Few machines have altered history like the camera in the nineteenth century — photography gave ordinary people new insights, and their stories now remain preserved in treasured personal collections. The exhibition ‘Revelations’ both celebrates the historical innovations of photography and the printing press, in this the second of our two part series, we honour photography’s pivotal moment of technical innovation and the great artistic movement that followed.
The story of ‘Revelations’ begins in the mid-fifteenth century. In 1450, German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg (ca.1397–1468) created a machine that could print an infinite combination of letters, bypassing the need for scribes to write out entire volumes by hand. Three centuries after Gutenberg’s printing press, photography ignited a new era of mass-production.
The first photograph would have been a wonder to behold: it was an image of the world drawn not by an artist’s hand but through the human mastery of light and chemicals alone. Photographic methods developed rapidly in the latter half of the nineteenth century, from Louis-Jacques- Mandé Daguerre’s photograph on polished copper (soon after called a daguerreotype) to William Henry Fox Talbot’s calotype on paper, and later methods using an egg white (albumen) treatment. The shift from hardplate photographic methods to the paper print heralded the dissemination of photography like never before. Suddenly, photos could be reproduced many times over and distributed among friends and family.
Running parallel to its more quotidian uses in Europe and America, the camera became a favourite tool for travellers and expatriates across the world. Photography flourished in the final and most expansive phase of the British Empire, and many of the early subjects posed in front of the lens were people from British colonies in Africa, Australia, the Middle East and India. Driven by a Victorian penchant for taxonomy, these people were mostly photographed as anthropological ‘types’ rather than individual personalities.
Around 40 demounted album pages on display trace what is now India, Pakistan and Myanmar: from the busy streets of Lahore to the Shan Highlands in the Himalayas, and the southern port city Madras (now known as Chennai). Each image in the original bound album was collected by the Williams family theatre group, who travelled across India from 1899 to 1901 reading the works of William Shakespeare. Their tour was among an influx of theatrical productions to the British colony, intended to inform the Indian population about the virtues and particularities of English culture. As they performed throughout the nation, the actors also purchased photographs and compiled an album with handwritten notes about the sites, architecture and people captured by the camera.
While these photographs carefully categorise the numerous local cultures of India, the Fairweather family album shows another side of the colony, detailing the lives of a British family living on the subcontinent. This intact volume belonged to celebrated Queensland-based artist Ian Fairweather’s sister, Ethel Stewart (1880–1972), and provides a fascinating insight into her life during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The Fairweathers were Scottish but lived in India for many years and sent their children across the Commonwealth to be educated. Ethel’s brimming scrapbook records concerts, dances and balls, as well as horse-riding, travel across India and holidays on the nearby island of Sark. As the album reveals, photography has always existed within a matrix of other images and text: from the very beginning, photographs have been held, annotated and anchored in daily life.
Today, snapshots of loved ones, and indeed, much of how we navigate the modern world bears the mark of the invention of photography. ‘Revelations’, together with the printing press, honours these pivotal moments of technical innovation and the great artistic movements they inspired.
Sophie Rose is Assistant Curator, International Art, QAGOMA
‘Revelations’ is in Galleries 7 and 9 of the Philip Bacon Galleries, Queensland Art Gallery (QAG), until 19 September 2021. Special thanks to Gael Newton AM, Morris Low, the Airey Family, Margaret Mittelheuser AM and Cathryn Mittelheuser AM, the Henry and Amanda Bartlett Trust and the Josephine Ulrick and Win Schubert Diversity Foundation for their donations through the QAGOMA Foundation, which have substantially contributed to the works in this exhibition.
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Featured image detail: Lewis Carroll Xie Kitchin, Captive Princess, 26 June 1875 1875
The exhibition ‘Revelations’ celebrates the historical innovations of the printing press and photography, which untethered images from expensive manuscripts and paintings, presenting new ways to navigate the world and our place in it. This, the first in our two part series focuses on the printing press and Albrecht Dürer’s (1471–1528) illustrated volume of The Book of the Revelation of St John, more commonly known as his ‘Apocalypse’ series.
