Published  04/12/2003

FACE UP - Contemporary Art from Australia, Nationalgalerie im Hamburger Bahnhof, Museum for the Present, Berlin


Nationalgalerie im Hamburger Bahnhof,
Museum for the Present, Berlin.
2 October - 4 January 2004

Dr Janet McKenzie

At the Hamburger Bahnhof, Museum of Contemporary Art in Berlin, an important exhibition is showing which examines the work of 14 Australian artists. 'Face Up - Contemporary Art from Australia', was organised as part of arts australia berlin 03, a programme of contemporary Australian performance, literature and visual arts throughout the year. 'Face Up' was selected by Dr Britta Schmitz, Chief Curator at the Hamburger Bahnhof and supported by the Australia Council for the Arts and the Australian Department of Trade and Industry.

In 2001 London art dealer Julian Agnew extolled the virtues of Australian culture:

For a population not much larger than that of London, it is extraordinary that there should be such a high proportion of artists, writers, musicians and film makers, not to mention those who read and listen to their work. Within that culture, the visual arts have played a more than proportionate role, perhaps because a young society in an ancient continent has sought to define itself particularly in terms of its unique landscape. Because of its importance as a defining element of 'Australianess', Australian painting has been enormously popular in that country but conversely comparatively unknown internationally.1

Since Bryan Robertson's Whitechapel Art Gallery's ambitious, 'Recent Australian Painting' in 1961 (111 works by 55 artists) and a larger show still at the Tate in 1963 there has not been the sustained interest in Australian art. Certain commercial galleries have represented Australian artists, most notably Marlborough Fine Art, Fischer Fine Art and more recently the Rebecca Hossack Gallery. The best Australian artists have traditionally shown in London and their status in Australia is defined in part by their success and reception in London. Artists such as Arthur Boyd and Sir Sidney Nolan spent most of their careers in Britain.

In the 1960s Australian art arrived in Britain at a point where its appeal lay to a great extent in the fact that the artists represented painted landscape and they did so in a way that such a persistently Ancien Regime would find thrilling. The New World images could thus purge the ills of the Old. One would have expected that with individuals such as Bryan Robertson and Sir Kenneth Clark championing Australian contemporary art that the narrative would have been sustained. Alas, the 1970s were a period of individual exhibitions but little comprehensive representation. It was not until the 1988 Australian Bicentennial shows, 'The Angry Penguins' at the Hayward Gallery and 'Stories of Australian Art' (Australian art in British collections) by Jonathan Watkins, that Australian art was presented as such.

Individuals from Australia represent their country at international art fairs and biennales such as Documenta, ARCO, Basel Art Fair, the Venice Biennale. It is a vital involvement in an art world beyond their own nation's boundaries which in career terms is important, but it is also an excellent opportunity for a European audience to experience the remarkable range of art from Australia. Where commentators in Europe, and especially Britain were keen to categorise Australian art as belonging to a bold, fresh place in the 1960s, they would be hard pressed to make any such generalisations now.

'Face Up' reveals the dramatic changes that have taken place in Australia on all levels. No longer predominantly European, Australia now has an art world that is vital and varied. In fact, the art world in Australia has been transformed in the past 20 years due, very largely, to changes in immigration laws and the ensuing multiculturalism. The great Australian tradition of painting, which in the latter part of the 20th century was dominated by images of artists such as Nolan, Boyd, Brett Whiteley or Fred Williams, has given way to work in a broad variety of media - namely, photography, installation, and video. As a consequence of the expansion in art practice to include land art, and body art, a climate developed where it was possible for White Australia to interact more meaningfully with Aboriginal culture. In the 'Face Up' exhibition in Berlin at present it is also obvious that the large increase in Asian immigration has had a profound effect on Australian culture.

Indigenous artists and those from non-English speaking backgrounds play an important part in defining the experience of being Australian in the early 21st century and the dialogue with place in this vast and dramatic landscape. A number of artists born outside Australia are included in 'Face Up'. The definition of being Australian is more complex than ever before, and brings into focus many issues pertaining to identity in personal and cultural terms. The impact of Asian culture since 1970 can be seen to be of great value to Australian visual culture. The global network imposes infinite possibilities and also restrictions on Australian artists, issues that we are now able to focus on with this exhibition. The accompanying catalogue comprises informative essays on Australian art of the past 20 years, profiles of and interviews with the participating artists.

