‘Heritage2013

Cai Guo-Qiang, China b.1957 / Heritage (installed) 2013 / 99 life-sized replicas of animals. Animals: polystyrene, gauze, resin and hide. Installed with artificial watering hole: water, sand, drip mechanism / Purchased 2013 with funds from the Josephine Ulrick and Win Schubert Diversity Foundation through and with the assistance of the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Cai Guo-Qiang / Photograph: M Sherwood © QAGOMA

At 55, Cai stands at the pinnacle of his practice. Recent overseas shows include a major retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York and a new work at Mahtaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Qatar. An exhibition mounted for just 15 days at China’s National Art Museum was seen by over 50 000 people, and his signature pyrotechnics featured in the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics, for which Cai directed visual and special effects. Recent creations include Inopportune: Stage One (nine suspended ‘exploding’ cars, held in the Seattle Art Museum collection) and Inopportune: Stage Two (a series of tigers leaping through the air, assaulted by arrows), both 2004; and Head On 2006, a Möbius strip of 99 wolves that hurl themselves at a glass barrier the precise height of the Berlin Wall, stagger as they fall, and limp back to rejoin the loop. A breathtaking work that Cai describes as exploring ‘the endless cycle of heroic and collective acts’, Head On has travelled to Brisbane for ‘Falling Back to Earth’.

Cai Guo-Qiang ‘Bridge Crossing’ 1999

Cai Guo-Qiang, China b.1957 / Bridge Crossing 1999 / Bamboo, rope, rainmaking device, aluminum boat, and laser sensors / Site specific work commissioned 1999 for ‘The 3rd Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT3) / Courtesy: Cai Guo-Qiang

Brisbane audiences are already familiar with Cai: in 1996, for ‘The Second Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT2), he created Dragon or Rainbow Serpent: A Myth Glorified or Feared, a 27-metre series of drawings created by firing gunpowder along paper scrolls and one of Cai’s ‘Projects for Extraterrestrials’. Three years later, he built Bridge Crossing (illustrated) over the Queensland Art Gallery’s Watermall for APT3. Reminded of these earlier projects, Cai laughs with the warmth and exuberance that mark both him and his work. Both exhibitions were scheduled to include public events, neither of which eventuated. ‘In 1996 I proposed an outdoor explosion event about the myth of the rainbow serpent,’ he says,

‘but there was an explosion at the fireworks company, and all my products were gone. In 1999, I proposed another work inspired by the rainbow serpent — 99 zinc boats chained together, filled with alcohol, and lit as they floated along the river. Unfortunately the boats sank before they reached the audience.’ He laughs again. ‘Most institutions would think, “Well, working with this artist, it’s a disaster”. But what I love about GOMA is that their commitment values creativity above all.’

Cai Guo-Qiang ‘Dragon or Rainbow Serpent’ 1996

Cai Guo-Qiang, China b.1957 / Dragon or Rainbow Serpent: A myth glorified or feared 1996 / Spent gunpowder and Indian ink on Japanese paper / Nine drawings: 300 x 200cm (each) / Purchased 1996 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Cai Guo-Qiang

‘Cai’s work is ambitious and complex — logistically and technically — which means, occasionally, it doesn’t work out, says QAGOMA’s Curatorial Manager of Asian and Pacific Art. ‘We’ve always embraced that, and because of that, there’s a huge amount of trust and goodwill between us. That changes what an artist thinks they can do; it allows them to be more ambitious.’ Ambitious like Cai’s plan to incorporate a 70-metre eucalypt in the show, laid on its side, from roots to canopy. ‘It emphasises his desire to bring his practice literally back to earth, yet there’s still something fabulously open about the way he thinks — it isn’t restricted. He’s like a child, encountering things for the first time.’ As Cai himself says: ‘I’ve always put myself in the place of a child’, and it’s a point of view with particular implications for the faux animals in Heritage. These creatures aren’t just life-size; they’re life-size plus ten per cent, they are bigger than they are — we inflate their proportions in our minds. Perhaps that’s the child in all of us.

