The new Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane begins with a break. The old Queensland Art Gallery now holds all of the work made before 1970. GoMA holds all of the work made after 1970. But the split between them might as well be that between the 20th and 21st centuries. Perhaps in time we will even come to see that the 21st century in art began in 1970. And, as a result of choosing 1970 as the dividing line between the two galleries, the whole of GoMA becomes an example of what we might call 21st century art. This is the truly interesting thing about the new Gallery: that it absolutely grasps (whether consciously or not) all of the consequences of what happened in 1970. One of which would be the fact that in the 21st century we will no longer have an art history, or indeed—and this is already to be seen in GoMA—really even an art. What then could be the status and meaning of a gallery of modern art in the 21st century? This is the question the new GoMA does not so much pose for us—for the new art and museology are not finally interrogative or critical in this way—as embody. The answer thus remains an enigma, a puzzle, a secret, buried deep within the building, counter-intuitively, for all of the openness and light of the new Gallery, like the mysterious black monolith of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
What is it that happened in 1970? Why is this date so appropriate as the distinction between the two galleries? In short, it marks the end of modernism, which means the end of the teleological, history-driven story of European (or let us say Euro-American) art. It signals the end of art mediated through the history of art, and thus the end of the aesthetic. It is a history, of course, that can accept all kinds of revisions and rewritings (post-modern, post-colonial), while still remaining unchanged (post-modernism and post-colonialism are merely modernism by other means). Thus we can include all those artists from other cultures who participated in and made up modernism, and nothing is fundamentally different. It would be the story of the gradual dissemination of a series of European and American art movements (Realism, Impressionism, Cubism, Abstract Expressionism) across the world, provoking their own resistance, hybridities and parodies. But, criticised, combined, inverted, the centre remains intact. In a sense, we are not only able to narrate the histories of all other cultures through a series of recognisable landmarks, but compare otherwise incomparable cultures, insofar as they share the same European sources. It allows for accounts or genealogies of stylistic influence, a way of placing artists in a historical continuum, not only within a particular country or region but across different countries and regions. Thus the story of 20th century art can be seen as broadly the same in China or Thailand as it is in Australia.1 Taking into account their different temporalities, each goes through approximately the same series of responses to European culture, insofar as each can be considered, artistically at least, to be in the same marginal, subservient, even resistant, relationship to that culture.
But around 1970, both in Australia and the rest of the world, all of this changes. The extremely intelligent rehang of the historical Australian collection in the old Queensland Art Gallery (QAG) provides us with some clues. The largely chronological arrangement of the work begins with the Indigenous artist William Barak’s Corroboree of the 1880s and ends with Peter Booth’s black Painting of 1974. The fascinating possibility this opens up—for the new hang moves from right to left as opposed to the previous left to right—is that it is now made impossible to say which comes first. Seen from one point of view, the history of Australian art demonstrates the long internal exhaustion of a modernist problematic that ends up arriving at something like Booth’s painting: it is modernism that leads to the end of modernism. But seen from another point of view, it is the whole of modernism in this country that is possible from the beginning only because of the exclusion of someone like Barak: it is a non-modernism coming from outside that signals the end of modernism in this country. In the end, it does not matter; the effect is the same.2 Some time around 1970, the modernist narrative comes to a halt in Australia, either because of its own internal exhaustion (1968, the date of the well-known The Field exhibition, held at the National Gallery of Victoria, is the date usually given) or because the pressure of non-European art upon it can no longer be denied (1971 is said to mark the date of the birth of the Western Desert dot painting movement in Papunya). And the consequences of this ‘end’ are everywhere to be seen throughout the QAG.
