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Palmer Biennial Speech, Greg Johns. 2008

"What the hell are we doing here? And what is it all about?" asks Damien Hirst. This will probably be the one of the few times I will quote Hirst, but it is still a question I really like, and oddly enough I think there are at least some answers available, but not through the paradigms the Art world has presented in the last few decades.

I will briefly put forward some alternate contemporary paradigms, paradigms which are holistic/integrated in approach, and importantly are inclusive of what went before them. I refer here to the perennial philosophies, which I believe are of great importance and often neglected today. I would like to see these alternate models at least discussed. I do not put them forward as ridged blue prints which never change, just the opposite, one characteristic is that they do change with time. One perennial notion I will put forward as relevant to contemporary art practice is myth/mythology, in my opinion a concept which is characterised by both extraordinary fluidity and at the same time connection to sub-structures which are timeless in nature. In myth that which changes and the changeless meet, join together, dance. It is paradoxical, but perhaps paradox is a natural part of everything. The art world of course has largely turned its back on myth, dismissed it. Post Modernism, the great deconstructor, relativist, now in its death throws has dominated, and we now have Evolutionary Psychology to the fore, explaining everything including an evolutionary explanation as to why we make art. Perhaps one day we will have an integrated theory which takes little bits from all of these ideas and joins the dots to create a theory which has at its root level the notion of a forever changing pattern. Myth actually puts this notion forward but it has incorrectly been seen as rigid by the art world. Greek myth, one of our cultural foundations has alone so much to offer and is of course a foundation stone for our culture.

The Art Gallery of S.A. has apparently recently bought two limited edition prints of Hirst, the prints his London Gallery uses to keep the cash flowing in, sold to those who cannot afford to buy the multi - million dollar works, the "real Stuff". Hirst and the big end of town always seem to me to be intimately connected. And of course without Saachi` s money /assistance Hirst would probably have never been heard of. As you can see this is all really substantial stuff! Contemporary art challenging the world! We also have cows cut in half and diamond encrusted skulls! Intellectually challenging - I don't believe so. It was E.H. Gombrich I believe who said recently something along the line of it is the substantial rather the sensational which is important. I agree.

I have since I started making sculpture in 1976 felt largely alienated from the art world. Perhaps there is something wrong with me, but much of what has been produced from Pop art onwards frankly bores me! I do like the loosening up aspect of Post Modernism, the moving away from notions of perfection. I also like the development, the freeing up and engagement of a whole range of differing materials, but beyond that there is much to challenge. Has/is much of contemporary art simply reflective/mirroring our times rather than challenging them? I personally find much of it to be self indulgent, to be reflective of the look at me, Hollywood fame syndrome. I feel that the well the art world has been drawing from have been very shallow - popular culture, the international, the subjective alone, linguistics, the proposition that everything is as good as everything else, much of Post Modern theory, sensationalism, notions of fame and recently evolutionary and genetic theory from the scientific realm to completely explain everything; including why we make art. Some of these paradigms have contributions to make, but I do not believe that they are broad enough to present an inclusive and importantly holistic proposition as regards the question, "Why the hell are we here"? Why do these areas dominate, why build monuments to popular culture when there is so much more to engage. Is there anything more boring than popular culture! Why is it obligatory in major contemporary art shows to have a video of some young male doing tricks on a skate board? Sorry, much of this art production bores the butt of me.

