artists talk
Tin Sheds, Sydney
27 April - 19 May 2001

At the symposium accompanying the exhibition Papunya Tula Genesis and Genius, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2000,1 anthropologist Vivien Johnson concluded her presentation by quoting its title, without the story the painting is nothing. At the time I understood that title to be emphasising the context of the production of artwork in the interpretation of its meaning. This emphasis seemed to contrast with the current emphasis in Western contemporary art on viewer-centred interpretation. I was reminded of her comment while listening to the artists' talks at the Tin Sheds exhibition, Drawing. The talks were given every Saturday the show was open, and they, too, emphasised the contexts and the processes through which the drawings were produced. They made no attempt to interpret overtly for the viewer, but the experience of the exhibition was richer for them.

Included in the exhibition were five gravepost drawings on paper by the Tiwi artists, Tara Munkanome and Carmel Kantilla. In the absence of the artists, Marie McMahon, who had worked with them, spoke about their work. They used jilamara or 'design-design', a Tiwi term used to mean the process of marking as well as the design it produces. it is derived from the traditional Tiwi practice of covering any surface to signify its inclusion or incorporation into Tiwi culture. lt was traditionally used to cover a grave post and human body, and now is also used to cover a building, car, aeroplane, etcetera. McMahon described these designs as abstract, a type of camouflage, made by the artists in a deliberate and analytical way. The drawings shown are vertical, life-sized representations of grave posts, also known as pukumani poles or tutini in traditional Tiwi. Jilamara fills in the outline of the poles, suggesting their curved shape and cut-out holes, giving them a powerful presence in the space. The strength of the red and black designs on vertical white paper, and their scale and location along the wall at two different levels just above the floor, enabled an interplay of to be established between wall and drawings. McMahon had brought the drawings to Sydney, after having spent time with Tara Munkanome and Carmel Kantilla at Bathurst Island last year, and it was she who positioned them in the gallery space. In her decision to acknowledge the form of the gallery architecture in placing the drawings, McMahon extended them into installation. This spatial placement enabled the drawings to be incorporated into the walls, and-though perhaps not intended by the artists- the jilamara enabled the drawings to incorporate a piece of the Tin Sheds architecture into Tiwi culture.

As part of the talks, Sue Pedley spoke of the drawings she produced on a recent Asialink residency in Sri Lanka. She outlined how she used drawing to link her to the place and people of Lunuganga, south of Colombo, where she spent most of her four months of the residency, knowing little of the language but engaging with people in various ways, including by exchanging and sharing drawing. She spoke about drawing as an activity, which nurtured a feeling of contact and relationship, instead of the foreignness, and disconnection which are so frequently felt at the beginning of these residencies. The drawings she made reflected the surrounding gardens and architecture, overlaid and repeated to fill in, extend and record time. Eight of these drawings on paper were shown: some use the lotus flower, which the cook frequently brought her as a hello gift in the mornings; others are patterns from nearby ancient temple walls, ceilings and ponds. Another was made directly on the wall with turmeric, from the projection of a drawing Pedley made jointly with the gardener's child , so that the illusion of a garden in Sri Lanka merged with the real bricks of the Tin Sheds' wall wherever the turmeric changed from line to smudge. Where these changes occurred in the drawing, there was an enigma of distance-the material presence of the bricks were here with us, but located alongside the represented image standing in for elsewhere.

Toni Warburton introduced the relationship between drawing and object by showing the handmade books, concertina temple-visiting books and fold-out map-books, she had collected in India and Japan. The six drawings shown in the exhibition are the products of the making of earlier objects and installations. Five muslin concertina books were hung open down a wall. These were made from 'try-outs'-preliminary mock-ups of Warburton's Catchment installation at Mori Gallery earlier this year.2 In that installation, cast and blown glass beakers positioned down and across a wall questioned and confused scale and the position of the viewer. The drawings shown at the Tin Sheds refer to an earlier stage of this spatial thinking. The beakers are represented by paper cut-outs, the shape seen flat from different angles, as in observational drawing where the drawer moves around and draws something from different positions. The merge between material presence and represented image could be seen, for example, in the use of the water-marked insides of envelopes to represent different views of these beakers/containers for water. Other images included calculations for making a pattern for a three-dimensional beaker, and, on the wall behind, the circular beaker-pattern itself on square muslin held up by fold-out map covers. This pattern could be cut out and folded into eight three-dimensional beaker forms. On the next wall , a blank canvas version of this form sat on a votive shelf, a proto-type, in blank craftwood, of the shelves later used in Catchment.

Marie McMahon's collages and drawings derive from both books and landscapes, in the case of the latter, especially of the area around Coogee where she now lives. Most involve book-endpapers and chads, the waste from hole punching. The cutting process developed from working with overlaying paper cutouts-mimicking the way she had seen cutouts used in Vietnam as curtains. Punching holes in paper to lay over other images produced chads in the process, which then became material for more drawing. McMahon used this process to experiment with representing ways of understanding coastal headlands, rock strata and middens, as well as historical records of human occupation found in libraries and museums, the middens of the West, as she described them. An earlier European name for Coogee, 'Bobroi', was stepped down an endpaper in chads, like the sandstone steps still going down to the beach at Coogee. Images were punched out revealing partial images behind, and the punched out chads were layered on top, giving the illusion of light showing through coral endpapers from behind. Cameos are traditionally profiles carved in white shell to reveal a pink underlayer; here they were mimicked in reverse showing Arcimboldo-esque nineteenth century profiles in chads, alongside profile cut-outs from prints of cabinets of curiosity, circled in decorative chad and cut-out windswept foliage, layered over the top of a double endpaper of waves, out of which I then expected to see Venus being born.

The talks showed the ease with which the artists moved between maker and receiver, artist and viewer, in the practice of art making. They contrasted with the way the convention of the public gallery wall attempts to delete the particularity of the processes producing the work and excludes viewers' access to the ordinariness and materiality of making and doing. These processes reveal another way of understanding what is produced from that implied by the isolated presence of things on walls, vehicles for apparently free-floating individuals' speculation and imagination. The walls facilitate 'the gaze' and the work's integration into the public realm, at the expense of this more intimate and particular form of knowledge of the work. Artists may sometimes deliberately use this disconnection between the work and its making. However, in this case, the talks created a link between the works exhibited and the functions the making of these drawings had in the lives of the five artists. They enabled Drawing to be understood as an event in which the gallery context for the drawings was used in the conventional way, but was also given further context.


1. Papunya Tula Genesis and Genius Symposium, AGNSW, 19 August 2000.

2. Catchmenc a field of beakers for St Hedwick of Silesia and Wingecarnbee Swamp, Mori Gallery, January 2001.