Art Review

Art Review: Performative Prints from the Torres Strait, Arts Centre, Melbourne, Gallery 1 23 March – 23 June 2013

Gallery 1 in the Arts Centre is easy to pass by, but it’s always worth popping your head in to see what’s on and, right now there is an eye-popping exhibition of prints from Torres Strait Islander artists.

Curated by Ellen José, this exhibition draws on contemporary works of masks, ceramics and linoprints from the region more properly known as Zenadh Kes (according to the exhibition notes).  The masks and ceramics by Ricardo Idagi are exquisitely wrought and intentionally ‘revive’ traditional techniques.  A highlight is Dari Urn (2012) a small, complex and compellingly beautiful ceramic that easily sits within the 20th century canon of ‘primitive’ art explored by Picasso and Braque after they encountered African art.  Western art has a sometimes-terrible history of co-opting other cultures, particularly those cultures colonised by European powers.  Idagi is on top of this, for in the exhibition notes he is quoted as describing his Dari Urn as:

‘…[holding] the lost language, culture and traditions that the missionaries flogged out of my ancestors … something tangible to capture the intangible’.

This is a dialectic we are invited to consider in this exhibition, but it is not rammed home as preoccupying agenda by any of the artists.  Rather Elle Jose’s theme for this exhibition is Performative Prints—linoprints being the main works presented.  By ‘performative’ José’s thesis is:

Performance permeates through all aspects of Torres Strait Islander art and culture (from the exhibition notes).

All the works in this exhibition relate back to performance in Torres Strait Islander culture.  However, another aspect to performance, associated with visual art is the role of the viewer and how actively engaged you become in looking at a flat, pictorial representation, such as on a linoprint.

The hero performance work in this exhibition is Girelal (2011) by Alick Tipoti of which José says:

Girelal is both intricate in detail and expansive in scale; it is a breathtaking work that can only be experience in the moment, like a theatrical performance.

At 12 metres long and 825 mm high, ‘expansive’ and ‘breathtaking’ can’t be bettered as descriptions of this black and white stretch of virtuosic print making.  The exhibition notes present Girelal spread across four A4 pages.  It is a marvel to see in miniature and easy to read in its depiction of a dance ceremony.

Up close it in the exhibition it almost overwhelms.  It is as big as you are and reaches beyond your peripheral vision.  The print surface is dominated by fractal-like swirls and then black voids that your eye finally traces out as human figures in ceremonial dance— chanting, blowing conch shells and beating drums.  Sounds are depicted flowing out of mouths and instruments and expanding heavenward. Your eye follows the sounds irresistibly until you bump up against from the top of the print, or else go back on a swirling journey through the intense decoration.  It is impossible to rest your eyes on one place.

The complex elements in Girelal that crowd the surface seem to heave slightly like a calm ocean surface.  But this surface is anything but calm.  As you trace one line you become aware of plant and animal shapes emerging out of the picture plane and dissolving back in as you move on.  There is no place to rest until you come upon another black void and trace its outline; at which a bird or person emerges, suddenly flaring into view and subduing the presence of the decorative plane. The effect is of a Gestalt image that only allows you to see the images of the vase or the two faces alternately, never simultaneously—but you know they are both there.

Knowing everything is ‘there’ in Girelal is a huge challenge to the eye and to the mind, because those of us outside of the Alick Tipoti’s culture know we are not privy to a great deal of what the work means to Tipoti and his people, yet there is no sense of exclusion.  Quite the opposite: there is a joy in interacting with the whole work and discovering hidden images and feeling the pulse of the whole work.

A European visual equivalent might be the graphic scores of American composer George Crumb.  A look at his scores for Makrokosmos will give a strong indication of the effect of the patterning at work in Girelal.  Looking at Girelal and Makrokosmos in concert (sic) … well, patterns are similar… subject matter is similar—happenstance? Jungian convergence?

A comparison might also be made with op art  pioneered by Bridget Reilly, but Tipoti’s work is not so cool.  If one could dignify the word psychedelic, certainly Girelal works at that level.  By comparison with the cool information in the decorative moderns of the 1960s, Girelal is hot with action and story—an extraordinary feat of design and technical control across the vastness of the surface.