So! What is interesting? I believe that we can still look at and be personally involved with the big picture questions, but they do involve more effort and they do not yield immediate satisfaction. As such they are at odds with our contemporary culture. They are longer time frames areas of exploration, which do not reflect our times, where people want instant satisfaction, where people want happiness 24 hours a day, an unattainable "goal". These longer time journeys however can reveal meaningfulness, they can give one a sense of place in the bigger picture and in our times. Perhaps all is not meaningless, perhaps all is not biochemical, perhaps Dawkins is wrong. Lets at least consider this as a possibility. Can we please have on the agenda, at least a consideration of a paradigm beyond but also inclusive of notions of the mechanistic. There has and there is a lot of substantial writing, research, development going on about questions of spirit, but it does not get the exposure that Dawkins for example gets. I suggest to you that one day we may have a multi- layered, interconnected, holistic approach which uses a number of paradigms to interpret that which is within us and external to us. This paradigm would include all of the strengths of the scientific model, but also be inclusive of and understand the active nature of notions such as compassion[ nobody expresses the active functioning of compassion more clearly than the current Dalai Llama], of other than purely lineal time scales[cause and effect, synchronicity and the larger time scales Australian aboriginal culture understood so well], of that which cannot be expressed verbally, of notions of holistic/integrated systems[ Ken Wilber, an American philosopher writes extremely well on this subject and questions of spirit]and of the underlying, influential and continually changing role mythology and the subconscious plays[ Hillman is a contemporary Jungian who brings an updated approach to interpreting myth and the subconscious ]. David Tacey, an Australian writer also writes well on these subtle and anything but simplistic subjects. His books "Edge Of The Sacred", "The Spirituality Revolution" and recently "How To read Jung" are substantial, well researched books on questions of spirit. In "Edge Of The Sacred" he addresses the question of developing a spiritual connection with this place, for the incoming cultures. The book is a symbolic interpretation of relationship to place, rather than a literal one. It is I believe an important statement. It helps to develop connections between the incoming predominately Christian cultures and this place, through developing an understanding of this place which contrasts so dramatically with Europe. Surely developing such an understanding is far more important to an artist here than participating in notions of international style. Give me the local food cuisine any day over the international on! Nowhere, personally, have I found such interesting, demanding, informing and enlightening input for my own sculpture as in reading about questions of spirit - and questions of spirit are very different to both the purely political and to the literal information politicized religious organizations put forward. The best writings demand a symbolic interpretation, the literal does not work in this subtle and complex area. They have I believe far more depth to them than Art theory.

So! To be more specific. I am afraid that what interests me, excites me are questions of timelessness, of quality in art, the lessons of Mythology, symbolism and a symbolic response, Questions of spirit, paradigms beyond the physical, interconnectedness, notions of paradox, responsibility for the environment, notions of pattern, archetypes, contemporary developments in both the arts and sciences, notions of getting beyond oneself as well as exploring the internal[ not just the subjective by itself which can become a vehicle for self-indulgence], history, holistic notions, the local rather than the international, the land, notions of both indigenous culture and incoming culture, contemplative time, humanistic approaches, art from previous times, social and natural structures, long term time versus immediate gratification, meaningfulness in the 21st century etc. Why has the art world shown so little interest in these areas, indeed dismissed them with statements such as Mythology is dead in contemporary art! Why has symbolism become such an enemy of contemporary art? [ Peter Timms asks this very question in his book, "Whats Wrong with contemporary Art"]. There are of course reasons, and I would further suggest that the terms and there application are rarely understood in our times, and that there is a depth to them which is well worth pursuing, but again you don't get quick easy rewards from looking at questions of spirit or myth, but you do get, slowly, long term substantial ground provided, nourishing soil, good for root growth. A strong tree grows slowly!

Why are such words as mythology, symbolism, spirit so unpopular in contemporary art? Why are they looked on with such disdain? What are there meanings? What is there purpose? Does the current chemical functioning explanation of everything cast them into the bin of obsolescence. Symbolism may at one level be seen simply as a red spot indicating that one should stop, but symbols are also the bridge between what that which can and cannot be expressed in words. Such a notion challenges much of contemporary art practice, especially when so much importance has been placed on art work having to exist within the framework of written explanation to give it meaning. Everyone has been exposed to the 5000 word essay that surrounds the single image of the artwork. So much explanation! I quote here from Daved Tacey "The word symbol derives from the Greek symbolon. It is constituted of the syllable syn, meaning together and the word holon, meaning to throw. A symbol is something that has been thrown together, comprising a signifier[ a word or image] and a less known signified[ a hidden object or referent]. The Greeks understood the symbol as a tally, that is a half of a bone, coin or medal which two parties broke between them to have proof of identity. When fitted together, the two parts of the tally made a whole." I also quote from another source "Since the stars have fallen from heaven and our highest symbols have paled, a secret life holds sway in the unconscious. That is why we have psychology today, and why we speak of the unconscious. All this would be quite superfluous in an age or culture that possessed symbols. Symbols are spirit from above, and under those conditions spirit is above too. Therefore it would be a foolish and senseless undertaking for such people to wish to experience or investigate an unconscious that contains nothing but the silent, undisturbed sway of nature. Our unconscious on the other hand, hides living water, spirit that has become nature and that is why it is disturbed. Heaven has become for us the cosmic space of the physicists, and the divine empyrean a fair memory of things that once were. But the heart glows' and a secret unrest gnaws at the roots of our being" - Carl Jung, "Archetypes Of The Unconscious". I will again quote Jung , I daresay I am brave to do this, as he has been under great attack from the scientific realm of late and certainly he is not in favour in the art world, but I believe he remains and will eventually be seen as truly significant. This quote has a local feel " There is a peculiar value in the symbolic life. It is a fact that the primitive Australians sacrifice to it two thirds of their available time - of their lifetime in which they are conscious" Tacey goes on to say Today we would refer to 'indigenous' people rather than to 'primitives' but otherwise Jung identified a way of life that recent studies have confirmed. They show that more than half of the waking life of Aboriginals is indeed spent in ritual space, in ceremony and dadirri or deep listening to the spirit of things. These studies, however, are speaking of traditional and tribal life, which is disintegrating rapidly in our time. The vacuum created by the loss of ritual life is being replaced by pathology, disease and degeneration, as I have discussed elsewhere". I believe, universally, cultures and the individuals which make them up which lose contact with that which drives them, slowly but surely disintegrate. What drives them I believe is not bio- chemical functioning alone. It may play some role, but I would suggest in the big picture that its role in keeping coherency within cultures and individuals is smaller in relation to contact with timelessness and spirit. We have our functioning paradigms confused in relation to differing areas of functioning, the bio-chemical is not the source of nutrition in relation to felt coherency within people/peoples but rather ceremony, music, ritual, meditation and certain artwork which can provide contact with spirit, with timelessness. Symbolic art work is critical here.

