I caught the travel bug many years ago, and wherever I go I always make time for a gallery or two. It would be an unending job to write down thoughts on everything I’ve seen, but here’s a few recent and old, that have stuck with me. I’ll try to be quick.
My niece is showing me her room, she lifts up a little bear and with a press, he lights up. “He chases away the monsters,” she tells me. From a young age we fear the monsters in the dark, and although I’m no longer afraid of the monsters, I have been afraid of a permanent darkness, of losing my vision. I’m not alone, in a Vision 2020 Australian national study it was found that nearly two-thirds of Australians fear going blind over losing a limb or having a heart attack.
It’s an unlikely fear with 75 per cent of vision loss or blindness being preventable or treatable. And yet at times, I think how I would live without sight. I was able to experience it for an hour at Dialogue in the Dark. With the help of a blind or partially sighted guide, I am going to explore a completely dark space created to mimic Melbourne.
I’m given a cane and we enter. The light dissipates more quickly than I expected, a few turns and we’re in utter darkness. All I know is the cold, smooth rail under my hand, and then it ends. I am nowhere. Adrift in the dark. But no, there is a click of a cane behind me. I am not the only one here to experience a Dialogue in the Dark. The kind voice of our guide helps us through. We’re in her world now. She lost the majority of her sight when she was three, a tumour that can’t be removed. Her world is one of touch and sound. Even before we enter we’re told that our voice will be important. For someone who often has problems finding their voice this resonated with me. Our voices were essential in making our presence known and in helping each other navigate the darkness.
It was all we knew of our guide – her confident, patient and kind voice – just a presence in the dark – but that doesn’t mean we knew her any less. She said that she’s not interested in what people look like, and why would she be when she has their voice, their presence.
We’re taken through a market and with touch and smell we decipher what’s in front of us. An onion, it’s skin flaking off. A pineapple, rough under my fingers. An apple. The image of a red apple pops into mind as I feel it’s smooth round surface. What comes first into the mind of those you have never seen an apple? Is it the shape, the feeling of the texture, the smell, the crunch as you bite through the skin?
We’re in a forest, the texture beneath our feet changes, a breeze on our faces, the sounds of birds in the distance. A leaf brushes against my face and it’s the most frightful experience of the day. I realise how intrusive a touch could be, to someone who can not see it coming. Someone is having trouble finding an object and our guide asks, ‘Can I touch your hand?’. He answers, ‘Yes, of course.’ His tone suggests it’s an unnecessary question. But it seems a very important question to me. If you can not see the touch coming, the sudden fingers on yours, it would be an invasion.
With the help of our guide, we navigate through the constructed recreation of Melbourne, past the MCG, through the Queen Vic markets, a laneway, onto a tram and finishing up in a living room. Much more confident now I found my way around the space with more ease. Now I’m intrigued to see the space in the light. How different would it be? The only impression I have is what I managed to touch. Perhaps it would be different for someone with more experience navigating in the dark. Our guide says that although she’s never been taught to use echoes to ‘see’ a space, she’s still able to tell where walls and large objects are, it seems to me like an almost subconscious rendering of echoing sounds. It’s a difference world to the one I’m used to, but that doesn’t make it a lesser one. Our guide’s independence and strength is proof of that.
Janice Gobey’s long obsession with fur continues in her latest exhibition Alchemy at the Alternating Current ArtSpace. Her art doesn’t need words. She works on connecting to people on a non-verbal level. She’d like people to feel the work more than view it in a logical, rational way. So pause for a moment, and take a look at the piece Vicious Cycle. Feel it.
Art is powerful in its non-verbal communication, allowing the viewer to think and bring their own discourse. But in sharing our views we may be able to clarify our thoughts, looking further, thinking deeper and seeing more. An attempt to breach the obscurity of a single image.
I see hands reaching, stretching out to touch pieces of animal skin and fur. It’s no longer recognisable what animal these were, nor what piece of body they once covered. They’ve been manipulated by man into nothing more than shapes and textures. This bit, soft and white. Another pink, the skin on the inside showing – more obviously something that was once living. They’ve been twisted, pulled and trapped into a circle. Those hands reaching, coming from off the canvas, were perhaps the makers – twisting that long strip of cured skin. Not any one person but the symbol of humankind twisting nature to their will. No longer do we fit into the circle of life, but rather we have created a cycle of death. As the title suggests it’s a ‘Vicious Cycle’.
The pastel palette softens the potentially gruesome subject, giving it a feminine beauty. An image comes to mind, from Charlotte Wood’s book ‘The Natural Way of Things’:
“By the end she wore a ragged skirt of rabbit bodies and clinking steel traps. Fur, steel, fur, steel. The flesh soon glued to the belt with blood, the heads and ears swung like heavy feathers as she moved.” In this book, the character Yolanda hunts for survival – a fight for life, a fight against mistreatment at the hands of men and the society that created it. Another vicious cycle.
