Making History

In 2018 at the Hahndorf Academy I was among thirteen artists who made work responding to the history of the building. Local historian Lyndell Davidge showed us through the artefacts and told us stories about the school and hospital that had once been there.

I looked into the story of T.W. ‘Chibby’ Boehm who founded the school in 1857 and taught subjects outside the usual range being taught at the time, such as Geography, Philosophy, Science, Art and History.

I also responded to memories of school in Austria where we learned a fancy script and Australia where it was plain. In both cases handwriting is taught through repetition.

The Museum of Domestic Botany

Solo exhibition 26 September to 1 November 2020 at Fabrik in Lobethal

The Museum of Domestic Botany pays homage to the many plants we encounter and use every day, turning an ethnographic gaze onto daily life as seen in South Australian suburbia. The exhibition offers space to reflect on the sites of origin and production of these botanical specimens, their journeys to get here and the people who tend and harvest them, thus evoking myriad stories of interconnectedness between the earth, plants and people.


2020 The Museum of Domestic Botany, Fabrik Arts + Heritage, Lobethal

2017 A Prospect of Prospects, Prospect Gallery, Adelaide, SA

2011 The Sublingual Museum, Flinders University Art Museum, Adelaide, SA

2011 Hills & Beasts, Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide, SA

2009 Weeds of the Wasteplaces, artroom5, Adelaide, SA

2006 What we bring with us, Watson Place Gallery, Melbourne, Victoria

2005 Lost Books, Barr Smith Library, University of Adelaide, SA

        Early Glass, Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide, SA

2004 Brightness falls from the air, South Australian School of Art Gallery, SA

2003 The Weight of Words, South Australian Museum

2003 Migration and Local Knowledge, Gabriel Gallery, Melbourne, Victoria

2002 Talking about Country, Adelaide Botanic Gardens, Adelaide, SA


2018 Make History, Hahndorf Academy, SA

2016 A Covenant with the Animals, Murray Bridge Regional Gallery, SA

2015 Ecologies of Place, Gallery 1855, Adelaide, SA

         Taking up space, articulate, Sydney, NSW

2014 Kangaroo, Section One, Adelaide, SA

2013 but mostly air, Canberra School of Art Gallery, ACT

2010 How Can a Network…?, Westspace, Melbourne, Victoria

2010 little weeds, Format Gallery, Adelaide, SA

2007 Imagined Australia, Palazzo Vaj, Prato, Italy

2006 Out of site, Fenn Place Gallery, Adelaide, SA

        Confluence, Murray Bridge Regional Gallery, SA

2005 This and Other Worlds:Contemporary Australian Drawing, National Gallery of Victoria, Federation Square, Victoria

talking about country: people and plants

A selection of works on show at Footscray, previously shown at Museum of Economic Botany in Adelaide and later at National Gallery of Victoria.

Altogether there is a painting for every country in the world. They bring together our diversity, our variety and our similarity.

Botanical description of plants do not encompass all the meanings of plants.

Nationalities do not encompass all the meanings of people.

Trade: Fiona Hall

Botany meets metal. Metal meets knitting. Knitting meets videotape. Videotape meets soap. Soap meets money. Money meets botany.


The complex, ingenious, labour-intensive artworks made by Fiona Hall arouse great wonder, delight, incredulity and thoughtfulness in the viewer as the various bodies of her work create a Wunderkammer for the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. Hall started using metal, the recycled metal from aluminium drink cans, significant global evidence of throwaway consumerist detritus, in the late eighties when she began to cut, arrange and re-photograph it in elaborate tableaux. From the beginning the metal had a special eloquence, in a photograph it is grey but a reflective grey, having a lustre and depth almost like skin. Hall responded to this quality by making many human bodies from it, for a series of photographic works on Dante’s Purgatory, Hell and Paradise (1988-89) and for another project entitled Words (1990) in which metal bodies spelled out sentences around the gallery walls. In 1990 in the Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art she showed the first in the Paradisus Terrestris series, opened sardine tins inside which are aluminium human bodies and out of which fold tin plant forms. These astonishing and erotic works reference the elaborate silver filigree table decorations of the nineteenth century as well as earthly fecundity, and what Jonathan Holmes has called ‘ecstatic reverie’.1


