Thresholds of Tolerance curated by Caroline Turner and David Williams, was shown at the ANU School of Art Gallery from 10 May to 5 June, 2007. We Refuse to Become Victims, an art work made by three artists collectives, Culture Kitchen in Canberra, Taring Padi in Jogyakarta and Gembel in Dili, Timor, a four part series of large works on fabric of small woodcuts, screenprints and painting struck Pat Hoffie as political art that really works as it is cross-disciplinary, cross cultural and seems to stretch out back to the fields of production rather than towards the empty field of the gallery.
Overt signs of political correctness are no assurance that the art will be good. Sebastian Smee made sure he put paid to any lingering doubts about such assumptions in his recent critique of the work of Gordon Bennett at the Ian Potter Centre (1) when he wrote:
'"Because the subject matter in Bennett's main body of work is so hot – racism, dispossession, injustice – and his paintings are so hectic, we incline towards seeing them as passionate, sincere, angry...
But when you put aside these naive assumptions and really look, Bennett's work is strangely mechanical and soulless." (2)
But it's not just Bennett's work that Smee seems so dissatisfied with – Juan Davila and Imants Tillers get charged with the same accusations of having been swept up in the 'fervour for quotation, appropriation, pastiche' that Smee describes as little more than an academic parlour game that swept through Australia in the 80s and 90s. The legacy of this fixation, in his opinion, has amounted to little more than a plethora of works that now appear not only as politically and ethically disingenuous but also conceptually and visually weak.
If it is possible to shift the emphasis off what appears at face value to be an attack, it seems possible to consider that Smee's real targets are a kind of knowing, academic self-reflexiveness that infects art from time to time – an empty, platitudinous approach that seems content with presenting the issues within the high ground of the academic illustration.
A justifiable position, one could be forgiven for thinking& except that when Smee cites the work of Sigmar Polke at the end of the essay as an example of the kind of artist who can use a 'postmodernist approach' effectively the argument slides sideways into one of taste. His confessional admission that 'Many of them were even beautiful' is evidence of why it seems easier for Smee to overlook the absurdity, moral emptiness and triviality that Polke's subject shares with that of the Australian painters. At that point the comparison topples into one of degrees, and Smee's argument against the disingenuous nature of so much postmodern visual art production seems to have been left to one side. We are left wondering what benchmarks Smee might use in his decision that Polke's work is so much more successful, and his statement that 'part of the electricity crackling off his best works comes from the tension between their visual seductiveness and the savagery of their nihilism' suggests that a certain incommensurability may be a necessary ingredient.
When I first laid eyes on the four-part series We Refuse to Become Victims, I was immediately drawn to the work. Large, at times clumsy and kak-handed, composed of a number of disparate images by a range of approaches and a range of mediums, it somehow managed to maintain a tense cohesiveness. The threatened chaos was held in check by the meandering red coastal outline that stretched across all four images – the northern coastlines of Australia and Indonesia including East Timor. Individual images addressed the themes that three of the four components claimed as their titles: Human Rights, Resources, Environment. There were little images of refugees, of Australian politicians, little wood-cuts depicting all kinds of commentaries. But it wasn't the subject that gave this work its strength; at the time it was hanging amidst a room of work sharing similar concerns, my own work among them.(3) And it wasn't that I found them beautiful in a predictable way. But there did seem to be something of that electricity crackling off the surfaces, even though the poles across which that current ran may be very different to those of Polke.
The work had been made by a number of artists who are members of three artists' collectives – Culture Kitchen in Canberra, Taring Padi in Jogyakarta and Gembel in Dili, Timor, and it had been constructed along the way as it travelled between the three countries. It began in Canberra with the print workshop Culture Kitchen, and was constructed of woodblock prints, screenprints, stencils, stitching and acrylic on what looked like big queen-sized bed sheets (plus there was an accompanying video).
The plethora of approaches made it cross-disciplinary as well as cross-cultural. But despite the convictions of federal Research Quality Frameworks, this kind of criteria-based cross-checking fails to explain the work's strength. Rather, much of the work's strength comes from its inability to fit easily into any hard and fast criteria; it has a kind of random, messy quality and it stops short of being didactic. It also stops short of being predictably aesthetic in either a finessed or a grungy way, and rather than presenting itself as 'suspiciously like art', it seems to stretch out as a map of an experience, pointing back to the fields of production rather than towards the empty field of the gallery.
And therein may lie its especial appeal. Lots of the practitioners involved in its making might not call themselves artists (yet). Some do. And some others work in a number of disciplines, like Angie Bexley, who has acted as one of the spokespersons for the collaborative project, and who is currently completing her PhD in Anthropology at ANU.
I could describe the work's attention to the cultural counterpoints shared by artists in these three countries that have become the subject of the work, but instead I'll devote this short essay to describe the remarkable process through which the work grew.
It started when Angie and her husband Jon Priadi moved back to Australia from Timor where they'd been working with grass-roots communities in Dili since 2002. She and John had met at Gaja Mada University in Jogyakarta when he was studying Japanese. Jon was a member of Taring Padi, a radical arts collective that emerged in 1998 following the collapse of the Suharto regime, and Angie became more and more involved in some of the art actions that were part of the Jogyakarta protest movement.
