A 2021 book of the year

Nicholas Jose in the Australian Book Review 2021 Books of the Year

Becoming a Bird: Untold stories about art by Stephanie Radok

A calendar year with its daily tour of the back yard and walks with the dog to the park as months go by. Artist–writer Stephanie Radok’s Becoming a Bird: Untold stories about art (Wakefield Press) is a marvellous book about the freedom of the mind to take wing from within the confines of a loved locality and a committed routine. Radok roams far and wide, remembering museum and art gallery visits around the world, books, places, and people, enquiring into complex things with a candid clarity of utterance and insight. ‘Who are you?’ a Prague cousin asks. The answer comes: ‘In this suburb in a room in a house in a garden in a book on a shelf behind a door in a cupboard, complete worlds are present and folded together.’ Not forgetting The Right to be Lazy by John Knight, a work of art the author saw in Berlin that consisted purely of weeds left to grow

Medicinal Plant Tales

Stephanie Radok, Pages from a 21st Century Herbal: Apple Mint

Exhibition at the Museum of Economic Botany in the Adelaide Botanic Gardens

Medicinal Plant Tales: everyday stories

an apple a day keeps the doctor away

The use of plants for health and wellbeing is deep rooted in our history. From the earliest times our need for food, fibre and medicine has been based upon the plant world and yet today the link between plants and medicine is often overlooked. 

The Santos Museum of Economic Botany, situated at the heart of the Adelaide Botanic Garden, has been amplifying such links and plant stories since 1881. Here one can learn and reflect on the diversity and complexity of cultures and their relationships to plants all over the world. 

The Museum is full of tales of colonisation, trade, culture, ingenuity, tradition, innovation, art and curiosity. Among the many plants whose stories are on display are medicinal ones. They possess healing and economic value as well as historic and emotional dimensions.

Contemplating them is a path to remembering your own stories. Most of us have favourite and regular encounters with medicinal plants – Cinchona plants, whose bark is responsible for producing quinine, an antimalarial drug also found in tonic water; or Mentha pipertia (peppermint) that has been used as a digestive for centuries. Then there are the everyday encounters with eucalyptus, turmeric, camomile, aloe vera, Echinacea, calendula, ginger, garlic, olive oil, and rosemary.

Australia has its own medicinal plant history. There are First Nations’ traditions and knowledge from centuries of learning and developing the uses of indigenous plants for healing. Then there are the colonisers, settlers, migrants and refugees bringing with them their traditional remedies and plants, and learning how to appreciate local ones. 

The artworks in Medicinal Plant Tales focus on the reparative gentle healing properties of medicinal plants and gardens and acknowledges the many stories that link plants, people and health.

Stephanie Radok, installation in progress

Pages from a 21st Century Herbal

A herbal is a book containing the names and descriptions of plants, specifically their medicinal, culinary and toxic properties. Early herbals from Egypt, India, China and Europe, were handwritten and often accompanied by drawings or paintings. 

The first book on herbal medicine that I read was Dorothy Hall’s Herb Tea Book published in 1980. Hall was, in many ways, a pioneer of herbal medicine in Australia and influenced many of today’s practitioners. Her combination of common sense, humour and knowledge makes her books manuals for life. They are encouraging, illuminating, practical and down to earth. Her obituary from 2012 states: “The practitioner of the garden and the hedgerows, and the waste lands and the bush was the keeper of the old ways, the old knowledge, the ancient wisdoms, the elder, the sage.”

For Pages from a 21st Century Herbal I looked at images of herbs in various books and painted them in sanguine (blood-red) ink on fine paper. While the ink was still wet I wrote in blue ink directly from my thoughts, a kind of automatic writing, over the plant. The words are not all legible and suggest hidden wisdom and rich silences.

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.
  • http://susanhiller.org/Info?artworks-HomaheBB.htmland http://www.guradin.co.uk/artanddesign/2011/jan/30/susan-hiller-tate-britain-interview.
  • 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.

A Prospect of Prospects

opening talk by Nicholas Jose for solo exhibition at Prospect Gallery, 2017

I have enjoyed following Stephanie Radok’s work around over the years and it is a pleasure to be doing so again today in this Prospect of Prospects. As always Radok’s work asks us to look up close, as close as we can, at the smallest details of marks and traces, as she attends to things we might otherwise miss, such as the weeds under our feet that are identified here by name, place and quality, if you can bend your head round enough to read the curving writing on the disc: Bathurst Burr troublesome; Red Valerian Glen Osmond Road; Apple of Sodom rear pasture. And equally, as always, her work asks us to look faraway, at the long prospect, experienced as dislocation and then as relationship. Which makes us aware of where we are looking from, or through, our place, a museum vitrine, an artist’s vision, our own perspective. Our prospect.

I have followed Stephanie’s work to a variety of sites—to Murray Bridge for A Covenant with the Animals where her naming of species of strange animals was a joy of making familiar and giving dignity; to the Museum of Economic Botany for something similar with seeds and shapes in Talking about Country ; to Fenn Place, where Adelaide’s Chinatown once was, for a celebration of invisible, ephemeral trade and transport in Out of site; to Melbourne for What we bring with us, where the records became another sort of record, as happens again here, and to Artspace for The Immigrant’s Garden, back in 2002, where materiality became the medium for a remaking of the local in terms of the lost and the mythic. Over this time and in these different places there has been a continuity of concern, but with subtle changes too, a kind of wandering in not quite circles—and here again in this multi-dimensional installation. 