Then in Biodata at the Adelaide Festival in 1994, Hall showed a most extraordinary piece, an audacious watershed work, in which the artist’s labour, political analysis and a kind of black humour were intently wound together. For Medicine bundle for the non-born child (1993) Hall knitted a matinee jacket, a bonnet and bootees, and made a rattle/teething ring from thin metal strips cut from Coke cans. A six pack of Coke cans onto which rubber nipples are attached completes the work. Coca-cola, originally used traditional drugs, the South American cocoa leaf and the African cola nut. Today as well as being a sign of U.S. corporate capital, it is used as a post-coital contraceptive douche in Third World countries. The artist had always dealt with big human questions but this work confronted the contemporary world head-on. The matinee set, a series of garments for Baby which refer to the making of a nest for a child, the wrapping of it in warmth and love, is here transposed to the harsh realpolitik world of the market, the commodity and the trademark; world domination and cultural imperialism following close behind. Corruption, betrayal, sorrow and longing, the devaluing and cheapness of human life are wound into this work by the careful making by hand of these cold harsh garments.


Hall takes her role as an artist very seriously and is deeply concerned with the state of the world and with human responsibility for it. The issue of trade is a critical one, both in terms of globalisation and in symbolic terms, particularly in the face of the destruction of the World Trade Centre in New York as I write these words. Trade between ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ parts of the world, Third Worlds and First Worlds, colonial and post-colonial intertwined histories raise questions of justice, destiny and survival. These threads, which tie together many streams of human thought and inquiry, knowledge and politics, come up again and again in Hall’s works. Thus the artwork is rich and deep in its highly developed historical consciousness. Trade is also the territory of an artist like Yinke Shonibare whose work uses colonial histories of textiles and ceramics and thus: “contributes to the opening out of subtlety on questions of critique and imaginative projection.” 2 Narelle Jubelin’s work also taps into these fertile and subterranean veins of mingled power, culture and history to: “invoke a series of narratives and counter-narratives about imperialism, patriarchy and the world commerce of cultural artefacts.” 3


In Australia post-colonialism is a lived condition rather than just a theory. (Though Indigenous Australians may declare that post-colonialism has not begun for them and that they are still colonised.) The post-colonial condition involves a strong awareness of history. In my understanding to be post-colonial is not to see the world in terms of a One and an Other. It is to escape such simple binaries. It is to be aware of the convoluted stories and events of history and thus to describe ways of seeing things that do not belong to you not as ‘Other’ but as ‘another’, thus to see them as an addition, an accompaniment, a variation. It is to acknowledge that there are many histories of the world and that they interlock and overlock like threads in sewing. Post-colonialism is opposed to post-modernism because it builds meaning with complexity rather than emptying meaning. Different views may not merge nor be mutually exclusive. It is a rich harvest for art. Thus it is true to say both “The deliberately post-colonial art of the present is defined by the critical re-appraisal of colonial art and iconography.” 4, and “the post-colonial project [is] converting European imperialism into an indigenous renaissance.” 5


In Occupied Territory (1995), commissioned to coincide with the opening of the Museum of Sydney, Hall uses beads, wire and nails – the substances which were brought to ‘New Worlds’ as trade items. Cheap stuff that it was hoped would fascinate and ‘buy’ the native’s co-operation, or their land. Hall has made eight arcane and mysterious objects, echoes of fetish items or evening dresses or handbags. They are representations of the fruits and seeds of trees, indigenous and non-indigenous, growing in the grounds of the first Government House in Sydney in the early nineteenth century – a fig, a pear, an angophora, an acacia, an oak, a banksia, a peach and a Norfolk Island Pine Tree. These objects amaze with their ingenuity which is combined with a certain handmade awkwardness that makes them objects of finesse but never only objects of skill. They are fabrications as much as representations. Their agenda of memorialising the items present at the moment of colonial encounters, taking the material languages of fruit and bead, nail and seed, and literally embodying them and elements of their histories, involves the creation of artworks that speak with complex and poignant voices. Beauty, belief, history, materiality, differing interpretations of the same objects, intangible qualities like hope.


