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.

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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. 

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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.

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Stephanie Radok

(written for an exhibition at Heide Museum of Art in 2006)

Trade: Fiona Hall

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

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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

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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.

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.)

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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.”

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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.

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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

first published in Artlink, 2001

FOOTNOTES
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.

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?

In 2014 I was asked by the idea hive TNOC The Nature of Cities (thenatureofcities.com) to answer the above 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 in 2010 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

Gleaning: relational aesthetics (2005)

Relational Aesthetics as a term to describe certain art has been around since 1995. More recently it has flared into the limelight as a focus for discussion. Below is a list of some recent flashpoints. Notably the Tactical Interventions Strategies exhibition, curated by Marcus Canning in 2001 in Perth, took the bull by the horns in penetrating beyond the catchphrase and getting on with the actions implied by it.

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Relational aesthetics was first coined in 1995 by Nicolas Bourriard, French curator and, since 1999, co-director with Jerome Sans of the contemporary art centre Palais de Tokyo in Paris. The author of two books, Relational aesthetics and Postproduction, Bourriard also co-founded with Philippe Parreno, Eric Troncy and Liam Gillick, the annual bilingual(French/English) magazine Documents sur l’art in 1992. Relational aesthetics refers to art concerned with social interaction. It is not the name of a theory. Bourriard’s concern is to engage with what he considers the most interesting recent art and, endearingly, not to write art history. Hurrah!

“Art constantly transforms me. I am not a historian, and I am not interested in writing good things about good artists.”
(from interview with Miroslav Kulchitsky in Ukrainian online art magazine Boiler #1, Kiev 1998, boiler.odessa.net)

Relational art doesn’t produce a product but focuses on relations between audience members, events and ideas. The aesthetic dimension of such artwork is process not product; the work is not a spectacle but that far humbler thing – a relationship. The audience becomes participant not spectator, experiencing a transient moment or event initiated by the artist, and coming away from it not with a memory of an object or of the vision of a single artist but rather with a renewed sense of relations between people as negotiable and fluid, as open and able to be determined spontaneously and freshly. Such thoughts may then be applied to the wider world.

If they occur in galleries such events occur under the mantle of art and, while they may seem gratuitous and their outcomes frequently trivial or bemusing, giving away lollies or making soup thus demonstrating art as a precarious gift, often they contain some serious political comment and substance. When they take place outside galleries their political intent has more bite and segues into activism and general culture jamming.

In generating behaviour and potential reuses art challenges passive culture, composed of merchandise and consumers. (Relational aesthetics, Bourriard)

Culture jamming is a phrase incorporating both a sense of playing with culture, like musicians ‘jam’ with each other, as well as ‘jamming’ in CB radio slang – the illegal interruption of mainstream radio broadcasts. Culture jamming skews the logic of mainstream culture to reveal the manipulations and inequalities endemic in consumer society and commodity capitalism. Felena Alach calls interventionist art actions ‘logic bombs’.

But how new are such approaches? Buggering up billboards for alcohol and tobacco is a task undertaken by the various anonymous members of BUGAUP (Billboard Utilising Graffitists Against Unhealthy Promotions) since 1979. Contemporary stencils, stickers and graffiti which undercut and comment on daily life follow in BUGAUP’s footsteps. Such work makes the spectator, who is now a participant and no longer a spectator, think about the place or the role of art and what its use may be, everywhere or anywhere in daily life rather than confined to established opinions and expert places. Thus art, that old elastic and open category, is further stretched and extended. That vital link between art and life where the freedom demonstrated by art is a reflection of what may be achieved in life is present here. Thus what Bourriard draws attention to is not new but is newly relevant or extended in recent artwork.

***

In the UK the group known as Platform has, since 1983, engaged in art as a social practice, a tool to broaden awareness and illuminate basic social, political and ecological issues. ‘PLATFORM has been described as many things – an arts group, a forum for political dialogue, an environmental campaign – but, in essence, it is an idea, a vision of using creativity to transform the society we live in; a belief in every individual’s innate power to contribute to this process.’ (platformlondon.org)

Critical Art Ensemble is a group of five artists dedicated to exploring the intersections between art, technology, radical politics and critical theory. Their work includes publications, biotech projects and tactical interventions. (critical-art.net)

Such art and the semionauts (sign travelers) who undertake it have goals which confront and undermine globalisation and commodity capitalism. Some examples are pvi collective’s offering of a terrorist training squad experience to a mini-busload of spectator-participant-trainees; Christian Di Vietri’s Insecurity which involved keeping people out and then filling the gallery with multiple security guards; the air guitar competition run by Damp Collective; the interactive installations which Jacqui Riva and Geoff Lowe have produced for many years with the collective identity of A Constructed World.

Yet these approaches to art are not particularly new. They contain elements of performance art, Situationism, Fluxus events and 1970s ‘happenings’. There are also distinct elements of community art in this kind of work. What is new are the particular pressures and situations of globalisation today. Recently contemporary art has advanced to a new level of major global business. Biennales have increased tenfold in the last ten years, along with art fairs, auctions and publications. The juggernaut of exchange and circulation of money that means business can result in the numbing impotence of culture which becomes mere fashion fodder, cash crop, and change for the sake of change. In the sixties the first attempts were made by artists to escape co-option, to make uncollectable art, to comment without being commodified.

