I attended the Daphne Mayo Art History lecture at the University of Queensland Art Museum on Thursday night. The visiting scholar who gave the lecture is Terry Smith, FAHA, CIHA the Andrew W Mellon Professor of Contemporary Art History and Theory in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture at the University of Pittsburgh, and a Visiting Professor in the Faculty of Architecture, University of Sydney. The title of his talk was ‘The History of Contemporary Art: Paradoxes and Antinomies’.
Prof Smith discussed the meaning of 'contemporary' and posed questions relating to what it means to be contemporary and contemporaneous. He touched upon time suggesting that being ‘of the time’ or ‘of the moment’ identified the space/place which might be called contemporary. Whilst placing his discussion on a broad frame of historical context and human existence he devoted his attention to exploring the question… What is contemporary art?
While he was talking I became more and more excited because I felt he was investigating and trying to explain the essence of how humanity now exists in the space created between and in the macro and micro [global and local] and that this space is the contemporary place. I believe he saw this as the space between the paradoxes and antimonies referred to in his title. I have written before about the simultaneity of perspective ie: global and local, macro and micro. I have also described distance, both spatial or temporal, as having the capability of being close or far. So, this space between the macro and micro need not be about a large distance, but rather a distance that expands and contracts from nano size to something more. I believe this ‘distance between’ is not about opposites or extremes, but more about negotiating that which may appear to be particular and anything which seems to diffuse particularity keeping in mind that 'particularity' depends on perspective. I also feel that if we mistake this distance between the macro and micro as being a space between two extant opposites we will miss discovering new trajectories and the resulting new spaces/distances. Negotiating life which is increasingly seen as both global and local is the dilemma of the contemporary.
In reference to my own work I have previously written about the multi perspective approach I employ to engage the viewer in an observation which has the potential to give the experience of simultaneously being in many places/perspectives at the one time. My work is intentionally ambiguous with regards to viewpoint ie: a viewer might feel they are above, below, inside, outside, in front or behind, close or far or a combination. I wonder if this experience might enable someone to understand that in this globalised world we need to be able to place ourselves in another’s or many others’ shoes in order to conduct business, diplomacy, politics, cultural exchange and so on…and also to view ourselves from a distance outside. This is where compassion for ourselves and others enters [I will talk about this more further on]. My multi perspective approach suggests that we have the capacity or perhaps the potential ability to learn to ‘see’ everything around us [like having eyes all over our bodies] giving us the ability to discover trajectories we may not otherwise be aware of.
The act of painting is about seeing with the eye ball and pupil but also seeing with the mind’s eye. As I [and other artists] move back and forth from our work examining them as close and far distance we make decisions based on what our seeing eye thinks looks good and what our mind’s eye wants to achieve in respect of meaning, message, essence and/or aura. The physical act of moving back and forth is a dance which exemplifies the processes of negotiating the space/distance between the macro and micro. The creative act, in a way, provides clues for how we can negotiate living in the contemporary space/distance. Like any dance there are moments of inclusion and exclusion…the push-me-pull-you of energy.
I have written before about finding a shared compassion with visitors to my exhibition in Abu Dhabi in 2005. My paintings were the catalysts for the most amazing conversations with people from all over the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe. I realised I had to suspend ownership over the completion of my work because each conversation brought another completion. I discovered that my use of multi perspectives and the trans-cultural/religious tree-of-life motif propelled conversations to deeper levels because time was not spent on explanation. People shared their hopes, dreams and in some cases despair with me and in the process we discovered we had new perspectives of each other collapsing barriers of difference which set us apart. By discovering points of similarity we discovered intimate spaces of shared compassion.
I think this potential capacity for shared compassion is the great hope of a globalised world perhaps providing clues to new pathways to peace. This compassion is not about sympathy which has an intrinsic inequality. Compassion to me is much more honourable, respectful, mutual and has the potential to be truly intimate. So, if living in the space/distance between the macro and micro/global and local is what being contemporary is about I believe compassion has an important part to play. I say this because once people develop skills of ‘seeing’ different perspectives compassion and understanding, albeit not necessarily agreement, will propel relationships and negotiations both globally and locally. The alternative is too horrible!
For me contemporary art is a reflective and affective agent for the qualities within the ‘space between’ where simultaneity, compassion and the sensational [as opposed to sensationalist] are evoked with simplicity [as opposed to simplistically]. Contemporary art is an exploration of a space which I am beginning to think might be where we rediscover the aura encompassing time and space ie: existence. Contemporary art can [but not necessarily] be an affective agent assisting people to understand and negotiate this ‘space between’. I don’t like to think art has a defined ‘role’ because it denotes predetermination or prescription. However, art certainly has an affective agency.
But back to the Daphne Mayo lecture. I came away feeling more sure that my work is truly contemporary. In this age of multi media/new media I [and other artists] sometimes feel that because we don’t employ these new mediums then our work is ‘old hat’… unless of course it is simplistically confrontational/sensationalist and gains immediate attention [that’s another story].
I believe my work can be described as truly contemporary because I am inspired to paint images that ‘speak’ about the co-existence of the macro and micro, that identify the existence of the space between the macro and micro and the possibility of new horizons which are not necessarily in front of us, collapsing linear/horizon line notions of perspective, engaging other cultures without appropriating them, revealing the simplicity within the complex and vice versa. By doing these things I have become more comfortable shimming through concepts of distance whether close or far. My solo exhibition in London in 2002 was actually called ‘Distance’. Whilst I know I had not fully thought about the various issues I have written about here I was interested in the fact that distance could be about time and space, could be far and close, and that I was an Australian exhibiting at a far distance from her home country. This latter more literal aspect, whilst a little banal, I now realise is important because the physical/felt experience has a way of entering the psyche. That’s why I deliberately create paintings with multi perspectives hoping that a viewer might have a physical/felt experience of what it is like to be in another or many other places.
In this global world we also see an incredible growth in the self/personal development services. These range from orthodox to alternative often invoking the ‘spiritual’ to assist in attracting clients or genuinely exploring its endless qualities. People are gaining new perspectives of themselves by delving into the possibilities of self/personal development. So whilst our world view becomes vast, and we can now book a holiday in space, we also feel compelled to ‘look into’ and examine ourselves because we want to understand ‘how to be’ in a world which can be scarily immense. This desire can be extrapolated to the burgeoning support/counselling services for the other micro components of the whole ie: family, business, corporate, government, national entities.
I have uploaded the above image for a few reasons. One is that it is a new work. Two…it is ‘seeing’ the interiority of vastness at the same time as witnessing the vastness. Three…it plays with perspective. I have called this painting ‘Viscera’ meaning that the internal life forces of the earth are revealed. Yet, ignoring the detail the sum total is a large landscape. Yet, is the viewer sure of where they stand in view of this vast landscape? Is the viewer in front of a land and sky scene or above a landscape of land and water or inside the internal workings? The landscape seems to be born from a tree…the tree-of-life with its branches becoming visceral and vascular reminding us that our bodies hold these same truths and energies. This is where the image can devolve into something more universal than a particular landscape. I like the fact that a viewer standing at a distance will ‘see’ a different landscape to the one they see when up close, yet it is the same landscape. You, the reader, can have a similar experience by clicking on the image to make it larger. Enticing the viewer to move back and forth from the painting replicates the moves I made when creating it. This dance with distance is an important component of my work.
Viscera Oil on linen 90 x 200 cm 2008