eX de Medici: Hollywood, the patriarchy & political power

 

eX de Medici’s The System 2023 (dressmaker: Michael Marendy) is based on her three-panel watercolour System (This is the Place Where the Martyrs Grow) 2023 (illustrated). It is the second garment the artist has collaborated on, the first being Shotgun Wedding Dress/Cleave 2015 (dressmaker: Gloria Grady Design (illustrated).

Julie Andrews in the wedding gown from ‘The Sound of Music’ (1965)eX de Medici ‘Shotgun Wedding Dress/Cleave’ 2015

Installation view ‘eX de Medici: Beautiful Wickedness’, Gallery of Modern Art, 2023 / (Watercolour) eX de Medici, Australia b.1959 / System (This is the Place Where the Martyrs Grow) 2022 / Watercolour and tempera with gold leaf on paper / Three panels; two panels: 114 x 115cm; one panel: 114 x 145cm; 114 x 375cm (overall) / Collection: eX de Medici / © eX de Medici / (Dress) eX de Medici (Artist); Yianni Liangis (Collaborator); Gloria Grady Design (Dressmaker); RLDI (Rob Little Digital Images) (Photographer and digitisation); Think Positive Prints (Printer) / Shotgun Wedding Dress/Cleave 2015 / Digitally printed silk / 240 x 48 x 237cm / Purchased 2015 / Collection: National Gallery of Australia, Canberra / © eX de Medici

Both dresses were inspired by ‘costumes for Hollywood’ — the latter, the wedding gown that Julie Andrews wore as Maria in the perennially popular screen musical The Sound of Music (1965); the former, a figure-hugging silk crepe shift (illustrated) that Marilyn Monroe wore in her last, unfinished film, Something’s Got to Give! (1962), just prior to her untimely death.

Marilyn Monroe in ‘Something’s Got to Give!’ (1962)

Silk crepe shift Marilyn Monroe wore in her last, unfinished film, Something’s Got to Give! (1962) / Courtesy: Julien’s Auctions https://www.julienslive.com/lot-details/index/catalog/157/lot/66432

Something’s Got to Give! (1962) Trailer

The System expands on de Medici’s dissection of toxic masculinity and patriarchal power structures, including the Hollywood system that has exploited a succession of talented and vulnerable women, and, in Monroe’s case, contributed to her demise. The gun that dominates the front of the dress points upwards, its barrel targeting an assumed female subject. The hands that are depicted crossed and metaphorically tied beneath the cowl on the back of the dress imply captivity and coercive control.

Samantha Littley, Curator, Australian Art, QAGOMA, and curator of ‘eX de Medici: Beautiful Wickedness’ taking a tour of the exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2023, wearing The System 2023 / Artist: eX de Medici; Collaborator: Samantha Littley; Dressmaker: Michael Marendy; Photographer and digitisation: RLDI (Rob Little Digital Images); Printer: Think Positive Prints / © eX de Medici / Photograph: Joe Ruckli © QAGOMA

The iconography in The System also explores political power, something that is more apparent in the related watercolour System (This is the Place Where the Martyrs Grow). Both artworks feature the Bushmaster AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifle that United States (US) forces used to fire on unarmed civilians from an aerial gunship in Baghdad in 2007, wrongly assuming they were insurgents. Iraqi Reuters journalists Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh and nine others were killed in the attack, while two children were seriously injured. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange later released footage of the atrocity online, intensifying attempts by the US to extradite him on charges of espionage.

eX de Medici ‘System (This is the Place Where the Martyrs Grow) (details) 2022

eX de Medici, Australia b.1959 / System (This is the Place Where the Martyrs Grow) (details) 2022 / Watercolour and tempera with gold leaf on paper / Three panels; two panels: 114 x 115cm; one panel: 114 x 145cm; 114 x 375cm (overall) / Collection: eX de Medici / © eX de Medici

The weapon symbolises what de Medici regards as the US government’s ‘moral hypocrisy’ on war crimes, a position that is emphasised by the tulips that adorn the rifle (illustrated). They are a symbol of male martyrdom in Iran and other parts of West Asia and continue the artist’s exploration of the flower as a masculine signifier. De Medici borrowed the image of the handshake that appears in the watercolour from the logo for the US Agency for International Development, while the two hands, one above the other (illustrated), represent money being exchanged in secretive deals, expanding on her interest in exposing ‘systems . . . that nobody seems to be able to escape from’.

De Medici adapted the vignette of two men locked in a sword fight with their severed heads kissing (illustrated) from a scene of bare-knuckled boxers in a book of nineteenth-century prints. The imagery expands on her scrutiny of male violence and the futility of armed combat.

eX de Medici, Australia b.1959 / System (This is the Place Where the Martyrs Grow) (detail) 2022 / Watercolour and tempera with gold leaf on paper / Three panels; two panels: 114 x 115cm; one panel: 114 x 145cm; 114 x 375cm (overall) / Collection: eX de Medici / © eX de Medici

Watch | eX de Medici discusses her work

Samantha Littley is Curator, Australian Art, QAGOMA.

‘eX de Medici: Beautiful Wickedness’ in 1.2 and 1.3 (Eric and Marion Taylor Gallery) was at GOMA from 24 June until 2 October 2023. ‘Beautiful Wickedness’ offered opportunities for dialogue with ‘Michael Zavros: The Favourite‘ presented in the adjacent gallery 1.1 (The Fairfax Gallery) and 1.2.

