The Sublingual Museum

essay by Jason Smith

In the quietness inside books, in the silent rooms of museums, and the still places in galleries where artworks sit inside glass boxes or behind glass, are place where thought may flower.

Since their establishment in the late eighteenth century as part of the enlightenment project, public museums have sought to preserve, exhibit and interpret the material and visual culture of disparate peoples, cultures, places and times in order to somehow speak for them, and to educate. In the twenty-first century the relationship between the museum and who and what it represents has shifted and now relies on multiple voices and perspectives from both within and without the institution. The museum’s capacity to ‘speak’ the socially diverse and poly-ethnic languages that constitute the contemporary world has been under scrutiny and evaluation for some time by artists, commentators and communities working outside/alongside/inside the museum profession as post-colonial identities, traditions and hybrid cultures continue to evolve and assert their existence and value.

Artists’ opinions and actions have been central to the shape of this inclusive, wide-ranging museology. Constructively blurring the distinction between creation and curation, artists working locally and internationally since the 1970s have found opportunities to intervene in museum collections and archives in order to question and reconstruct historical narratives; to unsettle aesthetic and taxonomic schemes and to subvert conventions of display and interpretation. (1)

The far-reaching impact of these interventions has been to destabilise and rethink the authority of the museum and the exclusivity of its system. By articulating and exercising their ownership of public collections, and working in collaboration with museum colleagues to declare the museum an open rather than a closed entity, artists have revised the potential meaning of objects and have been agents in the rejuvenation of collections and interpretative frameworks. Artists can propose powerful alternative ways of seeing and experiencing the content and context of visual and material culture. Here I think of Fred Wilson, Susan Hiller, Domenico de Clario, Peter Cripps, Luke Roberts, Fiona Hall, Robert MacPherson and Narelle Jubelin, just to name a few of the many artist who have illuminated museums and their collections.

Specific contexts and varying degrees of reframing and reinterpreting are often conditioned by a certain poetic detachment and intensely personal engagement. So it is with The Sublingual Museum.

This project encapsulates the integral relationship between Stephanie Radok’s long-established art practice and the instructive, inspiring potential of the art museum. Participating in an interdisciplinary collaboration with Flinders University Museum of Art staff (FUMA) Radok has chosen works from the FUMA collection to display in dialogue and visual affinity with a selection of her own works made over the past three decades. Conceived as neither survey nor summary, this project extends Radok’s ‘intellectual and emotional adventure’ (2) through the storehouses and systems of knowledge that determine identity and shape cultural memory; that locate us in time and place, and in social and bio-diverse relation to each other and the species with which we share the planet. Radok’s art is founded on her fascination with the ways in which knowledge is communicated and received via language and objects.

As Ian North has noted in a catalogue essay, intellectual theory provides the artistic scaffolding inside and outside of which Radok has built her practice. Inside because there is beauty in knowledge, and outside through the adrenalin rush in the wonderful state of simultaneously knowing and not knowing. I think Radok’s artistic motivations align with Foucault’s view that ‘the history of ideas, or of thought, or of science, or of knowledge’ are and remain disciplines ‘so unsure of their frontiers and so vague in content’. (3) And this is where Radok’s work constructs a picture of the world outside intellectual theory: while it has an extraordinary communicative potential, Radok’s art is ultimately about intuitive responses to the world and ‘not knowing’. She is a studious historian and anthropologist of the everyday. There is mystery and poetry to her art. It is that of the autobiographer – artist, daughter, mother, collector, gardener, cook – and of the astute, quiet recorder of a personal history and relation to the world depicted in luminous images that also ineluctably operate as metaphors for all the local and global communities and cultural matrices with which we exist in close proximity or from which we are distanced.

The term ‘sublingual’ mashes its conventional definition as being something under the tongue with its connotative range in relation to ‘museum’: the languages inside the museum that remain unspoken, unarticulated; histories kept quiet or so unassuming that they hide under the tongue. Here, in conjunction with the multiple tongues and languages of which it is custodian, Radok and her FUMA collaborators activate the museum as an organ of speech.