With undergraduate studies in Psychology and Society, Gobey brings this understanding of people and, the world we live in, to her practice. She has explored women’s issues, particularly violence against women, as well as trauma and healing, and now her concern for global politics is explored in Alchemy. She grew up in Apartheid South Africa and is concerned with the resurgence of nationalism. Wishing for an alternative dialogue of peace, healing and tolerance. It seems there are a lot of vicious cycles where humans are concerned.
Perhaps by titling her exhibition Alchemy, she is sharing the desire for the ‘base material’ of human nature to be transformed into something more ‘noble’ – like lead turning into gold. It’s an impossible goal, but the study of Alchemy has led to discoveries in science. Perhaps in the study of the human condition there can be discoveries in peace and tolerance. A more hopeful thought, that doesn’t quite chase away the darker feelings I’m left with after viewing Vicious Cycle.
A short story inspired by viewing ‘Loose and Limbic’ by Claire Lefebvre.
The four of us walked in silence, making a staggered line down the path. Tall, mismatched fences on either side led us forward. There was a child’s laughter echoing from the left and a raised voice in the distance, a language we didn’t understand, but still we seemed alone on that path. We emerged and, before us, the pebbles stretched out to become the shore and then the ocean. A slight chill breeze and a smell of salt washed over us, all was a pale, ripply stillness. We made our way to the water’s edge, passing over gentle rises and dips, like the swelling of small waves frozen in time. There were signs of past visitors – a fisherman’s net poking up through the pebbles, crusty with salt and loose edges fraying; a weathered child’s bicycle, it’s once bright plastic worn pale and brittle; a discarded hat with an obscure logo and indecipherable Greek letters. But still, we were the only people. There was a dog. He was slim but not starving, with short caramel tan fur. He happily hung his tongue out the side of this mouth and approached us with a wagging tail. We petted him and he followed us down the beach.
I placed my hand on the wet pebbles, they were smaller at the shore, ground down to pieces of unrecognisable material, little specks of colour here and there. The water was cold and clear. As it washed over me it seemed to make my hand more real. I picked up a little rock, pale pink, marbled with white. While I turned it over, running my thumb over its smooth surface, I sensed movement behind me and without looking jumped up and away, just missing an attempted splash. A half smile invited retaliation. I put the rock in my pocket and a war of sorts ensued.
The sun started to set and an unspoken peace ended the battle, slightly breathless, we all looked out to the horizon: each silent, each thinking, each absorbing. Colours slowly morphed the once empty, pale blue horizon. The ripples of movement on the water caught the light and threw it back to the sky. Then one of us launched a pebble into the ocean. It plopped in with a splash and rippled outwards, for a second disturbing the stillness, bringing us out of our own heads. And then it’s a race to find bigger, better pebble. I threw a small one to see how far it could go. Someone found a round flat one and managed three skims along the water before it went under.
I looked up to see Molly sitting on a slight rise, the dog at her side, she still looked out over the water. Her pale pink hair was almost the same colour of the setting sky, her grey oversized jumper matched in with the pebbles, she was still, apart of the landscape. I spotted a nice, big rock and I threw it as far into the water as I could. It didn’t go far but it was satisfyingly loud. The splash reached up, the ripples swelled out and then it was gone. It was never there. Just like when we left that place on the beach, there were no ripples of our being there, not a photograph taken, not even a forgotten hat. Maybe that’s why I pocketed the pink pebble.
We laughed at the deep thudding splash. Was it nervous laughter erupting from disturbing the otherwise peaceful landscape or joy from making a change, showing we exist, we are here?
I sat next to Molly and the boys continued to try to find bigger rocks. I think Molly and I may have spoken a little, but we were both lost in thought, lost in the horizon. The light lost colour slowly, it faded to a pale wash of pink and orange, then into deep blues and darkened. Although I didn’t see him leave, the dog was gone. With the last of the light we made our way slowly through the path again and back to the car. Now that place is just memories, and a little pink rock I lost long ago.
A little while ago I went to the exhibition and talk by Shaun Tan at Tinning Street Presents, “Every Place is the Same”. And as I read Murakami now, those images are coming back to me. They both share an interest in the relationship between the ordinary and the extraordinary. Tan’s landscapes, often those urban spaces you see every day, become a place of whimsy and beauty – showing their potential to be extraordinary.
Murakami’s work is no less whimsical or beautiful, but almost a direct opposite. As he shows us the ordinary in the extraordinary. The easy acceptance of the impossible, makes it seem almost every day.
