Issue 31: West
West in most dictionaries is described first and foremost as a directional term, a position to be derived from the setting of the sun. However, almost immediately the complexity of the term as an idea and a construct is implied by the presence of ‘common’ synonyms such as ‘the Occident’. West is an idea more often than it is something tangible; an idea loaded with value judgements that are spatial, political, historical and cultural. Accordingly, in throwing this term out to contributors, what we have received for this issue is a reflection on the diversity of what the word implies in a contemporary Australian and international context. The common thread throughout these contributions is a kind of political agency that goes with a suspicion of the term, and the binaries it implies.
Abdul Abdullah and Sophie Hoyle have both provided compelling and articulate interrogations of the construction of an oppositional position of ‘West’ and/vs ‘Other’, specifically Muslim other. Their essays seek to counter with much needed critique the hyperbole of fear and terror that is fuelled by the media circus and conservative vote-blinded politicians. Similarly, although by luring us in with glittery animations, pop cultural and historical literary references Claudia Nicholson, Vivienne Cutbush, Kylie Farmer and Adele Sliuzas deliver a blow to cultural and gendered western constructs of identity, authority and authenticity. Katie Green reflects on positions of centre and periphery in relation to her ongoing work with Sydney’s refugee community. Chloe Wolifson too, as part of a profile on Sandra McGregor, considers the impacts of privilege and disadvantage.
The origins of this issue took seed in a hotel room in Perth on a visit earlier this year. The domino-like demise of gallery spaces in the west had previously left me wanting and concerned. However, after two days and thirty studio visits—CIA collective, Gotham Street, Freemantle Arts Centre, MANY 6160, and artist’s own homes—as well as witnessing the phenomenal transformation of the bowels of the old Myer building in Freemantle into the ARI Success, I felt exhilarated by the groundswell of artist led activity. Academic Francis Russell reflects this energy in his essay, as well as pondering whether Western Australian art is on the periphery of the periphery, in the context of the greater construction of Western art history, or in fact uniquely placed.
The specifics of locale and characteristics of human actions are articulated in the works of Vincent O’Connor and Daniel Green in western New South Wales and Alana Hunt in regional Western Australia, and in the essay by Melissa McGrath on artists who engage with the ‘frontier’ and west in the vernacular imaginary. Neil Adlum and Erin Coates too consider the peculiarities of Perth, and the possibilities of its future as a city in a reflection on the spectacular, dystopian one-night-only street project Rumblestrip.
West is at once demarcated and constructed, physical and imagined, capitalised, demonised and heroised, both frontier and centre. By way of inviting you into this issue, I want to leave you with the fantastic and horrifying picture Adlum and Coates paint in a phrase that struck me as a perfect articulation of west as an idea and as a dark future towards which we are headed:
“The West as an endless roadtrip, where the only element is a halo of bitumen lit by the car headlights.”
Miriam Kelly is a Sydney based visual arts curator and writer. She is currently the curator and collection coordinator at Artbank, sub-editor of the visual arts and culture publication Sturgeon and chair of Runway Experimental Australian Art. Miriam has curated exhibitions independently, as well as for Artbank and for the National Gallery of Australia in her former role as assistant curator of Australian paintings and sculpture. Miriam has published on a range of contemporary and historical areas of Australian art.
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