For Give a dog a bone, a work shown at the 1996 Asia-Pacific Triennial, Hall knitted a huge cape of metal strips of Coke cans, placed it on her naked father’s shoulders and photographed him like a pale pink Polynesian god. Then she filled a wall of cardboard boxes behind him with household objects and refuse carved from soap. Cardboard boxes – storage containers, travelling emissars, potential refuges for the homeless – are expressive objects. Soap, while a valuable commodity among the homeless, was something unknown and unneeded in the Pacific until after colonisation.


In the 1997 Australian Perspecta Hall suspended thirty-six body parts, heads and limbs, knitted from videotape in a work entitled Slash and Burn. Moving in the air currents created by viewers, emerging from and bobbing over videotapes of films about war in the Pacific the works brought together the twentieth century medium of film with older narratives. In this knitting of videotape, the making of a body from a movie, a material structure from moving images, is entwined a complex series of metaphors for knowledge, meaning and entertainment. Cargo cult, ghost dance, love magic, increase ceremony, the work touches on the subtle chords of art as something kinaesthetic, something located within the bones. It also takes us to the territory explored by historians such as Greg Dening who writes experientially grounded narratives from the history of the Pacific, post-colonial stories that bring together our present experience with historical moments of encounter and rupture. For Dening history is always an ongoing performance with many levels and layers. Was it the god Lono who was mistaken for Captain Cook or Captain Cook who was mistaken for him?


The human body, its physicality, materiality and eroticism, is very strong in Hall’s work in her exceptional and excruciating methods of constructing her art, as well as in her subject matter which is never disembodied, never abstract but always grounded in physicality. The artist’s hands are ever present. (I sometimes imagine them covered in cuts from all the sharp edges of metal that she has used.)


Hall likes codes and systems, the forms and patterns of knowledge, she likes to study the way that learning has been constructed and formed. She sees parallels in the human and botanic worlds, and exploits them with firm erotic intent. The intricate Paradisus Terrestris was begun in 1988 and has continued in several series since, Paradisus Entitled which refers to Aboriginal prior occupation of Australia and the Paradisus Terrestris Subset which have been made since Hall has undertaken residencies in Sri Lanka. Human welfare is closely tied to that of plants. Botanical journeys around the globe mark and are marked by human history. Hall’s plant forms, which arise out of opened sardine tins, use only the surface area of metal in the area unwound by the key. Thus their sense of balance, however intricate and incredible they become. The sheer heart-rending beauty of these works is almost accidental, or certainly incidental to their purposeful juxtaposition of bodies and plants but no less delightful and astonishing for that. To observe the lift of a certain leaf, the curve of a buttock or fruit, the fringe of a flower is to sense the generative energy of the world. It is also to feel, with renewed passion that, in Dylan Thomas’ words: “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower drives my green age.”


The intensity of Hall’s making is never about craft, in the sense of serving a tradition or skill. Rather there is a sense that she invents ways of doing things, of combining materials and techniques in order to strike the viewer with a freshness, an exclamation of wonder that will make them see afresh the combinations and juxtapositions of material and intellectual languages that she combines. Her soap carvings for Cash Crop (1998), carvings that can be worn away by water, carvings that are fragrant with soap scents, juxtapose seeds with terms from the worlds of trade and finance. Incontinent (1997), a work made for the Canberra-based project Archives and the Everyday includes plumbing pipes under a desk, a facsimile of the desk used by Queen Victoria to sign the Commission of Assent to the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Bill in 1900. The plastic pipes are exuberantly pierced by holes, which form tendrils and twists of decorative designs thus making the pipe beautiful, and also clearly, leaky.


