Agency

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    Warlpiri Drawings: Remembering the Future

    I just returned to Pittsburgh after a month-long trip to Australia. I've spent the past week sorting notes and images and making sense of my whirlwind tour of the Aboriginal art world. I didn’t think it was possible, but one show topped the rest: “Warlpiri Drawings: Remembering the Future,” curated by Dr. Melinda Hinkson (Australian National University) and hosted by the Charles Darwin University Art Gallery in Darwin, NT.

    I’m partial to University Art Galleries because they provide a space for focused, research-driven shows. This medium-sized gallery space comprised of approximately 100 stunning crayon drawings made by the Warlpiri people from Yuendumu and Lajamanu in central Australia during the 1950s-2010s. “Remembering the Future” was an exposition of Hinkson's masterful research project carried out over four years.

    What interested me most was how Hinkson and her collaborators confronted multi-layered questions of agency - the agency of the drawings and of their makers, as well as the project's relevance to Warlpiri people today. The majority were made in the 1950s at the behest of anthropologist Mervyn Meggitt and stored in the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. To interpret these drawings, Hinkson consulted with Warlpiri people about their potential meaning and significance (and the appropriateness of their public display). Personal memories flooded out and the relationship sparked a new group of drawings, some of which were included in the show.

    Exposed to the materials for the first time in the 1950s, the Warlpiri artists, primarily Larry Jungarrayin and Paddy Japaljarri, captured the shimmering radiance of the ancestral Australian landscape using a primary color palette and thick textured crayon lines. The curators openly complicate the issues such visually compelling Aboriginal material presents to anthropologists and art historians. On the representational level, one question concerns the ability of images to document and represent a culturally-specific way of seeing the world. In Meggitt’s documentation of the drawings (often included in wall texts), his descriptive language concerns the artist’s aesthetic development. He notes how the artists experimented with color and composition to approximate seen reality. The drawings indeed have an expressionist appeal.

    While still concerned with what the Warlpiri saw in the landscape and how they represented it, Hinkson views drawing as “a prism through which to explore Warlpiri experience.” She emphasizes the Warlpiri people’s changing and diverse experience ushered in by their removal to Hooker Creek and the increased role the Australian government played in Warlpiri life. The drawings mediated and shaped social relationships, and continue to do so. She put this central claim into practice by interjecting into the history of the drawings and bringing them back to the community. In the accompanying catalog Hinkson relays her interaction with Neville Japangardi Poulson, who, after viewing the drawings said, “They’re only for making white people happy.” He clarified his comment a few days later, yet it had already exposed the myth of many anthropological social experiments regarding Indigenous peoples that sought to capture the purity of Indigenous cultural expressions in visual form. 

    The exhibition’s curious title, “Remembering the Future” captures the essence of the entanglement of the Warlpiri past, present, and future (perhaps counterintuitive to art historical narrative) and the role drawing plays in mediating these relationships. The pithy wall texts and stunning organization could provoke and delight the casual and more engaged viewers alike. This is truly an art.

    There’s an online exhibit with fantastic images of the  crayon drawings exhibited in the show that I encourage you all to visit: http://www.nma.gov.au/exhibitions/warlpiri.  Here is a link to the exhibit’s opening ceremony: http://cdu.edu.au/artcollection-gallery/warlpiri-drawings-floortalk. Hi... catalog, Remembering the Future: Warlpiri Life Through the Prism of Drawing (Aboriginal Studies Press, 2014) is a fantastic read for those interested in issues of agency and Indigenous art. 

    Image credit: Larry Jungarrayi, Hooker Creek, The malaka’s (superintendent’s) house, crayon drawing. Meggitt Collection, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. http://www.nma.gov.au/exhibitions/warlpiri/works/houses. A special thanks to the Center for the Advanced Study in the Visual Arts and the History of Art and Architecture Department at the University of Pittsburgh for supporting this trip.

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    Desk set of mementoes from Gettysburg sold to the tourist trade, late 19th century.

