Exhibition-related paper presented at Guangzhou Academy of Fine

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Exhibition-related paper presented at Guangzhou Academy of Fine
Trading Blossoms
Abstract paper delivered by Maurice O’Riordan, Director, Northern Centre for Contemporary Art, Darwin, at Guangzhou Academy
of Fine Art, Guangzhou, China, Thursday 20 November, 2014
As director of a public contemporary art space in Australia’s northernmost capital city, how does Maurice O’Riordan see his role in
terms of Darwin’s northerly perspective and its unique cultural make-up? How can contemporary art broker cultural exchange and
which particular cultures are best suited for engagement? O’Riordan’s presentation will address such questions in light of the Peach
Blossom Spring | Cacotopia exhibition as well as the Trading Ideas art summit recently held in Darwin (1-2 Nov 2014) and which
cultivated an Asia Pacific focus.
Paper
(presented in English with Chinese translation)
I begin today’s talk with an image of the Empire Theatre,
Hong Kong, a black-and-white photographic image from the mid1950s. This image comes from an article by Hiram To, an artist,
curator and writer now based in Hong Kong but who has also lived
in Australia; his mother, in fact, still lives in the Australian city of
Brisbane. Hiram’s article appeared in the December 2013 issue
of the magazine Art Monthly Australia, which was my last issue as
editor of the magazine before taking up the position of Director of
the Northern Centre for Contemporary Art in Darwin. The article
concerned Hiram’s collection of Hollywood movie posters, some
of which he’d seen at places like the Empire Theatre as a young boy
growing up in 1970s Hong Kong and which were a prominent part
of his visual education. Back then, Hiram recalls, the posters were
large 6-sheet murals pasted on the cinema façade, the US- printed
posters often over-painted with stylised Chinese characters for the
local market. ‘These posters were bigger than us, both physically
Empire Theatre, Hong Kong, c. 1953; image courtesy Hiram To
and psychologically’, he writes.
The Northern Centre for Contemporary Art, as shown with an interior detail in this next image (below), was also once a cinema
around the same time as Hiram’s Hong Kong youth. By 1990, the former cinema was repurposed as a publicly funded contemporary
art space at a time in Australia which saw a proliferation of similar spaces around the country. The projected image, as this slide shows,
is still very much a feature of the venue. The gallery also has a Screen Room (not shown in this image) specifically for video-based
work.
Pixels + Fibre, exhibition by Fiona Gavino & Myrto Angelouli, installation view (detail), Northern Centre for Contemporary Art, Gallery 1, March/
April 2014; photo: Fiona Morrison
My term as director of the Northern Centre for Contemporary Art, or NCCA for short, began with a change in the organisa-
tion’s name. It was formerly called 24HR Art because the gallery began its life in a former 24-hour petrol station before moving to
its current venue. The name change is significant, particularly in the inclusion of the word ‘northern’. This reflects the fact that
Darwin is Australia’s northernmost capital city. It also reflects the fact that Darwin is much closer to other Southeast Asian
capital cities than it is to other Australian capital cities, so the ‘northern’ descriptor is also about the gallery looking north rather
than south for its cultural dialogue.
Part of my role also involves managing another gallery venue, the Chan Contemporary Art Space, which is pictured
(below) with an exhibition called Treaty, yeah?, which I curated last year. In this exhibition, though not visible in the slide, were
the photographs by Gary Lee from his Undercover series which are part of the Peach Blossom Spring | Cacotopia exhibition,
curated by Reg Newitt, and now showing in Guangzhou. The name of this venue, the Chan Contemporary Art Space, is also
significant, as it is named after Harry Chan (1918-1969), a prominent Darwin businessman, mayor, and politician who was born
in Darwin to Chin Yepp Gnee (Chan Fon Yuen), a tailor from Hong Kong, and his Darwin-born wife (Wong) Quee She (Shee).