Hall’s most recent ecologically charged work involves the painting of life-size leaves on bank notes. An insistent insinuating beauty is present in the study of plants, in botany, in the works of nature. In 1859 John Ruskin wrote: “ If you can paint one leaf you can paint the world.” This remark by Ruskin was chosen by Bernard Smith to close his remarkable book European Vision and the South Pacific (1960) which suggested that in Australia the basis of non-Aboriginal art has always been an encounter between an empirical scientific vision and a strangeness. A strangeness that has become incorporated into that vision, but which changes it irrevocably and continuously. Hall’s leaves in Leaf Litter are painted on the currency of the place in which they originate, thus human and plant history are conjoined in these monochromatic works which hark back to both the human and the plant bodies that she has previously cut from metal. The silver gelatine grey scale of black and white photography, of a world seen not in black and white but in multiple greys, with all the lustre and subtle variations of skin tones, is a metallic one. Plant skin, human skin, history and trade, migration and diaspora – the scattering of seeds, weeds and human cultures – are here brought together in artworks which entwine the human and the non-human to demonstrate that no separation is possible or, indeed, desirable.

Stephanie Radok

1. Jonathan Holmes, ‘Profile: Fiona Hall: Garden of Earthly Delights’, Contemporary Art Tasmania, No. 5, Spring/Summer 1994, Hobart, p19.
2. Bernice Murphy, ‘Pictura Britannica: scenes, fictions and constructions in contemporary British Art’, Pictura Britannica, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 1997, p29.
3. Ian Burn, ‘The Metropolis is only Half the Horizon’, The Boundary Rider: 9th Biennale of Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1992, p. 32.
4. Nicholas Thomas, ‘Introduction’, Double Vision: art histories and colonial histories in the Pacific, (eds.) Nicholas Thomas and Diane Losche, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999, p. 4.
5. Kevin Murray, ‘How to make friends and avoid apartheid’, Art Monthly Australia, October, 2001, p. 5.

Text and poems for Hossein

Written for Hossein Valamanesh, Sherman Galleries, Sydney

Fingers of memory

pre-dawn wakeful
listening in the silence
for rain
to burst
like stones on the roof

listening for magpies
awake also
and watching the sky for light
to echo the movement
and sing it
back and forth
across the sky

a creation song for morning
a song for the sun, for the day, and for being

everyday the same as the last
everyday the only one

The human finger touches sand and makes a dot. This mark is like a footprint or the tracks made by a bird or snake. It is like the mark that rain makes, both purposeful and random, it tracks thought the way a track traces movement. It is a first movement historically and individually, linking the present and the past. ‘I am here’ it says and then straightaway ‘I was here’.

The human finger touches fogged glass and makes a mark, writes a word, draws a circle, joins two squares to make a cube.

Point, line, plane. These are elements of the creative credo of Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky and the approach to drawing taught at the Bauhaus which is still used to teach the idea of three dimensions in Western systems of drawing. A point is one dimension, a line creates two dimensions while the plane introduces the idea of volume or the third dimension. This graphic magic is revealed to us as children through geometry and thus we learn a way of measuring the earth, geo – earth, metry – measure. We learn to draw a solid universe on paper, spiralling stairs, boxes in boxes, polygons and arcs, spheres and cones.

In Aboriginal painting from the Kimberley to the Western Desert, from Utopia to Arnhem Land, whether the marks are made on the body, on the ground, on bark, on board, on canvas or on paper, the dot or point is not about dimensions as it is in Euclidean geometry. The dimensions the dot touches on and its purposes are multivalent and polysemic. It can be rain, hail, sand, eggs, trees, stars…it can be more than one of these things, it can be all of them at the same time.

Pattern can disguise knowledge, clouding clarity and enmeshing information, which is already coded, into a matrix of dots to hide a too easy reading. Or it can be a way of inculcating power, lending the painted surface the brilliance of the plumage of a bird, the scales of a fish or lizard, the shimmer of water. Dotting and cross-hatching produce rhythmic structures which both contain and resolve complex tensions. As anthropologists Peter Sutton and Howard Morphy tell us in reference to North East Arnhem Land art: “It is the quality of brilliance that is associated in Yolgnu art with ancestral power and with beauty. The brilliance, the Yolgnu say, makes the gut (the seat of the emotions) go happy.”