     

    Hyperobject: Soldiers and Sailors Memorial, Pittsburgh

    Some examples of the objects on display at S&S, objects within a hyper- or encompassing object that is itself part of a larger set of phenomena and practices that both transfer and transform individual objects and give them efficacy and power.

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    Hyperobject: Gold

    6, 1959. MoMA

    Mathias Goeritz (German, active Mexico City), Message No. 7B, Eccles. VII:6, 1959. MoMA

     

    Alberto Burri, Sackcloth and Gold, 1953. Fondazione Burri

    Alberto Burri (Italy), Sacco e oro (Sackcloth and Gold), 1953. Fondazione Burri, Castello. 

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    Enchanted Latte

    This enchanting cup was presented to me as I waited wearily at the counter of a coffee shop.  I normally drink tea so I don’t have a lot of lattes in my life experience.  But this cup was beyond exceptional, and certainly the turning point of my day.

    I asked the barista, how did you do that?  She said, “a flick of the wrist.” 

    I photographed it and carried it very carefully to a table and just sat contemplating it for a few minutes before deciding to drink it.  I needn’t have worried about it because as I sipped it, the foam stayed perfectly intact with its mesmerizing botanical design.

    Two points from Alfred Gell came to mind.  One was his argument about the “tackiness” of decoration: his pun on the word tacky meant to suggest how intricate patterns attract and entrap viewers and render them harmless, or worse, victims.  Now this pattern in the cup of course was not abstract.  It suggested a leaf or a plant specimen in its overall outline, but in its detail it did entrap me, especially the swirling quality of the line and the scatter of the white highlights, which had everything to do with medium and material – the foam of the milk catching and holding the liquid of the coffee.

    The other point was the mystique of facture that is beyond our understanding.  When craft is so far beyond our ability to imagine its execution, we might ascribe it to genius, or magic, or God.  In other times and places, people have in fact ascribed divine origins to objects that seem too amazing to have been made by human hands.  I didn’t do that, but I did spend a while trying to work out how she had made it. I guessed that she must have had a tool besides her own wrist.  A fork, to swirl the mixture?  I decided not to ask her, because I didn’t want to break the spell.  Later I thought to myself, maybe this is what they teach in barista school and maybe it’s not even that hard to do with a little practice. 

    Agency, Gell argued in his earlier essay on enchantment, is about overcoming a gap between mind/will and object.  The bigger the gap, the more powerful and mysterious is the agency that bridges the gap.

    For my half hour in the coffee shop, that gap was a chasm I let myself marvel at.  Eventually, when I had drunk all the coffee and was left with only the foam, I had to decide whether to swallow it.  The design was still intact.  It was time go pick up my daughter, so the art encounter was coming to an inevitable close.  Do I ritualistically swallow the work of art, or leave it on the counter to be casually destroyed by someone else?  I actually had these thoughts.

    I will leave you hanging with that question, but I look forward to any comments you might have.

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  • Verplanck Room, Metropolitan Museum

    Verplanck Room, Metropolitan Museum

     

    Agency in and around the period room

    I visited the Met two days ago and found myself in the period rooms of the American Wing.  I was interested in the new interpretive tool, the screen with a menu of options, in place of the old static placard that listed all the objects in a horizontal format.  It puts a whole lot more information at the visitor's fingertips and seems to give us more agency as well because we choose to navigate: we can focus on "people" rather than "objects" and so on.  But the period room itself is still a bizarre disembodied space with fetishized objects absent of users.  In the Verplanck room, a re-creation of the luxurious mid-18th century Wall Street house of one of the old and wealthy Dutch settler families, I was most interested in the issue of the slaves, the house servants who probably handled the objects as much as or more than the owners themselves did.  Not only are they invisible from the disembodied space, but they are absent from the interpretive screen as well.  They don't qualify as "people" or as context in any other way.  And in the end this is hard for me to stomach: why should a chair or a bowl or a table occupy me to the exclusion of the slaves whose job was to keep these objects clean and pristine?  Aren't the social relations embedded in these objects more interesting than whatever motifs or "style" they might show?  Deprived of real human agency, these objects become...what exactly?  And what is the rationale for displaying them in the first place?

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