What’s new here is the presence, or the memory, of the “beautiful prospects” of others, other artist precursors, who came and looked and made something from their interaction with place under a southern sky. The artist draws on colonial artists whose work has stayed with her, seen in the Art Gallery of South Australia, in Visions of Adelaide 1836-1886 and other exhibitions: Light, Frome, von Guerard, Berkeley. She returns the idea of the sketch, not so much from life as from an inner topography that is at once art historical and personal. So we think of body painting, finger painting, undercoating, painting over. We think of abstraction and calligraphy and desert art. Rothko, Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Lee Ufan. We appreciate the muting of colour. ‘Blue is a darkness weakened by light’, in Goethe’s words, which seem to apply to the new work ‘Home Schooling’.

A constant is the book, and Stephanie is also a writer, as you’ll know from her wonderful work called An Opening: twelve love stories about art, the book of an art writer. In this exhibition we are again presented with the casts of books no longer able to be opened, marked by folds and flaws, but offering a surface, or a vessel, for a further process of feeling and making, overlaying the old pattern of the cover with new decorative colour, and the inset glint of mica from the local hills. These books remember a twelve volume set of Goethe’s works published in Germany in the nineteenth century and brought to Adelaide by the artist’s grandparents in the twentieth: Goethe, the universalist, the man of light, whose wisdom could not avert the unseeingness of progress as it unfolded here too. Under the artist’s hand, those complex ideas and emotions become fragile offerings. Little treasures. ‘Search nothing beyond the phenomena, they themselves are the theory,’ said Goethe. His words release us to enjoy Stephanie Radok’s A Prospect of Prospects. Please take the time. It’s a special occasion, this retroprospective.

Image: Stephanie Radok Home Schooling 2017

we speak your language

Artwork depicting derelict public service announcements from an imagined future of a world run by Australian animals painted on the back of old paintings.

Inspired by Centrelink’s assertion about language. And thoughts of extinction.

the mystery of shit: Wim Delvoye

The first time I ever saw what I thought was tattooed pigs (they were actually painted) was in the 1996 Asia-Pacific Triennial catalogue. This vivid image that etched itself into my memory shows a work by Chinese artist Xu Bing called A Case Study of Transference (1994) which involved a pig covered in nonsensical writing in the Roman alphabet fucking a pig covered in fake Chinese writing (Xu Bing devised the script) in a gallery filled with open books in different languages. It is a clever and humorous work that plays to the full the instincts of the pigs and the cultured sophistication of writing. Is or was Chinese culture being fucked by Western culture in 1994? Are four legs, speaking in the spirit of George Orwell’s novel 1984, better than two? Do we communicate best in words or through our bodies?

The work touches on a border, a frontier, a taboo of acceptability – watching animals fucking, whether it is meant metaphorically or not, is embarrassing. The artist invented the work without being certain how its audience would respond yet with it he approached the edges of one of those big themes: sex, death, culture clash.

The first tattooed pigskin I ever saw was at MONA in Tasmania where I encountered Belgian artist Wim Delvoye’s Untitled – Osama (2002-3) looming at me out of the darkness. Mostly in dark blue ink almost like a biro drawing and including the head and legs of the animal’s body it is displayed inside a vertical glass case like a piece of fabric or a shaman’s robe. What really struck me was the humanness of the skin with its fair reddish hair. Delvoye has pointed out that these pigs are very Caucasian in their colouring. So for a minute it was like seeing a human body and that, of course, is shocking. As is the insult to Muslims offered up by linking Osama bin Laden and a pig. 

Like Xu Bing’s pigs the artwork of Delvoye confronts taboos, combining cultural signifiers and nature, though Delvoye is concerned always to embrace and exploit commodity culture at the same time as commenting on its extremities or indeed being one of its extremities. 

Iconoclastic British art critic and filmmaker Ben Lewis made a documentary on Delvoye and got a Delvoye tattoo in China in 2005 to match one that a pig was getting at the same time. Lewis wrote in the British newspaper The Telegraph: “This is, of course, silly art: Delvoye’s work satirises the art world, with its inflated prices and daft intellectual cul-de-sacs.” 

There is a cool exploitative level to Delvoye’s work that is married to frenetic energy. Notoriety sells art as well as drawing attention to it which may be one reason that Delvoye’s work appeals to David Walsh of MONA as confrontation with the gentility that can waft around the corridors of art is clearly important to both men. Then there is the ‘bad boy’ factor, the ‘ennui’ and novelty factors, the need to transgress, to push boundaries deeper, further, wider. 

In an interview in 2003, with Ward Daenen for the Flemish newspaper De Morgen, Wim himself said: “The plebian likes me. He takes me for a Robin Hood who takes his side because I reveal what the art world is: a machine that produces shit.” 

Shit happens

Delvoye has been tattooing pigs or having them tattooed on and off since 1994 when he started tattooing on dead pig skins. In 1997 he showed live tattooed pigs in Middelheim Museum in Antwerp. The main difference is that on a live pig the shaved hair grows back through the tattoo making it more like flesh and less like a conventional art surface. 

The Art Farm in China started in 2004. Collectors buy the pigs while they are still alive, wait for them to grow (like carving your initial onto a baby apple the design on a small pig grows over time), have them stuffed or framed, and meanwhile watch them being pigs on live pig-cam. In 2009 a taxidermied tattooed pig called Last Port (2006) was sold at Christies for £90,000 ($A139,255). It would certainly be a startling conversation piece to have sitting around the house – spooky, sad, funny. 

Some of the pigs are tattooed with Louis Vuitton brand symbols, others with Russian prison tattoos and Walt Disney characters. Disney and Delvoye share initials and sometimes a similar logo. For all its grit there is definitely something light-hearted and slick about Delvoye’s work, and a kind of brio possibly shared by a certain Mouse also bent on a kind of world domination that is both commercial and entertaining. Spectacle and empire – though shock rather than sentiment is Delvoye’s chief tool. And to extend the marketing he has brought out a Wim Action Figure complete with tattoo gun and cloaca machine.

