Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Pink Oblong - Make Art Not War

I wrote this piece a while ago yet it still resonates. It was published in Homepage Daily online, February 3, 2008. Penned in the alter ego of Rosa Viereck (Pink Oblong, after a painting by Kandinsky), but it has a clear authorship attribution at the end of the story.

Australians recently celebrated another year of one version of an Australian story, and after the first step in the process of reconciliation, ROSA VIERECK considers what it means to be an Australian and looks to Sidney Nolan and indigenous peoples for inspiration.

Australia, or Invasion, Day, makes me think of geometric shapes. Black squares. White cubes. Me. In a gallery. A pink oblong. My own shape. Rosa Viereck: pleased to meet you.
I’m secure in my identity. But sometimes just the sound of the word Australia, let alone its abstraction, can make me question who I am. “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” was modernist artist Paul Gauguin’s heartfelt cry in ‘French’ Tahiti. His painting’s plea becomes an epithet to colonial identity confusion.
Here, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, it’s a black square screen-head. Atop a black rectangle. I am looking at the symbolic shape of what is known as an icon of Australian identity art. Sidney Nolan’s outlaw: Ned Kelly. Riding through a desert. Gun in hand. In reverse. A symbol of quixotic alienation: human form reduced to a black abstraction in the red heart. White settler alienation in a black helmet. What are we? What does it mean to be Australian? It’s a familiar refrain. Can we find ourselves through Art? I am here to tell you, yes, and lose ourselves as well. Look at me! And look at Nolan in the retrospective at the AGNSW.
Death of Sergeant Kennedy at Stringybark Creek by Sidney Nolan, 1946. Rippolin enamel on hardboard. Collection National Gallery of Australia, Canberra © National Gallery of Australia
Looks like he found out a thing or two as he lost himself in a hallucinogenic landscape of his own perception. About the shifting shapes of ‘settler’ identity. The outlaw. The colonial law enforcers.
But things have changed since Nolan painted his Kelly series in the late 1940s. The modern era has shifted to postmodernism. Multiplicity abounds. Polyphony rocks. In the new era of protest, outlaws are replaced by activists. Fighting for social justice for outsiders ‘othered’ by the ex-colonial law makers. Refugees in detention. Indigenous communities. Stranded in 21st century deserts. Deprived of health and education services settler society calls basic. When activists faced charges –later dropped – of helping refugees escape the country to a third country of refuge, writer and refugee supporter Tom Keneally wrote to those facing court: “The better angels of Australia are singing with you.”
My new favourite book. Another Country, writers in detention, edited by Tom Keneally and Rosie Scott. I open at random, and read:
In the midst of the parched desert
no one can come with us
We cannot journey hand in hand
There is no green place to rest the eye
and the scorching wind of destiny lashes at our backs
A call to DIMIA is like the smell of rain in the desert
Hope like black clouds, building in our thirsty hearts
turns quickly into grief
A cry from the heart from Mohsen Soltany Zand (pictured above). Persian poet, political exile. Four years in detention, in the desert; now a permanent resident.
aunt shirley
More passionate words come into my mind. Aunty Shirley (pictured above), Aboriginal activist, speaking at a 2007 Human Day Rights Rally, in Sussex Street, Sydney.
Aboriginal women are the backbone that has built this country. They have lain on their backs and been raped and given birth to white fella’s babies and had their children taken away and grieved for their children. And their blood is in this city and in these buildings. We won’t go away. Will we stay around? Come back next year...”
These voices know deep pain, and endurance. They are the voices of suffering and survival. They have travelled a long way through the desert to be here. We are all travelling through this country.
What does it mean to be ‘Australian’? Why not rephrase the question to: What does it mean to be here? Or not. Nolan knew, too. Look at his hallucinatory deserts. Razed red earth. Ribbed chasms like the chambers of a dissected heart. Filled with floating motifs. Falling horses. Leda; the swan. Aliens. Dislocating dreams. From a fractured world. Shifting shapes. Of being/seeing. Nolan said he hit upon the black square, after coming out of the army and the war. When he wanted to do “something that was opposite to the sunlit bush...and would explain something of what was happening to me”. In a landscape of cultural trauma, he saw something sinister and menacing in the gun toting black square. To do with shaken identity.
In the great southern land we are all at heart dislocated, invaded and invaders. Together, we can reshape the future. Through mutual acceptance of many colours and shapes. Reconciliation. Make Art not War.
© 2008 Ruth Skilbeck