In the new hang of the Australian collection—partly for necessary reasons: the collection is very poor in colonial art—we do not at all have the usual Bernard Smith-sanctioned history of the slow coming into being of some peculiarly Australian quality. Instead of the Neo-Classicism of Glover or the Realism of the Heidelberg School, the collection starts with the proto-abstraction of Art Nouveau and Symbolism (Arthur Loureiro, Sydney Long), moves through the expatriates involved in modernism overseas (John Peter Russell, Charles Conder), the immigrants bringing in the latest artistic developments from overseas (Anthony Datillo Rubbo, Danila Vassilief), and has a real emphasis throughout on Surrealism (James Gleeson, Max Dupain) and abstraction (Grace Crowley, Ralph Balson). The effect is that when such artists as Albert Tucker and Fred Williams are shown, they appear unfamiliar, more part of the long-running Surrealist and abstract tendencies than anything distinctively Australian, and much less important than someone like Ian Fairweather, who is given his own room, and whose global ‘syncretism’, combining elements of Asian, European and Indigenous cultures, is pointed to as the true destiny of Australian art.3 What is emphasised throughout the collection is not our specialness or isolation from but our belonging to the rest of the world. Of course, in one way, this is still the usual story of Australia’s relationship to a series of overseas art movements, even if some of our artists actually participated in them (with perhaps Surrealism and abstraction replacing Neo-Classicism and Realism). And yet, presented with the book ends of these two ‘black’ paintings, this narrative is no longer able to be told with the same sense of historical finality or teleological resolution (and one of the notable things about the old Eurocentric history is how compatible it was with the assertion of a provincial nationalism: the imitation of and resistance to imported styles was the way in which national identity was produced). There seems in this rich, overlapping account a kind of ‘slowing down’ or even stopping of art history, insofar as it is driven neither by the promise of a medium-based purification (it ends with Booth’s Painting) or the possibility of a fully-expressed national sensibility (it begins with the exclusion of Barak). There is no longer any sense of progressive elaboration or refinement (either of the various media of art or the national), but rather a series of broad, ‘unfinished’ tendencies that can be entered at any point: not the logical deduction of a medium but the ongoing exploration of colour; not the depiction of an exterior landscape but the indication of an interior psychology; not the historical realisation of the Australian but the future promise of the feminine or Indigenous.
The museological consequences of this non-national art history are several. First, although it is still possible to write a history of art from here, it would no longer be possible to do so as ‘Australian’ (this nationhood, as we say, would come about only from a European perspective). There is now simply the recording of what took place in this country, with no ability to choose according either to the more art-historically ‘advanced’ or the more ‘profound’ expressions of nationhood. Each moment in our history deserves elaboration in its own terms and not merely as something on the way to some distant artistic goal or in relation to some outside culture. As a result, we get a sense looking at the collection of the incredible density of potential local connections, insofar as we would no longer be able to generalise them as part of some greater ‘Australian’ history, like those brief biographical sketches that make up Smith’s Australian Painting. There would be no overall artistic direction to demonstrate any more. There would be no wider notion or history of Australia that all artists working here (and Australian-born artists working overseas) would share. And this is allied with that other tendency we see in the Australian galleries, which is the replacement of the old stylistic or nationalist history with a social history: the wall of work depicting women (Hugh Ramsey’s Jessica with Dog, 1904; Rupert Bunny’s Bathers, 1906; and George Lambert’s Portrait Group with Mother, 1907), a wall of work (in the previous hang) by women (Alice Bale’s Leisure Moments, 1902; Hilda Rix Nicholas’ Work, 1909; and Vida Lahey’s Monday Morning, 1912), or indeed the general emphasis on immigrants and emigrants. In fact, even aesthetic categories today, in the absence of an ongoing sense of modernist progression, effectively function as socio-historical categories. And, beyond any of these individual categories or classifications, we have the feeling that the entire historical collection is nothing more than a body of data with no overall meaning or direction, which is able to be cross-indexed or cross-referenced in any number of ways, with no particular organisation of the material being inherently better than any other.