Delvoye is reported as saying: “Instead of producing art I wanted to harvest it. The pigs are a nice allegory that makes us think about what art means to us, and where the line exists between what art is and what art isn’t.”

As a complement to the Osama pigskin there is a Jesus pig. But Delvoye is an amateur of the tattoo. I spoke to Australian long-term tattooist, photographer and painter ex de Medici about Delvoye’s work. Her opinion is that his understanding of tattoos is very elementary. For de Medici tattooing is a living art that gets its vitality partly because it is embedded in life (on a body) and cannot be commodified (that is resold). She regards Delvoye’s tattoo work as abusive to animals (even though the pigs are anaesthetized while being tattooed de Medici says the pain continues after the actual operation). Indeed Delvoye undertakes this work in China in part to get away from animal rights activists in Europe.

Turning shit into gold (Buddhist saying about meditation)

In the most recent extension of his tattoo work Delvoye tattooed a Swiss man Tim Steiner. In 2008 A German art collector bought the tattoo on Tim’s back for €150,000 ($A203,072). The collector can view the tattoo four times a year and when Tim dies he may claim it. In the meantime Tattoo Tim as he is known appears at art fairs or in exhibitions as a living canvas. What do we know about Tim? He is a friend of Delvoye, is in a band called Passive Resistance and every year teaches art to war orphans in East Timor. There are unresolved legal issues involved. What If Tim changes his mind about being harvested, what if the tattoo gets worn? What if Tim hides when he is about to die? 

Curiously de Medici has also made a work on a human body that is destined for an ongoing life as an artwork though she points out this is never certain as the person must die in a situation where their skin can be suitably harvested. Skin, one of a trilogy of documentary films made in Australia by Big and Little Films in 2008 under the overall title Anatomy, is about ex-schoolteacher Geoff O. He has been tattooed with flowers, mostly Australian natives, over 15 years, and has what is called a full body suit, 90% of it applied by de Medici. It is Geoff’s dream to give his skin to the National Gallery of Australia and he has researched and put in place the complicated administrative, financial and technical work needed for it to happen. It would be a gift and in the film the National Gallery’s Roger Butler says the gallery will consider it when the time comes, to add to their collection of de Medici’s work. When Geoff dies he needs to be frozen immediately and then airlifted to Japan where the necessary work can be done. 

Full of it

Delvoye’s work was first seen in Australia in the 1992 Biennale of Sydney: The Boundary Rider curated by Tony Bond. The work Labour of Love (1992) consisted of a concrete mixer, wheelbarrow, lamps, bricks, shovel and road signs fabricated in Indonesia from teak and carved with decorative patterns. It dealt with economics, trade and the confounding of categories referencing colonialism and the complex layers of international trade over time like the work of Yinke Shonibare, Narelle Jubelin and Fiona Hall. It also called to mind links between the masculinity of work tools and the femininity suggested by decoration as also seen in addressing the wounds: in corde (1991) a memorable work orchestrated by deceased Australian artist Neil Roberts consisting of a work shovel the edges of which were finely engraved with delicate designs by traditional metalworkers in the Philippines. 

But on Delvoye’s page in the Biennale catalogue it is not the wooden cement mixer we see but Mosaic (1990-92) a photograph of a series of glazed white tiles on which images of his own faeces are printed, their twisted curves forming a decorative repeat pattern. It is this work with which he began to ‘make his name’ at Kassel Documenta IX in 1992. The artistic director Jan Hoet stated: “The strength of Wim Delvoye lies in his ability to engineer conflict by combining the fine arts and folk art, and playing seriousness against irony.” Though curlicues of shit are surely neither folk nor fine art they do confound categories of clean and dirty. In the past Delvoye has painted blue and white Delft patterns on gas canisters and had stained glass soccer goals fabricated. More recently he has shown photographs of mosaics featuring mortadella and salami, their pale pinks and mottled reds imitating rare marbles and porphyry. 

Scatology rules

Delvoye’s fascination with shit is of longstanding and has found expression in his Cloacae, only one of which he has ever sold (though many sun-dried and vacuum packed faeces have been sold) and that was to David Walsh for MONA where they say it is the most hated work they possess and yet it is the one that is the most ‘pondered’ ie that people spend the most time with. When I was there for the opening the room attendant expressed his disbelief at people choosing to stay in the room with the Cloaca Professional (2010), which seems part science experiment, part zoo animal. Maybe the zoo angle is why they stay. Zoos smell like shit but we tend to sit in them and watch, spending time with the animals.

A nihilistic ‘artwork’ about waste that is a vehicle for literal transformation and metamorphosis, the Cloacae suggest Delvoye really is a mad scientist, especially when you learn that he has made ten of them since 2000 – Cloaca Original, Cloaca – New & Improved, Cloaca Turbo, Cloaca Quattro, Cloaca No 5, Personal Cloaca, Mini Cloaca, Super Cloaca, Cloaca Professional and Cloaca Travel Kit. 

To continue the mad science angle Delvoye has also made many works using X-rays, sometimes of intestines processing shit, sometimes of couples having sex.

And you think your shit don’t stink (Australian saying for puncturing arrogance)

The Cloacae are objects/machines of amazement like strange fancy milking machines they churn and chug and turn the bright colours and varied shapes and textures of food into smelly brown paste. As we all do, only more privately. Here the art material used by babies and madmen finds its apogee as both contemporary art and quasi-fart joke. Cloacae take the work of the stomach changing food into shit as their task and the simple mystery of shit is thus foregrounded. Why is it brown and why does it smell so? 