#QAGOMA

eX de Medici: Symbolism

 

Despite eX de Medici’s proclivity for privacy, she is no shrinking violet. In lieu of a conspicuous public profile, she is content to let her artworks proclaim her outrage at the endemic violence and political hypocrisy she sees unfolding around her. As an artist and tattooist who began studying in the early 1980s, and whose early practice encompassed photocopy and performance, she has consistently stormed the barricades of art and used it to challenge the status quo. What, then, should we make of the work she has made since 1998, when she began to step back from professional tattooing — a skill she acquired through an Australia Council-funded apprenticeship in Los Angeles — and particularly of the watercolours that have been the mainstay of her practice for over 20 years?

The iconography in artworks such the beguiling and unsettling Eutelsat Has Turned You Off 2013 (detail illustrated, published in the exhibition catalogue and on view in ‘Beautiful Wickedness’) points us in numerous directions. If we begin with the symbolism of the flowers and their counterpart, the machine gun, we might legitimately consider a feminist interpretation in which the gendered associations of these motifs could be considered part of de Medici’s critique of patriarchal power structures. Equally, the artist’s methods, approaches and declarations reveal her socialist stance. As she has stated publicly,

I have, in my work, tried to examine the pernicious forces at work within the human hegemony — the fetishistic allure of power over the macro and the micro, the human and the non-human. The agents of that impulse: geo-economies, the law, the military and science, to achieve [. . .] control of the larger discourse. The centralisation of the means of production fascinates me like no other.1

eX de Medici ‘Eutelsat Has Turned You Off’ (detail) 2013

eX de Medici, Australia b.1959 / Eutelsat Has Turned You Off (detail) 2013 / Watercolour and gouache / 113.5 x 264cm / Private collection, Sydney / © eX de Medici

The former reading speaks of a clash between the ‘feminine’ forms of the peonies and cherry blossom (illustrated) and the ‘masculine’ imagery of the gun. These binaries extend throughout both the watercolour and de Medici’s practice: soft/hard, pretty/powerful, fragile/strong and so on. Implicit here is a criticism of male dominance, and at the same time, the cultural systems through which gendered constructs are perpetuated. In adopting the language of flower painting, de Medici is a knowing participant in these debates.

The biased associations between women and flower painting have been well‑documented by feminist art historians since the 1970s. Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock made the case convincingly arguing that, despite flower painting’s origins in Europe in the sixteenth century as a respected branch of still-life painting that reached its peak in Holland in the seventeenth century, the genre acquired a distinctly gendered and marginalised standing from the eighteenth century onwards.

As they contend:

Paintings of flowers and the women who painted them became mere reflections of each other. Fused into the prevailing notions of femininity, the painting[s] become… solely an extension of womanliness and the artist becomes a woman . . . fulfilling her nature.2

Parker and Pollock challenged this canon, documenting the achievements of artists such as Maria van Oosterwijck (1630–93), an esteemed Dutch painter whose Vanitas 1668 epitomises that tradition.
Van Oosterwijck’s ‘vanity’ painting expresses the idea that worldly possessions are fleeting fancies best avoided. The skull, the hourglass, the flowers in full bloom and the butterflies that hover around them embody life’s transience, our own mortality, and a moral directive to shun earthly delights.

The co-authors also foregrounded the practice of the German entomologist and illustrator who de Medici cites as an influence, Maria Sybilla Merian (1647–1717), the first person to record the metamorphosis of the butterfly. Notably, they acknowledge Merian’s three-volume catalogue The Wonderful Transformation of Caterpillars and [their] Singular Plant Nourishment, published between 1679 and 1717, and quote Linda Nochlin and Sutherland Harris’s argument that Merian ‘revolutionized the sciences of zoology and botany and laid the foundation for the classification of plant and animal species made by Charles [sic] Linnaeus [1707–78] in the eighteenth century’.3

De Medici acknowledges this history in Eutelsat Has Turned You Off while adding decidedly contemporary twists, scale being the most obvious. The work’s physicality and symbolism are confronting, and intrinsic to her project to condemn the weapon. Here, the ‘worldly possession’ is the AK-47, an emblem of death that epitomises global grabs for power and the technologies that enable them. The fragile flowers remain with a sting in the tail — cherry blossom contains coumarin, which is toxic if ingested in large quantities — and the butterflies have morphed into moths.

eX de Medici ‘Eutelsat Has Turned You Off’ (detail) 2013

eX de Medici, Australia b.1959 / Eutelsat Has Turned You Off (detail) 2013 / Watercolour and gouache / 113.5 x 264cm / Private collection, Sydney / © eX de Medici

eX de Medici ‘CSIRO/ANIC Study’ #5 2001

eX de Medici, Australia b.1959 / CSIRO/ANIC Study #5 2001 / Watercolour with gouache on
paper / 38.5 x 28.5cm (irreg.) / Private collection, Canberra / © eX de Medici / Photograph: Merinda Campbell

The scales that cover the rifle’s magazine are, as de Medici has described, from ‘an unnamed micro moth from the Tortricidae family’ (illustrated), which she painted during one of the many residencies she has undertaken at the CSIRO’s Australian National Insect Collection (ANIC).4 Her meeting at ANIC in 2000 with taxonomist and evolutionist Dr Marianne Horak proved formative and engendered an ongoing partnership. As the artist has explained: ‘I have . . . a strong interest in science that has been developed through my work with the CSIRO. I listen to a lot and read a lot about science’.5

