Paraculture

Cargo cult in New York
Tribeca Gallery, Artists Space, New York

Paraculture, an exhibition of eight Australian artists, shown at the Tribeca Gallery in New York earlier this year, is part of an exchange between Artists Space in New York and Art Space in Sydney. The American work will be shown here later this year. Paraculture presents an interesting forum in which to explore the issues of center/periphery, translation, contextuality and internationalism, those problems which haunt particularly shows that cross international and cultural boundaries. Thomas McEvilley recently referred to these issues in a reply to critiques of the international show Magiciens de la terre (Magicians of the Earth) held in Paris last year:

All the criticism of the show that I have seen fails to confront

the monumental fact that this was the first major exhibition

consciously to attempt to discover a postcolonialist

way to exhibit first and third world objects together ... The

question is this and this only: as we enter the global village

of the 90s, would any of us rather that the door remained

closed(?).1

While McEvilley's polemic obscures a number of important issues he does raise the central problem: how does one curate international shows in the light of the contemporary saturation of world power? The recent Paraculture exhibition is no less interesting than the Magiciens show from this standpoint.

Like 'Magicians', Paraculture is an attempt to exhibit work within the framework of polarizations set up by imperialism and colonization. Unlike Mr. McEvilley I do not think that the world is in a post colonial period; given the contemporary economic situation I would suggest rather that imperialism since World War Two has shifted from a reliance on political strategy to that which coerces primarily through economic power. Given this particular moment of imperialism, the pervasiveness of the issue of provincialism becomes understandable. That the issue is so acute is a result of the fact that the zones of imperial polarization are traversed all the time both within a particular city and when international shows are arranged.

According to Sally Couacaud:

Paraculture then addresses the myth of an Australian identity.

It refutes the possibility of an authentic identity, that of

the exotic, romantic Other, construed, constructed and constricted

by geo-political mapping. Instead as the prefix

'para' indicates, Paraculture proposes a complexity of cultures, positions

and visions, operating coextensively but

also transient and in a state of continual transmission. 2

In an interview Sally indicated that her decision to address rather than ignore the provincialism issue was based on an understanding that, within the international arena, the issue would always remain an agenda whatever the overt theme of the show.

Various works within the show suggest a number of possible readings which would contribute to a deconstruction of the issue of an Australian national identity. Some certainly attempt to reposition complex issues of race, gender, colonialism and identity within the Australian context. Gordon Bennett's parodic Triptych-Requiem of Grandeur, Empire 1989 shows Truganini looming over a stark landscape. This work quickly summons up references to the European art historical traditions in which Australian landscape painting of the last 200 years has been moulded. In The Wear and Tear of Life in the Cash Nexus Narelle Jubelin uses irony and parody in her references to Australia's colonial power in Papua New Guinea, literally reweaving the juncture of colonialism, capitalism and art.

Fiona Foley and Tim Johnson, from very different standpoints, try to remake references to place, landscape and history. Fiona Foley does this by a quiet, direct rendering of images, signs which have become familiar icons of Aboriginaltty, appropriated in the packaging of Australian identity for a vast consumer complex. Tim Johnson, in contrast, approaches the landscape by an illumination technique. His yellow painting Microphone has references to Papunya painting tradition as well as to Impressionism. Scattered through the yellow ground of the painting are small kitsch-like American Indian images. These references summon up frontier landscapes, which cross international boundaries.

Much of the work in the show circulates around the issues of communication across time and place, questioning our ability to 'read' art works. Lindy Lee in Increase and Intercession traces the issue of obscurity and light in the European art tradition via a 'photography' technique which sequentially obscures the image. Janet Burchill's installation addresses the contextuality of interpretation and questions our ability to penetrate art works. The title of her work, Pulsion (Cargo Cult version), directly encodes the problematics of the Paraculture show. Cargo cult is a term often used to characterize Melanesian millenarian movements. Such movements are responses to colonial incursion and have been documented throughout Melanesia since the late 19th Century. Cargo cult activities involve the pastiche and collage of European and indigenous goods and ideas in ritualized activities which attempt to understand and control European modalities of power. Cargo cults are dynamic, creative, somewhat chaotic and have fragile systems of shared communication. They often disappear under state assault only to reappear again a few years later. Cargo cults are, in fact, an apt metaphor for some of the problems of translation and contextuality inscribed by the Paraculture show, which faced those same problems of communication and obscurity, translation and miscommunication, which characterize cargo activities.