In this regard, the small gallery to the right of the historical Australian gallery, a Queensland heritage room featuring works made either by artists living in or about this State, is a crucial give-away. In the distinction drawn between it (often some of the most popular and recognisable work in the Gallery, for example, Godfrey Rivers’ Under the Jacaranda, 1917) and the rest of the collection, this work becomes at once entirely beside the point (for what place could there be for it in this new ‘UnAustralian’ art history without location) and utterly crucial (for this ‘UnAustralian’ now after the end of modernism is merely a series of such ‘locations’). That is, in this new non-national conception of Australian art no longer underpinned by any overall relationship to European art, it is no longer a matter of Sydney and Melbourne as de facto representatives of the nation (just as Europe and America are no longer the generalised representatives of the ‘international’). Instead, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, but also Hermannsburg, Papunya, Yuendumu—all merit equal attention, all are equally capable of creating their own explanatory context, without the necessity of it being routed through a more general notion of ‘Australia’.4 (And, intriguingly, the only other equivalent to the heritage room in either gallery is the Australian Indigenous Art room in the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA). On the one hand, as the hanging of an Angelina Pwerle and an Emily Kngwarreye next door in the main international gallery attests, this is a hopeless principle, not even Indigenous art today can be considered within any self-contained tradition; on the other hand, in the absence of this tradition, there is no possibility of such general categories as the Australian or international, we have to keep on resorting to smaller and smaller explanatory categories like ‘Australian Indigenous’.5)
But without this modernist history of the reflection upon form—this is the other aspect in which the Gallery is prescient—there is no longer aesthetics or even really art in the proper sense. It would be fascinating to compare here the Robin Gibson-designed QAG with, say, the legendary Alfred Barr hang of MoMA following the Second World War. In Barr’s original conception, isolated works are mounted down one side of a long corridor without extraneous visual distraction in an unbroken sequence from French Impressionism all the way through to Post-War American Abstraction. The works, even those like Pollock’s All-Overs that challenge this vertical orientation, exist in an ideal transcendent realm, outside of worldly concerns. The communion with the work of art promises a different kind of experience, outside of time and space (hence the white walls surrounding the work and the silence expected of one’s fellow gallery goers). This would be in contrast with Gibson’s design, with its use of natural light and with water crossing from the outside to the inside of the Gallery (or seeming to). In its vast atrium-like spaces, there is no way of directing the spectator’s gaze or making the work of art the centre of the spectator’s experience. The work essentially becomes decor within a wider architectural scheme, and the spectator comes not so much to see art as to experience the Gallery itself. All of this, however, is not some external fate that simply befalls the work of art from the outside. It merely brings out a potential already in it from the late-60s, and famously foreseen in Michael Fried’s ‘Art and Objecthood’ (1967), which speaks about art merging with everyday life, sharing the same time and space as the spectator in an essentially ‘theatrical’ scenario. And this fate affects all art today and not just that made after 1970 or from the Euro-American tradition. Who can forget, for example, the installation of an Emily Kngwarreye yam painting over the other side of the downstairs watermall during her retrospective at the QAG in 1998? Of course, it would be absurd to suggest that there is any meaningful connection between her work, made in Utopia, some 1000 kilometres inland, and water; but the reflection of the light off the water and on to her paintings was undoubtedly beautiful, well-designed, tasteful, in exactly the same way as we speak of the arrangement of furniture in an interior design magazine.
