As a sentiment 'wish you were here' can resonate differently for each of us. It is dependent on, like all sentiments, its source, its context, the memory it stirs or promises. It is the scrawled message on a postcard, the passing, or gripping thought when we are separated from those we care for, or the world we 'know'. It can be a desire for others to see what we are seeing, a longing to share our experiences. Taking as a given that journeys change us, this exhibition brings together works and stories by Australian artists who have spent time in the Asia-Pacific region.
This tangible link between the artists doesn't necessarily translate into tangible evidence of connections - the works are disparate and deal with experiences differently. They are individual responses to personal journeys, but all are associated by reliance on, and evocation of, memories.
When we began thinking about this exhibition, we were intrigued by Australian artists' interpretations of the region. Initially we followed the well-worn path of dividing the artists into various theoretical positions - post-colonial, feminist, political - but found that this did not tell the whole story. The inspiration and focus that many of these artists found in their time elsewhere was far more layered than simply rhetorical structures.
Through their work visual artists are in a unique position to tell stories and provide interpretations of other cultures. Wish you were here is about life, personal reactions, rather than academic categories. The exhibition developed into one that encompasses daily encounters, the aids to memory collected and interactions with local cultures. The development of this exhibition has itself been a journey, with associated joys, contingencies and disappointments. The exhibitions' five locations require temporal and spatial movement by the viewer, reflecting, echoing the artists' movements - it is a journey in itself.
Since the nineteenth century there has been a perceived requirement for Australian artists to travel somewhere else to soak up serious 'culture'. Until quite recently travel to Europe, and less often to the United States, fulfilled this role. With notable exceptions, such as Ian Fairweather, travel to areas within the Asia-Pacific region was mostly seen as exotic, like Gauguin looking for paradise - or the domain of war artists. Europe was the basis of our culture, the place our stories could be enunciated most clearly and where the fountainhead of 'proper' art was stored.
The emphasis has moved from learning at the feet of the great masters, to establishing partnerships and long-term relationships with cultures and artists far closer geographically, if not in outlook or background. It is in these differences that richness has been found; the past ten years have seen an increasing number of Australian artists shift their focus away from Euro-American centres to cities, regional and rural areas much closer to home. This shift, greatly facilitated by residencies offered by the Australian Council and Asialink, has seen Australian artists gather, interpret and explore their experiences which range from first-impressions to adopted lifestyles.
A deeper understanding by Australian artists and audiences of artistic practice in Asia and the Pacific has augmented this transformation. Major projects, including the Asia-Pacific Triennial and ARX (Artists' Regional Xchange), held on opposite sides of this continent are themselves outside the general southern hegemony of the Australian art world. Through their presentation and contextualisation of contemporary art these events have established, and often astonished, audiences. These forums, with their ongoing roles in developing personal relationships with artists and arts professionals, facilitating artists' exchanges and education have extended the possibilities for Australian artists' professional development.
Wish you were here is an amalgamation of works created during residencies, on returning to Australia and others specifically for this exhibition. Some artists have spent time away from the places that have strongly influenced their practice, while others were chosen for the memories of the Asia-Pacific region their work draws. Sebastian Di Mauro's travel tale of his last trip to Manila explains perfectly the effect of place on work and defines the idea of new work. Di Mauro's installation was composed of olive oil and a mass of sugar (the appearance of the latter has been a focus of his recent body of work, evoking his childhood in North Queensland, where sugar is the economic basis). However, at the time of his Philippines exhibition there were restrictions on sugar and this would have been insulting if Di Mauro had used this commodity as his medium. After much discussion salt was used as the replacement, refocusing the installation. The values placed on materials that may only seem important to the artist are like memories and trying to recall by making associations, personal and general.