Reading the works in the Paraculture show is somewhat reminiscent of Melanesian attempts to read European society/culture from the fragmented imports, which were available to them. Miscommunication is as likely under such circumstances as effective communication. Thus far I have suggested a number of possible readings of individual works within the show. Another reading might be that suggested by McEvilley in response to Magiciens de la terre:

The Magiciens show hoped to be able to acknowledge that

value judgments are not innate or universal but conditioned

by social context, and hence they only really fit works

emerging from the same context .... When one walked

through Magicians instead of automatically thinking, this is

good or this is bad, one might be provoked to attend to the

limitations of one's ideas of good and bad—to confront the

fact that often one was looking at objects for which one had

no criteria except some taken from a different and possibly

irrelevant area ... 3

Such a response is potentially exciting but it does not exhaust the issue of reading the works. I sympathize with the curatorial problems of how to exhibit work internationally. The issue of translation however, needs to be addressed, not in some arena of artistic internationalism but specifically in the context of the white walls of a Tribeca art gallery in mid-winter in New York, 1990. It is here, in this specific context, that the show risked reinforcing the identity, which it was intended to disrupt.

The intent of the show becomes the first problem of translation. Given the mid-winter 1990 mood of New York, sombre and apocalyptic, absorbed in a contemplation of death, disease and poverty in a capital of excess, given the breath-taking ignorance about Australia, interrupted by Paul Hogan's 'G'day' in the TV ads, the very aim of the show, to unravel national identity, emerged as a rather quaint and provincial concern. The imagery used in some of the work, particularly the American Indian images in the work of Tim Johnson, as well as the landscapes of Gordon Bennett, tended to accentuate the differences between New York and Australia. In highlighting that difference those mythologies of Australia as a big frontier landscape were reinforced.

Translation was rendered doubly problematic in the absence of contextual information, which the catalogue might have, but did not provide. For example one translation problem of the show was that so few works of each artist were shown. The catalogue could have enlarged the number of work available. The way in which history, time, landscape, gender, race and colonization have been reworked by each could have been more amply explored. Instead the catalogue gave us three erudite essays, all of which addressed contemporary Australian cultural issues. Only the first however, by Keith Broadfoot and Rex Butler, dealt with the works, or the artists, in the show. This gap rendered the show less articulate than it might have been.

Terry Smith, in a recent article, critiqued the Magiciens de la terre show:

we should not surrender a structured analysis of ... patterns

of power just because they are becoming increasingly complex:

if we do, we collapse into a pluralistic blancmange,

which will feel wonderful ... but will be incapable of dealing

with the inequality of cultural power distributed through centres

which are always taking form and always

shifting ... Magiciens ... again seems to want to divide off individual

inspiration and specific place from the global power

system. What about a global show around how the overall

system works?4

I can only second his opinion with regard to the Paraculture exhibition. While the show may have been intended to displace any notion of a fixed Australian identity, in the absence of more contextual information about the struggles against such an identity. Paraculture tended to reinscribe some of the very problems it was intended to displace.

notes: 

1. McEvilley, Thomas: "Marginalia", Art Forum, March 1990, p.21

2. Couacaud, Sally: "Paraculture", in Paraculture, Artspace, Sydney, 1990. p.5

3. McEvilley Thomas: op cit, p.21

4. Smith, Terry: "Provincialism Refigured", Australian and lntemational Art Monthly, No. 13, Aug. 1988, p.5