Tag Archives: visual art

A Brazilian perspective on Aboriginal art in Australia

GOLDSTEIN, Ilana Seltzer. “Visible art, invisible artists? The incorporation of Aboriginal objects and knowledge in Australian museums in in: Vibrant – Virtual Brazilian Anthropology (link).

Abstract: The creative power and the economic valorization of Indigenous Australian arts tend to surprise outsiders who come into contact with it. Since the 1970s Australia has seen the development of a system connecting artist cooperatives, support policies and commercial galleries. This article focuses on one particular aspect of this system: the gradual incorporation of Aboriginal objects and knowledge by the country’s museums. Based on the available bibliography and my own fieldwork in 2010, I present some concrete examples and discuss the paradox of the omnipresence of Aboriginal art in Australian public space. After all this is a country that as late as the nineteenth century allowed any Aborigine close to a white residence to be shot, and which until the 1970s removed Indigenous children from their families for them to be raised by nuns or adopted by white people. Even today the same public enchanted by the indigenous paintings held in the art galleries of Sydney or Melbourne has little actual contact with people of Indigenous descent.

Kay Abude’s Piecework reveals the labour of capital

Kay Abude, Piecework,  2014 Steel, MDF, timber, plywood, fluorescent lights, chairs, cardboard, paper, plaster, silicone rubber, paint, brushes, various modeling tools and steel utensils, latex gloves, cotton and nylon rags, cotton velvet, silk, rayon braided cord and workers. Dimensions variable

Kay Abude, Piecework, 2014 Steel, MDF, timber, plywood, fluorescent lights, chairs, cardboard, paper, plaster, silicone rubber, paint, brushes, various modeling tools and steel utensils, latex gloves, cotton and nylon rags, cotton velvet, silk, rayon braided cord and workers. Dimensions variable

Piecework, 2014 is an installation and series of durational performances that occur throughout its exhibition in Gallery 2 at Linden Centre for Contemporary Arts.  The installation consists of three workstations and three workers dressed in a uniform.  The workers engage in an activity of casting plaster objects from moulds in the form of 14.4kg gold bars.  These casts are then painted gold.  Piecework displays a purposefully futile labour of a repetitive and tireless fashion.  It explores a form of work relating directly to performance that is quantifiable, investigating ideas of power and value and asks questions about the role and meaning of labour within artistic practice.

Shift work is characteristic of the manufacturing industry, and the artwork employs performative strategies in a rigorous process and task orientated manner by using Linden as a workplace that is in constant operation over the period of a 24-hour cycle.  The ‘three-shift system’ is performed (Shift 1: 06:00-14:00, Shift 2:14:00-22:00 and Shift 3: 22:00-06:00) by the three workers who produce these gold bars throughout the six week exhibition period.  The workers are paid a fixed piece rate for each unit produced/each operational step completed per shift.  Ideas of the factory are embedded in the vary nature of the work mimicking a manufacturing process carried out by uniformed workers who take up their posts in eight hour shifts.

The catalogue essay by Jessica O’Brien:

The poetry and politics of production

Addressing the intersection between art, life and capitalism, Kay Abude’s Piecework interweaves personal experience, a critique on the distribution of global economic power, and the relationship between producers and consumers.

Piecework unfolds over a six-week period. A durational performance piece highlighting labour and process, the performers undertake manufacturing processes that reference the artist’s personal experience and recent site visits to Chinese factories. The group works through an endless pattern of standardised procedures that result in gold painted serialized plaster ingots. The performances are structured according to a three-shift system, dividing the day into three eight-hour working shifts that mimic a continuous 24-hour production cycle.

By foregrounding the body of the worker, Piecework engages with the pervasive neo-colonial first world practice of exploiting emerging economies and their abundance of cheap, unregulated labour. With most of Australia’s goods produced offshore, the performance addresses the disconnection in the minds of the consumer between the products we buy, and the often dehumanising labour that is required to produce it.

Banal, repetitive, precise and designed for maximum efficiency, Piecework could stand in for the processes behind countless products and could be extrapolated in factories a hundred or a thousand times over. Each action is carefully considered, creating a Haiku-like poetry to the work.