Britta Schmitz who travelled to Australia to select works for 'Face Up' observed:

Restrictions based on geography have certainly lost their validity. Phenomena occur within a particular context and circulate. Australian artists are flexible, operating within diverse cultural and social contexts both in the production and reception of their artworks. Indeed in Australian cities and society, globalisation is actually lived. This has given rise to a resistance on the part of Australians against the notion that today's creative environment is regionally determined. In fact, Australian artists withdrew from debates surrounding centre and periphery early on.2

The works in 'Face Up' have not been chosen to present a cultural homogeneity, rather they represent the diversity and plurality in Australian culture. Inevitably a mere 14 artists cannot represent such a culture, but they can present important aspects of it. Most works in the exhibition do not represent life that is specifically Australian; indeed many of the works could have been made anywhere in the world. An exception is the work of Chinese artist Guan Wei (born 1959, arrived Australia 1989) whose series 'Trepidation Continent' (2003) presents military style maps of Australia with arrows to denote military advances. There is the full wartime kit: helicopters, tanks, fighter aircraft, soldiers in action. They constitute a political comment on Australia's recent hostile and contradictory attitudes to immigration.

Having myself lived away from Australia for the past 16 years, this is quite a shocking image, because although Australia fought in the two World Wars and in Vietnam in the face of great protest, no war has been fought on Australian soil. Guan Wei's work presents an image of personal and psychological battle; the military maps are also weather maps with high and low pressure systems, aboriginal hunters and native animals. Rather than the politically correct image of Australia as the large, prosperous, tolerant country that the last Prime Minister, Paul Keating, presented to the world, this is a perception of immigrants who have in fact experienced blatant hostility on arrival. Chinese woodblocks represent the artist's culture and identity; boat people from Asia are greeted with "Piss Off!" and "Not Welcome!" stamped alongside signs of bureaucracy 'Secret document', "Urgent", "Confidential". The applications create a menacing image of Australia, traditionally associated with promise and prosperity. Multiculturalism and its legacy of tolerance have in recent years been compromised. 'Trepidation Continent' seeks to convey, 'the general global disquiet of the past several years…[the] unease over migration and an accompanying suspicion of outsiders.3

Aboriginal artist Darren Siwes' photographic images, 'Mis/Perceptions' (2002) are among the most haunting in the exhibition. Siwes recently studied in London in order to remove himself from his own, 'country, cultures, and familiar surroundings, to see if it was possible to experience anonymity in relation to cultural identity. Away from Australia, I am no longer recognised as an indigenous Aboriginal. I am free of the negative baggage normally associated with Aboriginal people; I become almost invisible'.4

Siwes photographs churches, parks, and monuments in Adelaide (where he lives). He captures an eerie atmosphere, still and silent, using almost transparent photographic images of himself. The ghost-like self-portraits are superimposed on the townscapes devoid of other human presence.

One recognises that his identity is not entirely congruent with the identity of these places, that the solitude, strangeness and coldness are fixed in these images, and that he is thus able to communicate the fracture points of an existence marked out by loss and absence.5

There has been a lively debate in Australia since the early 1970s when the Sydney Biennale was first established in 1973. Since 1993 the Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT) has been held in Brisbane at the Queensland Art Gallery. These events and the accompanying dialogue between artists, curators and the wider intellectual community has elevated the discourse there, to keep apace of the dramatic social and cultural changes as a consequence of multiculturalism, and the ramifications of the assertion of Aboriginal culture and land rights. The participation in European art events (Documenta, Venice Biennale) has broadened the dialogue. 'Face Up' in Berlin is a natural extension of these activities.