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All of this is to say that there is fundamentally no difference between the old QAG and the new GoMA. This is one of the unexpected consequences of the end of modernism: that all art is henceforth contemporary. Indeed, post-modernism and post-colonialism from this perspective can be seen as nothing more than the desperate attempt to keep alive the principles of chronology and stylistic succession (precisely through their inversions of them). Indeed, the very notion of an ‘Asian-Pacific’ art as such (a study made of the art of the region in its own terms and not merely in relation to that made in Europe) is conceivable only because of the end of modernism. The first sign of this end was the possibility not only of ‘figurative’ art being made again in the late ’70s, but of it coming from such previously marginal cultures as Italy and Germany. Of course, the work was spoken of in terms of nationhood—it was understood as Italian and German art—but what must be realised is that this was no longer a generalised ‘European’ art but an art made from a specific place. It was an art made not in any relation to a dominant mainstream (as the art of provincial cultures had hitherto been): it was itself the new mainstream (as is the art of all cultures today). And this tendency towards the most ‘important’ art in the world coming from a specific place was continued with the YBAs (Young British Artists)in the ’90s and Japanese Superflat in the new century. It was with the end of modernism that not only were artists able to make figurative art again—which soon became the ‘literalism’ that characterises all contemporary art—but we were able to have art from particular places that was not in a relationship with some presumed universal. The New York School, for example, did not refer to an actual geographical location in the way that the Italian and German art of the ’70s and ’80s did.6 And it can be predicted that, with the vanishing of any supposed national centres, art will continue to be made from more and more specific localities: cities not countries, individual scenes not cities.
That is, what is lost with the end of Eurocentrism is exactly the possibility of tradition in provincial cultures. Not only is there a whole movement towards the international, but with the end of Eurocentrism there is no longer that dominant culture to resist that brings about the notion of tradition (for tradition as a form of cultural or national identity is realised only in reaction to that which threatens it). It is interesting in this regard to look at previous Asia Pacific Triennials (APTs) and their attempts to put together tradition and modernity (APT 1) or to think how cultural identity might constitute a form of resistance to an assumed to be Euro-American globalism (APT 2). For what is not grasped in this is that tradition is a modernist idea, that national identity is an effect of Eurocentrism. And that with the end of any notion of the centre, tradition and nationhood themselves disappear. This is the difficult task now of exhibitions like the APT, which can necessarily only narrate themselves via notions of stylistic development or national identity. Those connections they seek to make—for example here, between Nusra Latif Qureshi and Khadim Ali because they were both born in Pakistan and work in miniatures or between Anish Kapoor and Nasreen Mohamedi because they were both born in India and work in abstraction—can only seem forced and arbitrary. Not only are these traditions always faced with a series of exceptions, such as the German-born woman (Marintan Sirait) who worked in Indonesia in APT 2, or equally likely an Indonesian artist who works in Germany, but there are now only a series of such exceptions. Although in one sense tradition is always conscious, self-reflexive, something to which an artist chooses to belong, today, in the absence of that to which it offers a form of resistance, the artist can only come to tradition as something that is already over, that has to be revived, that one comments on rather than truly inhabits.7 Thus, cruel as it is to say this, the exhibition is forever haunted by the possibility that the connections it seeks to make between Qureshi and Ali or Kapoor and Mohamedi or indeed between the various Pacific Textiles Artists are essentially as empty and parodic as that between the Japanese-American artist Masami Teraoka and the ukiyo-e woodblock tradition or between the Maori artist Michael Parakowhai and his appropriations of Gordon Walters and Colin McCahon.
