The Spiritual, the Rational and the Material: Spirit and Place Art in Australia 1861 - 1996

Since 1984 there have been five major exhibitions which sought to engage aspects of the spiritual in art and which attracted international comment. Spirit + Place, Art in Australia 1861 - 1996, which opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney on 22nd November 1996 and closed on 5th March 1997, was the most recent of these.

"...A poet or even a mystic, becomes a greater power from understanding all the great primary emotions and those, one only gets out of going through the common experiences...of life..."
William Butler Yeats

Since 1984 there have been five major exhibitions which sought to engage aspects of the spiritual in art and which attracted international comment. Spirit + Place, Art in Australia 1861 - 1996, which opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney on 22nd November 1996 and closed on 5th March 1997, was the most recent of these. Its title emphasised the curators' intention to join the exhibition firmly to a sense of place, to the material world, and to affirm the notion that nature and the human are permeated by a spiritual dimension.
The idea that any attempt to elevate the spiritual correspondingly acts to demote rationality is common and reflects polarisations easily discernible since the time of the northern Italian Renaissance. However, we are now able to benefit from understandings which contest this dismembering polarisation of the thinking process. Rationality itself is embedded in an internal cognitive context. We sought to reflect some of these understandings in Spirit + Place and other projects closely related to the exhibition.
The failure of the western enlightenment of reason has enhanced the value of reason by adding insight into its limitations, this neither diminishing its value, nor arguing for irrationality, but indicating that different ways of reasoning are appropriate for different problems. No longer is there one true answer to all true questions. The dangerous western perspective of relentless progress has been marginalised. In art, there has also been fading of the faith in the idea that Western art transcends causality and has a special mission to lead the world into new triumphs of spirituality (1). This has permitted enhanced receptiveness to difference and otherness which may be seen no longer as either some reflection of an ideal state nor some primitive state to be redeemed by the western way; 70 years ago Carl Einstein (2) wrote of the need for increased understanding of the religious and cultural practices of indigenous peoples in order that their art be more deeply engaged.
These understandings underlie a more comfortable joining of the art of indigenous Australians with other art practice and an associative, rather than grid-like approach to the presentation of this exhibition as a whole.
In a recent review (3), Professor Joan Kerr wrote of Spirit + Place, "...This exhibition's emphasis on a non-linear (and non secret-sacred) spirituality allowed it to escape the old lunatic straightjacket and show indigenous and non-indigenous art in a partnership where the maturity of the former generously and non-competitively set the pace for its younger, less spiritually sophisticated sister. Both worked well together..." and "Spirit + Place opened up a rich lode of potential new stories for Australian art - past, present and future".
Two earlier exhibitions engaging aspects of the spiritual in art, Primitivism in 20th Century Art at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1984, and Magiciens de la Terre in Paris in 1989, also combined indigenous art with art in the western tradition. Both were important and influential exhibitions, however, specific negative comment was aroused. In a review in 1985, James Clifford wrote of the danger of evoking a sense that tribal cultures needed redeeming, rather than to 'manifest the vitality of those cultures' (4). Magiciens de la Terre brought together an equal number of artists from the European 'centres' and from distant places, designated as cultural 'margins'. Benjamin Buchloh, in an interview with the curator Jean-Hubert Martin (5), questioned this categorisation and raised thoughts of neo-colonialist echoes. Reference was made in that interview to LeExposition Coloniale which was held in Paris in 1931 when cultural otherness was paraded as spectacle. Martin said that the exhibition served as a negative reference point thus acknowledging the draining away of meaning which commonly follows when tribal objects are separated from their cultural and religious contexts and presented with contemporary western art.
Spirit + Place included a large number of works by indigenous artists and, where possible, dance and ritual relevant to these objects was introduced. Artists travelled to Sydney to the museum from Fitzroy Crossing and performed the Gurirr Gurirr ceremony at the MCA and also painted masks which were an integral part of the ceremony, and which were then placed in the exhibition. Tiwi dancers also performed in Sydney at the museum joining some of the objects to ritual and their place of origin.