Following this association, the use of broken glass by artists Yenda Carson and Matt Calvert creates an amazing dialogue. The initial conversations with each artist Calvert (Tasmania) and Carson (Queensland) and the concerns that were raised placed an interesting dimension into the development of their works. Looking further into the works rather than seeing them for their sheer materiality, the relation to architectural structures and underlying chaos that arose from Calvert's piece complemented the random forms of Carson's natural landscapes. In Korea Carson spent her time by the sea, on the beach stretching the outline the ocean makes onto land, while Calvert looked at the urban rubble that lies beneath the buildings. Both looked at their different landscapes through shattered glass.
I have been a stranger in a strange land.
Artists represented in Wish you were here are not only travellers to somewhere else, they are travellers to Australia, their experiences as immigrants, their childhoods far away flavouring their work. Their memories have a basis very different to the travellers from Australia, but distance is a defining factor. Distance affords a view of others and often more poignantly, ourselves, our own culture - for artists Michael Wang and Paul Bai it is distance from their birth places that to some degree informs their practice. Wang's structures draw on memories of the small town his grandmother lived in. To Wang the only outstanding feature was the pagoda, something he then only saw as part of local mythology, of the source of stories that sent him looking for a way to get out. Now he creates his own pagodas, imbuing them with his own rhythm and memories: During the cultural revolution in the 1960's in China, all the schools were closed [for a] period of time. I was sent to my grandmother's place, a little town. It was situated on extremely flat levelled field northern China, few hundred miles from Beijing. To me there was nothing there but the pagoda. . . There were many legends about it but only one was remembered. People said downstairs there was a hole or a well, it connected to the east China sea. I wondered if it was true and tried to go downstairs but there was a door always locked.
While these sculptures evoke the ancient, Bai's work takes modern throwaway aesthetics as its basis. His imagery looks at how the society he has moved to images the society he came from - the colourful, the flashy - the totemic signs of cartoon character 'Asian-ness'. Born in Tianjin, PRC during the Cultural Revolution, it is these postmodern icons that Bai understands and works with.
Lyell Bary's Queen Charlotte Sound draws on layers of memories - the landscape of his homeland, New Zealand, the memories of his immediate family and the paintings of Colin McCahon. Bary has taken these constituents and created new languages within his practice. His vision speaks of the personal, of relationships forged and maintained with land, family and art.
You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realise that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all, just as an intelligence without the possibility of expression is not really an intelligence. Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing.
Returning home from travelling artists are laden with memory, imagery and often new materials and methods, explored during time away. Initially this new work may be seen as foreign to the artist and by those who are familiar with their practice. The excitement of the artist returning home to display gifts can also by looked back upon as momentos, memories and fragments of their travel. Little pieces of a special moment which the artist wants to hold onto. These can be visual souvenirs, as well as the kitsch and the precious that we all collect. Walter Benjamin described collecting as: a form of practical memory and, among the profane manifestations of "proximity," the most convincing one. Therefore, even the minutest act of political commemoration in the commerce in antiques becomes, in a sense, epochal. We are here constructing an alarm clock that awakens the kitsch of the past century into "re-collection".
The artist as adventurer evokes the ideal of returning with the rare, the exotic and unusual. Traditionally the trophies of an adventurer were traded, catalogued or displayed. The artists through incorporating newly discovered treasures into their work have circumscribed the inscribed preciousness of these objects.
How we see our surrounds changes with time. What first appears to be exotic, enchanting and totally alienating often changes through increased cultural understanding and insight. The images, ideas and personal memories that remain stimuli are diverse. During his time in Japan, Barry Tate visited many Buddhist temples, leaving him with lasting impression of 'ornate and yet 'in your face' objects and practices'. Andrew Hurle's Xograph's are like details of the neons that dominate Tokyo. They are optical memories, distilled from the overall affect.
Debra Porch connects vision with those around her: I can see mystical rice paddies and - my friends - the single most important connection for me to Vietnam. In her delicate manifestations, these threads are drawn together, weaving her history and linking her inexorably to the past.
