Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 24, 2017
Stephen Gilchrist, ed. Everywhen: The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia Exh. cat. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Art Museums, 2016. 228 pp.; 122 color ills.; 2 b/w ills. Cloth (9780300214703)
Exhibition schedule: Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA, February 5–September 18, 2016
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Emily Kam Kngwarray. Anwerlarr angerr (Big yam) (1996). Synthetic polymer paint on canvas. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Purchased by the National Gallery Women's Association to mark the directorship of Dr. Timothy Potts, 1998, 1998.337.a–d. © Emily Kam Kngwarray/© 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VISCOPY, Australia.

Near the entrance to Everywhen: The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia, a group of framed works on paper, all modestly scaled and dating from 1971–72, hang in a line. For some viewers, their distinctive disposition of spirals, striations, lines, networks, and circles will immediately call up traditions of Indigenous mark-making and design in Australia. The media used are less familiar, though. Here it is not a case of the materials most often identified with Indigenous Australian art—natural pigments on bark, for example, or acrylics on linen or canvas. Nor is it a question of media that are unmistakably contemporary. Some works are drawings in pencil. Some, featuring translucent trails of orange, red, and yellow, are watercolors. These works on paper—not a series, but a cluster of singular notations arising from a pivotal historical moment—come from Papunya, a small community of Indigenous people displaced from their territories in Australia’s Northern Territory, later to become renowned as the birthplace of the contemporary art movement often named Western Desert Painting. Two of the drawings are credited to senior Pintupi artists Anatjarri Tjakamarra and Uta Uta Tjangala—revered figures today, unknown names outside the locality at the time. Three of the watercolors are “Untitled” and assigned to “Unidentified Artists.” The “poor” materials used take nothing away from their precision and casual grace. Forty years later, these works on paper remain startlingly alive.

This grouping of manifestly experimental artworks from the key years of 1971 and 1972 exemplifies what Everywhen’s Yamatji/Inggardi curator, Stephen Gilchrist, calls the “radical newness” of Papunya art. Poised at the threshold of the emergence of Indigenous Australian art as a major cultural phenomenon in the 1970s, they are not yet that thing now too easily labeled “Aboriginal Art,” yet they prefigure what is to come. Each work, more like an improvisation than a finished product, distills the logic of the exhibition as a whole. Occupying three galleries on the third floor at Harvard Art Museums, Everywhen’s relatively small scale brings its guiding concepts into sharp focus while at the same time conveying an understatedness seldom encountered in exhibitions of this kind. A concise survey of historical and contemporary forms of Indigenous Australian art, Everywhen investigates Indigenous ways of thinking and marking time as something unfixed, complex, and in a “constant state of becoming” (Gilchrist in Everywhen, 21). This framing of Indigenous art may seem impossibly wide open. In practice, it turns out to be intensely engaging and productive.

The coinage “everywhen” comes from an essay by Australian anthropologist William Stanner, writing in the 1950s (William Stanner, “The Dreaming” (1953), in White Man Got No Dreaming: Essays, 1938–1973, Canberra: Australian National University Press/Books Australia, 1979, 24; cited in Gilchrist, 19). In Stanner’s usage, the word helps to clarify the Dreaming narratives that remain central to Indigenous Australian conceptions of the world. The everywhen signals a creative enfolding of past, present, and future in Indigenous systems of knowledge. The Dreaming “was, and is, everywhen,” Stanner wrote (cited in Gilchrist, 19). In Gilchrist’s exhibition, the concept fans out in multiple directions, each inflecting the aesthetic and political implications of the plastic, participatory, and constructive view of time characteristic of Indigenous Australian culture in a different way. Taking up themes of repetition, disjunction, and difference, the first half of the exhibition examines time as an inescapable reality—particularly as it informs the hard realities of place, culture, and society. In the second half of Everywhen, Gilchrist’s focus turns to subjective views of time. A section of this part of the show, devoted to remembrance, accents violent collisions between competing conceptions of time, yet also the fragile limit where memory and forgetting come into contact. The leitmotif of another section on performance is the ceremonial rehearsal of processes of perpetuation and continuance. Yet the most persuasive demonstration of the “everywhen” is Everywhen itself. To move around in these time zones is to be drawn into the layered, complex, and finally musical thinking of time that Gilchrist proposes in the exhibition.