How to select a suitable historically accurate frame
Few machines have altered history like the fifteenth-century Gutenberg printing press or the camera in the nineteenth century. Steam engines, electricity and anaesthesia may compete for primacy in a tale of technological advances, but unlike industrial or medical innovations, the impact of the printed word and image was felt on a more cerebral level, invariably changing the way we think, read and envision the world. ‘Revelations’ examines the social and aesthetic influence of these two turning points in mechanical reproduction and the larger context that bore them. Just like our own times, these were precarious, fractious eras, in which new technologies promised to shake up the established order.
The exhibition’s title plays on two understandings of ‘revelation’. First of all, printmaking and photography radically upended image consumption by providing alternatives to painting. With the advent of both media, pictures were untethered from expensive, one-off artworks and became transportable duplicates that could be replicated ad infinitum. As objects, prints and photographs were cheaper to make and distribute, and could reach a great many people. But a more literal type of revelation is apparent in these machine-made works of art: just as a woodblock print is made from a carved design in reverse, an analogue photograph is developed from its negative; in both processes, the resulting image is peeled back from its mirrored opposite. Indeed, there is something magical, or alchemical, in both unveilings.
The story of ‘Revelations’ begins in the mid-fifteenth century. In 1450, German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg (ca.1397–1468) created a machine that could print an infinite combination of letters. Although moveable-type printing had been developed in East Asia at least two centuries earlier, this was the first time the technology appeared in Europe. Looking at existing mechanisms like the wine press, Gutenberg imagined an apparatus that could accurately and efficiently transfer the written word to paper, bypassing the need for scribes (often monks) to write out entire volumes by hand. Before the press, books were rarefied and costly objects — some as valuable as a house. By reducing the price of books, Gutenberg’s press gave a much broader swath of society an unprecedented access to knowledge, often in the vernacular language and aided by illustrations for those who were illiterate.
Only a few decades after Gutenberg’s invention, the German city of Nuremberg became a centre of print publishing and hosted a generation of talented printmakers, most notable among them being Albrecht Dürer.
In the 1490s, Dürer created three volumes of woodblock prints: The Passion, The Life of the Virgin and, most famously, an illustrated volume of The Book of the Revelation of St John, more commonly known as his ‘Apocalypse’ series. In 2016, the Gallery was pleased to complete its acquisition of all 16 ‘Apocalypse’ prints.
Albrecht Dürer ‘The Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse’
Albrecht Dürer ‘The Opening of the Seventh Seal’
Albrecht Dürer ‘St Michael Fighting the Dragon’
Dürer’s vision of the Last Judgment is far from a passive translation of scripture. Rather, his illustrations narrow in on one vivid detail of John’s revelations or synthesise many verses into stark images of divine destruction. The volume was first published in 1498 and later reissued in 1511 with an additional title page. The artist was a savvy promoter of his work and also sold single-sheet impressions of the prints, enabling him to live off royalties from the series throughout his life.
While Dürer was the foremost artist to arise from Nuremberg, he was not alone in his artistic ambition. Having watched his godfather, Anton Koberger, become a prominent publisher, and later training under the printmaker Michael Wolgemut (who illustrated the second major printed book, the Nuremberg Chronicle), Dürer belonged to a tight-knit literary and artistic milieu.
As they spread new ideas across central Europe, these early printers sowed the seeds for the artistic Renaissance and religious schisms in the century to follow. In the later years of Dürer’s life, Nuremberg proved an important location for Martin Luther’s revolt against the Catholic papacy from 1517 onwards. In fact, Lucas Cranach’s illustrations of The Book of Revelation for Luther’s widespread German Bible (published in 1522) were closely based on Dürer’s ‘Apocalypse’ series, pointing to the artist’s lasting impact on Protestantism.
Printing gave ordinary people new insights, and their stories remain preserved in treasured personal collections, today, it is near impossible to imagine life without our favourite paperbacks, or treasured illustrated books.
Sophie Rose is former Assistant Curator, International Art, QAGOMA
Featured image detail: Albrecht Dürer St Michael Fighting the Dragon (from ‘The Apocalypse’ series) c.1497-98, Latin edition, 1511 #QAGOMA
As we all struggle with the impact of COVID-19, unanchored from our usual schedules and habits of a lifetime, we look at new ways to reach out to art lovers in Australia and around the globe to showcase our Collection. Since QAGOMA temporarily closed its exhibitions in late March, we’re taking social distancing to a fine art, and we’d like to welcome you to our first #homewithQAGOMA exhibit where our curators bring the Gallery to you.