Cai remembers: ‘When I saw the first wolves [for Head On], I was surprised at the size — I felt I could just push them over. I asked the artisans, “Is this very small?” and they thought I was falsely accusing them. They said, “This is how big they really are”. But because we as humans fear these animals, and because in nature they move, we usually perceive them as bigger.’ When work began on the animals for Heritage, he says, ‘I went back to the factory and personally carved the styrofoam. The artisans were all complaining: “real animals are not as muscular as you’re trying to make them; and their muscles are covered with fur”. But to me as an artist I want them to be more muscular so they look like they have more power.’

His menagerie of faux-taxidermists in China fashioned zebras, wombats, tigers and a rhino in what will be one of the world’s most surreal incarnations of an ark. At GOMA, the exhibition design team experimented with creating a ‘bottomless’ pool, its water just the right shade of blue and its drip timed to produce precisely the right ripples — all on Level 1 of the Gallery. Not to mention the logistics of the tree.

Ashley Hay is a writer based in Brisbane and spoke with the artist and key Gallery staff.

Installation view Eucalyptus 2013, ‘Cai Guo-Qiang: Falling Back to Earth’, Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane / © Cai Guo-Qiang / Photograph: K Bennett © QAGOMA

#QAGOMA

Who is Cai Guo-Qiang?

 

The Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) presents ‘Cai Guo-Qiang: Falling Back to Earth’, a major exhibition by one of the world’s most significant contemporary artists, from 23 November 2013 to 11 May 2014.

For his first solo exhibition in Australia, Cai Guo-Qiang shifts his focus away from the cosmos and back to the Earth we inhabit, while maintaining his ongoing interest in the transformative forces that impact on and flow out of human life: science and faith, beauty and violence, history and current events. At the centre of the exhibition is the theme of humanity’s relationship with nature, inspired by the unique landscapes of Queensland and Chinese literati painting and poetry.

Cai Guo-Qiang ‘Heritage’ 2013

Cai Guo-Qiang, China b.1957 / Heritage (installation view) 2013 / 99 life-sized replicas of animals. Animals: polystyrene, gauze, resin and hide. Installed with artificial watering hole: water, sand, drip mechanism / Purchased 2013 with funds from the Josephine Ulrick and Win Schubert Diversity Foundation through and with the assistance of the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Cai Guo-Qiang / Photograph: Natasha Harth © QAGOMA
Installation view Heritage 2013, ‘Cai Guo-Qiang: Falling Back to Earth’, Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane / © Cai Guo-Qiang / Photograph: © Jon Linkins

‘Falling Back to Earth’ premieres two spectacular new commissions. Heritage 2013, acquired for the Gallery’s renowned collection of contemporary Asian art, is an installation of 99 life-like replicas of animals from around the world, drinking together from a pristine lake that evokes the sand islands of Brisbane’s Moreton Bay. Eucalyptus 2013 comprises an enormous gum tree that extends along GOMAs central Long Gallery, in response to Cai’s encounter with the ancient Antarctic beeches of Lamington National Park in southeast Queensland.

Cai Guo-Qiang ‘Eucalyptus’ 2013

Installation view Eucalyptus 2013, ‘Cai Guo-Qiang: Falling Back to Earth’, Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane / © Cai Guo-Qiang / Photograph: K Bennett © QAGOMA

RELATED: Cai Guo-Qiang’s ‘Heritage’

One of Cai’s signature works, Head On 2006, is also included in the exhibition, showing in Australia for the first time.

Cai has previously exhibited in two of the Queensland Art Gallery’s Asia Pacific Triennial exhibitions, in 1996 (APT2) and 1999 (APT3). He was the first contemporary artist commissioned by the Gallery to produce an interactive artwork for children, as part of the inaugural Kids’ APT in 1999.

‘Falling Back to Earth’ includes an interactive exhibition and illustrated book for children, developed together with Cai, along with Tea Pavilion, a contemplative space designed by the artist, with furniture and other elements made from a reclaimed eucalyptus tree. The space will feature regular Chinese tea ceremonies along with video that will provide context for the exhibition.