Top picture: Ned Kelly, 1946 by Sidney Nolan. Rippolin enamel on hardboard. Collection National Gallery of Australia, gift of Sunday Reed 1977 © National Gallery of Australia

Ruth Skilbeck, 'Make Art Not War' http://homepagedaily.com  3.2.2008

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Remembering Australia's Forgotten Mothers Revisted

An essay from my research into Australian colonial family histories and "stolen generations" is now published in the latest issue of the Journal of the Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement, produced by the MIRCI research Institute at York University in Toronto which is the leading research institute in the world in this field.
"The mandate of the Journal is to publish the most current, high quality scholarship on mothering-motherhood and to ensure that this scholarship considers motherhood in an international context and from a multitude of perspectives including differences of class, race, sexuality, age, ethnicity, ability and nationality."

The inspiration for this article is documented on this blog in the eponymous post "Remembering Australia's Forgotten Mothers", (The Skilbeck Scrolls 29/6/2011) and this blog post is included as a part of the article.
 I was employed, throughout 2012, on a one-year contract as a Lecturer at the Journalism and Media research Centre (JMRC) at the University of New South Wales, and the JMRC fully funded my conference trip to Canada to present my research at the MIRCI conference Mothers in HIstory, Histories of Motherhood, in Toronto.
I have found out much more since then, in my "secret research" into "hidden histories" in Australia.
Ground breaking is hard work and little rewarded historically by the administration in this country- as the ghosts of convicts and Indigenous peoples will testify. So I am just glad that I managed to ferry this dream-vison of a creative non-fiction writing piece into international publication.
And as the author I raise my glass to launch its passage into the world. Cheers.


Sunday, 6 January 2013

Adelaide on my Mind and 'These Heathen Dreams'