“Seasonality,” the first part of the show, concerns ecological rhythms of alteration, renewal, and decay. These rhythms are apparent in the “subtle transitions” of the nuanced pinks, roses, whites, and yellows of Emily Kam Kngwarray’s epic painting of 1996, Anwerlarr angerr or Big yam. It shows that, for all their subtlety, such transitions are also tumultuous events. The pivotal second section of the exhibition, “Transformation,” focuses on acts of translation like those of the Papunya artists who, beginning in the 1970s, took the unprecedented step of opening aspects of their day-to-day ways of apprehending the world to outside audiences in the shape of so-called “contemporary” or “global” art. A judicious give-and-take between secrecy and revelation can be sensed in Ronnie Tjampitjimpa’s dazzling Two Women Dreaming (1990). In the vicinity of these groundbreaking initiatives, the coolamons, or small wooden vessels, borrowed from Harvard’s Peabody Museum and dating back to the turn of the twentieth century, provide a sobering counterpoint. These objects—patiently incised, decorated, shaped—reanimate a sense of the vital aesthetic dimensions of a wide spectrum of Indigenous culture. Located near works by Kngwarray and Tjamptijimpa, their presence implicitly contests the logic of ethnographic reification of Indigenous materials that continues to inform many museum collections today. Can an exhibition like this become an agent of transformation? Here, fascinatingly, Everywhen raises questions that reflect back on its own part in the processes of narration and invention that frame perceptions of Indigenous art and culture.

The intertwining of temporalities (“Remembrance”) and the subjective aspects of this apprehension of time (“Performance”) are themes taken up in the last room of the installation. Counterintuitively, the section dedicated to performance deals mostly with painting. None of the work here has much to do what is usually meant by performance art. The sea of tiny dots in a magnificent untitled acrylic painting by the late Pintupi artist Doreen Reid Nakamarra does not just evoke the hazy endlessness of the Western Desert. Nakamarra’s performance lies less in the act of painting the canvas than in the patience that the work requires of her. Just as it implies a special relation to time, this mode of painting gives a new meaning to performance. It entails an “intense repetition” concerned with the continuance of “ceremonial time,” as Gilchrist notes in the exhibition catalogue (24).

Another form of performance takes place in “Remembrance.” In a photoseries titled We Bury Our Own (2012) commissioned by Oxford University’s Pitt Rivers Museum, Bidjara artist Christian Thompson responds to photographs of Aboriginal people from the museum’s collections in a paradoxical way. He does not incorporate direct references to this material in his work. But his own photographs show him bedecked with conspicuously inauthentic votive paraphernalia—a garland, a model ship, a funerary veil, butterflies. Thompson proposes a new mourning ritual—a practice of “spiritual repatriation,” to use his memorable phrase (cited in Gilchrist, 23–24)—that, in a tragicomic way, promises a departure from the appropriative modes of knowledge associated with ethnographic collections. With its attention to forms of testimony and the work of mourning in the wake of European colonization, “Remembrance” provides a stark counterpoint to the affirmative presentation of Indigenous engagements with non-Indigenous traditions in the part of Everywhen titled “Transformation.” Yet one artwork moves in a different direction. Yirrkala-based artist Nyapanyapa Yunupingu’s screen-based digital animation Light Painting (2010–11), the starting-point for “Remembrance,” gives precedence to an investigation of the relation between drawing and the play of memory. In a mesmerizing sequence, more than a hundred white-paint pen drawings on acetate, figurative and non-figurative, gradually disappear into one another. The drawings—the raw material for the animation—appear on an adjacent wall. Interweaving procedures of digital inscription and drawing by hand, Light Painting illuminates the ellipses that skew systems of marking time. When I visited Everywhen, this poetic meditation on time’s ungraspability drew visitors like a magnet.

It is perhaps not surprising that drawing plays a pivotal role in Everywhen. Drawing is a gesture that opens a form. The exhibition, in the same way, behaves like a drawing—it never looks like a finished picture of Aboriginal art. For one thing, the image of time that it supposes, implying a quasi-simultaneity of past, present, and future, correlates with the visual and narrative dynamism of many of the works shown. For another, this image of time spotlights the violent incursion of a naïve temporality of historical progress. The problem is not that the world of the everywhen cannot comprehend a colonial temporality of conquest and discovery, but the reverse. Everywhen is then like an anamorphic presentation of the terrible asymmetry of perspectives that results from the encounter between these incommensurable conceptions of time.

With its unusual combination of breadth, elusiveness, and sheer ambition, Everywhen implicitly bypasses currently prevailing categorizations of Indigenous Australian art. In their place, it assembles a poetry of intense repetitions, alterations, and ungraspable differences. At the same time, it invites a rethinking of contemporary art—and contemporary life too—that does not forget its debt to sensations of temporal recurrence, history, simultaneity, and becoming.

Morgan Thomas
Assistant Professor, School of Art, University of Cincinnati

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.