Featured image: Portrait of Cai Guo-Qiang
#QAGOMA

Action Hong Kong Style

 
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Production still from Golden Swallow 1968 | Director: Chang Cheh | Image courtesy: © Licensed by Celestial Pictures Limited. All rights reserved

Hong Kong action cinema has undergone multiple revolutions and produced some of the world’s most famous stars and directors, including Bruce Lee, John Woo and Jackie Chan. Here, Sam Ho discusses the history behind this phenomenally popular film genre, which is the subject of a major retrospective at the Gallery’s Australian Cinémathèque. 

Action, Hong Kong Style‘ is at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) until 8 November 2013. Purchase tickets in advance through qtix or at the GOMA Box Office from one hour prior to film screenings. Details on our website.

Don’t miss our Special Event, on Thursday 24 October, 6pm at the Gallery Cinema, join film specialists Sam Ho (United States/Hong Kong) and Professor Mary Farquhar (Australia), together with ‘Action, Hong Kong Style’ curator Kathryn Weir, Head of International Art and the Australian Cinémathèque, in a lively discussion exploring critical approaches to Hong Kong’s unique action cinema styles. Free, no bookings required.

It is at once ironic and appropriate to say that action cinema is the most influential of all Hong Kong arts. Ironic because the concepts of art and action are seldom considered in the same breath, especially by most of the very people who work on the films. Appropriate because Hong Kong is a dynamic place, where people are always on the go, things happen at top speed, and popular culture rules with such supreme splendor that all the action naturally coalesces into art.

The Hong Kong action film is an integral part of Chinese action film. A continuation of the wuxia (martial arts) craze that broke out in China in the mid to late 1920s, it started with a small number of martial arts films released before World War Two. But it wasn’t until after the war that the action film took off as a genre, partly because Hong Kong film was enjoying tremendous growth, partly because Chinese filmmakers had moved to the colony in droves, and partly because martial arts films were frowned on or outright banned in China. Releases occurred on both the Mandarin and Cantonese sides of the cinema,though the productions of the latter far outnumbered those of the former.

Two major types of action film were made during this period. One of these was the swordplay picture, mostly adapted from wuxia novels and largely following the conventions established earlier in Shanghai. They were often embellished with mystical elements: on a lighter scale, featuring characters with superhuman abilities, like leaping on rooftops or forcing powerful winds from the palm; or, on the heavier scale, flouting shenguai (fantastic or sorcery) attributes, like flying or unleashing remote-controlled weapons with palm power. The other major type was the southern-style movie, mainly based on folktales of the Guangdong region and featuring action that, though very much stylised cinematically, was more realistic in that authentic fighting techniques were used, with much fewer — or even no — shenguai touches. Representative of the southern school is the long-running and influential ‘Wong Fei-hung’ series, much of which features the formidable Kwan Tuk‑hing, which made its debut in 1949 with The True Story of Wong Fei-hung. These are in fact kung fu films, but the term had not yet been coined, not until Bruce Lee came along. There were also other types of action film, such as the spy thriller, the crime mystery, the World War Two film, the anti-warlord film and the heist flick, most of them heavy on the melodrama but sprinkled with physical feats or fits of suspense.

This first stage of action films lasted until the mid 1960s, when the genre was revolutionised by the emergence of two masters. King Hu and Chang Cheh, working on the Mandarin side, built on Hong Kong’s foundation in martial arts filmmaking, exercised their personal styles and visions, kicked the femininity of the swordplay films by the wayside and magnified the combat ferocity of the ‘southern-fist’ flicks, turning the genre into an always dynamic, often violent and sometimes grotesque cinema. King Hu’s incorporation of Beijing opera elements and Chang’s embrace of romantic fatalism gave influential and lasting definition to the action film. These directors were at the right place at the right time, when Hong Kong was taking its first strides into a fabled economic miracle, translating into bigger production budgets that allowed them to realise their visions more readily.

