There is a persistent narrative that would characterise the contemporary art scene in Western Australia (WA) as parochial and isolated, a narrative that is supported by the slew of closures that have occurred in recent years [i]. This narrative is significantly challenged, however, by the host of artist-run spaces such as Success gallery—alongside the gallery’s sister space Moana, and the ARIs: Free Range, Paper Mountain, Adult Contemporary and Pet Projects [ii]—developing exciting exhibitions, and embracing media like video, media that can easily traverse geographical borders, to further open up Perth to a broad range of contemporary international artists. Such a challenge raises the question of whether Perth is becoming more cosmopolitan, or whether it is fated to languish behind other cities when it comes to culture and the arts. Accordingly for me to pose such questions about Western Australian art, and the state of this art in a contemporary sense, entails a broader discussion of the relationship between WA and Western art history.
The question of what it means to have a contemporary practice in a place like WA also poses questions about the historical discourses that give meaning to terms like ‘art,’ ‘practice,’ and ‘contemporary.’ This is to say that, while it seems inevitable that contemporary art practice in WA will be in some sense oriented towards the possibilities offered by Western art history, such a history cannot help but limit and constrain such practices insofar as it is history as a discourse that defines and delimits meaning. This is, however, only one such interpretation of history. There is the possibility of speaking of it in another sense that, as Jean-Luc Nancy has written, gestures towards history as performance rather than as narrative or knowledge [iii]. For an artist to engage with history as performance entails affirming that history is not just the rigorous knowledge and the sanctioned narratives that shape our sense of the meaning of who we are and what we do. Such an affirmation can remind us that history has to be built—not only in the sense of constructing historical narrative and knowledge, but also in the sense of enacting the events that are open to codification in historical discourse. It is at this juncture, between two meanings of history, that I would like to situate contemporary art in WA: between an international Western art history, and the more particular Western Australian and Australian art histories—be they local histories, Indigenous histories, feminist histories, just to name a few; and then also between the very notion of history as narrative and knowledge and history as performance—as something we live, as opposed to something we learn or understand.
What makes this intersection between different senses of history so important is the way that it affects both the reception and production of work in a place like WA. For the most part, contemporary artists in WA are plagued by the injunction to escape and relocate, to move away. This is not because some concrete opportunity has presented itself elsewhere, but instead because WA is ‘too isolated’, too ‘parochial’ and because the state’s capital is likened to the ‘world’s largest country town’. The presupposition for this purportedly necessary exodus is that history is made elsewhere, that one should understand their practice in relation to an international, specifically Western, art history that has little to say about places like Perth. Moreover, for those who stay in WA there will always be the problem of having one’s work read in relation to international Western art history, and of being accused of simply reproducing exhausted cultural forms, of walking a well trodden ground, and therefore producing the kind of practice that, in the rest of the world, everyone is already over.
While some respond to this injunction by turning towards practices that embrace something singularly Western Australian—something unique and particular to this place—such affirmations of the local pose the same risk of asserting another narrative as the standard by which the value of artistic practice will be measured. Furthermore, such connections to place, the local, and particularist histories are themselves not without a certain prominence in Western art history and its legacy. Nevertheless, without such an art history, and its functioning as a quasi-universal discourse, it would be difficult to conceive of the emergence of something like the pluralistic approaches to practice that have come to be understood under the guise of contemporary art. The diversity of artistic activity that can be found in almost any week of the year in WA, the sheer range of aesthetic and conceptual concerns that are grappled with by the state’s artists, is testament to the emancipatory potential that is undoubtedly the other side of the history of art as narrative and knowledge—a narrative and a knowledge that tells us that what art is cannot be absolutely demarcated. This is, accordingly, the double bind that affects WA artists, insofar as the artistic history of the West both opens them up to seemingly endless possibilities, as it situates them in a place of little historical importance.
In light of such a double bind, what is perhaps needed is an approach that can both maintain the importance of the legacy of Western art history—and its movement towards an emancipated artist and viewer—just as it can allow for a minimal gap between such a history as narrative and knowledge and, to return to Nancy, as performance. Such an approach, I would argue, can be found in the thinking of the English psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion, who states in his 1970 text Attention and Interpretation that: the first point is for the analyst to impose on himself a positive discipline of eschewing memory and desire. I do not mean that ‘forgetting’ is enough: what is required is a positive act of refraining from memory and desire.[iv]
For my purpose, it is this sense of a positive act of ‘eschewing memory and desire’, as opposed to simply forgetting or being disinterested, that is vital. Moving Bion’s thought from the analytic session to the encounter with art, there is perhaps a need for an engagement with history that eschews memory and desire so as to avoid reducing the artwork to a predetermined valuation circumscribed by Western art history.
If one were to negatively eschew desire and memory it would be immensely difficult to conceive of art as functioning outside of a strictly policed cultural sphere, one in which the role of the work, artist, and viewer are all determined in advance and homogeneously. It would only be within such a space that one could truly encounter art without memory or desire, since art would efface itself as simply part of its context, as part of its community. Against such a negative eschewal, what can be imported from Bion’s thought is a discipline of suspending the dominance of the major figures, styles, and works of art history as narrative and knowledge, whilst also maintaining such a history’s emancipatory potential. Potentially, this allows the work to be interpreted on its own terms whilst also being recognised as a work of art in the contemporary sense, a sense provided by a history that maintains the freedom of the artist, the work, and the interpretation. Such a discipline seems necessary in places like WA, since the works produced here both require the broader context provided by Western art history, just as they suffer from paling in contrast.