In his recent work Hossein Valamanesh is making objects for contemplation by responding to the patterns formed by plant life, patterns which we see red on our eyelids when we are in the sun and close our eyes, patterns which we see on our arms when it is warm and the skin becomes transparent, the veins visible. Forking, branching, dividing, meeting, joining, segmenting, all these organic forms he brings into measured and circumscribed rectangular spaces.

In Iran/Persia, Valamanesh’s birthplace, the idea of paradise as an enclosed garden is imitated by carpets filled with stylized designs of birds and flowers, trees and water. For the artist the knots on the underside of a Persian carpet, as units making up a pattern, have an affinity with the dots of Aboriginal painting and, like them, combine function with meaning.

Valamanesh’s works in this exhibition include gridded dots of black, red and yellow sands made in homage to the use of the dot by Western Desert artists, as the artist reflects on his brief stay in Papunya in 1974 when he observed the Aboriginal painters at work. When he asked if he could do a dot painting he was told: “Yes, but tell your own story.”

Sometimes after I have been working in the garden
and I close my eyes at night to go to sleep
I still see what I saw when I was gardening
I see the mandala rosette forms
of green tap-rooted weeds
floating eidetic onto my closed eyes
Even if I have not been thrusting a pronged tool
into the soil to unroot and remove these plants
I still see a succession of them rising out of the darkness
towards me in a peaceful and beautiful way
Are they the ghosts of the plants that I have murdered
or have I released some image bank that is stirred
by proximity to soil and green things
In these quiet moments
something has entered me
on the border
between the sky and the land
kneeling and touching
the horizon


Stephanie Radok

you walk funny

How can art (in all its forms), exhibits, installations and provocations be a better catalyst to raise awareness, support and momentum for urban nature and green spaces?

I was asked by the idea hive TNOC The Nature of Cities ( to answer this question and wrote:

Art is a space against conformity, rigidity and convention, a space of possibility and discovery, invention and creativity—an ever-renewing starting point for the ongoing development of human culture.

Art is always potentially a bearer of the conscious recognition of sharing the world with other life forms, animate and inanimate, past and present.

One way that art can be a better catalyst to raise awareness, support and momentum for urban nature and green spaces is by being outside or drawing attention to the outdoors of the city.

By being in the world outside galleries and museums and by commenting on daily life.

By taking account of the seasons, the weather and the time of day.

By being casual and ephemeral.

By being free.

By connecting to where it is rather than imagining it lives in no-place.

By connecting to the Earth in big ways.

By separating from the money story.

By being small.

To encounter art when you are not expecting it is to experience surprise and to lighten up, to be delighted. And that delight can be about other lifeforms that we share the city with.

I recall seeing a piece of paste-up art in the street on the post holding the button that people press to cross the street. It consisted of a small image of a pigeon and the text “you walk funny”. Is the pigeon talking to you? Does it have an opinion? A biography? As you cross the street you start thinking about how pigeons and many other birds walk—they sometimes bob their heads as they walk. You try it. You walk funny. You feel lighter. Next time you see a pigeon you see inside it a little.

Weeds of the City, an artwork I made for a project called Little weeds: small acts of tenderness & violence, curated by Lisa Harms, involved walking in the city of Adelaide every Sunday morning with my dog for a month. While we walked I photographed and then collected weeds from cracks between the pavements and the edges of the gutters. The collection sites and images appear on the website. The weeds are travellers, evidence of botanical diasporas from all over the world. I took them home and then painted images of them on beer coasters, Belgian beer coasters. Fine art is often painted on Belgian linen, in this case the cardboard was from Belgium. At the exhibition the weeds were on sale very cheaply and people were encouraged to buy two and then release one, set it free, in a city pub or café then photograph it and return the image to the city-mapping component of the website of the exhibition.

