This tribute is to a long friendship of forty years. A tribute to an artist and intellectual. His art and scholarship embodied the contemporary from the late 1960s until his recent death. His was a rich life lived through the kind of libretto I like to call societal obligato.
Friends of Nigel Lendon have written he ‘was always generous with me and others’; and that ‘there was a wonderful scale and breadth to his achievements’ and ‘he brought people together without ever compromising his beliefs and his sense of what was right’. The painter David Malangi’s family in Ramingining paid their respects too. They wrote a note to the Lendon family. His daughter May Yamangarra said, ‘when my father passed away, he came here for the funeral, he made a plaque for his headstone and he spent time here, with us … he camped here with us.’
Nigel Lendon was known to many as a teacher and a mentor. From 1977 he taught art history and theory at the newly formed Sydney College of the Arts during the highly experimental and cross-disciplinary phase of the school. In 1988, Nigel co-wrote with Ann Stephen, Ian Burn and Charles Merewether “The Necessity of Australian Art: an essay about interpretation.” In ways this book stood as a counterpoint to the onslaught of imported art theory that swamped our regional art discourse during the 1980s and ‘90s. What they proposed was a method of examining ways of understanding objects. That is, how we see the fundamentals of provincial and regional values and traditions in an Australian art industry and how cultural value is constituted in terms of meaning. They argued cultural production or resistance demands interpretation within the wider context of historical relations. They attempted to map out the contradiction of centre and peripheral (countries), in terms of the national and international. Their task was to evolve a coherent framework for Australian art.
Here in my room are numerous pieces written by Nigel. Most recently published is a selection catalogue notes called I weave what I have seen: The War Rugs of Afghanistan exhibited at the ANU Drill Hall Gallery in 2021. The exhibition title forms an echo, and accordingly, the art historian Lendon records what he sees: the objects are woven rugs.
Prophetic perhaps. Seen through the terrible violations of war this art historical reading is now part of the record of this critical history. The carpet is an evocative medium to focus contemporary manifestations of an earlier craft that is both regional (tribal) and customary in process. The war rug depicts a literature of that time and place. It is a surface woven with inscriptions and the graphic symbols of war. They are pictorial objects that tell the stories that depict history. However here lies a key to Lendon’s paradox which as Tim Bonyhady describes it, ‘the embrace of tradition is vital to Nigel’s argument that, rather than being a form of modernity which results from contact with the Western, they are “Afghanistan’s indigenous modernism”’.
In late June he had the idea, maybe fanciful, that the rug makers’ ability to innovate provided some counter to the horrors surrounding them. This proposal refers to something formulated in ‘an Imaginary Conversation’, where Nigel directs the question to the weavers:
In your workshop, these borders have evolved into the most fantastically elaborate decorative pictures, and the woman that make them seem to forget the ‘dark modernity’ of their origins and the hideous consequences of the invasion into their lives. Perhaps their freedom to innovate is a way for them to negate the circumstances of the armaments, and the bright decorative patterns affirm the possibility of a life beyond war and conflict.
He’s referring to the ‘conflict carpets’ depicting maps and place names where the iconography of war can be seen restricted to the borders showing tanks, armaments, helicopters and jet planes.
On another shelf I keep a grainy photostat copy of the Art and Language publication Fox No.3. Here you will find an early and amusing Lendon ‘philosophical proposition’. This appears in a text titled “Has your license expired?” It alerts readers that making art now is professionalised and institutionalised to an historically unique degree. In his refrain he states, ‘Artist’s work, “creative” work, “intellectual” work: why do we accept making art as more ‘naturally’ work than we do say, play, or speculation?’. A much younger reflective Nigel considers the many possibilities of his own varied investigations in the proceeding forty years. An approach that when mapped out eventually will be understood as being cyclical in its tendency and — a playful way of speculative thinking.
In 2004, his classic essay on interpretation, “Innovation and its meaning” appeared. It was published on the occasion of the David Malangi survey exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia. With this piece Nigel puts forward an alternative regional art historical framework by recording what he sees within Malangi’s bark paintings. Part of his impressive assertion relies on reading cultural specificity. He analyses how images perform transmission. A ritual performance within an image. As an example, he interprets how the painter’s body is painted within the painting and functions there as the informer to the knowledgeable viewer. It is a position that can only be achieved through an inside knowledge gained in ritual through having been painted oneself. This is a culturally distinctive form that increasingly empowers the (cosmological) authority of the painter. Nigel remarks that the ‘the representations of representations’, and the ambiguity of pictorial forms are intrinsic to social interaction in Yolngu society, ‘whereby secrecy and the restriction of knowledge are defended through obscurity and ellipsis in all forms of discourse, including the visual.’
The scale and breadth of Nigel’s interests are woven in a network of crossovers. One of his enduring interests spun around the works of Duchamp and The Large Glass. Like the bark paintings of Malangi, Nigel seemed quite willing to form integral and collaborative relationships with elements of this epic piece and that of the ‘ready-made’ more generally. In this way, collaboration becomes yet another kind of history-reading game. In a plastic sense this sort of integrated discourse forms another part of his playful speculations. This was one part of our conversations that would become manifest, fabricated as sculptures or reinvented as objects of his own. Like conical shapes that represent the Bachelors, there are other forms, colours, tones and the serial nature of things that are adopted from his inner filmic memory. We text each other about a piece like Alain Resnais’s L'Année dernière à Marienbad, a film he very much admired. This drama partly staged around a fantastic geometric garden, allowed him to make readings across and into the gaseous space of film. This photographic medium allowed him to interpret other contemporary artists and contemporary visual systems. His approach was not limited by conventional art history but was enhanced by knowing such a history (was conceptual) and didn’t need the dominate framework of modernist culture alone to exist.