At times we have all struggled to speak, knowing the frustration and confusion when language momentarily fails us. How often do we have a word on the tip of the tongue, stutter, confuse words, or choke up at the very moment we most need to communicate?
Miscommunications abound in the COVID-19 pandemic: video calls freeze, national and state guidelines become lost in translation, all while medical misinformation spreads across the Internet. Taking its title from Mona Hatuom’s video work, ‘So much I want to say’ evokes the isolation and unease many of us are feeling as we try to find the words during this highly unusual time.
So much I want to say
In Mona Hatuom’s video So much I want to say we watch a rotating montage of still images; each showing a pair of male hands gag and obscure the artist’s face. As these images flick through, a soundtrack of the artists voice continuously recites the phrase: ‘so much I want to say’.
Made at the time of the Lebanese Civil War when the artist could not return to Lebanon from England, Hatuom felt this barrier of communication acutely. The hands that inhibit her speech may represent global political powers or the British cultural establishment, muffling the voices of those alienated because of their race, nationality or gender.
Edward Rushca’s empty billboards promise to sell us something, or direct us somewhere, but instead tell us nothing. Throughout his career, Ruscha has depicted commonplace infrastructure in the vast deserts along the West Coast of America. Roadside billboards punctuate these long routes across the west, with bold font convincing drivers to buy this, visit that town, turn on this exit and so on.
Yet, in this series, grey billboards are as empty as the landscapes in which they reside. If billboards are used to entice us on the drive, then these blank signs give us nothing to anticipate or desire. In Ruscha’s images, the flat planes and steel supports of the billboard remain, but their message is unnervingly absent.
For each stencil a revolution
Latifa Echakhch takes sheets of carbon paper used for political posters and transforms them into an abstract colour field. Sprayed with alcohol, the paper drips blue pigment, completely drained of content. A chaque stencil une revolution (For each stencil a revolution), refers to the organised strikes and demonstrations of the 1960s, when carbon paper and stencil machines were used to reproduce political flyers in the absence of photocopiers. As the blue pigment drips from the paper, these ‘flyers’ are emptied of their political power, such that each sheet in the grid becomes a ghostly monument to revolutions past.
Echakhch’s installation asks: how can we protest effectively today? Can new technologies hold those in power to account without resistance fading into empty rhetoric.
Nazgol Ansarinia cuts newspaper pages into an intricate grid, twisting information into disorienting patterns. In these works, she uses two different newspaper articles published on the same day and combines them to form a paper mosaic. What should be an objective record of current events instead becomes a kaleidoscopic network of nonsense. Discussing the series, the artist notes:
When you look in a mirror, you expect to see a true reflection of yourself. But what you see in these mirror mosaics is a kaleidoscopic distortion of reality. Similarly, the role of a newspaper is to reflect the reality within society. But when you read two different perspectives in two different newspapers, it becomes evident that reality is subjective and depends on the storyteller’s perspective. Like the mirror mosaics, my newspaper mosaics are visually attractive, but do not give us a true picture of the event.
Sophie Rose is Assistant Curator, International Art, QAGOMA
Featured image detail: Mona Hatoum So much I want to say (still) 1985
From local designers to boutique treasures, almost everyone has a collection of glassware at home they treasure, either for everyday utilitarian use or delicately displayed behind cabinets. QAGOMA is no different. While everyone is cosying up at home, we’ve decide to share some of our collection to inspire you to reacquaint yourself with your special pieces.
Glass designer René Lalique’s name evokes timeless French refinement and marks a unique figure in early twentieth-century art and design. These rare Art Nouveau vases are fine examples of the influence of Japanese design in Europe during this period. Born on 6 April in 1860, Lalique’s glassware is still instantly recognisable.
Lalique’s creations were highly influential to both the Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements, and they continue to inspire the decorative arts today with their opalescent and luminous moulded intricate patterns and motifs, and innovatively combined frosted and clear glass.