Highlighting the formality existing in standardised production, there is a purposeful ambiguity in the artist’s aestheticised interpretation of reality. Kay writes: “Two different types of labour exist in the two environments of the factory and the studio. The large populations filling the factories are dependent on the market that exploits them. These people labour because they must work for their livelihoods – they work in order to live and survive. The labour present in art practice is one that is voluntary and pleasurable for the artist – the artist lives to work and create.”[1]

Downplaying the desire for a single ‘artist’s hand’ in the work, while expressly displaying the labour that it took to create it, the audience is left to question the value of the objects that are produced, and how it is conferred.

At the crux of these ambiguities is the role of the audience in the artwork. “The fine arts traditionally demand for their appreciation physically passive observers…but active art requires that creation and realization, artwork and appreciator, artwork and life be inseparable.”[2] Utilising the understanding that the relationship between the artist and the audience is at the heart of Performance Art, the seemingly passive and non-participatory viewers of Piecework are in fact directly implicated in the work.

Piecework replicates the role the audience plays as participants of consumer culture, in their role as consumers of the artwork. Abude is the manufacturer and we the consumer. Without a market or an audience, ‘production’, in every sense of the word, would not exist.

By foregrounding the human process by which consumer goods are made through the physical presence of the workers, Piecework addresses the disconnection and compartmentalisation that is characteristic of present day consumption in a capitalistic society. And yet it also replicates those very relationships, distilling and aestheticising disturbing imbalances of power.

As Claire Bishop’s remarks: “The most striking projects… [hold] artistic and social critiques in tension.”[3] Piecework is a considered response to a pervasive social issue, but does not attempt to present a fixed meaning, or take on the herculean responsibility of suggesting a solution to global economic inequality. As unwitting participants of the performance, the significance we chose to ascribe to our role as a consumer of product and artwork is up to us.

Jessica O’Brien
June 2014

Jessica O’Brien is an independent curator and writer based in Melbourne.

[1] Abude, Kay, Put to work, M Fine Art, Faculty of the Victorian College of the Arts and Music, The University of Melbourne: November 2010, p. 28.

[2] Kaprow, Allen, Essays in the Blurring of Art and Life, Berkeley: University of California Press: 2003, p. 64.

[3]Bishop, Claire, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, Verso Books: 2012, p. 277-8.

Paradise is here: Dreams of the inner-west

Photo: Gary Warner

Photo: Gary Warner

“Passion for the land where one lives is the foundation of belonging and is an action we must endlessly risk.” Eduoard Glissant

Previous roundtables explored strategies for countering the commodification of art through the practices of the gift and openness. The Sydney roundtable brought together artists and writers who have an interest in local context. In a peripheral country such as Australia, the international stage beckons as a recognition of worthiness. The goal was to propose how the local might be represented without seeming parochial.

It was the evening of Bloomsday, an international celebration of locality in space and time, marking the day’s journey through Dublin. The discussion was located in Addison Road Centre, a long-established precinct for cultural activity in the inner-western suburb of Marrickville. The various tenants there, representing diverse ethnic backgrounds and scavenging economies, reflect an local resilience.

The participants focused particularly on the understanding of place as a key goal. One aspect  involves knowledge of local plants, particularly their names and how they might be used in cooking and/or medicine. The process of gathering this knowledge draws on the different cultures that inhabit this place, which have alternative ways of using what can be found. Underpinning this is a belief that paradise is here on earth.

A number of shared opinions underpinned this focus on place.

Post-colonial guilt is no longer useful. It has the effect of alienating us from place. Respectful acknowledgement of traditional ownership should not stop us embracing our responsibility for looking after our part of the world.

An important means of gaining local knowledge is walking. Walking not only helps us discover the local, it connects disparate elements together through experience. Walking need not only be an individual action, it can also include collective actions such as parades and marches.

The challenge emerges of how to locate this local. Within the concentric context of the ‘international’, the local is inferior. The local is less advanced and less informed than the metropolitan centre.

Within the perspective of Southern Theory, the local acknowledges its dependence on context, whereas the metropolitan centre presumes a universalism that denies its own locality.

