a story ancient and contemporary


photo (3)

Personally I often (not always!) find that a trip to see contemporary art becomes an exercise in the banal, cranial and pretentious. In the midst of grainy repetitive videos of nothing happening and piles of junk, some of the most disheartening works come under the title ‘political art’. Combining raw visceral rage at some soulless institution of power with a soullessness that rivals or perhaps concedes defeat to said powerful, unjust institution, political art can leave me feeling empty most of all, as if there’s simply nothing more to hold onto than being ticked off.

In contrast however, the work ‘Rustam-e-Pardar’ (Rustam With Wings) by Khadim Ali at the Queensland Art Gallery is a work that shimmers and resonates, moving me at a number of levels yet (or perhaps by) always just eluding my grasp, as if constantly fluttering just out of reach like the winged figure at the centre of the work. A series of five small images of water-colour, ink and gold leaf on wasli paper, and part of a larger series of ‘Rustam’ images, it draws from the 10th century Persian epic the ‘Shahnama’, the hero of whom is apparently the demon Rustam who defends his people from, well, other demons. I haven’t read the Shahnama (or even heard of it before) but this work has created the desire in me to get a hold of a translation. Bless you, Kindle. Rustam-e-Pardar is a sensitive work dealing with the plight of the Hazara people, to whom Khadim Ali belongs.

Unfortunately copyright laws means you're stuck with my blurry iphone flashless photos.

Unfortunately copyright law means you’re stuck with my blurry, flashless iphone photos. Ugh.

The Hazara are a people group from Afghanistan and Pakistan who have been horribly persecuted. As both an ethnic and religious (Shia muslim) minority in Afghanistan the Hazara have borne the brunt of Taliban (and now other extremist Sunni groups) violence. For many Hazara who fled Afghanistan in the face of the rise of the Taliban, finding a new home in Pakistan has proven no refuge from the deadly violence against them. The stance of the Taliban and other groups is nothing less than genocidal, despite my Hazara friends being the most gentle and peaceful people you’ll ever meet. In an earlier post I link to an article spelling out the plight of Hazara seeking refuge in other neighbouring countries. Fortunately some have managed, against incredible odds, to make their way to Australia where they’ve found… no, don’t get me started.

It’s to the Taliban’s war against the Hazara that Rustam-e-Pardar refers. I’ve come to this work as a cultural outsider and so most of what I know of it has had to be explained to me: that in 1998 the Taliban began calling themselves the ‘Rustam of Islam’ to give their jihad broader Persian cultural appeal; that the shades black and white with which Rustam is depicted represent not good and evil in the Shahnama but hypocrisy and deceit; that the script overlaying the images is Arabic, perhaps indicating the overlaying of Persian/Afghan culture with that of Arabised Islam.

Nevertheless there’s so much more to this work than a blunt, angry political shout. The work communicates in a way that words on their own simply can’t, subtly and delicately drawing from the rich and ancient Persian culture to comment on the hypocrisy of those who’ve claimed to defend that culture even as they’ve systematically set out to destroy it, the hypocrisy of a demon fighting against a people they’ve demonised. There is a deeply felt pain here and yet it’s so heartfelt and soulful, resonating with Ali’s obvious love for his cultural roots and his own people. That’s obvious even to me as an outsider, with so many details hinting at ideas or emotions that lay beyond me. But even as the work slips from my grasp, leaving me wondering about this detail, or that figure, or what this scene represents, I find myself with the rare desire to just pluck them off the wall and take them home with me. More than that it creates in me a yearning I can’t quite put my finger on, a desire to connect more deeply with the stories and culture of these Peoples, ancient and contemporary.

Advertisements

sculpture by the sea

For 2 weeks each year in Sydney the 2km coastal walk from Bondi beach to Tamarama beach is transformed during the Sculpture by the Sea exhibition. This afternoon I checked it out, though so far I haven’t been able to see all the works – a return visit may be in order. I love this exhibition. So too does the rest of Sydney, judging by the crowds even in the late afternoon. Each year at this time the coastal walk becomes jammed with people enjoying the elegant, the quirky and sometimes the downright weird, all with a beautiful seaside view. I love the crowds for this reason: instead of festering in some whitewashed gallery art is out in the public space and people are getting out there and enjoying it. The only drawback of so many people being there at once is the effect on the relationship between the sculptures, the space they’re placed in and the viewer – where I feel sculpture’s power really lies. Finding a quiet time for a viewing has its benefits.

Still, there’s something I love about going with the rest of the world too. It raises a question for me: What is it with art and the public? Why do I have this perception of most people scorning art and yet when something like this is put on it seems half the city – young, old, families and singles – turns up? Is it just that people ‘just like to go to things’, as someone put it to me this week? That is, do they not really care about the art at all, but just go along to whatever’s ‘happening’ this weekend for something to do?