Lalique was both an avant-garde craftsman and an astute industrialist. Originally trained as a jeweller, he discovered glass in the 1890s as a new medium to enhance his intricate designs.1 He soon turned exclusively to glassmaking, and in 1907 was commissioned to design perfume bottles for the famous Parisian perfumer François Coty. In 1921, he opened a glassworks in northeast France, which still runs today, a century on. The factory allowed Lalique to recast his designs in a variety of colours and finishes, from translucent clear or blue-green glass, to red and frosted grey. By the end of the decade, his factory was an epicentre of French decorative art, combining the seemingly disparate poles of luxury décor and mass reproduction.
This is perhaps the defining feature of Art Nouveau: its unashamed delight in ornamentation and everyday objects. Beginning in the 1890s, the aesthetic was decisively stylised and less detailed than the prevailing mode of Realism. Indeed, this was a truly pan-European movement, encompassing young artists and craftsmen from Brussels to Glasgow, Barcelona and Helsinki.2 Above all, this ‘new art’ was to evoke movement, with whiplash lines and dynamic compositions that mimicked the increasing speed of modern life.3
A strong curiosity for Japanese culture quickly became a facet of this ‘newness’. After a 220-year isolationist policy, or Sakoku, Japan opened its borders for trade in 1853. For the first time, Europe was exposed to an entirely new aesthetic tradition: a tradition that was not restricted to realism but founded on harmonious and restrained forms. Lalique was certainly inspired by Japanese art, although he cannot be said to match the enthusiasm of Japonism, in which painters, printmakers and furniture designers created pastiches of Edo-period artefacts.4
The Sauterelles(Grasshopper) vase designed in 1912 is a fine example of Japanese-inspired design. Speckled with blue patina, the vase depicts grasshoppers resting upon intersecting reeds of grass. The grass in particular echoes the clumped reeds found in traditional Japanese screens (byōbu), as if Lalique has wrapped a paper screen around the moulded glass. Animal motifs appear again in the Perruches (Parakeet) vase 1919, this delicate blue and white vase shows Australian budgerigars (a fashionable pet among the French elite at the time) perched upon flowering branches. Once again, we see the influence of Japanese tradition, albeit adjusted for European tastes. The perched bird is among the most common motifs in byōbu screens. Here, Lalique compresses the space between the birds so they form an interlocking pattern.
In the 1932 Davos vase, the glassmaker abandons figuration altogether. Made at the end of Lalique’s career, this vase reveals the ebbing tide of Art Nouveau and the succession of geometric, urbanised Art Deco. The vase’s bulbous surface points to the next phase of twentieth-century design, in which the decorative aspirations of Art Nouveau would succumb to abstracted and utilitarian styles to follow. Lalique had the ability to absorb and adapt artistic trends, his name evokes timeless French refinement, marking a unique figure in twentieth-century art and design.
Sophie Rose is former Assistant Curator, International Art, QAGOMA
Endnotes 1 Toyojiro Hida, ‘Japonism in Lalique’s Works’, in René Lalique, trans. Keiko Katsuya and others, Nihon Keizai Shimbun, Inc., Tokyo, 1992, p.39. 2 Jeremy Howard, Art Nouveau: International and national styles in Europe, Manchester University Press, Manchester, NY, 1996, pp.2–3. 3 Klaus-Jürgen Sembach, Art Nouveau: Utopia: Reconciling the Irreconcilable, Taschen, Köln, 2000, pp.8–22. 4 Hida, ‘Japonism in Lalique’s Works,’ p.45.
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Featured image detail: René Lalique’s Davos vase designed 1932
The Gallery’s summer blockbuster explores water in all its states and across the globe. ‘Water’ highlights this precious resource and aims to spark conversations on the critical challenges of climate change, access to water and ecological fragility. One of the major installations in the exhibition is Danish–Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson’s Riverbed 2014. Here, we delve into the challenges of presenting this incredible work at GOMA.
Olafur Eliasson is known for big productions. The weather project — a huge fake sun in the Tate’s Turbine Hall — brought him attention in the early 2000s, and since then he has undertaken increasingly ambitious installations. For ‘Water’, we invited Eliasson to reprise one of his largest projects, in which he re-creates a rocky stream inside the gallery, complete with flowing water. Working with his interdisciplinary studio of over 100 craftspeople, architects, archivists and filmmakers, as well as QAGOMA’s exhibition designers and exhibition curator Geraldine Kirrihi Barlow, Eliasson brings a glacial landscape to Brisbane.
