IS THERE AUSTRALIAN SCULPTURE?
Australia is a place which is profoundly different in nature to the place from which its European colonizers/invaders came in the 18th century. It had produced a land based culture actively engaged with maintaining the status quo of an ecological system which they saw as being sacred and were intimately part of. Some 60,000 years old according to current knowledge, it was not surprisingly profoundly different to the incoming technological culture which believed in conquest, control and large scale modification of the land so that it served their perceived human needs.
Aboriginal culture did not traditionally make a lot of three dimensional objects but the carved wooden Pukumani burial poles of the Tiwi Islands are clearly saturated in deep mythological meaning/ connection with the land. When object making incorporates broad based, significant statements about our place in the universe into its form, whether it be intellectually or dare I say it about timeless questions of spirit it always attracts me. Is it sculpture though? Does it matter? There is significance within the poles within the cultural context that they were made in, significance that can at least partly reach out beyond the culture they were made in to a broader audience. Traditionally they were made as burial poles not as sculpture and I feel one has to be careful of cultural assimilation if they are claimed retrospectively as sculptural objects. In the contemporary situation the Tiwi artists are clearly moving their carving into the sculpture area, a cultural evolution is occurring and that is valid.
In relation to the incoming cultures one would expect then that sculpture would over time take on at least some of the forms and sensibilities of this extraordinary and profound place - not that there aren`t other cultural facets to feed sculpture, many incoming influences through immigration from Asia, the Middle East and currently Africa to name a few. Also the rise of technology, its influence, particularly on the young is enormous. The historical aspect of sculpture and the rise of an international approach where place means nothing are further determining factors. The impact of Duchamp too is considerable.
What I feel is worth stating from the beginning is that the interior wisdom of the Australian continent owes sculpture absolutely nothing, to be touched by it you have to show respect and care for it, to mine it you need its permission. This modus operandi was and still is largely foreign to the incoming European culture whose value system is still dominant in contemporary Australia. When permission is given, after respect has been put into practice, it is a profound, humbling and invaluable experience to walk across this ancient landscape which exudes wisdom and is a great teacher. Silence is one of its significant teaching tools, as Margaret King – Boyes, the anthropologist/teacher I studied under and worked with said to me “a culture which is shaped by silence is greatly different to one shape by continual noise”. Few Australian sculptors have had contact with the Australian interior; they cling to the major cities of the coast, green belts, zones of major economic activity, safety areas which psychologically provide umbilical cords back to the security of mother Europe. There are other influences in contemporary Australia to shape sculpture but surely the wisdom of the interior should be one major contributor, at present it is not. The Aboriginal cave paintings and Tiwi burial poles( which were not made as sculptures initially) are extraordinary works, speaking intimately, deeply of place, culture and spirit – there forms and what they express are different to cultural production in other parts of the world ( although similarities with African cave paintings can be seen, both are land based cultures). The cave paintings are an area I have looked at closely; they have had a considerable influence on my own attempts to make sculpture which can be said to be Australian sculpture. I believe the profundity and exquisiteness of the cave paintings throws many of the notions of international art making into the beige basket of mere intellectual maneuvering. Intellectual relativity is not alone an adequate tool to explore the universe.
Incoming cultures can connect with this place; we all have base level human potentialities to do this. Humility is perhaps the first port of call to accessing the interior wisdom – to learn to walk softly, quietly across the landscape, listening to the silence and taking in the cacophony of exterior stimuli. Following this acquired skills of observation, symbolic interpretation, and an awareness that linear time is not the only form of time which operates (circular time, to use a broadly inclusive description, where all is interconnected and fold back loops exist is also operational). Visual observation of the Australian landscape, large horizon lines, eroded forms, cracking, rounded rock forms sculpted over thousands of years, heat hazes, our clear light and blue, blue sky to name a few provide a rich palette so different from the northern hemisphere to draw from – these alone should see fresh forms arising in sculptural practice. I have attempted to utilize these visually observed forms in my sculpture since the early nineteen nineties. Secondly symbolic interpretation is important, including an awareness of expressed motifs connecting to universal motifs ( e.g. it is no accident that circular forms occur in many cultures who see their universe as being interconnected, where cause and effect laws are recognized. The circle is the universal symbol of interconnectedness). The Wandjina spirit figures with their circular heads “speak” locally, but also universally of creation figures in many cultures and of the connection with the whole, the stillness before time and multiplicity emerged. They are in a localized way an extraordinarily rich symbol of this place and the sacredness of it, but one that also connects with the wonders of universal spirit – as such they are inspiring. Symbolic interpretation allows you to see beneath the surface, to engage the “subterranean” operating tools which drive what can be seen in the visible world. In Australia as David Tacey points out so well in his book “Edge Of The Sacred” life and death and our sense of beauty are much closer together than in Europe. I often use this symbolism (in the Horizon Figure series at the top a longish fire symbol sits alongside a gentle hill like landscape) to hint at this notion of the close interplay of two extremes as a creative force in our landscape. As such it is a revealing mechanism for something deeper. Felt response too, which defies quantifying, is another asset sense when you walk through the Kimberly, Kakadu or the Flinders Ranges. These natural areas can have a great felt presence, connecting you to the timeless, which is why the huge sculptural carvings at Mt. Rushmore in the U.S.A. are such a travesty, the underlying sacredness of that place, its ability through natural forms to connect people with the wondrous was wiped out by the literal carving of four president`s heads.
Writers such as Tim Winton and David Tacey, song writers of the ilk of Shane Howard and painters such as Fred Williams all who have roots which extend back to Europe have partly transformed themselves, developing ways of seeing which allow them to interpret this place in the context of this place rather than out of a European context. In sculpture John Davis made a contribution in that he gathered materials, twigs etc. from particular areas of Australia and constructed sculptures from them. These works perhaps somewhat literal nevertheless had a real sense of place about them; you could call them Australian sculpture. Rosemary Gascoine whose major area of cultural production was two dimensional also made a contribution with her weather affected sculptures, many bleached by the Australian sun. Inge King, Norma Redpath and works by a number of sculptors shown along the River Murray during the Mildura Triennials (60s – 80s) touched on the area as have a number of works in the Palmer Biennials ( Stephen Newton`s sculptures are an example). Since the early nineteen nineties this has been my main area of exploration and development. My approach is through form, symbolism, materials, hybridism where influences from pre-European arrival in Australia, the land and Aboriginal culture intermingle with the long history of European sculpture brought into Australia and through attempting to give the works a spiritual presence. People often comment on the totemic feel of my sculpture – I enjoy that comment being made.
You do not have to make sculpture in Australia which has the feel of this place; you can work in many different frameworks and produce significant work. At the same time Australia has deep, profound, ancient offerings which can be “mined”, offerings from a context extremely different to Europe which should result in sculpture which is different, conceptually and in form to European sculpture. A few Australian sculptors are beginning to engage with this place, to enter the silent void, it is a challenging road to go down, a quiet road away from the congested bitumen freeways of our noisy coastal cities.
Greg Johns, April 2018.