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Production still from The 36th Chamber of Shaolin 1978 | Director: Lau Kar-leung | Image courtesy: © Licensed by Celestial Pictures Limited. All rights reserved

Then came another revolution. Only a few years later, Bruce Lee came along and made kung fu films a household name, first in Hong Kong, then the rest of the world. He died, but the revolution continued. Rather, the succession of quick revolutions continued. The popularity of hard-hitting kung fu films endured despite Lee’s untimely death, but they had gone through an evolution that was growing stale by the time Jackie Chan clowned his way into superstardom, integrating comedy with action into a mix that went on to become a staple of Hong Kong cinema.

Chan also paved the way for Sammo Hung, his ‘big brother’ at the opera school where he learned his trade, to widen the reach of the revolution. Hung was an extremely enterprising, energetic and creative filmmaker. As actor, director, writer, producer and company executive, he took advantage of the infrastructure laid down by the previous revolutions — performers who could both act and fight, well-trained stunts staff, experienced crews, refined effects techniques, efficient production flow — and fashioned a glorious boom in action cinema. He executed moves, devised gags, invented blends of elements, introduced genres and forged directions.

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Production still from A Better Tomorrow 1986 | Director: John Woo | Image courtesy: Golden Princess

Meanwhile, Hong Kong film was developing into a sophisticated urban cinema. Companies old and new — Shaw Brothers, Golden Harvest, Cinema City and others — fortified themselves in the roaring economy and gave breaks to young directors like John Woo and Tsui Hark, who took the cue from the rapidly quickening pace of the city to formulate a corresponding aesthetics. Action films took on a metropolitan glaze, to which Police Story 1985 added a bright shine, followed by A Better Tomorrow 1986, its neon luminance giving rise to the ‘hero’ film, highly popular crime thrillers featuring the city as a lead character.

Tsui was another enterprising talent who experimented with diversity. As director and producer, he made films that took the action genre back to its roots, to the shenguai and southern realms, away from the city. Of particular significance is Once Upon a Time in China 1991, a revival of the ‘Wong Feihung’ saga that exalted the genre.

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Production still from Once Upon a Time in China II 1992 | Director: Tsui Hark | Image courtesy: © 2010 Fortune Star Media Limited. All Rights Reserved

Then came the touch of class: the art action film. Wong kar-wai’s Ashes of Time 1994 started the trend in Chinese diasporic cinema of works with an appeal far more cerebral than physical, often challenging generic conventions of action with the very staging of action. When a popular genre reaches such a point, it signals maturity, but also age, though not necessarily death. Hong Kong continued to produce action films, like the outstanding works of Johnnie To, while also branching into China with co-productions. Yet the wildly enthusiastic support among local fans had significantly faded, and the next revolution is nowhere in sight.

Sam Ho is a curator and researcher. He was Programmer at the Hong Kong Film Archive and has written extensively on Hong Kong and other Asian cinemas.

Endnote
1  Before the 1970s, Hong Kong film was comprised of two separate cinemas, a Cantonese one and its Mandarin counterpart, the former catering to populations from the Guangdong area and the latter to those from other areas.

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Production still from Ashes of Time Redux 1994/2008 | Director: Wong Kar-wai | Image courtesy: Madman Entertainment

Wartime quilts share the spirit of modern day fashion recycling

 

Carla Binotto and Carla van Lunn, designers from Brisbane’s Maison Briz Vegas talked about their 100% recycled French rubbish – transforming secondhand clothing into designer fashion through craft at a recent Quilts Sunday Stitch-Ups public program. Quilts 1700–1945′ is on display at the Queensland Art Gallery (QAG) until 22 September.

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If you have visited the ‘Quilts 1700-1945′ exhibition you would have seen the display of wartime quilts made from old dresses, shirts, pyjamas, even black-out curtains and silk army parachutes. These quilts were made in times when materials were scarce and re-use was necessary.

Now, in our time of environmental concern, that same spirit of recycling and resourcefulness seen in these quilts is also the inspiration behind our Brisbane fashion label conceived in Paris.