A reductive reflection on human life – a futile journey of waste – the Cloacae are missing what happens in the human body in-between the mouth and the anus, ie not just digestion but everything else which is also admittedly fuelled by air but also intensely, unreasonably, by the food we eat. This thought was once a bowl of soup.

It is valuable to think about Delvoye’s work in relation to that of Fiona Hall or indeed that of Ex de Medici. Each possesses an intense creative frenetic energy. Hall makes her work laboriously by hand, the bird nests are woven from paper money, the beaded seedpods and coral polyps threaded onto wire and formed over many hours; De Medici tattoos intricate designs for hours and paints very large finely detailed watercolours of guns camouflaged as moths, militaria and mining sites; while Delvoye designs his carved rubber tyres, gothic CADCAM laser cut corten steel cement trucks and twisted gothic crucifixions and has them made by others. The fact that Hall and de Medici make their work and for many years Delvoye has had his work made is not really the issue here. In each case the nature of work, of crossing categories, of layering tradition, of the clotted histories of humanity, art and ideologies are present yet in the case of the work of both Hall and de Medici there is a moral agenda of revelation, not of mystic truths but corporate truths, about corruption, environmental destruction and exploitation while Delvoye’s work seems to revel in amorality and to end up both talking about exploitation and being it.

When the shit hits the fan

David Walsh reflects on Wim’s work: “…mostly he is trying to think about things that he can’t quite grasp, that his audience can’t quite grasp. Nobody has captured these ideas yet, we can’t see them in focus, just descry them from the corners of our eyes.”

Maybe Delvoye’s work is making critiques (I’ve never been good with irony) or is he helplessly joining the corporations, seeing art as just one more game to be won by a smart cookie who knows how to play dirty? Or perhaps his work is the guffaw-provoking spectacle that gets all kinds of people into art galleries and who knows what might happen then?


Over one hundred works by Wim Delvoye curated by David Walsh and Olivier Varenne with Nicole Durling and the MONA team was on show at MONA in Hobart from 10 December 2011 to 2 April 2012.

we are all flesh: Berlinde De Bruyckere

The theme of metamorphosis between all living things, and the pathos of our conjoined destinies, are fully asserted by Berlinde De Bruyckere’s work on show at ACCA. I first saw her work at MONA in Hobart where a suspended horse and a human figure in a vitrine showed me something I hadn’t seen before even as they reminded me of many artworks I had seen before – Goya’s war etchings, his Black Paintings, William Blake’s watercolours and monoprints of humans and gods, the many bodies in the work of Hieronymous Bosch, the tormented Christs of countless altarpieces. 

The father of Belgian artist De Bruyckere was a butcher and she was sent to Catholic boarding school at the age of five. Here, hiding from the nuns, she poured over art history books. It shows. In a particularly kind of European humanism De Bruyckere’s sombre work draws attention to suffering and to flesh, its sentience, vulnerability and mortality. 

The artist visited ACCA two and a half years ago and decided that the high ceiling of the large gallery was like a church and the side galleries like chapels. The two works hung in the large gallery are each called We are all Flesh. They look like two dead horses hanging with massive bulk, one from a strap off the wall, the other from a huge lamp-post from the Ukraine brought to Australia by ship. What at first look like two horses are revealed on closer inspection to be four horses because each horse is wedded to another horse, not mechanically but clumsily, as if with emotion, to another horse. Here there is great attentiveness to detail but the work is not about virtuosity, in fact we see stitches and loose threads in the hide of the paler horse of the two sets. And the spines of the horses do not sit straight against their hides as a taxidermist would prepare them, they have slipped, adjusted, moved towards greater knowing or intimacy. The horses are metaphors for human vulnerability and suffering, for war, for pain.

In Gallery 4 sits a work called 019 in which a two hundred year old cupboard from the Belgium Natural History Museum is placed centrally, its watery rippled glass doors open. Inside on the lower shelves are thin pale folded blankets while on the higher shelves sections of about twenty-four rough-barked tree branches are vertically arranged in groupings. As the doors are open it is as if the branches may come out. The longer you stay looking at them the more you see. Each one is covered in wax, and what seems to be all pale creamy wax also includes flecks and bands of colour, some blue, some red or pink. The trees are held up by thin string. Like bodies, dryads, they seem at once stored and escaping, an enigmatic museum display of something which we do not expect to see in a museum. 

Wax is a material often used in sculpture in preparatory stages, and in painting there are the slow brushstrokes of encaustic but De Bruyckere uses wax more like the Italian sculptor Medardo Rosso or to some degree as it might be used in a waxworks but much more boldly and expressively. She layers the wax inside a mould in a process involving chance, risk and fragility, elements which are thus transferred into the sensations engendered by the work.

Since first using horses in a work commissioned for the In Flanders Fields Museum at Ypres, De Bruyckere has been asked about using other animals but has not wanted to though the five Romeu “my dear” works on show, a drawing and four sculptures involving antlers, belie that declaration. The antlers are like intestines or skin that is growing, they twist against each other, wrap into pillows and while, apparently made to register pain, try to avoid it. Another work, Inside me III seems to depict intestines yet they are also tree branches, hung in a crib of wood by thin strings, this river of white fleshliness resembles one of Francis Bacon’s tormented gutted figures. The Pillow literally shows the back and leg of a human figure disappearing into a pillow, hiding, twisting.

The four galleries at ACCA devoted to de Bruyckere’s work combine to tell a story of art full of religious intensity. In 2011-12 an exhibition was held at the Kunstmuseum in Bern, Switzerland where De Bruyckere’s work was matched with the paintings of Lucas Cranach and the films of Pier Paolo Pasolini. The tormented figures of these three artists represent important contributions to the depiction of compassion and suffering in European art. 