What of Mythology ? Mythology derives from LL mythologia and Greek, mythos, telling of tales, and logos , discussion. I will attempt to give this explanation a more local feel, for surely the local is far more important to an artist in any country than delving into the smoothed over nuances of international style. I believe myth, symbolic interpretation, and questions of spirit provide broad gateways for understanding a place and people. I quote here from Margaret King- Boyes book, "Patterns Of Aboriginal Culture: Past And Present" a book published in 1977 and well respected by indigenous people as regards genuine insights into the functioning of their culture. I was fortunate enough to work with Margaret in the 1970s. "It is important to remember that mythology deals with Origin or Origins, and also important to remember that a particular kind of material determines the art of mythology, for mythology is the movement of the material of mythologem, the basic parts forming the structure of the whole. These units are formed from the whole conglomerate of gods and god- beings , heroes and anti-heroes, their battles and journeys into the Underworld and Overworld of the basic spiritual instincts and responses possible to man as he exists and interacts with a particular environment". Myth does not mean lie as it is very often misused today. Mythology is also not simply stories of heroes slaying Medusas. Myth must be read symbolically, it is perhaps the changing and universal undercurrent which flows onwards through the ages. We need to sit quietly to hear this subterranean river, that is difficult to do in the 21st. century, when there is noise and chatter everywhere. As Joseph Campbell said people may say that Myth is dead, but that does not matter, it continues onwards. In relation to this place Margaret King - Boyes goes on to say, importantly I believe, in relation to Aboriginal culture," It is therefore essential that present - day Euro -Australians examining traditional Aboriginal literature clear their minds of the warped meanings we have applied to the term "myth" and "mythical", for the key to understanding the very rich quality of their total culture is only to be found by gaining a thorough understanding of their mythology". I agree. Aboriginal mythology had a deep understanding of the moving parts in relation to the whole, and that needs to be understood, [ of changes in "form" in relation to cyclical and long term time events and an awareness of cause and effect in an interconnected system] . This is in turn a reflection of their highly developed spiritual/social constructs, it is perhaps their "richest" social/ cultural source, developed slowly over a very long period of time. One that was, importantly, part of everyday life - no real fuss made over it. It was and is not easy to comprehend for an incoming culture whose development is so different - who believed that natural resources were endless, who did not see their environment as being interconnected, as a limited resource which needed renewal and a sense of custodianship. The irony is, as I heard an anthropologist suggest some twenty years ago, what an explosion we could have if we could marry the incoming technological sea dreaming culture with the interconnected understanding of place of the indigenous land dreaming culture. Perhaps it is time, in relation to this place, to go beyond the divide - to look for a paradigm which includes both cultures. Now that we have finally said sorry and admitted to the mistakes of the past to look for a model which is inclusive of the strengths of both cultures. I personally would hope that model would be mutually inclusive, respectful of both cultures through a deep understanding of what is on offer. Access to Western education sources for opportunity is critical to Aboriginal culture right now, but if only Western culture too, including our art practice, could engage indigenous educational processes which educate in terms of seeing our environment as being interconnected, which present a deep symbolic understanding of place and present a sophisticated and reassuring social/spiritual model of a persons place and role in relation to the cosmos. Perhaps the incoming culture to this place will one day understand the true value and indeed necessity of escaping from the city grid, the 24/7 lifestyle and going walkabout to engage the timeless. I have mentioned/ diverged into the above the because both as a practicing artist in this country and out of a broader social interest I would argue that there is as a resource, an incredibly deep waterhole available for understanding and interpreting this place through a symbolic/mythological understanding of the landscape and indigenous culture it shaped and eventually interwove with. This has been one important aspect of my approach [one major reason for acquiring the property at Palmer] Not the only one, for with a holistic approach you can engage many paradigms looking for connections between them - looking for patterns rather than isolated bits of information. I would put it to you that nothing exists in total isolation - that is perhaps the greatest philosophical misunderstanding of the European colonizers. I would also, again, put the suggestion forward that a symbolic / mythological, and spiritual exploration of this place, which is connected to the universal, to that which lies underneath, unseen is a far more valuable area of investigation than most areas of recent Art Theory.

