Already on this winter’s weekday morning the National Gallery is crowded. Students hurry to tick off their learning assignments for their visit to the 4th Indigenous Triennial; a couple are carefully negotiating the concrete of the gallery’s halls one with a splayed gait and stick; an outdoorsy trio stare hard at their brochure, looking for landmarks, waypoints in their journey; restless security guards murmur into their lapels.
The art competes for our attention: slogans in neon tubing, whooshing soundscapes, tvs of a muddy hand signing in Auslan while off-screen the artist shouts something. Other works are monumental in their silence. Here a three-metre-long dot painting is timeless, vast — a waterhole, another, a mountain range, there the spirit path.
Label says: Uta Uta Tjangala, Pintupi people, 1920-1990 Australia, ‘Untitled’ 1987, Papunya, Northern Territory, polymer paint on canvas. Google adds: Tjangala was one of the founders of the Western Desert Art movement; that his home, Kintore, is a remote township 500 km west of Alice Springs; and in the 2016 census the town had a population of 410 people, of whom 93.7 percent identified as Aboriginal.
the space between us fills with facts great databases in splits of a second as if my ignorance….
A video loop on a wraparound screen shows the artist Gutiŋarra Yunupiŋu grinding ochre on a stone, and then masking his forehead and arms in yellow. He next appears standing in the oncoming waves. We’re low on the sand, lying in the water, the on-coming waves about to submerge us. I’m holding my breath.
once, far over the breakers I caught a glimpse of a white bird and fell in love with this dream which obsesses me. Yosano Akiko (1878-1942) *
Having seen enough, I become like those students, pulling back each curtain for a moment, a quick scan, what’s the deal here? — a dark room with display cases, boxes of cow bones, tick; another cryptic video installation, tick again.
At last, the memorial room. Finally, I’m alone. It’s just me and the work. The memorial is 200 wooden poles. Some are waist high, others are over two metres tall. They’re tree trunks that have been hollowed out by termites, then cut and coloured in bands of white and ochre and red and black. Creatures turn around the poles: fish — lots of fish, a long-necked tortoise, a climbing goanna, two jabiru , skeleton figures, a line of frogs. The creatures are drawn against a hatching of fine lines. Imagine the long thin brush that made these, the skilled movement, from paint bowl to wood again and again.
Label says: 43 artists from northwest Arnhem land produced these poles. Also, these are funeral coffins.
The poles are arranged as a forest. There’s a path between them. Like a river they rise on each side, shift, clump together lean towards you, divide as you move through the memorial.
there’s only task
and the doing: thoughtless
the foot moves and again
head forward, unbalanced
already in the future
Label says: the layout of the display follows the Glyde River as it makes its way to the Arafura Sea. The poles are arranged to approximate the artists’ home country — tortoise next to mangrove next to waterhole next to black snake. Boundaries overlap, intersections are everywhere.
You could easily reach out and place your hand on a pole, trace the hollow, follow a goanna or water dragon (though I’m guessing that one of the guards might eventually look up from their phones and saunter over to ask you to stop).
Label says: the work was commissioned for 1988, the bicentenary of the founding of the European colony in Australia. A pole for each year of dispossession, of frontier wars in a settler country that has yet to recognise through constitution or truth telling First Nations Australians’ rightful place in their own country. 32 years on from this first making, the colours are still vivid, the work as moving, and it still provokes questions.
artificial lake Cook’s fountain blows snow high into the grey it’s hard being an optimist in this austere chill.**
Image: my photos of the memorial, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. There’s much more about the memorial online.
* Akiko, Y. in K. Rexroth (trans.), One hundred more poems from the Japanese. New Directions. 1979, p. 14;
** Cook’s fountain or more correctly The Captain Cook Memorial and Jet sends water up to 150 metres into the air over Lake Burley Griffin, Canberra. It was installed in 1970 to mark the bicentennial of James Cook’s first sighting of the east coast of Australia.
And for music this morning, here’s a piece by American composer Philip Glass – called Mad Rush – (Youtube) though it was un-named when performed for the first visit by His Holiness the Dalai Lama to North America in 1979. Here’s the composer performing live at St John the Divine Cathedral in New York. Spine-tingling stuff.
This piece was written on the land of the Wodi Wodi people who are the Aboriginal custodians of the Illawarra — and I pay my respects to Elders past and present.