ART / Lost in the Outback: Tom Lubbock on 'Aratjara: Art of the First Australians' at the Hayward Gallery

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
TOO many dots. Too many stripes. Too many concentric circles. And all those earth colours. The works now on display in the Hayward Gallery's group exhibition generally ask a little to go an awfully long way. Sometimes it comes off. Tim Leurah Tjapaltjari's picture Rock Wallaby Tjukurrpa (1982) is a significant success, because it achieves a complex and wonkily balanced composition, without falling into either formulaic repetition of motifs, or random accumulation - both unfortunate temptations to many of the artists here. Alec Mingelmanganu's Wandjina (1980), a Paul Klee-like Angel, gives a nice apparitional quality to the picture surface, avoiding the assertive combinations of black, white and red and yellow ochre, also much too prevalent. And among the sculptures, Wilfred Pilakui's Pukumani Burial Pole (1979) is a strong pile-up of Brancusi plinths.

The styles of this group of artists can be various, but often worryingly close to kitsch - whether it be in Mick Namarari Tjapaltjari's quasi- pointillist abstractions or in the shimmering yellow horizontals of Turkey Tolson Tjupurula's Op-ish Straightening Spears at Ilyingaungau (many of the titles seem obscure). And for predominanty graphic works, the draughtsmanship, which often suggests grace or vigour at a distance, generally turns lifeless on closer inspection. Nobody is remotely interested in paint texture. As in so much of twentieth century art, there is a distinctive strain of primitivism, though here it often comes dangerously close to straight pastiche . . .

Well, obviously not. But that might be one way of putting it. It was an attempt to talk about the exhibition 'Aratjara: Art of the First Australians', while putting aside all thoughts of cultural distance. And perhaps it would be the most honest way to talk about it. After all, that is roughly the way my eye sees it: those are the terms it can hardly help operating with, and those are its first impressions. Yet like every other visitor to this exhibition, I know that those terms don't apply. True, this art mostly was made in the twentieth century, and much very recently. Many of the artists are alive. And some of them are self- conscious adopters of Aboriginal traditions, rather than simple inheritors of them. But all the same, this art mostly wasn't made within the traditions of modern or indeed ancient Western Art. It is, as they say, other.

It's rightly emphasised, for instance, what a mistake it is to take any of these pictures for works of abstraction (or for pointillism or op- art or whatever). Abstraction in our sense is far from the concerns of Aboriginal art. It is full of quite specific meanings, and you can kind of see that. And yet, for Western viewers, I doubt whether this knowledge can prevent the apparently abstract qualities from being the main source of its appeal, at least initially. If you like it, that's probably what you like. And the curating, which puts the minimum information on the caption to each exhibit, seems to encourage this.

This is not the only way the paintings appeal. There is also the sense of complex but obscure symbolism, in which every mark and space means something, but which even with a quite detailed iconographic crib doesn't become much less obscure. The representational schemes, the rules of composition, are pretty remote from what we're used to. And obviously it isn't really art in our sense of the word at all. (But isn't this obscurity, and this strangeness, in itself very appealing?) And then we maybe have some ideas about 'dreaming' and 'song- lines', and the way the pictures - like their makers - are linked to the land and its stories, and this adds more positive feelings. But all these feelings clearly depend on a non-Aboriginal perspective. No way out there. And one may conclude that a show like this can't but go down the wrong way. If it's a success, it will be a success based on something like a mistake.

Aratjara's organisers are alive to these difficulties, though not surprisingly they don't have much of an answer. The writers of the catalogue make it clear that they regard with some suspicion anyone coming along simply to enjoy themselves. And in places, the catalogue seems almost to argue that the exhibition it accompanies should not even be taking place - which I think is a first. But the question remains, what do exhibitions like this want?