And yet, just as apparently ‘traditional’ art can now be read as post-traditional, so post-traditional art can also appear strangely traditional. That is, one of the uncanny things about walking through the APT—and undoubtedly one of the things accounting for the show’s critical and popular success—is that Asian art in its ‘traditionalism’ can appear so contemporary. The seeming non-artness of much of the work in the show, its connection to ‘real life’, its use of a popular or vernacular artistic language, the fact that it does not need to be mediated through a whole prior history of some particular medium—all of this is exactly what the most ‘advanced’ art in the West is currently attempting to do. Take, for example, one of the signature works of the APT, Bharti Kher’s large fibreglass and bindi elephant, which greets visitors at the entrance of the QAG. It is impossible to decide looking at it whether it is traditional or some kind of equivalent to Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991. (And perhaps even before Kher’s work we might recall Bul Lee’s fish sculpture, Hwa-Um, 1992, from APT 1 as the diminutive equivalent to Death.) In Hirst, there is the attempt through the sheer physical presence of the shark to leave behind the ‘criticality’ of post-modern art, which necessitates the work having to make its meaning through a commentary either on other works or their historical reception. (Another defining work of our contemporaneity, Jeff Koons’ Made in Heaven, 1989, is also an attempt to outwit the irony of post-modernism through the staging of an act that cannot be faked, that is ‘sincere’ in the most obvious sense.) It is all of this that is already to be seen in contemporary Asian art. It can indeed be seen as ‘traditional’, in the sense of unself-conscious, unreflexive, non-resistant (which means that it engages neither in the modernist assertion of cultural identity nor in the post-modern intervention into the history of art.) And it is in this sense that it is no longer aesthetic but literal, no longer art or meaningful within a history of art. It is this that accounts for the at times exhilarating lightness and meaninglessness of the art in the APT, the sense that we are being spared the usual appropriations and re-readings of the Western tradition. It is this that gives rise to the feeling that we are no longer in an art gallery but actually in the world, that there is no difference (and the architecture of the new GoMA brilliantly grasps this, as did that of the old QAG) between the inside and outside of the gallery.8
This is the crucial museological problem posed by the APT. In the absence of national traditions, how to divide the art up into significant groupings? Without the concept of modernism, how to arrange it in a meaningful order? It is a situation that a number of the works in the APT can themselves be seen to be speaking of. Take, for instance, the collective Long March project. In Lu Jie’s restaging of the famous journey Mao took around China recruiting for the Communist Revolution, there is of course an attempt to touch history again, to relive events, to make the point that the past still weighs heavily on the present (the tattoo on the back of the artist Qin Ga, outlining the route of the contemporary version of the march, literally spells this out). But in Mu Chen and Shao Yinong’s funereal photos of empty communal halls, which were once the scene of meetings and ideological debates in agrarian communities, there is undoubtedly a sense that for all of the failures of the Revolution, an even worse fate has now overtaken China: the loss of any shared meaning or destiny. The death of Mao and the rise of the market has left China bereft of communal values.9 Something similar is to be seen in Dinh Q Le’s oral history project, which contrasts Vietnamese villagers’ recollections of the Vietnam War with a series of Hollywood depictions. Again, beyond the subjective difficulty of narrating history, there is also the sense that history itself, the ideological struggle between capitalism and Communism, is over. This is also the subject of Tuan Andrew Nguyen’s paintings of imaginary Vietnamese streetscapes, which are truly the equivalent—or all of their urban grit and funk—of those abandoned meeting halls of Mu and Shao. Precisely in the historical retreat of the modernist utopian dream of making over all aspects of everyday life, we have sidewalks in ex-Communist Ho Chi Minh City in which emblems of a Communist past co-exist in a post-historical montage with capitalist logos and graffiti (and, if one thinks about it, the work also speaks of a similar post-historical eclecticism in the realm of painting: Socialist Realism, Abstraction and Expressionism).