Radok’s project operates to not only animate and rejuvenate the museum collection, but to powerfully, poetically review and assert her position in the order of things. It is what she wants to say about herself. It is a rare opportunity for an artist to assemble their output over more than three decades, and particularly in this way: the collation of her own visual archive in kindred connection with artist from other times and origins.

Prior to researching and assembling The Sublingual Museum with FUMA, Radok displayed her works among the collections of other learning institutions in Adelaide including the South Australian Museum’s Pacific Cultures Gallery; the Museum of Economic Botany, Adelaide Botanic Gardens: and the Barr Smith Library at the University of Adelaide. In each of these contexts, Radok elaborated enduring interests in ‘the circulation of people, objects and ideas around the globe; the provenances of ideas and the cross-cultural landscapes in them; how the world is named and translated – from culture to culture, language to language, sensation to thought, idea to form and back again.’ (4)

Her works in these installations encompassed her cast plaster books series The Weight of Words (2003) and Lost books (2005). The latter imagined an early European occupation of Adelaide whose culture gave rise to the texts Roman Glass in Prospect and Early mosaics of Kangaroo Island, to name just two. The playfulness of Lost books – its undermining dig at the certainties of occupation, ownership and identity, have a poignant counterpoint in Radok’s The Weight of Words. These enigmatic books cannot be opened: they are artefacts of anthropology that cannot be read, just, as she states, Western cultures are unable to fully ‘read’ the complex specificities of indigenous cultures. 

For Radok these books are metaphors that imaginatively counter anthropology’s fundamental obsession with the ‘exposition of secrets and the tracing of human behaviours back to their beginnings’ by asserting ‘the invisible, the impenetrable, the secret, the silences that lie within the collections of the Museum’. The work draws attention to the ‘arrogance of presuming to explain everything and to the value of wonder, curiosity and imagination in even trying to explain anything.’ (5) Here again Radok’s use of the book connects to Foucault’s more literal but still poetic assertion that ‘the frontiers of a book are never clear cut: beyond the title, the first lines and the last full stop, beyond its internal configuration and its autonomous form, it is caught up in a system of references to other books, other texts, other sentences: it is a node within a network.’ (6)

So how did Radok decide on the 40 or so objects she drew from the FUMA collection to co-exist in The Sublingual Museum with more than 300 of her own works? It was a knowing and unknowing meld of theory and intuition, a privileging of emotional response over slavish rationalisation, and a tantalising transgression of the museum’s systems of classification. Radok has also sought in this project to thwart the conventional didacticism of museum display. An artistic license not often afforded to museum curators promotes open interpretation.

Here are some of the catalysts for Radok’s selection: colour, land, country, flowers and plants, food, animals and animism, season and times of day, learning. Thinking of her own works – the palette of red and yellow in the vest, literally global watercolour series Talking about country (2001-03), the artists’ eye alighted on works like Clinton Nain’s Red Heart and Jessie Oonark’s The Moon. While acutely attuned to the concept and feeling of country, much of Radok’s work can be seen as part of a long considered process of reconciling her sense of place as an Australian artist (with international heritage and upbringing) in the richly complex indigenous Australian context.

In the mid 1908s Radok first ventured to traditional indigenous land and has since then observed and reflected upon much Aboriginal art and absorbed something of its energies. The strength of the FUMA collection of Aboriginal art is one of the primary reasons she has undertaken this project. Throughout The Sublingual Museum there is an arrangement of relationships full of possibility. Aboriginal art alongside that of the Inuit and Radok herself establishes connections between Radok’s attunement to animism – her belief in the life-force and spirit within the animals, plants and sensuous hills she visualises – and the potent, animistic and totemic traditions that define the life practices of other peoples.