No doubt there are some. But I love the sort of thing I saw today. When a big name gets a show, like a Picasso or Rothko retrospective, I have a tendency, justified or not, to think a lot of people might be drawn just by the name, especially in Australia where the big names are displayed so rarely. But there are no big names in Bondi, yet people are really interested in the works. They take photographs, they laugh, they pick their favourites. They aren’t generally interested in the way we’re told interest in art is supposed to manifest itself: dispassionately deconstructing everything to find the deeper ‘meaning’ in the work. Sadly there is still a strong sense for people that that’s exactly the way art has to be appreciated and the completely obtuse and indecipherable works that follow this artistic philosophy themselves only serve to continue enforcing this sense by alienating the very people they’re supposed to be communicating with. The great legacy of modern art has been to drive a wedge in people’s thinking between their life and visual creativity. But after people have stood mutely and impassively in front of them for a few moments (myself included) they move on to the stuff that’s actually cool and connects with them and their experience in some way, and often quite simply. It’s obvious in the comparison between works which always have a crowd of snap happy and grinning people around them (again myself included) and those which are left sadly alone. The works people love explore and re-imagine the beauty of this world or the human experience of living itself. The works I’ve snapped here were some of my favourites which I felt did just that.

The incessantly elitist and deconstructing nature of so much modern and post modern art (and talk about it) in the west has cultural and philosophical roots reaching back a couple of centuries , but the creative impulse has spanned human existence across cultures and centuries and has elsewhere always been much more closely tied to the lived experience of a culture’s people and their relationship with the wider world around them. I’ve said this before here.  ‘Art’ wasn’t the intellectual domain of a specific subculture who were in the ‘know’. You didn’t need an ‘art appreciation course’ (spare me) to engage with it. It reflected and still reflects life. In future posts I’d like to explore further how contemporary art is trying to reflect and speak to how we in the west tend to view the world and our lives, for I think there’s much to be said. But I wouldn’t hold your breath if I was you.

For now though, let me say that I think there is a real desire in people’s hearts for beauty and truth in the world, and for people to engage with and express it through acts of creativity. And there is a joy when it’s done.

What do you think? Do people love good art or am I mistaken? Do you enjoy art, and if so, what do you love about it? 

on why you’re an art lover

You like art. You do. You like poetry as well.

I’ve known hundreds of people who claim not to like art. I’ve met even more who say they hate poetry (I was one of them for years). But I’ve never met anyone who, after often complaining about contemporary art and claiming that it’s pointless and weird, has never been faced with a particular piece (never contemporary) that has illumined some facet of life, that has with beauty and truth reflected something, often something quite ordinary of the world with particular insight, that’s caused them to say – ‘I like this. This is art.’

I am convinced and becoming more so that people like art and poetry and more, want to like art and poetry, and that art and poetry, like song, have tremendous power to resonate deeply with people and cause them to slow down and reflect and contemplate the world and themselves. Yet faced with an arts culture that has become disconnected from the realities of everyday life and so disconnected from most people who don’t find themselves in a somewhat fringe subculture, art has become to most people the weird and irrelevant pastime of society’s oddballs and poetry is no more than a rather pathetic and soft relic of a thankfully bygone era. Thankfully this never happened with music (although something must’ve gone wrong to bring us to the point where we have One Direction). Music remains a fundamental part of any culture, and of deep importance to anyone I’ve ever met. But once art and poetry were no different.

A number of things have caused me to be thinking about this stuff and move in this direction, and you should read the posts by Glen on this: Art on Fire: a Naples Tantrum and Definitely not for Burning…

See art is sick. It’s not dead, but the West is killing it. And I don’t mean all the haters are killing it – the ‘Art World’ is. What we think of as Art is not what art has been for centuries and across cultures. I’m realising the same is true of poetry.

Before the Age of Reason there was no separate discipline called ‘Art’. There were no movements, individual styles, progressive ideas; no ‘geniuses’, self-expression or avant-garde. Across ancient and medieval societies art was inscribed on the daily and ritual life of the people, was often religious and sought to connect the ordinary life of people with what they saw as the spiritual reality of their world. I have to say as a Christian I’m pretty wary of how this has often been done, even in the history of the Church, where the created object becomes the object of worship rather than the living God, or God is recast and denigrated in the image of the artist. But I don’t think idolatry must necessarily be the outcome of visual art. I’m interested in thinking that question through more.