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Eliasson was born to Icelandic parents living in Copenhagen. When he was a child, his father moved back to Iceland, where the artist would go on to spend each summer holiday. Riverbed is his attempt to capture the Icelandic streams of his youth, and the soft grey light so particular to this northern country. The artist has often worked with water: in Green river 1998–2001, he turned six rivers a vivid green using the water-soluble dye uranine; and in New York City waterfalls 2008, he created four artificial waterfalls off bridges across the East River.
We felt there was something special about Riverbed. The water in the work is quieter; it takes time to discover the flowing stream amongst the tonnes of grey rock. As Barlow remarks, Riverbed was selected, in part, because it speaks to the Australian experience of drought and our worries about the future:
Eliasson has made so many works that relate to water. What attracted me to Riverbed was its relevance to the Australian experience of drought and complex cycles of time: the beginning of time and the end of time; linear flow or circular flow. Also the experiential and interactive quality — allowing us to touch water, not just see it.
The work was first commissioned for the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, just north of Copenhagen. QAGOMA’s iteration is the artist’s first attempt to remake the work, almost 15 500 kilometres from the original. Last year, Barlow visited Eliasson’s studio in Berlin to pitch for a second showing of Riverbed:
It’s an incredibly ambitious work and not one the artist was planning to revisit, certainly not so far away. We had to convince the artist’s gallery, then his studio, that we were the right museum to tackle a project like this. It’s very unusual to have the talented team of designers that we do at QAGOMA.
Riverbed is now the result of global collaboration. For over a year, our in-house team of exhibition designers, builders and carpenters have worked in tandem with the artist’s studio. Through many emails, Skype discussions and intricate 3-D modelling, the two teams have developed a vast river topography in response to GOMA’s architecture.
This monumental installation disrupts the gallery space, appearing to be plucked straight from nature. Exhibition designer Megan Franks has worked closely with the artist’s studio to achieve this uncanny effect. She describes the many elements that come together in Eliasson’s installation:
Riverbed is created by building a hand-cut timber-truss support frame, lined with waterproofing material, geotextile fabric, and covered by over 100 tonnes of sand, small river pebbles and large hand-selected basalt rocks.
It’s also fitted with pump systems to regulate the flow of water through the channel.
The foundations of the work follow the standard building techniques found in architecture — timber studs and frames — just on a very large scale. We are always sourcing varied materials working with different artists, but this has been one of the largest sourcing projects I have worked on!
In the original version of Riverbed, Eliasson imported Icelandic stones to Denmark, but from early discussions, it was clear that the same could not be done here. Over many months, Franks contacted local landscaping suppliers and tested small samples of rock that arrived on her desk. Her hunt for the perfect stones required much trial and error, from measuring samples against real Icelandic stones to testing the durability of different types of black sand. She explains:
It was quite difficult to find stones that matched the volcanic aesthetic in a specific shade of grey . . . We wanted rocks that achieved the same basalt and volcanic nature of the stones while also being sourced from local suppliers.
When we were first sourcing the rocks, the show had not been publicly announced, so we had to explain the exhibition to suppliers, and they thought, ‘Oh yeah, so a few bags of rock?’ They were quite taken aback when I replied, ‘No, enough to cover 600 metres squared!’
The majority of the rocks come from Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria, with some harder-to-find pebbles from suppliers in the Asia Pacific region. The decision to go with local and regional rock supplies was not just to abate logistical concerns; the art world is increasingly conscious of its own environmental impact, with material waste, shipping across the world, and numerous flights all contributing to the worsening climate emergency. How to achieve this work — which invites us to think deeply about nature — without harming the environment in the process In other words, how do we make a metaphor responsibly?
Of course, this is the broader challenge — both ethically and practically — of bringing international art to Australia. Restaging Riverbed also required particular ingenuity in design. GOMA’s architecture is of a markedly different time and place to the modernist Louisiana Museum in which the work was first presented. Our building does not invite the same meandering pathways and its double-height spaces tower over the Louisiana’s domestic scale. These differences posed a new problem for Eliasson’s studio. In the second iteration of Riverbed, the question was not only ‘how to bring the outside landscape inside’, but also, ‘how to bring a foreign landscape inside a significantly different space’. As such, the work takes on a new look, and a new meaning, in ‘Water’.