In contrast to the slickness of mass-production and digital printing current in the fashion market, ours is a slow, imperfect aesthetic. Prints are created by hand-block printing or stenciling, and the collections incorporate many craft techniques such as patchwork and hand-embroidery. Just as quilts can sometimes be allegorical, our garments often have a symbolism and narrative to them. The transformation of humble and valueless materials into beautiful and desirable products is a constant motivation.

Carla Binotto and Carla van Lunn

‘Quilts 1700–1945′ comes from one of the world’s most important and loved collections of textiles and decorative arts — the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. This exhibition offers visitors an unprecedented opportunity to see over 30 quilted and/or patchworked bed covers and bed hangings, as well as sewing accessories, created over two-and-a-half centuries. Explore over 200 years of British quiltmaking. Every stitch tells a story.

In addition, the exhibition provides a rare opportunity to view Rajah quilt 1841. This extraordinary patchwork — generously lent by the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra — was sewn by women on board the convict ship HMS Rajah, during their transportation to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) in 1841.

The following quilts are on display in the exhibition. 

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Pyjama cotton coverlet | Annie O’Hare, Strabane, Northern Ireland 1940s | Cotton | Courtesy of Board of Trustees of National Museums Northern Ireland

Living near a clothing factory could ensure a cheap and ready supply of fabrics. Cloth remnants were sometimes bought at the factory shop in bags priced according to weight. Annie O’Hare’s sister Margaret, who supplied her with the materials for this quilt, worked at a factory in Castlederg, County Tyrone, which made shirts and pyjamas.

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Patchwork of suiting fabrics and dress cottons (detail) | Elizabeth Magill (1888–1987), Belfast, Northern Ireland 1930s | Cotton and wool | Courtesy of Board of Trustees of National Museums Northern Ireland

Elizabeth Magill, born in rural County Down in the nineteenth century, was first trained alongside her sisters to stitch fine white embroidery on handkerchiefs. An informal apprenticeship in dressmaking provided Elizabeth with a modest income in her late teens. She then married at 21 and moved to Belfast, where she had access to retailers of remnants from the many factories in the city. Her sewing skills enabled her to undertake work at home for friends and neighbours. Over a 40-year period, she designed and made some 200 quilts.

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Coverlet made in Changi Prison (detail) | Changi Girl Guide Group, Singapore 1943 | Cotton | Collection of the Imperial War Museum

Following the Japanese occupation of Singapore in 1942, Changi Prison was used to house civilians. This coverlet was created by 20 girl guides, aged 8 to 16, as a birthday present for their leader, Elizabeth Ennis. It was stitched in secret using materials cut from the girls’ dresses and embroidered with their names. The group met once a week in the corner of the prison’s exercise yard, before the gathering was stopped by a prison guard in 1943.

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Coverlet made of blackout curtains (detail) | Griselda Lewis (b.1917), Manningtree, Essex, England 1945–47 | Cotton | © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Griselda Lewis created this coverlet following World War Two, when fabrics were in short supply. Its materials are a snapshot of her life at the time. The black fabric is recycled from blackout curtain material, which would have hung in the windows of her house during wartime air raids, while some of the cottons are from swatches sent to Robert Harling, a family friend and editor of Homes and Gardens magazine. Lewis also cut up old dresses and shirts for use in her work. The reverse is believed to be made from the cotton from Red Cross famine relief parcels.

‘Of chaos and bits and pieces’ Ruth Stoneley’s memory quilt

 
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Ruth Stoneley, Australia 1940-2007 | Untitled (memory quilt) (and details below) c.2000s | Cotton, metallic crinkle fabric, lace, silk ribbons, metal charms, metallic tassel and knitting yarn | Stoneley Family Collection | © The Ruth Stoneley Estate

Since the 1970s, quilting and other traditional art forms have regained popularity in Australia. Complementing the ‘Quilts 1700–1945’ exhibition, the Gallery presents ‘Ruth Stoneley: A Stitch in Time’, a selection of textile works by this Queensland artist. Annette Brown writes on Stoneley’s exquisite memory quilt.

