The grand re-opening of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney has confirmed for many the view that the Aboriginal art of today is as contemporary as such trendy names as Hany Armanious, Ah Xian, Rivane Neuenschwander and Christian Marclay “ whose simply amazing 24 hour film of excerpts from feature film history taking the audience round the clock minute by minute is certainly the most ‘don’t miss’ experience on display (until June 3).
But everywhere you go in the now easy-to-circulate galleries there are nuggets of Aboriginal art that delight, intrigue and have conversations with the other works around them. They aren’t always harmonious conversations, mind you. A special wall of old barks “ many from the 60s, an age when their ethnographic interest was all they were supposed to be about “ sits challengingly across from a vast Robert Owen wall painting in hot pinks, acid greens and a muplitplicity of blues. There’s also a chandelier in the room to further muddy the mood. It’s not a great success; though it’s quite possible to walk along the bark wall “ grouped by subject-matter, which is interesting in this age of pure and unexplained aesthetics “ with your eyes firmly turned away from the colour blast.
What’s conceptually intriguing about this proud statement from the MCA’s Arnott Collection, so generously donated in 1993, is that they’re there at all. For it was made clear in welcoming speeches that the institution that’s now boldly called the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia with the approval of Federal and State authorities all over the country, is so determined to maintain its position as the only institution in the country that collects and shows ‘contemporary art’ that it’s no longer prepard to display the Power Collection from the early to mid-20th Century which was the body of work that actually brought the MCA into existence. So, almost everything on show is less than 10 years old. Except Aborginal art!
A more thoughtful conjunction of the indigenous and non-indigenous occurs on an upper floor (not the top, which houses a cafe designed to suck you ever upwards). Here are major works by the likes of Emily Kngwarreye and George Tjungarryi which, of course, can be read as abstraction “ in conversation with artists like Ildiko Kovaks, Nike Savvas and John Nixon. It’s interesting; taken even a step further by adding a substantial raft of Aboriginal craft work “ baskets, conical mats, etc “ whch normally don’t appear beside the canvases, but here given sculptural relevance by the juxtapositiion with Gemma Smith’s cardboard sculptures.
Right at the end of the room there’s a faux-Pollock from Brisbane’s Richard Bell “ which looks totally out of place in this conversation. But it actually leads into the next room to play with Juan Davila and Imants Tillers “ and makes a reasonable case for the logical separation of urban/Blak art from remote Aboriginal art “ so different in intention.
But the piece de resistance in the MCA currently is in its specially curated ‘Marking Time‘ show “ the work of Rachel Kent. In a darkened space that feels like the Outback wrapped in the womb of the night, Kent has pulled together an amazing body of Gulumbu Yunupingu’s work on bark and on tree-trunks – larrikitj. According to Yunupingu’s Art Co-ordinator at Yirrkala’s Buku Larrnggay Art Centre, Will Stubbs, this was all Kent’s work, not involving him: “But it’s an almost definitive retrospective of the great (and sick) artist’s key works about Yolngu attitudes to the stars and the universe”.
Perhaps in recognition of her achievement, Kent actually went out on a limb with the Washington Post to single out this body of work for praise above all else she’s chosen: “The art that stands out for me is by an Australian Aboriginal artist named Gulumbu Yunupingu. She paints star maps on eucalyptus panels and hollow tree trunks called memorial poles. Some artists look at time in terms of daily lived experience: calendar cycles, clock faces, diaristic time. But other artists like Gulumbu look at time in the grandest sense: ancient geological time, epic human cycles of birth, death and regeneration, and of course universal time. These works that are both stories, ancestral stories specific to her and her family ” they relate to the constellations, and they are extraordinary works visually and conceptually”.
But it was Yunupingu herself, on what will surely be her last expedition outside Arnhemland, who praised the curator’s instincts for placing her works beside those of Australian/Chinese artist, Lindy Lee. For Lee’s floor-to-ceiling scrolls take Gulumbu’s ‘outside’ (ie public) stories and inadvertently add an ‘inside’ element relating to shooting stars and Gumatj or fire, and their importance in Yolngu mythology. Larrikitj “ of which there are sixteen on display, up to 4 metres tall – are hurled through space like rockets in various NE Arnhemland legends.
One might do a lot worse than gather on the Circular Quay steps that are surely going to become a meeting place on a par with the Town Hall’s, then tour around the new MCA bearing in mind Gulumbu Yunupingu’s tearfully stated belief: “The truth lies in what every artist has to say”.
Artist: Emily Kngwarreye, George Tjungarryi, Ildiko Kovaks, Nike Savvas, John Nixon, Gemma Smith, Richard Bell, Juan Davila, Imants Tillers, Gulumbu Yunupingu, Lindy Lee, Hany Armanious, Ah Xian, Rivane Neuenschwander, Christian Marclay
Gallery: Museum of Contemporary Art ,