Ferdinand Bauer ‘Stewartia Serrata’ c. early 1800s

Ferdinand Bauer, Austria 1760–1826 / Stewartia Serrata c. early 1800s / Watercolour / 44.2 x 29.1 cm / Collection: National Library of Australia, Canberra / Image courtesy: National Library of Australia, Canberra

eX de Medici ‘Untitled (Banksia Serrata)’ 1998

eX de Medici, Australia b.1959 / Untitled (Banksia Serrata) 1998 / Watercolour on paper / 76.5 x 57.8cm (irreg.) / Collection of Drew and Anne McLean, Queanbeyan, NSW / © eX de Medici / Photograph: Rob Little Digital Images

De Medici’s fascination with natural-history illustration also stems from her infatuation with the watercolours of Ferdinand Bauer (1760–1826), the botanical artist who accompanied Mathew Flinders (1774–1814) on his 1801–03 voyage to circumnavigate Australia (illustrated Stewartia Serrata). Bauer’s work came to de Medici’s attention in 1998 in the exhibition ‘An Exquisite Eye: The Australian Flora and Fauna Drawings 1801–1820 of Ferdinand Bauer’. Apart from being in awe of Bauer’s technical and creative brilliance, his profession itself was an enticement. In her typically subversive style, de Medici has explained that ‘In art, [botanical illustration] is not considered art, which is always an attractive reason to get curious’.6

It is, moreover, the associations that the botanical tradition shares with colonisation that make it an ideal vehicle for de Medici: the naturalists and illustrators who joined voyages of exploration and conquest of the ‘New World’ were, through the taxonomic process, conscripted into recording, naming and claiming these lands. Intrinsic to this colonial project was the water-based medium in which the artists worked — easily transportable and esteemed, having acquired new status during the High Enlightenment (1730–80). In Eutelsat Has Turned You Off and in de Medici’s watercolours more broadly, she harnesses botany’s visual history in an extended metaphor around global expansionism.

And so, to the weapon that dominates the artwork, the North American adaptation of the AK-47 or Avtomat Kalashnikova — Kalashnikov’s Automatic Gun.7 It is the rifle’s complicated history and its entangled relationship with world politics that makes it perfectly suited to de Medici’s purpose. Designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov and manufactured by the Soviet Union from 1948, variants of the basic and ‘bulletproof’ firearm are now made around the world. The artist has summarised the impact of
the weapon concisely:

The first true mass deployment [of the AK-47] into the theatre of war was via the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, where . . . no-one takes Afghanistan, yet Afghanistan takes the AK . . . The extraordinary simplicity of the weapon made it extremely easy and cheap to copy . . . Americans pride themselves as the greatest ever weapon designers and manufacturers, [yet] they secretly embrace the ‘enemy’s’ intellectual property, both Russian and . . . Middle East[ern].8

eX de Medici ‘Eutelsat Has Turned You Off’ (detail) 2013

eX de Medici, Australia b.1959 / Eutelsat Has Turned You Off (detail) 2013 / Watercolour and gouache / 113.5 x 264cm / Private collection, Sydney / © eX de Medici

The imagery of the flowers thus represents de Medici’s censure of global politics, with the blooms standing in for nation states: the cherry blossom (Japan) and peonies (China) are enemies of the (United) States, with the flannel flower (Australia) secreted among the arrangement, the US’s somewhat emasculated confederate (illustrated).

The most significant layer of meaning in this complex web relates to the supremacy of the so-called ‘West’ and the corporate communication platforms enabling this, referred to in the title of the artwork. Eutelsat is one of the world’s three leading satellite operators, providing coverage to Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas. In this case, de Medici’s reference is to Iran, to which Eutelsat has supplied services despite the government’s broadly reported infringement of ‘basic telecommunications and human-rights standards’.9 In a world in which revenue trumps responsibility, where, the artist asks, does political posturing end and complicity begin? Who is ‘the enemy’ and who ‘the ally’? Will technology be our saviour or our downfall? And what of democracy? Within this polarised climate, Eutelsat Has Turned You Off is, like de Medici’s recent triptych System (This is the Place Where the Martyrs Grow) 2022 (detail illustrated, published in the exhibition catalogue and on view in ‘Beautiful Wickedness’), a stinging indictment of political duplicity, the military-industrial complex, and the machinery of war.

eX de Medici ‘System (This is the Place Where the Martyrs Grow)’ 2022

Installation view ‘eX de Medici: Beautiful Wickedness’, Gallery of Modern Art, 2023 / (Watercolour) eX de Medici, Australia b.1959 / System (This is the Place Where the Martyrs Grow) 2022 / Watercolour and tempera with gold leaf on paper / Three panels; two panels: 114 x 115cm; one panel: 114 x 145cm; 114 x 375cm (overall) / Collection: eX de Medici / © eX de Medici / (Dress) eX de Medici (Artist); Yianni Liangis (Collaborator); Gloria Grady Design (Dressmaker); RLDI (Rob Little Digital Images) (Photographer and digitisation); Think Positive Prints (Printer) / Shotgun Wedding Dress/Cleave 2015 / Digitally printed silk / 240 x 48 x 237cm / Purchased 2015 / Collection: National Gallery of Australia, Canberra / © eX de Medici

eX de Medici, Australia b.1959 / System (This is the Place Where the Martyrs Grow) (details) 2022 / Watercolour and tempera with gold leaf on paper / Three panels; two panels: 114 x 115cm; one panel: 114 x 145cm; 114 x 375cm (overall) / Collection: eX de Medici / © eX de Medici / Photograph: Rob Little Digital Images

eX de Medici ‘I Won Her with My Heart’ 2018

eX de Medici, Australia b.1959 / I Won Her with My Heart 2018 / Watercolour and gouache on paper / 114 x 95cm (signt) / Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program by eX de Medici, 2018 / Collection: Penrith Regional Gallery, Home of the Lewers Bequest, NSW / © eX de Medici / Photograph: Rob Little Digital Images

Samantha Littley is Curator, Australian Art, QAGOMA.