We are all Flesh: Berlinde De Bruyckere
ACCA (Australian Centre for Contemporary Art), Melbourne
2 June – 29 July 2012

Do you remember this – Do you remember that: the art of Michelle Nikou

Desire arranges multiple ways to express itself…the least object, to which no particular symbolic role is assigned, is able to represent anything. The mind is wonderfully prompt at grasping the most tenuous relation that can exist between two objects taken at random, and poets know that they can always, without fear of being mistaken, say of one thing that it is like the other…. Whether in reality or in the dream [desire] is constrained to make the elements pass through the same network: condensation, displacement, substitution, alteration.
André Breton, L’Amour fou (Mad Love), 1937

At the beginning of André Breton’s autobiographical novel L’Amour fou he describes how, in 1934, he and Alberto Giacometti each bought an unusual object, une trouvaille (a lucky find) at the Saint-Ouen flea market in Paris. At the time he was obsessed with a phrase he had invented – cendrier de Cendrillon, the ashtray (cinder-holder) of Cinderella – a poetic intertwinement of desire (woman) and extinction (ashes). The object that Breton bought was a spoon-shoe, a wooden spoon with a little boot at the end of its handle to act as a spoon-rest. Man Ray’s photograph of it, taken later that year and entitled From a Little Shoe That Was Part of It, was reproduced as an illustration in L’Amour fou.

This piece of cutlery made of wood possesses a fairy-story element, a dream-like inevitability. Its bowl could be used as an ashtray and its single shoe associates it with Cinderella and her lost slipper. Breton wrote about this object as an exemplar of ‘convulsive beauty’, that elusive quality he continued to seek all his life. In the early 1940s he went weekly with Marcel Duchamp and Robert Motherwell through the streets of New York to identify examples of such beauty in the windows of secondhand shops on Third Avenue, after sharing an inexpensive lunch in a French bistro on West 55th Street. 

Defining convulsive beauty, a fundamental concept of surrealism, is no easy feat and is deliberately intellectually challenging as this slipperiness and mutability prevent it from fossilising. Breton wrote the first Surrealist Manifesto in 1924 and kept on redefining it until the 1960s. At its heart surrealism, like dada, is anarchic and its politics is about freedom not conformity. In a speech in Prague in 1935 Breton said: ‘The thing that characterises surrealism is that it proclaims the equality of all normal human beings before the subliminal message.’ Whether found or constructed the surrealist object is a passage to the unconscious.

According to Hal Foster the mysterious spoon-shoe is a symbol of woman yet at the same time it is a symbolic penis or indeed, that rarely located but often discussed organ, the maternal penis. In L’Amour fou Breton wrote: ‘it symbolised for me a woman unique and unknown’. 

I first read about this legendary shoe-spoon, probably whittled by a French peasant in a surrealist burst of freedom of association and chance connection while researching some of Giacometti’s early works like Woman with her throat cut (1932) and Disagreeable Object To Be Disposed Of (1931) after being reminded of them by the intense, inscrutably quirky mix of personal and impersonal sensations in the sculpture of Michelle Nikou. Having read about the spoon-shoe before I saw its photograph, I imagined a tiny woman’s shoe carved under the spoon’s handle, a shoe that would not be visible but that the hand would feel as the spoon was being used. Thus it would be discovered by touch, and would have a secret erotic existence. 

The actual spoon-shoe, Man Ray’s photo of which is reproduced in Hal Foster’s Compulsive Beauty, uncannily echoes some of Nikou’s artworks. This is particularly true of the recent Rack (2004), a bronze toast-rack shape which, because it maintains the furniture (funnel and sprue) associated with lost wax casting, appears to have a heel and thus be a strange kind of metal platform shoe; and a work made in 1994, a single narrow high-heeled shoe made from nail clippings embedded in chicken shit. Both these ‘shoes’ are resonant with potential narratives. Rack reminds me of a fairy story/folk tale read long ago involving the painful wearing of heavy metal shoes as part of a series of trials, like knitting grey-green yarn spun from nettles gathered in cemeteries at midnight, endured over several years by a princess to overcome a witch’s spell. The little ‘nail’ shoe’s materials immediately evoke ideas of sorcery, fetish and transformation. Either work could be read as a version of a Cinderella shoe, even a cendrier de Cendrillon. Almost anything can be used as an ashtray after all. Nikou titled the ‘nail’ shoe Grapnel (1994), another name for a grappling iron, in her words ‘a clutching word for a clutching object’. She describes the size of the shoe as ‘Cinderella’ meaning slightly smaller than average.

Grapnel was shown in a group exhibition called Fania curated in 1994 by Erica Green at the University of South Australia Art Museum for the centenary of women’s suffrage in South Australia. The exhibition was named after Nikou’s grandmother, Fania, a Macedonian peasant woman who, having migrated to Australia and unable to speak English, compulsively made dresses for herself in a particular design using pieces of hessian for her pattern. Her compulsion extended beyond the borders of practicality as she continually asked the family to take her to fabric shops and then endlessly cut and sewed dresses out of inappropriate and randomly patterned cheap cotton fabrics. The repetitiveness and impracticality of this task allies it to some perceptions of the activities of artists. The dresses became legendary within the family, representing storage problems – she made one hundred of them – as well as embarrassing examples of foreignness and obsession. Yet they are impressive signposts of the tough peasant qualities of tenacity and productivity, precious cargo echoing a task in a fairy tale. 