In all of this we witness the historical collapse of the Enlightenment—European in origin, but ultimately involving the whole world—of which Communism was perhaps the ultimate political expression. In its absence, these works seems to be suggesting, we no longer have any way of connecting with our history, not only our social and political history but also our artistic history. Without the essentially modernist notion of aesthetic form and its gradual refinement, we no longer have an internal history of art. And without the imposition of European values on to the rest of the world and the resistance against them, we no longer have an external history of art. There have, of course, been many attempts to think what a 21st century art history would look like in the absence of these ‘grand narratives’. To begin with, without any centre, there would be no single way of telling it. A true world art would be the impossibility of any world art. There would be no place from which to narrate it that would not be caught up in it. Instead, as we see with those new art movements coming after the end of modernism (Neo-Expressionism, YBA, Superflat), the very possibility of centres without a relationship to any other (either of dominance or subservience) means that we would have merely an endless series of perspectives on to the world. As that ‘UnAustralian’ art history we sketched in relation to the QAG suggests, we are able to write a history of world art from anywhere, every single place is a kind of centre; but for this very reason there can be no overall picture. We get caught up in the antinomies of globalism, first raised by Kant in his analysis of the idea that the world has a limit and returned to recently by Fredric Jameson.10 Without the empty category of the Eurocentric, every single place or category in art ultimately implies every other. There is no way to draw borders around any particular cultural or geographical specificity, and yet at the same time each also remains absolutely specific and ungeneralisable. This is undoubtedly the strange sense we have looking at the APT that it is a show about not so much Asian as world art, that all art today involves a consideration of Asia, but that it would be possible to write an equally compelling account of world art from any number of other perspectives: African, Middle Eastern, South American, or indeed European or North American.11
In this sense, there would be no way to organise or narrate the APT as a whole, to impose an overall curatorial vision or argument—again, not because of any contingent failure by the curators but for absolutely necessary reasons. Stylistic and historical connections can of course be made between works, but they are no longer conclusive, do not speak of any underlying cause, demonstrate no shared history or tradition. Or, if certain ‘encounters’ between works are staged, they remain on the level of decor, which is the true principle of organisation, not only of the APT but of GoMA in general. Rooms featuring Yoo Seung-Ho’s miniature calligraphic landscapes and Djambawa Marawili’s bark paintings or Sutee Kunavichayanont’s school desks and Jitish Kallat’s reproduction of Nehru’s famous Independence speech are organised around the theme of writing in the APT, while rooms in the accompanying exhibition from the permanent collection are likewise organised around such themes as mark-making (Robert McPherson, Lee-U-Fan) and gesturality (Vasan Sitthiket and Cai Guo Qiang); and there are even connections made in the APT between flowers and vegetables (Michael Parakowhai and Tsuyoshi Ozawa) and in the permanent collection between the same colour (Mike Parr and Tobias Putrih) and grids (Rachel Whiteread and Hiroshi Sugimoto). What we have in these essentially arbitrary and unmotivated connections across ‘different’ cultures and ‘different’ times is what art historians call isomorphism. And our stronger point is that today, even when there might appear to be real historical and stylistic connections within the ‘same’ culture and time, these connections are still of the order of visual coincidence. In the absence of any motivating tradition, there can be nothing beyond the momentary coming together of works. The true spectatorial pleasure in the APT is the spotting of these connections, retracing the rhetorical manoeuvres behind the works’ hanging. It is thus not properly aesthetic or even critical (or, again, there is no real argument being put), but affective. One admires the ingenuity and tastefulness (not taste) of the curators in making their selection, as one can equally imagine combinations of one’s own.