And I wrote: “I am starting to see the city differently from ground level, as both a refuge and a prison. This study of what grows wild and disregarded by the side of the road includes important herbs and edible plants. Among them are some of the seven sacred herbs of the Anglo-Saxons, wattle seedlings, ferns and mistletoe, grain plants, poisonous plants, edible plants. Is it possible that one day the knowledge of what grows disregarded around us may be the difference between life and death? This post-apocalyptic thought is hidden somewhere in the work. Even as the edges of our streets are poisoned so that weeds will not suggest a lack of control so rare plants are found on the verges of roads, escapees from homogeneity.”

Stephanie Radok

Tuzlusu (Saltwater): Istanbul Biennial

by Stephanie Radok

Our tears are salty.
Griselda Pollock in her essay, ‘The Cure for Anything is Salt Water’
in Tuzlusu (Saltwater) catalogue, 2015

The curator of the 14th Istanbul Biennial Tuzlusu (Saltwater): a Theory of Thought Forms was Italian-American-Bulgarian art historian and ex-art critic Carolyn Christov-Barkagiev (CCB) who also curated the 2008 Sydney Biennale subtitled Revolutions – Forms that turn and the massive 2012 Kassel dOCUMENTA (13), the five yearly global exhibition in Germany which acts as a punctuation point in global contemporary art. It is just a matter of time before CCB curates the Venice Biennale though she doesn’t like to be called a curator and calls herself the drafter instead, taking the term from draftsman. And usually uses a curatorium of colleagues or ‘agents’ to bounce ideas around.Clearly CCB likes the word ‘Forms’. And uses it as a term to free art from any specificities of media or task.

Curators have favourites and inclinations just like anyone. CCB’s shows tend to have a voracious and voluminous inclusivity often including, in some way, masses of dead people whether artists, philosophers, spiritualists, writers or whatever as well as lengthy writing components such as dOCUMENTA (13)’s the 100 Notes—100 Thoughts series, The Logbook and The Book of Books, and even out of reach exhibits. Thus dOCUMENTA (13) had components in Kabul, Afghanistan; Alexandria and Cairo, Egypt; and Banff, Canada, as well as in Kassel which is situated in the navel of Germany.

Tuzlusu (Saltwater) included imaginary, unattainable and out of reach spaces like Pierre Huyghe’s underwater theatre for jellyfish as well as accessible ones. And for navigation – a slim map, a paperback guidebook and a fat bilingual Turkish-English Bible-dimensioned hardback catalogue of essays, quotations and drawings.

They said it was possible to encompass Tuzlusu in three days. Works by over eighty participants from Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and North America, were displayed in over thirty venues on the European and Asian sides of the Bosphorus in museums as well as temporary spaces such as boats, hotels, former banks, garages, gardens, schools, shops and private homes.

Depending on how many days you had, what the weather was like, whether you took a tour and how good or bad your map-reading companions were you may or may not have seen everything. But I am not sure that that is important. I am coming increasingly to think that it is the experience of being somewhere at a particular time that makes an exhibition valuable.

If you went to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam or the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, the Louvre in Paris, MONA in Hobart or indeed the Gab Titui Cultural Centre on Thursday Island and saw just one work because the building was being cleaned or whatever it is very likely that that one work and that experience would stay with you for much longer and mean much more than walking in endless halls and galleries until you became numb with looking. That said, part of the fun of biennials or other large art events in which work is scattered through a city is the sense of hard sweaty work and harmless adventure in finding the art, as well as the value of experiencing the way it is embedded and makes commentary in non-gallery venues. But surely it is best to not be ticking each exhibit off systematically and treating the whole event like a battle to be won, rather we should see it as a cocktail, an experience to be savoured.

And if you stop to dream and think … who knows where you might end up?

CCB is steeped in European art history, in fixed precedents and lineages which can sometimes produce an insular or smug view of contemporary art. Yet she also works at implementing new lineages and sightlines. As CCB spent some time in Australia working on the Sydney Biennale this means that she includes Australian indigenous artists in Tuzlusu but she hasn’t raised her head to see the Pacific or indeed New Zealand. So it is in many ways a limited kind of saltwater that she presents.