The third major exhibition relating to the spiritual and art which preceded Spirit + Place was The Spiritual in Art, Abstract Painting 1890 - 1985 at the County Museum of Modern Art in Los Angeles. In his opening essay its chief curator, Maurice Tuchman, wrote of the desire that the exhibition would "...express spiritual, utopian and metaphysical ideas that cannot be expressed in true pictorial terms". The exhibition rested almost entirely upon the European spiritual traditions of the 19th and 20th centuries, upholding the idea that the spiritual was a transcendent realm, of necessity, separated from the visible material world. The etymology of the word 'utopia', from the Greek meaning 'no place' or 'nowhere', emphasised difference with the Sydney exhibition which strongly affirmed the connection with place. The emphasis in the Los Angeles show upon the spiritual and the transcendent also invited antipathies; the spiritual and the irrational on one side, and materialism and rationality on the other. This was clearly voiced in a letter to the New Art Examiner (October 1987), "Materialism...in the sense of concern for philosophical and intellectual issues...(does)...not require spirit guides, occultism, sacred geometry...for visual expression".
The idea that the spiritual is inaccessible to art production, unless through non-objective work, is historically interesting but fails to acknowledge the overwhelming body of painting and sculpture in the western and Asian traditions, and also in the traditions of indigenous peoples, which involves a depiction of the natural world; places, things, animals and plants. The urge for connection to the world is a strong post-Romantic impulse which has gathered momentum during the past two decades and the emphasis in the Los Angeles exhibition upon transcendence and the exclusion of work of indigenous peoples tended to disengage it from contemporary relevance.
The intertwining of materiality, rationality and intellectual inquiry with the spiritual dimensions in Spirit + Place was assisted by the production of a book which contained illustrations of the works shown and which also comprised 14 essays which ranged widely over theology, history, law, architecture, politics, biology and art history. Each of the authors, almost without exception, was known nationally or internationally because of scholarship or other relevant attainment. Each essay connected insights from different disciplines to some aspect of the exhibition and reflected the cognitive and social climate out of which it arose. This was of pressing importance in view of the healing qualities of the art experience and the current Reconciliation debate.
Differing art historical views were presented in the two opening essays. The first, by Roger Lipsey, author of An Art of Our Own, The Spiritual in 20th Century Art, and also a Pulitzer prize nominee for his biography of Ananda Coomaraswamy, provided a deeply felt essay entitled Sacred Without Credentials. That was followed by Concerning the Spiritual in Art: A Sceptical Essay, by Professor Virginia Spate, in which she directly asked difficult questions. Spate wrote, "Without questioning the seriousness of artists who invoke the spiritual - or of art historians who analyse them - I want to raise the simple question: in the absence of a shared belief system, can the spectator experience what the artist conceives as a spiritual experience? Evidently such a question leads to others: what is the nature of the spiritual experience, experienced through the work of art? can it transcend the frisson of momentary experience to transform both consciousness and one's sense of one's relationship to being (surely the essence of the spiritual)? Is the aspiration towards such experience a form of escapism from the intractable problems of our all-too materialist lives or can this transformation of consciousness have a genuine effect in terms of action to change lives. These questions are unanswerable in any final sense, but they are, I believe, necessary".
Spate's inquiry passes through the human-centred visual experience which she regards to be as intense as some abstract works, but which convey something which is, although deeply moving, still within the world of common human experience and without that added element which evokes the spiritual dimension. Spate continues, "The miracle of paint which is manifestly paint but which manages to convince one that one is looking into an aged face, allows one an intense empathy with another's human-ness...I know many people think of such a work as spiritual, but it seems to me that the word should be kept for the experience where the mind breaks through into a sense of unity of being". And further, "I think also of paint which is a ray of light in a shadowed but still radiant room, painted by Cossington Smith or even the bottle of golden liquid at the end of Roberts' 'Shearing the Rams". A shearing shed is the last place where one might expect the kind of experience I am trying to evoke (and it would have been very far from Roberts' mind). Maybe all I am saying is that there can be, in painting, moments of perceptual experience so intense and so joyous that one has to think of the mystery of why this should be so - and of the mystery of our being that can respond with such intensity to matter. Is this spiritual? I don't know. And finally, "As a spectator, it seems to me that the spiritual experience in art somehow makes one conscious of one's beingness on earth and of feeling one with its wholeness, both human and natural".
The clarity with which Spate pursues her reasoning and holds courageously to other sources of knowing, not wholly circumscribed by reasoning, gives heart to all who struggle in the same difficult terrain of inquiry.
Harold Bloom's remarks regarding an inner knowing, although not specifically about art, are relevant here (6). He also quotes Emerson "Remember then, were not the words that made the blood run to your cheeks, that made you tremble or delight you, - did they not sound to you as old as yourself? Was it not truth you knew before?...". These words remind us that, in the early decades of this century, Marcel Duchamp joined painting and the act of looking indivisibly to thought, a conjunction which refuses any false separation of the visual world from the conceptual world. Looking and thinking in its broadest sense are one, however the confluence and correspondence of both, in-depth and together, is difficult and perhaps rare.