While Radok’s botanically-based works, especially Talking about country, assert ‘a kind of equivalence among plants, people, cultures and countries’, the coalescence of the historical and the imaginary in this exhibition strongly emphasise Radok’s belief that ‘ one of the tasks of art is to recall and remember, evoke and attempt to grasp what is faint and barely understood, as well as what can be easily outlined and remembered.’

The acts of both remembering and embodying memory are present in Radok’s What we bring with us (2006), a series depicting household pots, jugs and vases painted on vinyl LP records. The depicted vessels have accumulated over Radok’s lifetime, surviving her family’s various journeys and households. These works make my heart ache with synaesthetic overload: I read (see) the titles / I hear the song / I see the vessel / I hear the ticking of my grandmother’s kitchen clock in the cold of winter / I smell the worn granite bench-tops of her kitchen.

In Radok’s hands, these vessels signal the ongoing evolution of a life in which the intense pulse of memory finds fertile emotional ground. As Nicholas Jose noted in his 2006 essay,

 ‘what we bring with us are not just things but cultures, customs, and bonds. And they are newly lived, in unsettled conjunctions, according to time and place … empty vessels that carry our lives in more complex ways than we knew.’ (7) And it is in this series that I also especially sense the important haptic quality in Radok’s image-making: the hand of the artist is ever-present in energised marks and brushstrokes that seek to capture or evoke the essence of the thing or place that Radok is depicting and hence touching.

Radok and the British artist Susan Hiller traverse some of the same territory in their shared investigation into things that are overlooked or out of sight, the ways different forms of knowledge enter our consciousness, and the vehicles of that transference. In Hiller’s 1969-2009 work, First Aid: Homage to Joseph Beuys, a felt-lined wooden cabinet contains 47 bottles of various sizes filled with water collected in Ireland, Mexico, Morocco, France and other countries. Referring to Beuys’ elevation of common materials, substances and situations to symbolise essential life forces, and his practice of ‘ sacramentalising everyday activities and storing up energy in ordinary objects’, Hiller states – in much the same way that Radok might of her own works – that what she treasured in the making of her homage was ‘the special mental space created by searching for them and thinking about them. These little bottles of water are more than just souvenirs; they are containers of an idea about the potentials hidden in ordinary things and experiences.’ (8)

The Sublingual Museum is a Gesamtkunstwerk– a totality, an all-embracing work of art that synthesises Radok’s art and vision with the history and practice of the museum, and the visions and forms of fellow artists and art-historical ancestors. And from this expository Gesamtkunstwerk we arrive at Radok’s Weltanshauung – an expansive, generous and generative world view.

Let’s imagine that Kitagawa Utamaro’s Famous beauty of Edois reading a Japanese translation of Goethe, and reflect on what The Sublingual Museumfinally suggests:

‘All theory, dear friend is gray, but the golden tree of life springs ever green.’ (9)

Jason Smith, June 2011

  • See Artlink, vol 19, #1, 1999 (Zara Stanhope guest editor) for a wide-ranging review of numerous artist’ interventions in museum collections; also What Makes a GreatExhibition? by Paula Marincola for the Pew Centre for Arts and Heritage, Philadelphia.
  • Stephanie Radok, artist’s statement, Lost Books, Barr Smith Library, The University of Adelaide, 2005.
  • Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, Routledge, 2002, p.23.
  • Stephanie Radok, artist’s statement, Artlink, Vol 25, #3, 2005, p.51.
  • Stephanie Radok, artist’s statement, The Weight of Words, South Australian Museum, 2003.
  • Michel Foucault, op. cit,p.25.
  • Nicholas Jose, Stephanie Radok: what we bring with us, Watson Place Gallery, Melbourne, 2006.
  • This aphorism is one of many that I have collected over the years via friends or that I have picked up randomly, and kept recorded on cards or scraps of paper on study and office pinboards since art school days in the mid 1980s. I do not have the actual bibiliographic reference.

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