And now there is NUCA, the Network of Uncollectable Artists, begun by Lucas Ihlein, ex-member of Squatspace and a committed cultural activist. ‘NUCA is a nation-wide affiliation connecting those who gravitate towards ephemeral projects, participatory experiences, illegal art actions, and activities that oddify everyday life. Some members make unwieldy installation projects, while others alter billboards, project images in abandoned spaces at night, or exchange ideas rather than objects. Some simply make dead ugly paintings that would never sell.’ (http://bilateral.blog-city.com/)

Is art ever more than what can be bought and sold?
Can art be liberatory?
Is art a zone of fashion, of humorous or salacious fuel for the jaded appetite, of material to be digested and regurgitated by academia, or does it have a role of justice, of manning the barricades, exposing greed and corruption, lighting the darkness?

“The enemy we have to fight first and foremost is embodied in a social form: it is the spread of the supplier/client relations to every level of human life, from work to dwelling place by way of all the tacit contracts which define our private life.” (Relational aesthetics, Bourriard)

The political dimension of the idea of relational aesthetics is significant as it draws attention to what is also happening on a global level – resistance to multinationals.

“there is a driving argument for the need for art to soften its own image, to become more like the adelaide central markets, and less like the bank.”(21/1/2004 email from Lucas Ihlein)

In Agnes Varda’s film The Gleaners and I (Les Glaneurs et La Glaneuse) made in 2000 we see people in France in all kinds of situations collecting things – potatoes, grapes, furniture, oysters, bric-a-brac, artichokes, apples, while the filmmaker collects images, people and stories. Part autobiography, part documentary, and including reflections on the law, poverty, serendipity and ageing, this oblique yet direct film with its casual truth to the haphazardness of life and its attention to the suffering and individuality of ordinary people collecting what is left over or left out of the official world lingers in your thoughts as a radically human intervention in a harsh world.

Stephanie Radok

published in Artlink, September 2005, STIRRING.

Some references

Relational Aesthetics Symposium, Queensland University of Technology’s Visual Arts/Creative Industries and the Institute of Modern Art, Fortitude Valley, Brisbane, 12 March, 2005, Bronia Iwanczak

In Relational Aesthetics, Nicholas Bourriaud argues that a new generation of artists have dispensed with old approaches to art. Instead, he claims that contemporary artists like Pierre Huyghe, Thomas Hirschhorn and Rirkrit Tiravanija make art installations that privilege “relations” over “objects”. In so doing, they develop a more engaged relationship with the art audience and the broader community.

http://www.icols.org/pages/NEWS-EVENTS/BrisCONFERENCE.html
South, market visits, Melbourne, 5 March, 2005, Nicola Harvey

Following the experience I started to think about the way in which the community members who frequent the markets responded to the presence of the artists, this led me to the writings of the French theorist Nicholas Bourriaud. In 1998 Bourriaud published a seminal text Relational Aesthetics, and it has since been construed as one of the defining texts in contextualising the trend amongst many artists in the 1990s who attempted to return art to the realm in which it is always initiated: the public arena. As Bourriaud suggested, “the role of artworks is no longer to form imaginary and utopian realities, but to actually be ways of living and models of action within the existing real”.

http://www.southproject.org/Marketexperience.htm
Transforming Aesthetics, Art Association of Australia and New Zealand conference, Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, July 8-9, 2005

A significant trend in contemporary thought holds that the links between things are more important than the meaning of an object in isolation. Michel Serres argues that we no longer need ontology but desmology (desmos = link). Within contemporary art theory there has been a shift away from the study of meaning toward the study of process: in Deleuze’s words, art is defined not by what it means but by what it does. Nicholas Bourriaud has coined the term ‘relational art’, proposing that the art object is no longer materially or conceptually defined, but relationally.

http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/aaanz/home
Partnership Learning through Art Culture and the Environment (PLACE), College of Fine Arts, University of New Mexico, 2005

Relational Art is an emerging movement in art identified by Nicolas Bourriaud, a French philosopher, who recognized a growing number of contemporary artists used performative and interactive techniques that rely on the responses of others: pedestrians, shoppers, browsers—the casual observer-turned-participant.

http://place.unm.edu/newsletter.html
The Peak Publications Society, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, 16 May 2004, David Wilson McLeish

The artworld is abuzz over “relational aesthetics,” a theory developed by French curator Nicolas Bourriaud. In his book, Relational Aesthetics, Bourriaud argues that avant-garde artists in the 1990s explored the realm of human interaction as the form and subject of their art. Bourriaud locates this shift in art practice within the context of a growing service industry. The capitalist notion of consumption, formerly applied only to tangible commodities, now also applies to experiences.

http://www.peak.sfu.ca/the-peak/2005-2/issue3/ar-ra.html
Relational Aesthetics Forum, Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne, August 11, 2004

‘Relational aesthetics’ is a term coined by the French curator and writer Nicolas Bourriaud to describe a broad strand of contemporary art in which the sphere of human relations constitutes the site of the artwork’s meaning. It names, for example, forms of art practice where the artist models ‘situations’ or generates micro-utopias.

http://www.ccp.org.au/lecture_series_04.php?nav=f&PHPSESSID=2f8375696c2e8b99206ebad52ac1b2c1#aesthetics
Tactical Interventions Strategies, Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, July 5 – August 12, 2001, Felena Alach

Rather than contriving a definition for interventionist art, it is more appropriate to describe it as a way of situating art in relation to the viewer according to a flexible set of principles that structure this relationship. The art of intervention seeks to ‘inhabit’ cognitive space that intersects our everyday sense and our sense of the everyday. This may imply the insertion of art ‘work’ into the public domain or alternately the introduction of incongruous external systems into bounded art-spaces.