Part art criticism, part philosophy, and part memoir, An opening: Twelve love stories about art is both informative and entertaining. Stephanie Radok takes her reader on an absorbing journey while seamlessly interweaving intense visual imagery, reflection and her own personal story. Radok is an artist, art-critic and journalist. She has contributed to Art Link, Art Monthly, The Adelaide Review and other publications. In 2011 she exhibited at Flinders University City Gallery and her works are found in many galleries. Her interests and knowledge are broad, but her main area of expertise is in Aboriginal art.
Much of the book’s charm rests on the inclusion of the author’s own story. She had an interesting childhood, living for some time in The United States and in Austria, and believes that the dislocation she experienced led to her passion for art. ‘Art became a kind of homeland for me beyond and between countries’ (69). Throughout the book, snippets of memoir are interwoven with information about art, and each chapter concludes with a short scene where Radok walks her dog through the suburbs, reflecting on what she sees.
An opening contains a considerable amount of information about art and the artistic processes. Radok describes her emotional reaction when viewing a plaster cast of a woman and dog who died in the volcanic eruption which destroyed Pompeii, and then goes on to detail the qualities of plaster and how an artist works with it. A description of two of Ah Xian’s work is followed by information about cloisonné, with which he forms his sculptures. And she does not confine herself to art; a discussion of Hieronymous Borch’s The garden of earthly delights leads to a history of dragon trees and their mythological meaning.
But, of course, Radok’s chief interest is in Aboriginal art. She tells of her first awareness of its extraordinary power when she viewed rock art on Groote Eylandt in 1974, and traces her own voyage of discovery. She provides a wealth of information about its development from its early, marginal days to its present central position in the Australian art world. Those works which she found particularly moving are described in detail.
Radok’s stated theme is that art is an experience; its significance is what it makes people think and feel. The overlapping of art and life in the structure of the book underlines her argument. It is also reinforced by her detailed descriptions of art works creating striking visual images in the minds of the reader as she describes her own emotional reactions.
A second theme is of the importance of connections, people and people, people and land. She illustrates cross-cultural connections by discussing the works of Lin Onus and describing the collaborative installations of Anne Mosey and Dolly Nampitjinpa. Radok seems to be living her own philosophy when she paints at Ernabella (now called Pukatja) in the Western Desert, the oldest Aboriginal art centre.
The main purpose of the book, however, is to support and promote the Aboriginal point of view; not just art, but also their belief system. ‘In Australia there is a turning point at which you suddenly really see or feel the land for the first time as Aboriginal land’ (133). Radok is not only sympathetic to this view but appears to have adopted it for herself, ‘the land is the people, the people are the land, they are one’ (140). And. as always, she illustrates her points and conveys her passion with detailed descriptions of art works.
For those already familiar with the works discussed, this book offers an interesting point of view. For new comers to the world of Aboriginal art, it could serve as an introduction. An opening is persuasive, informative and entertaining, and above all, readable.
Eileen Cooke in Media Culture Reviews