A wonderful and delicate sense of cultural, intellectual, historical, aesthetic wealth was present for me in the experience of the city of Istanbul, in freshly made pomegranate juice, in the architecture, the opulent building materials, the elegance of the furniture and environments of the privileged places I visited through the Biennial. This sense of the marriage of culture and power exists all over the world but in this legendary city, memorialised over recent years by the novels of Orhan Pamuk whose work focuses on the deep provincialism and melancholy yearnings of himself and his compatriots, it is even more prominent. Luxury is here, and poverty is here, and all the stages in-between … but it is especially opulent luxury, and defiant poverty, no not defiant there are other words – hard-working, resigned, watchful, aware of the potential suddenness of change, and the gripping weight of history and location.

Istanbul is on the must-see list for many world travellers, its past life as Constantinople and Byzantium, its location and architecture make it irresistible to tourists. My own tolerance for iconic historical sites is fairly limited though watching tourists is rich terrain. Many of the people who live in Istanbul have no prospects of travelling anywhere ever, many are refugees from other countries, and in talking to locals – people working in hotels, restaurants or shops about the Biennial it became clear that most of them didn’t know that it was happening.

Being in Istanbul for the first time and having more than historical monuments to see was excellent, it reminded me of the fellowship of the global community sometimes called the art world, a more or less moveable feast. And the importance of art as a language that is not the same all over the world but which has persistent ambitions for a kind of Cultural Esperanto, a belief system that evades art’s forced marriage to money and power and instead sees it as working optimistically as the very best kind of infotainment and as an agent for change or at the very least accessible and thought-provoking analysis.

The remarkable exhibition How did we get here, an exhibition exploring Turkey’s recent past through social movements and elements of popular culture that emerged after the coup d’état on September 12, 1980 which was on show at SALT Beyoğlu and at SALT Galata during the Biennial, though not an official part of it, demonstrated brilliantly how an international audience may be urgently washed in the recent history of a country.

It showed how a grand biennial of contemporary art away from home or even at home is always potentially much more than a venue for art. It is urgent for everyone in the world to know more about everyone else’s recent past.

And travelling to see an exhibition … when at the same time a short distance away thousands of refugees are endangering their lives on the sea has a sharpening effect on the frequent solipsism of the cultural life.

To me Istanbul was friendly, gracious and thoughtful. Yet the stencilled graffiti I saw there which stayed with me most intently said:
“Only the dead have seen the end of war.”


The cure for anything is salt water – sweat, tears, or the sea.

Isak Dinesen

 Picking my way along the shores of the Bosphorus from the Galata Bridge to Istanbul Modern after a traditional balik ekmek/fish sandwich it seemed for a little while that the entire city was an installation. Broken glass, scaffolding, temporary shelters, writing on the walls, dead end streets, mysterious shops, look at enough art for long enough and you can learn to see the world as hypothetical, provisional, there in order to make you think, to focus an issue and reformulate a position. Yet it eventually generally becomes clear where the art is by the presence of well-dressed people.

It turned out to be a colour that I took away from Tuzlusu. It is a particular pink that appears on the Biennale poster/map in a shape painted by theosophist Annie Besant from her vocabulary of Thought Forms of 1901. The form is like a star or a flower, a circle with a radiating fringe of petals or beams. You might think that such a form has a verbal explanation and so it does ‘Radiating Affection’. What the colour means is less clear.

There was a level in Tuzlusu in which the pink was connected to political events specifically the Armenian genocide that took place in 1915. There was the pink colour or something very near to it in Aslı Çavuşoğlu’s work Red/Red a row of framed recycled pieces of paper and old handmade notebooks held open on bookstands which had drawings in them in red ink made from cochineal beetles who live on the Ararat Plain, the border between Turkey and Armenia. The colour is called Armenian Red.