Endnotes
1 eX de Medici, ‘Plenary Session 1: Contemporary artists – eX de Medici’, filmed 20 January 2016, National Visual Arts
Education Conference (NVAEC), National Gallery of Australia, video: 12:28, <https://nga.gov.au/on-demand/nvaec-2016-
plenary-session-1-ex-de-medici/>, viewed 19 September 2022.
2 Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock, ‘Crafty women and the hierarchy of the arts’, Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology,
IB Tauris & Co. Ltd, London and New York, 1981, p.58.
3 Linda Nochlin and Sutherland Harris quoted in Parker and Pollock, Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology, p.55.
4 eX de Medici, email to the author, 9 March 2018.
5 See eX de Medici, ‘APT5: eX de Medici discusses her art practice and The Theory of Everything’, QAGOMA, https://www.
youtube.com/watch?v=3EjQ-R0V1lc, viewed 27 March 2023.
6 eX de Medici, ‘sp.’ [exhibition pamphlet], Helen Maxwell Gallery, Braddon, ACT, 2001, not paginated.
7 The American weapon that de Medici has reproduced is true to form with one exception — the buttstock and the barrel feature the latticed pattern that appears on the Russian prototype. See eX de Medici, email to the author, 1 March 2018.
8 eX de Medici, email to the author, 1 March 2018.
9 Shirin Ebadi and Hadi Ghaemi, ‘Broadcasting Tehran’s Repression’, Wall Street Journal, 9 December 2011, https://www.wsj.com/articles/B100014240529702049038045770799 70310000322?mod=go oglenews_wsj>, viewed 27 March 2023.

‘eX de Medici: Beautiful Wickedness’ in 1.2 and 1.3 (Eric and Marion Taylor Gallery) was at GOMA from 24 June until 2 October 2023. ‘Beautiful Wickedness’ offered opportunities for dialogue with ‘Michael Zavros: The Favourite‘ presented in the adjacent gallery 1.1 (The Fairfax Gallery) and 1.2.

#QAGOMA

eX de Medici: Something wicked this way comes

 

Celebrated Australian artist eX de Medici’s career spans 40 years with the artist’s central concerns including the fragility of life, global affairs, greed and commerce, and the universal themes of power, conflict, and death. Here we delve into two companion works — The theory of everything 2005 and Live the (Big Black) Dream 2006.  

eX de Medici ‘The theory of everything’

eX de Medici, Australia b.1959 / The theory of everything 2005 / Watercolour and metallic pigment on Arches paper / 114.3 x 176.3cm / Purchased 2005 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © eX de Medici

The epigraph… ‘[The tortoise] was still quite motionless and he felt it with his fingers; it was dead. Accustomed, no doubt, to an uneventful existence, to a humble life spent beneath its poor carapace, it had not been able to bear the dazzling splendour thrust upon it, the glittering cope in which it had been garbed, the gems with which its back had been encrusted2, drawn from Huysmans’s nineteenth-century novel about eccentric aesthete Jean des Esseintes, whose fortune permits him to indulge his every fancy, is a potent allegory for the profligacy of modern life and humanity’s propensity to destroy the natural world, key themes in eX de Medici’s 40-year practice. In this vignette, Des Esseintes is so consumed by the desire to obtain an object that will serve as a foil for the colours in his Persian carpet that he has a tortoise gilded and bejewelled, only to find that the creature has died under the weight of its embellishments.

eX de Medici, Australia b.1959 / The theory of everything (details) 2005

The anecdote’s significance to de Medici is evident in her study Des Esseintes’ Shame 2005 (Collection: National Gallery of Australia, Canberra) and the watercolour that it informs, The Theory of Everything 2005 (illustrated). In the latter painting, a tiny, adorned tortoise (detail illustrated)) nestles among other icons of human folly and excess: a notional, diamond-studded poodle (detail illustrated) — the dog was originally bred as a retriever and clipped, so in freezing waters its thick coat would protect its vital organs and not impede it, however, the grooming took on a purely decorative function in eighteenth-century France, mimicking the preposterous hairstyles of the day; variegated Semper Augustus tulips (detail illustrated) — a reference to ‘tulipmania’, the earliest documented financial boom and bust, which beset Holland in the mid seventeenth century, when bulbs that the Dutch East India Company imported from the Ottoman Empire were bartered for exorbitant and unsustainable prices; the chandelier from a Tsar candelabrum (detail illustrated), designed in 1903 by Compagnie des Cristalleries de Baccarat, the French glassworks synonymous with luxury; and a cut crystal vase of narcissus flowers being sniffed by the ‘Spirit of Ecstasy’ figurine from the bonnet of a Rolls-Royce (detail illustrated), to name but a few.3 Together, these cryptic elements, which traverse cultures and periods, tell a sorry story.

eX de Medici, Australia b.1959 / The theory of everything (details) 2005

It is no coincidence that such symbols of intemperance intermingle with human skulls, exploded ammunition, a Smith & Wesson M&P pistol, and a moth skewered by a hatpin that has caused corrosive verdigris to sprout from its innards (detail illustrated). These emblems of death — and the transient paraphernalia that adorn them — are de Medici’s version of a seventeenth-century Dutch vanitas, a form of still-life painting encoded with signs of mortality, such as skulls, hourglasses and flowers in full bloom. Also referred to as memento mori, Latin for ‘remember, you must die’, these paintings — both historic and de Medici’s contemporary renderings — are warnings to beware the allure of worldly possessions lest they engender your demise. De Medici’s modern-day fables go further to implicate the human hands at work behind such extravagances, and to prophesy the perils of disregarding the fragility of life and exploiting the environment. The background of The Theory of Everything features the Ranger Uranium Mine in the Northern Territory, which de Medici explains:

