Because the Australian art rooms were sequenced chronologically, we could easily see the development of styles through the decades. The earliest works in the gallery, painted by the first European settlers, were clearly stylized to recall the light, vegetation, and bucolic subjects of merry old England. In some cases, artists actually sought out the inspiration of particular valleys and scenes that were most reminiscent of the old country. As time progressed, artists began to capture the peculiarities of Australian light, vegetation, and coloring with more skill. For example, eucalyptus trees began to be painted with all their gnarls and peeling bark, rather than smooth and gracefully curving as previous artists had depicted them. Previously lush greens were tempered to the appropriate shades. There was still a throwback to European landscapes and sentiments in many of the paintings, but Geoff pointed out that by this time the settlers had physically and substantially shaped the continent, so the paintings probably were reporting what it was like on the ground. A field of grazing sheep with a cottage in the background was very much an Australian reality by the late 19th century.
Many of Australia's most recognized paintings were born of "the nationalistic sentiment that developed during the late 19th century." Works like Shearing the Rams reflected "the emergence of a national identity defined through heroic rural activity." We saw rooms of paintings depicting the kind of wholesome, hearty farm scene you're likely to find on cookie tins and dish towels.
The Aboriginal art we saw in the exhibit Living Water demonstrated a very different spatial and symbolical understanding from the European-Australian art. The compositions we saw blazed with energy, each telling a story embedded within a landscape that was simultaneously human and non-human. In one painting entirely constructed with tiny dots (the footsteps of the ancestors), it was possible to see the realistically irregular juxtaposition of geographic features and their attendant colors and symbols as part and parcel of an important story involving humans and their ancestors. In these paintings story lines often travel out to the frame, leaving the viewer with the sense of a wider world beyond the edges of the canvas.
One really interesting piece by Kalaju Alma Webou was a representation of the artist's two homes-- the inland desert where she was born and raised and her current home on the coast. Red, orange, and turquoise swirled together on the canvas, but in geographic reality they never touch. She seemed to be telling her story embedded in the landscapes that mix in her own mind, which I thought was a very clever departure from the traditional storytelling/art that I have seen to be dependent on connected geographic regions. Her spatial presentation of individual identity was especially interesting to me given what I've heard about the lack of individual focus in Aboriginal culture.
At the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, I saw another fascinating chronological display of how motion picture has developed, a 5-screen film installation and commentary on the myth of the founding of America, and an exhibit studying movement from a number of mind-blowing perspectives. For example, in one room, several screens were attached to the ceiling and visitors were invited to lie down on large cushioned lounges to view them. Each screen presented a birds-eye view of a person doing something in slow motion—capoeira, bike tricks, pole dancing, tai chi-- around a central pivoting point. It gave me the strangest feeling lying there looking up while looking down and reminded me of something a classmate said when I studied abroad in Thailand a few years ago. After completing our first reef study off the coast of Koh Mook, he said, “you get tired of looking down on the world all the time. It's nice to look up...to the bottom.” I got the same unsettling but exciting feeling of physically shifting perspective from this installation. I love how two completely different experiences in two different parts of the world can feel so linked.
Geoff, his girlfriend Steph, and me drinking cocktails and having a secret conversation about superpowers that I'm not at liberty to discuss: