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

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

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.


travelling light: Kassel documenta 2012

In September 2012 I flew into Frankfurt and took a fast train straight from the airport to Kassel. The German countryside is covered in wind turbines, their huge white sails like giant’s toys striding over the hills into the distance. Following the Fukushima accident, Germany immediately shut 8 of its nuclear reactors, and plans to close its remaining 9 reactors by 2022.

My project in Kassel was to see dOCUMENTA 13, one of the biggest contemporary art exhibitions in the world, that takes place every five years for one hundred days. It was begun in 1955 by an artist/designer/curator named Arnold Bode, initially as part of a Federal Horticultural Show, in an attempt to showcase the modern art that the Nazis had banned.

Kassel is a town, with a population of roughly 200,000, located in the middle of Germany. It was heavily bombed by the Allies during the war as it was full of armaments factories. A striking feature on arrival is what looks like a large turquoise fish twisting high on a pedestal overlooking the town. It is actually a somewhat kitsch neoclassical copper statue of Hercules, set up there 300 years ago and recently restored.

The dOCUMENTA 13 curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev was the curator of the 2008 Biennale of Sydney. Owing to the time she spent in Australia there are an unprecedented eight Australian artists selected for dOCUMENTA though nationality both is, and isn’t, a feature of the exhibition.

Exhibition…there needs to be another word for this behemoth of art by over 200 artists and artist collectives from around 50 countries spread over 7 major and 25 other venues. Day after day, you walk and walk, looking, finding, and walking again. At some points you need to keep a close eye on the map, at other times it is better to drift and just find works as during lunch one day when I encountered Susan Hiller’s free jukebox in the Schöne Aussicht Café. A sense of discovery is essential in such an event, and patience, as the crowds are large and you often have to queue to get in to certain spaces.

One of the works that had a long queue was the ‘hunting lodge’ of Adelaide-based Fiona Hall in the baroque Karlsauhe Park, originally designed as a pleasure garden in 1570. Hall’s work Fall Prey is an intense memorial to a selection of endangered animals on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) list. Her work possesses great passion and ferocious ‘outsider art’ energy. The hunting trophies of the animals are made from the ripped and knotted camouflage army uniforms of each country that the animals originated in. Their ears and noses are flattened and beaten beer caps, and they are draped and punctuated with the flotsam and jetsam of culture and waste. The monkey has a ring-pull for an ear to remind you of the human-made garbage littering the world. In between the trophies, pieces of driftwood in the shapes of all kinds of animals haunt the walls.

dOCUMENTA 13 has no theme but takes the temperature of the times. Thus it contains a sense of millenarianism, of references to war zones, sites of global disasters, of a world in crisis in terms of climate, species decline, social change and food shortages. Noticeable also are various ingenious and memorable quests for deeper meaning in a consumerist world. In the vast documenta-Halle Thomas Bayrle’s work Carmageddon joins pistons from car engines together in puzzle-like configurations with their sound configured as repetitive prayers. The intense soundwork in Karlsauhe Park for a thousand years by Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller brought together a crowd of people standing and staring upwards in the clearing of the forest like druids. Sited on the large formal grounds in front of the Orangerie, Song Dong’s Doing Nothing Garden was a giant bonsai garden, a six metre high Chinese landscape, of hills made of rubble, overgrown with fragrant delicate weeds. It also included neon signs repeating the Chinese characters for “doing” and ”nothing”.

I first encountered the travelling van of Mother Courage and Her Children by Aboriginal filmmaker Warwick Thornton outside the Brothers Grimm Museum within which Nedko Solakov was humorously living his dreams of being a knight in shining armour and playing in a rock band. Thornton’s van was like a slice of life lifted from remote Australia. At the back through the open doors you see a projection of an elderly Aboriginal woman making a dot painting while her grandson listens to what sounds like the remote community radio station from Thornton’s 2005 film Green Bush, a radio program of music requests for Aboriginal people in prison. On the outside of the van rough paintings hang, next to the front seats old biscuit tins hold travelling necessities. These small details bring home some things I know, the importance of a sense of time and location, and the intersections of global and local meanings that make art work.

From the Dreaming: Tjukurrtjanu: Origins of Western Desert Art

Imagine you live under the stars in Central Australia. Your family has lived there for thousands of years. You know the names of every geological feature, animal and plant that surrounds you and how they were made. You are related to everything and everyone. The pathways that the creator ancestors and your family travel upon are one and the same. Then someone comes along with their animals, their laws and their religion, claims the land for themselves, and you are marginalised, an exile in your own land.

The shocking experience of deracination suffered by Central Australian Aboriginal people did not mean the end of their culture though who knew that it would eventually open a new chapter in Australian art. Is it a new chapter though or the re-opening of a very old one?

Three years in the making Tjukurrtjanu: Origins of Western Desert Art curated by Judith Ryan, Senior Curator at the NGV, and Philip Batty, Senior Curator at the Museum of Victoria, is the newest exhibition to examine the astonishing phenomena that is Western Desert painting.

This is perhaps the most studied art movement in Australia. It continues to create waves and surprises both in Central Australia and in places far away from it. Tjukurrtjanu is a coming together of art gallery and museum approaches to exhibiting, white walls and corroborating artefacts from the past, minimal labels and ethnographic documents. In these ways it exemplifies the debates, the balancing acts, between ethnography and aesthetics that has characterised the reception of this art over the years.

It is easy to rave about the exhibition, about the beauty, delicacy and power of the 200 paintings made in 1971 and 1972 by twenty of the thirty-five original Papunya Tula artists on show. As you walk around, and one visit is certainly not enough to truly look at even half the show, you are very conscious that the paintings are not on canvas but are on boards, hard sometimes irregular-shaped surfaces, and you get a clear sense of them as diagrams, maps, demonstrations, teaching aids, signs of magic and manifestations of ancestral power. In some cases their clear instructive role is further emphasised as they literally resemble blackboards with paintings on them, optically mesmerising blackboards that pulse and vibrate, their veiled depths drawing you in to speculate about their meanings which are not necessarily available to you but very clear in their intensity.

Yet there seems some uneasy ambivalence in this show towards its audience. As an art historical and museological exercise urgently asserting the ancient continuity of the art more than its currency as an art experience, the exhibition is sometimes in danger of wearing out its audience, of being too didactic, of not letting the work be. The short film of a fire ceremony and the slides of decorated dancers throw the viewer into the position of an anthropologist. The excerpts of unpublished film footage by Geoff Bardon on the other hand call up the place called Papunya, the Honey Ant Dreaming hills reflected in the pools of heavy rain that fell at the time, the faded Kodachrome yellows and blues evoking the potential poetry of everyone’s mystic and mythic past.

There is no question that you need to pour over the catalogue. Then go and read Lives of the Papunya Tula Artists by Vivien Johnson; and Geoffrey Bardon’s Papunya: A place made after the story, the beginnings of the Western Desert Painting Movement.

Then imagine the stars in Central Australia.

Stephanie Radok

National Gallery of Victoria, Federation Square, 30 September 2011 – 12 February 2012. Tjukurrtjanu travelled to Paris and was shown at the musée du quai Branly from 9 October 2012 to 27 January 2013.

First published in The Melbourne Review, Dec 2011- Jan 2012.

Photography as history

Do we look at photographs in a different way from other artforms? Or to put the question another way are there things that photography does that are special to it as a medium?

One feature of photography in spite of all the photo-shopping, set-ups and fakery that we know are possible is that it often has a relationship to reality that sets it in time and place with a truth factor that has a strong appeal. It means that photographs include details that the photographer didn’t control, that show us slices of life with a certain familiarity so that we recognise and trust that the understandings we receive from them have a basis in fact. Photographs are witnesses, records, proofs.

It is said that people who have never seen photographs take a while to see them as more than flat marks on paper suggesting photography is culturally specific but what about the experience of the camera obscura in which a simple hole projects the world in fine grained detail though admittedly upside down? Humans may have invented cameras but the process that cameras use is embedded in the world, in the mechanics of the eye and the nature of light. That is why we recognise the truth of photographs, we don’t invent them, we take them.

Many photographs achieve an iconic status almost from when we first see them. In the two important national touring exhibitions of photographs Robert McFarlane: Received Moments at the Flinders University City Gallery and Ricky Maynard: Portrait of a Distant Land at Tandanya there are many photographs which have become icons for example McFarlane’s image of Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins on his way to Sydney University. The fact that the 1965 Freedom Ride through western New South Wales with which Perkins is associated involved travel on a bus is somehow present in this image of a thoughtful man who fought discrimination and made history.

Adelaide-born McFarlane was also one of the photographers taking images for the 1988 publication After 200 years: photographic essays of Aboriginal and Islander Australia today.  The engrossing image Cherbourg Wedding from this book shows three generations of an Aboriginal family watched over by a framed photograph of Winston Churchill. Time capsule seems a good word for McFarlane’s exhibition in general where many images show an Australia that is now gone in small black and white images that evoke newspapers and newsreels. By “received moments” McFarlane, also a well-known writer on photography, refers to a kind of gift or grace that the photographer looks out for and then if he or she is ready with camera in hand can harvest.

Tasmanian-born descendant of the Big River and Ben Lomond people Ricky Maynard was also a photographer for the After 200 years project in 1988. All of Maynard’s photographic project is deliberately a recording of indigenous life and history. He sees photography as necessarily collaboration. In his words: “Standard photographic technique is essentially an act of subjugation, in which people are invariably reduced to objects for the use of the photographer… To build an alternative practice, a convivial photography, we need to abolish this oppressive relationship. Co-authorship must be established beforehand. It is impossible to fight oppression by reproducing it.”

Maynard’s portraits show us direct gazes and long histories in the faces of people into whose eyes we may not have looked so deeply before. They ask us to empathise, to reflect and to recognise a common humanity. Portrait of a Distant Land features more than 60 photographs drawn from six iconic bodies of work – The Moonbird People (1985-88), No More Than What You See (1993), Urban Diary (1997), In The Footsteps of Others (2003), Returning To Places That Name Us (2000) and Portrait of a Distant Land (2005- ).

Maynard often uses oral history in extended titles. The accompanying words for The Healing Garden, Wybalenna, Flinders Island, Tasmania 2005 are from Aunty Ida West in 1995: “It’s pretty important you know, the land, it doesn’t matter how small, it’s something, just a little sacred site, that’s Wybalenna. There was a massacre there, sad things there, but we try not to go over that. Where the bad was we can always make it good.”

When we look at the photograph The Healing Garden and see these trees surrounded by a low fence we can imagine the feeling of sanctuary they contain as well as the sound of the wind in them and the scent of their shade. We know we don’t know what happened there but we sense a presence as in a cemetery. Maynard says: “These pictures will live on in history, showing the moment to itself, showing what needs to be changed and hoping some day we can look back and see how far we have progressed as a society.”

Stephanie Radok

Robert McFarlane: received moments: Photography 1961-2009

Flinders University City Gallery

29 October – 1 December 2011

Ricky Maynard: Portrait of a Distant Land
24 November 2011 – 12 February 2012