. . . is in the middle of [Kakadu] national park. On traditional lands. And it’s a gigantic, filthy hole, where everything withers and dies. So [it is] the idea of wealth at any cost, and acquisition at any cost. At the cost of the future, at the cost of the land, at the cost of human and animal and plant health . . . it’s a hideous critique of what’s going on.4

eX de Medici ‘Live the (Big Black) Dream’

eX de Medici, Australia b.1959 / Live the (Big Black) Dream 2006 / Watercolour and metallic pigment on paper / 114.2 x 167.4cm / Purchased 2006. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation Grant / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © eX de Medici

The watercolour is a microcosm of all that has driven the artist’s diverse and far-reaching practice. Its companion piece, Live the (Big Black) Dream 2006 (illustrated), represents the culmination of the intemperate appetites that the earlier artwork decries — a train wreck waiting to happen, which, in an irony that the artist has lamented, foretold the Global Financial Crisis that unfolded from mid 2007.5 ‘Big Black’ sees the capitalist system derailed in a pile-up of grand proportions and, like many of de Medici’s artworks, is laden with coded symbolism, including menacing motifs that signify the base impulses to which humanity is prone.6 The detritus includes skulls that the artist, who is also a veteran tattooist, regards as ‘the best memento mori image there is’; a bottle of poison (detail illustrated); the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in a snow dome (detail illustrated); an AR-15 machine gun — discomfortingly referred to as ‘America’s rifle’; and a miniaturised image of the atomic bomb that the United States (US) dropped on the Japanese city of Nagasaki to end World War Two, being towed by a weevil, a tiny but destructive insect that executes its invasive behaviours by stealth (detail illustrated).7 The idea of clandestine acts hiding in plain sight is underscored by the presence of a CCTV camera, a reference to the surveillance that we are increasingly and, often, willingly subjected to in this networked age, and a twin motif to the satellite in The Theory of Everything. The deputy sheriff’s badge plunged into a skull (detail illustrated) in the foreground of ‘Big Black’ is a veiled reference to then Prime Minister John Howard and his eagerness to follow US President George W Bush down the road of fiscal recklessness and into unwinnable wars.8

eX de Medici, Australia b.1959 / Live the (Big Black) Dream (details) 2006

These two watercolours form part of a series of ‘big pictures’ that paint a bleak vision of our world. Together, these artworks represent an extended metaphor through which De Medici dissects the mess that humanity — and, in particular, human industry — has made of the planet, denouncing the devastating effects of the Anthropocene, the geological age in which our species has impacted itself and the Earth.

Samantha Littley is Curator, Australian Art, QAGOMA.
This edited extract was originally published in eX de Medici: Beautiful Wickedness, Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, 2023

Endnotes
1 Essay subtitle ‘Something wicked this way comes’ from William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Bernard Lott (ed.), Longmans, Green and Co., London, 1958, p.145; Act IV, Scene I, 45.
2 Joris-Karl Huysmans, Against Nature, trans. Margaret Mauldon, Oxford University Press, New York, 2009, p.43; first published as À Rebours, Charpentier et Cie, Paris, 1884.
3 See QAGOMA, ‘APT5 / eX de Medici discusses her art practice and “The Theory of Everything”’ video; and ‘A short history of poodle grooming’, Pedigree, <pedigree.com/article/short-history-poodle-grooming>, both viewed September 2022. ‘Tulipmania’ was a real, though exaggerated, phenomenon that is the subject of a book by Anne Goldgar, Tulipmania: Money, Honor, and Knowledge inthe Dutch Golden Age, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2007. See also Lorraine Boissoneault, ‘There never was a real tulip fever’, Smithsonian Magazine, 18 September 2017, <smithsonianmag.com/history/there-never-was-real-tulip-fever-180964915/>, and Erhan Afyoncu, ‘Tulip mania: The 17th century bitcoin craze’, Daily Sabah, 2 March 2018, <dailysabah.com/feature/2018/03/02/tulip-mania-the-17th-century-craze>, both viewed October 2022. The striations on the Semper Augustus tulip are caused by a mosaic virus, the Tulip breaking virus (TBV), with the Dutch prizing the flower for its beauty, ‘without knowing it was the result of a viral infection’; see ‘Tulip breaking virus’, ScienceDirect, <sciencedirect.
com/topics/agricultural-and-biological-sciences/tulip-breaking-virus>, viewed October 2022. The candelabrum depicted in the watercolour is one of a pair manufactured in 1911, Tsar, pair of candelabra (Acc. D22.1-2-1982), now held by the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV); telephone conversation with the artist, 14 June 2022. The NGV’s candelabra once graced the
proscenium of the auditorium of Melbourne’s Capitol Theatre, which was designed by Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin. See Christopher Menz, ‘BACCARAT Tsar candelabrum’, in Christopher Menz and Margaret Legge, with contributions by Anna Nieuwenhuysen, Decorative Arts in the International Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003, p.96. The candelabra take their name from the Russian Tsars Alexander II and Nicholas II, and other members of the Romanov family, who, from 1867, commissioned Baccarat to make chandeliers and other works of decorative art; see ‘A monumental pair of French cut and molded-crystal seventy-nine-light candelabra’, Christie’s,
<christies.com/en/lot/lot-5985087>, and ‘What the expert looks for . . . No.1 – Baccarat chandeliers’, Christie’s, <christies.com/features/Expert-tipson-Baccarat-chandeliers-9775-1.aspx#:~:text=A%20brief%20history%20
of%20Baccarat&text=In%201764%20King%20Louis%20XV,still%20are%2C%20synonymous%20with%20luxury>, both viewed September 2022.
4 QAGOMA, ‘APT5 / eX de Medici discusses her art practice and “The Theory of Everything”’, viewed September 2022. In 2009, it was revealed that the mine, owned by ASX-listed Energy Resources of Australia (ERA), which is majority-owned by mining giant Rio Tinto, was leaking contaminated water into a tailings dam and, in 2013, one million litres of radioactive slurry was
released by a burst leach tank, leading Mirrar native title holders to insist that mining operations in the area be wound up and that ERA complete remediation of the site by 2026, as well as refraining from reopening operations at nearby Jabiluka. This work has been delayed as the result of various corporate disputes, including Rio Tinto’s attempt to assume more than 95 per cent of the shares in ERA by becoming the sole funder of the remediation work. In October 2022, an update on this commercial wrangling appeared in the Guardian, who reported that ERA’s directors had offered their resignations from the board because Rio Tinto, who now owns 86 per cent of shares in the company, has refused to recommence mining at the Ranger and Jabiluka sites, throwing ‘into limbo efforts to raise up to $2.2bn needed for the remediation of Ranger — work that is already suffering from large cost blowouts and lengthy delays’. See Ben Butler, ‘Directors of firm responsible for clean-up at Kakadu uranium site will resign amid fight with Rio Tinto’, Guardian, 3 October 2022,<theguardian.com/business/2022/oct/03/rio-tintocalls-for-board-resignation-over-kakadu-uranium-site-clean-up>, viewed
October 2022.
5 In 2006, these artworks featured in ‘The 5th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT5), the first Triennial that spanned both the Queensland Art Gallery and the newly built Gallery of Modern Art.
6 For a discussion of humanity’s predisposition towards violence, see David Livingstone Smith, The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War, St Martin’s Press, New York, 2007; for example, Livingstone Smith suggests that ‘violence has followed our species every step of the way in its long journey through time. From the scalped bodies of ancient warriors to the suicide bombers in today’s newspaper headlines, history is drenched in human blood’, p.8.
7 eX de Medici, ‘APT5 / eX de Medici discusses her art practice and The Theory of Everything’, viewed September 2022. For an exposé on the AR-15, see Ali Watkins, John Ismay and Thomas Gibbons-Neff, ‘Once banned, now loved and loathed: How the AR-15 became “America’s Rifle”’, New York Times, 3 March 2018, <nytimes.com/2018/03/03/us/politics/ar-15-americas-rifle.html>, viewed October 2022.
8 Leigh Sales and James Elton, ‘Afghanistan not entirely a failure, says John Howard, who first committed Australian troops’, ABC News, 18 August 2021, <abc.net.au/news/2021-08-18/john-howard-afghanistan-war-not-a-failure-730-interview/100388644>; Ben Doherty, ‘John Howard defends Iraq war, saying it was “justified at the time”’, Guardian, 7 July 2016, <theguardian. com/uk-news/2016/jul/07/john-howard-chilcot-sending-troops-iraq-warjustified-at-the-time->, both viewed November 2022.

‘eX de Medici: Beautiful Wickedness’ in 1.2 and 1.3 (Eric and Marion Taylor Gallery) was at GOMA from 24 June until 2 October 2023. ‘Beautiful Wickedness’ offered opportunities for dialogue with ‘Michael Zavros: The Favouritepresented in the adjacent gallery 1.1 (The Fairfax Gallery) and 1.2.

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Open Studio: Elizabeth Willing

 

In conceiving her multisensory and frequently edible artworks, Brisbane-based artist Elizabeth Willing aims to bring viewers into communion with her materials. For Open Studio (until 12 Feb 2023), Willing’s brings objects and research from her home workspace into conversation with artworks from the Gallery’s Collection and provides her with a platform from which to create new work that explores our complex relationship with food. Willing’s participatory practice revolves around food production, consumption, and the rituals and ethics of eating, resulting in layered experiences in which the non-visual senses are central.

Elizabeth Willing introduces the Open Studio installation

For the Open Studio project, Willing’s will design pieces of modular furniture that function either as autonomous artworks or as sites for audience engagement. Decorated with motifs that evoke both the butter icing piped onto children’s birthday cakes and the human digestive tract, the tables will either be hung flat against the wall of the space in their disassembled form or set up to allow Willing to hold workshops. Describing her proposal, she explains that ‘when the table splits and assembles [the design] will be fractured. The intestinal form has reoccurred many times in my work and has become a metaphor for a kind of internal hosting’.1

Elizabeth Willing creating a digital collage using novelty birthday cake images / Photograph: J Ruckli © QAGOMA

The idea of the body as host is one of several that Willing will explore during her Open Studio. The project will provide her with both the conceptual and physical space to experiment with speculative artworks that until now have lain dormant. As she has expressed:

My studio process requires physical spaces to test out new work, often these spaces are flexible, meaning [my] living space needs to fluctuate to accommodate the scale of different projects… [They are] often created in concise bursts, installed and deinstalled within a week, or rolled up/ rolled out again each day.2

For Open Studio, Willing brings the materials that inspire her research-based practice into the Gallery, allowing visitors to engage with her working methods. Drawings and journals will sit alongside the ‘stuff’ of her art, including recipe books on confectionary, herbal tinctures, and existing artworks such as the ‘mouth cups’ that she uses in her performance dinners. In the adjacent gallery space, Collection works Willing has selected for their gustatory references will extend the discourses running through her work, including the concept of:

the human digestive system as a filtering threshold for contemporary food technology… Much of the matter we ingest will pass through us and become mulch back on the land, though some will be indigestible, pollution, stuck in our systems, obstructing our organs, remaining as a parasite until our fossil records reveal these everlasting objects.3

Epitomising the objective of Open Studio to provide a space where artists can trial ideas and audiences can gain insight into their creative processes, Willing’s residency promises to be both illuminating and thought-provoking.

