Orientalism – a small token

Exhibition catalogue essay text by Kirsten Matthews.
Orientalism, group exhibition curated by Renai Grace, Blindside Gallery, Melbourne, 2005.

“So I find myself in India, a guest returning. Once again being warmly received, anticipating making new friends and eager to meet with those already known. I present a small token.”
Mandy Ridley, artist statement from her Public / Private small token exhibition in Bangalore, January 2005.

For many years Australian artists have traveled to, studied and lived in Asia. Asian culture, in its rich diversity, has provided inspiration from a philosophical, political, social and aesthetic perspective. The notion of presenting a small token – from Mandy Ridley’s residency and exhibition in India – seemed like a humble and low key way to think about this exhibition. The seven contemporary Australian artists represented in Orientalism each have completely different responses to everything from Japanese costume designs, printmaking and storytelling to Southern Indian rangoli designs.

Where the word orientalism conjures images of a bygone era – a time when artifacts shipped from the exotic Orient found their way into studios of curious and culturally attuned artists – this exhibition actually embodies the opposite. It is not about the physical travels to Asia and the idea of bringing something entirely new back home. Our capacity to absorb information and images of other cultures in a world of global exchange renders obsolete a lot of those symbolic ideas of what might be Oriental. The works in this exhibition are in a sense tokens of engagement with other artists, with ideas, styles and processes of Eastern culture.

Mandy Ridley’s work explores colour, craftsmanship and pattern. She uses hand and laser cutting technologies, at times merging the distinction between drawing and embroidery.

In parts of Southern India wire bags made of floss were once very popular for domestic use. When she was in Bangalore on an Asialink residency in 2004, Mandy Ridley discovered these bags which are now considered by the locals to be old fashioned, and not terribly practical. Ridley’s fluorescent Shopping bags with Rangoli designs are based on these wire bags, only she has placed on them a pattern that doesn’t exist in Southern Indian bag weaving. Inspired in part from sketches the artist made of plant forms in her Brisbane neighbourhood – the sketches formed a concept design for a public art project she was working on – Ridley translated these motifs onto the plastic mesh bags. The vibrant coloured installation is an ordered shopper’s paradise, the bags are lined up with handles open and ready to be filled with goods.

A resident of Japan on and off since 1997, Marcel Cousins has completed a degree at the Tokyo National University of Art, receiving a number of awards and grants from his adopted home. Cousins’ work has been described as having a cheeky humour as he graphically decodes the popular images and historical icons of Japanese culture. Cousins’ draws inspiration from sources ranging from soft-porn manga comics to traditional printmaking. He makes work that is finely crafted and technically precise, incorporating bubble jet printing, painting and stenciling for an end result that is part subversive, part stylized, and part graffiti art. Cousins’ paintings successfully reflect the contrasting landscape of Japan. His use of a cherry blossom tree set as the foreground to a contemporary apartment building signifies an aesthetic tension between traditional and contemporary values.

Leah Santilli’s Response to trees is a paper cut-out work inspired in part by the Japanese tradition of honoring nature and in part by the abundance of tree life around the artist’s home. It highlights the ephemeral and often unnoticed shapes that form between tree branches. Santillli’s work recreates the shifting nature of these shapes within shapes, the way light dances across the surfaces, creating shadows that move with the hours of the day, the changing of the seasons. Response to trees was made during Santilli’s final year of visual arts study and the artist has commented: “The vein-like nature of a branch beckons onlookers to follow its form until it is lost among the many other branches stemming from the tree.”

The idea of art making as a token fits beautifully with Lucy Griggs work, whose paintings have been described as “referentially humble and formally modest”.(1) Griggs’ creates paintings that are infused with romantic notions of a hidden other life - the silent serenade between two birds, awash in the poetic glare of a white day moon. Griggs looks for underlying meaning and is fascinated with fables and myths steeped in superstition but the inspiration for the three panels in this exhibition came when she was reading the (exquisitely titled) book As I crossed a bridge of dreams. The book was a translation of a Japanese woman’s reflection on her life in 11th century Japan. It created a space for Griggs to see things a bit differently, to celebrate the happiness or the solemnity of a bird on a branch or a fluttering leaf as a humble discovery along a footpath.

Harriet Parsons’ The Call Signs Project is an ongoing series of wall pieces that have been exhibited widely (in various forms) at the National Gallery of Victoria, Gertrude Contemporary Artspaces, The Melbourne Art Fair, Westspace and the Eastlink Gallery in Shanghai. Each numbered Call Sign is an improvised construction of domestic and commercial litter, needle lace and electronics. The Call Signs are linked by painting, drawings and construction, and they map out imagined and dreamed landscapes. Call Signs#11 invites the viewer to step into the space and contemplate the serene mountain vista applied directly onto the wall and investigate the subtle sound that emanates from an intricate tree form made from wire, electronic parts and thread.

Between 2002 and 2004 Merric Brettle undertook a Master of Fine Arts at Tokyo University and completed a series of works which traced a journey through the streets and culture of Tokyo. When the artist arrived in Japan in 1994 he was struck first by the homogeneity of the international style architecture and multinational icons but secondly, by the way the ‘global packaging’ had been adapted to the local environment, (the green macha Japanese tea/frappacino at Starbucks being a classic example). This interface, whether it be between different cultures or between individuals and their environment or even between an art object and its audience has been a key area of interest for Brettle in the past 5 years. The objects which make up the installation Tundra are crafted out of polyester resin concrete and painted with plastic polyutherane. The series of forms both mimic and mock the homogenised global objects and signs in Brettle’s Japan.

Eisen1a by Natalya Hughes is a scaled down ‘remix’ of a larger work which is currently hanging in the Queensland Art Gallery exhibition Prime 2005: New Art from Queensland. The work is inspired by the Japanese Ukiyo-e tradition of woodblock printing and Hughes sourced the images from a 1960s publication of Ukiyo-e works called ‘The Decadents’. Hughes took the reproductions of Ukiyo-e artist Keisai Eisen (1790-1848) and digitally removed the exposed parts of the female body, placing the image in a blank field and then creating her own version of these elusive and lyrical figures. In the original Eisen work the women were gazing at their lovers who were out of the frame. Hughes thinks of her absent women as ghosts – a presence for the viewer to create when looking at the detailed patterning of the fabric, placing a delicate wrist, a tilted head, a coquettish smile into the contorted, staged poses.


Top photograph by Silversalt Photography.