For visual arts practitioners of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the domestic has become a fertile area of creativity. Like their nineteenth-century counterparts, contemporary quilt-makers, such as Queensland’s Ruth Stoneley (1940–2007), who began quilting in 1979, have used this traditional craft form to recreate and examine aspects of the domestic world, both actually and figuratively.

Of the various forms of traditional crafts which have regained popularity in Australia since the 1970s, quilt-making — along with embroidery, lace-making, knitting and crochet — has become synonymous with the domestic and also possesses strong connotations of nostalgia. The ability of quilts to operate as cultural signifiers is also being reinforced and recreated in novels such as Alias Grace and films such as How to Make an American Quilt.(1,2) The memoryquilt format, in particular, has distinctive connections, both literally and metaphorically, with women’s domestic craft traditions spanning successive generations from the late nineteenth century onward.

Ruth Stoneley’s Untitled (memory quilt) c.2000s references the intimate lives of women through a process of recycling, reconstructing and decoration, and celebrates domesticity and the existence of both the maker and her family at a personal level. The process of quilt‑making was seen by Stoneley as a reflection of her own life, where ‘out of chaos and bits and pieces come whole objects that one puts together with love and care and integrity and somehow they get to work’.(3) Displaying an elaborately detailed surface, Stoneley’s memory quilt has become both a talisman and a souvenir, a repository for memories and storytelling, and, as author and academic Susan Stewart observes, ‘generates a narrative which reaches only “behind”, spiralling in a continually inward movement rather than outward toward the future’.(4)

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With its random and asymmetrical construction, rich decoration of precious silk ribbons, lace, and metallic ‘charms’, and the central photographic image replacing an embroidered image, this memory quilt imitates the design principles of Victorian-era crazy patchwork. According to Stewart:

. . . the memory quilt, along with scrapbooks, photo albums and baby books can all be categorised as souvenirs of individual experience [and] are intimately mapped against the life history of an individual and tend to be found in connection with rites of passage.(5)

These include birth, death and marriage, and in the case of Stoneley’s example, marriage encapsulates, in Stewart’s words, ‘a transformation of status’.(6)

The limited colours of cream, pink, brown and antique gold attract the attention of the viewer in a subtle fashion. They are drawn to inspect the surface of the quilt at closer quarters, with a symbolic journey of contemplation and introspection undertaken through this delicate domestic space. Lace, ribbon and intimate family mementoes, including brooches, decorate the surface of the quilt, adding nostalgic resonance to the personal narrative of the maker. The focal point of the quilt, however, is the photographic image of a family wedding group. It is the pivotal point in a visual sense and also becomes a memento of the future family unit and the symbolic centre of the domestic space. As Stewart remarks, ‘the photograph as souvenir represents the preservation of an instant in time through a reduction of physical dimensions and a corresponding increase in significance supplied by means of narrative’.(7)

Like the crazy patchwork quilts of the Victorian era, Stoneley’s memory quilt recreates the domestic space on a contemporary and personal level. It has the capacity to create a sense of nostalgia in the viewer, revealing an intimate glimpse of the maker’s home life, generally hidden from the gaze of those outside the immediate family.

Dr Annette Brown is a textile historian and freelance museum consultant based in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales.

Untitled (memory quilt) is on display in ‘Ruth Stoneley: A Stitch in Time’ until 7 October 2013. An exhibition publication is available from the QAGOMA Store and online.

Endnotes
1 Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace, Doubleday, New York, 1996.
2 Jane Anderson (screenplay), Sarah Pillsbury and Midge Sanford (producers), How to Make an American Quilt, Universal Studios Inc., Los Angeles, 1995.
3 Quoted in Alan Moult, Craft in Australia, Reed, French’s Forest, 1984, p.112.
4 Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, Duke University Press, London, 1993, p.135.
5 Stewart, pp.138–39.
6 Stewart, p.138.
7 Stewart, p.138.