Louise Paramour's constructions draw on decorations seen during her 1995 residency in Bhopal, India. As Ben Currow points out in the 1998 Primavera catalogue, before this trip Paramour had employed solid materials, mirrors and glass, but moved towards the light and ephemeral, like cellophane and foil.
Whilst undertaking a residency in central Tokyo, Lindsay Dunbar commenced a series on crowds using multiple screen prints assembled together. Dunbar enlarges the crowd images and plays with the dots of the silk screen and of distance crowds. The pixelation heightens this effect, seeing the world as broken up, never quite whole. Distance from his objects is the only way to make sense of them.
Judith Wright takes us on her journey - but not through her eyes, through movement and her body, placing us into the movement. The camera is held by her side, hidden - the eye that sees, but is not seen. Elizabeth Ferrier has described Wright's work as walks: The most striking aspect of this work is its use of the veil...Wright's experimentation with the veil pushes the voyeuristic aspect of the cinematic gaze to an extreme, foregrounding its secrecy, calling into question its power to see into the truth of things. This is the tentative eye, rather than the eye of power.
Where Wright's walks are hidden, Vera Moller's masked constitutionals have taken her through the streets of many cities, including Tokyo, wearing yellow and black striped balaclavas. These walks speak of the alien, the masks we wear to blend in, but they are convincingly loud, drawing attention yet slipping by.
Glen Clarke has spent time as Artist in Residence in Hanoi, Viet Nam and as Associate Professor and Guest Lecturer at Viet Nam's University of Hue. He describes his work as attempting to deal with a synthesis of emotions at one time:I want to discover sensitivities through playful connections between imaginary and real landscapes, digital aesthetics and traditional handicrafts, relationships, memory, sensation, fantasies and experience.
The work of Rachel Apelt and Amanda Johnson take the personal as their starting points, but these interests are metaphoric for wider concerns. Apelt's use of ornate, ritualistic icons reflects her strong Catholic upbringing. This personal imagery was reinforced and brought into question for her by what she witnessed in the Philippines, a deeply Catholic country, which has nevertheless stamped itself onto the religion. Apelt was drawn to this imagery, but found herself questioning the power of the Church and its affect on people's lives.
Amanda Johnson relates to the depth of feeling that the Australian landscape has engendered in generations of artists and transposes it as an outsider to the Dutch colonial memory she found in Indonesia, an archaeological site of memory. There is persistence to such memories, and individuals choose different ways of tracking these. Thomas Vale Slattery is a dedicated journal keeper, and it is not only his travels, particularly to India and China, but also the daily occurences he witnesses that fascinate him.
Pat Hoffie's concern for the survival of traditional cultures has developed through extensive travel throughout Asia. Most recently in Viet Nam, Hoffie's work explored the affects of globalisation, particularly on traditional crafts. These have become tourist kitsch, and the mysticism of the Tarot has been subsumed by glitz, and by reworking them in her traditional medium, Hoffie reinstates their preciousness.
Di Ball's varied career has included working in Papua New Guinea as an architect. Looking back on this time through her role as an artist, Ball takes imagery and words to amplify her memories and project them towards us. Such personal memorabilia is not overtly obvious in the work of Judith Kentish, but her travels in India and Thailand, were for visual stimuli, rather than structured professional development. There are no overt references to her travels, but there are promises of hidden memories.
Some the works in Wish you were here cause us to reflect on our own experiences and concurrently they become part of our mind's landscape. Part of existence in the late twentieth century is experience, the memory of the moment. Speed, the pace of change are part of this, and the grasping of fragments has become paramount - a way to place our own beings into the narrative. Understanding that others think in different ways, that thoughts are constructed/constricted by culture and language, by the seasons can be overwhelming and through exploration of personal travels, can be seen, if only briefly. Memories are fragile and fleeting, personal, yet something we sometimes yearn to share. Memory is paradoxical - it is near and far, always with us, but hazy, intangible and selective.
Christine Clark Bronwyn Mahoney Renai Stoneley