José is right to say Girelal can only be experienced in the moment.  The best effect is gained by walking along with it, taking in the forms as they emerge, almost becoming one with each figure in the progress of the ceremony as it is depicted.  This is a very generous of Tipoti, to invite us into the performance as we indeed ‘perform’ the work at our own pace. The work becomes our guide to engaging in our own performance.

There are interesting parallels to be drawn between Alick Tipoti’s Girelal at the Arts Centre Gallery 1 and the exhibition of Bea Maddock’s prints next door at the National Gallery of Victoria.  The Maddock exhibition has been reviewed here by Simon Holberton.

Two of Maddock’s works Forty Pages from Antarctica (1988) and “TERRA SPIRITUS…with a darker shade of pale” (1993-98) greet you as you enter—monumental, long print works inviting you to walk along and collaborate with them.  Each has its own rhythms, sequences, durations and amplitudes of lines, densities and opacities in texture—just about everything a music score provides, except exact pitches.  And walking along with each work sets up an internal response that is more than registering the visual information.

Like Tipoti’s Girelal, Maddock’s two long works set up internal resonances in the viewer, intimations of rhythm and texture, highs and lows of intensity that promise a melody that is never actually heard.  Perhaps it’s the teasing part of the title ‘a darker shade of pale’ which suggests a skilled musician could ‘read’ and perform from either of Maddock’s long prints.   Undoubtedly the experience would be revelatory to an audience looking at the works and listening to the music inspired by them.  But the real magic of these works is the feeling of sound almost developing as you walk with the works, almost of a silent music being drawn from each of the print sequences.

Maddock’s work typically contains text, which could be a temptation to many composers to realise her work in to sound.  Morton Feldman memorably worked from Rothko paintings in his music for the dedication of the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas.  Perhaps it’s a temptation that should not be given into with Maddock, for while music is implicit in her work, it maybe best left to the viewer to hear, or not.

The main structural difference between Maddock ‘s and Tipoti’s long prints is that, where Maddock has mastered the cool, sequential line over the linear space, Tipoti has mastered coalescing dynamic patterns that intrude on each other and are hot with meaning across and within the picture scape.

Briefly, the other astonishing prints at Gallery 1 are nine substantial, framed linoprints by Brian Robinson. As with Tipoti, the colonisation of Torres Strait Island by Europeans is a fact that Robinson incorporates into his subject matter, himself brazenly co-opting European iconic images into his prints.  There is a sophisticated and mischievous wit at work in some of the works and they should be seen rather than described.

As a tempter though, one should encounter Robinson’s print ‘…And on the 6th day He created Man’ (2010) which features the Vitruvian Man in a centre of blackness being sparked into life (assumedly) by a sky creator spirit.  Extraordinarily, it is impossible to look at both images at the same time—more ‘Gestalt’ effect at work and it is decidedly unsettling.  It is as if Robinson has posed the question ‘who or which man is being created?’ and refused an answer.  However, he does provide a nice answer to anyone who has agonised over the question, or concept of ‘what is the universe contained in?’.  Robinson’s ‘universe’ ends as a black arc intruding into white space.  Black arrows in the white space push back at the black arc, containing its attempted infinity.  Maybe Robinson doesn’t answer the question of what contains the universe, but he does a damn fine job of showing it contained, which is a phenomenological relief.

The other must-see work of Robinson’s is ‘As the rains fell and the seas rose’ (2011).  It’s a virtuosic, ‘Where’s Wally?’ production of immense beauty that counterpoises  (among other visual icons) a stylised Hokusai wave  and Mickey Mouse, but you have to look yieldingly to see them all.  There’s Noah’s Ark rising floating on nothing at the foot of the picture and there, indeed is Wall-E entering a possible ark of stark steel, held together by cold rivets that were dancing stars further across the picture.  Again, access to the work is through your performance as a viewer actively finding and reflecting on such images as can be construed.  It’s a witty and earnest challenge all from one, delicate linoprint.

Funny and dispiriting all at once, there’s no single or easy response to Robinson’s prints.  The concept of performance is well served by all the works in this exhibition.  Any artwork is best seen in the flesh so to speak.  These works from major Torres Strait Islander artists need to be encountered personally—you need to be there.

Nicholas M Tolhurst


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