Samantha Littley is Curator, Australian Art.
This edited extract was originally published in the QAGOMA Members’ magazine, Artlines, no.3, 2022

Endnotes
1 & 2 Elizabeth Willing, ‘Open Studio Proposal’, 9 February 2022.
3 Elizabeth Willing, ‘Framing document’, 16 May 2022.

‘Open Studio: Elizabeth Willing’ / Queensland Art Gallery /  15 October 2022 – 12 February 2023
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Grace Cossington Smith’s modern world

 

Deep water, Bobbin Head c.1942 (Illustrated) on display in the Queensland Art Gallery’s Australian Art Collection, Josephine Ulrick and Win Schubert Galleries (10-13) is a work that held special meaning for modernist Grace Cossington Smith, the artist captures the landscape at Bobbin Head, near her North Sydney home, in broad brushstrokes and iridescent colour.

Grace Cossington Smith (20 April 1892–1984) became one of Australia’s most celebrated modernists, renowned for her iconic cityscapes and luminous interiors, which she painted from the relative seclusion of her family home on Sydney’s upper North Shore. Her iridescent, meditative landscape Deep water, Bobbin Head demonstrates her capacity to invest unassuming subjects with profound significance. Although modest in scale, the painting has great presence and epitomises her mantra that, ‘My chief interest, I think, has always been colour, but not flat crude colour — it must be colour within colour, it has to shine’.1

Grace Cossington Smith ‘Deep water, Bobbin Head’ 1942

Grace Cossington Smith, Australia 1892-1984 / Deep water, Bobbin Head c.1942 / Oil on pulpboard / 39.5 x 44cm / Gift of Des Park through the QAGOMA Foundation 2021. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Estate of Grace Cossington Smith

Bobbin Head c.1940

Bobbin Head, c.1940 / Photographs courtesy: Hornsby Shire Council

In characteristic style, Cossington Smith has sketched the view in broad brushstrokes, conveying a sense of the place rather than describing it in detail. With great economy, she has defined the landforms that lead down to the waterway, alluding briefly to trees and other vegetation. The yellow hues on the lower right, which signify an embankment, ground the vista, while the daubs of radiating blue at the top of the composition — a device that Cossington Smith used frequently — create a feeling of expansion. What is most striking, however, is the way that she has simultaneously suggested depth and flattened her picture plane. While the stippled bluegreen marks that describe the pool and the painting’s overlapping forms imply recession, the variegated rectangles of warm-toned colours that define the hill in the background conversely appear to advance. The critic, gallerist and Cossington Smith scholar Bruce James has commented on this aspect of the artwork, noting ‘its brutalising compression of space and compaction of form, an effect of continents colliding’.2

Grace Cossington Smith ‘Before the arches met’ 1930

Grace Cossington Smith, Australia 1892-1984 / Before the arches met c.1930 / Crayon and coloured pencils over pencil on cream wove paper / 37.8 x 43.4cm / Purchased 1976. Godfrey Rivers Trust / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © QAGOMA

Grace Cossington Smith ‘Church interior’ 1941-42

Grace Cossington Smith, Australia 1892-1984 / Church interior c.1941-42 (inscr. 1937) / Oil with pencil on pulpboard / 55.2 x 42.2cm / Purchased 2001 with funds raised through The Grace Cossington Smith QAG Foundation Appeal / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Estate of Grace Cossington Smith

The painting is one of several landscapes that feature Bobbin Head, Bayview and Roseville, respectively, which the artist exhibited in 1942 in an exhibition at Macquarie Galleries that she shared with her friend, painter Enid Cambridge.3 The sites are all within easy reach of Cossington Smith’s home at Turramurra, Sydney. In this sense, they are as much a part of her personal history as the interiors for which she is known. Along with arresting images of the Sydney Harbour Bridge under construction, and St James Anglican Church, where the Smith family worshipped (including Church interior c.1941–42) (illustrated), the paintings are based on locales she knew and loved.

Margaret Preston ‘Hawkesbury Ranges – NSW winter’ 1946

Margaret Preston, Australia 1875-1963 / Hawkesbury Ranges – NSW winter 1946 / Monotype on thin smooth wove paper / 35 x 38cm (comp.) / Purchased 1948 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Margaret Preston/Copyright Agency

Margaret Preston ‘Hawkesbury Bridge, NSW’ 1946

Margaret Preston, Australia 1875-1963 / Hawkesbury Bridge, NSW 1946 / Monotype on thin laid Oriental paper / 37.5 x 35cm (comp.) / Purchased 1948 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Margaret Preston/Copyright Agency

Beyond celebrating her environs, Deep water, Bobbin Head reveals that Cossington Smith was engaged with the work of her contemporaries. There are, for instance, similarities between her painting and the monotypes of fellow modernist Margaret Preston who, from 1932, lived at Berowra, just north of Turramurra. Although Preston’s prints Hawkesbury Ranges – NSW winter 1946 (illustrated) and Hawkesbury Bridge, NSW 1946 (illustrated) are stylistically different, they reveal that Preston was similarly captivated by nature and sought to foster an appreciation of the unique qualities of the bush and its place in Australian art.

