Telling TalesJuly 1, 2016
At the 1986 Adelaide Festival I attended a couple of evenings with American actor, Spalding Gray, who sat on a bare stage and delivered monologues. It sounds like a recipe for boredom but Gray’s performances were spell-binding – a revelation as to the power of simple, unadulterated story-telling.
In tribal cultures the role of story-telling is crucial for the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next. In a story told by an elder, a child would learn about the creation of the world and our place in it, but today we are surrounded by so many stories we hardly recognise them as such.
Rather than sitting down to listen to a story-teller we sponge up information from all sides in fragmentary form.
As a result we are not recipients of a single identifiable world-view but walking collages who fashion an identity out of a swirl of white noise. Even though our everyday existence is a function of the narratives we absorb, most of us still manage to work at a particular job and dress in a particular manner. We barrack for one team and vote for one political party.
The Museum of Contemporary Art’s Telling Tales – Excursions in Narrative Form, samples some of the ways artists tell stories and explore the formation of identity. The idea is so broad-ranging it would barely qualify as a theme if theorists of Modern art hadn’t spent so much time rejecting the importance of narrative.
In the art of Renaissance Europe the artist was by necessity a story-teller. A painter would be given a commission by the Church, the nobility or a wealthy merchant, that stipulated both theme and content. With religious paintings imagery had to be meaningful to a largely illiterate audience, while satisfying a sophisticated élite alert to any conflicts with prevailing doctrine.
There was still room for personal expression and a recognisable style but an artist’s options were much narrower than they are today. It would have been unthinkable for anyone, in the name of historical truth, to paint Jesus as a swarthy Middle-Easterner.
As personal expression became an accepted aspect of art in the Romantic era, stories were filtered through the (tortured) subjectivity of the artist. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that art was estranged from its story-telling function. Although Kandinsky’s first abstractions feel like outgrowths of Romanticism, full of suggestive smudges and lines, artists such as Malevich and Mondrian took art into a more objective dimension. By the end of the Modernist adventure an influential critic such as Clement Greenberg, could characterise the evolution of art as a gradual relinquishing of theatricality, in which a painting was no longer a window onto the world but an object in its own right.
In Telling Tales, curator, Rachel Kent, suggests that the attempt to deny or abandon art’s story-telling function was never more than shadow-boxing. She is eager to demonstrate there is more than one way of telling a story, as a traditional linear narrative may give way to “circular or repeated narratives, open-ended stories, or stories that rewind backwards”. She is interested in stories made up of scattered fragments or clues; and “unspoken narratives” that speak, as it were, through their very silence, as voices are withheld or suppressed.
The problem with such broad definitions of story-telling is that they lead to the ‘anything goes’ mentality one finds in so many surveys of contemporary art. This is such a familiar scenario, especially at the MCA, that it’s hardly worth complaining.
By her own criteria Kent could have put almost anyone in this exhibition, but she has made some interesting choices. The most prominent is probably Indian artist, Jitish Kallat, whose work has appeared all over the world during the past decade. I was in Mumbai earlier this year, when Kallat’s MCA installation, Covering Letter (2012) was shown at the Prince of Wales Museum. I also went to the Mani Bhavan house museum which includes a display of the letter to which Kallat refers.
This letter of 1939, which we see projected on an ascending veil of mist, was written by Mahatma Gandhi and addressed to Adolf Hitler. It was an attempt to dissuade the Nazi leader from a course of action that would lead to war. As it happened the letter was never delivered but it’s hard to believe Hitler would have paid any attention to Gandhi’s advice.
The opening line: “Dear friend”, seems mind-boggling when we realise the identity of the addressee. The fact that Gandhi’s words are written on a mist that we can push a hand through, makes them seem ephemeral; but as the message keeps repeating it takes on a sense of immortality. There was, and always will be, this moment when the century’s most dedicated exponent of non-violence asked Hitler to pause and consider what he was about to unleash on the world.
Kallat’s work brings an historical moment to life, and the same might be said about the stories collected by Safdar Ahmed in the Refugee Art Project at Villawood Detention Centre, which are an implicit indictment of policies pursued by successive Australian governments. In drawings and paintings made by men, women and children from the Middle East and South-East Asia who have been detained in Villawood we find moving records of the abuses that forced people to leave their homelands, and the indignities they have endured in Australia. The amateurish nature of the work, some of it painted with diluted coffee powder, only adds to the power of the presentation.
These pictures, which range in style from surrealism to a comic strip format, are a plea for understanding from people who live in limbo. As such, they have a universal dimension. A drawing of a barbed wire fence by Murtaza Ali Jafari bears a striking resemblance to the woodblock print, Desolation, Internment Camp, Hay, NSW (1940-41) by Ludwig Hirschfeld Mack, who began life in Australia as a refugee and went on to become art master at Geelong Grammar.
The Villawood artists are casualties of the opportunist rhetoric of border protection, which never wants us to put names and faces to those who are demonised as “queue jumpers”. Many would argue it’s not easy to stand in a queue when one’s life is threatened.
The treatment of refugees is one of the ugliest features of life in Australia today, and it’s hardly surprising to learn there have already been attempts to prevent art facilitators from entering the centres. If the authorities ever succeed in closing this small avenue that allows detainees to tell us their stories, the process of dehumanisation would be complete.
There is much more that could be said about the Villawood stories, which relate strongly to a series of refugee journeys mapped by Moroccan artist, Bouchra Khalili, that force us to think of people as more than statistics. It’s one of the few areas where contemporary art can make a significant intervention into political processes that rely on spin and secrecy.
Another highlight of Telling Tales is a selection of paintings by four Gija women from the Kimberley – Peggy Patrick, Phyllis Thomas, Shirley Purdie and Mabel Juli – who bring us four different kinds of stories in four distinctive visual languages. Although these pictures may appear abstract at first glance they are instantly recognisable to locals who understand the underlying themes. With a little looking it should be obvious to anyone that they are full of meaning.
The same goes for Jumaadi’s wonderful series of small images, The Life and Death of a Shadow (2015-16), which draw upon the traditions of Indonesian shadow puppetry in creating a mini-cosmology filled with people, animals, plants, buildings, and various hybrids. These figures echo Jumaadi’s own journey, from his birthplace in East Java, to Sydney where he lives today. His memories are embodied in small icons that translate personal experiences into a pageant of spirit-figures.
I can do no more than acknowledge the rest of the work in this exhibition, which includes contributions by Kate Daw, Emily Floyd, Lee Mingwei, Angelica Mesiti, and American video artist, Kerry Tribe. If you’re lucky you may be offered the personal performance of a song by one of Lee Mingwei’s singers. I’m told that many recipients have been moved to tears.
Telling Tales – Excursions in Narrative Form
Museum of Contemporary Art, until 9 October.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 2nd July, 2016