Earlier this year, work travel sent me all the way down under to Sydney. So of course, apart from admiring the local scenery I also took the chance to check out some art.
Lucky for me, my dates coincided with the launch of a new biennale The National, focusing on new Australian art. And wandering around my hotel neighbourhood brought me to the door of acclaimed artist Brett Whiteley’s studio.
Short as my stay was, the art I saw left me with a deep impression of the connection between artists and the land, a connection that influences their style, their choice of subject matter and their very soul.
The Indigenous Australian experience is a critical part of the nation’s history and psyche. When they were forced off their land, they didn’t just lose their rights - they lost their identity.
Traditional Indigenous art often used maps as a way to capture meaningful places, events, people and the relationships between them. Tiger Yaltangki builds on this tradition to celebrate his personal heroes, including characters from Doctor Who and Star Wars. They appear alongside mythical ‘mamu’ spirits, perfectly at home and in harmony, a seamless melding of pop culture and tradition in Yaltangki’s personal mythology. It’s no accident that Yaltangki names many of his works ‘Malpa Wiru’ – ‘good friends’.
Gunybi Ganambarr creates carvings based on sacred clan designs, recreating them through different materials to express different meanings. His work ‘Bukyu’ incorporates designs associated with waters around the Gangan region onto memorial poles called ‘larrakitj’, transporting memories of the Country to the urban museum. Next to it, his work ‘Gapu’ presents a stark contrast. Clan designs are in this instance transposed onto a rubber conveyer belt, referencing the very belts of the bauxite mines in the 1960s that transported the land’s resources away from the region.
But this close relationship with nature is not limited to Indigenous artists. A land of deep oceans, lush forest as well as huge expanses of desert, the natural landscape of Australia exerts a palpable influence in many artists’ work, inspiring them and even offering healing.
Over years of work, the artist Nell has developed a visual language of her own. Recurring symbols from the natural world include the egg, the tree, and the lightning bolt, revealing the respect that the artist, a Buddhist, has for life. Nell also reveres AC/DC, so the lightning bolt also doubles as a sign of her love for rock and roll. In her work ‘Mother of the Dry Tree’, she recreates the 15th century work ‘Virgin of the Dry Tree’, but where the original’s letter A’s stood for Ave Maria, ‘A’s in her piece are in the font of AC/DC, signifying the spiritual significance that music represents to her. In ‘With things being as they are…’, created after she suffered a miscarriage, the egg motif can be read to symbolize life and hope, as well as the child she lost. Nell’s work treads a delicate balance between solemnity and humour, darkness and light, silence and rock and roll.
Over Brett Whiteley’s long and prolific career, ‘Alchemy’ is probably one of his most iconic works, and it was this piece that I had the chance to see at his studio, now a beautifully intimate exhibition space dedicated to him.
Two metres in height and sixteen metres in length, ‘Alchemy’ dominates the entire space, yet its intricate details incorporating a diverse range of surprising materials like a bird’s nest, a glass eye, and even a human brain invite scrutiny up close.
For Whiteley, alchemy meant art’s potential to transmute human experiences into meaning. Starting from the right of the painting, we see a journey from birth to death, encompassing desire and torturous doubt, across the Australian landscape from the cool waters of the Pacific to the fields of Whiteley’s childhood, reaching the mesmerizing heat of the sun, and finally leaving nothing but the abstraction of golden shadows and white light.
In the midst of this masterful piece rich in detail and stories, two giant letters stand, austere and imposing – ‘IT’. In its stark severity, this word exerts a power, a symbol of the inexpressible complexity of life and art.