One proposal to explore this perspective is to find a way of linking localities together that is not hierarchical. Working at the level of council, there is potential to activate connections between suburbs similar to Marrickville in Sydney, such as Brunswick in Melbourne and Tlalpan in Mexico. Similar processes of place-making such as foraging should be undertaken in different geographically distant localities. The results could then be shared. The common experience offers a sense of solidarity to counterbalance the centripetal pull of the metropolis.

There is potential to formalise this into an event like a locally distributed biennale. This would involve identifying a specific time period in which events would occur and be shared between different places. Alternatively, it may be possible to consider connections  based on contrast, such as the different political orientations of Sydney’s Marrickville and North Shore.

Questions which arise from this idea include:

  • What activities of place-making might be shared between different localities?
  • How do you prevent the focus on local becoming insular, consolidating common values while excluding difference?

The idea of a rhizomic biennale is now open for future development.


History under fire

Therese Keogh was invited to create work for the Sievers Project, an exhibition at the Centre for Contemporary Photography that revisited the work of a major Australian photographer who documented the glories of industry in the 20th century. Keogh was drawn to Sievers’ photograph of a severed hand holding a sheaf of wheat, a fragment of the marble statue of Ceres in Rome. She discovered that much of the imperial marble was eventually transformed into quicklime used to make concrete.  It can also be used as a soil amendment to counterbalance soil acidity. In order to investigate this process herself, Keogh sourced a marble pediment of an altar from a church in Ballarat. She then worked out how to fire this marble, which was eventually displayed in the gallery as a block of quicklime.

Keogh’s work witnesses the reduction of art into commerce. This can be seen as a loss echoing the demise of the grand paternalistic world of manufacture once celebrated by Sievers. But it can also be seen as a recovery of value from what is left behind, returning products of human endeavour to the earth from whence it came.

What is interesting from the perspective of South Ways is the adventure of the artist in confronting the material challenge herself, without recourse to external assistance. Her two hands thus provide a tangible link between the various phases of the cycle, moving from monument to earth. They allow us to witness the transformation of matter itself, a dimension otherwise absent from the silvery surfaces of Sievers’ prints.

Below are photos of the firing of the marble with Keogh’s description of the process:

These images show the firing of a marble object inside a large steel box. I started with a block of marble in my studio, and – over a period of several months – chipped away at its surface. I didn’t begin this process with an end point in mind. Part of me was looking for a fault in the marble, and so I kept carving in the hope that the stone would reveal its weaknesses, which would then allow me to stop. But one day the mallet I had been using broke with the force and repetition of the carving. The mallet’s head split in two, and it was like the marble was reacting against its own transformation. So I stopped.

Marble is a form of calcium carbonate, metamorphosed from limestone. When fired, the carbon dioxide trapped inside is burned away, transforming the calcium carbonate into calcium oxide, or quicklime. Quicklime doesn’t occur without human intervention, and is used for a variety of applications (including as a base ingredient in concrete, and, in agriculture, as a soil amendment to neutralise earth with high acidity). It is called quicklime (from the original meaning of the word ‘quick’ as something that is alive, or living) because when it comes into contact with water a chemical reaction takes place that creates extremely high temperatures, and has been known to cause severe burns to the skin of people working with it.

Once the carving had finished, I constructed a steel box that would house the marble during its firing. The box protected the marble from the smoke of the fire, and allowed it to be heated more evenly.

My mum owns a property in Central Victoria, where I took the marble and the box to be fired. I propped up the box, with the marble inside, on four bricks in a paddock, and built a fire around it. The fire burned for about eighteen hours, as I stoked it through the night. When it had died down, I took the lid off the box. The marble – now quicklime – had cracked as it heated and cooled. Its surface had changed from being luminous to kind of chalky, as its chemical composition was irreversibly altered from the fire.


Therese Keogh, After Firing (CaO), image courtesy Christian Capurro, 2014

Therese Keogh, After Firing (CaO), image courtesy Christian Capurro, 2014

Therese Keogh is a Melbourne artist – www.theresekeogh.com. Featured image at the top of this page is her hand-drawn version of the original Sievers’ photo.