Can we constantly be in these two states? Schrödinger’s thought experiment was to disprove using the Quantum mechanical superposition state on everyday objects, but perhaps we can – in a more metaphysical sense. We are both ordinary and extraordinary, until observing the system forces the system to collapse and forces the object into just one of those possible states.
Or perhaps there is just two type of people as Murakami writes in “A Wild Sheep Chase”: “Now people can generally be classified into two groups: the mediocre realist and the mediocre dreamers.” (page 180)
But then what would I know, “It’s an illusion that we know anything at all.” (page 125)
I love to read a Murakami novel in those in-between places, clinical by nature, like airports and hotel bars – where time is meaningless. Those sort of places I can see Tan painting into something extraordinary.
Even better if I have something warm to sip when I read lines like “In which there is nothing” (page 85). There’s truth in a lot of what he says, especially, “The second whisky is always my favourite.” (page 100).
I may be buying a bottle of Nikka Whisky From the Barrel when I finish this book.
I just wanted to share the art joy that is the Jealous Curator blog and podcast.
The art is stunning and the gracious and modest voice of the curator inspiring, with a genuine interest in the people behind the art.
The feature art of this post is inspired by ‘Art for your Ear’ episode no.58 ‘comfortable in my skin’, with Erin M. Riley – I’m calling the image ‘Threads to Bare’. It’s ink on paper and acrylic on canvas, in a digital creation.
The sun was blasting down on my walk to the Gertrude Glasshouse, and I was red faced and sweaty when I arrived, but inside was cool and fresh. Slightly nervous, and probably even redder than before, I brought a book and asked for a signature, silently appreciating our taste in hats.
Ahh the smell of a new book. It’s beautifully produced. A lovely way to enjoy work such as these.
It’s hard not to compare John Olsen’s paintings to poetry. His lines lyrically travel over the canvas, the varied colours bringing either subtle beauty or dramatic power. In The You Beaut Country at the NGV, you can see Olsen’s work and T.S Eliot’s words come together with a natural affinity.
Not only had I come to see Olsen’s works, but also to hear Ben Quilty’s talk. A great artist in his own right whose painting of Margaret Olley is one of my favourite Archibald winners.
Ben Quilty started the talk by mentioning the negative review by Robert Nelson. Quilty asks why anyone would write a bad review about art in Australia. As he says, ‘Why would anyone want to stop people going to a gallery?’
It’s true that art needs all the support it can get but we also need truthful critics.
During the Q&A, one person mentions that we should all write a review. This seems a lot closer to a solution. We are all so different, why give only certain people the power over the critique. Let’s share our thoughts. Let’s have a conversation.
I would like to share one sentence from the aforementioned review, John Olsen retrospective: mildly entertaining at best by Robert Nelson.
“His tumultuous panoramas spread out in convulsive swings and encounters, making us think of streets, places and ratbags, the nooks and monstrosities that surge and eddy with random impulse; but at the same time, this hubbub of a life teeming in its crannies is also pure painting, nothing but marks of painterly spontaneity that read as an abstract gestural language on a flat surface.”
A lovely description that loses me at the end. I don’t see anything wrong with art that is gestural mark making. Art is a way we can work through thoughts bigger than words, how we can communicate emotion, how we can try to make sense of the world or ourselves. Quilty tells us that a couple of weeks ago Olsen’s wife, Katherine, passed away. In this terrible time, Olsen has made more work in the last couple of weeks than he has for a while. Art is there to express the best and help us through the worst of moments. Does it need to be anything else?
A look into Neuroaesthetics
I was looking up at the clouds the other day, finding pictures where I could. It’s something I haven’t done for a while. Flooding me with memories of childhood, summer days, itchy grass and laughter. I noticed that in trying to interpret obscure images within the clouds I found myself remembering moments and images I had thought long forgotten. This is one of the reasons art holds such an appeal to me – it’s ability to trigger memories and emotions.
Our whole lives are filtered and interpreted by our brains. Just looking at one picture is a complicated journey, containing twists and turns all completed in half a second. From photoreceptors absorbing light, electrical signals traveling along neuronal pathways, through the thalamus and relayed to different processing areas of the brain. One of the pathways visual information can take is known as the ‘What?’ pathway. It is here that long-term memories can be activated by visual input. The potential memories are only brought to mind if the neurons are activated. So if an image is unknown, but has certain visual tags, it can spark up the correlating memories.