The same, it seems, is true of poetry. I didn’t realise that poetry had been a major element of the Church’s life and worship for most of the past 2,000 years. I did know, however, that much of the Old Testament is written in poetry and have had the joy recently of being able to sink my teeth into it (check out Robert Alter’s translations). Poetry causes us to think deeply. Its rhythmic cadence and structural play, acheived through differing cultural conventions, give language a power that for that ancient society enabled them to slow down, contemplate and understand the profound spirituality that pervaded their world and ours – that the creation in which they lived and were a part, with its ordered movements and cycles,  that every moment of their lives rooted in the dust and the salt air and turning of the seasons was and is in the hands of a soveriegn and providential God. In an age gorged on instant gratification and an insatiable lust for faster and faster download speed this is a great need.

Sadly most of us have had our view of poetry shaped by those fluffy, willowy Romantics with their clouds for brains into something of a caricature. I mean, why would I do something productive when I could sit under a tree and wax lyrical about how I feel about a flower? Because it’s stupid.

Seems it was the ascendancy of Rationalism that spelled the doom of poetry as it had existed for centuries across cultures. Faced with the sterilisation of a world viewed only through the lens of reason yet no longer believing in a spiritual dimension the Romantics of the 19th century looked to the arts for something ‘more’ (this is what happened to art as well). But here art and poetry became ends in themselves and concerned with something higher than the everyday world which was seen as purely rational. Here began the ‘high arts’, now the pastimes of the bougeious elite who could afford to sit around feeling ‘arty’ rather than disciplines, which like music was and has remained,were inextricably intertwined with everyday life which was itself closely connected with spirituality.

In a fragmented and dislocated society which has lost any notion of a central axis, this wouldn’t be a bad thing to rediscover.

this is suburbia

A sham. A disgrace. A poor excuse for art, a soulless example of surface without substance. When I first saw a reproduction of Howard Arkley’s Stucco Home 1991 like the one above, years ago, that’s what I thought of it. Flat and without depth, it may serve the architectural profession well, but not the art gallery.

Oh the folly, the arrogance, of youth. Tsk tsk, angry young man. What would have made this worthy of being ‘art’? If he applied the paint with wild, angry brushstrokes? If he depicted the light in softer and subtler shades of light? If the forms and colours were all distorted? Would it then be worth of the prodigious title ‘art’? And why? What makes something art?

Arkley’s work is art, and very good art at that, in my opinion. I didn’t realise this fact until I wandered through the Queensland Art Gallery some time later and saw this very work in all its airbrushed glory hanging on the wall. Any protest at its presence which might have leapt out of my heart and lungs evaporated even before it could take shape in my mind as I stood mesmerised before the stucco home’s pulsing luminescence. The reproduction can’t convey the physical presence of the thing ‘in the paint’ – the larger size, glowing phosphorescence and airbrushed fuzziness combining to create an hallucinatory quality to the suburban home which captivated me. This was no architectural plan. This was… beautiful. Something happened that fateful day in 1999. I would never see suburbia, art, or my life in quite the same way again.

Too much? Well I was young. But for a period afterwards Arkley (who died tragically of heroin overdose in 1999)  held the status of Ryan’s favourite artist, (much cherished in the Australian art world), and to this day Stucco Home 1991 remains one of my favourites and retains a special place in my heart.

Look again. Look at what he’s doing here. Arkley painted life. Not ‘life’ in any abstract sense, but the life of so many of us. Whether or not as we want it to be, he painted it as it is. You know the standard icons of Australiana: gum trees, koalas and kangaroos, wide-brimmed hats with corks dangling from strings. But such icons are myth. Sure they belong to Australia, but not to the daily experience of most Australians. Arkley once said, ‘Something like 89% of Australians live in this environment . . . it’s something that’s denied so often’. When I see the stucco home, transformed by the airbrush into Australian icon, it represents my suburban experience growing up. It symbolises so much of my childhood. And that’s no generic suburban home. It’s just so…Aussie. The Aussie of the 80’s and early 90’s. You know, it’s not just memories but the identity that it represents, my national identity, which fills me with affection. Arkley once shared a favourite story of his, of him standing behind two elderly women viewing one of his paintings. One of the women turned to the other and exclaimed ‘Ooh! That looks just like Dot’s house!’. Exactly, little old lady. Exactly.

The obsessive precision of the airbrush comes from Arkley’s detestation of the messiness of creating with brush and paint tin. It forms a quality that reflects the same obsession with neatness and perfection shared by so much of suburbia itself. It’s not a sentiment I share myself, but it expresses his subject matter better than any ‘expressive’ wild brush strokes or whatever that I would’ve assumed necessary for any generic personal expression. I may have spent so much of my time when younger aching to burst free of my neat, safe, constrained suburban environment… but hey, that doesn’t mean I should deny its major place in my life, personally and culturally, nor Arkley’s brilliance in capturing it so simply and colourfully, exuberantly  bringing it to life.

Like it or hate it, this is Australia. This is suburbia.