raft

Ruark Lewis & Paul Carter
Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane

In AD 62, St Paul, making a journey from Cesarea to Rome became shipwrecked in Malta. He writes, "And the barbarous people shewed us no little kindness: for they kindled a fire, and receiving us everyone, because of the present rain and because of the cold" (Acts 28 New Testament King James Bible). Almost 2000 years later in 1919 Sigmund Freud wrote Totem and Taboo: resemblances between psychic lives of savages and neurotics. He drew on the research of the anthropologists Spencer and Gillen, working around Hermannsburg Mission (west of Alice Springs). This 'research' was carried out by observing ceremonial rituals and through informants giving accounts in pigeon English. Around the same period, the Dadaist Huge Ball, in a Café Voltaire performance, incorporated, among other languages, Aranda, one of the Aboriginal languages spoken in Hermannsburg. Hermannsburg Mission was directed at the time by a German Lutheran Pastor named Carl Strehlow. Versed in New Testament Greek, Latin, and dialects of the Lutheran and King James Bibles, Strehlow had undertaken to translate the same in Dieri and Aranda. In 1922, however, he became critically ill. A 'van' or raft was constructed so that he might be carried some 200 km overland in search of medical attention. Strehlow never arrived at his destination. He died at Horseshoe Bend before reaching the Alice Springs railroad.

In 1962, Maurice Merleau- Ponty wrote, Phenomenology of Perception. In this book he argues that perception is preconditioned—that the body, having a front and a back, sets up a kind of internal horizon in the subject. He calls this "pre-objective experience" and writes, "...the system of experience is not arrayed before me as if I were God, it is lived by me from a certain point of view which makes possible both the finiteness of my perception and its opening out upon the complete world as a horizon of every perception" (Merleau Ponty, 1962, 304).

At the age of 18, (1978) Ruark Lewis broke his back. He was run down by a cattle truck whilst riding a motor scooter somewhere outside Byron Bay. Strapped to a stretcher he was transported to Princess Alexander Hospital, Brisbane, where he lay paralysed for three months. As a consequence he was forced to learn to do everything again-as though returning to infancy, he re-experienced the limits of his body.

At 24 (1984) Lewis experienced another 'beginning'. He found a watercolour by aboriginal artist Benjamin Landara in a garbage bin. Landara was one of the Arunta watercolourists from Hermannsburg. Lamenting the lack of meaning in abstract art, Lewis threw out his Juan Davila copies and all of his own work and 'started again'. The Landara was so haunting for Lewis, not because of its content but because the typical European landscape appeared to veil another structure. (What he didn't know then was that a unique tradition of painting had existed prior to Rex Battarbee's visit to Hermannsburg and that it would eventually become associated with the Papunya Tula painters.)

In 1985, Lewis travelled to Spain. During this time, the Spanish government was attempting to standardise road signs-changing them all into the national Spanish language. The Catalans, in protest, had begun rewriting over the signs with spray paint in their own dialect with the result that the signs could no longer be read. For Lewis, the tourist, maps ceased to be useful—place ceased to exist. After his return, Lewis began what are known as his transcription drawings. In these drawings various forms of representation are transcribe into other forms. Meaning is often disguised by criss-crossing the surface- by veiling something beneath. With many of these images it is tempting to focus behind the surface in the hope of conjuring up a recognisable word or image. In the same year—1988, Paul Carter published The Road to Botany Bay. In this work Carter describes the grid as a tool of colonisation. The grid not only allowed space to be occupied quickly but also installed the familiar. He writes, "However much its geometrical principals represented the Enlightenment's project to neutralise locality, to universalize the principles of experience, in practice the grid merely channelled the intentional gaze, giving it the confidence it could be 'wherever there is something to be done'" (Carter, 1988, 219).

The grid has of course been a major feature of much recent art, especially Minimalism. In 1990, Rosalind Krauss wrote, "The Cultural logic of the late Capitalist Museum". In this article Krauss argues that Minimalism not only transformed space into the art object but restructured the notion of the viewing subject. The Minimalist subject, "is a subject radically contingent on the conditions of the spatial field, a subject who coheres, but only provisionally and moment-by-moment, in the act of perception." Despite Minimalism's use of industrial methods and materials and its participation in the culture of commodity production, (and Krauss sees this as a contradiction) the movement was committed to Merleau Ponty's notion of 'lived bodily perspective'. "Its insistence on the immediacy of the experience, understood as a bodily immediacy was intended as a kind of release from the forward march of modernist painting towards an increasingly positivist abstraction". (Krauss, 9). She also argues that the modern museum is modelled on minimalism and refers to an interview with Tom Kren—brainchild of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. "it is Minimalism, Kren says ... that has reshaped the way we, as late twentieth-century viewers, look at art; the demands we now put on it; our need to experience it along with its interaction with the space in which it exists; our need to have more and at a larger scale". (Krauss, 7).

In 1994, Carter, journeyed to Horseshoe bend. He recorded his own footsteps as he walked along the Finke River bed whilst reading extracts from the Journey to Horseshoe Bend written by Carl Strehlow's son. In this prose poem Ted Strehlow commemorates his father's life and death and draws a parallel to the life of SI Paul.

In 1995 Lewis and Carter collaborated on an installation called Raft. They incorporated, among other languages, Aranda and Dieri. It was first exhibited at the Gallery of New South Wales in April and Lewis imagined that Raft might then make a journey to the pristine Gallery 14 of the Queensland Art Gallery. Raft however ran aground at the Institute of Modern Art. This divergence was fortuitous-the IMA in its busy urban context, proved to be an ideal place for Raft. Like some 'drive through' gallery the IMA allows, unlike most exhibition spaces, ambient sound and light 1nto the interior. People passing by, large trucks blocking the light and the sounds of a Jackie Chen movie being filmed became part of the installation.

Raft consists of three components; a silk drape, a forty-three minute soundtrack of walking through the Finke River and readings from Journey to Horseshoe Bend (In English and German) and from the hexaglot text prepared for Raft (by Carter) and thirdly, a floor piece made up of twenty-eight wooden pallets, each measuring 1.2 metres squared with a graphite text inscribed in six languages. The text describes SI Paul 's journey to Rome and the six languages are those which were known by Carl Strehlow. A grid is present in the layout of the modular palettes, the size of each palette being that of a standard packing case. This allows Raft to be 'shipped' easily around the country. The dimensions are also governed by the limits of Lewis' body.

While Raft appears to embrace the minimalist project of accommodating the body and of occupying and objectifying space (in this case in both a visual and auditory sense) the inscriptions and recordings locate the piece within an historical narrative. Meaning is withheld, on this occasion, not by criss-crossing the surface (although the graphite may smudge over time), but by hiding the text literally in the surface of the page. The surface is porous, allowing light to pour through. Like a history which acknowledges its performative and structural nature, the vast timber page confesses its materiality and casts a shadow on the floor. The drape which alludes to the theatricality of the space places the spectator/reader/writer on stage as a participant in the performance.