My discovery of an unexpected but genuine association of Nikou’s artwork with the spoon-shoe of L’Amour fou thickens again when attention is drawn to the various works she has made using cutlery. Spoons (2000) are thirteen roughly cast lead spoons of different sizes, each with one or two lead lumps of chewed food stuck to its bowl. They stick to the spoon like lumps in the throat. To me they suggest indigestible food and long leaden family meals in which time stands still. Nausea and an inability to eat are frequent responses to repressed strong emotion in such situations. 

At other times Nikou has cast chewed mouthfuls of food (bronze) in InLovewaste (2002), Lifesavers (lead) in Life’s over Candy Neck (2002), and half bitten Yo-Yo biscuits (lead) in Half of Everything (2002). She made all of these objects into jewellery – extensions of and furniture for the body, a place where statements can be made. All are metaphors for emotional states that are hard to put into words. Certainly I can’t say exactly what they mean though Half of Everything (2002) has some connection to the division of property through inheritance or fractured relationships. 

Another piece of cutlery Untitled (1998) is a thin metal knife with a hole bored into it and nails soldered around the hole through which a small piece of circular knitting hangs down. It looks as if it was created by someone in solitary confinement. The knitting nancy has its origin in the medieval lucet, a harp-shaped two-pronged fork with a hole in the handle used for ‘French knitting’ to make braids to be sewn onto dresses or used as cord. Had Breton and Giacometti found a lucet in the marketplace they may well have considered it as an example of convulsive beauty. 

How eloquent, how sensual something like cutlery can be is quite remarkable, this also applies to crockery. The plates and cups, the knives, the spoons and forks that we handle by eating and washing every day are touched as often as we handle our bodies and have an intimacy with us of which we are mostly unaware. They are almost like body parts or perhaps more like Stelarc’s prostheses, inanimate extensions which will outlive us but retain a history of our association.

Such linked chains of connections and echoes – into and out of art and literature, everyday life and family interactions, relationships and poetry – characterise the art of Michelle Nikou which traces lineages into both high and low cultural references (with a quietly persistent layer of deadpan humour.) Nikou trained in the late eighties for four years in the discipline of ceramics and found empowering mentors in ceramics lecturer and artist Liz Williams and artist-in-residence ceramicist and jeweller Gerry Wedd, both at the South Australian School of Art. Subsequently when Nikou turned away from the functionality of ceramics towards fine art, travelled and undertook postgraduate study, she looked closely at the work of surrealist artists as a starting point for constructing her methodology for making art. There she found such principles and strategies as chance, automatism, spontaneity, correspondence, the dream, compulsion, found objects, detritus, collage, the discovery of sexual or psychological metaphors in everyday objects, humour, surprise and juxtaposition as well as the latent political subtext of locating and transforming the marvelous in the everyday.

This is not to say that Nikou is a card-carrying surrealist but that her practice has productively drawn on and reflects back upon surrealism. And perhaps surrealism, whether it is named as such or not, is around us all the time. Maybe Breton and his peers did not so much invent surrealism as uncover it. 


Tristan Tzara and Max Ernst’s preface for the 1933 Pierre Colle gallery’s Surrealist Exhibition includes a list asserting the vitality of the object: ‘…automatic or inadmissible objects…everyday appliances…retrospective bosoms…fried eggs; atmospheric spoons…loaves of bread.’ This roll call finds distinct echoes in Nikou’s frequent use of essentially domestic items. She has often used the kitchen both for raw materials and as a studio. The work Potatoes (1999) consists of eight potatoes cast from lead, which sit on their little funnels like boiled eggs or tiny sculptural busts, coronas of leaked lead surrounding some of them like elaborate hairdos. Carrot Necklace (2002) is a concrete carrot, painted to look remarkably like a carrot, which hangs from a copper neck-ring. Then there is crockery like Revenge (2004) the six earthernware plates made for a group exhibition on the theme of revenge at Downtown Art Space in Adelaide in 2004. Each plate, which is deliberately awkwardly dipped in dripping and pooling dull green, beige, blue and tan glazes, contains a large finely made three dimensional dog’s tail with the fur carefully built up from very thin rolled worms of clay, except for the one smooth dog’s tail. The work draws on two maxims: ‘Revenge is a dish best served cold’ originally occurring in Pierre Choderlos de LaClos’ Les Liasons Dangereuses of 1792 and the child’s nursery rhyme line ‘What are little boys made of?’ Nikou is deeply engaged with language and frequently makes a work around a single phrase or word that then becomes concrete poetry. She even used concrete, again to cast potatoes, this time for Concrete Potato Necklace (2001) a somewhat heavy necklace in which the grey and somehow expressive potatoes are fairytale pearls or wave-worn pebbles as much as vegetables. Again the emotionality of food and families, poverty and fantasy forms an implicit subtext to the work. 

There is frequently something obsessively domestic and suburban in Nikou’s work. It is especially apparent in the handmade metal curtain rings which contain phrases from the soap operas The Young and the Restless, The Bold and the Beautiful and Days of our Lives carefully stamped inside their coils. My experience of daytime soap operas is linked to watching them with old people, sick people, unemployed people – those who are often considered in some way marginal to mainstream society. Thus, the words of these stereotypical soap operas evoke for me not just their creators and actors but the presence of all the people who, for whatever reason, are sitting inside during the day, drawing the curtains on the wider world. I sense their lives as a subtext to the aspirations and voices released by these artworks. Nikou conflates the clichés of sentimentality (unearned emotion) into serious and hard-won objects which speak of interior lives and private places. The letters are laboriously stamped onto the rings before they are coiled. The unevenness of the letters and thus their lack of a machine aesthetic suggests to me that these banal statements are used to express genuine emotions well as fake ones. Their poignancy stumbles against the shininess of the metal; the artist does not simply or easily disparage the inadequacy of the words but offers them as hiding places of the heart. 