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Tell it like it is

 
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Reko Rennie, Kamilaroi/Gamilaraay/Gummaroi peoples, Australia b.1974 | Trust the 2% 2013 | Synthetic polymer paint on wall; synthetic polymer paint on MDF | Site-specific commission for ‘My Country, I Still Call Australia Home: Contemporary Art from Black Australia’ | Courtesy and ©: The artist

From June until late October, the Gallery presents its largest exhibition of contemporary Indigenous Australian art, which aims to facilitate what Carly Lane describes as a ‘truly national conversation about nationhood’. Celebrate the opening weekend on Saturday 1 June by enjoying a day of discussions, workshops and talks by artists, performers, writers and curators ending with with a night of music, and a chance to see the exhibition after hours. At Up Late, enjoy special musical performances by Archie Roach, together with the Medics and special guest Bunna Lawrie (Coloured Stone).

Inspired by songs that reference Australianness, including Peter Allen’s iconic anthem, ‘I still call Australia home’, this major exhibition kicks off the Gallery’s winter exhibition program. Exhibition curator Bruce McLean, Curator, Indigenous Australian Art, is among the next generation of curators directing discourse in Australian contemporary art. ‘My Country, I Still Call Australia Home: Contemporary Art from Black Australia’ features over 300 works by more than 130 artists from every state and territory across Australia, and dominates the ground floor of GOMA, presenting a truly national conversation about nationhood as experienced and told by contemporary artists of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage. It forms part of a wider Australian narrative about being Aussie: notions of mateship and courage epitomised by the Anzacs of World War One, a fair go for all in the lucky country, and our love of football are some of the better known. But there is more to it than mateship, meat pies and sport; alternative, competing and even reaffirming narratives glimmer in the stories and experiences of every Australian. ‘My Country’ goes some way toward presenting these other narratives.

Drawn from the Gallery’s Collection and including works by Vernon Ah Kee, Brook Andrew, Destiny Deacon, Archie Moore, Doreen Reid Nakamarra, Judy Watson and many more, the exhibition spans more than three decades to present the artists’ relationships, connections and conceptions of Australian-hood. Two installations have been commissioned specifically for the exhibition: Trust the 2% 2013 by Reko Rennie and Fluid Terrain 2012 by Megan Cope, which can be found in the Gallery’s Foyer and River Room respectively. A plethora of new and old media, such as paintings, linocut and digital prints, film, photography, natural pigments, light installations, and delicate paper sculptures, flesh out these Australian stories and experiences via the three themes — ‘My country’, ‘My life’ and ‘My history’ — that steer the exhibition. Each story, experience and work of art relates to each artist’s ‘understanding of this shared physical, political, social and cultural space and place’. 1

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Bindi Cole, Wathaurung people, Australia b.1975 | I forgive you 2012 | Emu feathers | Purchased 2012. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | © Bindi Cole 2012. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney, 2013

Visitors to ‘My Country’ will likely walk away with a new schema that links ‘Black’ and ‘Australian’ together, in our history, in the present, and in the future. In this respect, the exhibition is both ambitious and timely. It is ambitious because it attempts to introduce a new conversation about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It addresses our experiences of being Australian, a condition and identity marker often overlooked by and for the First Peoples of this country. What it is to be Australian is an interesting experience to consider; admittedly this is only something I reflect on when I’m outside of my usual routines and surroundings or away from home. As an inclusive and forwardthinking nation, it is time to think beyond pre-existing narratives and fixed notions about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, art and culture.

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Brook Andrew, Wiradjuri people, Australia b.1970 | The Island V 2008 | Mixed media | Purchased 2009 with funds from the Bequest of Grace Davies and Nell Davies through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | © The artist

Musical lyrics, penned in different times and circumstances, also punctuate the exhibition’s stories, experiences and themes. The inclusion of musical references is clever, and is also one of the defining features of the exhibition, showing great curatorial creativity. McLean especially references eminent black singers and songwriters, including Australian hip-hop group The Last Kinection, throughout the exhibition. By doing this, he makes obvious the role that ‘both art and music have in shaping national and cultural psyche and identity’ and draws attention to that fact that every biography has a corresponding soundtrack.