By Ruth Skilbeck

Adelaide, the capital of South Australia, is a normally sedate and dignified city of elegant uptown terraces, leafy streets and quiet flat suburbs, bounded to the south by genteel seaside charm; and to the north by rolling hills populated by vineyards. It prides itself on being the only city in Australia that wasn’t settled by convicts.  Yet, this is also the explanation some local people will give of the tendency for shocking aberrations, and bizarre crimes to occur there.  And perhaps that is what in some perverse breaking-symmetry, explains the manifestations of the most violently creative and radical art scene that Australia has produced emerging from out of this sleepy oasis of good taste and civilized arts centres.
In the 1980s, for a few vivid shocking years Adelaide was the unlikely location of a creatively explosive and radically charged experimental contemporary art scene,  influenced by Viennese Actionism, where punk energy met with conceptual art and produced ferociously extraordinary performance art and activism that erupted seemingly at random all over the city. In the form of heckling mirror-performance by young men with strange haircuts in leather jackets jumping up like maniacal jack-in-the- boxes from the theatre seats of the Festival Arts Centre, and hi-jacking the audiences attention with their outlandish critique, affronting the good denizens of the more staid cultural venues, before being ejected by polite but firm ushers.
In the form of performance arts heckling, at openings in art galleries, where groups such as The Arts Vandals would electrify the sedate middle class backdrop with performances of impromptu mayhem and not always simulated madness – that revolved around celebrating at least one notorious red haired vandal excessively and rudely availing of the wine and snacks, as a form of performance art. Holding up a fairground mirror of distortion to “convention” and good manners. I remember one night of broken glass in a party in a squat inhabited by the Vandals where the police arrived, and two young police officers gazing around in bewilderment at the walls of monitors, and glittering floor.
Watch the negative space! The red haired one was screaming as someone placed his large hand over his mouth to save the words escaping, and our friend from arrest.
It was in this milieu and context, or one that existed in a self-same parallel dimension, that another Adelaide born artist and poet Christopher Barnett, first made his name.
I did not ever meet him or know of him in the year and a half that I lived in Adelaide. I was there to study Drama, and art, philosophy and literature, at Flinders University. But I became part of this scene through a housemate’s boyfriend the red haired vandal who came to stay, and stayed. In the end I left abruptly, deferring my studies, to visit my younger sister who was training as an actress in the Focus Theatre, Dublin’s Stanislavski influenced avant-garde theatre company. Thinking I would be away three weeks, I was gone ten years. (Returning, when I did with husband, and two year old son, and daughter soon to be born).
Meanwhile the Adelaide scene erupted, and Christopher Barnett became one of its best-known artists. He founded a performance group All Out Ensemble in collaboration with director Nicholas Tsoutas and Peggy Wallach and a group of artists;  that was connected in actions and works with  Art Unit, founded by Juilee Pryor and Robert McDonald, Adelaide artists who moved to Sydney. "The actions and work in each city though connected were sometimes qualitatively different", Christopher Barnett (Facebook conversation 23.1.2013). Working always in the mode of collaboration, he also worked with Nicolas Lathouris, Margaret Cameron and Alison Davey in Melbourne, also with many other collaborators and collaborators in Sydney with a number of people including the Central, Art Unit and Performance Space.* These groups involved some of the people I had met and mixed with, and some that – many years later- I have recently met through teaching in Sydney and through facebook in the past three years.  I have met Christopher Barnett through Facebook and engaged in intellectually challenging and meaningful conversations with him through exchanging texts in social cyber-space.
 I came to make contact with him initially through a friend of his whom I had met whilst teaching at the University of Technology Sydney on the subject Language and Discourse. A fellow tutor was performance and sound artist Debra Petrovitch. She had worked with Christopher Barnett in Art Unit in the performances that he directed, when she was studying conceptual art at the Adelaide School of Arts. This was the first art school in Australia to have courses in conceptual art- and what I witnessed was the exuberant efflorescence of that freedom to explore ideas that had energized European art for years. When we talked about our mutual experiences as artist and writer in Adelaide she suggested I make contact with Christopher on Facebook.
Amongst the conversations we have had what I think is most significant are conversations about freedom of artists and the need to transform personal individual trauma into art as a process of society that is deeply healing and imperative to social health, in my interpretation.  Christopher moved to Nantes in the 1980s. He said “ I was asked by the town to establish a theatre laboratory here in Nantes in 1992 and I did but I was immediately attracted to what I had always done and that was to work for people who have been disregarded who have been placed on the margins- but I wanted to work with them deeply as if they were artists – so it has meant that I work in communities, in hospitals, in prisons with small groups of people and large ones, I work the same questions of what is creation and I am the only artist who has done it for so long every day of the week – as many as 12 séances a week of 2-3 hours… I train people to live with themselves and that is also a solitary business- to make people use creation as a way of not only to survive our catastrophe but to transform it.”
Since the 1980s Christopher Barnett as been a self exiled artist in Nantes , France, he has not returned to Australia as according to his writing he feels that he cannot work here as an artist, as he will be censored  or oppressed in a hostile climate.
Now, Australian film maker Anne Tsoulis and producer Georgia Wallace-Crabbe are making a documentary, These Heathen Dreams, about the life and work of Christopher Barnett, working in collaboration with French co-producer Les Films du Balibari, they have received French funding and regional funding from le Pays del la Loire to travel to France to shoot and edit the documentary, they have started up a fund raising campaign in Australia through social media, on the Pozible site,  a site for artist run initiatives to gain funding for projects from crowd funding.
Arts Features International is conducting interviews with Christopher Barnett and Anne Tsoulis about the documentary and their ideas, and will publish these soon on this site.
Copyright ©Ruth Skilbeck 2013

* Updated in consultation with Christopher Barnett and Anne Tsoulis, January 23, 2013.