Deep water, Bobbin Head evidently held special meaning for Grace Cossington Smith. The artwork is a defining feature of her Interior with blue painting 1956, despite its relative size within the composition. Like the windows and doorways that the artist employed to great effect in later works, she used the painting to expand the space within her domestic scene and suggest a world beyond it.

Samantha Littley is Curator, Australian Art, QAGOMA

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Shrine-like sanctuary houses five contemporary deities

 

Ceramicist Vipoo Srivilasa practises art with a spirit of generosity, optimism and inclusion. Community-minded and attuned to contemporary concerns, including climate change, social justice and the migrant experience, he addresses these issues through artworks that offer hope for our troubled times.

Srivilasa is known primarily for his idiosyncratic and meticulously crafted blue-and-white porcelain sculptures that celebrate his Buddhist faith, the folktales and iconography of his homeland and his life in Australia. He moved from Bangkok to Melbourne in 1997 to study ceramics at Monash University, and completed further study in Tasmania before settling in Melbourne.

Since 2008, Srivilasa has included audience participation in many of his artworks, explaining: ‘I’ve always been interested in creating opportunities for sharing and exploring complex ideas of cross-cultural experience’.1

Watch: Vipoo introduces ‘Shrine of Life/Benjapakee Shrine’

The blue-and-white palette Srivilasa has typically favoured references Lai Krarm, or Thai domestic tableware, and, more broadly, the ceramics that originated in Henan Province, China, in the ninth century, which were traded through the Middle East via the Silk Road and later imported to Europe. The crockery became a ubiquitous and coveted commodity in late-eighteenth-century England during a period of colonial expansionism, when potters such as Josiah Spode appropriated the original Chinese designs and adapted them to suit British tastes. The phenomenon has been interpreted as a form of cultural imperialism by postcolonial theorist Edward Said, whose text Orientalism (1978) dissected Western tendencies to exoticise the East. Srivilasa recognises this history while seeing the importation of blue-and-white ware as analogous to his own journey from East to West, and embracing the cross-cultural exchange it has entailed. ‘Nowadays,’ he says, ‘I find it hard to tell which culture is which in my work … The boundary is a blur.’2

Vipoo SrivilasaShrine of Life/Benjapakee Shrine’

Vipoo Srivilasa, Thailand/Australia b.1969 / Shrine of Life/Benjapakee Shrine (and detail) 2021 / Mixed-media installation with five ceramic deities / Commissioned for ‘The 10th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT10) / Purchased 2021 with funds from the Contemporary Patrons through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Vipoo Srivilasa

Srivilasa’s Shrine of Life/Benjapakee Shrine 2021 builds on the audience-oriented nature of his previous work and pays homage to his fluid identity. The shrine-like sanctuary houses five contemporary deities Srivilasa has made to represent qualities important to him: love equality, spirituality, security, identity and creativity. Infused with the scent of jasmine — familiar to worshippers at Thai temples where the blooms are offered as phuang malai (garlands) — the structure makes reference to the Lak Mueang shrine in the centre of Bangkok, which is distinguished by its white and gold architecture and is similarly protected by five Thai deities.3 Srivilasa recalls visiting Lak Mueang to pay his respects and ask for blessings before he left Thailand for Australia, and his artwork venerates this memory and acknowledges what the relocation has meant to him. ‘Love equality’, for example, comments on same-sex marriage that was legalised in Australia in 2017, allowing Srivilasa and his partner to wed, but has yet to be endorsed in Thailand. The king penguins included allude to celebrated gay penguin couple Skipper and Ping in Zoo Berlin, while the arms of the figures that are yet to meet signify an incomplete heart, and Thailand’s ongoing journey towards marriage equality.4

Bridging the sacred and the secular, Srivilasa’s shrine is both a personal expression of devotion and an invitation to visitors to request blessings and protection from one of the deities by making an offering of a paper flower to them. By providing a space in which to reflect and express gratitude, Vipoo Srivilasa shares something of his holistic approach to life and asks audiences to join him in honouring our differences and our commonalities.

Samantha Littley is Curator, Australian Art, QAGOMA
This is an extract from the QAGOMA publication The 10th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art available in-store and online from the QAGOMA Store.

Endnotes
1 Vipoo Srivilasa, quoted in Owen Leong, ‘Peril interview – Vipoo Srivilasa’, Peril: Asian-Australian Arts and Culture, 23 September 2011, <https://peril.com.au/back-editions/edition11/peril-interview-vipoosrivilasa/>, accessed 18 March 2021.
2 Vipoo Srivilasa, quoted in Alice Pung, ‘The colonisation of the cute – exploring the work of Vipoo Srivilasa’, Garland Magazine no. 6, 10 March 2017, accessed 13 April 2021.
3 The number five is significant in Buddhist culture: Benjapakee are the sets of five grand Buddhist amulets that are most revered — benja, meaning five; and pakee, meaning associates. The word refers to the five followers the Buddha gathered around him at the deer park at Isipatana where he delivered his first teachings, or Dharma.
4 In July 2020, the cabinet of Thailand approved a draft civil partnership bill that, if ratified by Parliament, will permit same-sex couples to register their union, adopt children, claim inheritance rights and jointly manage assets. See Vitit Muntarbhorn, ‘Thailand’s same-sex civil partnership law – a rainbow trailblazer?’, East Asia Forum, 2 September 2020, <https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2020/09/02/thailands-same-sex-civil-partnership-law-arainbow-trailblazer/>, accessed 27 April 2021.

The 10th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT10) / Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA), Brisbane / 4 December 2021 to 26 April 2022.

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