Such a tension between the necessity of affirming and resisting history—the tension between history as narrative and history as performance—I would argue is clearly evinced in the exhibition titled An Event at Success (11 June – 11 July 2016). Through a series of multi-media installations Perth based artists Kieron Broadhurst, Oliver Hull, and the English artist Giles Bunch play with a host of Western Australian mysteries, such as: the possible chemical weapon testing performed by the Japanese Doomsday cult, Aum Shinrikyo, at Banjawarn station in the 1990s; the legacy of Alan Bond’s speculative investments in the 1980s; and potentially fictitious events such as UFO sightings along the Hutt River. As the exhibition’s room sheet states, ‘An Event is an investigation into the speculative potential of inserting fictional narratives into the history of Western Australia’ [v].
The katabatic descent into the basement of what was Fremantle’s four-storey Myer building both opens up the viewer to Success’s main exhibition as they are enclosed within a darkness that is only penetrated by the glow of video projections and the creeping light of the gallery’s other project spaces. An Event occupies one of these multiple spaces, and scattered throughout, are prop-like objects that reference mining, exploration, and the archiving of information. The works are placed in spaces developed by the artists so as to reference sites where history as narrative and knowledge is produced: the museum collection, the contemporary art gallery, and the university office. Moving through such fabricated spaces, one encounters a confluence of fact and fiction, of history as knowledge and as something that must be performed through praxis, that positions the viewer to consider both the necessity of the broader contexts provided by something like Western art history, the history of WA, and the historical as embodied comportment towards a world. What such an overlapping of the historical and fictive invites is a certain Bionic approach that both attends to what is presented in terms of a historical narrative just as it requires us to ‘forget’ what is known to allow an otherwise, an unforeseen possibility, that is implied by the mysteriousness of the spaces themselves. In An Event, history is left in an indeterminate state, as an inconsistent body of knowledge that gestures towards the necessity of participating in the construction of narrative. Moreover, not only does An Event suggest that history is produced through a response to multiple ideas, contexts, and figures, but it also suggests that this performance of constructing and deconstructing knowledge and narrative is itself properly historical.
However, such performing is not without a connection to the broader space of possibility opened by contemporary art and its sites. An Event does not imply that the quasi-universal discourse [vi] of history is inferior or secondary to the responsive performance of history—as something finite, ongoing, and mutable, compared to purportedly static and infinite knowledge and narrative. Instead, both the performative and narrative are situated in an indeterminate relationship, with the terms of their interrelations being left open for the viewer, insofar as both senses of history creatively resists one another. Indeed, it is appropriate that such a work is situated in Success, since the space is itself positioned at the interstices of an international artistic community and a local ARI; between the idea of contemporary practice as informed by international art history and the embodied histories of WA artists.
What spaces like Success must negotiate is the necessity of both the narrative of contemporary art—and a certain knowledge of the freedom of the artist and viewer—just as it must avoid such a narrative dominating art in WA, as presenting the work as on the fringes of a ‘truer’ or more significant history that always-already takes place elsewhere. Indeed, the challenges that Success face are mirrored by the gallery’s surroundings. The Myer building itself, modelled on the late nineteenth century obsession with department stores had struggled to stay locally relevant in a world of international commerce and online retailing. Yet, such a space has been repurposed by artists and smaller retailers to combine the monolithic scale of the site—and the possibilities offered by both the internal space and the external visibility—with more particular concerns. Such a project is symptomatic of a broader mutation of Fremantle itself, a mutation that, perhaps, should embraced as perennial, rather than seen as a moment in a greater reconfiguration of the city’s identity.
I want to return here to the question of the status of contemporary art in WA. Rather than attempting to argue that the admittedly impressive work of such aforementioned ARIs is a signal of a boom time for the arts, or that the closing of commercial galleries should be understood as a sign of the retreat of vibrant artistic practice, there is perhaps more potential in maintaining the tension between an understanding of WA as fated to be cast in the shadows of a certain senses of history, and as perpetuating its own heterogeneous histories through the artists that live and work here. While the arts in WA will most likely be obscured by the sanctioned sites of Western art history—such as Paris or New York—such knowledge must be maintained alongside the notion that the artists and networks that emerge out of WA are miraculous and unique, vibrant, and strange, and, furthermore, should be embraced for their diversity—for their weirdness. Indeed, the word ‘weird,’ from the old-English wyrd, meaning ‘destiny,’ found its original adjectival form in reference to that which is in control of its destiny—a capacity that is perhaps most evident for those whom are too isolated to ignore the problem of being circumscribed within over-arching forms of history as narrative and knowledge, even as they participate in such a sense of history [vii].
[i] Veronica Buck, ‘Boom Time But Not Culturally As Galleries Shut,’ ABC, June 2012, accessed 9 June 2016, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-06-18/galleries-in-perth-shutting-their-doors/4077300.
[ii] Both being initiatives run by the former staff of the late Galleria and OK Gallery ARIs. Free Range gallery is approaching a transition period as it will be relocating towards the end of this year.
[iii] Jean-Luc Nancy, ‘Finite History’ (The Birth to Presence, trans Brian Holmes, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993):144.
[iv] Wilfred Bion, Attention and Interpretation: A Scientific Approach to Insight in Psych-Analysis and Groups (London: Tavistock Publications, 1970):31.
[v] Giles Bunch, Kieron Broadhurst, Oliver Hull, ‘An Event: Floor Plan’ (Perth: 2016): n.p.
[vi] By quasi-universal I mean simply a discourse that can be made applicable anywhere, a discourse that can overcome cultural, political, or geographical boundaries, albeit contingently. This is to say that, a discourse like that of Western art history can, and often does, serve as a universal language for understanding contemporary art, even if it does so without any claim to necessity. This discourse is accordingly not truly universal, but is rather something that functions as if it were universal, and in constant risk of being disrupted or replaced.
Francis Russell is a sessional academic at Curtin University where he teaches visual culture and cultural studies. He has published texts in Deleuze Studies, Ctrl-Z:...