In conversation with me in December 2005 in her Adelaide kitchen as I prepared to write this essay, Nikou imagined a house in which every ordinary functional element has text upon it and thus embodies a voice, like her work Swan Season (1998) which consists of six cast aluminum door handles with letters beneath them which say: ‘don’t – pass – the – ball – to – me.’ Her embrace of this dream has also edged into reality in her toilet paper projects. A few years ago she removed toilet paper from restrooms in small country towns north of Adelaide and from the Art Gallery of South Australia. She then imprinted the toilet paper with stamps she had ordered, rolled it up again and replaced it. Thus the visitor to the Ladies’ toilets, at Burra or Saddleworth, or on North Terrace in Adelaide’s cultural precinct, would tear off a length of paper and, gazing absentmindedly down at it, read something like ‘that’s what me and the others think’ or ‘make me’ or ‘do you remember this – do you remember that’ or ‘we’re losing our atmosphere’ or ‘I called you majesty’.

The desire to situate art in daily life rather than the gallery environment is a concern for many artists; early in her career Barbara Kruger pasted her statements in public phone boxes. Nikou’s toilet paper stamping has reappeared in a recent work, Untitled (love has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement) (2002), which contains the paper reading ‘do you remember this – do you remember that’ accompanying a toilet seat cover and two toilet paper roll holders covered in grey tapestry. The title of this work refers to W.B. Yeats’ 1933 poem Crazy Jane talks to the Bishop.
‘A woman can be proud and stiff
When on love intent;
But Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.’

The mildly inept grey tapestry used in this work reappears in other pieces as slightly bumpy tissue box covers, as a covering for a door-stopper (a brick), as a sausage-like draft-stopper and as match box covers. Nikou has exhibited the latter as flat abstract forms on the gridded tapestry mesh on which they are stitched. Somehow the greyness and muffling quality of all these works returns me to Nikou’s evocation of soap operas. They do not attempt to cheer up, brighten or ameliorate the day and the shining hour like handicrafts are supposed to do (think of the charity shops and stalls and their millions of bright aprons, plastic-bag holders, tissue box covers, and knitted grimacing bears and dolls – testimony to the hours – loving, wasted, frustrated – spent upon them by women with busy hands). Instead they emphasise numbness, dullness, the potential nihilism and anomie of suburbia. In an earlier work Signifying nothing (1998) the artist collected lint from laundromat dryers to make four grey, fragile, non-functional pockets on the backs of which are crudely stitched William Shakespeare’s words from Macbeth’s speech that begins: ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow…’

Though made by a well-informed contemporary artist, Nikou’s oeuvre often borrows the awkwardness and solipsism of outsider art. Taking ordinary emotions that are responses to everyday situations but rarely put into words, and finding physical form for them is a creative effort that involves both courage and wit. Even though Nikou frequently deals with painful and solemn subject matter her self-awareness and sense of the absurd are never far away. One of her most recent jewellery works in the form of a text necklace says not the stereotypical ‘I love you’ or ‘hug me’ but go away (2005). An accompanying series of large cast bronze text-works monumentalise grumpy or hostile monosyllabic exchanges.

Combining opposites – soft with hard, food with lead, ordinary objects with venerable sculptural techniques – Nikou is as much an object-maker as a sculptor. Her work does not order space so much as be a space. We do not look at what surrounds it but at what and how it is. Her recent bronze works – hand-built mounds onto which thin broken threads are pressed or through which Braille letters are perforated; cast tissue boxes; the letters of single words; cast doorstoppers on little supports and giant wedding rings with doorstoppers draped over and around them – all mostly still covered with the debris of their manufacture – contradict the dignity and history of their fabrication with their deliberately awkward appearance. Parts of the works are finely and carefully made, (the wax that becomes the wedding rings is smoothed till it looks like tempered metal), while in other sections a lumpy texture including fingerprints emphasises their slow formation by hand. Many resemble the sort of enigmatic and awkward object that might be found in a shelf at the back of a dusty shop, some ‘thing’ or cendrier de Cendrillon handmade by an amateur art/craft person whose clumsiness and rawness are equaled by their zeal and obsession. Nikou’s totally professional and knowing artwork does an uncannily good and often ironic job of somehow evoking every complex element of that anonymous person’s passion and inarticulate longings.


Stephanie Radok

precarity – being a grasshopper

Raining Poetry in Adelaide is a poetry street-festival organised and led by postgraduate students at the University of Adelaide under the auspices of the J. M. Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice.

For 2020 the theme was presciently pre-Covid ‘precarity’.

“Progressively fading over time, the poems and their disappearing traces will act as ghostly reminders of increasing global precarity as we walk, tread and cross the line.”

Five poems were selected through a competitive process judged by Jill Jones, then printed as stencils and tagged anonymously with invisible paint across Adelaide’s CBD. Another fifteen poems by students were also tagged.

When it rains, the poems magically appear. It doesn’t rain that often in Adelaide but you can water the ground to see a poem once you know where to look.

A map is available through the Raining Poetry in Adelaide Facebook page. My poem is on the corner of King William Street and North Terrace.

Sakahàn: mutable in Ottawa

There was no ceremony for the last day of Sakahàn the first quinquennial exhibition of International Indigenous Art, but the sky went dark grey, a thunderstorm cracked it open and heavy rain bucketed down in the last half hour. This seemed entirely appropriate as connection to nature, and therefore weather, is a recurring element of indigeneity. Louise Bourgeois’ giant Maman crouched outside the National Gallery in Ottawa provided no shelter.

And what are the defining elements of indigeneity? Frequently it is indefinable, fluid, or withheld, at other times it is definitely an overriding connection to the earth, the voices of animals and other non-human forms of life.