Continue reading History under fire

Who makes it? A credit crunch for creative labour

Production of work in Hosier Lane for Manifest (ACCA, 2004) a Zaishu project by Matthew Butler

South Ways is a lateral conversation about alternative platforms for creative practice that are particular to the South. The first roundtable in Wellington concerned the connection to Māori practices of koha, or gift-giving, and the emerging field of ‘social practice’. This raised the need to frame creative works so that they might be reciprocated appropriately. The second roundtable in Melbourne dealt with the process of commodification and alternative ways of revealing the otherwise hidden labour that contributes to the cultural product.

The Melbourne roundtable was informed by the work of Boaventura de Sousa Santos, who articulated an epistemology of the South where ‘preference must be given to the form of knowledge that guarantees the greatest level of participation to the social groups involved in its design, execution, and control and in the benefits of the intervention.’ (Santos, 2007)

The roundtable discussed different models for art that reflects the social relations in its production. Matthew Butler presented the Zaishu Project as an attempt to create work that straddles art and design by giving participants a stake in the outcome. Inspired partly by street art in Chile, the project emerged in 2004 when the City of Melbourne with John So as mayor was cracking down on street art. Lanes were continually painted a band of white to deter stencil artists from leaving their work overnight. One day, Butler lined a lane with cheap construction site plywood and with help of curator Andy Mac invited street artists to work on them in a clandestine stencilling event. The results were exhibited as a pop up exhibition in the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, along with DJ. The plywood was laser cut into slot together components to form the 52 stools and each artist was given one made from a random selection of works. The project has since involved hundreds of artists and gone on to include communities that include Bollywood poster painters in India, tribal artists in Fiji and is planned to go to Fitzroy Crossing in a project with Aboriginal youth.

Other projects were discussed:

  • An exhibition of art by refugees to Melbourne will give over curatorial control to the participants (Damian Smith and Trinidad Estay)
  • Work that uses the Mexican walking fish axolotl as a metaphor for cultural crossing (Diego Ramirez)
Installation shot from Nicholas Mangan 'Progress in Action' Sutton Gallery 2013

Installation shot from Nicholas Mangan 'Progress in Action' Sutton Gallery 2013

Ian Burn (1939 - 1993), Documentary wall 1967 - 1996, Digital print, 120 x 150 cm, from 'The Artist and the Social Order' exhibition UWS Art Gallery 2009

Ian Burn (1939 - 1993), Documentary wall 1967 - 1996, Digital print, 120 x 150 cm, from 'The Artist and the Social Order' exhibition UWS Art Gallery 2009

There was broad discussion of artistic labour as a hidden component of public life. This included reflection on the pressure placed on the Sydney Biennale in the 1980s to feature more art and working life, led by artists such as Ian Burn. (Geoff Hogg)

Nathan Gray reflected on the criticism that artists who boycotted the Sydney Biennale because of Transfield sponsorship should also reject anything that has government funding. First, he argued that government funding is public money to be used for common good. ‘You wouldn’t think of banning someone from Medicare because they were critical of Julia Gillard.’ Second, as a payment for services, the artists are in a position of subsidising events such as the biennale. During discussions between the participating artists about the boycott, it was revealed that both Australian and international artists were paid the same rate of $1,500. This discussion highlighted the unpaid contribution many provide for an event that contributes to the value for sponsors such as Transfield.

To build on this discussion, the project What I got paid? was proposed where artists submit information about how much they were paid for their labour. Similar to the Wikileaks strategy, the purpose is to weaken the structures of power that are built on secrecy through a flood of classified information. This would open up lines of conversation by artists about the value of their labour. There is potential for such a venture to now only include information about payments, but also attribution, as the contribution of many technicians and craftspersons to creative products often go unrecognised.

Ceri Hann 'Paradigm Shifter' hermeneutic object

Ceri Hann 'Paradigm Shifter' hermeneutic object

In general, the sentiment of the roundtable was to support art that open about its sources of production. One means of revelation is from the bottom up, through platforms where producers can share information about their contribution to cultural products.