In developing Riverbed, we devised new technical solutions with Eliasson’s studio. In our version, the river does not wind through small rooms, but instead trickles down a steady incline of rock. The adapted design brought new challenges for the exhibition designers. Franks adds that the team has been ‘working within the limits of the gallery in terms of space, weight capacities and the logistics of bringing such a large amount of stones and water into that space’.
In anticipation of these difficulties, she and the team built a few 1:1 model sections of the plan. The prototypes offered new answers to the work’s logistical questions, including the need for better waterproofing and substrate materials.
Olafur Eliasson’s rocky terrain simultaneously evokes many possible futures: drought and new life, apocalyptic destruction and the beginnings of a new world. Across his practice, the artist sees an opportunity to address climate change through an appeal to the emotions:
I believe that one of the major responsibilities of artists — and the idea that artists have responsibilities may come as a surprise to some — is to help people not only get to know and understand something with their minds but also to feel it emotionally and physically.1
Riverbed affects us through its tactility; the cool stones and gentle current of the stream communicate something that climate data cannot. Ultimately, Eliasson creates an artificial environment so that we might realise the value and fragility of the real landscape around us.
Sophie Rose is Assistant Curator, International Art. She spoke with ‘Water’ exhibition curator Geraldine Kirrihi Barlow (Curatorial Manager, International Art) and exhibition designer Megan Franks in August 2019.
Endnote 1. Olafur Eliasson, ‘Why art has the power to change the world’, World Economic Forum, published 18 January 2016. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/01/why-art-has-thepower- to-change-the-world/, viewed August 2019.
Join us at GOMA until 26 April 2020
From major immersive experiences to smaller-scale treasures by Australian and international artists, the ‘Water‘ exhibition highlights this precious resource. Walk across a vast, rocky riverbed created by Olafur Eliasson; see animals from around the world gather together to drink from Cai Guo-Qiang’s brilliant blue waterhole; gaze at Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s snowman frozen in Brisbane’s summer heat; traverse a cloud of suspended gymnastic rings in a participatory artwork by William Forsythe, and reflect on the long history of our reliance on water through Megan Cope’s re-created midden. Tickets to ‘Water’ now on sale
Below the Tide Line
Kids and families can explore ocean conservation issues — particularly the impact that ghost nets have on the marine environment — via a spectacular artwork display, a drawing activity and an interactive screen-based animation. Find out more
The Noise of Waters
See films that explore our complex and contradictory relationship with water — the essence of life and an indefatigable, destructive force. Find out more
Hahan’s painting Letters to the Great Saatchi confronts us with a mound of art-world caricatures. An unsightly pile of collectors, curators and critics desperately clamber over one another, their eyes scored and blinded with ambition. Spray-paint vomit and slime ooze forth from the human mountain. Yet one figure has clambered to the top, waving a victory flag that reads ‘too much young artist’.
The art world functions upon a paradox in which it hungers for the new and yet circulates around select group of established artists. As with most markets, it favours known entities: those with a long and predictable credit history. On the opposite pole, as Hahan illustrates, is the art world’s fetishizion of young artists, merely for their ability to pump out post-internet, Millennial cool. In this climate, there is at once ‘too much young artist’ and not enough. In other words, there is a lot of hype that fails to translate into real sales, publications or exhibitions.
At the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) until August, view ‘Young Ones’, a suite of works by young artists in the Collection. For ‘Young Ones’, I only selected artists born after 1983, making them 35 or younger (this is, I should add, my own generation). The choice to restrict the display to this age bracket poses two questions, namely, ‘what’s so special about being young, anyway?’ and ‘what’s so different about this generation?’
In response to the former, art history has long romanticised youth. Indeed, the trope of the young artist is undeniably old. Eugène Delacroix’s famous painting Liberty Leading the People 1830 is an image not only of revolution but of unbridled youth. Not one old person makes it into the frame; the figure to the right of lady liberty looks at most 14. Here, the dawn of the new political era can only be signified by the young, including the artist himself (who was 32 when he painted the image).