Absolutely, in these essentially ahistorical and non-aesthetic connections, there is no difference between this principle of decor and the other ruling metaphor and organising principle of the show: the child. Not only is the entire APT punctuated by children’s activities, but much of the art itself is child-like or directly incorporates work made by children (Khadim Ali, Tsuyoshi Ozawa, Kwon Ki-Soon, Eko Nugroho, Stephen Page, Paiman). In the constant demand of the work to engage, to join in, to participate, we no longer have a visual space of aesthetic contemplation and detachment but a tactile space of distraction and fascination—in fact, a playground.12 (It is fitting that on the opening weekend of the exhibition, spectators actually took the show into their own hands, smearing the pigment of Kapoor’s sculptures across the walls. They understood all too well the request of the work to perform it, to become part of it. In the 21st century it is not so much that everyone will be an artist as that everyone will be a curator.) But, for all of its apparent activity, for all of its ceaseless exhortation to become involved, the museum today is as empty as Mu and Shao’s photographs of those long-forgotten meeting halls of Chinese Communism. For the museum—like Communism, a creature of modernism—is no longer able to embody the idea of a shared space or collective memory. It is no longer able to be educational, self-critical, consciousness-raising. Its spectators no longer come to look at what is inside it, but are literally absorbed into its spectacle, with no distinction possible between inside and outside. We might compare our situation with Rashid Rana’s pixilated photos, in which what appears to be a scene of a Pakistani national day reveals itself to be made up of thousands of tiny images of Indian film stars. Of course, in this there is a kind of irony in that this celebration of Pakistani self-identity is made up of images of another culture, just as those Indian film stars find themselves being consumed by movie-mad Pakistanis. Either way, there is a final ‘image’ to the work brought about in the critical relationship between cultures. But today, there might be no such final resolution. We only have thousands of pixilated images that do not come into focus, and even when any such final figure forms it reveals itself merely to be part of something larger that cannot be represented. This APT in Brisbane (which must be understood to include both the permanent collection in GoMA and the rehang of the QAG) is fully the equal of Documenta and the Venice Biennale in its scale, its ambition, its vision of art history and finally its self-contradiction.12
1. Compare, for example, the accounts of 20th-century Thai art in Apinan Poshyananda, Modern Art in Thailand: Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, Oxford University Press, 1992, and 20th-century Chinese art in Julia F. Andrews and Kuiyi Shen, A Century in Crisis: Modernity and Tradition in the Art of Twentieth-Century China, Abrams, 1998. For all of their taxonomic differences, John Clark’s Modern Asian Art, Craftsman House, 1998, and Poshyananda et al’s Contemporary Art in Asia: Traditions/Tensions, Asia Society, 1997, also tell the same broad story of the struggle of Asian cultures for and against a European-style art.
2. In other words, the new hang of the Australian collection wants us to remember the old one, so that Barak’s work comes not only at the beginning but also at the end of Australian art history. And concluding the hang with Booth’s Painting in its own way puts an end to modernism, which paradoxically can function only insofar as that goal at which it aims is indefinitely deferred, or which one would reach here only to have to begin again. And in this ‘reversible’ history thus brought about, Ian Burn’s Re-Ordered Painting, 1965, reads interestingly, particularly in its use of the colour black. That ‘re-ordering’ it speaks of can now be seen to be prophesying the advent of Indigenous art.
3. The other gallery, notably, devoted to a single artist in the new hang is that featuring the work of Albert Namatjira and the Hermannsburg School. Namatjira too might be seen as a forerunner to that new ‘world’ art gestured at throughout the rest of the QAG and GoMA.
4. Interestingly, in the new hang of the Australian collection there is emphasis placed on a specific Brisbane modernism (Kenneth MacQueen, Charles Lancaster, Vida Lahey and William Bustard), just as there is an emphasis on a specific Melbourne modernism. But the difference here is that this Melbourne modernism is just another ‘Brisbane’ modernism, no longer the unofficial representative of the Australian as such (as it is, for example, in Smith), but merely another locality in which modernism took place.
5. Matching the impossibility of knowing how the classify such Indigenous artists as Kngwarreye or the Pwerle sisters, it is notable that John Peter Russell is featured in both the Australian and International sections of the Gallery. This is also the case (although it happens, one feels, without attention being drawn to it by the Gallery, as in those previous examples) for Henry Lamb, who is featured amongst the Camden Town Group in the international collection, despite being born in Australia. What kind of history of ‘Australian’ art would we have if we included him in the Australian collection?
6. That is, the crucial passage in Terry Smith’s ‘The Provincialism Problem’ is where he writes: ‘Provincialism pervades New York, precisely in that the overwhelming majority of artists here exist in a satellite relation to a few artists, galleries, critics, museums and magazines’ (in Transformations in Australian Art, vol. 2, Craftsman House, 2002, p.18). It remains only a small step to admit that all artists within those metropolitan centres existed in such a ‘satellite’ relation: that the centre in Eurocentrism can by definition never be located. By contrast, in our contemporary the centres of art are located, and for that very reason refer only to themselves, cannot exert the kinds of influence on other cultures that the old centres of modernism did.