The changes to the immigration policy in Australia are one of the most significant cultural catalysts in the past 15 years. Asia, Japan and other countries in the Pacific are geographically closer than Europe or the US. Ah Xian and Guan Wei from China are represented in 'Face Up', with Simryn Gill from Malaysia. Ah Xian left China in the wake of the Tian'anmen Square massacre. He takes what appears to be a traditional approach to the human body, a practice that had virtually disappeared from sculpture by the 1970s. 'China, China', which he has been developing since 1999, uses traditional Chinese glazed floral motifs with aspects of sculpture from the European tradition: modelling from life, the bust, the full figure. The famous portrait of Chairman Mao is referred to in Ah Xian's busts, but he purposely introduces a contradiction. As he states in an interview with Britta Schmitz:

Once I reached the idea of using the form of making realistic human portraiture, I consciously decided to do a copy from the lives of ordinary people rather than famous ones…most of the sculptural portraits in history were made for imperial families, politicians, heroes, or the rich and famous. Instead of deifying those 'big' name people, I 'de-deify' the entire form of such a tradition, by making many 'high craft' and 'high art' portraits of ordinary people.6

It is important for Ah Xian that the word 'China' also means porcelain:

There is a vast space that I can wander around, from the age-old civilisation to the current, from one of the oldest crafts to the over-avant-garde concepts.7

Susan Norrie's video stills installation 'Undertow' (2002) enables her to manipulate time and space:

I see film as an extension of painting, a synthesis between image, sound and colour…My focus is digital imaging which enables me to blur the boundaries of fact and fiction, to merge documentary film and cinematic effects. This is an ideal medium to deal with the sort of information overload we face in an increasingly 'mediatised' world.8

'Undertow' 2002, is a bold and courageous confrontation with impending environmental catastrophe. It presents the world as a world possessed. In her essay on Norrie's work, Juliana Engberg quotes Isaiah Berlin's definition of romanticism:

Romanticism is the primitive, the untutored, it is youth, life, the exuberant sense of life of the natural man, but it is also pallor, fever, disease, decadence, the maladie de siècle.9

The madness captured by Norrie's DVD images is pertinent to the moment. In new media she captures the same element of despair and of a world shorn of all hope, that Arthur Boyd, Australia's great painter captured with 'Australian Scapegoat Triptych', shown at the 43rd Venice Biennale in 1988. Beauty and terror can also be found in the photographic work of Rosemary Laing. 'One dozen unnatural disasters in the Australian Landscape' (2003) juxtapose the beautiful and distinctive blue of an Australian sky with destructive images of a world gone mad. These are distinctly Australian images, but like Boyd's work they carry a universal message. In the context of a discussion of Laing's haunting photographs, George Alexander captures a central theme of the 'Face Up' exhibition.

Contemporary Australian culture remains haunted by both its European past and its indigenous past, and a good deal of Australian art draws energy from this misalliance. Orphaned from "Mother England", and without the birthright entitlements of the Indigenous people, we have to make do with a makeshift, synthetic identity, for non-indigenous Australians, Australia may be our first home, but it is our first 'elsewhere'. Only in the act of making art, art as a combination of belonging and not belonging, can we make up Australia.10

'Face Up' is a powerful and impressive show, which reflects the integrity and calibre of the Australian art world at present.

1. Julian Agnew, ‘Foreword’, You Beaut Country, A Selection of Australian Paintings, 1940-2000, Agnews, London, 3-26 October, 2001, no pagination.
2. Britta Schmitz, ‘Introduction’, Face Up: Contemporary Art From Australia, Nationalgalerie im Hamburger Bahnhof Museum for the Present, Berlin, 2003, p.014.
3. Guan Wei, “Artist's Statement”, ibid, p.191.
4. Darren Siwes, “Artsist’s Statement”, ibid, p.169.
5. Britta Schmitz, op.cit., p.016.
6. Ah Xian, Interviewed by Schmitz, ibid, p.203.
7. Ah Xian, quoted by Claire Roberts, “China, China”: Recent works in Porcelain by Ah Xian', Beyond the Future: The Third Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, Exhibition Catalogue, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, 1999, p.14, quoted by Schmitz, ibid, p.204.
8. Susan Norrie, "Artist's Statement", ibid, p.135.
9. Juliana Engberg, “Susan Norrie”, ibid, p.136.
10. George Alexander, “Rosemary Laing”, ibid, p.104.

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