‘My Country’ deliberately holds little back. It celebrates and challenges a broad spectrum of views about what it means to be Australian. The artists ‘tell it like it is’, articulating experiences without fear or favour or conforming to dominant views held in or outside their communities. The highs and lows, the joy and pain, and the continuities and contradictions of being Australian fold in and away from each other across the exhibition. ‘My Country’ shows that art does mirror life.

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Trevor Nickolls, Australia 1949-2012 | From Dreamtime 2 Machinetime 1979 | Oil on canvas | Purchased 1989 under the Contemporary Art Acquisition Program with funds from Brian and Rosemary White through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | © Trevor Nickolls/Licensed by Viscopy, 2013

Symmetries and convergences are evident across the exhibition and its three themes. Alongside the conversations set out by McLean and the artists, audiences will undoubtedly build their own associations between individual works in the show. Suites of prints by Banduk Marika and Michael Cook and a painting by Trevor Nicholls demonstrate just one of the many links within the exhibition. Individually, the works present complex stories and experiences, but together they narrate more widely shared, lived experiences within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across Australia. Marika’s black and white linocut prints of the Djang’kawu sisters show a creation narrative of the Yolngu people of north-east Arnhem Land; Michael Cook’s digital prints from his ‘Civilised’ series 2012, depict Aboriginal men and women wearing and carrying the tools of the three Cs — Christianity, civilisation and colonisation; and Nicholls’s two-part painting From Dreamtime 2 Machinetime 1979 portrays two different scenes — figures in the top half of the canvas exist in nature, while the figures in the bottom half reside in a built environment. All three works reflect different parts of a single story about being Australian. They also reflect the continuum of life, how we are born, transformed and deal with the ensuing fractures, dualities and adjustments we encounter — and, in this case, the life of a Black Australian. ‘My Country’ also features a consortium of individual works in which its power is at once paramount and immediate. Bindi Cole’s large wall installation I forgive you 2012, featuring the statement drafted in emu feathers, is one such work.

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Banduk Marika, Rirratjingu people, Australia b.1954 | Milngurr (The sacred waterhole) (no. 6 from ‘Yalangbara’ suite) 2000 | Linocut on paper | Purchased 2004. John Darnell Bequest | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | © Banduk Marika/Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney, 2013

‘My Country’ is a landmark exhibition. Like the Gallery’s exhibitions of Indigenous works before it, including ‘Balance 1990: Views, Visions, Influences’ (1990), ‘Story Place: Indigenous Art of Cape York and the Rainforest’ (2003), and ‘Land, Sea and Sky: Contemporary Art of the Torres Strait Islands’ (2011), ‘My Country’ marks the next stage of development and maturation in GOMA’s approach to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art. This is the first major exhibition conceived and curated by Bruce McLean for the QAGOMA. He joined the Gallery in 2002 to assist the development of ‘Story Place’ and has emerged as a leading voice and advocate of contemporary art within the Australian Indigenous art industry. As a curator and author, McLean is highly respected among his peers. His introductory essay in the exhibition’s accompanying publication is testimony to his ability to contribute as well as direct the discourse surrounding contemporary art by artists of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage. In developing shows such as ‘My Country’, he and the Gallery help narrow the divide that posits art by Indigenous artists outside the wider narrative of Australian contemporary art and life. For some, the existing divide is merely a result of the uniqueness of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art and culture. While this may or may not be the reason, the distinctiveness of Aboriginal and Islander art need not be a barrier, but rather a conduit, to the inclusion of our voices in more Australian and international conversations.

My Country, I Still Call Australia Home: Contemporary Art from Black Australia’ is at GOMA until 7 October. The exhibition publication is available for purchase from the QAGOMA Store and online.

Carly Lane is a member of the Kalkadoon people and independent curator based in Perth. She specialises in Aboriginal art, anthropology and curatorship and has over 15 years’ experience working in museums and galleries in Perth and Canberra.

Endnote
1 Bruce McLean, ‘This land is mine/This land is me’, My Country, I Still Call Australia Home: Contemporary Art from Black Australia [exhibition catalogue], Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, 2013, p.13.