Ceri Hann, Damian Smith, David  Corbet, Diego Ramirez, Geoff Hogg, Laura Carthew, Matthew Butler, Nathan Gray, Nikki Lam, Trinidad Estay


  • Santos, Boaventura de Sousa. 2007. “Beyond Abyssal Thinking: From Global Lines to Ecologies of Knowledges.” Eurozine, July 26
  • ‘Code of Practice for Partnerships in Craft & Design’ Sangam Project 2013

Wellington roundtable: Giving art away

Drawing from Wellington Roundtable

Drawing from Wellington Roundtable

On the morning of Thursday 27 February, 24 people gathered in Wellington to discuss how we can give art away. This roundtable was part of Kete, a biannual craft fair organised by the NZ Academy of the Arts. It was also the first in a series of meeting in South Ways, a project to identify and develop forms of creative practice that have a particular home in the South.

Wellington was an important place to begin this discussion (see background of the key word Bestow). It is the location of Te Papa, a museum whose brief involves the care for precious taonga, Māori treasures deserving special respect for their connection with ancestors and tribal life. It is also the site of vibrant artistic scene, including a community of contemporary jewellers who operate outside the gallery system. The roundtable was a space to stories from both sides about the dynamics involved in gifting art objects. Emerging from this are ideas for platforms that might support this practice.

Artist badge from the Free Time (Sarah Read) toolkit by Jhana Millers, 2012 (Visa Prezzy card, bronze)

Artist badge from the Free Time (Sarah Read) toolkit by Jhana Millers, 2012 (Visa Prezzy card, bronze)

Art that is given carries a meaning that is different to art that is bought and sold. How can we make a space for this while acknowledging our dependence on money to survive in the current world?

Here is a summary of the discussion:

The art of give and take

Gifting is an important means of creating relationships, particularly in Māori culture. The practice of koha cements relationships within iwi and between generations. For koha and other gifting practices, much depends not only the attitude of the giver, but also on the way it is received.

For contemporary jewellers, gifting and exchange has become an important means of sustaining its community of fellow artists. Newly emerging social practitioners are seeking to expand the circle of gifting to include the general public. This offers a counterpoint to the process of commodification that continues to deplete the public domain.

The issue they face is the potential lack of control over the disposition of the public. The danger is that these gifts are seen as ‘freebies’. A challenge is to find frameworks in which objects might circulate into the public domain without too quickly being absorbed into private consumption. It is important to create spaces that involve mutual respect between audience and artist.

Jacqui Chan, Host A Brooch, urban jewellery project, Christchurch 2011, participant's photograph.

Jacqui Chan, Host A Brooch, urban jewellery project, Christchurch 2011, participant's photograph.

Proposal for a Festival

One way of framing the event so that strangers might be open to a gift is to declare a certain number of days when people are encouraged to give and receive gifts. These gifts would be tokens of connection rather than consumer goods. This has potential to enliven a city, making inhabitants more aware of each other. They can also create solidarity for particular causes or groups. This Festival could be supported by a city such as Wellington so that artists would be paid to set up participatory projects in which:

  • members of public would wear items of jewellery walking through the city
  • jewellery that was made from the city
  • jewellery made for the city

Some general points from the roundtable:


  • A gift can involve extreme honesty. They can be loaded with meaning from the giver and responsibility from the receiver. Sometimes they can even stand in for the person who gave them.
  • Gifts have a ripple effect.

Huhana Smith, Senior Curator Māori Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa and Associate Curator Joe Horse Capture from Minneapolis Institute of Art. Curators kindly allowed the perspex to be removed from the poutokomanawa. It was an unforgettable experience, because no Māori visual culture scholars to the best of my knowledge then, knew where this taonga had ended up.

Huhana Smith, Senior Curator Māori Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa and Associate Curator Joe Horse Capture from Minneapolis Institute of Art. Curators kindly allowed the perspex to be removed from the poutokomanawa. It was an unforgettable experience, because no Māori visual culture scholars to the best of my knowledge then, knew where this taonga had ended up.


The receiver can have important responsibility. For example, in 1922 the Prince of Wales was given a  Mere Pounamu presented with the blade first as a sign of kaupaki to establish an ongoing relationship.  The idea was that it would be given back, which the Prince failed to appreciate.