Although each work chosen for the exhibition was selected on the basis of its own unique merit, in order to engage the viewer as completely as possible Spirit + Place was conceived and presented like a large poem with each work representing a line of that poem, and with an overall rhythm imposed by the shapes, sizes and sequences of the rooms.
Paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs by more than 90 artists were included. These were mainly Australian, non-indigenous and indigenous, however, there were also some artists from overseas, who had visited Australia and had influenced the development of art here. Some of the indigenous artists were living and working in their traditional places whilst others were fully urbanised and work in cities in Australia and overseas. The selection of works reflected the remarkable ethnic mix which comprises the multicultural pluralism of Australian society. The European artists in the exhibition were Joseph Beuys, Anselm Kiefer, Nikolaus Lang, Richard Long, Christo, Hamish Fulton, Ludwig Hirshfeld Mack, Axel Poignant and Marina Abramovic.
Works were selected with four broad categories in mind: Human Presence and Absence; Celebrating the Land; Seeking the Inexpressible; and a fourth which included Theosophy and Anthroposophy. Non objective works relating to the 19th century spiritualist traditions as well as the two major waves of non-objective painting which have occurred during this century, were also represented.
The exhibition was planned to be viewed in a clockwise manner, the four themes interweaving throughout the rooms. There were also, at specific sites, places of emphasis and surprise produced by particular juxtapositions and groupings of works. Art history and chronology were, at no time, forgotten, however, both were utilised towards the overall conception which was to excite feeling, as well as thought, in a modulated way and to seek to join the viewer, therefore, more completely to the experience of the exhibition as a whole, rather than to individual works. We hoped, in this way, to lead the viewer towards some overall sense of elation and completeness in the final rooms (see diagram).
Reference was made by Professor Kerr to the effect of this arrangement in her recent review (3), "...works played off similarities and contrasts in colour, form and subject like a joyous, spirited (if not spiritual) choir" and, "Like a musical composition, every room on the top floor of the museum had a dominant, self-contained and harmonious theme enhanced by the quite different movement that followed. This contrapuntal organisation properly peaked in the two largest rooms: one all solid and earthy in form, colour and subject...the other all sky and abstract spirit..." and, "...what the mixture purveyed was a sense of optimism for the future". She also referred to a sense of exhilaration evoked by the exhibition as a whole.
The last three rooms comprised two large vaulted rooms and a small connecting one. The first was entered by passing Marina Abramovic's amethyst Shoes For Departure on the left, and included works by Beuys, Lang, Unsworth, Boyle, Rover Thomas and the masks of the Gurirr Gurirr ceremony. There was, on entry, a feeling of materiality and earthiness and a strong sense of the primal.
The small connecting room allowed a more intimate experience for the viewer where there was an evocation of landscape with works by Hamish Fulton, Richard Long and Robyn Backen. A bunch of artificial red roses, delicately wrapped in translucent red plastic, blurring but not disguising the contents, by Christo, was on the left at exit. It picked up themes from earlier rooms.
Entry to the last room was accompanied by a sudden expansion of space and a dominant sense of lightness. The Feathered Fence by Rosalie Gascoigne, lay transversely across the space between an untitled work by Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri and Adyar by Christopher Dean. Works by Joan Grounds 42 Books With One Page, Maxie Tjampitjinpa Women's dreaming, Brian Blanchflower Earth grazer, Savandhary Vongpoothorn Light Kasina, Jasmine Flower and Water Kasina, were also immediately visible at the place of entry.
John McDonald, while criticising the selection of certain works, nevertheless made similar remarks about the effect of the unexpected juxtapositions of work (7), "It is also a brave and important gesture to integrate Aboriginal and non-indigenous Australian art; to put works by tribal painters alongside pieces by artists as diverse as John Olsen, John Wolseley and Bill Robinson. Surprisingly, no-one really loses by the comparison...with no sense that anyone is less 'authentic'..." and, "A wall of paintings by Lloyd Rees, Nolan and Fred Williams, with Olsen nearby, was for me the most powerful moment. The individual works have been well chosen and there is a lot to be learned about Australian landscape painting by moving one's gaze back and forth". And finally, "...The other startling juxtaposition was the placing of Georgiana Houghton's spiritualist abstractions of the 1860s alongside some small works by Marion Borgelt. These paintings seemed insignificant in Borgelt's most recent exhibition but they gain an immense charge from the proximity...It seems one of the few instances where one might witness a spiritual dimension arising organically in the creation of abstract forms".
