Asia and Oceania Influences - Sydney

Exhibition review Asian and Oceania Influence Curated by Nick Waterlow Ivan Dougherty Gallery, Sydney 2-30 September 1995

Good influences and bad influences are not always easy to separate from one another. Even the best influence can be deleterious, while the worst can be a necessary stage on the way to somewhere else. Influence covers a range of relationships from simply being aware of tradition and sources through more overt reference or homage to imitation, appropriation, plagiarism and outright fakery. The consciousness or visibility of influence in an artist's work and the degree of tact or specificity in its handling are factors informing the kind of energy that flows in the currents of triangulation between source, artist and viewer. For this show the concept of influence has been kept vague, broad and one-way. It is a matter of influences flowing in to the work of twenty contemporary Australian artists who have been asked to provide objects of inspiration from cultures apart from their own in time or space - loosely, Asian and Oceanian (including indigenous Australian) - to be displayed alongside work of their own that bears the fruit of a cultural crossing.

What the exhibition offers the viewer is something more complex than merely a contextualization of the contemporary Australian artists' work. What we are given is a series of pairings in which the object offered as starting point and the artwork offered as finished product read each other, the whole being different to, and in many cases, more than the sum of the parts. It is an exhibition of self-portraying installations.

John Firth-Smith's large oil painting Spirit 1990, for example, is displayed with musical instruments collected from Indonesian street musicians, a Maori club and wooden steps from a Sepik River hut. The artist writes that the objects were chosen after the painting was made, and that, transformed through the artistic process, they contribute their qualities to the painting. While the viewer searches for connections, the disparate nature of the practice of the contemporary Australian professional artist and the makers of functional objects in traditional cultures remains foremost. In this context at least, the utility and integrity of the folk objects, especially the inventively put-together musical instruments, acquire a pathos which places them in a different realm from the painting. The effect of this particular influence is to direct attention back to the sources.

In other cases, such as Tim Johnson's large acrylic painting One Day 1991 and the smaller 16th century Nepalese thanka that is adduced as an influence, the contemporary work risks being overwhelmed by its predecessor. It requires a certain wit or modesty, as in Cressida Campbell's Australian reworking of Japanese ukiyo-e in the watercolour Breakfast at Armidale 1990, hung beside a representative Utagawa/Ando Hiroshige colour woodblock, to give a sense of proportion to what can seem rather incommensurate influences. Sometimes the energies of the original gracefully survive as part of the contemporary artist's assemblage, in much the same way as any tribal object might find itself contributing to a collector's domestic interior. That's how I saw Michael Johnson's presentation, which incorporates two small paintings by the artist with a ceremonial cloth from Sumatra and a floor sculptural grouping called Dani 'Jetalik' Set from West Papua.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the exhibition was how divergently, as revealed by their selections, the artists interpret the idea of influence - and how strongly a generation gap emerges. I'm not sure where the line falls (pre- and post-babyboom?), but a difference is clearly detectable between those drawn to 'Asia & Oceania' as 'primitive', loosening and liberating in an early modernist way (curator Nick Waterlow cites Paul Klee as a springboard for the show) and those who make Asia & Oceania Influence operate more self-consciously, generally through a postmodernist importation of colonial history and politics, to challenge identity and artistic practice. It's a difference between old and new style orientalism or exoticism. The older lot have vulnerabilities exposed in what they are doing; the younger lot protect themselves by a double awareness of the historical materialist underpinning and the sheer eclecticism or randomness of a borrowing for which a gesture of repayment is due.

Fiona MacDonald juxtaposes with a woven basket from Thursday Island her own ingenious 'woven cibachrome prints' that superimpose the first nine governors of the colony on an image of Colbee, a man of the local Eora people. The brightly patterned basket, made from plastic packing tape and bought from a government-subsidized indigenous craft outlet, carries the stories of trade, colonization and survival that the sophisticated photograph analyses more formally.

William Seeto also uses packing material - a flattened carton - in Eclipse 1995 to enact memories of the scarification of skin that are linked to the ritualization of manhood embodied in a stone mace head from the New Guinea highlands. The artist, born in Madang, presumably within the mercantile Chinese community, reconsiders his own position in relation to exchange and to skin through the delicately peeling surface of the corrugated brown cardboard, hung in the form of a memorial scroll.

Fiona Foley's three small Pearl Sheel Necklace paintings, paired with actual pearl shell necklaces from Fraser Island - part of the artist's country - illuminate a transference from the natural beauty of pearlshell, fashioned into an object of ritual adornment for the wearer, to the differently spirited beauty of the memory as it is depicted in the 'high art' form of contemporary acrylic on canvas.

Then there is the stunning dialogue between Tom Arthur's Circadean Dust Music 1994, an elongated skeleton of bronze, brass, wood, linen and thread, its skull diminutively framed, its stilt-like legs encircled by the golden hoop of an invisible ballgown, and the tiny bark Death of Yowg-Yowg Waterwoman, an exceptional X-ray image created by Gunwingu artist Bob Badjerai some forty years earlier. The influence here is breathtakingly disjunctive in terms of material, genre and context; each work inhabits its own world fully; yet from the highly considered connection a community of meaning appears. As Tom Arthur writes, two stories ask the same question: 'What is the life behind things?'

Every detail of the contemporary Australian artists and their work is named. In the case of the objects that have inspired them, most are unnamed, undated, only vaguely described. Where the named artists have found the means to acknowledge the unnamable in what has influenced them, one way or another, the borrowing is most resonant.