Also published on Arts Features International

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Interview with Alex Wisser, Cementa_13 Director

The Cementa_13 Contemporary Art Festival is happening in one months time, the four day festival starts on February 1, and preparations are now seriously underway to organise and accommodate the as yet unknown number of people who will be descending into the small and at the moment quiet rural town of Kandos. A call out has just gone out on the Cementa_13 website for participants and guests  to register so that a clear idea may emerge of the size of the coming festival. Just before the New Year I interviewed festival director Alex Wisser, and was fascinated to find out more about the background and stories behind the festival.
The full interview was published earlier today in Arts Features International. Here is an excerpt:

Alex Wisser: "One night we sat drinking too much wine, talking about the recently closed cement works on the mountain next to the town and the thought quickly formed that we could stage a contemporary art festival here.  Haha.  Yes, another glass of the shiraz please.  We woke up the next morning and Ann was drawing up artist lists and thinking about public liability insurance.  Georgie and I rubbed our eyes and realized we had signed on.  Artists have these kinds of crazy ideas all the time.  It usually requires someone taking them seriously to cause any real trouble".

The full article and interview is in Arts Features International at artsfeatures.com, at this link.

Copyright ©Ruth Skilbeck,  2013

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Arts Features International Online

Arts Features International our arts writing and cultural research media platform has gone online.

It's a nail biting moment taking off and hoping to take flight as we know well at the Daily Fugue.

Will it fly or will it fall, or fail? Will their be a fake crash landing scare, or maybe it's just not that big a deal. Arts Features International is not a new venture, this is its 10th anniversary, so much of the site will be devoted to archives and collecting essays to publish in book form.

Here is a link to a new interview I have just done with Alex Wisser, director of Cementa_13.   http://artsfeatures.com/.  

Let us know what you think!

Ruth Skilbeck

Can Deborah Kelly’s Empress Save Cementa’s Pozible Campaign?

 By Ruth Skilbeck

WANTED! Art  Empress Seeking Empire Builder of Distinction.

IN the reflexive Empire of Signs that is produced in the intersection of contemporary art, media and commerce, anyone can build their own empire by purchasing a piece of art that is symbolically reflexive of the values of the commoditized art world .
That is the subliminal symbolic equation of symbolic value that has seen the value of contemporary art translating into astronomical prices with new generations of global art collectors, keen to display that their taste matches the numbers in their hedge funds, or “just for the love of it”, have bought art that reflects the media values of the times.
 By symbolically reflecting these values, contemporary art literally becomes what it represents which is a sign, of the symbolic value, bestowed upon art by collective cultural agreements of the art world. (Whereas not everyone by all means may agree, some do, enough to purchase the works for the prices asked).
 Now anyone interested in empire building, knows that they also need to show off their taste and culture, the attributes that Bourdieu referred to as “distinction”; money alone does not an emperor make in the empire of signs that is the contemporary post modern mediated cultural realm.

All of these meanings are effectively, to this critic, displayed and played with ironically in the work by Deborah Kelly appositely titled Empress. The work upturns the patriarchal order by depicting King Kong’s former female victim as dominant Empress. Of course this also raises the question of women artists’ erotic female representation that has exercised feminist debate since the 70s, is it empowering or does it play into male fantasies? We’ll leave that one open, for now.
Right now, it’s the context of this work as the latest donation to the Cementa Pozible campaign that’s of most interest.
It may seem particularly appropriate that it is this work that has emerged as the potential savior of the Cementa Contemporary Art Festival Pozible Campaign, and at the very last minute.  As more than  one art commentator and critic has been heard to whisper of their shift into online virtual arts websites as a move to building their “online media empires”...
And now the Empress appears! Replete in symbolic splendor, sexy, semi naked, surrounded by sky scraping Empire of erotic Signs: hallucinatory phallic symbols vibrating in the epicenter of western capital values, where she upturns the legend of King Kong, and in the guise of his former female victim, grasps the monster in her hand and renders her foe helpless!
As if in fulfillment of collective dreams for a powerful female savior, the Empress has appeared with only hours to go before the close of the campaign.  Several thousand dollars more are needed to reach the target of the Cementa Contemporary Arts festival, to provide the means to “buy an artist a bed” for the nights of the festival in the rural post cement works town in rural New South Wales. 

One of a new generation of Australia’s prominent contemporary women artists, Deborah Kelly has at the last minute donated her striking work, to the Pozible campaign.

Will the Empress save the day? As we go to post, there are less than 15 hours to go. We await the outcome of this latest intervention with interest and shall keep readers posted.

Deborah Kelly "Empress" (2005-08) 5 ed. of 5
signed pigment print on Hahnemvelle cotton archival paper