Negotiating Rapture, The Power of Art to Transform Lives opened at the Museum of Modern Art in Chicago in May 1996. Its chief curator, Richard Francis, wrote that the eleven artists included in the show, "reveal the types of experience that, in previous periods, have been put in the care of religious proselytes of various kinds, be they monks, mystics, or other spiritual adherents". And, "...The exercises that monks and mystics perform are similar to the processes of the artist..." and, "...What can be asserted, however, is that when we find individuals who have sought enlightenment we expect them to explain the world to us, to reveal some of its mysteries. Not, as some scientists do, by explaining the mechanics, but by uncovering the mystical part of the mystery".
In a review of the Sydney and Chicago exhibitions (8) Professor Ihab Hassan found the Sydney show 'more persuasive' and drew attention to the 'dubious assumption' that art is a surrogate for religion, a view upheld in the curatorial essay for Negotiating Rapture. He also asked "How many feel transports of blackness...before the exacting subliminal statements of Reinhardt's 'last paintings'?...Perhaps a few, self-selected viewers will suffice..." and finally, "the subtitle, The Power of Art to Transform Lives, portrays the ambitious, not to say messianic, impulse in the American project...".
By contrast, the curators of Spirit + Place had no expectancy that revelatory experience would emerge from the paintings, nor was there any thought of changing lives.
Although there were significant differences in these five exhibitions all, with the exception of Negotiating Rapture, engaged with cultural diversity as an important concern and there was an over-arching commonality in that they all engaged with the spiritual dimension in art, in our time when materialism, the marketplace and technology dominate.
Because the experience of the spiritual is not delimited by concept, it is therefore not easily manageable in the language of art criticism and the more completely this experience engages the inner world the less reducible it is to such language.
When Mark Rothko remarked of the viewer having the same religious experience looking at his painting, as he had when he made it, he was referring to a commonality in the state of inner being shared by the artist and the viewer.
To be moved in the manner to which Rothko refers is to be touched within being. Some artists, not all, for there are many different kinds of artists, seek this depth within themselves and attempt, like Rothko, its exteriorisation in their work, which in turn and at once, correspondingly becomes an invitation to the viewer to share the experience.
The equivalence which Kasimir Malevich and Theo von Doesburg drew between the significance of the black square and the meaning that early Christians drew from the Cross, implied that the whole system of Theology attached to the Cross is in some way also, in being, and in the experience of the black square despite the absence of common codes of religious reference. If this be so, the commonalities of being in the human are activated by the work. This is also the meaning of Rothko's statement.
His 'religious experience' also brings to mind teachings of Ananda Coomaraswamy with which it might have much in common. While a research fellow at the Museum of Fine Art in Boston, Coomaraswamy wrote of aesthetic shock (9). This, he related to the meaning of the Pali word, 'Samvega', which was used to denote the special experience of wonder and shock which sometimes occurs when the perception of a work of art breaks into a new dimension and becomes 'something more'.
The awareness to which these refer has its correlate in the inner world of uncircumscribed associative thought. It is perhaps this engagement with aspects of mind or being, resting upon common experience, but not of it, which identifies the invitation and the challenge of the spiritual in art.
Ross Mellick with Nick Waterlow OAM, co-curators of this exhibition*

Footnotes
1. McEvilley, Thomas Art & Discontent in Art History or Sacred History New York 1991 p164.
2. Einstein, Carl. Direct communication from Patrick Healy who is currently translating his work from German.
3. Kerr, Joan "Divining the Spiritual" Art and Australia Vol 35, No.1 p51.
4. Clifford, James "Histories of the Tribal and the Modern" Art in America April 1985 p164.
5. Buchloh, Benjamin "The Whole Earth Show" Art in America May 1989 p152.
6. Bloom, Harold "Omens of Millennium" Riverhead Books, Putnam's, New York 1996 p234.
7. McDonald, John "Cull to be kind" Spectrum Arts, Sydney Morning Herald, 11 Jan 1997 p12.
8. Hassan, Ihab "Rapture and Ecstasy: The spiritual impulse in art" Art Monthly Australia July 1997 p17.
9. Coomaraswamy, Ananda K Traditional Art and Symbolism Ed. Roger Lipsey. Princeton Uni. Pan, New Jersey 1986 p179.


* The curators would also like to acknowledge the valuable assistance of Djon Mundine OAM and Hetti Perkins to SPIRIT + PLACE

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