7. The point here is that the tradition constructed by museums and post-colonial critics as antithetical to modernism is merely its mirror image. One notices in its characterisation that it is already dynamic, reflexive, innovative, attempts to find a proper principle of resistance, despite the conditions of cultural hybridity in which it finds itself. Now, with the collapse of modernism, this conception of tradition suddenly becomes impossible.
8. Again, one of the key works of the APT, Ai Weiwei’s Boomerang, is very telling in this regard. For all of the ‘heaviness’ imputed to it as a critique of contemporary Chinese consumerism, it is indeed fabulously ‘light’ (the pun is intended). Part of this ‘lightness’ comes from the fact that, despite appearances, it has nothing to do with the Minimalism of someone like Dan Flavin. Instead, we would see it as an example of the new Maximalism (like Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project, 2003, at the Tate Turbine Hall) that currently characterises contemporary art. In a way we would say that with its almost sun-like illumination (like Eliasson), it seeks to turn the inside of the gallery into the outside. Ai’s other work in the APT featuring broken or painted-over vases or ‘deconstructed’ furniture also takes up the self-contradictory nature of tradition: the fact that it can no sooner be known or mobilised critically than it is over. In this regard, Ai understands that contemporary art is necessarily caught up in the paradox of critically attempting to overcome ‘criticality’.
9. Another example of this is Shen Xiaomin’s documentary about the cameraman Li Tianbing, who for more than 50 years documented village life under Communism. Like Chris Marker’s great documentaries about the equivalent Soviet tradition, The Train Rolls On, 1971, and The Last Bolshevik, 1993, if one watches Shen’s video carefully one sees that there is at once a patronising distance taken towards Li’s ‘innocent’ belief in Communism and a terrible nostalgia for the fact that he can still believe in something.
10. For the best account of Kant’s cosmological antinomies in this context, see Joan Copjec, ‘Sex and the Euthanasia of Reason’, in Read My Desire: Lacan against the Historicists, MIT Press, 1993. For Jameson’s outlining of the ‘antinomies’ of globalisation, see ‘Globalization as a Philosophical Issue’, in Fredric Jameson and Masao Miyoshi (eds.), Cultures of Globalization, Duke University Press, 1998. One might also profitably read Slavoj Žižek’s ‘Multiculturalism, or, The Cultural Logic of Multinational Capitalism’, New Left Review 225, Sept-Oct 1997, in relation to the argument being made here. This idea of a shift from a ‘masculine’ Eurocentrist universality guaranteed by an exception to a ‘feminine’ world art which cannot be grasped as a whole and yet admits of no exceptions could undoubtedly be developed further.
11. Of course, we mean by this summary list not the continents or the countries within them or even their supposed ‘national’ styles, but a series of specific locations that could never become universal, could never stand in for the rest of the world.
12. It is interesting to note that one of the signature works of the new QAG (on exhibition, one seems to remember, during the first week of the APT) is Eliasson’s ‘relational aesthetics’ piece, The Cubic Structural Evolution Project, 2004, in which spectators are invited to play with some 300 kg of white Lego blocks placed in the Gallery.
13. Hopefully, this review has not been read as a defence of Eurocentrism. This would be a reactionary and, anyway, impossible ambition. Rather, the proper ‘critical’ attitude is to use Eurocentrism to begin to think the contingency, or better the historicity, of our current situation, the fact that it was not always like this. It is precisely, as we began by doing here, to think the internal break or split that characterises our contemporaneity: the fact that our museums must necessarily seek to give meaning to that which no longer has any. And the same self-contradiction would apply to writing about contemporary art, which necessarily seeks to criticise art that is no longer ‘critical’, to historicise art that is no longer historical. All of this would equally be to say that this review should not be read as an attack upon the QAG or GoMA. On the contrary, we would argue that, along with the National Museum of Australia, it is the only museum worth thinking about in Australia at the moment, the only one that might have something to tell us about the fate of the work of art in the 21st century.
Dr Rex Butler is a Senior Lecturer in the School of English, Media Studies and Art History at the University of Queensland.