To conclude - back to the bigger picture. I would suggest that the natural and the technological are now meeting, it is unavoidable there are expressions of it everywhere. It is one essential flavour of our times. Materialism is another and power, the oldest portrayer of illusion has always been there has always been there. It is interesting where this finds expression - the recent "Lord Of The Rings Trilogy" and many other current films [ Tacey has made the same observation] Myth does not hide, it is always there, expressing itself. It is actually not that difficult to see. I see artists as commentators on their times, expressing new ideas, challenging, revealing and poking at their audience to provoke a thoughtful response, perhaps a response they have not seen before or considered before. I believe that should be central to their practice. When art works do this, and when they do it in a context which is awakening, perhaps connecting to the bigger picture, not just literal and somehow subtle then there is a strength which is evident beyond the artist having to push it out there himself /herself. It has its own voice and strength. Much of contemporary art practice has been I believe been conservative, it may be sensational, but the sensational can be conservative if it lacks substance. To interpret our times, or other times we need more than literal tools, more than the intellectual and more than a purely mechanistic approach. The art world does not largely at present engage those tools which provide for a subtler, more complex understanding - I would argue that many of the paradigms the art world has dismissed such as Myth, Symbolism, an understanding of the subconscious, questions of spirit, historical perspective and importantly an emotional presence in art making are ironically the very tools we need to interpret the current unfolding situation, and to provide thoughtful, challenging art work which evokes deep responses. Deep responses I believe bring about change. Deep responses can connect throw you outside yourself, make you for awhile feel light headed.

To finish: Back to the local. Australia is not Europe. The contrast between the two could hardly be more extreme. Our sense of beauty does not bubble up from the deep soils of Europe, filtered by lush green fields. Our sense of beauty has close ties with harshness, even death, as many unfortunate European tourists find discover in the far north of South Australia when they leave their broken down cars for what they perceive as a relatively short walk back to say Marree. As David Tacey has observed in Australia life and death are much closer together than in Europe.

This is a new situation for the incoming cultures who cling to the Australian coast, and for sculpture [Aboriginal culture did not produce a great deal of sculpture]. Europe on the other hand has been mined intellectually, emotionally in terms of making sculpture for thousands of years. I have often said, "We have a great playground, sandpit to play in".

I would suggest that we explore it with a subtle, revealing, and symbolic approach; that we probe beneath our thin top soils to the significant stories which lie deep down in the extremely old subterranean levels. When these stories are told they speak for themselves, they do not need any and Warhol hype.

At the same time these stories have been modified, their shape changed by the incoming cultures. That cannot be denied. We have a situation where hybridity is a reality, where a new paradigm has to be found, inclusive of both cultures. This is true also I believe of sculpture.

There is much to be learnt about this new place, for those who cling to the coast. I would suggest that they need to be prepared to sit quietly and listen; as Aboriginal people did. We need to also sit quietly and listen to the wisdom of Aboriginal culture; which adapted to this place over tens of thousands of years. Not to mimic it, the situation has changed, but to be respectful, to listen. To repeat an earlier point, Aboriginal culture at present needs access to our educational system, but we also need access to theirs, to learn in part that there is a valuable commodity out there, beyond the grid locked major cities, where the clock stops, when we engage the timeless rather than the deadline. Where we have the opportunity to engage contemplative time.

We have in Australia an exciting, fresh context; far more alluring than international style or the recent slickness of public or urban art. I believe few Australian sculptors have so far engaged this place, but I sense a beginning, a scratching beneath the soil, beneath the patchwork quilt thrown over our landscape since European arrival. For those who choose to engage this place beyond the urban, beyond the coast, I believe it will be an exciting but challenging journey which will produce new forms, forms which reflect this place.

Greg Johns


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