Hahan’s painting echoes (and parodies) this iconic image, drawing out its latent preoccupation with youth. Indeed, the victorious flag of the French revolution in Delacroix’s painting could just as easily read ‘too much young artist’. In a more recent example, the Young British Artists—now middle-aged—founded an entire career on youth. Like Delacroix’s allegorical figure, these artists were young, determined, and happy to go topless.
Among others, Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, and Sarah Lucas reframed questions of taste by bringing the grotesque and grotesquely commercial into the space of contemporary art. Here, nineteenth-century Romantics and the YBAs are surprisingly similar. At both points in history, young people (and in particular young artists) become the true iconoclasts, their age signalling redemption in and of itself.
In this way, the position of the artists in ‘Young Ones’ is not particularly special. After all, everyone has been young once; everyone has thought themselves a rebel. What does define these artists, however, is the age in which they grew up and now occupy: their shared generation.
The generation is a category that runs parallel to typical social groupings of class, race or gender. It enables a cosmopolitan Sydneysider and a Mount Isa local to reminisce on the same children’s TV shows; for the son of an electrician and the daughter of a barrister to roll eyes at their parents in unison. Without ignoring the significant differences between social groups, the generational nexus binds a disparate multitude of people.
The problem comes in defining the current generation, now commonly known as Generation Y or Millennials. The last ten years has seen extensive scrutiny, speculation and prophesying about young people. Perhaps the most talked-about feature of the group (in both praise and disgust) is their proximity to technology.
Melbourne-based artist Liam O’Brien has a longstanding interest in this phenomenon, and the way in which it may disrupt our sense of time, identity and relationships. In Domestication, O’Brien passionately kisses a humanoid stack of domestic objects: a partner made from a mop, bin, washing tub, drying rack and latex gloves. Throughout the course of the video, his passion sours into masochism as he begins to stab its ‘stomach’ and devourer its insides. Blurring the distinction between product and person, O’Brien suggests a warped connection between commodity and desire. We might laugh at the artist for loving a collection of objects, but, in fact, objects mediate nearly all our relationships. Texting feels just as natural as talking; our sexual desire is managed in swipes left or right. The consumption of late capitalism has enveloped Millennials since birth; a fact we, like O’Brien in the video, now come to terms with.
In a similar vein, Millennials are accustomed to the political precariousness that has marked the first two decades of the twentieth century. For us, 9/11, global terrorism and rising nationalism are extensions of history, not news. An easily-forgotten fact, we were not adults when the twin towers hit television screens but tweens and children watching in confusion. What we remember more vividly is the aftermath.
In his photographic series ‘Coming to terms’, Abdul Abdullah restages caricatures of a supposedly malicious and mystifying Islam. Bride I (Victoria) and Groom I (Zofloya) reference Charlotte Dacre’s Gothic novel, Zofloya: Or,The Moor (1806). In the nineteenth-century novel, the Muslim servant Zofloya leads a young widow, Victoria, on a journey of lust, deceit and murder. Although the two never marry in Dacre’s novel, Abdullah depicts the pale-skinned Victoria and her dark-skinned servant as bride and groom. Each figure wears a white balaclava, humorously echoing the various forms of Islamic veil―a garment some have imbued with the same sinister connotations as the criminal disguise. Abdullah’s work reflects the impacts of the ‘war on terror’ whilst pointing to a much longer history of Islamophobia.
For the artist and many young Muslims in Australia, September 11 represents a key moment in their coming of age: a singular childhood event that would forever alter their public image. With a new generation comes a reassessment of history. Abdullah’s work points to how this generation may look upon the politics of their parents with new eyes, seeing the recent past more clearly.
‘Young Ones’ is a display that can only hint at the future of this new generation. Naturally, it captures themes that artists return to time and again, such as Tyza Stewart’s exploration of self and gender, or Vincent Namatjira’s connection to family. However, all these works capture something particular to young artists today. Here we find elements of critique that would not be possible 20, or even 10, years ago.
In only a few years, these artists will no longer be young. In fact, to a fifteen year old, 35 is already embarrassingly old. What will happen to this generation when they are no longer young David but middle-aged Goliaths? Only time will tell, as we await the next tide artists to declare themselves the young ones.
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Sophie Rose is Assistant Curator, International Art, QAGOMA
Feature image detail: Uji Handoko Eko Saputro’s (aka Hahan) Letters to the Great Saatchi 2011
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