Not the form but the colour appeared again in the shadowy, sketchy work of Bracha L. Ettinger whose 75 notebooks and midnight paintings made in the dark over several years had some likeness to the loose combinations of shapes and words in the notebooks of Orhan Pamuk. Her works are a representation of thought with all its comings and goings, splitting, pausing, regrouping, gathering and ordering.

Pamuk’s own Museum of Innocence, is a three storey building dedicated to displays of the ephemeral objects and mementoes described in his eponymous novel such as butterfly brooches, cigarette butts, matchboxes, perfume bottles, marbles, coins, lighters, glasses of antacid, photographs, menus, crockery and postcards. Each display, sometimes reminiscent of a Joseph Cornell artwork though much less discriminating, recalls a moment in time and place. On the top floor of the Museum were two Arshile Gorky drawings Act of Creations from 1949 and Vale of the Armenian from 1944. And the quite charming guard came and stood next to them while I looked at them as if I might, like a crazy iconoclastic Australian, break the glass.

 At SALT Beyoğlu in the exhibition How did we get here Aslı Çavuşoğlu had a work called ‘191/205’ that was a turntable with a record playing a song on it. The song, created with the Turkish MC Fuat, used 191 of the 205 words banned on TV and radio broadcasts in Turkey in January 1985 by the General Directorate of the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT) on the grounds that “they did not comply with the general structure and operation of the Turkish language and that they were beneath the level of standard Turkish.” The banned words included “memory, remember, recollection, experimental, motion, revolution, nature, dream, theory, possibility, history, freedom, example, conversation, whole, life”.

At the top of the SALT Beyoğlu building was a roof garden and on the floor just below that a vast and amazing bookshop/library asserting the immense power of writing, of books, of ideas, of language. And the presence of Europe and other places as represented by their writers – postcolonial ones as well as the old staples. On the wall were written the words of Mallarmé: Tout, au monde, existe pour aboutir à un livre.

In the library I overheard two students laughing and asked them if they could repeat the words they were quoting to me. They said “Those who were dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music” from Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols. “And he is a dancer and I am a musician”, the tall one said.

Another work that echoed the Tuzlusu pink was by Theaster Gates. It was located on the ground floor and upstairs in an empty shop. This work was called Three or Four Shades of Blues.

Gates is an artist engaged with making art projects that try to effect social change by retrieving and repurposing buildings and artefacts. In Chicago in the Dorchester Projects his Rebuild Foundation renovated two houses on Dorchester Avenue, one called the Archive House which holds 14,000 architecture books from a closed bookshop and one called the Listening House which holds 8,000 vinyl records.

In 2013 Gates purchased the Stony Island Savings Bank and restored the old building now known as the Stony Island Arts Bank. It contains the book collection of John H. Johnson, founder of Ebony and Jet magazines; the record collection of Frankie Knuckles, the godfather of house music; and slides from the University of Chicago’s and Art Institute of Chicago’s collections.

The ground floor of the shop in Istanbul was set up like a potter’s studio where at times Gates was there making imitations of a genuine Iznik bowl from the local Museum. The Iznik bowl was on display alongside his raw clay forms. And a record player.

Up the precarious stairs was a room with a screen and some chairs. A video showed a series of slides of ceramics from all over the world, some of which were miscoloured with that recurring pink, as well as a video of a recording session at Atlantic Studios. It was a Turkish man Ahmet Ertegun who started Atlantic Records with Herb and Mariam Abramson in 1947. This work entranced me, the slides taking me back to sitting in the dark in old lecture theatres, to the comfort and monotony of illustrations of vases in books and to the mutable chemical characteristics of analogue photography, and the video slid me into the making of music and the relationships between the people making it. With projections and videos let’s face it either you duck out straight away or tune in to some level of trance that takes you inside your body, your memory and your mind.

After recalling these experiences back in Adelaide I went out in the early evening for a walk across the park where, in the summer heat, great shards of marsupial-coloured bark had fallen off the big blue gums and lay all over the ground where nine magpies stood facing into the wind. Then I saw the Tuzlusu pink on the chests and wings of a flock of galahs making their characteristic tzut tzut sound.