It's hard for them not just to pass on their own dilemmas to the viewer. What they press with one hand (you should recognise these works as art, not as ethnographic curios), with the other they withhold (but you can never really understand them). No doubt there are almost insurmountable translation problems. But it's worth remembering that these problems only arise at all because some Western people find that they enjoy the work - maybe for the wrong reasons, but they like it, they want aesthetically to have it. It's only then that questions of cross-cultural understanding are encountered. Gut reaction comes first.

And, for myself, I don't feel these questions very keenly, exactly because (with a few exceptions) I don't very much like these works. I don't very much dislike them either. To be honest, I find them a bit boring - which is the most difficult kind of response to articulate properly. But panning the mind briskly and superficially over all the art I've ever seen, it strikes me that the art represented in Aratjara is perhaps the most boring art in the world. Well, something has to be.

Admittedly the competition is quite stiff. Some people would be inclined to offer that particular palm to works of Socialist Realism. And as part of a season of Chinese art, the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford has some examples in its cafe. There are propaganda posters from the time of the Cultural Revolution, which are pretty well par for the course, but also - much more unusual - pieces of ornamental porcelain, representing such figures as a red army student and a peasant (diligently studying the words of Mao), or the exemplary soldier-hero Lei Feng. The sweet and homely craftsmanship of these pieces sits strangely, but not falsely, with the embodiment of revolutionary virtue. They would be a really distinctive addition to anyone's mantlepiece.

Upstairs there's 'Silent Energy', a group show of works by eight artists in roughly their early thirties, mainly installations or large paintings installed environmentally. Without captions, I don't think it would occur to anyone, except in one case perhaps, that these works were made by Chinese artists. And in fact, except in one case (a different one), none of the artists presently works in China. The rubric is 'New Art from China'. But they are as fluent as anyone is in the various languages of contemporary art.

Still there is, when you look into it, Chinese matter involved. Xi Jianjun's pictures, mostly laid on the floor, are thickly coated in layers of wax, which covers the canvas like translucent integuments of muscle and skin - and is punctured here and there through to the red- painted canvas-surface. One's knee- jerk association here between flesh, holes, China, and acupuncture is (happily) confirmed by the artist. Cai Guoqiang's work called Project for Extraterrestrials No 17 is a large scorched canvas, recording literally a controlled explosion caused by the artist in Oxford's Angel Meadow in June (he does this kind of thing all the time). Again, some thought of traditional Chinese knowledge of gunpowder and its uses is perhaps not irrelevant, though quite how - as the artist claims - the work 'embodies the cosmic principle of the reincarnation of ten billion souls', I'm less clear. And while you might attribute any of ammount of political resonance to it, Chen Zuin's vast mound of burnt newspaper is an impressive addition to the vast- amounts-of-the-same-kind-of-stuff genre (the fact that there's a hollow wooden frame an inch beneath the charred surface is a bit disappointing).

But the work that has caused the most stir is Huang Yongping's Yellow Peril. This is a yellow tent-like structure which you can go into, and at one end there's a metaphor for cultural confict: a large perspex box, suspended above your head, filled with a thousand locusts and five scorpions. Since the exhibition opened many locusts have inevitably died. So has at least one scorpion. And controversy, equally inevitably, has followed, with no less a figure than Johnnie Morris joining the debate. The Museum helpfully exhibits clippings of comments from assorted local newspapers. There is one report from as far away as Aberdeen. And the episode has yielded some dramatic headlines: Death for Art's Sake, Museum Display of Death, Scorpion Art Fury, Johnnie Angry at Scorpion Art Stunt, and - easily the best - Death of Locust Causes Storm (at last, some real evidence for Chaos Theory).

One wouldn't normally imagine that either the scorpion or the locust stood particularly high in the affections of even the most 'animal-loving' public, and the locusts in particular must be pleasantly surprised to find how many friends they have here. Perhaps it could only happen in a country in which these species are almost unknown (or perhaps only in a country which will take almost any excuse to have a go at art). But it would be unrealistic to hope that other cultures could ever fully understand this.

(Photographs omitted)