The politics of persuasion

Kim Hung II, North Korea b. 1965 | Work team contest 2009 | Glass tessera tiles | Purchased 2009. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation Grant | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery

I was admiring Kim Hung II’s fascinating mosaic Work Team Contest when a thought struck me.

The work is part of the show ‘Propaganda?, which recently opened on level 3 at GOMA, right next door to our recent acquisition Ride the Caspian. It’s an interesting opportunity to look at the legacy of Socialist Realism and various other forms of propaganda art through a few collection works. The exhibition moves from straightforward propaganda, as with the work of Mansudae Art Studio in the DPRK (North Korea), right through to more ironic takes, with a particular focus on Australia, and East and Southeast Asia.

What struck me about Work Team Contest was that if you remove the brass band and floral arrangements, the image of workers celebrating efficiency targets isn’t all that different from the workplace imagery of white-collar corporate culture we’re a little more familiar with in the West.

Do a Google Image Search for “corporate” or “business” and you’ll see what I mean. Managers pointing at whiteboards, fit and forward-looking young professionals, a sense of success and future-building — it’s all there. Even the composition is the same. The only major difference is that the colour red has been replaced with a distinct shade of blue.

It would be a mistake to say that ‘juche’ communism and liberal capitalism offer similar forms of social organisation. But the images used to ‘sell’ them do share unexpected patterns. In the marketplace of ideologies, it seems that little changes when it comes to the politics of images. There may even be a subliminal influence.

This is something that plays out as I look across the show — certain aesthetic formations are adjusted to suit the widest possible range of political positions, even extending to those modes of communication we think of as apolitical, such as advertising and news media. Indeed, a number of contemporary artists in the show take this as their starting point. The history of propaganda art certainly offers interesting perspectives on the visual culture of the present.

‘Propaganda?’ considers the varied approaches of politically motivated art. From the traditional forms of painting and sculpture, to mass media such as prints, posters, banners and photography, art has often been used to express the ideology of the state, promote the views of specific groups, criticise the status quo or document events. The exhibition features a number of works in socialist realist styles from China, Vietnam and North Korea (DPRK), as well as print and photo-based works that utilise text, collage and documentary imagery. You can view the exhibition until 21 October 2012.

Landscape and desire

Almagul Menlibayeva, Kazakhstan b.1969 | Bahar Behbahani, Iran b.1973 | Ride the Caspian (detail) 2011 | HD video, two-channel video installation: 11:46 minutes, colour, surround sound; digital photographs mounted on wall ed. 2/6 | Purchased 2011. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery

In terms of this year’s exhibition program, Ride the Caspian is a bit of a taste of what’s to come in APT7, which opens in December and features a strong focus on West and Central Asia. The work itself will also be part of the next Biennale of Sydney, opening shortly.

Ride the Caspian is a collaborative work by Almagul Menlibayeva and Bahar Behbahani. It was one of the many highlights at last year’s Sharjah Biennial, and was acquired for the QAGOMA Collection shortly after. Menlibayeva comes from Kazakhstan, while Behbahani is from Iran, two of the five countries that border the Caspian Sea, a space of extraordinary historical and geopolitical significance, which also forms the focal point of this mesmerising work.

You may remember Menlibayeva’s name from GOMA’s ’21st Century: Art in the First Decade’ exhibition, as the artist behind the striking lightbox Wrapping History 2010 (that work is currently also in our Contemporary Collection display, ‘Lightness & Gravity’). Menlibayeva’s aesthetic is elegant and edgy, and she describes it as ‘Romantic Punk Shamanism’. In Ride the Caspian it blends seamlessly with Behbahani’s evocations of the tension and texture of the region, with little incongruities, stunning photography and a hint of mischief-making. Also worth a mention is the work’s absorbing electronic score, which is itself a collaboration between Ukranian electronic composer OMFO and Bahar’s sister Negar.

Aside from the pure audiovisual thrill of it all, there are a couple of things that keep me coming back to this work, and I think they may be related. One is the way in which the past is brought into the present, with the traditions of ancient Persia and the nomadic Turkic tribes of the region staged against the backdrop of Islamist Iran and post-Soviet Kazakhstan. The other is the starkness and drama of the industrial/post-industrial landscape, with massive oil rigs sitting on the horizon in still shots, while archetypal female figures perform seductively among rusty, outdated equipment on the shore. Quite a few suggestive glances are exchanged, not all of them magnanimous.