There is the money market and Māori market. Less important things are made for money.

Koha Kilohertz "My Te Reo (Maori language)classmates organized a koha for me to make a koha for Hoani, our tutor. I organized a koha for Ewan Duff (local Maori stone carver)who kohad the pounamu to me." Andrew Last

Koha Kilohertz "My Te Reo (Maori language)classmates organized a koha for me to make a koha for Hoani, our tutor. I organized a koha for Ewan Duff (local Maori stone carver)who kohad the pounamu to me." Andrew Last


  • Māori are very generous.
  • Koha cements relationships. It helps keep the relationship a living one.
  • It isn’t the object, it is the spirit in which it is given.
  • The word koha relates to oha ti, or someone’s last words. This is a message of generosity as part of our very being.
  • Koha is reciprocal.  There’s a message that goes with it, an instruction of some sort
  • It can’t be too small or too big.
  • Gifts are ways of marking a particular moment.
  • They can wait for a long time before reciprocation.
  • Gifts mark connection to this place. It can be important for new-comers to feel at home here.
  • The principles of koha are now taught in New Zealand tertiary institutions, involving a visit to a marae.
Joanna Zellmer 8 portraits from a jeweller’s point of view, From the series “signs in a state of change”, archival satin fine art paper, box framed, each 520 x 390 x 45mm

Joanna Zellmer 8 portraits from a jeweller’s point of view, From the series “signs in a state of change”, archival satin fine art paper, box framed, each 520 x 390 x 45mm

Contemporary jewellery

  • There is a very strong sense of community in New Zealand’s contemporary jewellery scene.
  • But there is a need to challenge this by broadening its audience to include people outside contemporary jewellery.

Social practitioner

  • The social practitioner is an artist who develops connections between people through art works and objects. A number of contemporary jewellers could be seen to be working in this way now too.
  • It involves making art available to everyone. Support for this is gained from both museums and social agencies.
  • It can be informed by Buddhist principle of being effective in the world
  • Sometimes it is important to lend rather than give objects. In that way there is less focus on the object itself and more how it opens up the world around you.
  • Given the lack of saleable product, for some it can involve going to the path of a monastery. This could be living on home-grown vegies in the Coromandels.
  • But there is a danger of an audience that doesn’t respect the art offered as gift. This is sometimes encouraged by the ‘art as fun park’ attitude encouraged by recent biennale culture.

The alternative career path: Coromandel NZ (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/dd/Coromandel_Peninsula.jpg)

Other proposals

Existing projects in New Zealand
  • Cuckoo a New Zealand artist collective that organise events in other institutions according to a principle that no money is ever involved
  • Host a Brooch
  • See Here
  • Organisation that brokers spaces for artists to work in vacant shopfronts
Other possible
  • Crowd-funding not so relevant in New Zealand because people aren’t as wealthy as in Australia
  • Cooperative where members would pay an annual fee to borrow works by artists and jewellers


Andrew Last; Birgit Moffatt; Carol Mayer; Deborah Donnelly; Elsa Krasniansky; Helen Donnelly; Huhana Smith; Jacqui Chan; Joanna Mere Branthwaite; Johanna Zellmer; Katheryn Yeats; Kevin Murray; Kohai Grace; Laura Porterhouse; Matthew Wilson; Megan Tamati-Quennell; Owen Mapp; Peter Deckers; Richard Reddaway; Sandra Alfoldy; Sarah Read; Tiffany Singh; Vivien Atkinson; Yenji Chen.

Ping Pong: Colombia – Australia Cultural Connections through Visual Arts

Ping Pong: Colombia – Australia Cultural Connections through Visual Arts

7-30 November at RMIT Design Hub

The Embassy of Colombia in Australia, Multicultural Arts Victoria (MAV), and RMIT University are proud to present Ping Pong, a pioneering international cross-cultural visual arts project where visual artists in Colombia partner up with artists in Australia, China and India.

This project is part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ “Plan de Promoción de Colombia en el Exterior”, which promotes the country overseas through its cultural expressions.