Again in the early 1990s our paths would cross more frequently. It was through our friendship with visual anthropologist Roslyn Poignant that Nigel and I would renew our common ground. In that period Nigel was researching the historic exhibition The Painters of the Wagilag Sister Story, 1937-1997 at the National Gallery of Australia. At times Nigel would undertake prolonged field work in Arnhem Land, and Roslyn would house-sit, while at the National Library of Australia researching photographer Axel Poignant's 1952 expedition to the Liverpool River in Central Arnhem Land. The resulting book Encounter at Nagalarramba, (1996) is a remarkable documentary photographic narrative. It records the social life and customs, the Indigenous knowledge systems, trade and exchange ceremony, the material culture, the music and ceremonial dance of the Kunibἰdji clans. That visually rich book most effectively maps a kinship system, and is a multi-dimensional study of cultural heritage-repatriation. I mention these concurrent research projects because it provides an example of what Lendon’s contemporary, artist Richard Dunn observed more broadly about Nigel that, ‘Everything is a response to relationships, connections, collaborations that explain something about how we can engage with others through intermediaries, including the natural world.’
My own rather unorthodox research at this time focused on the translation work of Carl and Ted Strehlow in Central Australia, and the American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land in 1948 especially Charles Mountford’s records of Yirrkala bark painting. And because Nigel and the University consistently supported Roslyn during her research trips to Australia, these were convivial meetings and constructive points of contact. Our connections began to form a sort of familial structure or woven tapestry. It was about friendship, that allowed an informal discourse through our different fields of interest. This became a considerable intellectual asset, one that Nigel valued very much. When the Wagilag Sister exhibition opened at the NGA, I witnessed what felt like an altogether other way of seeing Australian art.
As his student in 1981, Nigel had enthused us with knowledge of nineteenth century Australian photography and painting. He talked about how ‘the ideological nature of a painting or a photograph could be approached by considering one form in relation to the other.’ In this way he was acknowledging the contexts of use and the traditions each object can be located within. For me his method of critical art historical reading seemed more complex and specific when applied to the culture of the Yolngu. He was observing that the role of painting was the rendition of a particular narrative through the reiteration of origins, of place, of ownership, authority, and identity, which also functioned to activate secular and sacred belief systems. The exhibition was an epic that connected the pictorial accounts of a creation narrative or myth related to four generations of Arnhem Land painters. It was an exhibition that concentrated on ‘paintings which depict the Narrative of the Wagilag Sisters and their encounters with Wititj, the olive python, in the wangarr, the ancestral past.’ I remember the post-Wagilag time through the 2000s when I seemed to ask Nigel all the wrong questions regarding bark painting and Yolngu culture. He was ever patient with me.
In more recent years, as Nigel returned to the studio, we were frequently in contact. His house in Canberra was crammed with a superb collection of eccentric and diverse things that included plastic modern vessels, piles of pictorial war rugs from Afghanistan, bark paintings and the works of ‘outsider artists’, photographs, pottery, even historic plastic SLR cameras, and the occasional piece by Lendon himself. Some were historic, relics from The Field exhibition of 1968 (NGV) at various stages of disrepair. In his ‘curated house’ curious red, white, and black painted timber sculptures began to appear. These objects formed the genesis of his fifteen year-long late period. At first, he appeared unsettled as he worked his way out of a sense of stasis. He confessed to me once that he thought his long artistic silence (like Duchamp maybe?) could have been handled differently. Play on.
In 2015 his exhibition Modelling the Now opened at the ANU Drill Hall Gallery. This survey that I’d witnessed forming in his Mitchell studio made a remarkable impression once ‘the things’ were inserted into the white cube gallery space. Their transformation was an incredible articulation: assembled together, the objects performed a consistent thought line. Conceptualised as models of his memories of discovering Russian constructivist art in the mid-1960s that opened the doors to his forays into conceptual art and his work with Art & Language. Modelling the Now was a means of re-establishing his practice by building a temporal continuity with the past, a history making.
Let us give the last words to Nigel. In these fragments referring to his ideas about relational agency he talks about very recent collaborations with artists Emme Beer and Lucina Lane:
To propose the idea of relational agency—suggesting multiple participants in the creative process —enables a participant viewer to speculate about the social relations of production, whether or not one knows the finer details of how that has come about.
One can see how with collaborative art processes, the viewer is drawn into a web of relationships, whereby imagining the social relations of the creation of a work is analogous to interrogating the creative dimension of the viewer’s own processes of aesthetic appreciation
The multidimensionality of collaborative art derives also from its surrealist antecedents in the game of exquisite corpse, whereby discontinuity is valued more highly than coherence, and the participants accept indeterminacy as a ground rule for their interaction.
Ruark Lewis is an artist and writer based in Sydney.
Ruark Lewis is a Sydney based artist and writer.