According to Angie, Taring Padi was never intended to have a geographical entity – it was more about ideas, and while she was invited by the UN to work on implementing the first presidential elections in Timor, Jon was also invited by some Timorese students who had been students in Jogya and who had become involved in clandestine movements that aimed to help the youth of their town in Los Palos. These students had seen how Taring Padi had worked with community and youth in Jogya, and wanted to set up a similar framework in their own town.
In Los Palos Angie and Jon were given a centre – an empty house in the middle of town where they conducted workshops in recycling paper, bamboo sculptures, creating arts and crafts from bamboo, screenprinting and woodcutting. There was a core of about five kids who lived there in the house permanently (according to Angie, they simply 'moved in'), and the workshops would draw about 25 kids whose ages ranged from 11 to 25, twice a week. Angie recalls: 'We brought the materials from Jogya – it was all self-funded, but materials weren't that expensive from Indonesia. ..Taring Padi also gave us materials and we drew from circles of former clandestine student networks. In payment we were fed and housed for the work we did for about six months during 2002.'
After that they moved to Dili when Jon got a job at the Sahe Research Institute, an NGO developing programs and research into local traditions in the region. Angie did volunteer work there while she continued her studies, and the couple was joined by another Taring Padi member to work with Gembel. Angie describes the origins of the cooperative: 'At the time they were just a group of kids who would hang out in the Borja da Costa Park in Central Dili. There were about 15 to 20, and about 10 of them were orphans whose parents had been killed during the Indonesian occupation of Timor. Some were at uni, some were unemployed, some were still at school.'
What drew them together?
'Boredom and the struggles at the beginning of 2002 when young people were pushed to the edges – there was a lot of money, a lot of development at the time, but no-one was inviting them to be part of any of the activities. A lot of the post destruction development was based on building – bricks and mortar, but civil society wasn't being looked at& They would go to the park and just hang out. They were very musical, and they would wander to the office and would sit outside and there seemed to always be someone on the guitar. Others kept arriving, drawn to the fellow youth and then we started to have workshops.'
'In the beginning we just picked up some materials from around the office – bits of old hardboard and then we began chiselling away at it and then we inked them up. Jon and I were travelling back and forth to Jogya at the time and it was only about AUD$5 for a litre of ink.'
I consider the economies of this, but the exchange value is bigger than the dollar: Angie describes getting back and forth between Dili and Jogya:
'In those days it took about 12 winding hours to travel to West Timor from East Timor by bus, and then you have to fly two hours. The Jogya- Dili flight is expensive - about $300US.'
The other Taring Padi member who joined them to work with Gembel is Coki (pronounced Chocky) Rahung Nasution, (he has taken a Timorese name). In 2002 he got on a ship from Surabaya and told them he was Timorese. At that time they were letting anyone in who was claiming to be Timorese. The sailing time took two days. Angie describes that at that time Timor represented that anything was possible – there seemed to be a newness and a sense of adventure.
She describes the Timorese as a welcoming, open and sophisticated people who are well aware of differentiation between the militaristic dictatorships of Indonesia and ordinary people. The name Gembel taken on by the artist group is an Indonesian name meaning bum. They have no problem with taking on Indonesian names. If you're willing to help, you're in.
At the moment Coki's back in Jogya working on a film for the Saha Institute on the role of the elite in the Timorese crisis last year. It will be released in Dili and Indonesia later this year.
Is there any sense of danger in the kind of way they're working and the kind of work they're producing? 'Yes', answers Angie – 'that's why he's back in Indonesia – there's a potentially flammable product he's working on.'
She goes on to elaborate: 'Last year the office of the Sahe Institute was put by a lot of pressure under the armed civilian groups serving certain political agendas, and because Sahe is critical of both the former Fretelin government and the new government under Xanana Gusmao, they are a target. They had to shut up shop last year. There was a series of threats made against the property and its people. At the time a number of the Gembel kids were sheltering at the Sahe Institute because threats had also been aimed against the Gembel group, who work and live in an old scout hall that's very open.'
'They've since gone back as things have settled down a bit since that last year's crisis& there has been another bout of violence since the election, which went well with high rates of participation and which seemed free and fair, but since then things have flared up again. The situation in Timor is always tense, but the Gembel kids are still producing their art in the park and towards the end of this year our next project will bring over two members of Culture Kitchen and Taring Padi to Timor to hold a series of workshops, and will give them an opportunity to work together at the same time, as this first work was produced in stages.'
Angie's thesis is due sometime next year. It looks at the history of independence in Timor, focussing on the clandestine student front and what has happened after independence. In the meantime she shares her commitment to collaborative art projects along the way.
But back to the work. It's true the context is fascinating. But you have to believe me when I tell you that it was the work that dragged my interest in, in the first place. Stretched across the gallery walls, the four panels were a reminder that art can still surprise. There was an untidy rambling nature to this work that seems to lie a world away from the tidy discourses that still seem so central to the art world of Australia.
1- Sebastian Smee 'In the Mix' in The Review, The Weekend Australian, September 22-23, 2007
3- Thresholds of Tolerance curated by Caroline Turner and David Williams, Humanities Research Centre and School of Art Gallery, Research School of Humanities, ANU, 10 May – 5 June, 2007.