Certainly Indigenous art is not a monolith of any kind and perhaps a refusal to be defined is a defining characteristic of it. One of the curators of Sakahàn Greg Hill wrote an Afterword in the catalogue in which he imagines he is writing in 2038 after six Sakahàns have been held. He writes: “Strategically indigeneity is flexible enough to serve as required. As a concept or construct its defining characteristic is its mutability. Indigeneity as a concept, a container, has to be plastic enough to expand in any direction while maintaining its integrity. Indigenous artists understand this.”

Another curator Christine Lalonde quotes artist and theorist David Garneau from a paper he delivered at the 2011 Essentially Indigenous? symposium at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. “We read, write, and critique ourselves into contemporaneity. This is self-determination. Figuring out what is or who are essentially Indigenous is no longer a Settler issue, it is an Indigenous problem.” Yet another essay by Columbian Catalina Lozano speaks of “the epistemic trap of Eurocentrism” next to an image of a 2012 work by Eduardo Abaroa titled Destruction of the Museum of Anthropology.

In this exhibition with more than 150 works of relatively recent art by over 80 artists from 16 countries, by indigenous people based in India, South America, Greenland, Denmark, Taiwan, New Zealand, USA, Australia, Japan, Norway, Finland, Mexico and Canada, there is heaps of difference. So the agenda of Sakahàn, which means in Algonkian (the language of the First Peoples of the land on which Ottawa is built) “to light a fire”, is complex and detailed.

The recurring topics of the art on show, as suggested in Lalonde’s catalogue essay, are “self-representation; histories and encounters; the value of the handmade; transmigration between the spiritual, the uncanny and the everyday; homelands and exile; and personal expressions of the impact of physical violence and societal trauma.”

Sakahàn was located in several sites (in the satellite Indigenous and Urban at the Canadian Museum of Civilisation there was local Canadian material – including djs, graffiti, photographs, and dance; and at the Ottawa Art Gallery a four person exhibition called In the Flesh about relationships between people and animals which included Buffalo Bone China, a work by Dana Claxton using mesmerising archival footage of buffalo running) but the International Art was in the National Gallery of Canada. It has a large glass tower at one end and Maman standing guard at the entrance at the other end. Sakahàn asserted itself immediately from outside the Gallery by an immense three dimensional photographic Iluliaq (Iceberg), the work of Inuk Silis, which was built over the crystalline glass tower which burst through it as if both were half-finished or in conflict.

The entry to the exhibition was up a long ramp above which hung Earth and Sky a banner decorated with airy symbols made by Shuvinal Ashoona and John Noestheden. On reaching the top of the ramp you entered a round room through swooshing automatic doors. In the centre of this small self-contained space was dramatically placed Michael Parekowhai’s My Sister, my Self – a black shiny fibreglass seal balancing on its nose a handmade replica of Duchamp’s Roue de bicyclette from 1913. The playfulness of this gesture, making a circus plaything from one of the iconic works of conventional European art history, was strong and lighthearted. It suggested the opening of a conversation with Eurocentric art, perhaps even a confrontation with its conventions and habits.

This idea was borne out in the next gallery which contained impressive works by Danie Mellor (blue and white chinoiserie-style drawings of rainforests and Aboriginal people with traditional shields, and above on the ceiling – a skull and a blue moon), Jonathan Jones (many lightbulbs hanging from white cords) and Kent Monkman (Boudoir de Berdashe, a teepee within which a highly camp video about race relations and the Western frontier played). And the soundtrack of Vernon Ah Kee’s cantchant could be heard from nearby. So Australian art was in the foreground, and Brenda Croft was one of eight international curatorial advisors to the show – although there was no essay in the catalogue from an Australian. Altogether there were five Australians as Warwick Thornton’s Nana video and Richard Bell’s video Scratch an Aussie and Life on a Mission painting were also included.

After these first few rooms things got very diverse and less familiar. The quantity of work and its variety made it pretty well impossible to follow any train of thought or theme – it was more a matter of does it talk to me and why? And maybe this entering into a feeling place and not a thinking place was appropriate.

I lingered over the work of Pia Arke which uses maps, photographs and substances like coffee, sugar, rice, flour and rolled oats as well her video Arctic Hysteria; and enjoyed the drawings of Itee Pootoogook of daily life in Cape Dorset. I experienced the disorientation, immersive and dreamlike, of the video installation of Brett Graham and Rachel Rakena’s Aniwaniwa about cultural loss and forced migration in Aotearoa New Zealand. Abel Rodriguez’s detailed six drawings of Seasonal Changes in the Amazon Forest were totally absorbing while Lucinations, the projection of Doug Smarch’s video which recreates the prophetic dream of a medicine man onto a screen of white feathers, was hallucinogenic. Then there was Steven Yazzie’s jittery drawings of Monument Valley made while riding through it in a buggy. And in a gallery flanked by Sol Le Witt wall drawings was Encore tranquillité [Calm Again] Jimmie Durham’s fibreglass boulder crushing a small aeroplane.

Was the work International or was the exhibition International? How many people saw it? Will its next manifestation be elsewhere? Who is it talking to? Regrettably the substantial and informative wall panels which illuminated the artworks are not in the catalogue.

As much as there were recurring references to age-old traditions there was definitely a sense of a beginning in Sakahàn. Even a sense of always beginning and of ongoing exploration, of completely unpredictable outcomes, of multiple directions, of valuable materials and territories, and important messages and observations, to hopefully continually enrich and confront contemporary art rather than conform to its paradigms. Indigeneity definitely increases the vocabulary of humanity and, just maybe, being indigenous means being human.


Stephanie Radok’s trip to Canada was assisted by the Australia Council.

Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art
17 May – 2 September 2013
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa