Speech by Nicholas Jose at the launch of An Opening in 2012 at Greenaway Art Gallery

Many of you will know the artist Peter Tyndall’s long-running series A Person Looks at a Work of Art in which we see line-drawn gallery goers who look like happy families in a children’s story—Famous Five Go to the Art Museum. Stephanie Radok’s new book An opening: twelve love stories about art looks back at that person who looks—mother, father, child—and gives them a filled-in body and a mind, a history, a habitat, a set of memories. And a faithful dog. ‘A Dog Looks at a Work of Art’ the book might have been called. It is the dog that takes us out of the museum into a shared world, blurring distinctions between art and life, giving us a wonderful image for the way artworks leave their traces everywhere, just as exciting smells are left for the dog to discover. Art as fart. Well, not only.

An opening is a memoir wrapped around a discussion of art and a discussion of art wrapped around a memoir in such a way that makes the two indistinguishable. The attentive adult contains the experiencing child, connected by the continuing presence of things, their ‘shapes and colours and forms’, known through the capacity, as Radok writes, for ‘somehow both going inside them and putting them inside me’. An opening is structured as a calendar, a book of hours, month by month from January to December, as the author walks with her dog through her suburban, bush-fringe Adelaide world in changing seasons and environments and at the same time journeys mentally and emotionally to the works of art that have become part of her life, bringing them into her present and reflecting on their meaning for her, which becomes their meaning for us. The private acquires significance through an inquiring intelligence that positions things in the largest possible context. At the same time the work of art moves from rarefied space into the ordinary world. One way Radok does this is by attending to the way we find and carry artworks with us in our lives, in postcards and clippings that become tatty with time. That allows segues like this one:

I have a postcard of an interior painted in 1955 by Grace Cossington Smith stuck to the wall in the laundry above the old square white ceramic trough…. The whole work contains a lot of yellow in broad square panes of paint, like pieces of solid light pouring in to flood the room with radiance and a kind of dissolving energy. The postcard is next to the laundry window that looks out onto two plum trees and an olive tree, but it is the tiny painting that suggests an escape from domesticity which is nevertheless embedded in the domestic, the possibility of glowing visions in a lump of butter or a drop of light like a coin on a window sill. (page 19)

That is art writing of the highest order. Cossington Smith would have understood it. And what makes it so original is the lead in from a discussion of a woodblock print by Hiroshige that was given to Radok’s family at a dinner in Chinatown in New York in 1961 by a Japanese man who worked at the United Nations with U Thant. In those connections and traverses, Radok’s finely tuned global positioning device is always at work.

I did not know Stephanie Radok personally before An opening though I knew her name from the art journalism I’d seen here and there over the years and found sharp, fresh, sometimes provocative. I’d noted her as a kindred spirit and made a point of reading things with her name on them. Adelaide, in particular, is lucky to have such a good art writer, at a time when art writing is generally so dire in this country. She has found her own way of doing it, and her own venues, where she can remain independent and a bit marginal. She’s made those short review pieces into an art form of her own. So when I saw an earlier draft of this book I was truly excited. Reading it in the finished version now I appreciate how layered and subtle it is in selectivity and speculation and its beautifully crafted and situated style. It’s an extraordinary, ambitious work that belies its intentional modesty. Not your typical art book. Radok follows in the footsteps of another Adelaide artist-writer, Barbara Hanrahan, in her first book, The Scent of Eucalyptus, with a book of place and memory that is vibrantly alive to the colours and shapes of the world, as seen and felt by a practicing artist. I’m happy that the author and I like so many of the same things: Simryn Gill, Ah Xian, Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, Durer, Colin McCahon.

There’s a condition known as Stendhal’s syndrome in which people are overcome, swoon, faint, become feverish, by the intensity of their experience of a work of art. The love in Radok’s subtitle–‘twelve love stories about art’—is different. It is not a pathology. There’s a great moment of realization when the author goes to the Prado in Madrid to see for the first time in actuality a painting she has travelled with for years, Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, and of course does so in a crowd of other tourists, buying tickets and queuing. She writes: ‘Yet on this recent trip rather than being annoyed by the global nature of cultural tourism in the twenty-first century … I found it alright.’ ‘…our private obsessions belong to many other people as well … Thus the experience was solitary and individual but communal.’ Sharing is part of this love.

An opening is grounded in a longstanding and deep relationship with Aboriginal art, from which perhaps this recognition of the power and necessity of sharing has developed: an embodied and relational way of thinking about art. Her book rests on that understanding, and it’s what makes it radical, a critique and expansion of much else in the art world and its conventional ways.

There are many meanings that open up from the book’s title: An opening. An invitation, a door in the wall, an aperture, a Pandora’s box, a beginning, a hole worn through, an overture, or an opening like this one at which something new is introduced and celebrated. Let me conclude with another passage from the book:

‘The potential in every art exhibition, every artwork, is present at this point of opening, a point of potential expansion of the world, of surprise, celebration, learning and illumination.’ To which she adds in a characteristic startling leap, that her opening also refers to ‘the bright clear light that characterizes Australia which can be seen as potentially leading to an opening of the mind.’ We live in hope.

Read it and perhaps it will happen to you. I congratulate the publishers. I congratulate the author. It’s a very beautiful book. A revelation, a gem. Open to the public.

Rewriting the labels

How long can the majority wait for their story to unfold

They took their life and liberty friend but

they could not buy their soul

Kev Carmody


Indigenous music is flying high, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu is on the cover of the April 2011 Rolling Stone, the recent Byron Bay Blues Festival included him, Saltwater Band, the Stiff Gins AND Bob Dylan. At the last BAFF (BigPond Adelaide Film Festival) Indigenous art and film were quietly but spectacularly on the front page with premiers of features Mad Bastards and Here I am, documentaries The Tall Man and murundak: Songs of Freedom, a retrospective program of Indigenous representation in Australian cinema, forums and three major visual arts exhibitions (Stop (the) Gap: Indigenous Art in Motion at the Samstag Museum, Tracey Moffat: Narratives at the Art Gallery of South Australia and tall man by Vernon Ah Kee at the Australian Experimental Art Foundation.

Stop(the)Gap included Warwick Thornton’s first venture into gallery space with Stranded a 3-D moving image of himself on an illuminated glass crucifix turning in the air above a remote Australian landscape, this image was also reproduced on free limited edition boxes of popcorn. Based on Thornton’s memories and drawing of his wish to be like Jesus when he was six years old as well as evoking Noel Counihan’s linocut portrait of a crucified Albert Namatjira, it is a hard work to interpret. It seems to embrace a kitsch cliché image of Aboriginal suffering as well as showing it to be a somehow endless spectacle. Thornton’s Samson and Delilah, a film full of the authority of a gifted filmmaker as well as the grim reality of some Aboriginal lives won the Camera d’ Or at Cannes in 2009 for best first film.

More and more Indigenous stories are being told by Indigenous people with Indigenous voices as well as in collaboration with non-Indigenous peoples. Stories of trouble? Yes. Stories of triumph? Yes.

Indigenous culture is moving out of dedicated spaces and into the mainstream. Ultimately all Indigenous culture is claiming the space for experiences that have not been widely told and this broadens the space for the stories of everyone whose stories are untold. Powerful Indigenous art often comes from places and people that appear to be powerless. This is one reason it is strong, it has a necessity, an urgency about it. For all the irony in some work there is an authenticity factor that is incontrovertible and that may well be the high moral ground asserted by Thornton’s Stranded. Many years ago it was Papunya painter Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri who made the telling remark “the money belongs to the ancestors”, that is to say the wealth of the culture provides for its people.

The art in this Artlink ranges from art made many years ago in the Torres Strait, in Tasmania, in Arnhem Land, in Queensland, in Western Australia to art being made today in Mackay, in Cairns, in Arnhem Land, in Elcho Island, in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and other places. The articles from writers all over Australia and the world deal with how to talk about the wide range of work, how to place it in history and in many cases how to rewrite history to incorporate different perspectives and diverse qualities both in Australia and increasingly in Europe.

Art as education, art as bearer of information, wisdom and stories, of belonging, as statement of longevity in that place, art as celebration of home, of land, of courage, of tragedy, of connection, of stories that acknowledge the complexities and difficulties of life as well as its wonders and gifts. Art by trained and untrained artists, by iconoclasts, by people with passion and agendas.

Ernst Gombrich wrote in his book The Story of Art (1950), which features a photo of an Aboriginal artist painting a Possum Dreaming on a rock that we must always remember that images precede writing, and thus implicitly that images are a kind of writing. Art is about politics and history but also empathy and communication. Art materials and art methods like painting, drawing and printmaking find new life in the hands of Indigenous artists with stories to tell.

Many articles in this Artlink speak of a dichotomy between art galleries and museums, between aesthetics and ethnography, between an idea of art as something disinterested and disengaged, and the study of culture as meaning one culture’s examination of other cultures. Yet all stuff in museums has always had aesthetic dimensions and all stuff in galleries has always had ethnographic dimensions. You just have to rewrite the labels.

Real art is never disinterested and disengaged, living cultures always exceed and overwhelm the boundaries placed around them. And this is what we are seeing in Australia and in this Artlink, a living culture.

At the last Cairns Indigenous Art Fair Richard Bell spoke about his experience of New York and said that he noticed there that it was not the black man who was at the bottom of the pecking order but women. Bell was going to create A Blackfella’s Guide to New York City for Artlink but it didn’t happen. Maybe next time.

Last year Artlink celebrated its thirtieth birthday as a unique magazine covering contemporary art in Australia as a forum of ideas, acts of courage and commitment. This June 2011 issue Beauty and Terror is the fourth time Artlink has focused an entire issue on Australian Indigenous art but the first of a new series called Artlink Indigenous to be published each June as a bumper issue – more pages, more art, more words, more debates – focusing on a multifaceted art that is ever-evolving and has a deep history.

Stephanie Radok

Editorial for Artlink Indigenous, Beauty and Terror, 2011

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.