I’m getting a little into Neuroaesthetics here, the study of the brain in relation to aesthetics. Can we look into the brain to explore and understand our relationship with art? It’s a question that has gained popularity but not without some criticism. Including from neuroscientist Bevil Conway and musicologist Alexander Rehding. They have said “it is an open question whether an analysis of artworks, no matter how celebrated, will yield universal principles of beauty” and that “rational reductionist approaches to the neural basis for beauty … may well distill out the very thing one wants to understand.” (Neuroaesthetics and the Trouble with Beauty) Both of these criticisms seem to have assumed that the aim is beauty. When I tend to agree with Brown and Dissanayake:
“Aesthetic emotions are unquestionably an integral part of the arts, but they are neither necessary nor sufficient to characterize them. Thus, a narrow focus on aesthetic responses is ultimately a distraction from the larger picture of what the arts are about.”
I’m not interested in hearing a right/wrong manual for art and beauty – not that it would even be possible. I am interested in furthering a discourse on art. Perhaps as Brown and Dissanayake suggest the term should be Neuroartsology.
Another criticism findings as Matthew Rampley writes in ‘The Seduction of Darwin’. “…at best it merely adds an additional discursive layer; familiar aesthetic concepts are redescribed using the vocabulary of neurology.”
The idea that impressionism triggers a more emotional response is a familiar concept, however it is further explained with neuroscience. Patrick Cavanagh discusses it in “The artist as neuroscientist”:
“Brain imaging of subjects presented with faces expressing fear show that the amygdala (a centre of emotion) responds strongly to a blurry version of the faces. In contrast, areas responsible for conscious face recognition respond weakly to blurry faces and best to faces presented in sharp detail. Impressionist works may connect more directly to emotional centres than to conscious image-recognition areas because the unrealistic patchwork of brush strokes and mottled colouring distract conscious vision.”
That could be seen as a new description of an old concept, but knowing the why is a necessary step in understanding human behaviors and exploring art’s potential. With technology improving and more study there’s a lot of potential to find.
I’m just beginning my journey into Neuroaesthetics. I have a lot more reading ahead.
The art: The State of Being Three
By Eugene Choi
The purpose of art, particularly contemporary art, is something I’ve been contemplating. A wrestling match of contradictions. Does it even need a purpose? Probably not. But as a creator I find I do and as a viewer I often impart my own purpose into the reading of a piece.
As I look at ‘The State of Being Three’ my mind goes through it’s own journey. First second, I don’t like it. What is this? Flowers suspended within a metal structure. Next second, I see the layered plaster on the floor. I feel the apprehension of the flowers
dropping. Can see it all smashing. Suddenly the fragility of the flowers becomes apparent. The metal structure, so strong, and yet it surrounds the flowers without supporting. Next the type of flowers adds it’s own story. King Proteas have a large flower head, a sharp bowl with a velvet softness. They are not a fragile flower. Perhaps the artist chose them for their long vase-life, but I like to think it’s because they have adapted to survive fire. They have a thick underground stem containing dormant buds that produce new growth after a fire. I had only just received a couple of these flowers for my birthday, so I felt a connection.
After making my own reading, the next stage is to read the statement by the artist. It’s
such a genuine voice that comes through. I feel her vulnerability, just as I did in the work, as she tries to ‘find comfort on this metaphorical structure’.
I realise as I go through this process that it is this evolving narrative that draws me to art. Everyone will bring their own perspective to the reading, perhaps sculpting a slightly clearer understanding of the world or the humans within it, just as the artist is sculpting to try to understand or articulate what they feel.
So while what I see may not be the purpose of the work, it still tells me a story. In ‘The State of Being Three’ I read: “although I may seem fragile and about to fall and break – I don’t need to look strong to survive – I will bloom after the fire”.
David Hockney Current
NGV, 11 nov – 13 Mar
My first reaction was anger. The first room of the David Hockney exhibition at the NGV is filled with iphone and ipad drawings. Each wall covered. A hit of colour. As I looked closer I couldn’t help thinking that if I had done any of these, they would have been considered novice attempts. Although I probably would have placed them in a folder within a folder on my hard drive, never to be opened again, assuming they’re not good enough.
This question on ‘what is good’ is a constant battle I have with myself and with
contemporary art. But as I continued through the exhibition I realised that this is not a question that should enter this space. It’s not about finding perfection, but the act of creation. And there was so much joy to be had in the creation of all of these works.
There were still things I didn’t like. That’s okay. There were others that re-imagined our world into one of colour and joy.
There was playfulness in ‘The Chairs’ room.
Character in all the portraits.
Hockey describes his ‘82 portraits & 1 still life’ as a complete work and went further to say that he see’s his whole career as one work. I can see that. Each piece is focused on the present, but with it comes a lifetime of experience.
The aspect of creation is further developed with screen recordings of Hockney’s ipad drawing. We can see each stroke, each decision. As I sat watching the complete creation of a work, with juggling music echoing from further along the exhibition, I felt the absorption and joy of the artist.
I left with one impression deeply implanted: Shut up and paint.