For the last couple of years I’ve been quite interested in the “landscape theory” that informed the work of radical Japanese filmmakers like Nagisa Oshima, Koji Wakamatsu and Masao Adachi and the photographer Takuma Nakahira in the 1960s and 70s (see this fascinating interview with Adachi — himself a fascinating guy — at Midnight Eye). The idea was essentially that landscape, even picturesque landscape, is shaped by ruling powers, and that it, in turn, has a role in shaping the lives and sensibilities of those who live within it.

With Ride the Caspian, Menlibayeva and Behbahani complicate this account in interesting ways, lending it some contemporary nuance. They seem to suggest a non–linear version of cultural inheritance that overlaps in time and space, and also the role of certain libidinal forces in mediating the relationships that take place there. Which begs the question: does desire liberate us from the power of landscape, or is it part of the landscape of power?

That’s an open-ended question, by the way. So don’t take my word for it. Come and see the work currently on display at GOMA, and post your comments below.

Dots obliterate the internet!


It’s been a bit of a whirlwind since worldwide interest in Yayoi Kusama’s interactive project The obliteration room was sparked by a single post on Colossal, leading to appearances on Boing Boing, Creative Review, Huffington Post and Wired. (There’s way more obliteration and inspiration in our online catalogue, by the way internauts!)

Our press team have been busy following up media enquiries from London to Lahore, Bangkok to Buenos Aires, while every day the installation is re-blogged and re-tweeted to countless millions, and thousands pour through the gallery doors to grab a sheet of stickers.

The whole thing is proliferating like so many polka dots. If there was ever an indication of just how broad the audience for contemporary art has grown, this is it.

For me, the extraordinary popularity of this work and the ‘Look Now, See Forever’ exhibition as a whole raises the question about what it is about Yayoi Kusama that makes her so relevant right now — especially for an artist in her 80s. With six decades of work behind her, she’s in greater demand than ever, with another major exhibition of new work just opening at Osaka’s National Museum of Art, and her travelling retrospective opening this week at London’s Tate Modern before heading to the Whitney in New York.

Let’s be clear about this: her work looks great in reproduction, and people love a good, simple, elegantly executed idea. But what I find personally interesting is the way Kusama positions viewers at the centre of the work – not just in ‘The obliteration room’, but her in sculptures, installations, videos and larger paintings as well.

We’re beginning to see this approach more and more in museums everywhere. But it’s also perfectly in keeping with new media technologies and their impact on the way we experience, discuss and produce culture, life and love. Spectatorship has itself become a form of cultural production and participation, to a point where blogging and tweeting about a work of art can be seen as extensions of picking up a dot and pasting it to a wall, television or piano.

As I’ve said before elsewhere, Yayoi Kusama is more of her time now than at any other point in her career. This is one reason why we decided that ‘Look Now, See Forever’ would be an exhibition of new work. Watching dots obliterate the internet is just one more case in point.

The obliteration room at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) Brisbane in conjunction with the exhibition ‘Yayoi Kusama: Look Now, See Forever’ / Photographs: Mark Sherwood

Late last week, the Tate Modern announced that The obliteration room will be included in its Kusama retrospective, which opens this week. It will be the first time the work has been recreated outside of Brisbane.

Additionally, a very generous benefactor has supported the Queensland Art Gallery’s acquisition of one of the four Flowers that bloom at midnight currently appearing in ‘Look Now, See Forever’. This major acquisition, which was only possible due to the Gallery’s ongoing relationship with the artist, makes QAG’s collection of Kusama’s work one of the most significant in a public museum outside Japan.

Yayoi Kusama / Flowers That Bloom at Midnight 2011 / Installation in ‘Yayoi Kusama: Look Now, See Forever’, Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane / Purchased 2012 with funds from the Josephine Ulrick and Win Schubert Diversity Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © Yayoi Kusama, Yayoi Kusama Studio Inc.