The Ambassador of Colombia in Australia, Mrs. Clemencia Forero, looks forward to this project that will lead to a cultural exchange between Colombia and Asia Pacific countries: “Projects like Ping Pong strengthen cultural bonds and raise awareness on drawing, one of the most outstanding expressions of Colombia’s current artistic scenario. We are very proud of presenting this project in Melbourne.”

Exhibition 7-30 Nov

Opening: Thursday 7 of November at 11.00 am. Everyone welcome but RSVP is essential to events@rmit.edu.au
Exhibition dates: Thursday 7 November – Saturday 30 November
Venue: RMIT Design Hub (Bldg 100), Design Research Institute Long Room, Level 9, Corner Swanston & Victoria St

Conference Colombia – Australia: Cultural Connections in the 21st Century.
Everyone welcome but RSVP is essential to events@rmit.edu.au
Date: Friday 8 November
Time: 9:30-4:00pm
Venue:RMIT Design Hub Level 3 (Bldg 100), Lecture Theatre

Presented by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Colombia in partnership with RMIT University and Multicultural Arts Victoria. Supporters: Arts Victoria, City of Melbourne

Image: Jorge Julian Aristizabal, Bathos/Trivialidad 2013, image courtesy of the artist

Nicholas Mangan–recreate the past for the future

Installation shot from Nicholas Mangan 'Progress in Action'

Installation shot from Nicholas Mangan 'Progress in Action'

Nicholas Mangan is a Melbourne artist with a strong interest in the material histories of the Pacific. His previous show at Sutton Gallery Nauru, Notes from a Cretaceous World concerned the history of phosphate mining in the remote Pacific island, which had become a processing centre for asylum seekers (see article). His recent show, Progress in Action, concerns struggle in 1988 by the Bougainville Revolutionary Army to close the Panguna Copper mine which was polluting their island.

Copper plate from Nicholas Mangan 'Progress in Action'

Copper plate from Nicholas Mangan 'Progress in Action'

Mangan’s strategy is to re-stage the BRA’s attempts to cope with the blockage of food and energy by developing new modes of self-sufficiency. Locals took to the ubiquitous coconut as a resource to sustain their existence (as told in the film Coconut Revolution). Mangan learned how to extract oil from the coconut which could then be refined as a fuel to power a generator. This energy was then used to project a film documentary montage from the time. Alongside the installation and performance were copper plates, reproducing publications such as the Bougainville Copper annual report.

Mangan’s work follows that of others who seek to re-enact past struggles, such as Tom Nicholson. What’s particularly interesting here is the contemporary relevance of the energy system that he re-creates, showing the way in which the necessity of deprivation can lead to the invention of renewable energies. As Mangan says,

Beyond the politics or history for me it always comes back to the core materials that are formed or sculpted by an ideological determination, like copper being used for capitalist extraction or the coconuts being used as the agency for an eco-revolution.

In Australia, this has particular meaning as a challenge to the way neighbouring Melanesian region can be dismissed as an ‘arc of instability’. It ranks alongside the television series Straits as a way of imaginatively connecting the continent to the oceanic web in which it is embedded.

Installation shot of documentary projection in Nicholas Mangan 'Progress in Action'

Installation shot of documentary projection in Nicholas Mangan 'Progress in Action'

Mangan’s work also opens up a particularly southern strategy for art making, in revealing the means of production. Exposing the supply chain works against the commodification of art by revealing the process that lies behind the product. It sociology it demonstrates the kind of creative potential in the ecological knowledge outlined by Boaventura de Sousa Santos.

Of course, it could go further. The exhibition itself is lacking a relational dimension. There is no active role played by people in Bougainville today. If only Mangan had the opportunity to visit Bougainville himself, and find ways in which they might like to become actively involved in his work.

Fortunately, the project is far from over. Mangan is in the process of shipping the installation to Brazil, where it will feature in the Mercosul Biennial at Porto Alegre. According to the curatorial statement, the biennial

gathers works together that explore different kinds of atmospheric disturbances propelling travel and social displacement, technological advancement and world development, vertical expansions in space, and transversal explorations through time.

This seems a perfect fit for Mangan and an important opportunity to have an Australian artist represented in this key South American event.