Chan Fon Yuen’s migration to Darwin belongs to a larger pattern of late 19th/early 20th century Chinese immigration from Hong
Kong and Canton (now Guangzhou) to Australia’s north, initially spurred by the discovery of gold. So in looking north, the gallery
is also looking to the past, to the people and cultures to Darwin’s north which have played a key role in shaping the city.
Treaty, yeah?, ‘an art-political tribute to the late Dr Yunupingu’, installation view (detail), Chan Contemporary Art Space, Darwin, Oct-Nov 2013;
photo: Regis Martin
There has been much talk of late, at least in Australia, of Australia’s free trade
agreement with China, characterised by the trade of Australian beef. Australian beef seems
to be a big selling point in China. In my few days here I have seen several restaurants
advertising this fact. This image (opposite) is of an Aboriginal stockman who works on an
Aboriginal-owned cattle station in a region called Cape York, in Australia’s north, an image
which recognises that Australia’s Indigenous population also plays a role in Australia’s beef
cattle industry. The image was shown at NCCA as part of an exhibition this year called
PROOF: Photo Essays from the Top End, the Top End being a term to denote Australia’s
northern region, including Darwin.
In the context of this exhibition, the ‘Top End’ also focused on Australia’s northern
neighbours with work such as this image (below) from Indonesian/Bali-based
photographer Made Nagi, with his series commemorating Indonesia’s tall ship fleet known
as ‘Dewa Ruci’. Indonesian trade with Australia actually predates the existence of
Darwin, even the existence of the term ‘Australia’, with the historic trade in trepang
between Aboriginal people of northern Australia and the Macassan people of Indonesia
believed to date from around the 17th century. This trade was fuelled by the demand for
Brian Cassey, ‘Winstom Marpoondin – Stockman’,
from Aak Puul Ngantam Stockmen series, 2013;
image courtesy the artist
trepang (or sea cucumber) for Chinese markets.
(left) Made Nagi, image from the Dewa Ruci
series, 2009; image courtesy the artist
The exhibition PROOF also
included work from East Timor, one of
the world’s newest democracies and
poorest nations, and Darwin’s
nearest neighbor. Melody, the subject of
this photograph, is originally from the
Philippines, having fled her homeland
so that she can fulfil her destiny as a
transgender person.
Martine Perret, ‘Melody looks at herself’, from the Trans-Dili’ series, 2007-09; image courtesy the artist
Baz Ledwidge, the Darwin-based photographer of this image (below), was also represented in the PROOF exhibition, though
not with this work. As a longstanding independent press photographer in Darwin, much of Ledwidge’s work chronicles the city’s social
history with this image from the mid-1970s capturing the light-hearted mood and community spirit of one of Darwin’s annual rural
carnivals. In many ways, in spite of its capital city status, Darwin is still considered a rural or regional outpost, particularly in terms
of its relatively small population – small by Australian standards, and extremely small by comparison with a city such as Guangzhou.
Given the historic connections as outlined above, Darwin may even be seen as one of Guangzhou’s regional outposts.
Baz Ledwidge, Fred’s Pass show, c. 1975; image courtesy the artist
Size, as with cultural perspective, is always relative. The vast,
sparsely populated region of the Northern Territory, the state (or
province/territory) of which Darwin is the capital, and Australia’s Top
End in general, means more grazing and roaming land for cattle, to
enable a lucrative cattle beef industry. It also means there has been less
destruction of Aboriginal ways of life in the Northern Territory and Top
End which is home to many different Aboriginal groups and many
Aboriginal artists. This image (opposite) shows work by Aboriginal
artists in a prestigious award exhibition, hosted by Melbourne
University’s Ian Potter Museum of Art. Mabel Juli, the winner of this
award in 2013, comes from the Aboriginal community of Warmun,
in the Kimberley region, the top end of the state of Western Australia,
while Garawan Wanambi hails from Yirrkala, in Arnhem Land, a top
end region to the east of Darwin. While looking north, and outward,
the NCCA also looks closer to home, to the unique, age-old and
contemporary art of Australia’s Indigenous peoples ... which also
includes the work of Aboriginal artists from the deserts to the far south
and south-west of Darwin, such as this work by the late Kunmarnanya
Mitchell, also shown in the same award exhibition.
(above right) Installation view of ‘Under the sun: the Kate
Challis RAKA Award’, Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne,
2013/14, showing work by Mabel Juli (the winner), Garnkeny
Ngarranggarni (Moon Dreaming), 2010; and by Garawan
Wanambi, four carved hollow log coffins
(right) Kunmarnanya Mitchell, Wakalpuka, 2011, synthetic
polymer paint on canvas; showing in 2013/14 Kate Challis
RAKA Award
A two-day symposium was recently held in Darwin, called ‘Trading Ideas: Creative Investment between the Northern Territory
and Asia Pacific’. It covered much ground that I have touched on here, about Darwin’s strategic location as a ‘gateway to Asia’ and
historically, for peoples from Hong Kong, Canton, and elsewhere in Asia, as a ‘gateway to Australia’.
Frank Puletua & Ethan Mann, Mana Pasifika – The Age of the Niu Warrior, digital photo, from the exhibition Niu Warrior, Casula Powerhouse
Arts Centre, Sydney, 2011
The symposium also examined the role of artist-residencies in the traffic
of cultural exchange. This image (left) comes from my own two-month artistresidency in Beijing in 2012. I was there not so much as an artist but as an arts
writer, producing two issues of the magazine Art Monthly Australia while based
in Beijing, with the residency supported by NCCA and Asialink, an independent agency in Australia set up solely to build cultural bridges between Australia
and Asia. Unfortunately, this Beijing residency no longer exists, perhaps
creating an opportunity to set up something similar in Guangzhou.
Gary Lee was also part of this Beijing residency program in 2012,
during which he produced this image (below) as part of his China men series of
portraits. This image and part of Lee’s China men series were shown in
Maurice O’Riordan, Hindsight, 2012, digital photo
Guangzhou earlier this year. The subject of this portrait, Han Zie Gong, is also
a photographer. Sometimes it takes the curiosity of the artist to see beyond
one’s own cultural frames of reference, to meet and appreciate the gaze of
another artist from another culture, another country. In this way, art blossoms
and is itself a kind of cultural blossoming, a return to and questioning of one’s
cultural roots in the free trade of ideas and aspirations that is contemporary art.
‘Trading Blossoms’ was presented as part of an academic forum in association with
the exhibition Peach Blossom Spring | Cacotopia, curated by Reg Newitt and shown
at NCCA, Darwin (15 Nov to 13 Dec 2014), and Kui Yuan Gallery [KYG], Guangzhou
(22 Nov 2014 to 28 Jan 2015). The forum was moderated by Kelvin Huang,
Director KYG, delivered in English and Mandarin, and also included presentations
from Reg Newitt, along with artists showing in Peach Blossom Spring: Jayne Dyer,
Wang Zhiyuan, Wayne Warren, and Gary Lee (the exhibition also included the work
of James Newitt, Bu Hua, Jason Wing, and Andy Holden).
Peach Blossom Spring | Cacotopia is accompanied by an A5-sized, 32-page, stringbound full-colour catalogue, published in English and Mandarin. The catalogue
includes a foreword by Dominic Trindade, Australia’s Consul-General in Guangzhou,
and short essays by Zoe Rodriguez (Copyright Agency Limited, a principal sponsor for
the exhibition/project), Kelvin Huang, Reg Newitt and Maurice O’Riordan. The
catalogue may be viewed online at: http://nccart.com.au/images/stories/Peach_Blossom_Spring_catalogue.pdf
Hard copies are available through NCCA, Darwin: www.nccart.com.au
Gary Lee, Han Zie Gong, 2013, digital photo, from the
China men series; image courtesy the artist
The Northern Centre for Contemporary Art, Darwin (formerly 24hr Art) is a publicly
funded contemporary art space (est’d 1989/‘90) that receives principal funding from
the Australian Government (through the Australia Council for the Arts) and the
Northern Territory Government (through Arts NT).